Once, when it was the beginning of the dry but no one could have known it yet, Dad drove us west – out past ‘Jesus Saves’ signs nailed to box trees, past unmarked massacre sites and slumping woolsheds, past meatworks and red-bricked citrus factories with smashed windows, and past one-servo towns with faded ads for soft drinks no one makes anymore – until we reached a cotton farm.
We stood on the old floodplain listening to the manager in his American cap, a battery of pumps and pipes behind him, boasting how much water these engines could lift once the river reached a certain height. To the left, an open channel cut through laser-levelled fields to the horizon.
Cotton saved the towns out here in the 1990s, but to me it just looked desolate. These weren’t the plains I knew. Back in Dubbo, I spoke to a local businessman about how folk downstream reckoned the chemicals were harming their children, and how the riverine plains were all cleared, and how graziers cried in front of strangers, blaming irrigators for taking their water, and about the rivers left emaciated and growing little else but toxic algae. He smiled, reached towards my shoulder, and rubbed the sleeve of my green T-shirt between his fingers. ‘Everyone needs cotton, mate,’ he said. When I tried to continue, he cut in. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing out there anyway.’