The Spirit of the Outback

Winner - 2022 51st Bronze Swagman Award for Australian Bush Verse

People talk of "Outback Spirit". What is it? Can it be defined - or is it an ethereal thing beyond human reach? My poem explores the meaning of this quintessentially Australian expression.

The Spirit of the Outback
(c) Shelley Hansen 2022

If the Spirit of the Outback could be captured and defined,
would it be a wedge-tailed eagle on the wing
seeking shade in craggy places
far beyond our upturned faces
where remoteness is a living, breathing thing?
Or perhaps the Outback Spirit could be suitably aligned
to a flock of tiny budgies – green and gold –
who, though numbering a million,
move as one in strict cotillion
on a dance floor that the heavens have unrolled.

Is the Outback Breath a larrikin, unfit to be confined
like a screeching sulphur-crested cockatoo
as he vandalises branches,
taking acrobatic chances
just to prove that fortune favours those who do –
while the bleaching bones of skeletons speak harshly to remind
careless travellers of consequences paid?
Now a jet-black crow is mourning,
calling forth a sombre warning
near the tombstones where departed ones are laid.

Have you travelled through the Outback with your caravan behind?
Have you trekked the trail to "Nowhere" and believed
that the scenery is boring?
Then you've only been ignoring
what the Spirit of the Outback has achieved.
You must listen to its lessons with an open state of mind,
learn the wisdom that the Outback can impart,
stop to hear each striking story
of the hardship and the glory
throbbing through our nation's strongly-beating heart.

Like the lonely wedge-tailed eagle, the explorers strove to find
new horizons, to the point of no return.
But were Burke and Wills a failure?
No! They walked across Australia
and they blazed the trail for those whose spirits burn.
The inhabitants soon followed, filled with strength and hope combined.
Side by side they strove, as legends came to light –
like the doctors whose devotion
shone through pain and pill and potion,
braving fire and flood to ease a patient's plight.

We've had ample shady characters, who've often been maligned.
They defied the law and copped a price to pay.
Yet the conmen and the hustlers
and the cheeky cattle rustlers
opened Outback trails which still survive today.
With resilience and enterprise these stories are entwined –
they refused to let the fear of failure win.
As they girded up for battle
with the elements and cattle,
Outback Spirit drew endurance from within.

Most of all, the Outback Spirit is completely colour-blind
as inscriptions in each graveyard clearly tell.
Chinese gardeners, prospectors,
Greeks and Germans, free selectors
worked beside First Nation people to dispel
tragic tales of racial malice that have sometimes underlined
the bravado of a few who closed their eyes
to the Outback Spirit's leading.
Deafened ears ignored its pleading
as they grieved the circumspection of the wise.

In this world that's vastly changing, modern man is disinclined
to discern what lessons history may teach.
But a moment's observation
when combined with contemplation
will reveal a goal that's well within our reach.
For the "strength of one" does matter. We can forge strong ties that bind
with the code of mateship needed to survive.
We can find how love and laughter
of good friends can ever after
banish bitter tears, as long as we're alive.

Yes, the Outback Spirit thrives in living things. It was designed
as a scintillating diamond in the rough.
It will furtively lie hidden
just to shine its light, unbidden,
when, beset by life's ordeals, you cry, "Enough!"
So get up! Go out and find it. Let the cords of stress unwind
in this coloured land, beneath a sky of blue.
You will find a thousand reasons
to embrace the coming seasons
when the Spirit of the Outback lives in you!

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