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