The Heart and Soul of Australia

© David Campbell

Winner, 2021 Cloncurry Poetry Prize, Cloncurry, Queensland.

There’s a spirit in the outback that’s a challenge to define
when a poet tries to find the words he needs,
and tradition prompts the pattern of a metred, rhyming line
as a modern critic, disappointed, pleads:
“Oh no, please, not Henry Lawson, CJ Dennis and the rest,
like ‘The Banjo’ and that Snowy River ride,
with those endless golden sunsets in the deserts way out west,
and explorers who so tragically died.”

But this seems a situation where that challenge should be met,
for that history of verse can’t be ignored
as it’s given us those stories that we never should forget,
and I reckon that it still can strike a chord,
so let’s take a journey inland, well away from Queensland’s coast,
to ‘The Curry’ in the land of Burke and Wills,
where a township built on copper is now very proud to boast
of the need that one amenity fulfils.

If you want to find a symbol of Australia’s heart and soul,
it’s the flying doctor service that supplies
so much aid to far-flung outposts as it plays a vital role
in protecting those who’d have to, otherwise,
spend a day or more on travel for the healthcare they require
when emergencies have caught them unprepared,
so the service can be something that will guide us and inspire
further thinking about stewardship that’s shared.

Like respecting Mother Nature, as we’re heading down the path
of a climate that keeps turning to extremes,
so we face a world in danger, with a tragic aftermath
that will mean the end of all our hopes and dreams
when the food bowls of the nation are just arid, wind-blown sand,
and the rivers merely lattice works of mud
as a tribute to our failure to take heed and understand
that our legacy could be inscribed in blood.

Leaving nothing in a story spanning sixty thousand years,
from the early days when settlement began
with the very first arrivals, through the convict pioneers,
to the present day, and evidence that man 
is destroying vast resources that are needed to survive
as pollution spreads its poison through the air,
and so many species suffer as they fight to stay alive
in a future that seems destined for despair.

So the welfare of the planet is our principal concern
as the warning signs get clearer by the day,
but we still have many lessons that remain for us to learn
if we want to keep catastrophe at bay,
and the spirit that we’re seeking can be found in all that drives
the compassion of the flying doctor crews
in the twenty-four hour service that has saved so many lives,
dedication that so rarely makes the news.

And those fundamental lessons have to come, in part, from those
well attuned to all the rhythms of the earth,
our indigenous first peoples who have known the highs and lows
of the seasons since the moment of their birth,
for millennia have taught them how to work with nature’s laws,
how to take just what they need and nothing more,
a philosophy essential as an urgent global cause
to avoid a vast environmental war.

But the first step to be taken is a transformation here,
recognition of so much that’s been concealed
by the steady hum of progress as old cultures disappear,
leaving wounds that time has certainly not healed,
the result of crimes committed not so very long ago
as the white man colonised Australia’s shores,
a disruption that continues, as the headlines often show,
in a travesty that closes many doors.

It’s respect that’s so important if we want to change our ways,
for the planet in its current threatened state,
but we also have to value the ancestral fires that blaze
like a beacon with the dreamers who relate
what’s existed through the ages, what is now, and yet to come,
in the hope that through the years that lie ahead
true equality will flourish when we’re marching to a drum
that ensures mankind is healthy, clothed, and fed.

So let’s follow the example that the flying doctor sets
as a symbol of what selflessness achieves
through a caring hand extended, without rancour or regrets,
an acknowledgement that “service” interweaves
understanding and commitment to a shared environment
that depends upon us all to play our part
in a fragile ecosystem where the curse of discontent
can so easily destroy a nation’s heart.

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