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.