Sunday, November 15, 2009

For love and a sunburnt country

Pic: flickr

The Sun-Herald
15 November, 2009

A painter and her farmer husband are sustained and inspired by their deep sense of connection with the land, writes ERIN O'DWYER.

This is a story about love. It's also a story about landscape, conservation and an alliance between a farmer and an artist. More importantly, it's a story about the power of two ordinary Australians to transfix and transform a culture far distant from their own, simply by sharing their love of the bush.

Mandy Martin, the landscape painter whose enormous canvas, Red Ochre Cove, graces Parliament House in Canberra, has never been satisfied with setting up her easel in the studio.

Instead she travels – sometimes thousands of kilometres at a time – until she is painting on the edge of some new frontier. Along the stony breakwater of Port Kembla's Outer Harbour; in the sandy gullies of the Strzelecki Desert; on the pink-parched banks of the Fitzroy River, the boundary between the desert people and the Kimberley mobs.

“My father was a scientist and we went on collecting expeditions rather than holidays,” Martin says, gazing across the green cattle country east of Cowra, where she makes her home.

Their last field trip took them deep into Burke and Wills country. Martin was painting a series on the mythical inland sea and her father was collecting seed in gypsum mounds. It was the time of Mabo and Martin was trying to paint on canvas the white man's connection to country.

“I felt what came out of [the Mabo debate] was that Aboriginal Australians were able to speak about their connection with landscape,” she says. “But second-settler Australians were finding it really difficult to do that.”

Martin didn't get as far as the ill-fated explorers. She set out from Canberra and ended up in Bourke. In the midst of the inland sea series, she and a writer friend joined forces to tell the stories of the Murray-Darling basin. They won a grant for their project – a book called Back o' Bourke – on the condition that an environmental consultant come on board. That consultant was Bourke cattle farmer Guy Fitzhardinge.

“They thought an artist and a writer wouldn't be able to tackle such a big topic,” Martin laughs. “Guy was one of the three people I interviewed. One of his first pieces of advice was, 'Come and live with me.'”

It's an encounter that Martin loves remembering nearly 15 years on. Fitzhardinge, now her husband, sits alongside her. His eyes sparkle in his sun-weathered face.

“I employed him for a whole $1000,” Martin says. “Neither of us were single at the time so it was very messy, as these things always are. Anyway it was good advice to come live with him.”

On the matter of this enduring love affair, one might be tempted to say opposites attract. Martin is tall and effusive, with wonderful Cruella de Vil hair and rose-petal skin, the benefit of coming from good South Australian stock. Fitzhardinge is wise and wiry. He wears green dungarees, worn to softness. When they met, Martin was an academic at the Australian National University and already an established artist. He was a second-generation farmer who abandoned his business management degree at the University of Adelaide to run his father's property out west.

But to compare their differences would be to miss the point. This union between pastoralist and artist works for one reason: they share an innate respect for the beauty of the land, which is as vital to both as breathing.

“The last years we owned the property near Bourke, I did 100 little paintings just as a diary and I still hadn't scraped the surface,” Martin says. “Every day is different. Sometimes it's a flood, sometimes it's a dust storm, sometimes it's a drought. Sometimes there's a red moon rising, sometimes there's a fog. I was only lucky enough to be out there for seven years but Guy had the property for 20 years.”

Early in their marriage, the couple split their time between Bourke, Canberra and Cowra. “We could never remember where anything was,” Fitzhardinge says.

The couple sold Bourke in 2002. Martin gave up her Canberra studio a few years later. Their home base now is a company house – split-level, '70s-style brick. It sits, rather humbly, at the end of a dirt track, off the road to Cowra. Inside, it's stunning. Every wall is hung with antique rugs or Martin's massive magenta canvases. Every window has views across the soft-folded hills of the Lachlan Valley. The family holdings are smaller now. Just 4000 hectares and 1000 head of breeding stock.

“That's enough, it keeps you honest,” Fitzhardinge says without regret.

Selling up was a retreat of sorts. It allowed Fitzhardinge to concentrate on his main game – conservation. He has fenced off almost half of his remaining property from grazing and got out of sheep altogether.

“Sheep are too hard on the landscape,” he says. “A cow at least has the good grace to die early when things get tough. Sheep just struggle on. We used to run a lot of sheep but the country heaved a huge sigh of relief when we got rid of them.”

Fenced off are the small tracts of precious Box Gum Grassy Woodland. It's an endangered community with white and yellow box trees and a grassy groundcover that provides habitat for endangered species such as the Superb Parrot. Fitzhardinge points out the green and gold birds as they dart past. He reckons his farm is more productive now, thanks to a better balance between conservation and production.

“I've fenced off the less productive areas so I can improve the more productive areas,” he says. “It's a win-win situation. Ethically I feel better too.”

Adds his wife: “We seem to recover from drought more quickly than the surrounding country. Everyone thinks we've put super[phosphate] on. But it's simply, I think, that we have more native grass in the paddocks that are in much heavier production. They do better because they're not exposed to as much wind.”

Martin and Fitzhardinge love living on the land. You see it in their dusty Akubras, their country hospitality and their regular Thursday-night drinking sessions with neighbours at the Royal Hotel in Carcoar. It's a one-horse town. It doesn't even have much of an antique shop. But it's the place where Fitzhardinge was born. All but one of the couple's three (blended) children live in the city.

“I'm the second generation and the last,” Fitzhardinge says. “But that doesn't really trouble me any more. If we owned the corner store in Leichhardt we wouldn't be bloody worried about the kids taking over, would we?”

Martin chimes in: “Having said that, when you have a lot emotionally invested ... in trees and landscape ... it's a slightly different thing.”

Fitzhardinge brings a fresh perspective to working the land. He is a director of Bush Heritage and was involved in the first Landcare group in NSW. He serves on the board of Desert Channels Queensland – an increasingly influential community group that advises on natural resource management in far western Queensland. He has also just finished a PhD on how to improve the uneasy alliance between greenies and pastoralists. He talks about the dry, not the drought. About ethics, not profits. And he wonders, rather controversially, whether Australian rivers need to run.

“Does a river need to have fresh clean water in it year-round?” he muses. “Babbling along like an English brook? Or should it be dry and multi-channelled and run every three years and not run into the sea as rivers did before white people arrived?

“Farmers have to really adapt and change. The days when the economy rode on the sheep's back is long gone. The future of farming in this country will be largely determined by people who have never been on a farm and who live in cities. That's why we need to listen and to sell ourselves a lot better than we currently we do.”

Selling themselves is something Mandy Martin and Guy Fitzhardinge do very well. We arrive at their cattle farm, Pennyroyal, just before lunch on a glorious spring day. We are there five minutes and Martin serves up cauliflower au gratin, fresh-baked bread and scones with jam and cream. Beneath the wrought-iron table a family of kelpies sprawl on the warm pavers. Martin calls one back from her garden of pink petunias. Her name is Aki.

There must be few Australian cattle properties whose station dogs are called Aki, Yumi and Miho. But Pennyroyal meat goes to Japan, including to McDonald's in Japan.

“I used to say that I was the second most famous person in Japan,” Fitzhardinge says. “After Ian Thorpe, of course. The only problem was no one recognised me.” He says it as a joke. But it's true.

In 2005, McDonald's ran a "smiley burger face" competition. Snapshots of Japanese children eating McDonald's hamburgers flooded in and the kids with the smiliest faces won. The prize was like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ten kids, with their mothers in tow, won a trip to the Pennyroyal Beef Farm. Martin and Fitzhardinge took turns playing Willy Wonka. They became celebrities overnight.

“I appeared on the tray mats in all the McDonald's in Japan,” laughs Fitzhardinge, who at the time was director of Meat & Livestock Australia. “It was all filmed and we had a barbecue here. They saw how we muster and what the paddocks are like. Then they asked questions, like what do you do when they fight and do you bring them inside when it rains?”

One thing led to another. A team for Japan's Delicious magazine flew in for a four-day shoot. Top Japanese TV chef Kihachi Kumagai filmed his show in the couple's kitchen. And, most bizarre of all, Martin was invited to cook shepherd's pie at two Japanese restaurants and live on Japanese TV.

“When Delicious were here, we planned a whole series of meals to showcase Australian lamb and beef,” Fitzhardinge says. “On the Saturday, when they were going, we had run out of options. So Mandy minced some lamb and made a shepherd's pie. That became her signature dish. It was on the front of the magazine and Kihachi made it in little ramekins. Everyone just loved it. I've never seen people eat so much.”

After lunch, the couple take a drive across the paddocks. At dusk, they sit on the grass, sipping wine and waiting for the sugar gliders to come out. Over dinner – lamb roasted in the old enamel stove – they talk about “landscape”.

Since that first book, they have collaborated on six more together. A seventh will be published by CSIRO next year. The slim volumes are a conversation – an attempt to convert art lovers to new ways of seeing the landscape. Their favourite was about the deserts of Central Australia. They asked farmers to name their favourite place on the property, then Martin went there to paint. It surprised them that always it was a place of extreme natural beauty.

“None of the places had anything to do with agriculture or sheep or farming,” Fitzhardinge says. “You'd expect people to say this is my best paddock or the fattest cattle come off here. But it wasn't that at all.”

For Martin, it was sometimes difficult to understand.

“They'd say: "There's water on our property, come and paint there. Or there's this really pretty sandhill. I'd go there and I'd think why is this pretty? What is there about it that makes it pretty? You have to really work hard to understand the aesthetic.”

Later this month the couple will head for the city. Australian Galleries is launching two exhibitions of Martin's work in Melbourne. At the Derby Street Gallery will be 22 paintings including some of Wallerawang Power Station near Lithgow. At Smith Street, a series of her paintings done around Fitzroy Crossing will hang alongside the work of Aboriginal artists. Martin spent weeks painting alongside the community artists, battling with sun and sticks and ants.

In Melbourne, she and her husband will play city folk, dining at restaurants with friends. But you just know they'll be dying to get back to the bush.

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