Robyn Ballinger has learnt to love the local landscape, Eloise Johnstone discovers.
THE expanse stretching from Elmore up to the banks of the mighty Murray River in Swan Hill, through the farming towns of Boort, Serpentine and Dingee and down to Newbridge is a long, flat, sparsely populated plain.
Rain comes here in cycles - sometimes there is none to be seen, sometimes there is far too much.
"Big sky country, so flat and unobstructed are its parts that you can see the curvature of the earth," Longlea’s Robyn Ballinger writes in her new book, An Inch Of Rain: A Water History of Northern Victoria.
"The plains struck me as a featureless single entity of backcountry.
"The plains was...a sad place, a harsh place, a place without familiar reference points, a vast space without corners, a place that you could easily become lost in, a waterless place."
Ballinger says growing up in Bendigo, many of her contemporaries felt the same way about of the Victorian Riverina region.
“It really struck me that this is a part of a world people react with hostility towards,” she says, while holding her first book, published by Australian Scholarly Publishing.
“It is semi-arid and it is rather flat, with barely any trees.
“Most people’s response to it when I was growing up was that it was ‘the bad lands’. It was a place to drive through – not to stop at.
“I always had a curiosity as to why people reacted that way to it.”
In her later years, Ballinger views of the plains changed as she got to know the people who live there.
"I came to see it as a country of great beauty and subtlety," she writes in the book's prelude.
"The vast horizons mean that you can see the sky in its full glory.
"So flat and unobstructed are parts of the land, you can see the curvature of the earth.
"Being able to see the horizon means you know what is coming."
Ballinger's interest in people's perceptions about this country has lead her to writing An Inch of Rain, an environmental history of the region.
The book documents in chronological order the region’s history from Aboriginal times, through to white settlement, early farming days, irrigation schemes and up to the modern day.
Each chapter is constructed around periods of rainfall - from drought to average or above-average periods of rainfall.
The book is beautifully covered by her partner Tom Henty's watercolour of the northern plains of Victoria.
Ballinger, a Melbourne University PhD student, starting researching this area of interest during her post-graduate studies.
She completely re-wrote her thesis to create An Inch of Rain.
“I wanted to tell the story of this land to a wider audience,” she says.
“It was a change from writing in an academic style.
“I needed to go back to telling a story that excites people.”
Ballinger met with lots of people in the farms and small towns that make up the plains in researching the book.
She also extensively researched the area's history, trawling through hundreds of primary and secondary sources on the plains and the people who have made it their home.
Water is at the heart of the book - as is people.
The book heavily explores government intervention and the impact this has had on the local environment, economy and people.
“It shows how people lived and worked and interacted with the natural world," she says.
“After the Aborigines, the area was squatter’s land, then the government made it into small farms.
“Then in 1880s, the irrigation schemes began.
“The vision was to make sure it was settled.
"It was met with some success and then not in times of drought.
"The government has always attempted to make the natural environment more certain and predictable.
“They have been trying to put certainty into an uncertain country.”
Ballinger says this is part of a broader theme seen Australia-wide.
“There has been lots of schemes put in place in an attempt to make Australia a more stable and certain country,” she said.
“You can see that now in the development of northern Australia.
“But sometimes, putting in things that aren't meant to be there makes the country more unpredictable and the people more vulnerable.
“This book, on a small level, asks a bigger question about Australia as a whole.”
Ballinger said this question is very topical today, with climate change firmly on the political agenda.
The government has always attempted to make the natural environment more certain and predictable.
“It will be interesting to see how we adapt to this new challenge," she says.
“Will more schemes be put in place to deal with it and what effect will they have?
"It is important that we acknowledge what has happened in the past and realise the costs of human interaction on a country of variable rainfall."
The title of the book was taken from an article from the early 1900s entitled, An inch of rain and what it means.
"It really resonated with me," Ballinger says.
"It got me thinking about how natural elements can really impact on people."
Now, with a taste of writing books, Ballinger is planning her next challenge.
"There's a million stories which can be told at microscopic level which relate to broader themes," she says.
"I have a fascination with the environment and our need to develop it, and how this changes our expectations of what it can do us.
"There is a need to create a vision for Australian landscapes that builds resilience in a changing climate.
"History gives us a good starting place of how we can adapt to places like the semi-arid northern plains of Victoria.
"I'm still thinking about what might be next for me."
An Inch of Rain can be bought from Dymocks in Mitchell Street, Bendigo.