Welcome to our next ‘campfire’ story.
The Campfire for the Heart project is a collection of true, international stories of human resilience. Although every story is unique, they all highlight our ability to adapt positively to bad experiences and showcase our indomitable human spirit.
If you have a resilience story to share, or know someone who does,
please contact Natalie Stockdale through www.stockdalewellbeing.com.
“Wet, stinking and filthy, I sat on the dam bank and contemplated.
Surely, this is as bad as it gets, I thought.”
Unlike other natural disasters like floods and bushfires, droughts have a slow, insidious effect. As the years without rain pass by, they wear you down.
Imagine... your bank account is all but empty, your debt increases every day, you know your children have needs...which cost money, you go out to do a ‘water run’ and see more and more dead sheep around the water holes, or dying sheep with their eyes pecked out by the crows.
You point a gun to their head and cry sorry as you shoot each one. You get back in the Toyota to drive to the next dam, but the ute doesn't start. It needed maintenance, but you couldn't afford to buy the new parts. You walk for miles back to the homestead, through the parched, bare paddocks, crying because there's no rain coming, no end to this misery in sight.
You feel guilty each time you flush the loo knowing that the house dam is shrinking with each flush. You don't sleep well, worrying about the lack, and feel more and more exhausted each day.
One particular day is deeply etched in my memory. The west Australian sun was setting in the typical cloudless sky with crimson, pink and gold. Its beauty bared a striking contrast to the horrors that laid silently within the warm, soupy dam at the back of Lockhart Station.
It was my last dam to check before I could head home. I drove the Toyota to the top of the bank and switched off the engine.The eerie screech of the windmill intermittently broke the silence. Lockhart hadn’t had a drop of rain for two years and its waterholes were diminishing treacherously each day. Two white woolly smudges appeared motionless in the brown water.
I pulled the rifle from the car and carried it down to the hard, crusty, water’s edge. Two wethers (castrated male sheep) were firmly bogged in the black silt. In some places, the silt was ten feet deep. It was a danger for me as much as the sheep, cattle and wild animals who had to drink from it. I removed my shorts and waded in.
The smelly mud sucked my legs with each heavy step towards the first sheep. His eyes had gone. The crows had beaten me to him. I’m so sorry, I told him. Bending over him, I pulled one leg at a time out of the suction. Then, with my arms wrapped around his bony body, I carried him to the bank and gently placed him on the dirt. As he lay silently in blinded agony, I pointed the rifle to his head.
I had shot dozens, maybe hundreds of sheep under the same circumstances, but no matter how hard I wanted to “toughen up”, I wept.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered as I pulled the trigger. The bang of the bullet sent the galahs fleeing from the gidgee trees. I placed the rifle on the ground and pulled the sheep by his back legs to the pile of rotting corpses beside the dam, regretting the lack of dignity I bestowed to his lifeless body. Later, the pile would be burned to prevent a fly outbreak.
I had one sheep to go. The next one had also lost his eyes to the crows, but he was already dead. This sheep, however, presented another problem. He was a few metres in from the edge and, in attempting to move him, I too could get stuck.
Lockhart Station was 80 000 acres of hungry, desolate country, 130 kilometres from the closest town and half an hour’s drive from the closest neighbour. My husband and children were away and, although I didn’t want to spend the night bogged in a stinking waterhole, I didn’t want his body to add to the already murky water.
I spotted an old piece of corrugated tin on the bank of the dam and dragged it onto the silt. It was to be my bridge to the dead sheep. I made tentative, baby steps to the end of the tin and reached out as far as I could. I gripped the wool in my hands, then after the count of three, I heaved with all my strength.
The tin suddenly slipped backwards and catapulted me head-first, over the dead sheep, into the cesspool of slime, wool, rotting flesh and bones. I scuttled out of the water, spitting and frantically wiping the muck off my hair and skin. Wet, stinking and filthy, I sat on the dam bank and contemplated. Surely, this is as bad as it gets, I thought. The windmill sniggered back to me with a creak.
It has rained since then and we’ve basked in the joy of flowing creeks, full dams, tall green grass and healthy livestock. But, as sure as the sun rises each morning, droughts will come again. How do I cope?
Firstly, I learn from past experiences. We’ve learned the importance of being better prepared operationally for droughts. By that I mean to plan for droughts by way of managing stock numbers and improving the water points.
Social support is also important. It’s important all the time in remote areas, but its particularly important during droughts to stay in touch with neighbours and remind them that we’re thinking of each other. Although we’re isolated physically, we’re not isolated in our hearts. You never what a difference a friendly phone call can make to someone who’s battling alone. I always said ‘yes’ to invitations, even if I didn’t feel like it.
I also made an effort to do things that made me feel better. It could be wearing a nice dress and lipstick at the end of the day and splashing on some perfume. We didn’t have the luxury of baths of course, but we’d sometimes light candles at dinner time and listen to music. It was often the simple little things that helped me find happiness each day.
On the odd occasion, my husband and I would leave little notes to each other saying things like, “I love you. I’m so proud of you. Another day closer to rain. We’ll get through this”. When I look back on them now, I can see that they were like coaching notes to gently push each other on. The notes helped us both to feel appreciated and optimistic.
Finally, keeping a kind heart is important. Being kind as possible to the animals, to your families and to your friends. Some people say resilience is toughening up, immunising yourself against pain. To me, resilience is feeling the pain, but knowing that it too shall pass. It is always going to rain- one day. Never lose hope.