Quick reviews

Snowy River Story: The Grassroots Campaign to Save a National Icon
Claire Miller. ABC Books, 2005. ISBN 0 733 31533 X, RRP $35


In its real and mythological forms, the Snowy River is deeply bound up with the Australian story. It represents the strength and mystique of the Australian bush. It brought to bear the engineering and labour feats of Australians working on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. It gave us that icon of a fearless and sturdy Australian, the Man From Snowy River. Claire Miller offers readers another angle of the Snowy: a river deprived of its water flow, and the locals from Dalgety and Orbost who decided to fight for its environmental restoration.

Miller tells the story of those who stoked the fires of the campaign, including Craig Ingram’s unlikely rise to political prominence as campaign figurehead. She recounts the constant struggle to engage state and federal governments and persuade them of the merits of a guaranteed 28 per cent flow. Her final chapter provides the personal perspectives of women and men who have lived on the Snowy, including an important indigenous perspective. It was they who first understood that the Snowy gives life.


At its core, Miller’s book is about the potency of grassroots politics. It was because of the energy and stoicism of a few impassioned people that the campaign to save the Snowy reached the ears of Spring Street and Canberra.

Emily Millane

A Short History of Myth
Karen Armstrong. Text, 2005. ISBN 1 920 88587 0, RRP $22


Many ‘enlightened and rational’ people today believe we no longer need myths. Karen Armstrong argues that they’re wrong: humans are myth-making creatures, and myths are ‘designed to help us cope with the problematic human predicament’. They are not simply fairy tales or ancient explanations for natural phenomena, but emotional and spiritual necessities for finding meaning in our lives and in the world around us.

Her book traces the development of mythology and its ties to human history: paleolithic hunters and shamans gave way to neolithic farmers and artisans; ancient world civilisations eventually led to the Western transformation of the last few centuries. It also analyses the relationships between some of our most fundamental myths, from Babylonian culture through Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and on to modern myth creators such as Eliot, Joyce and Conrad.

Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who writes with authority, although the brief examples in this slender volume may leave a novice wanting something more comprehensive. Never mind the ‘short history’; what’s more intriguing are her musings on the nature and meaning of myths, and how they allow us to find the divine aspects in our mortal selves. She concludes that we need a return to myths to bring ‘fresh insight to our lost and damaged world’. In today’s times, even the rational and enlightened among us would have to agree.

Ali Lemer

Yarra: A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River,
Kristin Otto. Text, 2005. ISBN 1 920 88578 1, RRP $32


The Yarra has always been, in my mind, a river too urbanised to be interesting, at least once it leaves its forest and wineries upstream. Kristin Otto’s exploration of the past of the river that ‘flows upside down’, an ambitious popular history, swept me through the stories of the whole of the length and life of Melbourne’s river.

Otto’s slim book recounts the variety of life played out along the river’s banks over the centuries, from its geological formation, and significance for the Wurundjeri people, to the crime, pollution and development since white settlement. In the process it dredges up old tales of sex and sport and industry. With her background in fine art, she writes best when she explores the art which the Yarra has inspired—particularly the work of the Heidelberg painters in the 1880s.

These past 170 years since John Batman’s ‘treaty’ with Wurundjeri elders have seen constant efforts to control and straighten the river—and the cultural chaos and deviance which the Yarra, and Melbourne, have seen.

Yarra is in part a cautionary tale about the ways in which the authorities have sought to regulate and change a river, and the unhappy consequences for the health of the river and its culture. It is also an invitation to a journey through the stories of a great waterway.

Joel Townsend

 

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