2000s Archive

Shear Joy Down Under

Originally Published June 2002
In the surprisingly fragile Australian outback, a working sheep ranch inspires wool gathering, whether in a shearing shed or on a shady veranda.

In 1894, an Australian artist named Tom Roberts painted The Golden Fleece, a hymn to the heat and hard work of the outback shearing sheds that were making Australia prosperous. So instantly acclaimed was this painting that the leading national gallery acquired it immediately. From then on, prints of the picture turned up everywhere, even in the urban Sydney homes of my childhood. If I close my eyes, I can see it still, in almost every detail: the golden light falling like a benediction on the broad back of the shearer, his arm, roped with muscle, gripping the sheep as his other fist disappears into a froth of falling fleece. As the cowboy is to the American imagination, so is the shearer to Australians, and this picture helped make it so.

I blame Tom Roberts for my current predicament.

As the heat drums on the tin roof of the woolshed at Portee Station, I am bent like a boomerang, a sheep squirming between my knees and the fierce metal teeth of an electric shearing comb bucking in my hand. I had no idea that a human being could sweat like this. A Niagara of water seems to be cascading from my brow.

"You're shaking like a gum leaf in a storm," observes Ian Clark, owner of the unfortunate animal that I'm struggling to keep a grip on. It's true: I'd thought it was the comb vibrating, but it's me that's atremble. Like the shepherds in the New Testament, I am sore afraid. I worry that (1) I will hurt the sheep, (2) the sheep will hurt me, and (3) having begged to be allowed to try this, I am in the process of making a complete ass of myself. Clark has warned that if I let go of the handpiece, it can whip round and sever my wrist. Alternately, if I lose my grip on the sheep, he can raise a hoof and smash my jaw. What I might do to him, of course, doesn't bear thinking about.

The young ram looks up at me with baleful resignation. As with most sheep on the vast grazing lands of the Australian outback, life has not led him to expect much from humans. He is just one of some 5,000 that graze at Portee Station, the Clarks' 50,000-acre property on the Murray River in South Australia. Out here, ewes lamb unassisted, find their own feed year-round, and see humans only when something unpleasant is planned for them. When Ian Clark and his wife bought the spread in 1989, there were almost twice as many sheep here. But plunging wool prices and the damage caused by overgrazing persuaded the Clarks to reduce the flock. To compensate for a smaller wool check, they turned the property's 1873 homestead into a guesthouse.

What the Clarks have created at Portee is unusual. Most farmstays disappoint one way or the other—either the farming has been relegated to hobby status, making the experience artificial, or the grittiness and hard work crowds out any prospect of luxurious relaxation. Portee, however, manages to be both a serious farm and salubrious fun.

The house is a classic of Australian outback style. Built of local golden limestone with a traditional corrugated-iron roof, it has a shady veranda all around and a kitchen set off separately (originally to keep the heat out of the living quarters in the days of wood-fired cookstoves). It sits above a rolling lawn amid a garden fragrant with roses and full of intriguing rarities such as fuchsia gum, miniature pomegranate, and bottle tree. Below, an avenue of 1,000-year-old river red gums stretch thick boughs over the slow-moving waters of the Portee billabong. From the veranda, the view is all of green wetlands teeming with pelicans, flocks of sulfur-crested cockatoos and gray-winged, pink-bellied galahs. It is an oasis, a ribbon of ease that gives way within a half mile to one of the harshest landscapes on earth.

Away from the river, the land turns quickly to mallee scrub, named for the gnarled little tree that is able to eke out an existence on the dry, rainfall-deprived soil that divides South Australia's lush farming and winegrowing regions from the expanse of the Central Desert. Nothing is straight or whole here. Tree trunks twist improbably. Branches break off, leaving gaping scars stained by dried sap, or else they die in place, their gray fingers pointing accusingly into the burning sky. The carcasses of uprooted trees share the dust with the white bones of sheep skeletons.

It is an unlovely landscape until you learn how to see it. With knowledge, it reveals itself: a miracle of diverse habitats and abundant wildlife, including rare and engaging hairy-nosed wombats and about 140 species of birds, one of them being the peacock-colored mallee ringneck parrot. Within a few days of accompanying Ian Clark and his son, Richard, on water runs and musters, I begin to see the land as they do. It is fragile country, the soil held together by a delicate cement of lichens and mosses, suited to the soft pads of kangaroo paws rather than the hard hooves of European sheep. With time, I can spot the fine haze of emerging spear grass, differentiate the luminous gray foliage of pearl bush from the feathery fronds of saltbush, and know where an apparently lifeless patch of soil covers a trove of succulent nutgrass corms, beloved by wombats.

Portee happens to contain habitat that is the center of the breeding ground for the southern hairy-nosed wombat—a low-slung, rotund marsupial with the face of a well-worn teddy bear and a pouch that opens rearward so that the occupant doesn't get sprayed by soil when Mum is burrowing. Some 30 years ago, before the Clarks bought Portee and began destocking its overgrazed pastures, the Chicago Zoological Society acquired a small parcel of the land to be set aside as a wombat reserve. Ian Clark sees the regenerated mallee of the reserve as an eventual model for the whole of Portee. He has little time for graziers who claim the wombats' network of burrows damages pastureland. "These little blokes have been here for a million years, and the burrows you see are all the impact they've had," he says. "Since white settlers got here a hundred and fifty years ago, we've managed to lose almost a meter of topsoil. So tell me, Who's doing the damage?"

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