Rain in a time of drought.

It’s been raining again. This may not strike so people as worthy of comment, but believe me it is. Northern Australia has had lots of rain, more than in any other spring in some places. Victoria has had the wettest spring in more than a decade. It’s raining right now from a strange copper brown sky. 22 mm of rain dripped into our rain gauge last night, and there will be more by morning.

The Yarra, normally tea coloured, is running like hot chocolate, heavy with clay. Ducks have to strike off upstream to go straight across, and once it’s plain you have no bread they cruise away from your boat on busy, unseen feet. Conserving energy when it’s clear that there is no food to be had.
The trees hang heavy in the mornings, lush with new growth, and some, sheen weighted with water, have given up the ghost and fallen over. Two have bent down to sleep in our area in the last week, driving branches deep into the water soaked soils. After heavy rain the paths are coated with wet tissue leaves, pounded and blown from the branches above. Sticks hang on phone wires and electricity cables. Some hang balanced in the trees themselves, waiting for the fall. Many trees have been giving up their sick and redundant branches, seemingly confident that new ones will grow. The streets are leaf littered. Many trees have an outer layer of pale green leaves, a halo of new growth where before there was only wilt and death. The ground is soft underfoot. Puddles last from one storm to another, and steep driveways pour thin silver streams into the street. In some places drains block and the water backs up, delayed on its seaward journey. The pressure of the water forced a plug of old leaves and blown dirt from the pipe above our tank and filled it with water in minutes.

Morning rain pushes train commuters into the shelter of the waiting rooms, which are far less grand than they sound. Business types busy themselves with laptops and smart phones, hoping that this is the week when they catch up with their dreams and their overdraft, both of which seem always to be just out of reach. Party girls and boys go home far too late or set off far too early, eyes darkly ringed. Students struggle with oversized bags. Everybody looks at the rain. Shop workers. Day trippers. Me.

It has become possible to look at the weather forecast without a sense of dread. In the long weeks of the last few summers it felt as if even the possibility of rain had gone. Day after day of clear blue skies and hot burning sun. This may sound perfect to some, but it’s not. Even in the city where people could work and live as their gardens died, you could feel the pressure growing. I have no idea what it would have been like to live where rain means money and food on the table and drought means another trip to the bank, another investment in hope. I would look at the sky and wonder if it would ever rain again. And sometimes it did. Heavy, violent storms that were as much a reminder of drought as they were a bringer of relief. They would turn up on hot summer afternoons, like a school yard bully, breaking up a fight they knew they had started, a fight between two silent and unyielding friends. Welcome in some ways, but still frightening. Relieving, but not relaxing. And each bucket of water saved in the shower or scooped from the bath reminded me of how small this effort was. I was trying to hold back drought and death one bucket at a time, pushing against a force that was invisible and unavoidable. Some form of climatic Canute. A battle of wills between human weakness and an implacable foe that was flint hearted and incapable of concern. On some days it felt like the whole of the worst case scenario climate change predictions had occurred over night. And as the catchments emptied it became harder and harder to see that our daily domestic efforts were doing any good at all. The politicians told us we were all doing very well, but then it was in their interest to do so. You don’t get re-elected by telling voters they are wasting their time.

The garden slates come to life with unfamiliar colour; washing lines and windows are lensed with sweat drop rain. Plastic toys, left overnight in the sandpit, cry small tears of loneliness, and still, remarkably, it keeps raining. The days warm and plants grow with unseemly haste, tomatoes swell on the plant and strawberries glow in the evening light. We elect a new government, but we barely talk about water and drought. The catchments are half full now, so that’s OK. But doesn’t that mean they are also half empty?

Down by the beach, where there was always more water than you wanted, but most of it out of reach, they have put the taps back on the public water pipes. The beachside showers are working again, so there will be less sand in the back seat of the car on the journey home. Paddocks which have been little more than dust bowls for year after year are waist deep in grass and flowers. A hare, which would normally use its speed to escape seems comfortable to sit in the open and not run, confident that it will find cover within seconds if it needs to. It watches with its wild eyes, before bursting off into the long grass. A few minutes later it wanders past again, all fright forgotten.

The tittle-tat rattle of rain on tins roofs becomes familiar again. The Murray reaches the sea. In Adelaide they pray for rain, and it comes - but not soon enough. Australia loses the cricket by an innings and 71 runs. Rain could have saved them, but in times of drought, who can put their faith in rain?
Over the last few days it has continued to rain. Busy days at work and tired kids in the evening have slowed the development of this post, and now it becomes clear that it is in need of a little refinement. While I have welcomed the rain, I happen to live in an insulated, urban vacuum, where rain should never be a matter of life or death, and when it becomes one, it is often due to misadventure, or plain stupidity.

But this is not the case everywhere. In some places rain is a matter of life and death every year. The drought placed almost unbearable pressure on many rural communities, and they bore the unbearable only with the help the banks, through government aid and with the hope that one day, one day soon, the rain would come good and crops would not wither down to dust. And for a while it seemed that those days had, at last, come. Winter and spring rains had brought bumper crops, the like of which had not been seen for a decade or more. These were crops to pay back debt, crops to get the banks off the backs of farmers, crops which could have lifted the darkness that had crippled so many people. These were crops that would undo some of the harm the last dry decade had brought. But in many places these crops now lie wet and rotting, as the rain that was once a blessing becomes a curse. In some places the crops are underwater, lost beyond hope of harvest. This is a random cruelty beyond measure.

Drought, flood, fires and now even locusts. It’s all a bit to biblical for me. I like the rain, but many people may beg to differ.


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