Loving our sunburnt country to an unlovely end

A friend has just opened an exhibition of paintings based on Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem My Country.

The exhibition and the poem have made me look at our own paddocks in a new – and old – way.

How is it that a homesick girl of 19 wrote words that still resonate with us today, more than a century after they were written?

“I love a sunburnt country.” Five words, only five words, that hold an essence so Australian.

Regularly here in regional New South Wales, we travel over the sweeping plains, we lunch in the hot, gold hush of noon, and we not so long ago blessed the drumming of an army as the pitiless blue sky finally yielded the steady soaking rain.

We still love this sunburnt country. On the drive home, I sometimes stop and pull over just to look at the vivid painting of the sky on fire with waves of orange, or a ferocious pink as the sun trails its last gasp.

In the morning, the sun picks out parts of the gums and the barley paddock in pools of gold.

The tossing of the branches in a storm, the soul-biting winter frost, the petals on the wind in spring, we are gifted with it over and over.

This is the country we live in and love.

And the country we are destroying. This beauty was also once where our cities now stand. Little by little, Dorothea’s green tangle of the brushes and land of the rainbow gold is becoming the home of the golden arches and the land of local shopping centres.

We have to live somewhere, it is true. But each new housing development, each commercial greenfield is paving over our opal-hearted country and eating into the things we love.

We can’t all teeter on the edge of our continent with mega-million dollar glimpses of the jewel-sea, and the housing and commercial developments are spreading further and wider in our bid to provide something new for everyone.

In the process, our native bushland is getting a Brazilian.

I don’t know what the answer is. Australians seem to hunger to reinvent themselves with what is new – a new house with the newest appliances and a maintenance-free yard – I won’t call it a garden.

Somewhere along the line, we will need to stop. We will need to preserve the fringes of beauty we have left for ourselves and for our wildlife. We will need to think smaller in our living, and more innovatively in our repurposing. We will need to create beauty in something other than a MacMansion.

We love our sunburnt country, and we need to look after it. We need our sun to reflect off something other than a warehouse roof. We need to see it awash in the tangle of our rivers, painting the trunks of our gums, glowing in the cheeks of our kids as they play outside at sundown.

And we need to remember we share this country with the native animals we are pushing into the margins.

It would be nice if, in another 100 years, My Country is not a poignant sigh for something we have lost.

Marie Low is a freelance journalist based in Gunnedah, New South Wales.

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