I wasn’t even sure I had the right place. The dog was barking but still no-one came out to meet me. I slammed the car door hard—the dog went away and came back flattening its ears. I gave it the back of my hand. It followed me now, as if I were its master. I walked towards the front of the house and called out. There was no answer; I went round the back. The sound of my feet on the gravel was way too loud now that the dog had gone quiet.
    The driveway opened out onto a wide gravel yard. There was a big tin shed to my right, so big that it blocked the view of the paddocks beyond, and scattered around the edge of the yard were various pieces of farm machinery. The dog bolted across to the other side, picked up a stick, brought it back and dropped it at my feet. I threw it away and called out again. A door—a tiny door by proportion—opened in the big tin shed and a man in gumboots stepped out. The dog, resuming fidelity to its master, turned away from me and started trotting over to him: it dropped the stick at his feet, the man bent down and gave it a pat. I’m Martin, I said; I rang the other day. Is that your car? he asked. I nodded. You’ll have to move it later. He picked up the stick and threw it. Come in, he said.
    The light inside was so different that it took me a while to adjust. Hanging on cords from the rafters were those big industrial light shades with the halogen globes that you sometimes see in hydroponics—the shed and everything in it glowed as if under a harvest moon. Everything was new, all shining stainless steel with pipes going this way and that; it looked like any number of dairies or wineries I have visited in the course of my work. The whole place had just been hosed down and the floor was wet and shiny. I could see the farmer’s waterproof apron hanging on a hook by the door. He offered me gumboots; I put them on. Everything was quiet, and our voices held a faint echo under the high tin roof.
    I thought you were going to be here at nine, said the farmer; we’ve just hosed everything down. But this is it, basically, he said, gesturing with a sweep of the arm to the big steel vats, the pipes, the cables and junction boards, the steel ladders and walkways high above. (He was in his mid-fifties, a man of the land: a square face, untidy grey hair, big hands and a trademark stoop.) Through that door there is the loading room—he pointed to a door just visible at the far end of the shed—and that belt there goes from the loading room to the main vat. But come up and I’ll show you. He led me to a steel ladder near the back of the shed—now I could see the door to the loading room. The dog (it had followed us inside) whined a couple of times when it saw us going up, then, knowing the routine, dropped and waited quietly at the foot of the ladder.
    I’m not good with heights, I never was, and this ladder took me well above my comfort zone. We were looking back down into the top of the main vat now, a dark hole where the belt from the loading room ended. This is the macerator, said the farmer, we load about two tonne in here at a time which takes about half an hour with two men feeding the belt. The vat itself has got an inbuilt scale which shows the tonnage on this dial here. He pointed. There were three dials in all. And this one shows total volume, he said: this one the total volume of sludge extracted. That’s the stop button. See that pipe there? The big one? That’s where our first extraction comes out—but we’ll have to go down again.
    He led
me across the walkway, above another vat, and down a ladder on the other side. The dog trotted across from where we had left it and was now wagging its tail at the bottom of this ladder. We crossed the floor and ducked under one of the big steel pipes. We were right in the middle of the maze of machinery now, standing in front of another vat. It was not as big as the macerator and this one had what could best be described as a mini-vat protruding from it with a pipe leading from that. Most of it’s old winery equipment, said the farmer, by way of explanation; I got it cheap when they all went belly-up. This is where the first refinement happens; that pipe there, the blue one, that’s our second extraction. Now if you follow that—he was ducking under another pipe that led from the bottom of the vat—if you follow that up there you’ll see it leads to the settling tank which I’ll show you in a minute. (By ducking and craning I could see the settling tank over by the far wall; a big, squat-looking thing.) What we’ve got left here though—he tapped the pipe we had just ducked under—is our waste, which now travels via this pipe to the desiccator. We walked across to the desiccator, a big raw steel chamber with a flue that instead of going out through the roof snaked back down to another tank with a valve on top. CO2, said the farmer, natural by-product of the process: you’ll see how we use that later.
    My head was starting to spin. I’d written nothing; all I had in my notebook was a crude, half-finished sketch of the macerator. The farmer was talking too quickly, my eyes still hadn’t adjusted properly to the light; all the vats, chambers, tanks and pipes were rolling into one. Put your hand on that, said the farmer. He had his hand on the wall of the desiccator. I put my hand where he said; the steel was warm to the touch. Twenty-four hours a day that’s going; the viscous waste goes in at the top and is circulated through the chamber; the moisture evaporates off (up there) and the solid waste drops into the bottom half where every few hours the refiner is activated—that’s the refiner down there. This reduces our solid waste to a powdery consistency and every couple of days the hopper is emptied and the contents are dumped into the holding bay outside. There’d be a good ten tonne out there now, blood and bone basically; I’ll show you in a minute. But first, the settling tank.
    The dog didn’t bother moving this time. It sat on the floor next to the desiccator and snuggled up against it, its chin resting on its paws. The farmer led me to the very back of the shed where the big settling tank he had pointed out earlier stood. This tank was by far the biggest, dwarfing everything around. The last stage in the process, said the farmer, positioning himself alongside it. This is where the final impurities are extracted. Any floating material is skimmed off by the scrapers that push it into that outlet there where it goes back to the desiccator. Flocculants are added, the heavy particles settle in the bottom, and that sludge is pumped back for further treatment. The clarified liquid is pumped through a series of filters—there, there and there. Finally—he gestured—the pure water passes through this valve and that pipe to the holding tanks outside. The farmer moved to the other side of the valve where a common garden tap had been fixed. It looked strangely quaint and domestic in the middle of all this industry. There was an upturned glass on it. The farmer filled the glass from the tap and held it out towards me. Drink, he said. I couldn’t help it, I felt squeamish; I took the glass from him and held it up to the light. Everyone’s the same, he said, smiling; they just can’t get used to the idea. But it’s perfectly safe—look. He took the glass from me and drank it in one go. He put the glass back on the tap. Come outside, he said.
    We passed through a door into what I supposed was the loading room. It too had been hosed clean. I could see the conveyor belt with its spikes travelling up over the top of the wall through some rubber flaps into the macerator on the other side. There was a pipe and a valve down low in the wall. CO2, said the farmer, without further explanation. We kept walking. Along the edges of the room were some bench seats and on the walls various laminated diagrams, like those you see in science textbooks, schematically showing the extraction process with blue pipes linking each phase. The farmer pushed open a door at the far end of the room and led me outside.
    It was very bright out there; again I had trouble adjusting. I held my notebook over my eyes. It was a truly extraordinary sight. Two hours drive from the city and every paddock I passed along the way had been little more than dead grass and dust. But here, stepping out the back door of this farmer’s shed, everything was green. The fields sloped up a gentle rise in front of me and to the left and right, as far as I could see, these fields were filled with lush living things. Lettuce, the farmer said, pointing; celery over there, the tall stuff at the back is corn. Broccoli, cabbage; over there to the left is the spinach. In that paddock, as in the others, I could see people in wide-brimmed hats moving along the rows. A tractor with a loaded trailer bumped its way down the main track to another big tin shed to our right. I could see people in there too, working, and another tractor-trailer pulling away. In every paddock not being worked rows of sprinklers scoured the crops.
    That sound you hear, said the farmer, that’s the pump—come round here. I followed him to the side of the shed furthest from the house. I could see more green paddocks now, more sprinklers, more workers out there picking. The huge holding tanks were lined up in a row against the shed wall. Two men were sitting in front of them, on upturned crates, enjoying their morning break in the sun. They both wore gumboots and had their waterproof aprons spread out on the ground beside them to dry. Sam and Gus, said the farmer; they’ve just finished the hose-down. I nodded to the two men. They had a thermos flask between them, and a packet of biscuits. The air was thick with the smell of blood and bone; you could hear the pump droning in the background and the sound of water sloshing through the pipes. So here’s the pipe from the filters, said the farmerremember?—and this is the main pipeline that takes the treated water out to the farm. He stood, looking out, his handiwork leaving him momentarily awestruck. The two men, eyes squinted, did the same.

My father, my grandfather, said the farmer, they were traditionalists. They didn’t know any other way. There are people around this area still using the same old methods, methods that haven’t changed since the 40s. They think I’m crazy, of course, but don’t worry, I see them slowing down now when they pass the place, all those white utes, I see them slowing down to look. Sixty hectares of green. Who’s crazy now? We can’t keep doing things the old way; you can’t treat Mother Nature like a whore. It’s a complex system, you’ve got to understand how it works. First thing is: forget this idea that we human beings are somehow superior. We’re not. We’re just another part of the system, an important part, sure, but no more important than any other.
    We were walking up the main track now, and had stopped about halfway to the top of the rise. There was a strong smell here, of celery I realised, and of water on warm earth. The farmer turned off a valve on a pipe running alongside the track and the sprinklers in that paddock stopped. I watched the water trickle into a shallow drain and from that drain all the way down the slope to a bigger drain that emptied into a dam near the house. Nothing was lost. Of course this is all treason to the traditionalists, the farmer was saying, all this talk of systems ecology and energy loops. But they’re just in denial. This continent is sixty percent arid; the human body is sixty percent water: work it out for yourself.
    We stopped at the top of the track. A man was carting armfuls of celery out of the paddock and loading them onto a trailer. The farmer stopped to talk to him; I turned back to look at the view. You could see everything from up here: the big tin shed, the door to the loading room, the holding bay for the fertiliser on one side, the holding tanks for the treated water on the other, the main pipe leading from them and the whole network of pipes leading from that, branching and branching again to all corners of the farm. A big touring bus turned into the driveway from the road and pulled up behind my car: two others pulled up behind it. I could see the destination signs on the front: Harvest Festival. The driver of the first bus got out. He shaded his eyes and scanned the paddocks. Behind him, people started stepping down out of the buses—they were all elderly, many wore straw hats and some walked with a stick—but the driver started waving his arms and shooing them back. The two workers who had been sitting in the lee of the holding tanks got up and put on their aprons. The farmer brushed past me. You’ll have to move your car, he said.

It was like a time warp. There was an old enamel stove, canisters on the shelf, an electric jug, a laminex table and chairs. The cup rattled slightly on its saucer as the farmer’s wife handed it to me; I had to steady it with my other hand. I could hear the hum outside. There was a plate of scones on the table and two little crystal bowls: one jam, one cream. She pushed them towards me. Personally, she said, I prefer the old ways; I’m from a farming family too. That’s generations of tradition, all turned on its head. When he first got these crazy ideas, she said, I swore I was going to leave him. You can’t do that, I said. But he’d made up his mind. What could I do? He was going to kill himself—she lowered her voice and leant across the table towards me. No, I’m not making it up. I saw him standing next to the dam one day—that one out there, dry as a desert—with a shotgun in his hand. The farm was going to the wall. The whole community here was devastated. Everyone’s had to try their hand at something else to make ends meet: Devonshire teas, bed and breakfasts, farm tours, pick-your-owns. It’s humiliating. So when he came up with his idea—what could I do? He got on the computer, did all the science; they gave him some start-up money, the bank said OK—was I going to stand in his way? And look at it now, look what he’s achieved. Who wouldn’t be proud? But still, she said, sometimes, when I think about it—gee, I don’t know...
    The flyscreen door creaked and the farmer came in carrying a big box of vegetables. His wife picked some scone crumbs up with her finger and dropped them into the palm of her hand. The farmer handed me the box. He had a red spot on his cheek. There, he said, in an almost sardonic tone, show that to your girlfriend and see what she says then.
    I put the vegies in the car. The dog came towards me carrying its stick but I wasn’t in the mood. I could hear the sound of the machinery working, much louder out here in the yard. The buses were long gone. Everything felt soft, subdued, like the air after a storm. Out on the paddocks, with a tick-tick-tick, the sprinklers lazily turned.