Plains Folk

Bushman’s Companion


The person with the most historical monuments dedicated to him, in all of Australia, is a fellow named John Flynn. He dedicated his life to improving the safety and quality of life in what we commonly call the Outback, but he called the Inland.


A country boy from Victoria, young Flynn resolved to study for the ministry, although he was a poor scholar. He made it through to ordination in the Presbyterian Church and found his calling in mission work—but not abroad, in some exotic place.


No, Flynn’s heart was touched by the plight of the folk who lived and worked on the hard frontiers of inland Australia—such as the Northern Territory, where my Suzzanne and I recently spent three weeks. We visited the hospital he built in Alice Springs—Adelaide House—and the monument atop his remains west of town.


Flynn established a network of “patrol padres” who made the rounds of inland outposts, preaching, but also joining in on whatever work people were doing. He built hospitals staffed by nursing sisters, commonly referred to as “Angels,” and then reached out further into the bush with establishment of the Flying Doctor Service. He recruited the eccentric Alfred Traeger to pioneer wireless communications for medical and social purposes, and later for use by the School of the Air, one of the world’s great enterprises in distance education.


Now I have in hand a copy of one of Flynn’s early efforts for the improvement of bush life—a little book called The Bushman’s Companion: A Handful of Hints for Outbackers, published in 1910. It begins with a section on first aid, always a concern where medical care was distant. This contains straightforward essays with titles like “How to Stop Bleeding” and “What to do about Broken Bones.” One gets the impression that outback life was not for the faint of heart.


I read, for instance, from the section, “What to do in Case of Snakebite”—keeping in mind that Australia possesses several of the most poisonous snake species in the world. “Without delaying a fraction of a second, in case of leg or arm, put a twitch [that is, a tourniquet] on upper arm or thigh, as the case may be. . . . All blood must be kept from returning to the heart. If [a] finger [has been bitten], put twitch on joint against hand. Don’t chop it off! . . .


“If bite is of a poisonous snake, which is most likely, stab in with knife all round bite. Quarter of an inch will be deep enough. Suck for dear life. Do not swallow any blood. . . .


“Stimulants may be used. Best is black coffee, very strong. . . . Fatal cases may linger less than three hours, but sometimes last as long as three days.”


There follows a section of sermonettes inspired by Scripture and other great texts, closing with a poem by Tennyson, along with some scripture readings, hymns, and prayers. There is no provision for a wedding service, I guess because there were so few women in the outback, but there is a splendid burial service, sending the deceased off from “this troublous life” to a better place and praying God’s mercy to those of us remaining behind.


Reviewing this book and the life behind it, I realize there has never been a John Flynn of the Great Plains of North America—a preacher and prophet with vision enough to encompass all the realities of regional life with charity and practicality. We should tell his story here.


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