Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Man from Snowy River (Aussie bush life)

In my Town and Country blog-post of 18th December 2011, I noted some of the cultural differences between townies and country folk, from my own experience. The post was prompted by an English newspaper report of a speed-castration contest (of lambs, of course; what else would it be?). Two of the contestants had become sick, and I marvelled that my father had never gotten sick whenever he pulled lambs’ balls off with his teeth.

To put food on the table, Dad killed a sheep every ten days, and we ate mutton three meals a day every day. I remember the violence of the killing – SAS-style, I guess: head jerked up from behind to expose the throat to the knife and allow the blood to gush out. The body was hung upside-down on a hook to let the rest of the blood leak out. In town, we bought from a butcher. Nowadays, meat is pre-packaged by supermarkets. (And sometimes it probably isn’t meat at all!)

In towns, dogs are either house-pets or yard-dogs; pets have no duties except to love their human gods, yard-dogs have to keep the neighbours awake all day and as much of the night as they can manage. Country dogs’ terms of employment require them to be slave-drivers – the slaves being the sheep and cattle belonging to the boss. The same distinction applies to horses. In towns, they’re pets. In the country, they’re house-slaves, duty-bound to accompany their masters whenever called upon.

Only once in my life was I allowed to ride my Dad’s horse. She was a huge beast, who accepted only one master. She shuddered with shame when I hit the saddle, aged nine and small for my age. Dad held her head and gently explained the circumstances to her. The dog and I were deputised to escort a few hundred sheep to the railway siding a few miles away, to be shipped off to the butcher.

The dog could have done it by itself, and pretty much did. My control of dogs was severely handicapped by my inability to whistle. What an embarrassment for a country boy! On this occasion I shouted instructions, which the dog cheerfully ignored as it went about its familiar business. I just sat and prayed that Big Bess would forget I was up there; and maybe she did forget, at that. 

If I’d been on my own horse I’d have cantered up and down the mob pretending to know what I was doing, which would have mucked up the dog’s agenda. I’d have been no less use if I’d galloped up and down the road behind us. 

Actually, one never did gallop much, strange to say, because in our part of Australia the land was pock-marked with depressions large and deep enough to be dangerous to galloping horses. Even dingo-hunts (adults only) were done at nothing more than a fastish canter.

Occasionally, after school, some of us would pretend we were The Man From Snowy River and charge headlong through copses with fallen trees underfoot. That was fun, until Bryan broke his arm trying to squeeze between two trees that were too close together. The Man From Snowy River was the hero of our favourite action poem, a role-model for Australia’s bush horsemen. 

Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

It’s an exciting description, and impossible to recite properly without bending your body to the rhythm of the ride. My Dad knew all the words, but would never recite it in public. It was an unrealistic description, anyway. Galloping downhill over fallen trees would be suicide for both man and horse, on a loose rein.