Everyman's Rules for Scientific LivingAuthor: Carrie Tiffany
Featured in the September, 2009 magazine
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THE BETTER FARMING TRAIN
There are days of slow chugging through the wheat. I look out of the window at the engine as it rounds a bend. Living on a train is like living inside the body of a snake. We are always leaning into the curves, always looking forwards, or backwards, never around. Here we are arriving at some tiny siding, just a few neat-edged buildings and their sharp shadows. Here we are again, a few days later, pulling away, all of us craning out of the windows, gazing down the long canyon of railway line. Sometimes a grateful farmer, or his son, will run a length beside us, waving his hat and grinning and calling out, ‘Three cheers for the Better Farming Train,' as if we are going to war. In those few days at Balliang East, or Spargo Creek or Bendigo we make a place like somewhere else. Somewhere new.
The children say, ‘Look, a circus, look at the tent, look at the animals.'
Time moves differently around us. Our lecturettes, illustrated with lantern slides, show the same farmer, time after time, about his chores. There he is, before breakfast, caring for his dairy herd in the wet hills of Mirboo North. A row of Eaglehawk graziers watch him closely and bray with disbelief at the lush green of the pasture, although the slide is in black and white.
‘Again,' the men say. ‘We want to see it again.'
We bring to each town new sizes and shapes and colours. Beasts broader than they are high, cows with giant dangling udders whose teats brush the ground like the fingers of a glove, fleece-laden sheep like walking muffs, wheat grown so high by colourless chemicals it reaches the waist of the tallest man. Our fruits and vegetables on display are large and smooth and perfectly formed. They gleam, inviting touch, and give off a sweet, waxy aroma.
The women's car is at the end. Fourteen cars of stock and science and produce and then us, a shiny afterthought: infant welfare, cookery and home sciences. My colleagues — Sister Crock, head of ‘women's subjects', and Mary Maloney, lecturer in cooking — complain about our position. Or rather Sister Crock complains. She says it is a question of cinders, when the train turns a corner cinders blow back through our windows into our kitchen, onto my dressmaking dummies, dressed and swaying.
Mary Maloney and I smirk. Because she raises this complaint in the Mallee where we chug along for days, as if drugged, pushing through the endless wheat. There are no corners, no hills, no ridges, no edges to anything. At the Minyip siding I notice that the men of the wheat districts are straight-backed and stiff-necked. Many seem dazed at the sight of us. They are men with no experience of corners.
The cinders are not the real reason Sister Crock complains. Being at the end means that when we have finished our lectures at one town and packed up to travel to the next, we must walk through all of the agricultural cars to the sitting car up front. Sister Crock says when a lady travels she must be seated. She says, ‘Oh lordy, lordy,' clapping a white handkerchief to her nose in the pig car.
Each car is a tunnel of smell. The air moves in through open slats, across the beasts, across us walking up the aisles, and then mixes together behind the train into a heady, steamy cloud. Only the animals grazing in the paddocks as we pass can unmingle the odours and reply in loud yearning to a juicy cow or the sharp piss of a colt in his prime.
We jam Sister Crock between us. Mary is on shit alert. She says ‘Jump now, Sister,' as a huge Border Leicester ram aims a clod of pellets in front of us.
They fall like marbles and we hop about on our toes to avoid them. Sister Crock shakes her head. We have an effect on the animals. It's not just the shit, they moo and bah and grunt and bellow at us, even after we've gone, but perhaps a little more forlornly.
‘We're starting them up,' Mary says, smiling at me. And we are. The cacophony of each car is dulled a little by the chorus of the one before.
The dairy car is next. Mary and I like to linger in dairy implements. She is a real farm girl, not like me. Sister Crock had her on recommendation — a nimble girl and a handy cook. Mary's father was reluctant to let her go and now he sends messages for her, they follow us down the stalls from dairy to dairy, on a milk cart, on a truck, refreshed at a tiny hotel and then spoken by an awkward man hoisting himself into our women's car.
‘The Maloney girl,' he'll say. ‘I have a message for the Maloney girl.' Mary dusts her hands or smoothes down her apron as the man, always a similar looking sort of man, blushes. ‘Your father, your father says keep well. . . and he loves you.'
Sometimes they leave off the last bit, the love refrain. And we know they had meant to say it, right up until they swung into the car and saw us, three women on a train full of animals, playing house.
Mary drinks in the dairy implements. She explains to me what she knows, the indoor stuff of cream separators and chums and pats and butter-makers and thermometers and hygienic wraps. Mary's future is in cows. She is secretly engaged to George, the son of a neighbouring dairy farmer. She takes notes about herd testing.
‘It's the way of the future,' she says. The future is all around us, in shiny Babcock testers, in huge signs where the luggage racks should be:
All the money in the bank comes from the soil
Sister Crock is restless, she hurries me and Mary along, her red midi cape flapping around her ample shoulders. The sitting car awaits. As head of women's subjects Sister Crock doesn't want to miss anything. We push on in single file through plant identification, tobacco, sheep diseases and honey.