At Kalala Station, 8km from Daly Waters, three hours south of Katherine in the Northern Territory, we are out of bed at 5:30 am and in the yards before dawn. I have seen the sunrise more often in the few weeks since I came to Kalala than I have in the last three years. Sitting in the early morning dust on the cattle run fence, I ask Sam, a 21-year-old ringer, ‘Have you always wanted to work with cattle?’

He shrugs. ‘It’s all I’ve ever known.’

I watch the cattle kick up dust as they’re moved into the pound and I think about how different this feels from home. The cities are saturated with the product of rural Australia, but they are hardly watching cows get drafted for market, dipped for travel below quarantine lines, dehorned, castrated, spayed, branded, immunised, milked, taught to follow a fenceline, being treated by a vet, fed molasses when they’re sick, or charging at a ringer who gets in their way. There are also cars to fix, tyres to change, trailers to wash down, fences to mend, bores to cover, employees to feed, buyers to source, bank managers to impress. There are helicopters, light planes, motorbikes, vegetable gardens, and supply sheds. There are stock camps, hay camps, weaner camps, horses, abandoned calves, pigs, dogs. And I think about the animals themselves and everything they provide for Western society: not just meat but also milk, cheese, clothing, luggage, shoes, jewellery…

It’s easy to ignore the visceral reality of food when it comes to you disembodied and prettied up, and while that can inspire revulsion in some people, it’s also easy from a position of privilege – from a position of choice, of opportunity, of multiplicity – to say there are other options, to have other options. Being so far removed from the source of a product makes it easy to dismiss. If you’re going to swim against the tide – and the meat and livestock industry is a big tide – you will find it easier in the city, because it’s hard to find options when you have to drive an hour and a half for the nearest nurse. When you have to pay over $20 for a bottle of sunscreen in the only supermarket on a 300km stretch of road. When you’re lucky if the newspaper you’re reading is three days old. When this is home. When this is all you’ve ever known. When what else are you going to do? What else are you going to eat? How else are you going to pay for it?

Death is up close in the country. There is blood and dirt and shit on my boots, under my fingernails, in my hair. That’s the way it is. Everything feeds on everything else. Animal feeds animal feeds vegetable feeds mineral. Without making any assertions on how things ought to be, or arguing on the ethics of farming or food: that’s the way it is. And I want to know and experience the nature of things before I pass judgement on them. I want to understand the forces that drive people to choose before I decide how to characterise their choices, and what I should learn from them. Because the more I experience out here, the more people I speak to, the more stories I hear, the more I realise that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ do not automatically correlate with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – that absolutes are works of fiction, that choices are made by balancing possibility and priority, both of which are shaped just as much by the dirt we’re standing in as they are by the things that are burning up our hearts.

I grew up in a Catholic household. Before dinner every night my father would insist we say grace – Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts – and my brothers and I would mouth the words for ritual’s sake without ever thinking about why it was considered important – not to give thanks to God, but to be grateful for food. And these days, with my religious affiliation dwindling to non-existence, to talk about sacrifice in relation to food has uncomfortable connotations in my head. But out here the feeling that rises to the top most prominently is, unexpectedly, gratitude – for the people, for the work, for the animals themselves, for sacrifice. At the very least, I can’t take it for granted anymore. For that, I am grateful.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. ‘it’s also easy from a position of privilege – from a position of choice, of opportunity, of multiplicity – to say there are other options, to have other options’

    Yes, I think about this often. I grew up on a dairy farm, as did a number of other vegans I know. I think that, for most people, food is both consumed at a level of necessity and/or removed from ideas of production and choice.

    Thanks for the post – beautiful.

  2. I thought a lot about vegetarianism / veganism while I was out there. The ethics of eating – and consumerism in general, I suppose – is something I’ve been struggling with for awhile now.

    I think there’s a wider acceptance of death as a natural part of – not opposite to, but part of – life in the country that there isn’t in the city, simply because of its proximity and rawness. But I found the experience of it so much more complex than I expected. I thought, if people out here see death so often then they must take death lightly. But that’s not true. I thought, if people can eat the animals they rear then they must not care very much about them. But that’s also not true. There would be exceptions to those things but I didn’t see them at Kalala.

    Of course that’s nowhere near the end of the debate. But I really did wonder – say you grew up in the industry, your family have been part of it forever, you don’t know anything else – and you decided that it was an industry you didn’t want to be part of, how would you get out of it? How do you get out of it and still stay in that part of the country? And if you decided that the industry as a whole was wrong, what would you replace that industry with – out there, in the bush, in such remote places, where people live off it? Where it’s one of the only things *to* live off? I don’t think I ever really appreciated before how it’s not just about food, it’s about family and country and space to think and home and familiarity and momentum.

    Just thoughts.

  3. Something similar struck me when I was writing about meat. Certainly, the people who become professional roo shooters don’t do so out of any particular enthusiasm for shooting so much as because there’s no other work around. Which is, of course, the same reason some end up in the army.

  4. I don’t have anything intelligent to say – I just really like this post. It’s simple and open and moving. Thanks.

  5. Thanks Stephanie. There is a dreamy quality to this post that is rather wonderful … and I’ve slept on wrecking the mood … but I feel like it has to be said that cattle farmers in this country, and I’m sure elsewhere, need to find another way to enjoy their lifestyle. There are too many cows for our planet to support. It’s not the cows fault. Or even the farmers. It’s a collective fuck up. I love cows. I love their wet noses, the way they look from a distance in the mist in the morning. I appreciate their skin, am addicted to dairy (cheese, sour-cream, yoghurt, chocolate…mmmm) But it can’t go on. And I haven’t ever recovered from being on the train and reading MEAT IS MURDER out the window.

    1. Hi Clare,

      The point I’m trying to make is that it’s very, very easy to say “they need to find another way” but how do we propose they do it? What do we propose they do instead? It’s not something that can be decided against and changed on a whim. The very landscape reduces the possibilities drastically, and it’s very easy to think of ‘lifestyle’ (in the same way politicians talk of ‘culture’) as something on the periphery. But out there, every waking minute has to do with the station. It’s not just work-for-pay, it’s *life*. It’s all-encompassing. It’s all your time, every day.

      I’m not trying to be defeatist; I also know that there are huge problems with the amount of methane in the air etc. but it is far more complex than “this is wrong and must change”. People out there think people in the city are out of touch, because they say things like this. It was humbling to realise that I was one of those people, that I was guilty of oversimplifying things, too.

      1. But Stephanie, there are other ways, must be other ways, alternatives to farming animals and land to raise meat to satisfy appetite rather than being necessary to survival. Not just for the devastation animals wreak to the land itself and their methane contribution to global warming but for their sake and the sake of our own humanity. But I agree how we do it requires thinking outside our paradigms, ingenuity, changing everything, challenging vested interests, that as we see from the mining row, go into overdrive when those interests anticipate the mostminute impact on their gargantuan profits. But do it we must.

        1. I’m not saying there aren’t other ways or can’t be, or even that I think there *shouldn’t* be; I’m trying to understand how people in the industry see their work, how they spend their day, why they do it (something I could never have understood without being there and doing it myself, I am certain), how they see *us* in the cities and how they interpret the things we say. And what I discovered was that they often see *us* as out of touch. “They don’t know how things work out here.” I can’t blame them, really, because I think it’s often true.

          If we’re going to change things, the changes have to involve giant corporations, the government, the international demand as well as the local, but those changes will also go right to the heart of the people in remote country, whose homes and families and entire sense of identity come from and are invested in – are fused to – the industry itself. I think they sometimes get forgotten in the arguments about meat and climate, or dismissed far too easily, that we don’t understand the gravity of what changes would mean for them – they certainly feel that we don’t. And I think if we care about people, we have to understand exactly where they’re coming from, and a big part – if not one of the most important parts of any revolution on meat and livestock – has to involve not just assistance in making transition from one industry to another, if that’s the answer, but also compassion and respect for the fact that this would be an identity upheaval of huge proportions.

          1. Your empathy really comes through Stephanie which is part of why this post is so moving. And I agree the shifts we’re talking about are huge and not just about people’s livelihoods but about identity and life itself.

      2. It is a difficult point you’re making and though I don’t live in the city, I don’t grow my own food, either. I haven’t eaten meat since I was 16, but I’m not a vegan. It is complicated – maybe my response made it seem like I didn’t think it is and for that, apologies. Hard way, long way, supported way or lone way – it has to change and maybe consumers are the ones who can change it. Farming has changed so much in the last 100 years and it seems in no way for the better. Farmers are in thrall to chemical companies and banks, it’s tragic – as if the weather weren’t enough to contend with. How do they untangle from the unhealthy mess of modern farming? I don’t know … you’re very right there: I don’t know. Were the cattle farmers you met open to or discussing or trying new (old) methods of sustainable farming, ethical butchering, land preservation, permaculture, organics, tree-planting? I’m not trying to be a smart-arse, either, I’m curious.

        This is my favourite ‘blessing’ or Grace:

        We thank the water, earth and air
        And all the helping powers they bear
        We thank the people loving, good
        Who grow and cook our daily food
        And at last we thank the sun
        The light and life for everyone

        The banks should ‘re-invest’ what’s owed (which is really just numbers on a computer screen after all) into supporting farmers to reclaim farming practices from the multinational chemical, pharmaceutical and seed companies. As for cows…I don’t know. It’s not just the methane – it’s the deforestation, too.

        Cattle farming in the enormous spaces of the Northern Territory is very different from the diverse farming opportunities of community-based farms in more fertile areas. Phew, it’s a biggie.

        There are other farms that could change immediately. Pig and chicken farming spring to mind.

        1. Aw, I love Chicken Run. And I have to admit, I had Cows With Guns in my head for the first week or so I was at Kalala. 😀

          When we arrived they’d just been out fencing off a wetland area so the cattle couldn’t get into it. They don’t cut down trees unless they have to; most of the land is bush. They burn off regularly – not sure what the consensus is on that re: environmental damage / benefits in the NT. And I can’t say what the cattle hooves do to native plants etc. although I imagine it’s not too good for some of them. (I reckon the spinifex and spear grass would be okay though.) But I can say that people out here (at least the ones I met) see themselves as bushmen and women, not just cattle farmers. They love the bush, that’s why they’re out here. But if you want to be out here, there’s not a heap you can do to make a living other than be involved in cattle or mining.

          As to being open to suggestion regarding changes, I suspect if the proposals came to them from someone who understood the industry (they would need to) and who were able to show that the changes could be implemented as seamlessly as possible, (you don’t have a lot of time to yourself on stations – just keeping the place running smoothly is a full-time occupation), that if there were costs they could be offset or reliably recouperated and quickly, (some of them run on very tight budgets – all that land doesn’t necessarily mean bucketloads of money), that it was clear exactly *why* they would be implementing whatever changes, and that it was brought to them with, importantly, respect without condescension, then I reckon they would be.

          Yeah, it’s a tough one!

          1. Thank you, Stephanie. (Cows with guns, haha (just as well they couldn’t hear your internal soundtrack, perhaps! – superb). I get the mood of the NT farmers – it would have to make sense and it would have to make a living, too. You’d have to love the bush, to give your life to it. When I think of all the other things we could be changing … my dad was watching some grand prix race the other day and I thought: well there’s something the planet just can’t afford any more and who would it hurt? But then, there’ll be those engineers and mechanic and designers and … a whole bunch of people, no doubt, with their lives invested. Sigh. What’s to be done? This seems appropriate:

    2. I agree that there are too many cows on the planet. I eat as many as I can in order to take a stand, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

  6. Stephanie, you get my vote for the most moving post read so far whatever that means or matters. You put meat in a context that reminds me of my grandparents who raised sheep for wool and slaughter but for whom I had the greatest respect, a respect that doesn’t translate to those of us who buy our meat from the supermarket fridge on a bit of bloodless white foam decorated with something limp and green that we toss in the compost, when there are so many other foods we could eat.

  7. I grew up on a cattle station in the NT and my family still involved in the industry. I enjoyed your contemplation about food/clothing etc and where it all comes from. Funny that the biggest shows on TV these days seem to be cooking reality shows??? The western world is obsessed with food and seem to want to eat anything and everything at any cost!

  8. Great post Stephanie. I have a poster on my wall that says ‘when they close a pit they kill a community’. Our raised awareness of how we damage the planet to work, eat, travel and live a certain life, often fails to understand that sometimes those who worked, say, down the pit and their health suffered, go on to lose again when we close down dirty industry or change work practices. In many small or isolated communities work, housing, education, health care and social networks are all closely interlinked and have been for generations. It is of course true that many changes have to be made to protect the earth for future generations and most of the changes are now urgent. I suspect it could be done fairly and be less destructive to family and community life if creative and participatory approaches were part of the solutions.
    I like your idea of being mindful and not taking for granted the story associated with the food we eat. Thanks.

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