HE'D DRIVEN DOZERS for thirty years. From bobcats to D10s. As a young bloke, he'd started in a warehouse driving forklifts. Now that's an art-form. The experienced could whiz them around on a pin and load a truck faster than an army by hand. The trick, they said, was in the positioning of the pallets. He got the hang of it fast, and after a few years was considered a prize to the company. But then they went bust, and he branched out. A job came up for a cat driver – a Caterpillar steel track. He could drive anything, and though he didn't have that ticket he went anyway. He got the job, and the boss – being a bit of a crook like so many of them in the ‘earthworks' trade – let him drive while he sorted out the credentials. Under that boss, he collected experience and credentials. He became a gun – a go-anywhere do-anything dozer driver.
Later, he hooked into the mining industry and got to operate the monster Cat D10 dozer. The bucket was so big it could have carried most of the things he'd driven before. Charging a stack of ore – steel jaw and hung guts of the bucket scraping the ground – he loved the impact with the product. And then the scoop up, the lifting and swallowing. It was brutal and yet beautiful. Mostly he'd get, ‘You love that power, Matt! We know, we know!' But it was never that, it was the getting things done, the efficiency of it. He admired the deftness of the giant; he felt as if it were an extension of him. Muscle, sure, but skill in using it. It was the skill, the finesse.
He had never been out of work, but the industry was under the hammer and he was always conscious that his job might go. The mob he worked for had a bunch of legal cases going on around the world. Like his workmates, he said, ‘Stuff the greenies, those bastards will protest us out of a job!' There'd been toxic spills and damaged environments, but these people seemed not to get it: no mining companies, no modern world to enjoy. But the day did come when the company closed its doors. Not entirely – just their Western Australian operations. Consolidating. We'll be back, they said. Most of his mates spent ages trying to find something else, but he walked into a new job a week later. Ironically, the economy had taken a turn for the better, and a resources and construction boom was just getting started.
HIS NEW JOB was south, way south. He'd been up in the Pilbara – place of Big Machinery – for years. Nice to have a cool change! And no more cyclones to worry about.
Ensconced in his cage, he propelled the dozer across the corrugated ground, forcing the great curve of the blade into the ancient Jarrah trees. He wasn't used to having so many eyes on him. He didn't care that the greenies hated him. He just wanted to perform well. Whole trees bounced off the cage, though he was deft enough, even in this sluggish brute, to compel them to fall into heaps – he rounded them up for the track-loaders to sort out later. Occasionally, one of the long-hairs would get in front of the blade and he'd have to stop, but he didn't let it bother him. The cops would drag the long-hair off, then he'd start his work again – meticulous, caring.
In thirty years he'd never failed to have a drink after knock-off – at the pub if it was open or, if he was doing night shift, a cold one from the camp fridge, or maybe one from under a roadhouse counter. In the pub near the clearing site, workers and long-hairs drank together. There were regular fights. The long-hairs always got the worst of it. He wasn't a fighter, but he'd set in and argue hour on hour, just for the hell of it. The long-hairs he argued with were professional ‘dozer-watchers' – something like train-spotters, they explained. He didn't mind them. He liked trees as well. And he loved birds.
When I was a kid, he explained to one of the long-hairs, there was a massive golden oak tree in our suburban backyard. Yes, okay, so I did have a sandpit full of Tonka toys. But do you guys want to hear the story or not? If you do, shut your mouths and listen.
We had this giant golden oak tree out the back. I'd climb it most days, even during bad weather. Lots of birds nested in it, so I'd avoid going up when the eggs had been laid and chicks hatched. That was seasonal, so it didn't cause me much inconvenience. I noticed the same birds coming back to nest year after year, and I got to know some of the young 'uns. Now I know I can tell you guys this because my workmates would be pissing themselves with laughter. But truly, I spoke to them and they spoke with me. My dad said: ‘You spend too much time perched up in that tree like a bloody bird. If you don't chop the wood, I'll give you a hiding.' I never told him I spoke with the birds, but my mum knew. Once when my dad did give me a hiding for not chopping the wood, I blurted it all out to mum and she rubbed my head and said it's okay, it's okay, I understand. Even now when I visit her – she's old, and in a home – she mentions it.
So WHY AM I a hypocrite?
Why do I destroy the birds' habitat? Well, I don't go out wantonly destroying. I do a job that someone else would do worse than me. It'd get done anyway and a man's got to live. No, no, I don't have a family – other than my old mum. Never got round to it. And yes, it could be done worse than I do it. As basic as revving the engines, or working through the area you're clearing before work – you know, making a racket, driving things off. Sometimes I give things a nudge with the dozer before backing up and letting it rip.
Inevitably, it'd get raucous, and Matt would tire of the long-hairs' zeal and say his goodnight: see you out there tomorrow. In a short time, he'd almost got addicted to the drama, the attention. He enjoyed talking – arguing even – with people outside his profession. He'd always been a workman with workmates. These long-hairs were from another planet. They were like children: they were himself, or a bit of himself, not grown up.
THE STRETCH OF forest he and his mates were clearing was to make way for a national highway. He was connecting east and west. Sometimes he caught sight of a bird or a lizard going under, but it happened fast and he had to get on with it. Walking over the area at dusk after knock-off, he stood by the huge heaps being readied for burning, and saw the rainbow of parrot feathers. Away, at the fenced edge where the long-hairs stood, he could make out a sign saying the last habitat of an endangered parrot would go under in the next few days. He shrugged his shoulders.
Work was held up when the dozers and loaders had their tanks sugared. Some of his workmates planned to go over to the protest camp in the early morning and give the long-hairs a beating. He said: ‘Nah, leave it to the cops.' He was pissed off though – exquisite pieces of machinery treated like shit. No respect. Even with the battering they took in the line of duty, they did the job. He called his machine Enola and loved her. He'd loved all his machines over the years. They all had names of the women he'd have liked to meet, or to know more than briefly. ‘Why Enola?' his boss asked. The bomber – she was a beautiful bird, a piece of art, and yet so brutal, so destructive. The boss looked at him sideways, thinking him odd but a good worker. He didn't like speaking with the workers more than necessary anyway, and returned to pondering his site map, left foot up on a rock, shorts crisper than an advert.
Enola had been retired. The sugar had killed her off. Matt's new dozer he named Peach. She's a peach, he laughed. The boss said, ‘Now, Matt, you go and break that peach in!' The boss rubbed his beard and laughed to himself. The machinery was kept in a wired secure area and Matt pointed Peach out through the gate and towards the forest.
Most of the long-hairs were gone – arrested, or just given up. A few of the young girls with green hair and tattoos were hanging about, and a couple of camp dogs. One of the blokes he'd told his bird-secret to was arguing with the cops; he could see hands waving about all over the place. And then the long-hair broke through and was running at Peach, at Matt. The cops were giving chase, but the long-hair was like a kangaroo. In a few seconds he'd be in front of the dozer. A slow machine even on flat ground, so Matt had plenty of time to stop. But he didn't. He drove steadily on, straight over the long-hair.
As shock set instantly in, he heard himself say: ‘I care, I care, I care.' No more dozers will create havoc around here. The birds will nest safely and look after the soul of the long-hair.