Bush poetry raises money for dementia

Bush poetry raises $100,000 for research into dementia

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Jon and Allan Vagg with a copy of Back Block Bards, their book of family bush poetry. Photo: Barellan Good Old Days Festival

Jon and Allan Vagg with a copy of Back Block Bards, their book of family bush poetry. Photo: Barellan Good Old Days Festival

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Sheep graziers, the Vaggs, have raised $100,000 for Dementia Australia.

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The Vagg family have always been storytellers. The Merino graziers, who farm at Furlong, between Hillston and Booligal, passing down and composing bush poetry for generations.

Therefore, when Naomi Vagg was dealt the devastating diagnosis of younger onset dementia at just 51, they attempted to create something positive from the unfathomable situation and published a book of bush poetry, Back Block Bards, to raise money for research into the degenerative disease.

The sales from the book, which includes poetry from four generations of the family, has now raised more than $100,000 for Dementia Australia.

Dementia affects over 495,000 individuals and families across Australia, with an estimated 250 people receiving a diagnosis for the condition each day.

But, Naomi's son Allan Vagg said before his mum was diagnosed he only thought of the condition as something impacting people in old age.

"We'd never come across younger onset dementia; we never knew it was a thing," Allan said.

"It was a steep learning curve as we went."

He said since launching the campaign many people reached out to them with their own stories.

"When dementia is affecting loved ones in your family it's often quite a personal, private situation, it's not something that gets talked about a lot," Allan said.

"I didn't know so many people had been through similar journeys."

Allan Vagg at a poetry reading. Bush poetry has been passed down in the Vagg family for generations. Photo: Supplied

Allan Vagg at a poetry reading. Bush poetry has been passed down in the Vagg family for generations. Photo: Supplied

The Vaggs cared for Naomi at home for as long as they could, Allan returning to work on the farm earlier than planned to support his dad Jon who was Naomi's primary carer, alongside his sister Bonnie.

"As a family unit we pulled together.

"We feel pretty comfortable sitting on a bike and chasing sheep but primary caring for dementia patients is not something we had a lot of experience in and it was a changing environment each day.

"We're not remote by any stretch of the imagination but we are around 150 kilometres from specialised support services, so we we cared for her at home for as long as we could, but once it got to a stage beyond our capabilities she went into a nursing home at Griffith."

Once the family went through the initial stages of adjustment and grief, Allan said they became determined to do something to help prevent other families going through younger onset dementia.

"Mum was a beautiful person, she home schooled my sister and I. We were a really tight family. We couldn't understand why it had happened like it has," he said.

"Farmers as a general rule are pragmatic people and there was probably a desire to know the how and why, so in any small way we could contribute to stopping similar situations from happening to other people."

Allan and Bonnie grew up listening to their Dad reciting poetry and reading them stories from classic Australian bush writers.

We all spend a fair bit of time out on the motorbikes, chasing sheep everyday and you need things to keep you occupied so the poetry's really good. - Allan Vagg

But, it was their 90-year-old grandmother Joan, a renowned artist in the area, who came up with the idea of Back Block Bards.

"When we were discussing how we'd create some sort of positive, she cracked the whip and said 'well we've got the poetry, let's put it in a book, I'll illustrate it and we'll put all the profits towards the research', he said.

"It was just a dining table discussion."

The book was written by eight authors, all related across four generations and it even included poetry written by Allan's great, great uncle on the Western Front in WWI.

Nowadays, the Vagg family write much of their poetry in the paddock.

"We all spend a fair bit of time out on the motorbikes, chasing sheep everyday and you need things to keep you occupied so the poetry's really good," Allan said.

"The rhythm and rhyming meter makes it easier to remember so you can work through your poetry or write your stories."

Back Block Bards was self-published by the Vaggs in October 2018 and Allan said they thought it would be great if they could sell the book for six months before it ran out of momentum.

But two years later, the momentum is still going and the book sales have raised more than $100,000 for Dementia Australia, the organisation naming one of the Research Projects happening throughout 2020 the 'Back Block Bards Project Grant'.

"The whole campaign has just been so far above and beyond what we ever imagined it to be, the amount of support we got from a wide range of people has been phenomenal," Allan said.

"In a modern age of technology, click bait news, it's heartening to know that there's still a space for genuine, honest storytelling."

Pre COVID-19 the Vaggs toured around promoting their work at various events from Casino Beef Week to the local Booligal Sheep Races.

They have also released a CD of their poetry and there is now a second book in the works.

"We're writing, compiling, illustrating and editing at the moment, so we're looking at next year for getting that all together," Allan said.

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