I shared this story at the May Cicada Story slam in Daylesford during a zoom session. It is inspired by the theme that night: My brilliant career. It’s as much a circling as a story, a marvelling at sign posts and markers pointing to where I am now.
Parker Palmer, Quaker and writer, suggests that life is not about career, brilliant or otherwise, but about vocation. In his book Let your life speak, Palmer reminds us that the root word for vocation is voice– listening to our inner voice, listening to what calls us: ‘Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it’ he suggests, ‘listen for what it intends to do with you’.
I grew up in South Australia in the foothills of Adelaide; also along the river Murray, at Murray Bridge. It was there I met Betty and Ian, dairy famers with their young family. I was up early for morning milking: rounding up cows, filing them into milking bays, washing teats and udders, attaching suction cups, checking flow through glass baubles, then mucking out and cleaning the shed, followed by a hearty breakfast around the farm table.
I was back again in the afternoon, waving hands in the air to fend off swooping magpies, throwing lucerne bails off the back of the ute and carrying home two full billies for Mum. There’s movie footage my Dad took: it’s me with a smile on my face returning from afternoon milking, knee-deep in flood waters, wading stealthily, both arms extended, careful to avoid tears over spilt milk.
That was the 1960’s and throughout that decade Betty and Ian were my second family. But when the Monarto Commission compulsorily acquired fertile land along the river for, believe it or not, a sewerage farm and a marina, Betty and Ian, as insecure tenant farmers, had to make a new start. They moved to central Queensland where land was more affordable, and I moved with my family to Melbourne.
Some 40 years later it’s land at Yandoit that captures my imagination. Driving down High St on my first visit it’s the dairy farm along the main street I notice- a herd of Friesian cows, munching on lucerne in the paddock, evoke childhood memories. Out walking I meet Fiona, also newcomer to Yandoit, and her cow Lola with heifer Svetlana. I join the milking team. I become, again, a milkmaid. I wander down the back track to the milking shed a few times a week and then home again carrying Lola’s bounty. Everywhere I go, over the course of those years, there’s milk and yoghurt and cheese and more to share.
Out walking I also meet Ken, bee keeper like his father, youth spent around Yandoit Hill before moving to Newstead. I notice his smoker and hives through the bush. I introduce myself. I look on while he tends bees, points out different eucalypts, shows me the flowering yellow box. I remember the bee hive of my childhood, thousands of bees in and out through the living room vent. I remember bee sting after bee sting on bare feet. I remember the scent and taste of honeycomb fresh from the hive. Here in Yandoit I begin my life as a bee keeper, under Ken’s generous tuition, and this year I’ve been amply rewarded with abundant honey flows.
I find myself in Yandoit, in the land of milk and honey. A promised land. An old story retold. I learn of a letter written in 1856, from Margaret Morrison to her sister in Scotland, nine months after arriving in Yandoit (1). Margaret, the first Morrison woman in Yandoit who, with her husband James, created the Morrison dairy legacy in Yandoit, a legacy which continues six or seven generations on. In her letter Margaret describes Yandoit as: “a beautiful valley, about half a mile long and not quite so broad; a river, or what we call a creek, running down one side of it with almost every description of flowers and beautiful shrubs and good large trees growing on its banks.” Encouraging her sister to join her in Australia, Margaret writes: “You would not believe how soon you would make money – for instance you could keep a cow for yourself and have no trouble at all, for it is not the fashion in this country for women to milk. Milk and butter pay so well- butter is 3 shillings a pound and what you pay a penny for at home you get up to 6 pence for here”.
This settlement of Yandoit- a Dja Dja Wurrung word meaning ‘sure water and brown snake’. This settlement of Yandoit, where billabongs have been gathering places, and where creeks, spring-fed for thousands of years, flow through to the Loddon. This settlement of Yandoit – the lowlands, fertile valleys nourished by Lalgambuk’s lava flows and the highlands, sandstone outcrops. For thousands of years this has been a land full of promise for the traditional owners- the ‘yes yes people’ with bountiful myrrnong, emu, kangaroo grass, water and fish and much more.
We had to put Lola the cow out to pasture and regretfully I packed away my milkmaid’s apron for a number of years. But then a few weeks ago I learnt that Svetlana, the heifer who arrived with Lola, and subsequently went to live with the herd at Yandoit Farm, had calved again. My ears pricked up. I started talking with others about a milking co-operative. We all got excited. So now it’s back to the farm- I’m milking again. My days are punctuated by milking routines. My hands grow more sure as the bucket fills with creamy jersey milk. I perch on the stool against Svetlana’s warm belly. I retrieve my milkmaid’s apron. My kitchen benches are, once again, home to batches of yoghurt and cheese and cream and butter.
After all these years I’ve circled around. When it comes to career, I doubt my parents imagined their daughter as milk maid, bee keeper, or small farmer but they were wise enough to let me find my own way; wise enough to let me listen to my inner voice, to listen to what might be calling. I see delight on my mother’s face, now 93 years old, as I share stories of the farm and cows and milking, reminders of her own childhood on a farm in midlands of Tasmania. Her father milked a few house cows, so there was always fresh milk and cream and butter. My mother was never seduced by the margarine story.
Between Murray Bridge and Yandoit I’ve kept myself occupied and learning in many ways. But there’s something about Yandoit, this land of milk and honey. There’s an energy I felt as soon as I arrived, as soon as I walked this land, as soon as that ‘whirly wind’ invited me into the bush where I now live.
Like American farmer, philosopher and poet Wendell Berry, once I settled I began to see the place with a new clarity and understanding and seriousness. I began to see beyond the drought and rocky terrain to the abundance and richness of this land, of this community. Walking everywhere I explored hills, valleys, bushland, farms and creeks. Walking everywhere I looked, listened, smelt, touched, tasted. I felt alive to this place. I began to appreciate the capacity for renewal in rural communities, to understand what Wendell Berry knows, that ‘one revived rural community would be more convincing and more encouraging than all the government and university programs of the last fifty years’. But as Berry argues, ‘to be authentic, a true encouragement and a true beginning, the revival would have to be accomplished mainly by the community itself …not from the outside by the instruction of visiting experts, but from the inside by the ancient rule of neighbourliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be at home’. (2)
Our milking co-op is the first step towards a Yandoit Commons- a diversified, cooperative and regenerative farming venture. It’s a step towards securing fertile land for farming; enabling access to land and farming skills for young people. It’s a way to minimise the kind of insecurity my lifelong friends Betty and Ian faced; a way to reduce vulnerability, especially for small scale farmers, to the whims of governments and commissions and corporations.
164 years after Margaret Morrison’s letter to her sister in Scotland, the fashion has changed and women are milking. Here in Yandoit women and men, young and old, share and acquire skills, put to use milking, bee keeping, food and fibre growing skills in this fertile valley. Together young and old, long timers and newcomers find ways to cooperate, to regenerate this country, and to create meaningful livelihoods in this land of milk and honey.
Parker Palmer’s invocation rings again in my ear: ‘Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you’.
(1) With thanks to Don Morrison for Margaret Morrison’s letter
(2) Berry, Wendell: The World-Ending Fire, Penguin Books, 2017, p.118