What does ‘flood country’ mean?

This post is the fifth in our new series on drought, flood and water. The series makes connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcases our new books and articles. This week, Emily O’Gorman reflects on floods, as discussed in Flood Country: An Environmental History of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Cover image: W.C. Piguenit, ‘The flood in the Darling, 1890’.

Three weeks ago I wrote about some of the ways that flood histories have shaped contemporary approaches to and politicisations of rivers, floods, and floodplains in the Murray-Darling Basin. This week I will write about the term ‘flood country’, which I came to use as the title of my book.

Some of the complex cultural meanings that have been given to floods are evident in the phrase ‘flood country’ as well as ‘flooded country’. These terms were first used by European colonists in the 1850s, and can be found quite frequently in documents relating to rivers in the Murray and Darling systems from that time onwards. Initially a simple description of flooded land, these evocative words came to describe the way the nature of the landscape had been shaped because it had been flooded. The words have especially (but not exclusively) been used by graziers as well as early colonial surveyors, and have endured in some grazing regions. In an essay about the changing flows of the Darling River from pumping water for irrigation, historian Heather Goodall has described how pastoralists still talk about the blacksoil floodplains of the  river in these terms: ‘Graziers consistently refer to the blacksoil areas of their land as ‘the flooded country’, not ‘flood-prone’ but ‘flooded’. The floodwaters are always present in the imagination of the observers, even when there has been no flow for years beyond the banks’.* Even in the harshest of droughts, the words conjured up the image of the imagined water covering the land.

For graziers, these words were shorthand for land that not only was good for sheep and cattle grazing as it was fertile floodplain, but was also where floods might endanger livestock. These terms indicate a certain set of relationships with floods: to put it simply, floods are good because they regenerate vegetation, bring richness to alluvial soils and are sources of water, but they can also be dangerous.

The word ‘country’ echoes Aboriginal concepts of land and water as well as relationships with particular regions. Its use by graziers in these contexts may reflect the strong involvement of Aboriginal people in the pastoral industries, multifaceted colonial frontier relationships and environmental understandings, and connections with places as well as English notions of ‘country’ and ‘countryside’. In this way, the terms ‘flood country’ and ‘flooded country’ draw attention to the complexity and ongoing ramifications of colonisation and to processes of gaining knowledge of rivers and land. The terms have been used to describe floods and floodplains around Australia but are especially associated with the Murray and Darling rivers and their tributaries, a historically important sheep-grazing area. These phrases give us a glimpse of some of the many ways in which floods have been understood in this region over the last 160 years and how they have been entangled in broader historical events and processes.

* Heather Goodall (2002) The River Runs Backwards. In Words for Country: Landscape and Language in Australia. Eds. T Bonyhady and T Griffiths. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, pp. 31–51, p.42.

Next week Leah Gibbs writes about ‘Water and the politics of environmental knowledge’.

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