REAL LIFE HAS BEEN A DRA­MATIC TALE FOR TOPSELLING RO­MANCE NOV­EL­IST RACHAEL TREA­SURE

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Q&A - By KYLIE LANG

Rachael Trea­sure is giddy with ex­cite­ment. Her 13-year-old daugh­ter Rosie has just can­tered on a horse for the first time. “I’m a bit emo­tional,” she says, from her small rented home in the pretty vil­lage of Richmond, 25km north-east of Ho­bart in Tas­ma­nia’s Coal River Val­ley.

Rosie is Trea­sure’s el­dest child and has mild cere­bral palsy, which re­stricts her mo­bil­ity and de­lays learn­ing, so the can­ter is a mile­stone. It also edges Rosie closer to her dream of mak­ing the Aus­tralian Par­a­lympic Eques­trian Team one day. “Just a small goal there,” laughs Trea­sure, one of the na­tion’s best-loved ro­mance nov­el­ists. “Rosie is one of those kids who has sun­shine in her – she’s the hap­pi­est lit­tle girl, and has more get-up-and-go than any child I know.”

The ap­ple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When not be­ing mum to Rosie and Char­lie, 11, and care­taker to two kelpies, count­less chick­ens, one tubby pony and a neu­rotic toy poo­dle, Trea­sure is busy writ­ing. “I write ev­ery­where – in the ute wait­ing to pick up the kids from school, in my lo­cal cafe, ev­ery­where but sit­ting at a desk,” she says.

Trea­sure is a pi­o­neer of the “chook lit” genre – think “chick lit”, but in­stead of hero­ines sip­ping cham­pagne and shop­ping in Manolo Blah­niks, they’re down­ing rum and mus­ter­ing in R.M. Wil­liams boots. Her lat­est book, Down The Dirt Roads, has just been re­leased, but un­like her other nov­els – in­clud­ing Jil­la­roo, The Cat­tle­man’s Daugh­ter, The Farmer’s Wife and, wait for it, Fifty Bales Of Hay – it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of love story.

Down The Dirt Roads is about Trea­sure’s ro­mance with the land. It’s part me­moir, part guide to gen­tler farm­ing and, like all good plots, is pep­pered with heartache, avarice and loss. “Never in my wildest imag­in­ings of my adult fu­ture did I think I’d be in my 40s, liv­ing in a rental prop­erty, in a town

with my chil­dren… farm­less,” she writes in the in­tro­duc­tion. “But there it was: the bare, bru­tal facts of a failed dream that a coun­try girl like me had to face… I no longer had a fu­ture ex­plor­ing the same bliss­ful bush­land with my chil­dren that had seeped into my own soul when I was a child. I no longer had a life of teach­ing them about care­tak­ing an­i­mals and soils, things that I not only loved, but revered and wor­shipped.

“The story of how I lost that fu­ture and my farm is more far-fetched than any novel I could dream up. But life’s like that. It takes you down roads you never ex­pect to go down, under cir­cum­stances that are, at times, stranger than out­back fic­tion and harder to swal­low than a John Deere 24-plate disc plough.”

Those cir­cum­stances are ones Trea­sure is will­ing to dis­cuss in broad terms, but not specifics. Out of re­spect for her fa­ther and brother, she doesn’t name them in the book, nor does she men­tion her ex-hus­band by name.

Sim­ply put, af­ter she di­vorced in 2010, her fa­ther gave the fam­ily farm to her ex-hus­band. “I don’t blame any­one; I am com­ing from a place of heal­ing,” she says.

It has taken more than five years for Trea­sure to ar­rive at this po­si­tion of peace and for­give­ness. “The bot­tom line is, Dad was get­ting old and – again, no blame – he’s the prod­uct of an era where men are the hub, the cen­tre of the wheel. So, in 2011, he opted to keep my ex-hus­band on as part­ner and my older brother, who is not a farmer, so we moved on.”

In what seemed like a blink af­ter four decades on the fam­ily farm, Trea­sure, her kids and tribe of an­i­mals were home­less. Pen­ni­less, too. “Peo­ple think if you’re a best­selling au­thor that you’re fly­ing a he­li­copter – my first four books were the most prof­itable, but the money all went into farm­ing in­fra­struc­ture,” she says. “As a nov­el­ist, you have to be very fru­gal – even now I for­age around the gar­den for chook eggs.”

At 47, Trea­sure fi­nally feels free of the bonds of ex­pec­ta­tion. “I was raised to put up, shut up and ac­cept, like a good Tas­ma­nian woman,” she says. “I disempowered my­self all my life, think­ing I was less – but los­ing the farm turned out to be the best thing as it made me think, ‘Hang on, if I don’t say any­thing, then I won’t change any­thing for my daugh­ter or daugh­ter-in-law.’”

With the gen­tle­ness of hind­sight, it’s clear Trea­sure was des­tined to break the mould. Her tur­bu­lent ado­les­cent years were spent at an un­named pri­vate school in Ho­bart which “felt like a prison” and “didn’t en­cour­age women to come into their fem­i­nist power, but strive to be nice ladies for hus­bands or get into the man’s world of univer­si­ties”.

Trea­sure chose the lat­ter op­tion and gained a bach­e­lor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Charles Sturt Univer­sity in Bathurst. Work­ing as a ru­ral broad­cast jour­nal­ist in the mid-1990s, she met teacher John Trea­sure and “fell head over heels in love”. The cou­ple dated for seven years, en­joy­ing “the most bril­liant times in Gipp­s­land”, where his fam­ily had been graz­ing the Vic­to­rian high plains since the late 1800s. “They were the golden years,” says Trea­sure. “Then it went like so many mar­riages – you can never ful­fil some­one else’s need. I trusted that peo­ple do have the fairy­tale thing; that was the bliss­ful ig­no­rance in me.”

She won’t be drawn on the pre­cise rea­sons for the split, but in­sists “men would have a bet­ter time on this planet if women learnt to stand up in their power and reach self-aware­ness”. One thing she will dis­cuss is how hard it was try­ing to fa­cil­i­tate change on a farm that was “very much in mas­cu­line hands”.

“What I could see from my 30 years in agri­cul­ture was that ma­chin­ery had be­come big­ger, and we had gone down a path of cor­po­ra­tions own­ing all of these prod­ucts and own­ing 95 per cent of the world feed bank,” she says. “My fem­i­nine per­spec­tive is that it’s all about love and nur­tur­ing. [But] we have been rap­ing the soil in­stead of pro­tect­ing it.”

Trea­sure re­jected tra­di­tional fer­til­i­sa­tion meth­ods and ad­vo­cated the “pas­ture crop­ping” al­ter­na­tive de­vel­oped by NSW farmer Colin Seis, which re­lies on restor­ing na­tive grass cover. “I’d say to Dad, ‘Could we NOT or­der an­other load of [fer­tiliser] su­per­phos­phate?’ It was sub­sidised by the gov­ern­ment for years, but kills the very fungi that’s under the soil that feeds plants. But sure enough, an­other truck would turn up.”

Af­ter leav­ing be­hind the “dark times” on the farm, Trea­sure stud­ied Seis’s tech­nique and is now part of a “rev­o­lu­tion in how food is pro­duced”.

“I want peo­ple to be aware of what they are buy­ing from the su­per­mar­ket – those ve­g­ies are sprayed nu­mer­ous times before they’re put in their kids’ meals,” she says. “We as con­sumers hold all the power, but we don’t re­alise it, and I’d love con­ven­tional farm­ers to re­alise that there is a dol­lar in this if they farm in a more eco­log­i­cal, sup­port­ive way.”

Trea­sure – whose ré­sumé also in­cludes work­ing-dog han­dler, stock-camp cook, wool classer and drover – hopes Down The Dirt Roads will con­vey a mul­ti­lay­ered mes­sage: farm­ers can be more prof­itable; women can en­rich the lives of oth­ers if they en­rich them­selves; and Mother Na­ture can ben­e­fit as a re­sult.

AT THE TIME of this in­ter­view, Trea­sure is wait­ing to hear if her of­fer on a house with eight hectares out­side Ho­bart has been ac­cepted – it has ken­nels for train­ing work­ing dogs, also one of her son’s pas­sions, and room for horses for her daugh­ter. “I can teach both chil­dren my love for work­ing an­i­mals, qui­etly and calmly,” says Trea­sure. “We’ll have a few sheep and grow veg­eta­bles, and it will be a hub for weary farm women so we can have week­end get-to­geth­ers, do yoga, chat and grow grass­land.”

So is there space in the full life of this “chook lit” queen for ro­mance of her own? “I’ve never seen a func­tion­ing re­la­tion­ship that is warm and lov­ing and car­ing, so un­til I learn to be that to my­self, I’m not go­ing to in­flict that on some­one,” she says. “My beloved, as the kids call him, will ar­rive and we have no idea who he is, but he will not be a knight in shin­ing ar­mour but a fully whole, car­ing and lov­ing per­son who can re­flect who I am.”

On her path to “re­claim­ing in­ner power”, Trea­sure med­i­tates daily, does yoga and keeps a jour­nal. “I write three pages ev­ery day. For the first six months af­ter leav­ing the farm, I was re­peat­ing the same neg­a­tive pat­tern, but I de­cided that story was get­ting old. So I have rewrit­ten the nar­ra­tive of my life,” she says. “I’m not blam­ing those blokes any­more that the dice has landed this way. I am grate­ful for my doona, for the dog snor­ing and fart­ing under the bed, for the mess the kids left the night before be­cause that means we had fun.

“That’s not to say I don’t fall over some­times, but I’ve learnt that if you count ev­ery­thing as a les­son then noth­ing is wasted.”

“I DISEMPOWERED MY­SELF ALL MY LIFE, THINK­ING I WAS LESS – BUT LOS­ING THE FARM TURNED OUT TO BE THE BEST THING”

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