The time we all went bush
Geoffrey Blainey explores two books that roam our great land, in places known and unknown
Don Watson’s new book, A Single Tree, is fascinating. Consisting of about 160 pieces of writing, it brings alive the bush during a long span of Australian history. The writers chosen by Watson range from explorers and ecologists to poets, novelists, anthropologists and historians. All briefly ‘‘say something about what it means to live in this land and some say what it will mean when we learn how to live with it’’. In discovering and selecting them Watson was often moved, ‘‘even mysteriously so’’.
As compere of this stage show, Watson stands silently behind the curtain and speaks only in the six pages of introduction. His self-effacing formula emphatically succeeds, though many readers might prefer to hear what he himself thinks about a certain bush poem or snatch of history.
We roam the nation. Here is the country around Melbourne, before it became a village. In the eyes of the newly arrived John Batman it was a vast parkland with hardly one large tree to be seen. He asks himself: wherever will the inhabitants gather firewood after they arrive in numbers?
James Fenton, a northwest Tasmanian, recalls a rural scene in the mid-19th century: ‘‘The plain upon which I had entered was covered all over with wombats, feeding vigorously like a flock of sheep.’’ Disturbed by the sight and sound of the intruding horseman, the wombats tried to hide in holes too small to conceal them.
That night, a wombat was cooked for supper but Fenton does not say whether it was tasty. (It so happens that I knew a gold prospector who lived in Tasmanian wombat country in the 1880s, and his verdict was that the burrower tasted like bacon.)
Watson rightly argues that details are the nuts and bolts of history. They tell us more than ‘‘the most articulate testimony’’.
From the Wimmera in 1866, George Everard, a travelling bushman, offers the best description I have seen of that once-familiar rural sight, the boiling down of thousands of unsaleable sheep so that only the tallow remains. The tongues of the sheep were not consigned to the hot tallow vats: Everard ate some and ‘‘jolly good they were’’.
I did not know that rural suicides, now common in stressed farming districts, were frequent in an earlier era. At one sheep station in 1892 Everard counted five graves where employees were buried. Four were suicides, three of them ‘‘victims of drink’’.
In contrast, we read about rural jubilation. Here a soldier-settler on a small irrigated farm writes about his neighbourhood near Loxton in South Australia: ‘‘The camaraderie and everything was magnificent.’’ Nearby, Ron and Beryl George ‘‘felt as if we were doing something wonderful’’.
Bush and grass fires ran wild over a vast area but their absence also damaged the country. Major Thomas Mitchell, the Sydney-based explorer, saw how the cessation of regular con- A Single Tree: Voices from the Bush Compiled by Don Watson Hamish Hamilton, 416pp, $45 (HB) From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories By Mark McKenna Miegunyah Press, 251pp, $34.99 trolled burnings by Aborigines quickly gave rise to the growth of forest in places where once a horseman ‘‘might gallop without impediment, and see whole miles before him’’. American forester Stephen Pyne and rural-reared historians Eric Rolls and Bill Gammage are recruited by Watson to chew over this tantalising topic.
As this book is ‘’a fragmentary history of humans in the Australian bush’’, the shed must have its allotted space. Writer Mary Fullerton recalls that her father ‘‘was a believer in sheds, and yet more sheds’’. In the era before cheap corrugated iron, most sheds must have been roofed with sheets of stout bark, for her poem notes them piled on local farmers’ wagons: ‘‘The farmer bears his load of vandalled bark.’’ Her father would not have thought he was an axe-carrying vandal but fashions have altered in the space of a century, and will change again.
We learn about axes from John Vader, a native of New England. Even in the 1930s most Australians knew how to handle an axe with care, but accidents were common. The blunt axe was more damaging than the sharp axe, the wound from which healed more rapidly. For a deep wound, tobacco juice was a favourite potion, and calico served as the bandage.
At times, tens of thousands of people made a living by cutting wood. John Evans, a woodcutter at the age of 13, had been spurred by the wartime drought of the early 1940s, when his family lost most of its sheep and had to shoot all its draught horses.
Early environmentalists, the Evans family carefully preserved tree hollows where parrots could make a nest. After the drought was prolonged, so many wild budgerigars came from the interior in search of speargrass seed that when they landed they fought for possession of the scarce tree hollows.
John Shaw Neilson, the poet who was a farm labourer, evokes lusher seasons: I stood amazed at the Pelican, and crowned him for a king. I saw the black duck in the reeds, and the spoonbill on the sky, And in that poor country no pauper was I.
The visiting English author DH Lawrence, unimpressed by many facets of this land, marvelled at the ‘‘feathery delicate yellow’’ of wattle plumes in springtime — ‘‘as if angels had flown right down out of the softest gold regions of heaven to settle here’’. It is the gifted anthropologist TGH Strehlow who insists that no part of this country was so poor that it was unloved by Aborigines. He wrote in 1950, a time when few white Australians, in his opinion, had ‘‘a feeling of oneness’’ with nature.
These pages periodically lament that we harmed the environment. But biologist and author Tim Low, born in the 50s, suggests we should sometimes not ‘‘feel so bad about ourselves’’. Possums, certain lizards and honeyeaters multiply and flourish more in the suburbs than in their natural environment.
Watson sees the bush as not only a tale of nation-building but also a story of ‘‘chaos and ruin on an equivalent scale and a great deal in between’’. He dedicates his work to Manning Clark, whose books of documents — somewhat similar in aim — were once a vital guide for students of Australian history.
Mark McKenna’s new book is, like Watson’s, unorthodox. With the aid of a grant from the Australian Research Council he visits four remote places that, in his view, represent lost history and ‘‘barely register in the nation’s consciousness’’.
The result, From the Edge, is a book of four essays that discuss the celebrated Pilbara region, Port Essington in Arnhem Land, Cooktown where James Cook and the later goldseekers landed, and a shipwreck in Bass Strait that spurred a long mainland journey.
Expressing his gratitude to an earlier book by the late John Mulvaney, a pioneering archeologist, McKenna also gained from John’s son Kenneth, who is a specialist on the world-class assemblage of ancient rock art at Burrup on the Pilbara coast.
There, in a ‘‘cathedral-like atmosphere’’, McKenna rejoiced at the images of stick figures, mysterious circles, masked faces, emus and turtles: ‘‘Some were faint and weathered, while others virtually leap out, intensely lit by the early morning sun’’.
This is the only part of the book where very ancient Aboriginal history is discussed in detail. McKenna’s heart is in the past 300 years, and especially in early race relations between black and white.
He is not sure how far to forgive the huge minerals ships now plying from Pilbara ports. They witness a ‘‘rush to extract every last ounce of profit from the land and sea’’, and all for the sake of what he calls a boom-and-bust economy. He hints — if I read him correctly — that he might prefer to have lived in ancient than in modern Australia.
Occasionally McKenna magnifies the historic importance of each place with risky statements. Did Port Essington (1838-49) really nurse ‘‘the first wave of countless dreams of developing Australia’s north’’? And was it really the harbour or coastline where the ‘‘creation ancestor first came ashore many thousands of years ago to lay the foundations of indigenous culture in the far north of Australia?’’ The site was then almost certainly far from the sea.
Readers will relish his fluent story of how shipwrecked Bengali and British seamen, making a brave trek from the Gippsland coast towards Sydney in 1797, were often helped by Aborigines. He has not documented his confident claim that the survivors ‘‘walked further on Australian soil than any non-Aboriginal person had walked before them’’. He does intimate that he and others happily walked part of the way in order to understand the feat.
This shortish work, distinguished by the author’s engaging prose style and attractive photographs, might well be a prelude to an important book that examines more systematically the black-white relations that are McKenna’s favourite focus. latest book is the second volume of The Story of Australia’s People.
Detail from the cover of Don Watson’s A Single Tree: Voices from the Bush