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  • Writer's pictureValentine Smith APM

MISSING[i]– 35 Years in the Australian bush.

(Adapted front cover image of Tom Patterson’s 2022 book of the incredible story of Mark May)

Mark May Missing Person Armidale Australia

If there ever was one book that could be presented as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ to de-code or unravel some of the mysterious thoughts and behaviours of those very few amongst us who decide to venture into the vast unknown wilderness to live a life of seclusion from mainstream society then this is it.   ‘Missing’ provides an incredible insight into the life of Mark May, an intelligent creative and resourceful man who spent thirty-five years living alone in the Australian bush.

There are two authors to this book; one is Tom Patterson who has brilliantly woven material spanning sixty-five years of back-story, causes, influences, circumstances and emotion in such lineal detail. It is clear from what Tom has researched that from an early age Mark is adjusted to the bush.   Much of the later material is provided by the (perhaps) un-witting co-author Mark himself.  With invaluable stories such as his silent stalking of a predatory fish in a hidden pool and the feast to follow, juxtaposed against another of his near starving with the sound of dingoes howling what was a perhaps heralded call of anticipated death. All throughout the book there are examples of life and death struggles against the elements, featuring kangaroos, wild horses, fish, trees, and the river itself.  All live together, all struggling to survive, all benefiting when the environment delivers its bounties aplenty and all will perish when the act is lean and it is their time.

Mark May wrote dozens of letters to select family and close friends, each written composition a connection, a hello, and an update of his exploits.  Other pieces in this book are taken from the detailed narratives he gave when, on a rare occasion, he came out to connect with family and others.  Many are from the years before he went into the bush, his formative years, where we learn of his childhood and his work, in various mining camps.   In these early years there are some behavioural challenges including the using of various drugs and his time in prison.   Although it appears that the behavioural challenges began well before the serious drug use and the eventual decision by Mark to go bush. Thirty sensation filled years of full of challenges and adventures all haphazardly yet intricately signposting the journey to follow.

Further education becomes an expected normality and so Mark enters Australian National University to study law.  Away from home in a different scene his drug use intensifies and he struggles with the contrast between the expected practice and behaviour of lawyers as part of the ‘bourgeoisie’ establishment and his feelings of a need to be free. He re-thinks purpose aided with the thoughts of, ‘Walden’[ii] by Henry Thoreau…’The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages…left him still but a sojourner in nature.’  The prehistoric wanderer becomes the farmer and the housekeeper.  Which is to some extent what Mark questions?

Tom seems to leave open the answer to the question; did Mark find his purpose in life, out there in the bush?  However, he leaves us with subtle hints as to the answer. Some found in the well-organised set-up of the camp, ‘a home in the wilderness’, and I suppose the duration of Mark’s stay, thirty-five years, which is much longer than most people and families endure in any mainstream locale? 

Mark has the bush savvy and intelligence to know that he can only survive and live longer by supplementing his hand to mouth existence gathered from the bush by growing dope to buy some supplies to supplement his fish and wild game existence.   He lives like an animal but capitalises on his ability as a human to survive with a bit extra and to feed his one major luxury/addiction, dope.  Whatever Mark’s need for dope is we should understand that his use of it is not to be seen as a ‘cool’ raver at some wild party, or to impress anyone. His use is his business and as private and non-impacting on others as can be, as distinct from his trafficking of the drug which is another matter.

His dealings with police on the one occasion he is caught are interesting.  He is open and matter of fact.  He just tells it how it is, almost like ‘you do your thing and I’ll do mine’.  He grows his dope but he doesn’t bother with trying to deceive or lie his ownership of a hidden drug crop.  He gets locked up but that is just the law down there doing their thing.  As much the same as the free ranging cows eating his crop or snakebite.  It just happens as part of the risk of things.  Maybe the world down there is somewhat irrelevant to what he does up in the bush where he is?

It is 2017 and Mark has not been heard from for a while, his letters have stopped coming by bush messenger and his family mount an expedition to look for him.  Based on the local knowledge from free-range cattlemen they head bush.  After a long overnight hike, they locate his camp and eventually they find Mark’s remains nearby.  The small team solemnly place Mark’s body, wrapped in a tarpaulin, into a shallow grave and cover it with earth and rocks, moss side up, to protect it. 

From here the book is about family and thought and process, the police interviews, including the retrieval of Mark’s remains for coronial matters.   I note that Tom mentions the official stand on the case, which adopts a sensible setting aside of officialdom.  The police officer, Senior Constable Tom Grace at Uralla gets it, his investigative conclusion is a combination of common sense and compassion, an attitude of ‘enough is enough’, let it be.

Peter, his brother, returns Mark’s finger to his camp – which, to me at least, seems to suggest that Peter gets it, the connection to peace, freedom and place.   Mark’s brother Steve summed it all up in the end, “This is where Mark belongs”

‘I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees’[iii]

Henry David Thoreau…


[i] Missing by Tom Patterson © 2022 and published by Allen & Unwin

[ii] ‘Walden or a Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau 1854

[iii] ‘Walden or a Life in the Woods’ by Henry David Thoreau 1854


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