It is through the eyes of our very own local guide, Rimmer, that we see the great illuminated grain silos in Merredin rise majestically out of the night sky. In Dowerin, the drive-in movie screen looks out across its parking lot, overgrown and now home to a solitary abandoned car. The blank white of the screen is set against the blue and purple hues of the sky at dusk. It stands almost as a monument to an age, not so long ago, when people would congregate here and, in coming together, signal the strength and vibrancy of their community.
In the images of the interiors of the Farmers Club in Goomalling, the ubiquitous framed portrait of Queen Elizabeth II adorns the wall but the rooms are empty of people. They remain suspended in time, either awaiting better days or resigned to new roles as museum pieces of a bygone era. Even the modern-looking, well-kept swimming pool in Dowerin, its inviting water still like glass, is devoid of people. But these and other images sit comfortably alongside the solitary portraits of young people and views from the photographer’s car window of the unimaginably large landscape. It matters not for a moment that there are so few people but rather that any have survived and not been swallowed up by the scale of the place and the harshness of its climate.
In the pages of Silence, Rimmer revisits these towns of his adolescence: Kellerberrin, Wyalkatchem, Tammin, Dowerin, Yelbeni and Goomalling. Having in common wheat crop and weather patterns, they also share similar tyre marks scuffed into the asphalt by bored youths on a Saturday night. These communities were once distinct, but due to their dwindling populations – each has now fewer than 1000 inhabitants – they face the threat of bureaucratic amalgamation by the national census and planning department. Rimmer’s hometown of Wyalkatchem – or Wylie, as it is known – was once considered the regional centre. It was a busy hub of rail and local government, serving the outlying farming communities. Wylie is now home to just 300.
In the photographs of Silence, there is unsurprisingly no noise, nor crowds, just the memories of growing up and the penetrating gaze on the faces of his subjects. It’s a look I read as muted pride mixed with love and loathing. There is an undeniable connection to the land but there is also a simmering loathing for the inevitable decline that the communities face and the pressure to move away for good to bigger things in bigger towns.
Silence is a beautiful book, that does what all good books should – it tells a very personal story, almost in a way that is not meant to be read by anyone other than the author. Rimmer’s story moves as his car travels across the country, from loss and guilt to admiration and acceptance. With the passing of his grandmother and the time he has spent away, the connection Rimmer had to this land, he confides, is now gone. Silence feels like a question to and homage for the next generation of wheatbelt dwellers, as the mantle falls on their shoulders to eke out a living or move away. Rimmer ponders their futures and tips his hat at their presence – even as autumn fires rage across the wheat fields, bringing promise of new shoots which will rise from the ashes as reliably as the seasons change.
Published by T&G Publishing