Frontier romance

Every once in a while a book comes along that defies the Dewey decimal classification system. Would you call it history? Or a biography? Although it was short-listed for the 2003 NSW Premier’s History Awards, I am tempted to categorise Brigid Hains’ The Ice and the Inland as a sociological thriller. 

Hains uses the stories of two Australian folk heroes, Douglas Mawson, who explored Antarctica, and John Flynn, whose efforts centred around the outback, as the launching pads for studying the frontier myth and the effects on the psyche of the individual and the imagination of a people.

The Ice and the Inland provides a novel window through which one can glimpse how a young nation might be influenced en masse, and how national opinions or even identities can be forged by significant events, or by the actions and writings of a couple of individuals. 

‘The frontier mythology of the early 20th century is epitomised in the stories of these two extraordinary—and very different—men’, says one reviewer.  However, The Ice and the Inland is not a biographical account of the lives of Mawson and Flynn. There is not even a descriptive account of the successes of the two men—Mawson’s heroic lone struggle for survival or the crowning glory of the achievements of Flynn, the flying doctor service. Instead, Hains examines a huge amount of primary evidence, the writings, letters and journals  of these men and their contemporaries, and comes to a series of conclusions that explain the shaping of the frontier myth in the Australian imagination.

What drove Mawson and his men to the inhospitable landscape of Antarctica? One of the great rationales for confronting harsh environments was that the wilderness brought out the best in men and weeded out the weak and the unfit, the ‘spawn of [the] gutters’. Such adventures were for men who wanted to get away from the domestication imposed by city environments and family life. It was a chance to pit his ingenuity and wits, not to mention physical strength, against the forces of nature.

The landscape which allowed man a trans-cendental experience could also sink him into the depths of depravity as the veneer of civilisation wore off.  Herein lay the paradox of wilderness landscapes—attractive because of their wildness, but this very wildness a threat that needed to be tamed, mapped and bounded. It was sublime because it was far from the trappings of ‘progress’, yet it became liveable only when the products of progress—communication and medical facilities—were made available.

The first part of the book deals with the effects of environments on individuals. Many subtle aspects are exquisitely probed: the role of language and metaphor in comprehending so alien a landscape; the tendency to describe the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar; the loss of perspective in the endless freezing expanses and the epistemological uncertainty imposed by the need to re-examine all that was taken for granted, when faced with ‘wind like a solid thing’, or a ‘river like a gigantic torrent of air’. Excerpts from the diaries of members of the expedition team, as well as other poets and writers, make this portion of the book almost lyrical.

While Hains used the interlude to draw parallels between this first part of the book and the second—in which she talks about Flynn—this connection seems a bit tenuous. As she points out, Mawson and Flynn were contemporaries, and Antarctica and the outback were both frontiers being explored at around the same time. Mawson’s Antarctic expedition was a time bound trip, Flynn was trying to achieve a lasting victory over the outback environment. Mawson and his team tell the story of man against the elements, whereas Flynn’s narrative is more of a political crusade, first to get people to settle the ‘red heart’ of Australia, which was unsuccessful, then to make outback communities more viable by providing medical and communication facilities to remote settlements.

Flynn wanted to settle the interior with ‘smiling homesteads’ coast to coast, not only for Australia’s economic health but to ensure that there was no invasion from the north. Just as importantly, people who moved to the outback and stuck it out in the difficult terrain were the very people who would enrich Australia’s gene pool. They were the salt of the earth—the brave, the persevering and indefatigable. Unfortunately, white women were hard to come by in the outback. Worse still, the outback wilderness, like its Antarctic counterpart, could have exactly the opposite effect to the sublimating one to which both Mawson and Flynn alluded.  The solution? Provide facilities in the outback so that more people, including women, would move there and create communities in which individuals would support each other. Here we come across yet another paradox — individuality is  what the wilderness is all about. But without a community for support, the individual was in danger of overstepping the boundaries of the acceptable and indeed his very survival was threatened.

The unrelenting nature of the desert made settled life difficult—people were forced to be nomadic. But nomads have a short-term outlook and no commitment. They are likely to exploit the land rather than to tend and nurture it. Setting up nursing homes and camps, sending nurses to remote areas and providing wireless communication that could summon medical services, all served to make it easier for settlers to stay in the outback.

While Hains does touch upon the question of Flynn’s racist attitudes, she does not dwell on this. Rather, she focuses on the role of the outback in the economics and politics of the time.

The power of technology to make unfamiliar landscapes more compre-hensible is also examined. Print media and photography served to bring the Antarctic and outback landscapes into the imagination of the urban Australian. The wireless brought a virtual community to the outback. To the Antarctic expedition team, the wireless served as a way of staying in touch with the outside world. Modern transportation and communication technologies that brought these remote regions within the grasp of people either physically or in spirit, were all precursors to the way the internet is serving to transcend distances today.
Mawson and Flynn saw the frontier as having the power to renew civilisation and affect moral character. They extolled the transcendental qualities of sublime landscapes—immovable, eternal and powerful as opposed to man who is transient and insignificant. The vast and harsh Antarctic and outback landscapes, to this day, stand utterly indifferent to man and his feeble struggles, to his successes and his failures. ‘The symbolic power of the frontier,’ says Hains, ‘was refigured in the lifetimes of Mawson and Flynn.’ This power became embedded in the Australian imagination as ‘the potent blend of romanticism, individualistic rebellion against conformity and social nostalgia’, and formed the basis for present attitudes towards the frontier, nature and conservation.

Hains’ theories are convincing and novel, though the book suffers somewhat from a repetition of ideas. While her style is unobtrusive, she speaks with clarity and accuracy, a virtue that is, alas, quite rare. Quotes from a number of sources enhance and enrich the book immensely, and allow the reader to play a part in creating images and forming impressions as an equal partner with the author. This is an original and commendable piece of work.  

The Ice and the Inland: Mawson, Flynn, and the Myth of the Frontier, Brigid Hains.
Melbourne University Press, 2003. isbn 0 5228 036 7, rrp $49.95

Radhika Gorur is a Melbourne writer.



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