Beau­ti­ful and bro­ken FOR­EVER

The macabre Aus­tralian ex­ploits of a pi­o­neer­ing Swedish sci­en­tist are re­vealed in full for the first time, writes Ni­co­las Rothwell Among Wild An­i­mals and Peo­ple in Aus­tralia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IT was mid-Oc­to­ber of 1910, the early build-up sea­son, hot and damp. The leaves were droop­ing on the boab trees, the hori­zon haze was thick. The West Aus­tralian state steamship Koom­bana had just moored by the long jetty that reaches from the port of Derby far out across the muddy wa­ters of King Sound.

On board, at the head of the first Scan­di­na­vian sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion to the an­tipodes, was Eric Mjoberg, a Swedish bi­ol­o­gist, a spe­cial­ist in in­sects, dap­per, de­ter­mined and young. He was at the start of a wild ad­ven­ture: one that would send its af­ter­shocks and shap­ing con­se­quences down the re­main­ing decades of his vivid life.

It is an ad­ven­ture lit­tle known or rec­ol­lected in this coun­try, though it seems to sum up a cen­tury of ex­plo­rations in the re­mote north­west. The story can only be told com­plete with its end­ing to­day: it is a tale of griefs fore­shad­owed, of pro­fa­na­tions, re­ver­sals and repa­ra­tion long de­ferred.

And so Mjoberg, who was al­ready keep­ing an im­pres­sion­is­tic, de­tailed travel jour­nal, set foot for the first time, wide-eyed, on Kim­ber­ley soil. By chance, the yearly cat­tle drive from the great sta­tions of the in­land had just come to its end: there was money in the lit­tle town­ship, the races were on, bush­men, ringers and stock­men were ev­ery­where, run­ning through their earn­ings, drink­ing hard. He wrote: A deaf­en­ing racket is heard from early morn­ing to late evening in the bars and ho­tels. Beaten heroes are seen ly­ing around the bare streets over­whelmed by fa­tigue and ex­haus­tion. How­ever within hours they are up again and it starts all over. Hands dive down into the trouser pocket, a crum­pled By Eric Mjoberg Trans­lated by Mar­gareta Luotsi­nen and Kim Akerman Hes­pe­rian Press, 362pp, $95 bunch of pound notes comes up and five to ten by­s­tanders are in­vited for a drink which hastily is downed in one go.

De­spite th­ese dis­qui­et­ing at­mo­spher­ics, Mjoberg plunged in: he went up coun­try, fol­low­ing the rough and ready stock route. Soon he was in his tar­get ter­rain, the Fitzroy Val­ley, a land­scape teem­ing with new in­sect species and un­fa­mil­iar sights and sounds: a whole world for him to match in words. He had a florid prose style, which veered abruptly be­tween the pre­cisely evoca­tive and the overblown, of­ten in a sin­gle para­graph. It is well caught in this trans­la­tion, a labour of love ac­com­plished by Kim­ber­ley scholar Kim Akerman and Mar­gareta Luotsi­nen.

Here is Mjoberg on stick in­sects: ‘‘ They step around on high stilts on the very sim­i­lar yel­low grass-stems, their con­tours drawn sharp, and ghost-like against the lighter hori­zon.’’ Here is a noc­tur­nal, moon­lit scene: ‘‘ The district lies drenched in the light­est sil­ver-shim­mer, it is as light as in the mid­dle of the day, and still a ghostly feel­ing rests so al­lur­ingly over the whole of na­ture, over earth and trees, over all leaves and branches, yes, over the most in­signif­i­cant ob­ject.’’

Night was Mjoberg’s time, for mus­ing, for writ­ing. Night when ‘‘ the crafty dingo goes out search­ing and lets out its hol­low, hor­ri­ble howl’’, when you can hear the rus­tle of the ter­mites in the eu­ca­lypts, when the stars form a canopy above the dy­ing camp­fire em­bers and your fel­low trav­ellers are fast asleep.

Im­petu­ous, al­ways on the verge of be­ing swept away by his imag­in­ings, Mjoberg was not, per­haps, a typ­i­cal early 20th-cen­tury man of sci­ence, but he was most cer­tainly a col­lec­tor and a clas­si­fier: skinks, frogs, toadlets and for­est dragons dis­cov­ered on his var­i­ous ex­pe­di­tions bear his name to­day. What­ever was strange and novel held and fas­ci­nated him. He filled his travel jour­nal with lit­tle es­say­is­tic por­traits: of nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena such as mi­rages and willy-willies, of so­cial pat­terns, the rou­tines that formed the ba­sis of re­mote sta­tion life. He met boundary rid­ers, over­seers, stock­hands by the dozen: he anatomised them all with his un­spar­ing eye. He wrote: There is fa­tigue in the air. The white North Aus­tralian is per­ma­nently tired. To see a per­son stand­ing loose and up­right is very rare. One al­ways stands lean­ing on a frame, door­post or a rail­ing. Not to men­tion the bush­men liv­ing in the in­te­rior, who al­ways squat on the ground, as if to hop like a crow, when they so­cialise with each other.

Mjoberg had a clear sci­en­tific pro­gram set out be­fore he sailed, not just en­to­mol­ogy but botany as well. ‘‘ All the dif­fer­ent zoo­log­i­cal dis­ci­plines from mam­mals and birds down to worms, snails and other in­ver­te­brate an­i­mals were to be rep­re­sented.’’

But for an evo­lu­tion­ary sci­en­tist of Mjoberg’s time, the can­vas of the nat­u­ral king­dom was broader still. It in­cluded that ul­ti­mate preda­tor, that em­blem of the sur­vival of the fittest, man. Ethnog­ra­phy, then, was also part of Mjoberg’s mis­sion to the Kim­ber­ley, to the ‘‘ more or less undis­turbed es­tates of the rapidly dy­ing-out Aus­tralian ne­groes’’.

The need to col­lect arte­facts of in­dige­nous cul­ture and keep an­thro­po­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions al­ways at the fore­front of the ex­pe­di­tion’s pri­or­i­ties was quite plain. The tasks had al­ready been di­vided up be­tween the re­spec­tive spe­cial­ists. Mjoberg would shoul­der the bulk of the an­i­mal and marine work, and the plants too, and, as he ex­plains briskly in his first chap­ter, some­thing else: ‘‘ The any­thing but pleas­ant col­lect­ing of the Abo­rig­i­nal skele­tons and cra­nia.’’

The what? This was writ­ten in 1910, a decade af­ter Aus­tralian Fed­er­a­tion, well into the mod­ern era. Grave rob­bing was not just il­le­gal, it was seen as im­moral through­out the West­ern world.

Even at this early point in Mjoberg’s pre­sen­ta­tion, the strange penumbra sur­round­ing him has be­gun to emerge. He presses on, weighed down by gloomy thoughts.

He reaches the tran­quil homestead

at

Aus­tralien Bland vilda djur och folk i

Eric Mjoberg and, above right, the cover of his 1915 book,

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