Early one morning in Afghanistan, I came across a line of men dressed in colourful embroidered jackets, balloon pants and pixie-toed shoes. They had two drums and were singing and dancing up and down with their sickles in the air. A group of women followed, shrouded in their chadors, but obviously enjoying the occasion. I stopped and asked in broken Farsee: ‘Is this a wedding celebration?’ They looked surprised and said: ‘No, nothing. We are just going out to cut wheat.’
Jack R. Harlan, Crops and Men (Madison, 1992)
April 2014 – Ron and his wife Betty Tremlett were of my parent’s generation, knew them well, went to the same dinner parties and suchlike. Ron was a wheat farmer from the ’50s, the golden years of Australian wheat farming. He’d been one of the principals in Eric Smart’s operation at Three Springs and Mingenew round the time, the story goes, Smart was the biggest individual wheat grower in the world. We first met Ron and Betty in the early 1960s, when they moved to a farm near New Norcia. This was not far from us at Mogumber and it was then that we got to know them. Later they moved to some lovely red-soil country near Gingin. Their Gingin farm included the headwaters of the Gingin Brook, a spot where a tremendous mass of water erupts from lower parts of the long slope running down from the deep sandy badlands of the Dandaragan Plateau. The aquifer feeding the Gingin springs is so strong that within metres of first appearing, water runs away as a respectable river 10 metres wide in places and two metres deep. Above the springs, the wind-blown sand is bone-dry and suddenly there’s water everywhere welling from under stands of water-loving paperbarks, melaleuca sps. There are even scattered tree ferns, Gondwanaland relics, and a long way from any other tree ferns. The velvety waters of the Gingin Brook are dark and mysterious and on hot summery days very enticing. One would need steely nerves to dive in mind you. The brook teems with snakes, tigers principally, Australia’s most prominent member of the cobra family.
As a retirement project Ron used some of his water to make the finest garden I’d reckon anywhere north of Perth, one of the finest in all Western Australia really. He didn’t mess around! All Ron’s hours went to his garden. After growing horizon to horizon wheat crops for so many years it didn’t take long for him to have several acres ablaze. There were long beds of roses and mounds of hibiscus and banks of lantanas and great jagged bananas and even a commercial grapefruit orchard off to one side. Ron also grew cool climate plants, camellias, azaleas and hydrangeas and despite the always-mild weather he was even trying autumn-colouring plants, liquidambers, Chinese tallow trees, claret ashes and crimson glory vines. The front lawn especially was Ron’s pride and joy, the only Kentucky blue grass lawn I ever saw in all WA.
My family dropped into the Tremletts all through the ’70s. Their place was close to the well-beaten track from our farm to the coast and the sandy white beaches of Guilderton. This was the ‘Mouth of the Moore’, the river running past our farm. I felt a little proprietorial body-surfing the bar at its mouth. Those were days of joy undiluted, warm sand, as white as any on a coral reef, and body-surfing those glassy waves, just there, where the river had gouged a channel through the otherwise ubiquitous reefs running along this section of the coast. On the way home, we’d often allow an hour or so looking over Ron’s garden, the sun edging over the horizon and all of us strolling with a glass of the local Moondah Brook Shiraz.
The last time ever I saw Ron was late spring and a year near the end of the ’80s. We’d bumped into one other in the middle of Perth on the footpath beside St George’s Terrace. He was talking about that year’s season, telling me how the wheat crops around the state were looking. All that previous week he and Betty had been doing a grand tour of the WA wheat belt, all the way from Northampton in the north to the south coast east of Esperance, more than five hundred miles as the crow flies, though likely Ron had clocked up hundreds more exploring side-roads. He’d been doing this every spring for years, he told me, ever since he and Bett had sold their Gingin garden and moved to the city. Ron liked to keep an eye on the wheat. Liked to know just how the season was shaping up for everyone.
Harrow seemeth to make ostentation of its situation in the Purevale, from whence towards the time of harvest, a man may behold the fields round about so sweetly to address themselves to the sickle and scythe, with such comfortable abundance of all kind of grain, that the husbandman which waiteth for the fruits of his labours cannot but clap his hands for joy to see this vale so to laugh and sing.
John Norden (1547-1625) The Chorography of Norfolk.