Allen & Unwin. Rrp $34.99
Motherland is a collection of “stories of the strength, heartbreak and passion of rural mums”.
That is what the book cover promises.
However, on reading Stephanie’s book, my immediate visceral reaction was – “Crikey … how did they survive, how did they do it, how did they emerge with their sense of humour intact and, in a number of cases, how did they go on to create small businesses that benefit country people battling alternatively with fires, droughts and the other surprises nature throws at outback families?”
A better description would be that this is a tale of incredibly strong, resilient, gutsy women, who face harrowing hardships that would have defeated most of us.
It is a beautifully written debut book about life as it is today for rural folk. It comprises the recollections of a remarkable bunch of women who speak honestly about their memories of coping with bush life, always with intimate and extremely personal details.
The sheer bravery of coping with their isolation, their husbands working seven days a week, living in far flung parts of Australia, cut off from the luxuries of hot running water, air conditioning and other frivolities such as stable internet connection, streaming services, even the chance over coffee to confide in a friend when emotionally up against it.
Throw in giving birth in emergency situations, babies that won’t settle at night leaving their mums sleepless and having to carry on the daily chores, help with paddock feeding, muck out sheds and when necessary, birth baby calves if they get stuck.
As their children grow older their role develops; it means keeping an eye on the weekly timetable for school of the air and, if they get sick, nursing them in the hope that medical help will not take too long to arrive should their little ones need to be airlifted to hospital.
It’s a hard life, it’s busy, it’s tiring, there’s no respite because animals need to be fed and watered daily, paddocks need to be tilled, planted and harvested and all this endless work is often the family’s only income.
You simply have to read Motherland to get the true flavour of their strength and heroism.
Take the case of Julie McDonald. She lives on 240,000 hectares at Devoncourt station in Queensland whose husband Zanda in 2013 took Julie and their daughters out for some weekend work. A windmill on the station needed servicing, a regular job Zanda did several times a year. This time he climbed into the lower platform of the windmill to tighten the bore casing when suddenly the tool slipped from his hands causing him to lose his footing. He fell 4 metres to the ground. Julie knew it was serious, grabbed her mobile phone that had little service and frantically called for help. It arrived an hour later. Airlifted to Mt Isa Hospital and then on to the intensive care unit at Townsville, Zanda’s injuries proved so severe he died 19 days later.
Left alone with young girls, Julie sought a counsellor to help her overcome her grief and crippling anxiety. She battled on alone running the farm continuing her husband’s work with the help of her in-laws and in 2014, the Platinum Primary Producers Group, a collective of 150 Australia and New Zealand’s top rural leaders who established an award in Zanda’s name to support innovative young producers, helping their career growth through personalised mentoring and education.
Then there is Keelen Mailman, a proud Bidjara women who lives at Mount Tabor a 73,000 hectare cattle station near Augathella in western Queensland. The land belongs to her people which she’s been managing successfully for the past 25 years, becoming the first Aboriginal woman in Australia to run a commercial cattle property.
Keelen has spent her life as a fierce advocate for traditional owners, but she’s also suffered incredible lows as she triumphed against the odds. Born in Clermont in western Queensland her youth was spent with her family on the fringes of Augathella at the Yumba, an Aboriginal camp. She grew up in a tin shed with dirt floors and lived with her mother, brothers, sisters and grandparents so it was a tight squeeze in an even tighter-knit community sharing one tap of running water to serve more than a dozen families.
Despite their poverty she and her siblings lived an incredible bush life sourcing honey, fishing for yabbies, finding buried eggs laid by sand goannas and hunting porcupines.
Keelen explains “my mum was very strict about us knowing our traditional land and how to live off the land with our cultural fruits, foods and medicines if we were ever stuck.”
As she grew older, she experienced sexual abuse by one of her uncles who beat her violently if she tried to refuse him, until she finally found the strength to make him let her go. Her world fell apart when her mother, by this time an alcoholic, suffered a massive stroke at the age of 38. Keelen and her siblings were alone without support and even though an aunt came to look after them with her children for several months, Keelen had to take on the role of carer until her mum came home disabled from hospital.
At 16, Keelen fell in love with a country boy and had a baby, but her relationship crumbled and he left her. She met a rodeo rider with whom she also had a baby. He too vanished. Finally, after a ten-year relationship which ended with her taking out a domestic violence order against her partner, she returned to Augathella with three young children. A respected elder threw her a lifeline and offered her the chance to manage Mount Tabor and she has been the boss there ever since.
The elder copped a lot of flak offering it to a young single mum insisting there was no way she could do the “job of a bloke”. She proved them wrong and what she has achieved over the years has been truly astounding.
In 2021 Keelen was recognised with the Order of Australia for her commitment and contribution to her local community and her culture.
These are just some of the stories that will leave readers shaking their heads in wonder as each story unfolds with a litany of back breaking work and, in each case, rewards for the way they have been able to win through and give back to their communities.
As Diana Butler notes, “I’m a great believer that our pains become our gifts.” Diana grew up in the rural community of Hollow Tree in the Central Highlands of Tasmania, became a country nurse and has spent her retirement years turning her incredible grit and enthusiasm into support for some of the world’s poorest people in a remote village in Tanzania in Africa.
For 16 years this fiercely strong woman has organised fundraisers to purchase and send medical supplies to the small 34 bed village hospital. She has managed to send shipping containers with hospital beds, an electrocardiogram machine, bandages, masks, syringes and a blood fridge. Perhaps her most ambitious gift was an ambulance packed with medical aids and educational materials so that the community for the first time could run their own mobile health clinic.
The author of this wonderful book, Stephanie Trethewey has also had to battle to fit in and cope with isolation and country life. She was named last year as Australia’s AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year for her work improving postnatal support services for rural mums. Stephanie is the CEO of Motherland, Australia’s first personalised online rural mothers’ group program.
Stephanie lives on a farm in Tasmania with her husband and two children. She started Motherland as a podcast to share incredible stories of rural mums to overcome the loneliness which she says wouldn’t go away.
From being a national TV reporter in Victoria, leading a busy and exciting life, she has gone on to become a rural mum. Though it might sound charming, she says her transition nearly broke her. Her new reality, however, has ignited an unexpected zeal to help, to make friends and to tell these womens’ stories of courage and endurance.
She also insists: “Thanks to the Motherland project, I feel at home on the land and what an incredible home it is.”