Robert Corkhill spent his life growing crops and raising livestock, but his heart sang a different tune: that of bush poetry, stories of the community around him and sheer love of the land.
The Boorowa farmer died in 2017, survived by his 10 children and his wife Leonie, but has left a further legacy in the form of his collected poetry, Apples Will Grow Again (a family saying about how life goes on).
It’s a warm and cheerful read, peppered with references to locals and well-remembered yarns but also imbued from time to time with both melancholy and resilience, befitting someone who saw off the ravages of drought and watched the environment change.
Robert was born at Queanbeyan in 1936 and grew up on the family property, Normanhurst. After a long illness in his teenage years, his formal secondary school education came to a halt, but a passion for reading and poetry developed during long months of recuperation.
It was a time when the bush was full of yarns. Many more workers were required to operate farms before labour was fully mechanised, and a constant cavalcade of bush identities passed before young Robert’s eyes as he grew to adulthood, married and began his own family on Rockfield.
“During those years a lot of interesting characters came and went,” Robert recalled in 2016.
“Shearers, station hands, drovers … you could write a book about some of them. My Dad was a man of action and although he recited some verse himself, he would not approve of his son sitting under a tree writing when there was work to be done!”
But Robert’s own children remember his passion for bush poetry well.
“One of my favourite memories is that of my father reciting the verse of John O’Brien to us as children,” his son Marty remembers. “On cold winter nights by the old wood fire, his words painted a picture I have never forgotten.
“Lonely years fencing, doing sheep work or driving tractors would, as time passed, often result in the promise of a new humorous or thought-provoking poem or bush verse.
“And these were often and usually based on real events that had occurred or were occurring at the time.”
Robert’s verses became a part of district celebrations and family gatherings, and many Boorowa locals were “poetised” in the process: Boorowa locals will see many familiar faces in these pages, from legendary auctioneer Furner Dwyer and Boorowa vet Ron Merriman to a rugby team full of Corkhills, Corcorans, Crowes and Crokers.
There’s a recurring character, young Ces (at least partially based on Robert’s own sons) whose misadventures range from dire events shearing the rams to accidentally ploughing Danny McGrath’s paddocks rather than his own, and post-B&S festivities.
The book’s genesis came from a collective family desire to bring the work together after Robert’s death. He’d selected and ordered the poems himself, working with his daughter Anna and guided by what he thought would be of interest to local people, people living on the land and those who love Australian verse.
The family have added family and historic photographs to create a rich tapestry of words and images while conceding that Robert would never have chosen so many photos of himself.
“Through all the ups and downs and idiosyncrasies of his life, Dad was a wordsmith who in his own quiet way constructed a body of work that touched on all aspects of life as he saw it,” Marty Corkhill says. “A man so well-loved shall not be forgotten.”
Or, as Robert would have it:
Just as flowers we loved so much
Bloom and fade away
And seeds drop upon the ground
To grow another day
The good that we do or say
We’ll see it as a plus
Carried on and practised
By the ones who follow us.
Apples Will Grow Again! is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to order a copy ($25 plus postage).