Updated: Jan 30
(An extract from Donald Cooney's iconic book, Bells of the Australian Bush)
In 2004, my dad, Donald Cooney, published Bells of the Australian Bush, an authoritative book on Australian iron and brass animal bells and their makers. He became known as the Australian Bell Man. With the assistance of Paul and Eleanor Knie, a second edition was brought out in 2008. Most of the book is filled with beautiful photographs and impeccably researched historical accounts but in the final chapter, my dad gives an intimate and lyrical insight into his connection with western Queensland of which I have shared an extract below. The photo shows his book launch at Dymocks in 2004. With him is Toowoomba Town Crier, Ralph Cockle (now deceased).
Every now and then, when I am away from what I call my spiritual home, the mulga country of southwest Queensland, I reflect on my most lasting memories of that area. Some people in the media have dubbed this part of the country ‘heartbreak corner’, but contrary to their interpretation, I think the heartbroken ones would be the ones not living there. It’s the subtle things that make the difference, like the vastness of the landscape, how bright the stars are at night and the magnificent sunsets…
…Some of my most enjoyable moments are associated with sounds; like the breeze in the old bush evergreens, the magpies that welcomed each new day with a happy song, and the roosters that announced the dawn—albeit a little early sometimes. Others include the less familiar drumming of an emu, full of mystery, and the call of the echidna that resembled the lowing of a cow in the distance, confusing the musterer. Then there was the urgent sound of a kangaroo hitting its tail on the ground, warning of danger, and the local bowerbird that could mimic a crying baby, barking dog and distant thunder, all in the space of a couple of minutes…
…Having spent most of my life as a sheepman, some of my fondest memories include the sounds of sheep (I loved the damn things, Heaven help me), the sheep yards and the shearing sheds. I miss the sound of ewes and lambs, just yarded, going long into the night as they call to one another to try and sort out the confusion of being parted. I miss the hustle and bustle in the shed at shearing time—an energetic sound of movement and toil, and perhaps more adequately described as commotion. And then there is the barking of the dogs in the forcing pens as they are told to ‘speak up’. I also miss the ring of the bell on the grazing night horse, sounding more like the call of a night bird. And in my mind, I can hear our mother calling us kids in at dusk—with a worried urgency sometimes.
Just as memorable were the silences of the open and quiet landscape; particularly the stillness just before the ‘old man thunderstorm’. This was a short time of reflection, a respectful silence, when every living thing chose not to move—neither leaf, feather nor muscle. All seemed to be in readiness for the coming onslaught that would start with a wall of red dust, followed by fierce angry winds, thunder and lightning, and then the sheets of torrential rain.
Another eerie silence was in the shearing shed, the day after the ‘cut out’—when everyone was gone. The yards were empty and quietness reigned supreme. At this time, the shed became a forlorn place and the ghosts returned to play in the rafters, relieved that it was all over. I sometimes found myself alone in the shed ‘the day after’. Standing still on the board I would suddenly glance up at the rafters to see if I could catch the ghosts unawares. I never did see them, but I’m sure they were up there.
There was an uncanny moment every now and then that was most pronounced at dusk. I used to think that this stillness came when we were in the ‘eye of the high’, as I called it. If you are on your own at these times, in a lonely place, I believe you can feel a presence. And I wonder, could it be the spirits of ‘long ago people’, dreaming—the people of the land before the bells? But then, just maybe, in a moment of fanciful whimsy, I imagined it could be the spirit of one of those indomitable old bullockies, urging his bullocks over a sandy creek bed out there somewhere in the shimmering yonder. But then, on second thoughts, if it was a bullocky, I would not only feel his presence, I would certainly also hear him.
The bush bell’s work has been done, their era is over, and we have only a few survivors to look at. The great sound can no longer be heard, but it is still there, frozen in a tiny speck of time for the rest of eternity…
…The story is over now, or as my bullocky friend would have put it, “The story, and anyway mate, it’s done then eh!”