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3-302 (Text)

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author,male,Ranken, William H. Logan,35 addressee
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Webby, 1989
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Floods generally follow droughts. On the coast, the more mountainous the country the more rarely are these extremes felt; but no part of the country is free from their visits. It is in the interior, however, that they have their home, and from that stronghold the forces which call the floods forth rule supreme, their power declining as they approach that of the ocean. Here, in the depression of the great plain, there is most probably only one long drought, or one long wet season; no seasons of a year, but years of a season. Wet seasons, like droughts, may last years; for the seas of shallow water, the innumerable lakes and marshes which some explorers in wet seasons have found north of Lake Eyre, may be years in evaporating, as frequent condensation must take place by the cold southern winds. And this milder inland climate will tend to mollify that of neighbouring regions. But these two extremes are overpowering; they make that interior almost uninhabitable, and they rule the character of the country, the produce, the people, and the history of the land.
The desolation of a drought is not less complete than that of a flood, and it perhaps has more effect upon the survivors. For years these droughts gather in force; they multiply their action before they are broken by the floods, and their termination is in a melancholy, awful landscape. For days and months the earth has been hot, parched, and cracked; for months the waters have ceased to flow, the trees have lived but not grown, and the sky has been cloudless. The never-green forest is browner, sadder, and still in the oppressive air; the plains are bare and dusty; the watering-places filled with dead; and the whole scene quivers before the eye by the great radiation of its heat.  Daily the sun rises in a hazy sky, sails in a white heat through a cloudless course, and sets, a round red ball of fire, on the edge of a copper dome. A sullen dewless night follows the dreaded day. The leaves of the forest and the surviving grass of the field glisten like blades of steel in the glare of the mighty sun; there is no green thing, nor sound of life from bird, or beast, or tree, in the great noonday heat. - At length clouds mysteriously gather - daily they gather, and disappear at night - at last they form dense low masses, thunder breaks, and violent storms of wind sweep the plain; no rain. Again and again these storms break before the longed-for rain comes; and with it comes flood. Perhaps the rain, filling the northern streams first, floods the southern water-channels before a cloud is in their sky. But with the floods destruction to lingering life, no less than hope to withering vegetation, is brought down. Many a settler has been ruined by droughts; but many a flock which survived that ordeal has been silently, hopelessly, swallowed by the flood. Many a life has been lost thus; and here we may find a clue to the fate of Leichhardt.
He started to explore the interior. Having already defined much of the coast watershed, he desired to define the inland or southern drainage, and the nature of this vast inland plain; but from this expedition he never returned, nor have any trace or tidings of him been brought in, except of the very beginning of his journey. It has been conjectured that he was murdered by natives; that he perished in a drought, or for want of food; and that some of the party may still be alive. But each of these suppositions is weakened by the fact that no authentic information of such a fate has been obtained, while some might be fairly expected; for Leichhardt had the severest experience of bush-travelling before he started upon this trip. He was accompanied by chosen men, and he had horses, mules, and goats with him - all sagacious animals. And if want overtook him, he could, in all probability, meet it by his knowledge of the bush and of botany; if the natives attacked him, some of the animals would certainly have escaped and made homewards; and if any of the party still lived, some certain information would have been brought in of him. In either case some animal, some weapon, piece of cutlery, or part of their equipment, would have been found by later explorers, and have given a clue to the fate of the party; but no trace has been found. Had, however, one of these floods overtaken the party, weakened by a long drought, their total disappearance is quite accountable.
The reader can picture his party toiling over the white withering downs of the inland slopes, water becoming at every stage more difficult to find, - the grass becoming drier and scanter, the horses Weaker, and the party more dispirited. Sometimes without water, always in a tropical heat, and without any sign of a change in the weather, they would be compelled to stay their progress, and to feel their way from one watering-place to another.  This continual scouting would reduce the horses and exhaust the men. But the water-holes dry up, and they were forced to shift camp. At last they found a large lagoon, and determined to wait for rain.
Let us suppose this lagoon to be in an obscure river channel, 200 or 300 yards long, having grassy slopes leading into and out of it, and not a clearly-cut channel. It had steep banks, 30 feet deep, and some five or six feet of water in the bottom; it is in one channel of a northern stream, where it spreads over the plains, effecting a junction with another river - forming a network of channels and flooded flats. There has been no flood for some years, most of the channels are overgrown with grass and weeds, and patches of downs lie between the meshes of the net. Here the party camped, well knowing they were in flooded ground; but there was no other water. They hoped their horses would recover, that they would rest and gain strength, and with the first rain move on to a better camp. They dreamed of gigantic mountains and noble rivers, of plains well watered and shady forests, while all around was the most dreadful desolation. There is nothing so oppressive and utterly subduing as a drought. It is not a fierce calamity, nor a dreaded blow, nor any brief struggle; here, in the vast interior of Australia, it is a torturing Titan, overwhelming and resistless, but slow and monotonous in its destruction. Daily the same glaring angry sky, the same cracked, gaping, thirsty earth, the leaden ghostly foliage, the glistening few blades of grass - all quivering in the mighty heat. No green thing, no fresh colour, no breath of wind, no sound from earth or air of beast or bird or insect; all in silence - in a breathless appalling silence. Nightly the sun sets in sullen anger, and the moon rises in the cold distant ether. The firmament is clear beyond conception, the stars bright, the moon radiant; all cool, distant, dewless, pitiless.
They camped. Some life began to show itself; kites and crows watched their camp, and circled over them from daylight to dusk. This was some change from the circling whirlwinds which were the only other break to the dreariness of the scene. Then the air, in excessively hot spots, would silently gather into an eddy, gradually increase the sweep of its little circle, and ere it was observed, there would be a vortex of wind towering far into the sky, lifting up the withered herbs, the dry bushes, the dead reeds and grass, to scatter them - its fury spent - far over the plain. And at the sunset some more life enlivened the scene: flocks, clouds of pigeons came and drank at their water, then swept away into the dusk to roost upon the hot ground. - But ere they had been many days in camp, one sultry night they were surprised to find that most of the kites had left them, and that not one pigeon came to drink. It was strange, but stranger still that one of the party, as he returned from foraging with his gun, reported the main channel, about a mile from the camp, was running.  Not a cloud in the sky, nor any sign of rain, but here was the proof of rain up the country.
At first they talked of their plans, of how they would travel up the river slowly; and so on. But this was the beginning of the end - they were caught in a net of floods. The last office of the night was to draw water; and in doing so they found that the channel upon which they had camped was running strong. Then began the struggle. Some went for the horses and animals; these were scattered over the plain, cut off from their camp by other rapidly-filling watercourses. Thus the men became separated; nor were the horses ever got together. Some horses, and even men, in the sudden knowledge of their fate, struck out wildly, purposelessly, for their lives, and perished. Others struggled at the camp to save some of their most valuable equipments and stores. They determined to make back to the high land they had left before they crossed a creek two miles back - it must be another river, and surely not impassable yet. It was midnight; the leader urged all on with what they could take; he would follow at daylight if necessary - surely their camp would not be flooded, and they might save their stores; they would save some horses; they would meet at the last camp; and so on. In the multitude of councils there is confusion.
But the floods came in torrents and volumes; they filled all the channels; they netted all the plain; they joined each with the other; they overflowed all banks, and swept the plain fifty miles wide. No man nor horse escaped that night, except the solitary man and a few bewildered animals that happened to gather up to the camp fire. All went before the torrents, drowned in the streams, or bogged in the muddy banks, separated, bewildered, and desperate; the waste of waters swept over all, buried the remains in sand and mud, or scattered them over 100 miles of plains. No vestige was left. Daylight came, and showed Leichhardt his inevitable fate; alone in a wilderness of water. A great sheet of flood spread over the landscape far as the eye could reach, to east and west, and north and south, one steady slow stream, its deepest channels only to be told by the tops of the river trees. No sign, no hope of any of his party; for he could see many miles of water on each side; he well knew he was in a net of watercourses.
- Water, water, but no sign of life; no spot of dry land in sight; no hope. At the camp, his journals and charts, his comrades' saddles, raised another and a mightier flood in his mind. No friend, no corn-ride, save one or two terror-stricken animals; only overhead, upon a blasted tree, sat a carrion crow. Then the dumb animals, their feet flow in water, drew up to the camp fire, and whimpered low their last sad appeal to friend and comrade. No guidance; and they turned and went with the flood, and sailed down the waters, looking to right and left for dry land.  Last of all, as the waters sapped and drowned the camp fire, Ludwig Leichhardt strode into the flood, and passed away upon that exploration of which no traveller has reported. 
All life is thus limited by the aridity and uncertainty of the climate. There is little rain over the great bulk of the continent; there is little vegetation, little animal life, only one beast of prey, and few, very few, human creatures. But the climate is not only niggardly on the whole, it is a most capricious tyrant, destroying at uncertain intervals what it has reared in a few milder seasons. No result is gained by a rich growth in the forest, if a drought comes and withers up all young or weak life. And the interior, which has so many features in common, is so extensive in proportion to the whole, that it impresses its characteristics upon every part of the country. It reduces tropical forests to exceptional patches in sheltered nooks; it encourages one type of animal everywhere, and has forbidden the immigration of the teeming populations of the adjacent tropical archipelago to its barren shores. Floods destroy some life, they may drown some young animals, but the increased production of all life which follows them more than makes up any decrease. Drought, dry seasons, and, more than all - that deadliest weapon of the tyrant - the bush-fire, reduces and selects the life of the country.
During the long dreary months of dry heat, without rain or dew, those broad-leaved trees and herbs, which expose a large evaporating surface and require a large supply of moisture, could not survive; only the hard, thick, narrow leaves of the Australian forest, glistening like steel when they cannot hold their edges to the glaring sun, come out of the trial. On the plains and downs the acacias cluster in thickets as if to shelter one another, or singly droop their scant foliage gracefully over the parched waste. On the flats and meadows the giant eucalypti rear gaunt stems and bare boughs. The hills are timbered, but shadeless; and even in the beds of the watercourses the melaleuca is ragged and wretched-looking. All have hard, rigid, narrow leaves, and few of those. The watercourses are drying up, and the animals struggle on from one death to another. The marsupials can live for long without water, but not so the dog. He, the only foreigner of the land, cannot live without frequent water; he cannot therefore always accomplish the journey from one water to another, as the holes dry up; and he cannot remove his young to water when it is an imperative necessity. No animals are so adapted to such a trial as the marsupials; and they survive. The trees having the smallest amount of foliage, and not dependent upon a regularly returning spring to reinvigorate them - an indeciduous shadeless forest - is another result. 
Then the grass is withered white, it is dry and warm night and day, and one spark of fire sets all the landscape in a blaze. This widens over the plain, gathers air in its combustion, and becomes a hurricane of fire. It sweeps the plains, storms the mountains, and rushes irresistible over watercourses, to lick up withered grass on opposite banks. The seedlings are lost, the sapplings destroyed, the whole forest scorched, and every decayed giant of the wood is wreathed Laocoon-like in fire - scattering from his yielding limbs flakes and sparks on every side, from which fires spring hydra-like over the withered sward - to rise, to roar and rush on, and scale in rapid springs the grassy ranges. In the forest, it spares only the giant eucalypti, which have stems towering 30 feet without a limb, only scorching the smooth bark, which is shed and renewed annually; upon the downs, it spares only - as it lingers and lulls in the low grass - those hardy acacias which rise in iron-like columns beneath their thin graceful tresses; and upon the mountain, it spares only those eucalypti which have their veteran stems bound in an impenetrable coat of "iron bark". All the land is cleared except these selected trees. Hence the open forest of Australia; hence grazing and squatters and land-laws; hence wool and meat-growing are before everything else.
The jungles or "scrubs" are not touched, for they have not grass nor sufficient tinder to lead the fire into their masses; and when the country is stocked, and bush-fires carefully kept down by man, then thickets increase upon every side. If any tract be for some years free from the visitation, then the forest will thicken; and the trees which have the most inflammable bark, like "stringy-bark" and "peppermint trees", grow in poor ground, and grow thickly, where fires rarely penetrate, and then only to blast the whole forest.
The fire-storm sweeps over the land, and reduces the animal kingdom; all is subject. The smaller insects and animals in their struggles are followed by flocks of birds, who snatch their prey from the flames. The small game and reptiles flee before destruction, or perish in logs and other deceptive lurking-places; and the large rodents, who survive instant destruction, have to continue the struggle for existence - without any pasture on the plain, young or old - with only the hard foliage of the thickets. Desolation is doubly desolate; the desert is burnt black and lifeless. Life has almost to begin again in the lower vegetable kingdom, and even animals lose their young. The plain depends upon the deepest roots, and the hardest of the barbed and needle-pointed grass seeds buried in the soil, to grow another crop. The forest has lost its saplings, and must plant again; and the struggle is hardest and longest with the animals. The dog, far from shelter, cannot circumvent that furious sea of fire: he cannot bound over the walls of flame and fields of cinders; nor can he remove his young, nor can they escape.  If his lair is in a log upon the plain, or by the last water-hole in the valley, his life is almost worthless. The marsupial has a better chance than any other type of animal, for she can bound far over flames and scorching ground, and find a way through many fires. Her young has a much better chance; for, placed securely in its mother's pouch, it is carried high over the burning ground, over death and extermination to live, or at least to continue the struggle. The marsupials are the selected survivors; the one type of all the country. The dog has no enemy but the climate; he is not subject to any other beast of the field, and he has many varieties of victims utterly defenceless against his attacks, but is not the master. He would increase and gather into packs, like wolves and hyenas, under another climate, with the present natural stock of the country; yet he is a solitary exceptional stranger in the land. The marsupials have been selected, with hard bare trees, and all the peculiar types of the country, in that decisive struggle. And it may be conjectured that if the superior types of animals introduced by the colonists were left to continue the struggle alone, were the country at once depopulated, considering the great degeneration these animals immediately undergo if neglected, they would disappear from the climate of marsupials in a few thousand years.