Works and Days

Winter Fellowship for International Travel: Emmeline Hill

Emmeline Hill, senior biology major, traveled to Australia on a Reed Winter Fellowship for International Travel. The following post describes her experience getting to know the insects and sheep of the island continent.

 “You haven’t seen a funnel web yet? Ah, if you like critters, we have to find one. You can just tell they’re predatory when you look at them.”
Thus began my tour through the garden of a friend of my host family on a search for Australia’s most deadly spider. We spent a good 20 minutes tramping barefoot through the dead leaves and branches littering the yard. As we went, Jon turned over various rocks and boards and investigated different crannies, hoping to come upon a funnel web spider. There are several species of funnel webs in Australia, six of which are severely venomous to humans (though there have been no known deaths since the development of an anti-venom in 1981). I’m still not sure if I am disappointed or relieved that no funnel webs decided to make an appearance.
Before I left on my trip, countless people warned me about dangerous spider this and poisonous snake that, don’t go in the ocean and be careful in tall grass. But after a very short time in Australia I learned worrying about every potential threat was a waste of time (though I did check under my bed each night for Huntsman spiders, not because they are dangerous but because I didn’t want to wake up with one on my face). In Australia you don’t run away, you don’t say no because of the vague possibility of danger, you go searching for funnel web spiders, and you poke blue tongued lizards, and you back the truck up to get a second look at the red bellied black snake. I did my best to adopt this philosophy of not saying no. Even when I was exhausted or nervous, if a new opportunity was offered to me, I took it.

For the duration of my trip, I stayed with the Taylor family in the tiny town of Kentucky, New South Wales, on the 1,000-acre sheep farm that has been in the family for six generations. Currently, three generations of family live on the property together, creating a vibrant community of artists, intellectuals, and adventurers, each family member more often than not encompassing all three of those descriptors. I was on the farm as a helper; in exchange for room and board I worked 4-8 hours a day. No two days on the farm were the same, some days I herded sheep from one paddock to another, other days I set to work removing an invasive species of thistle, and sometimes I supervised the kids who almost exclusively wanted to play cards.

One project that I found particularly interesting was collecting and testing poop samples for worms, followed by treating (drenching) the flock of over 1,000 sheep the next day. The flock was made up of lambs and ewes that now need to be separated, so the process was to herd a group of sheep into the race (a narrow space that allows for easier access to/more control over the sheep), vaccinating the lambs, drenching the lambs and ewes for worms, and checking for any lambs that still had tails.

Lambs that did have tails were taken out of the race so that their tails could be removed i.e. cut off with a hot knife. The lambs, most of which were males with large horns, were not particularly enthused by this process and I had to wrestle them into the correct position and hold them there. I managed to walk away with only one battle scar. During my stay I also had the opportunity to learn to drive stick shift (and on the left side of the road), the atv, and, my favorite, the dirt bike. As someone who was exceedingly cautious when I learned to drive a car, learning to ride a dirt bike was terrifying but exhilarating, as you are safer (defined as less likely to fall over should you hit a rock or stick which is fairly common in the middle of a field of tall grass) when you are traveling faster. Michael, my host, made little effort to go easy on me, leading me through trees and up rocky hills my third or fourth time on the bike. Due to my enthusiasm about the bike, as well as the diversity of wildlife on the farm, we went on several excursions to chase kangaroos and find rare birds in the far paddocks. The Taylors welcomed me into their family and their life more than I ever could have hoped for. I learned an incredible amount about the science of sheep farming, the flora and fauna of Australia, and the amazing people who inhabit the vast open spaces of rural New South Wales.

The original purpose of my trip was to write short stories, and while I did write, I was not as prolific as I had originally intended. This was not from lack of inspiration or lack of drive, but rather from a need to learn and experience as much as possible before I felt I could write about Australia and the people there in a way that was honest and true. After three short weeks I’m still not positive I can, but I know the experiences and stories and characters I created and encountered during my trip will influence my life and my writing for many years to come.


Tags: australia, winter fellowship for international travel, international travel, biology, farming