Guest blogger: David Allan-Petale and the harvest that inspired the writing of Locust Summer

Locust Summer, which was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, is the story of a young man called back to the family farm for one final harvest. Readers get a ‘harvest of suspense’ according to Carmel Bird and, according to Toni Jordan, ‘insights into pasts and futures, nostalgia and grief.’ In this guest post, David talks us through his very first harvest and how it spawned a novel.

‘A sandgroper, eh? You can teach us all how to grow wheat then!’

That’s the greeting I was given on my first day of working with the harvest crew on my mate’s farm in New South Wales.

Lucky they didn’t look too closely. They’d have seen the creases still ironed in to my brand-new KingGee shorts and shirt. The lack of callouses on my office hands. And the look in my eyes that said I had no idea what I was doing.

‘Righto, boys,’ the boss cocky said. ‘Let’s get stuck in.’

Like the best of adventures, this one began over a drink. I was working as a journalist for the ABC’s Kalgoorlie office in the WA Goldfields, and after a tough day of gathering news from around the region, I’d host a gathering on the verandah of my place on Dugan Street to have a yarn with a few other journos.

One night my mate started talking about the harvest at his family farm. How he would return there every year and bring in an enormous crop of wheat. It sounded like an adventure to me, and he said I should come. The next day I booked time off work and a ticket east.

I’d worked as a journo in the Mid West region of WA where wheat farming dominates, and had covered harvests with the spare remove of an observer. But actually doing it? It was so far beyond my ken as a city boy from the suburbs. Then again, I loved to travel and give new things a go, and wasn’t afraid of hard work. Or so I thought …

The weeks I spent working on the farm were backbreaking, hot and fast. We worked from sun-up to sun-down and often deep into the night with a full moon haloed by wheat dust. I carted fuel, fetched lunches, fixed broken header harvester teeth, drove chaser bins to catch the grain and helped keep the grain bunker organised. I even got to drive a harvester for a few spells.

It was busy. It was tough. But it was glorious. There were lightning storms and crop fires, wild dogs to chase off and stranded sheep to rescue. Sunrises and sunsets that were like Hans Heysen paintings come to life. And the good humour of the workers chatting on the CB, drinking cold pints after a hard day while reciting bush poems. It was a bumper harvest my mate often says was the best he’s ever seen, as if a highlights package of everything that could go right or wrong had been prepared just for him to share with me.

The experience stayed with me long after I left to catch a train and a plane back to the big smoke. After that, no job was too hard, no conditions too rough. I knew I could back myself and stand up to a big task. And it gave me a far deeper appreciation of rural life and country people than I had ever grasped as a dispassionate observer. Over many of the following years I spent as a regional journalist, I found I could relate far better to the people whose lives I was seeking to reflect and explore.

And damn, if it didn’t give me some good stories to draw upon as a writer. The first book I attempted was set in the forests of South West WA, and was infused with my experiences on the land – the language, feeling and nuance that can’t be found solely through research.

Yet something deeper was calling. When the time came to begin another book, I knew it had to be set on a farm. Had to be about a harvest. Had to connect to the magnetised feeling I had while working in the blazing sun as an outsider looking in. And so, slowly, inexorably, Locust Summer’s raw elements began to take shape.

Back to the farm, back to the harvest, back to a place where ‘the earth spins steady, the moon rises, and all crops grow: wheat, sheep, dementia.’

Thanks for visiting, David. Locust Summer is available in all good bookstores and online.