Don Wat­son’s mag­nif­i­cent, cel­e­bra­tory, con­tra­dic­tory study of the Aus­tralian bush will chal­lenge the na­tional imag­i­na­tion, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

DON Wat­son’s The Bush, an ami­able, learned, play­ful and en­gross­ing book, seems to grow out of his two two ear­lier works. The first is the 1984 clas­sic Cale­do­nia Aus­tralis, in which he gives an ac­count of the set­tle­ment of his na­tive Gipp­s­land by the bounty im­mi­grants from Scot­land’s High­lands and is­lands, and the fight be­tween the dream­ing of live­stock and Calvin­ist pre­des­ti­na­tion and the Dream­ing of the Kur­nai and Kulin peo­ple. The sec­ond is Amer­i­can Jour­neys (2008), in which he brings a sharp, Toc­quevil­lian eye to mod­ern Amer­ica.

Now Wat­son has brought the meth­ods of the great Alexis de Toc­queville to the bush it­self, the vast Petri dish of Aus­tralian myth-mak­ing and iden­tity, of ad­vance and ruin, po­etry and de­spo­li­a­tion. Again Gipp­s­land is the home of his sen­si­bil­ity, but his bush ex­cur­sions are far flung, as are the ex­cur­sions of his imag­i­na­tion and cu­rios­ity.

Some­times Wat­son is a travel writer, as when he re­counts vis­it­ing the town of Jer­ilderie in the wake of its ‘‘lever­age’’ of its Ned Kelly con­nec­tion. Fre­quently, he is a his­to­rian, as when he dis­cusses the ru­ral vi­o­lence be­hind Waltz­ing Matilda. As a mem­oirist, he nar­rates his fam­ily’s ar­rival and sub­se­quent life in the ham­let of Poowong and his own early child­hood nearby. As a botanist, he tells us how salt­bush de­vours salt and lives off scant air mois­ture by a process called C4 pho­to­syn­the­sis. Any of th­ese modes on their own would have made a sat­is­fy­ing book in Wat­son’s hands, but he set out to make an om­nium com­pen­dium, The Bush: Trav­els in the Heart of Aus­tralia By Don Wat­son Hamish Hamil­ton, 427pp, $45 (HB) since he tells us that is what the bush is. ‘‘The bush is squat­ter, se­lec­tor, sol­dier set­tler, closer set­tler, blockie, tim­ber­worker, tin miner, drover, drover’s wife … It is rab­biter, herd tester, shep­herd, swag­man, bush lawyer, bush me­chanic, bushranger …’’ It may even be the ur­ban re­tiree on five acres. It has room for all.

And some­how, even in th­ese lat­ter days, de­spite agribusi­ness and GM crops, we can’t help be­liev­ing that it still re­deems all. “The bush has al­ways been as much for hid­ing patholo­gies as re­pair­ing them,’’ Wat­son rue­fully ad­mits as he starts the mid­dle phases of his life in the Mace­don Ranges. But he, like so many of us, can­not help but feel en­larged by the prox­im­ity of foli- age and birds. In the same vein, he notes that Na­tion­als se­na­tor Barn­aby Joyce, like mil­lions of us, has no doubt that stock farm­ing is the mea­sure of a man’s met­tle as a true Aus­tralian.

In this great, suc­cu­lent magic pud­ding of a book, there are al­ways ex­cit­ing and novel in­sights. Wat­son in­vites us to think of pi­o­neer­ing weeds, such as sow this­tles and mal­lows, spread­ing across the bush cour­tesy of wild live­stock es­caped from herds and flocks closer to the coasts. Thus weeds and bac­te­ria were faster colonis­ers than set­tlers and sur­vey­ors.

Din­gos, ar­riv­ing some 4000 years past and be­com­ing as­sim­i­lated by Abo­rig­i­nal groups, turned the bal­ance of Aus­tralian fauna in favour of car­ni­vores. The thy­lacine and then the dingo cut a swath through na­tive her­bi­vores. This al­lowed the rich ‘‘park­land’’ pas­tures ex­plor­ers praised to be­come avail­able for the first pas­toral­ists, and thus Aus­tralian wool was el­e­vated to the top of the world mar­ket. But the dingo, so re­spected by some Abo­rig­ines that only ini­ti­ated males could hunt it, in turn took its huge toll of sheep and earned the ha­tred of the set­tlers, be­com­ing a noun and even a verb for mal­ice, sly­ness and theft.

He ar­gues that most Aus­tralians of the past 150 years have known the bush only when it was ‘‘half dead, a shadow of it­self … Less than fifty years of Euro­pean oc­cu­pa­tion was all it took’’. In a mere two gen­er­a­tions of set­tle­ment around Narrandera, NSW, the plains that ‘‘caused squat­ters to swoon, and Joseph Fur­phy to see a new civil­i­sa­tion’’ lost their black­box wood­lands and much of their salt­bush. Even so, we still read­ily be­lieved that in this post-set­tle­ment con­di­tion, as we saw it in our child­hoods, the bush could en­no­ble us and give an es­pe­cial tim­bre to our souls.

Wat­son can call on Spinoza to ex­plain our cav­a­lier at­ti­tude to ex­ploit­ing the bush, which is of na­ture, while the hu­man soul is of God.

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