My 2020 Gratitude vision board has several pictures of the beauty of nature and especially flowers, which I love. I’m very grateful for the magnificent scenery where we live. When we lived in the Northern Territory I loved being out on the open road with vast spaces to the horizon. The grandeur of the Wet Season skies and the drama of the thunder and lightning.
It’s easy to forget that nature has two sides of the same coin – beauty and grandeur and the fierce threat of more dramatic weather events like this season’s devastating fires in Australia, or floods, or fire, or drought. It’s hardly surprising that one of our national poets, Dorothea Mackellar, captured this so well.
I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains
Of rugged mountain ranges
Of drought and flooding rains
I love her jewel sea
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me
ANCESTORS and NATURE
I often wonder how our immigrant ancestors coped with the vast differences from their homeland, what Mackellar refers to as “The love of field and coppice, Of green and shaded lanes, Of ordered woods and gardens, Is running in your veins”.
It seems inevitable they must have found the upside-down seasons, the severe heat (in those dresses!), the weather extremes and the sheer open spaces to be fierce, or perhaps even frightening. How did they learn to navigate their way through native bush with no formed roads? My 2xgreat grandfather, Denis Gavin had to navigate his way to the market with the wool clip when driving drays from Binbian Downs near the Condamine soon after he arrived in Queensland. Or the Bavarian immigrants sent to the bush to be shepherds on isolated stations (think ranches). No longer part of a small village community to be alone or with two or three others….it drove some to take their own lives.
Did they learn to love the country as they learned to grown crops and plant orchards under such different conditions? My Kunkel ancestors called their property Valley View. Vastly different from Mary O’Brien Kunkel’s view in County Clare, or George Kunkel’s view in Dorfprozelten. Did they look out at the sunrise and learn to love the grey of the gum trees, the laugh of the kookaburra and enjoy seeing other indigenous wildlife, birds, and bush. They were certainly wise to select land adjoining a then-well-flowing creek so it would take time before the perils of drought would affect them.
And what of my (Mc)Sherry great-grandparents fresh off the ship from Ireland and off to work constructing railway lines in the heat of Queensland’s outback. It’s mind-boggling really and gives me a deep respect for what they did and gratitude for their hard work, courage and example.
My ancestors may have eluded the fear of Famine but the ferocity of Australian weather must have sometimes tested their faith.
The family of James and Bridget (Mc)Sharry/Sherry arrived with eight of their children in central Queensland in 1883 and paid a high price for their decision. Within only six years, three of the children had died, two from what might be called events of nature. Their daughter Margaret McSharry/Sherry died in Rockhampton in 1884, aged 12, of shock from burns. The newspapers are silent on what caused the burns but most likely a kitchen accident. Son John McSharry/Sherry, aged 19, attempted to cross the flooded Claude River in March 1887 while working as a labourer on/near Mantuan Downs station. As a young Irish-born lad it’s extremely unlikely he could swim so attempting this was rather foolish and he paid the price. The inquest gave me more complete details.
On 22 January 1887, the Queensland town of Ipswich was deluged by a severe flood. Some said it was the worst in European memory, others that it was only exceeded by the 1864 flood. At the time of the 1887 flood, my ancestor, Stephen Gillespie Melvin, had a confectionery store in Ipswich as well as various other business interests. Trove documents that “The (Bremer) River was in flood, and Melvin, who had been assisting to remove goods from a store (his?) which was surrounded by water, got into the vortex on the edge of the roaring current. Livermore swam out at great risk, took Melvin by the collar, and brought him back to the building in safety. The current was running very strong. Awarded a bronze medal.” Thomas Shadrach Livermore had saved Stephen’s life – and meant that I am here today, as my grandmother was born in 1888. Even though Stephen had been a merchant seaman in early years it’s highly likely he couldn’t swim at all.
Annie Kunkel spoke of a fierce storm that occurred while she was a schoolgirl at Murphy’s Creek[i]:
I’ll never forget the time of the big hailstorm. Oh it was terrific, it was our break up picnic, there’d been a drought I think….Terrific storm came, we were alright in the morning. Oh, we were all huddled in that old school and this terrible storm, and I think the windows were smashing round us and everything and the poor horses were over in this paddock. I can remember seeing them. There wasn’t much in the way of shelter from trees or anything. It was something to remember. And then this terrific flood came down. You know that old railway bridge over from the school, that old wooden railway bridge, it might have been replaced since, but it was pretty high. But Les Handley walked that with a raging flood underneath it to go home round through the paddocks to tell his mother that they were alright. It had been shocking, shocking. The railway man had to come to shovel the hail away from the doors of the hotel and some of the houses before people could get in.
Annie had a remarkable memory and whenever I’ve checked what she’s told me it’s been proven to be accurate. The Daily Standard described four feet of ice at Murphy’s Creek railway station from this storm.
George and Mary Kunkel had been half-way through paying off their land selection when a drought hit. They must have been so grateful to have had the Fifteen Mile Creek as a boundary to their property. As with Australia more broadly periods of drought followed by heavy storms and flooding, or cyclones in the north, seem to be almost inevitable.
Almost all of my ancestors had property affected by fires but not attributable to nature but rather to the hazards of open fires or the flammability of the buildings. The bush fire (below) which raged through the Murphys Creek area occurred after George Kunkel had died but his widow and sons and family were still living in the area.
With my McSherry families living in Central and North Queensland there’s no doubt they’d have experience the wrath of a cyclone or two in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, I can’t find a news story that mentions them. However, when I was a youngster holidaying at Magnetic Island off Townsville we were caught in Category 4 Cyclone Agnes as it roared through the area at 89 mph or 143kph. Dad always said that the gauge at Garbutt had snapped with the force of the wind, so perhaps the speed reached was even higher. I wrote about the experience here.
There’s little doubt that our Aussie ancestors had to be resilient when encountering nature.
What natural events did your ancestors experience in their lifetimes? Did it have a long-term effect on their well-being or their economic survival?
[i] Conversation with Cameron McKee, Murphy’s Creek local historian, c1984.