The time we all went bush

Ge­of­frey Blainey ex­plores two books that roam our great land, in places known and un­known

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­of­frey Blainey’s

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

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