South of My Days
South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.
O cold the black-frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle
hisses a leak on the fire. Hardly to be believed that summer
will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler-roses,
thrust it's hot face in here to tell another yarn-
a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.
Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.
Seventy years are hived in him like old honey.
Droving that year, Charleville to the Hunter,
nineteen-one it was, and the drought beginning;
sixty head left at the McIntyre, the mud round them
hardened like iron; and the yellow boy died
in the sulky ahead with the gear, but the horse went on,
stopped at Sandy Camp and waited in the evening.
It was the flies we seen first, swarming like bees.
Came to the Hunter, three hundred head of a thousand-
cruel to keep them alive - and the river was dust.
Or mustering up in the Bogongs in the autumn
when the blizzards came early. Brought them down; we brought them
down, what aren't there yet. Or driving for Cobb's on the run
up from Tamworth-Thunderbolt at the top of Hungry Hill,
and I give him a wink. I wouldn't wait long, Fred,
not if I was you. The troopers are just behind,
coming for that job at the Hillgrove. He went like a luny,
him on his big black horse.
Oh, they slide and they vanish
as he shuffles the years like a pack of conjuror's cards.
True or not, it's all the same; and the frost on the roof
cracks like a whip, and the back-log breaks into ash.
Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.
No-one is listening
South of my days' circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.
Judith Wright (1915 – 2000)
S1 … this is a winter statement of JW’s home country … and depicts Australia to the core … and at the end of the description of the natural setting the old cottage lurches in for shelter. The cottage needs shelter from the ailments as much as the residents need shelter. But it has survived and has become molded into the bush environment. The land wincing under the winter gives a degree of severity.
Tableland – refers to a plateau and a region of the Great Dividing Range in northern New South Wales where she was brought up
Medlar – a deciduous tree, they produce a delicious fruit in winter
S2 … you certainly get the feeling of comfort from within against the dark night winter cold … and there is nothing quite like a wood fire … and winter is always a time for inside time and talk … equates to age, dying, and memories and old Dan provides … seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones … providing a metaphoric blanket … and are as honey from his life … and summer is another yarn hard to be believed. And whether the stories are true or not is irrelevant. Oral communication was so important in JW’s life. The poem was published in 1946 and refers to the colonialisation of the land long before that. And a few of those old forgotten cottages hang on in a decayed life today.
S3 … The poem breaks for two examples of cattle droving stories. Charleville in Queensland to the Hunter in NSW is a distance of over 1100km. Drought times can be devastating to land and cattle and sixty were lost at the McIntyre encased in dried mud on a riverbed. A sulky came to into camp carrying a dead driver with flies announcing the death. Three hundred were left out of a thousand and they were in terrible condition. Droving was key to JW’s family life and for those interested in her family history and droving I recommend her book ‘The Generations of Men’.
The Generations of Men’ is the pioneering story of the ancestors of Australia’s best-known poet, Judith Wright. The names, dates and events are factual and are based on diaries, letters and personal reminiscences. Wright has taken this factual material and with her poet’s imagination turned it into a reconstruction of a past era; people, places and even moods. This is a beautifully written family history that documents not only the settling of Wright’s own family into New South Wales, but also the life of a nation, as Australia was colonized by ‘generations of men’ unsuited in many ways to the historical and geographical context of their new environment. For many years unavailable, Judith Wright’s elegant chronicle is fascinating both as a historical document and a personal meditation.
S4 … Different climatic conditions to deal with, the Bogongs refers to an area of the high country of Victoria where snow frequents. And brought them down; we brought them
down, what aren’t there yet is typical vernacular of the day. Tamworth is in northern New South Wales and Thunderbolt is the name of a famous bushranger. And there is a typical though subtle regard for authority in the response of the drover to Thunderbolt.
S5 … Well old Dan, when reflecting on his memories as they come to mind, may be subject to poetic and entertaining reconstruction due to both his age and a creative spirit. And I do like the analogy of shuffling a pack of cards as he skips from one year to another. Then the frost on the roof and the back log on the fire find a voice to break his thoughts, or a request from JW to wake up. No one is listening to history. And this is truly relevant in relation to JW’s life-long concern in relation to the mistreatment of Aboriginal people and the destruction of their culture. But JW holds the stories as she reflects on the past. They still go walking in her sleep. And they are very dark in her night sky.
Judith Wright on Wikipedia – she was an outstanding Australian poet who spent much of her life campaigning for the environment and Aboriginal land rights.