MAPPING OUR IMAGINATION
Our understanding of the heart of the continent changes Nicolas Rothwell as often as the landscape, writes
IN Australian landscapes lurk many secrets, designs and beliefs. They hide in the texture and topography of the country, but also in the words we use to speak of it. Is the landscape that greets our eyes and fills our minds truly simple and straightforward? Is it an unchanging, distinct backdrop, as it seems?
Landscape, the term and the idea, like most of present- day Australia ’ s conceptual and descriptive vocabulary, derives from Europe. The soft European vistas of countryside that lie embedded in our cultural memory were in fact largely human creations. They were almost works of art, developed and perfected: the stone- walled fields of England, the terroirs of France, the vineyards and olive groves that clustered tightly around Mediterranean shorelines. The managed artifice of such country is clear and even the sentimental core of Germanic Europe, the Rhineland basin, is in great part an engineered, confected world.
It is only when we get to Australia, though, that this sequence of invention and projection of country becomes truly vertiginous and takes on the quality of multiple reflection we may associate with a rather overdone postmodern narrative. As is well known, the first explorers, when they began their probes and feints through the bush around Sydney, were delighted by what they found: great swathes of seeming parkland, grassy meadows interspersed with tall, majestic, well- spaced trees. They imagined they were in the depths of some nobleman ’ s estate and in a sense they were, for that landscape was very likely the product of an elaborate system of patchwork burning undertaken by its Aboriginal inhabitants.
When the settlers reached beyond the Great Dividing Range and its rain shadow, the world around them turned very quiet, for that terrain was not quite in the ordered realm of landscape. Even today it still preserves something of its mournful, threatening character, and I have always felt the most sombre part of the Australian inland is to be found not in the harsh deserts and the salt lake regions but in the far west of NSW, out in the Corner Country, that flat, parched plain of mulga, filled with oxbox patterns in the sand; the region where the first surveyors dreamed they might find an inland sea.
What did they find instead, the settlers and explorers, as they pushed into the heart of the continent? Were they in landscape or country, and where did one stop and the other begin?
Charles Sturt, a romantic intellectual, a selfdramatising writer of the first rank, a seeker after the sublime in nature and a distinctly dreamy kind of explorer, sketched in this way the crucial moment of his great expedition into the central deserts; the instant, on September 7, 1845, far up the dry watercourse of Eyre Creek, when he decided he would have to turn back and renounce his dearest hopes.
Ascending one of the sand ridges I saw a ‘‘ numberless succession of these terrific objects rising above each other to the east and west of me. Northwards they ran away before me for more than 15 miles ( 24km), with the most undeviating straightness, as if those masses had been thrown up with the plumb and rule. How much further they went with the same undeviating regularity God only knows, but I find it utterly impossible to describe the appearance of the country. ’’
Sturt is here depicting a stretch of desert I know well and that lies not too far away from where the township of Birdsville now stands. It is an excellent description: that is one face of the eastern desert, and I have had just such thoughts and feelings while standing on those dune crests, looking into the void. But it is also a very selfconscious and bravura piece of landscape writing, though it is written at the limits of the landscape, where the capacity to see and feel run out, and it describes a piece of land Sturt thought of as the purest wilderness.
Landscape — writing it, seeing it, framing it — has always been a problem in the busy fields of literature, and a quick look at what Sturt has done, and what we could see in almost any other such extended purple passage, will reveal the disquieting truth: country, in its unalloyed form, is somewhat dull. It has a tendency to be monotonous and boring, and hard to catch in words. To be plain about it, landscape writing requires a good deal of tradecraft, otherwise it quickly goes dead.
Even the most sublime writers of the Australian landscape know this and populate their country with presences and figures of speech and flights of imagination; with stories, with memo- ries, with anecdotes and episodes, until quiet, empty- seeming land is covered, like a morning sand dune, with a reduplicating set of literary tracks. In my own attempts to describe the inland, I have found it always prudent to have diversions or parallel channels running in the narrative: to be engaged in the routines of driving, perhaps, while one tells one ’ s story, or to be in conversation, or remembering, or dreaming with one ’ s eyes open. This is just what one finds in life. One is only very rarely present to a place, fully present, without the engagement of the constantly modulating pressure of the self.
I suspect the re- creation or the evocation of such total presence belongs more in the domain of religious insight or meditative discipline than in the world of literary art, which I think of as the written mirror of probing, active, life- filled consciousness, a kind of mimic system or proof text of the wave of thought. And thought enters into any landscape.
If you travel into a place you don ’ t know, your mind is constantly drawing pictures and connections for you as you advance, and if you go through country you know well it opens up before you like a book. When romantic ideas of landscape and imagination were first coming into focus, about the time of Australia’ s colonisation and settlement, the science of mind was in its infancy. It has advanced rapidly in recent years. A fresh, intriguing picture has begun to emerge, a broad new model of thought and consciousness and perception. In everything we sense, there seems to be a slight mismatch between what we pick up and when we are aware we are sensing it. Sometimes our movements even precede, infini-
tesimally, our conscious decision to make a movement. If a patient with his visual centres damaged by a certain kind of brain injury is shown an object in his field of vision, he appears to be able to sense it through blindsight ’’
‘‘ without knowing that he sees it.
Above all, when we look about us, what we resolve and detect with accuracy is only the central part of the field of vision; the brain, like a constant improviser, is filling in the rest of the detail. What does this suggest for country and how we see? Landscape is differentiated, bordered, denoted, while bush is seen as continuous, without clear frontiers, so that its tones and hues vary in the subtlest fashion; it has yet to be brought into the province of Western man.
And hence the difficulty of writing about it and using the tradecraft we have for landscape, where our linguistic devices seem to me remarkably similar to the fill- in devices the brain supplies to us in its constant perceptual tasks. We make up the landscape as we go, and this is a circumstance that holds the most alarming lessons for our complaisant, reflexive embrace of realism as a standard of artistic measure and often it seems to me, in my own journeys into the Australian bush, that this is the secret message it is murmuring; that this is the content of the wind blowing through the leaf- veils of the desert oaks and between the branches of the bloodwood trees.
Let me turn to an even more radical thought. The wilderness, the inland, the centre: what is it? Primeval, surely? But the deserts, though they mark nature ’ s bleak victory over man, may also be, in some part, of artificial manufacture.
Free- thinking, Aranda- speaking botanist Peter Latz, an individual whose knowledge of bush trees and plants is very likely unmatched, has strong views on this front. He believes that much of the far western desert, the world beyond landscape, bears the mark of man. His argument, in strippeddown terms, is that man ’ s entry to Australia heightened natural burning and changed the balance of the vegetation, so much so that deserts, spinifex and desert oaks, still spreading, are the result, and the human hand has helped shape the deepest reaches of the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts. For spinifex, like the desert oak, is a plant that thrives on fire and needs it to spread, and spreads through it by destroying the habitats of rival, fire- sensitive plants.
This is a striking picture, one that pays a strange tribute to the power of the first incoming fire users, who by their actions shaped a world and then adapted to what they shaped.
It leaves us with a humanised and somehow tempting portrait of the western deserts; it edges them towards the realm of landscape rather than mere wilderness.
While I was collecting and sifting through these thoughts on landscape and on art, I was, as it happens, taking part in a scientific journey through the Simpson, the same compact, forbidding sand- ridge desert Sturt encountered in his explorations more than 150 years ago. Today the Simpson, for all its bleak austerity, is not exactly trackless; you can follow broad desert roads and cuts and seismic lines, and make your way by four- wheel- drive, in a few adventurous days, deep into remote country, and even complete a crossing of 400km on the well- worn tracks between Eyre Creek and Dalhousie Springs.
I, though, together with a group of researchers, was on foot, walking beside a camel train, in a much less fashionable corner of the Simpson: the southern fringe, well below Poeppel Corner. This stretch of the desert has pale, whitish dunes and a subtle, shifting temperament. It is traversed by the wide, undulating sand bed of the Kallakoopah Creek and, when rain comes down from the channel country, it turns into an ephemeral saline wetland, full of birds and flowers. The night- time shadows of the coolibah trees, the sound of the grasswrens, the rasp of the sand on one’ s skin: how elusive they are and how much the sense of being in such places is bound up with the going, and the consciousness that one ’ s time there is dying once it starts. I found walking, rather than driving at speed, and walking beside animals, transformed much about my sense of the country. It read differently, and walking in company, even if we were mostly silent, was, at times, a sharp intensifier of the experience of place. The Simpson feels, to those who pass through it, like a space of nature; it has not been wholly firechanged. It is very much a maverick among Australian deserts: the dunes, with their metronomic north- northwest alignment, are bizarrely regular; it is less vegetation- covered than the great deserts of the west, it borders the adamantine plain of gibbers once known as Sturt’ s stony desert; and it has a different spirit.
Western scientists have done much in recent decades to make the Simpson known as an emotional space, but through time I have come to see a previous layer of attention in the windswept sand. It was widely assumed for much of the past century that Aborigines spent little time in the Simpson, so great were its rigours. The Wangkanguru, who lived on its southern fringes and were the last Aborigines in the Lake Eyre Basin to encounter Europeans, found themselves in the late 19th century increasingly drawn into the missions, with their tempting supplies of food. The last of their number left the Simpson in 1900 and by the mid- 1970s only three old men who were desert- born survived. All have died and the memory store of the Wangkanguru is kept by their descendants, many of whom live in distant Port Augusta.
Only recently have archeologists and anthropologists begun to decode the full story of the desert ’ s Aboriginal past, which lies in fragments and is hard to read, and may reach back 2700 years. The usual scatter of flints and stone flakes and hand axes one encounters everywhere across the inland can be found through stretches of the desert ’ s fringe, but the most intriguing features of the Simpson ’ s human landscape are its mikiris or native wells. These are soaks, lying between the dunes and reached by deep- dug, carefully maintained shafts. Even now, mikiri wells are being found and the secret of their precise location stays well kept by archeologists. A historian friend once described to me a laborious trip he made years ago to a mikiri site in the deep Simpson, which had been preserved intact. There were the sweet signs of familial habitation: digging sticks, carved objects, wooden coolamons, chipped, worked stones. All had been left there long ago, as if their owners fully expected to use them again, in some future close ahead.
Coming across such sites in the deep bush is a disconcerting affair. it is hard to avoid a sense of trespass that, in the remainder of the country, has been largely washed away, but doubtless in time all the remaining undiscovered traces of past cultures will have been found and catalogued, and their meanings and the fields of their memories will slowly change.
These are some of my ideas about the landscape of the centre and the north: country harsh and hard to survive in, and filled with a beauty and a dignity that give depth to life. The country, though, is not just a made- up thing, constructed, alive with our dreams. It is not just the screen from which we draw our words and thoughts, which we have already busily poured into it. There is a landscape behind the landscape that we are always reaching for and seeking with our eyes and hearts. It is the landscape that is always there, and always receding, and that seems especially well evoked by the Aboriginal conceptual frame of the Tjukurrpa, which is the flash of the present moment and the echo, far off, from primary, long- vanished events.
Can today ’ s Australians inhabit such landscape? Can we feel at home there? When you find yourself in a pale dune field at sunset, with the sky blush pink and deepest indigo, or when you look out from the crest of an inland mesa at the clouds in their indifferent race across the sky, such questions tend to dissolve, and patterns and thought- chains separate from man ’ s deliberate kingdom take hold. I have always felt, at such moments, on the verge of dissolution — close to death, as much as on the threshold of new revelations in the march of life — and rather than imposing my will on country, or on landscape, and prolonging the dictatorship of control and consciousness, I am overwhelmed. I am a creature of new rhythm, and the desert, and the inland, are writing me.
Out in the Simpson:
From far left, Kallakoopah Creek
in northern South Australia; the scientific expedition
crossing a clay pan near Kallakoopah Creek; Charles Sturt’ s