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Essay from Tim Lee (2009)

There is no smell so evocative as rain falling upon hot, parched ground. Even before the first faint patter of raindrops shoots up puffs of dust or spatters on the baked earth, the scent of moisture on the wind promises rebirth and renewal. Then, as the first fat droplets fall, it’s as though nature has at last taken a vital breath of cool, moist air.

But during the past decade across much of Australia, the sweet smell of rain has been rare. The occasional dark rain clouds seem only to taunt our yearning wish for rain before dissipating into a cloudless sky.

No one can really say when a drought begins. It’s an insidious and creeping phenomenon characterised by shrinking dams, bare ground and a monotonous procession of clear skies. The continual red sunsets of the outback prompted Henry Lawson to call drought ‘the Red Marauder’. In the shimmering heat haze of the midday sun you feel that drought is wrapping its tentacles around the land and slowly sapping the life from it.

No one can really say when a drought begins. It’s an insidious and creeping phenomenon characterised by shrinking dams, bare ground and a monotonous procession of clear skies.”

As a young boy I steered the farm ute while my father, riding in the back, dribbled out wheat from a sack to our remaining breeding ewes. The emaciated, frenzied merinos almost knocked each other over to get at the precious grain. Elsewhere in the paddock, the presence of crows would reveal a stricken ewe. In our house paddock eighty orphan lambs suckled greedily from teats poking from a vat of powdered milk. And finally, the rain came and darkened the bare earth and I have never forgotten that blessed smell.

In the same way, drought has now permeated our national consciousness. The crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin continues to make headlines. Years of below-average rainfall and growing populations have brought water restrictions to most capital cities and numerous regional towns. Having to cart buckets of water to sustain precious garden plants has helped to underline the growing realisation that never before has water been so precious. We know that Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent, but we find it harder to accept that climate change could forever render some regions dryer than at any time in the history of European settlement.

This collection of photography by the Many Australian Photographers Group (MAP) is a timely, stunning and evocative reminder of all that. It is an ambitious undertaking by some 50 photographers. The Beyond Reasonable Drought exhibition combines images captured from across the vastness of Australia by dedicated and passionate photographers. Just as importantly, they’ve recorded the stories that accompany those images. Their vision, commitment and passion has meant that from a time of nationwide hardship has emerged a national treasure.

Timothy Lee,
Senior reporter,
Landline, ABC Television.