I'd been looking forward to the release of Anthony Sharwood's latest offering, TheBrumby Wars: the battle for the soul of Australia, for more than a year. Last spring his thought-provoking trek of self-discovery (FromSnow to Ash, Hachette Australia) inspired many to explore the little-known Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) and many more to ponder the impacts of climate change on this fragile part of our country.
However, as I turn the last page of The Brumby Wars, I'm on the verge of tears. It's not because I haven't enjoyed Sharwood's latest journey in which he candidly chews the fat with 60 passionate (some overly) people from both sides of the brumby debate. Nor is it because I haven't appreciated his witty turns of phrase or wonderfully astute descriptions of many places regularly featured in this column.
No, I'm disheartened that in a country which boasts so much scientific grunt and supposedly decent folk that we can't find a compromise in the ongoing argument about how many, if any, brumbies should roam our high country.
Not that I should be surprised. On the few occasions I've dared to even mention the word brumby, or wild horses or feral horses, or whatever you want to call them, on these pages, I've been swamped by correspondence - most consisting of vitriolic and abhorrent expletives. And it's from both camps. I still peer out of the curtains every day checking if the semi-trailer of "fresh, steaming horse crap" has been dumped in my driveway as one pro-brumby campaigner once promised me. Pity really, as my garden could have done with it. The unsolicited misinformed diatribe got so bad after I had the audacity to suggest any sort of feral hooved animal didn't belong above the tree line, I ended up adding a filter to my emails which instantly deletes any message containing the b-word.
Sharwood was also well of what he was in for when chronicling this toxic chapter in our high country history. He'd encountered many brumbies on that epic 650-kilometre walk along the AAWT and the title of one chapter in From Snow to Ash, "The brumbies are pests", clearly indicates which side of the fence he sits on.
And in TheBrumby Wars he certainly wears his heart on his sleeve, describing some brumby advocates who claim the damage by wild horses to streams, subalpine grasslands and alpine meadows is grossly overstated as "beyond reason". "You could show them a brain tumour and they'd call it a pimple. The more rational ones seem to have a sort of cognitive dissonance, which is a fancy way of saying they don't give a stuff". Gee, talk about pulling no punches.
However, unlike some of the particularly prickly personalities he interviewed (or at least attempted to), at least Sharwood attempts to listen to both sides of the story. "I believe the brumby advocates should be respected, listened to, and that we must find compromise," he says.
What? Compromise in today's increasingly polarised Australia? Not possible, surely.
A key to Sharwood's bold blueprint to end the brumby wars is for widespread acknowledgement that "we all see different things in landscapes".
"A remote valley that echoes with an old adventure poem is for others a place of contemplation and quiet. A thick timbered hill enlivened by the flash of mains and tails is for others a landscape invaded, bespoiled," he says.
This "viewing of the landscape through different lenses" is no more obvious than in parts of northern Kosciuszko National Park, where, when Sharwood recently visited the Currango Plain with Canberra bushwalker Stef De Montis, he compared it to "an open range horse zoo". And that was after the 2019/20 fires which killed just about every living thing in its wake, including many brumbies.
Of this brumby stronghold, brumby-lover Michelle Brown of Cooma asserts: "It's their home, it's where they were born. The environment has evolved around them. Everything has evolved around them."
Compare this passionate postcolonial perspective to that of De Montis who, over the past 15 years has walked the just about every square inch of this park.
"When I plan a walk, the first thing I do is use satellite imagery to find a viable route," says De Montis. "And it's crazy when you look at Currango. Oh, it's bare, and it's absolutely threaded with horse tracks. It's shocking. You can walk into the National Museum in Canberra and there's a whole exhibit on rabbits and the destruction they've done and lengths that Australia had to go [to] in order to get rid of them. Yet here we are repeating the same thing."
Talk about looking through different lenses.
Despite these disparate views, Sharwood believes hope of compromise isn't completely lost, especially while people like Brown are refreshingly honest about the impacts of brumbies. "I could sit here and ... [say] horses don't do damage. But I'm not saying that ... they have to be managed, but you need to find that balance and the balance needs to be done properly," she says.
If true to form, the most antagonistic brumby advocates will rip out and frame those sections of The Brumby Wars where they are quoted and discard the rest as fake news. Meanwhile, ecologists will declare "we've heard it all before, but people only listen to what they want to hear" and just about everyone else will be shocked at the repugnant antics some have stooped to in order to get their own way in this most fractured of debates. Read and weep.
Oh, and before you ask... yes, that email filter is still in place.
The day Poster Boy took on Pale Face
"I'm just lucky I got the shot when I did," says shutterbug Michelle Brown of Cooma.
The brumby lover and acclaimed photographer reflects on her dramatic photo of two sparring stallions that adorns the front cover of Anthony Sharwood's TheBrumby Wars.
The action shot also won people's choice in the 2019 Australian Photography Awards. And you can see why.
Although Michelle believes it was merely a case of "being in the right place at the right time", if anyone was going to capture such a spectacular shot, it was going to be Michelle and her husband Ian who have spent every spare moment in the last six years photographing wildlife and landscapes in northern Kosciuszko National Park. Regular readers might recall Michelle's photo of a 1938 Ford standard coupe ute, photographed after a blizzard, which featured in this column last year.
The Browns visited one wild horse mob (some others have questioned just how wild the mob actually was, but that's a story for another day) of the park so often they knew each brumby by name.
"The grey stallion, Pale Face, was the king of the mob and he had a love/hate relationship with the bay stallion, Poster Boy, who on the day I took the photo, tested the boundaries," says Michelle who "only just had time to get the camera up, focus on them and capture the scuffle". But Michelle captured even more than she'd hoped to. "When I uploaded the photos to my computer and saw the teeth bearing, I was over the moon," she says.
While Pale Face, like many other brumbies, died during the devastating summer bushfires of 2019/20, his memory lives on. Not only does he grace the cover of the The Brumby Wars but the photo caption, penned by Michelle, is dedicated "to the loving memory of Pale Face ... forever free, forever in the hearts of many, forever loved by all".
TheBrumby Wars (Hachette Australia) was released earlier this week.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Clue: One for all those exploring Canberra Nature Park during their permitted time of exercise.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Jenny Knee of Fadden who was first to correctly identify last week's photo sent in by regular purveyor of these pages, Glenn Schwinghamer of Kambah, as one of two historic grandstands at the Tumut Turf Club - one of the oldest Race Clubs in NSW, having commenced racing in the 1850s. Jenny just beat Allan Young of Evatt and Kathryn Topham to bragging rights.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com The first email sent after 10am, Saturday September 4, 2021, wins bragging rights. Double passes to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema will be offered again as prizes once cinemas re-open.
We could all do with some extra TLC during these COVID-19 times. Even our trees. "It's as if the old stump is a stranger on its knees, resting on its forearm while being comforted by a beautiful eucalyptus on its shoulder," says Stephen Hunter of this uplifting sight in Callum Brae Nature Reserve. Awww, now that's put a smile on my face.
Following my recent call for examples of historic graffiti, a good selection has landing in my inbox. Keep them coming, The more local, the better. And please keep them pre-1950. I'll publish a selection in coming weeks.