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A War of Attrition

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Declan Furber GILLICK
A War of Attrition,
single channel digital video, 4 min 8 sec

“These mob touch down here and they reckon they wanna go out on country”.

Dad would smile, mocking the curious visitors as he complained. “When will we go out on country?

“You’re on country”, he’d tell them. “This is country!”

Beneath the bowling alleys, a dozen petrol stations, ten bottle-shops, a casino, the supreme court; everywhere is somebody’s country.

Arrernte country suffered the imposition of buffel grass by pastoralists in the 1950s, the same decade it suffered the removal of my father, who was taken to be raised on a tropical island by Methodist missionaries. Native to most of Africa and parts of Asia, buffel grass is exceptionally good at extracting moisture and nutrients from harsh, arid landscapes, making it an excellent feed source for cattle that graze desert stations. In the decades following its introduction, the mighty buffel steadily took hold. Travelling in seed-form by wind, on the heels of animals and in the backs of trucks, it threw itself like a bedspread across plains, nestled itself into the foothills of ranges, settled, took up residence.

Seventy years on, this unremarkable knee-high tussock appears to the tourist and to the casual observer to be right at home. Hiding boldly in plain view, the buffel’s pigmentation camouflages it perfectly within the Central Desert palette, arousing no suspicion, no aesthetic discomfort. But make no mistake, beneath the world of appearances, the buffel fuels its proliferation the same way it always has—by choking the life and vitality from its long-suffering host.

There have been initiatives to curb, manage, perhaps one day even defeat the buffel. My friend Keith maintains a fierce and vigilant resistance. Keith is a senior community leader within the Uniting Church, a denomination that formed in the late seventies from disparate groupings, including the Methodists. Now retired, he once worked shoulder-to-shoulder with my father, trying, from one project to the next, to solve some of Central Australia's great many social, ecological and political problems.

Shortly after my father passed away, I sat with Keith on his verandah.

“To live somewhere like this”, he told me, “and to care; to actually care, for a long time—it's hard. It takes its toll”.

In his precious senior years, Keith continues to work with Traditional Owners to rehabilitate a section of land surrounding the block that he and his family call home. At least every couple of days—and more frequently after rain—he can be seen on his hands and knees, waging a bitter war of attrition against the dreaded buffel. Sweat pouring, he fastens a weathered hand around the base of this deceptively spindly plant and grits his teeth. With a sudden twisting tug, he wrenches into the air, its roots left dangling, exposed to the harsh light of day. Shaking off dusty soil, Keith stuffs the plant into a sack or leaves it on the rocky ground to die.

Like Sisyphus, Keith will never complete his task. Soon the buffel will roll back down the hill and into the gulleys and creek beds.

“But,” he tells me, “in a place with a lot of big problems that seem not to have any real solutions, a few humble, tangible results aren’t such a bad thing. Getting out in the trenches, getting your hands dirty, clearing away even a few little scraps of the colonial legacy—well, it might not be a revolution, but it keeps you going.”