That's the Spirit: Marie Knight OAM - Warrumbungle Mountains
Apart from the day-to-day running of a mixed farming business in the Warrumbungle Mountains near Coonabarabran with her husband Tony, Marie Knight is the brains behind the popular Lamb Jumpers project, a humble idea aimed at protecting poddy lambs from the elements that has grown into a positive way of helping breach the city-country divide. For her services to the community, Marie was also named in the 2020 Australia Day Honours list and has been awarded an Order of Australia Medal. That’s the Spirit’s JEN COWLEY spent a characteristically cold Warrumbungle winter’s afternoon chatting with Marie.
Jen: How did the lamb jumpers project come about?
Marie: There were lots of very sad pictures in the winter of 2018 of people with lambs dying from the cold. The ewes were having multiple births and were not well enough to rear their lambs and the pictures were all over social media. I had jumpers for my own poddy lambs so I offered some of my spare jumpers.
Jen: So you’ve been using lamb jumpers for a while?
Marie: I always use them. The newborn lambs are very, very much like human babies – they can’t control their own body temperature. In the paddock they curl up with mum, she looks after them and keeps them warm and out of the wind and the sun. Poddies can’t do that.
Jen: The campaign has become quite huge, but it’s not just about the jumpers themselves, I believe.
Marie: It’s a way for people anywhere and everywhere, but mostly not on farms, to help in a practical way. There are so many different ways for people who like craft to help, and they want to physically do something. We have one lady who’s 103 and knits for us and she knits beautifully. They knit these jumpers and send them and ring their granddaughters and say, “Do you have that Facebook-ey thing? Can you show me pictures?”
Jen: It’s also bringing country and city together.
Marie Knight OAM, Warrumbungle Shire
Marie: Yes, it is. They get to see pictures of the lambs (where their jumpers have been sent), and we give their address to the farmers who will mostly write back and say thank you or send a picture and that starts the communications. So we have city people, young and old, talking to country people, young and old. They’re helping, they’ve become a community. The Facebook page is a real community and they’re really protective because occasionally you do get silly people making silly remarks and it’s the community that just says “Look, doesn’t matter what you think about these baby animals, they’re there, lets help them”.
Jen: You were saying earlier about the morale boost of farmers or graziers going to the mailbox…
Marie: Sometimes (on a farm) it’s hard going – it can be monotonous, depressing, miserable, and when you’re having one of those bad days, and we all have them occasionally – doesn’t matter how positive you are, you’re going to have a bad day –but you go to the mailbox and pick up this parcel and you think, “Somebody bothered to do that for me, they bothered to send it”.
To know that someone sat down and made you something and mailed it to you is nice. They will send a card, put in a letter, throw in some chocolates. To know that somebody bothered to do that for you, to help you – suddenly, you’re not so isolated, you’re not quite so alone. There’s the story about the farmer coming home having a giggle for the first time in ages because there’s a little bit of colour in the paddock, because the poddy lambs are running around with really colourful jumpers.
Jen: For you and Tony, has it been a sort of a mental health boost for you as well?
Marie: If Tony has a bad day, I just sit here and open the jumpers and read some of the stories and show him some of the amazing jumpers and that gives him a giggle. It means he’s not quite so isolated because we’re also helping other people. We’re all in this farming thing together and it breaks the monotony. The monotony’s a real killer.
Jen: Tell me about the strength you see in rural communities.
Marie: Farming IS a community, that’s what we want from the city as well (to see that). Our generation would have had cousins or aunts or uncles or something come (to the farm) in school holidays, but we’ve lost that connection. I think people need it, especially kids, but the lamb jumpers project is one way of getting that community together. They want to help, they want things to do and be a part of it and learn things from it. You know it’s a silly little lamb jumper, but it’s made a big difference of a lot of people’s lives.
Jen: Even when times are tough, you still seem to love what you do here. What’s the best thing for you about this life?
Marie: The animals, we’re lucky we have animals, but you can’t do everything alone, so to have people help – and it doesn’t matter if they’re in town, down the road, next door – is important. Conversations matter – just being able to talk to other people and it doesn’t matter if it’s on social media or on the radio or somebody in town, or having (radio personality Ian McNamara) Macca come do a “rain dance” for us just to lift spirits. We have to try to focus on just trying to do things to lift spirits a little bit.
Marie Knight OAM, Warrumbungle Shire
Jen: How do you see the future for primary production and the rural industries?
Marie: People have to eat, and people have to wear things and hopefully they’re wearing natural fibres like wool. It’s the most natural resource we have and Australia’s just bloody brilliant at producing wool. It’s really sad Australians don’t realise just how bloody brilliant our product is.
One of the good things I see coming out of the doom and gloom of drought is a growing acknowledgement of the strength of regional Australia and small communities in particular. I see a breaching of that city-country divide – there’s something on either side of that “blue range” for both us and them, and we need each other. We can learn from each other and because of the drought we are finally hearing talk about the need to get city kids out to farms for part of their holiday, part of their school excursions and get them on a farm to actually touch an animal – that’s all so good for their physical wellbeing.
Letting them touch an animal is the best thing you can do for a kid. It gets them out of their own little world and helps them to realise when they go to the supermarket that their food actually comes from somewhere. It’s about showing that animal respect – okay, you might end up eating it but if you’re aware of where it comes from, you can help to make sure it’s been given the best possible life while it’s around.
Jen: What would you like people to know about living and working in a small community?
Marie: I’d like people to know that we need each other. We’re in a world community and we need that but we also need to look after each other. We’re in a horrible time at the moment, not just here but around the world, and one of the best things we can do for ourselves is help other people, particularly in our own backyards. It might be something like making a lamb jumper or organising a dance or helping others help you and themselves.
Jen: You’re also in Rotary and that organisation has a long history of community engagement. What do you personally get out of that sort of thing?
Marie: I grew up with the idea, and again with a country background, that we’re lucky to be in communities. We’re lucky to be here and it’s not a right, it’s a privilege. We have a responsibility to give back to the planet, so if it’s Rotary or giving blood or whatever you do, we have to give back.
Finding the positives is really important. Negatives don’t teach anybody anything.
It’s tough, we know it’s been tough and yes we need and have needed help, but we also need to give back and keep living.
Life doesn’t stop because there’s a tragedy. Life doesn’t stop because there’s a flood, or a drought or a fire. People still die, people still get married and babies are born. Ups and downs are just part of what you do. Let’s just get in and do it.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Marie Knight OAM, Warrumbungle Shire