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