Our un­der­stand­ing of the heart of the con­ti­nent changes Ni­co­las Roth­well as of­ten as the land­scape, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover -

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.

Pic­tures: Peter Eve

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

orig­i­nal jour­nals

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