Life Is Short and Long: Wirrabara field notes (part 1)

A trip (back) to Wirrabara – July 2016, PART 1.

The parentheses in the title are intentional since I’d visited Wirrabara once before – some thirty years prior in either 1985 or 1986. Given such a considerable span of time has elapsed since my first visit, it seemed only appropriate to regard this as a second visit, but the first visit as an adult with the majority of my childhood memories lost to the chasm of the intervening years. It’s tricky attempting to consolidate disperate experiences like this.

For my first visit to Wirrabara the primary destination was the Wirrabara forest reserve (about 10km west of the township) where my dad was participating in an orientation sport event. I remember our 1970’s Ford Cortina station wagon, a blue tent and my younger brother being carried around by my mum in a harness. We were camped on the edge of a pine plantation – the spires of the tall dark trees towering up into an overcast sky. Sonic memories – from such a young age, as always – are harder to come by and are virtually non-existent.

So now in mid-July 2016 I found myself on route via Port Wakefield, Crystal Brook and  Gladstone to my destination. The purpose of my visit was as part of a rec (i.e. research) visit as sound designer for Emma Beech’s Life Is Short and Long project, which has been joint facilitated and funded by Vitalstatistix and Country Arts SA. You can read about the project on Vital’s website[1], but in summary – and in Emma’s words – the work is described as “a performance installation created from three years of travel yarns and investigation of how people respond to crisis and change.” Wirrabara is one of three locations that Emma has spent time in – the others being Port Adelaide and Barcelona – conversing with locals and discussing how aspects of crisis and change have affected their lives.

Whereas communities in Barcelona and Port Adelaide have been primarily affected in recent years by the respective crises of the GFC and decline of local industry, Wirrabara’s crisis is more reflective of the plight of regional Australian communities in the 21st Century – affected by aspects of climate change, industrial decline and dwindling populations. The main street of Wirrabara now hosts a few functioning businesses, the remainder of properties (formerly cafes, specialty stores and restaurants) are now either vacant or have been sold as private residences. I remembered witnessing a similar situation in a nearby town I’d visited several times in 2013.

DSCN1070
Main street in Wirrabara, July 2016.

Peterborough, located approximately 50 km west of Wirrabara and situated near Goyder’s Line was once a thriving agricultural and industrial hub servicing local communities in the lower Flinders Rangers, whilst functioning as a crucial railway network between Port Augusta and Adelaide. Since the decommissioning of industrial railway services in the late-1980’s the town had since experienced a rapid decline in the intervening years, coupled with the dual-related factors of long droughts and a declining population. In 2013, the town looked broken and half-ruined – the main street had a handful of active businesses, the rest – similar to those of Wirrabara, save for a defunct bookstore and video rental outlet – were now empty and fading into the routine main street visage of threatened regional centres.

Post collapse Peterborough Railway Station.
Peterborough Railway Station, February 2013.

That familiar tableau was mirrored in several of the townships that I passed through on my way to Wirrabara – the burnt out pub in Locheil, visibly abandoned homesteads on the outskirts of Red Hill and several gutted petrol stations over a stretch of a hundred kilometres.

By contrast, my arrival in Wirrabara on a Sunday afternoon was characterised by activity, commerce and the sound of a lively community. Existence. I’d managed to arrive within the last half-hour of the Producers Market on the main street where locals sell their produce, knick-knacks and hang out with each other. It was probably the best possible way to arrive in a town that I’d been told was in considerable decline. There’s something  particularly invigorating about withessing an event consisting of groups of people within such a small locale – voices and activity spill out into the street, inviting you to engage and participate. And so I found myself being instantly drawn to the markets with enthusiasm, eager to experience this community interacting with each other and see what the market was like. It was fleeting. No sooner than I’d arrived, the market was in the process of closing up and the eventual absence of people and activity couldn’t have been more striking – the emptiness and deadening quiet of this small town rapidly encompassed the space. What energy there was had dissipated.

[1] http://vitalstatistix.com.au/performance/life-is-short-and-long/

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