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Connection in isolation

This article was originally published in the 2020 winter issue of Graziher Magazine

The recent times have been surreal. A tapestry woven with juxtaposition; grief stitched with the copper thread of unexpected joys. Loneliness patched with community. A collective spirit, sewn with aptitude and reinvention, embroidered with the delicate retreat from the constant doing. A new normal, seen through a rural lens. Writer Emily Herbert weaves together just some of the extraordinary stories contributed by the Graziher community, drawn from pockets of bush across the country. *

I’m always struck by the talking in country communities. Yarns struck up in stores, standing in lines. Connection spun like gossamer, easy as breathing. Waiting at the supermarket checkout recently, a small commotion erupted. An elderly man had forgotten his wallet. He was appalled with himself.

“Go home, love. I’ll keep your groceries waiting,” the lady behind the counter said, as he patted down his pockets with a worried expression. I thought I’d spare him the trip and tapped my card against the EFTPOS - a mere 15 bucks. He was horrified. I assured him life worked in swings and roundabouts. He took his bags and waited out front. We chatted. He’d been married for more than 50 years - had been grieving his wife for a year. He told me he’d give me a hug, if it weren’t for this, “Damn thing going around”. That we’d all be fine, if we could hold on to our commonalities, rather than our differences. Nearly an hour later, we said our farewells. “My motto in life? Rush slowly,” he chuckled, as he shuffled off.

There hasn’t been much rushing for most, of late. Perhaps a welcome reprieve from the relentless pace - the glorification of busy. For some, though, the silence pooling in corners has been too much. Kate Pianto insists her story isn’t special, but it’s reflective of many. Moving from the coast to a farm at Merriwagga, life was idyllic at first.

“We welcomed our son in November last year. He hasn’t been the easiest baby with regard to sleep, but I’d been travelling along OK until COVID hit,” Kate says. “My son hit the four-month regression and sleep went out the door, then my weekly catch ups with girlfriends weren’t possible. To top it off, sowing geared up, our worker quit, so seeing my husband became a rare occurrence.

“After reaching out to PANDA and speaking with my GP, I believe I have postnatal depression. It’s been an accumulation of things, but the key ingredient I believe was COVID-19. I know this is an ordinary story, but complete isolation has really given my mental health a massive hit.”

It’s a mental load on top of an already crippling situation for many on the land. In the Yaven Creek Valley, Jess Pearce has witnessed the brunt of Mother Nature’s dealing. Five days after Christmas, the family lost 95 per cent of their 1,100-acre beef enterprise to fire.

“We lost all our permanent pasture. We were lucky to only lose a small number of head, compared to neighbours,” she says. “Since then, we’ve had significant rain; pumps flooded, and fences washed away. We were finally at the point of stopping feeding cattle every day when COVID hit.”

The pandemic has compounded a year already emblazoned with difficulty.

“Our experience with COVID is vastly different to our city cousins. Without sounding flippant, it’s an inconvenience. The impact of the fires overshadows COVID significantly. Blazeaid has set up a camp in Adelong, and the travel restrictions have had a huge impact on the support they’ve been able to offer,” she says. “Emotionally, I’m angry about all sorts of things. I feel there’s such a lack of consideration for rural areas and how vastly different they are to the city. We shouldn’t have the same rules that apply to high density areas. I understand the need to isolate and fully appreciate the situation. But my children work beside us regularly. I don’t need time to connect with my family. And I don’t need to feel guilty about it either.”

For some, connection is just what they need - a bright spark in the moors of isolation. Gladys Elliott lives on a beef and sheep property at Byaduk in Southwest Victoria. Turning 90 in May, her children put a call out on social media. Gladys never had birthdays as a child - she didn’t know how old she was until she was six. On May 6, she made her daily two-kilometre walk to the mailbox. Eighty-five cards were waiting; handmade gifts, letters penned by children, a pearl necklace from Western Australia. Strangers, cheering a milestone from a distance.

“I don’t feel 90. I feel 60,” Gladys says, pearls bobbing on her throat.

The country chats continue, unabridged from a distance (sometimes). Standing in the post office, a lady with an enormous striped canvas bag bulging with post helps me choose the right size package to send my parcel.

“You can usually go a size down. Cheaper. It’s amazing what you can fit in,” she tells me cheerily. Addressing my package, I eye up her mountain of post, which she’s whizzing through. This isn’t her first posting rodeo. Her name is Narelle, and she sells DIY craft kits, Diamond Dotz, her business exploding by 1,000 per cent since lockdown began.

“I haven’t had a day off in eight weeks,” she says. “It’s the not knowing that’s so hard for people. The uncertainty. We’re incredibly lucky.”

Minya Holroyd considers herself a lucky one. She started her project, “We’re all in this together” to capture connection, photographing more than 70 people, from children to farmers, paramedics to teachers.

“I’ve learnt that life really does goes on and while cliché, life is what we make of it,” she says. “This project has changed me in ways I didn’t think I needed. It’s been therapy. I now understand it’s the people you meet, the stories you share, and the way you make people feel that leaves the biggest impact in this life. I’ve been humbled - brought to tears. I haven’t laughed this much in years. I’ve received pumpkins, jam, wine and most of all, I’ve felt at home. It’s shown me that to show up and be honest can be incredibly powerful. To be grateful for sunrises, fresh food, fresh air, experiences. To just be.

Creatives have adapted, despite the challenges crisped by the tyranny of distance. With her wedding photography business flattened, Echuca-based Zowie Crump picked up her camera and started capturing families from the garden gate, travelling from North of Conargo to Kyabram to snap more than 600 families for her “Front Door Project”.

Julia Creek dance studio, Branches Performing Art, has taken its classes online and hopes to keep its digital offering, even when normality returns, for bush kids dancing in red dirt, too far away to travel.

A Brewarrina educator and proud Aboriginal woman, Naomi Train, known as Nay Nay to the kids she works with, has changed things up with her mobile early education van. Normally driving 1,000 kilometres each week to offer her services on country to Aboriginal communities, she’s adapted, so these communities aren’t forgotten.

“After seeking permission from the Elders, we were able to have fruit parcels delivered and post or email education programs and activities to the outlying communities of Weilmoringle, Hebel, Carinda, Goodooga and properties across these areas,” she says. “Initially, there was fear in the communities. But, we’re a pretty practical people out here. There's been a lot of safety precautions.”

For Naomi, cultural conversations about the cyclic essence of nature, the patterns of country, have been fascinating.

“Last year, it was a desert out here. There have been discussions out here with Elders about the cycle of drought to fire to flood. That’s interesting to me, from a cultural perspective.”

Sorrow has been made stark, terrible, for those grieving in a time of restrictions. What was always going to be ravaging, crushing, was made all the more so for Angela Edwards and her family after losing their 23-year-old son, Jordan, in a car accident in South Australia. Living on a 4,000 acre cattle property, it’s a cataclysmic blow on top of years of drought.

We had to travel down the day South Australia shut the border, so we didn't have to self-isolate for two weeks,” Angela says. “My parents couldn’t attend the funeral; we could only have eight people. Coming back to the farm has been both difficult and a saviour. Doing the everyday jobs of moving cattle, working in the yards; it takes your mind off what has happened for a brief time.”

Station life has taken its own hits. Katy Hayes from South Australia’s “Arckaringa Station” says there’s nothing like a global pandemic to reinforce perspective. 

“Our kids do School of the Air, meaning they’re already used to learning from home,” she says. “There’s been a lot of parents stressing on social media about teaching their kids from home. Hats off to all the School of the Air families, who deal with the difficulties of teaching their own children on a long-term basis. Although it can be stressful and isolating, they produce intelligent, well-rounded kids, often without the amazing array of free resources and extra support that have recently been made available, and often with slow or unreliable internet.”

Anna Nunn is the only female for at least 50 kilometres, living on a station in outback South Australia.

“We live and breathe isolation - have done for generations,” she says. “The wife, mother, cook, gardener, station hand, counsellor, nurse, bookkeeper, the role of many, completed by one able woman.

“There’s no one popping in for coffee, bumping into a familiar face while out running errands, or the banter of workplace friends. Isolation is just the way of life in the bush. This isolation is different, though. There are new battles and extra stress. How do I get food to feed our family and staff when the shelves are bare at the closest supermarket?”

It’s a quandary faced by Grace Hambling, living on a station on the Humbert River, Northern Territory. With just the company of her partner, an employee and her eight-month-old daughter, Ruby, Grace has been to town only once since January 1.

“Our usual stores deliver from Katherine, 400 kilometres away, every three weeks. Some supplies have had to come from Darwin, over 700 kilometres away,” she says.

As a new mother, the isolation has taken its toll.

“Everyone has heard the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. I couldn’t access my village anymore - at least, not physically. Poor wi-fi means FaceTime is hit and miss and often very blurred, but at the moment it’s all I have,” she says. “When we come out of this, we’ll be so much more appreciative of being able to go interstate to see loved ones. The huge trip to town won’t seem so huge, and the coffee you get at the end will taste that much better.”

Narrabri based Shanna Whan is fearful how the isolation will affect the vulnerable. Her organisation, Sober in the Country, tackles issues around booze in the bush. She says the pandemic has all but cemented the message rural Australia needs to talk about grog.

''It's hard to pretend this isn't an enormous issue when our own Prime Minister declared bottleshops an essential service,” she says. “Those of us on the frontline know full well that isolation and addiction go hand in hand. When COVID is over, the fallout from spikes in day-drinking, increased drinking and for some, the tipping over from bingeing to alcoholic drinking, will last generations.”

Then, there’s the love; the silver linings entwined with a new way of being. Skye Harrison lives in Terang, a small country town in south west Victoria.

“I can quite honestly say that I’ve fallen in love in the middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Skye tells me. “We welcomed our first child into the world at the end of March, Digby Cecil. In the week leading up to his birth, we weren’t sure how it would all go as lockdown became tighter. We even wondered whether Tom would be able to be there for the birth, but luckily the restrictions never got that tight. We had three beautiful days in hospital, and as per policy Tom was the only one allowed to visit. It was actually really nice because as first time parents, we have a lot to learn and that hospital learning was able to happen uninterrupted.”

Tiffany Ottens has seen the positives marble through her small community at Streaky Bay, on the west coast of South Australia.

“We’re pretty isolated at the best of times but I’ve found it has bought us even closer together. As COVID started to spread and restrictions were put in place, there was a group of us who are young mums who found ourselves at home with small children and not allowed to go anywhere. To keep us all sane we started a Facebook page, 'Garden Fun',” Tiffany says.

“We started to put up our gardening activities and tips for growing different veggies; there were a few of us that had no idea about gardening, so there’s been lots of questions and photos and sharing. We also use it to share any extra produce or plants, as seedlings are like hen’s teeth over here. It’s been very lonely at times, but it’s also helped to develop different ways of keeping in touch with your community and making different ways to have fun.”

As a photographer and with an artist husband, Angela Coote was left without work when the virus hit. The pair decided to use it as an excuse to leave Perth and move to the remote Quindanning, where she grew up.

“It has been an amazing journey so far, full of exciting challenges that have kept us from thinking about our hardships with the coronavirus,” Ange says. “The house is derelict with holes in the roof, an old school hot water system and a limited water supply. We share our home with a lizard, a family of mice and mosquitos that come and visit in the night. This has provided much entertainment for our little family. Living here has made us realize how much we love the country. We have built ourselves a chook pen, a veggie garden and we’re spending more and more time outdoors in the beautiful natural environment. We feel blessed to be here.”

Molly Van Hermert was in Botswana when the global panic set in.

“The safari parks were empty of tourists; we had one-on-one wildlife viewing almost to ourselves. For wonderful hours, we sat fascinated and in awe,” she says. When the borders started to close, the relief was tangible when they finally hit home soil, quarantining on a farm outside Quirindi.

“Although in the face of a world catastrophe, we actually had a lovely time in quarantine. It dawned on me how incredibly lucky we are to live not only in Australia, but also in rural areas,” she says. “Isolation out here doesn’t feel that different to everyday life. Life goes on, farmers continue to grow crops, raise stock and feed the country.”

Molly now works remotely for the mainly female team at StockLive Stockyards, a socialising lynchpin for many rural communities who have been rendered silent. StockLive live stream real time auctions - something manager Libby Hufton says is critical for those unable to travel.

“Those watching sales online often call on a mate during or on the completion of a sale to congratulate them on how their cattle or sheep have sold,” she says. “Real life events such as sales can be a catalyst for consistent and ongoing communication - a hugely important aspect of life in rural Australia.”

Those on the frontline in rural communities have seen the best and worst in humanity, either razed blunt with fear, or soaked in technicolour warmth. Brianna Wright, a doctor in Tamworth, says it came in waves.

“There was this foreign quietness around the hospital that just seemed to feed our anxiety,” she says. “At one point, we were told to not wear our scrubs outside, because the public were terrified we had the virus on our clothes; one doctor was spat on.

“However, my experience has been nothing but positive. I’ve never had so many friends reach out to see if I needed child-minding, or had so many strangers smile at me in the grocery store or pay for my coffee.”

Regional emergency doctor Jess Smith made the difficult decision with her husband that he and their toddler son would isolate four hours away on the family farm, while she worked at the coalface. “I deeply disliked practicing medicine from behind a mask. ‘You can’t see it, but I’m smiling at you,’ I would say to my patients. I missed the connection, the freedom, and the ability to hold someone’s hand,” she says. “The thing that really struck me was the thanks we received. The kindness. My neighbour mowed my lawn. I came home to find bunches of flowers on my doorstep, little notes. People messaged. The community sent food to the Emergency Department.

“When people thank me, my main response is, ‘No, thank you’. Thank you to the people who are home-schooling, missing their families, bread baking, Netflix watching, suddenly unemployed, struggling with anxiety, home alone, working from home, navigating a new business model, changing their entire worlds. Thank you.

“I see the people around me making all these hard and painful transitions and decisions. Every single one of you has helped flatten the curve and allowed my team and hospitals around the country to keep looking after you when you have an infection, a broken bone or a stroke. You’ve helped us avoid the trauma of watching our colleagues die or having to choose who has access to a ventilator and who doesn’t.”

Now, Jess has relocated as a local GP in a small regional town. The conversations are renewed, aglow, as she guides from cradle to grave. Appointments linger over chats about the P&C, the Lions Club, grandchildren, gardening, crop health.

“I love being a part of the community. I love being back with my son and husband after six weeks apart. I love the pace of life, the beauty of the surroundings, and the number of stars I can see,” she says. “And now that the initial terror of COVID has abated somewhat, I’m enjoying smiling at people, without having to tell them that I am.” 

*Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.


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