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.

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Thinking historically about floods in the Murray-Darling Basin

This post is the second in our new series on drought, flood and water. Over the coming weeks we will make connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcase 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.

During a research trip in May this year to the Murrumbidgee River region in inland NSW, the power of floods to shape landscapes, lives and livelihoods again became apparent to me. Floods had peaked along this and nearby rivers (like the Lachlan) a couple of months previously, and the effects of the floods – and in some places the water itself – still lingered. Near the town of Narrandera, water had pooled against the road embankments, creating ephemeral wetlands that some waterbirds were still visiting. The number and variety of parrots was staggering; the populations of foxes, too, had increased, evident in both the road kill and frequent sightings. It was an ecological ‘boom’ that has become a well known characteristic of floods in many places in Australia. The people I spoke to, mostly farmers, were noticeably more relaxed than during my previous research visits over the last two years to this particular area (and last seven years to different parts of the Murray-Darling Basin), which had included the tail end of a long drought that lasted in some places in this region for 10 years. Continue reading