I spent 4 days camped at the Ouyen caravan park with Gilbert Roe so that I could photograph some of the grain silos in and around Ouyen on the Mallee Highway with my large format cameras. I managed to photography 5 silos--those from Ouyen to Linga--using a 5x7 monorail (for colour) and an 8x10 monorail (for black and white).
The next stage in the silo project is to camp at Murrayville so that I can photograph the silos in and around that hamlet. I prefer overcast conditions for this kind of photograph the silos, which makes life difficult, as such days are few and far between in the Mallee. It's normally bright, sunny and cloudless.
I also took the opportunity to start to explore with my digital camera the countryside of the Victorian Mallee, which is still economically based around dryland farming and large cereal farms. Even in late autumn the northern Mallee was dry, hot and dusty with dust storms. The agricultural landscapes look as if it has extended periods of dryness that cannot simply be put down to intermittent drought. That dryness causes hardship to the local communities, the unravelling of the social fabric, and the steady decline of the population in the towns and hamlets with their derelict houses and abandoned tennis courts.
The signs of decay and decline were very noticeable along the Mallee Highway in Victoria. Ouyen itself was a tired town that was hanging on. There was little in the way of new housing or commercial development in the town. It is a small service centre, a junction between the Mallee and Calder highways, and a handling town for the surrounding grain farmers. It's population in shrinking. It wants an inland lake for recreational purposes with piped water via the Northern Mallee Pipeline that sources water directly from the River Murray.
Life in this part of rural Australia is not a stylish retreat from the frenetic rat race of the contemporary city. This is struggle country. Its history or narrative is that of the pioneer legend with its roots in 19th century settler Australia and its dream of building a modern rural country. Settlement was a battle to win the land, in which humans were evenly pitted against nature. The story is one the heroic occupation of a difficult environment. In this narrative the wheat lands are predominantly seen as an economic zone, and it is held that Australia’s agricultural destiny would prevail.
The infrastructure of railway lines and silos, that was constructed in the early 20th century, which was meant to drive the rural expansion and agricultural development, is now falling into disuse. Many of the silos along the Mallee Highway stand silent, the branch line is used infrequently and those who drive on the highway to Canberra and Sydney rarely stop.
Taking water from the Murray River was seen to be a crucial strategy in the continuing battle against nature, to avert economic stagnation and ensure economic growth with little consideration that the residual flow of the river meant that it was insufficient to ensure environmental flows, check rising salt and dilute harmful nutrients, the product of over-clearing and farming practices.
Water is a problem in the northern mallee, especially for those areas not on the pipelines. Contrary to the rural narrative of rural expansion and agricultural development these rural towns and hamlets are not prosperous and cheerful places to live in. The mallee is actually the heartland of rural decline in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and this will continue in a warming world.
The Mallee's culture-scape is now a mythological one. It is mythological because its narrative of pitting settlers against the land has lead to the ruin of the settlers, to sacrificing the river for irrigation and ultimately a ruining of the land itself.