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On country

As writers and editors, together and individually, Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths have published many valuable books on Australian environmental and historical issues that demand debate, understanding and resolution. Words for Country keeps up their good work as public intellectuals. Its 15 essays, by a range of authors, cover most parts of the country and a lot of its history and popular attitudes—delving, arguing, describing, as well as discussing language.

A wide variety of language has delineated, praised or affronted our landscape. One piece of doggerel from the mallee country of north-west Victoria has stuck in my mind since the 1930s Depression:

Bugger the road
Bugger the track
Bugger it all the way there and back.
Bugger the drought
Bugger the weather
Bugger the mallee altogether.

More sedately, Barron Field, the legal man who spent a few years here and returned to England in 1824, referred to Australia as ‘this prose-dull land’. James McAuley called it a ‘land of smiles’, and on another plane A.D. Hope saw it as ‘The Arabian desert of the human mind’.

Joseph Furphy, in The Buln-buln and the Brolga, has his alter ego, Tom Collins, in bitter and nationalist mood, pronounce that anyone ‘who disgraces an Australian river, or mountain, or town-site, or locality of any kind, with the name of his own insanitary European birthplace is guilty of a presumption which amounts to unpardonable impudence’. Tom Roberts thought our bushland had witchery rather than the melancholy so many saw in it—‘a witchery all of its own’.

Ten years ago in Towards Lake Eyre the poet J.R. Rowland found country strewn

With the wreck of human passage: sand-
                                            logged bottles,
Blown paper, ruined plastic, blackened
Gifts to the land of tourists, like our-
Now no one lives here. Wheeltracks, not
Mark the edges of this world with fading

However, ‘Politics is ... at the core of this book,’ the editors tell us on page 2: ‘Conflicts over land ownership, control and use—whether between cotton growers and pastoralists, pastoralists and Aborigines, Aborigines and archaeologists—loom large.’

And so they do. In a fascinating piece about South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, its history and attractiveness, Rebe Taylor raises what she believes is the exclusion of Aboriginal presence and achievement. Interestingly, the Aborigines referred to here are descendants of Tasmanian Aboriginal women kidnapped and taken to Kangaroo Island by sealers well before white settlement in Adelaide.

Four of the essays explore the subject of the Murray-Darling basin and the problems caused by excessive irrigation. Heather Goodall considers the effects of cotton farming and the consequent huge drain on the Darling in ‘The River Runs Backwards’. Kirsty Douglas’ ‘Scarcely Any Water on its Surface’, Paul Sinclair’s ‘Blackfellows Oven Roads’ and Tom Griffiths’ ‘The Outside Country’ widen the topic.

Tasmanian issues are canvassed by P.R. Hay’s piece about the blasted, naked, eroded and multi-coloured hills surrounding Queenstown, and Tim Bonyhady provides an intriguing commentary about the saving and naming and renaming of Fraser Cave on the Franklin, which the archaeologist Rhys Jones described as one of the most important ‘prehistoric sites ever found in Australia’.

Michael Cathcart’s ‘Uluru’ relates attitudes of past and present, the progression from Ayers Rock to Uluru, the fascinating story of William Gosse’s discovery of the Rock and the subsequent writing-out of the participation of his ‘Afghan’ partner in the feat. (Cathcart applied for—and got—a four-wheel drive from his university for his fieldwork in search of, as he put it, ‘adjectives’.)

Perhaps some of the essays are occasionally esoteric. The following is posed on page 71: ‘So what are the connections between a teleological explanation of a regional geomorphology employing deep time, sea-level change and cyclic regional aridity as transfiguring influences, and a cosmological outlook which already has an exegetic frame for the shape of the land?’ Yeah, good question, but dunno. And I wouldn’t try to quote it aloud to the family on a black Saturday evening after Melbourne had been thrashed by Collingwood.

The authors, largely tertiary lecturers, researchers and students, have gone out to do fieldwork in landscapes, memories,  stories and archives. This is exemplary. Nevertheless, out there are many people living and thinking, part of the landscape for all or most of their lives: naturalists, farmers, environmentalists, local historians, land lovers with capacity to write and argue. They have no need to borrow or beg four-wheel drives and know the adjective scene well. Perhaps future such works could be enhanced by some first-hand presence to augment the necessary and invaluable research and prognostications of scientific experts.

Unfortunately, it is hard to be sanguine about the outcome of many of the issues discussed in this book. The present world climate is dominated by global economic lust, and racism and xenophobia are still healthy beasts. The war against fanatical terrorists being led by fundamentalist hawks wielding gigantic weapons of mass destruction presents great dangers for peace and stability. Hardly the space for an improved environment or for race relations to blossom—even though that is no reason to stop striving for such goals. 

John Sendy is a freelance writer.



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