FOR THE LOVE OF THE LAND
Australia is blessed with stunning landscapes. So where are the books that celebrate them?
LSTEP INTO ALMOST any British bookshop and you’ll find tables stacked high with nature books. Their covers are instantly recognisable: seagulls plummet from woodcut cliffs, treetops form a crownshy canopy, a huge-eyed owl spreads its watercolour wings. They cover everything from canals to birds to islands to flowers to one single acre of Yorkshire moors. There’s a competition dedicated to nature writing: the Wainwright Prize, launched in 2014. That ‘bastion’ of British popular culture, The Daily Mail, even ran a poll recently to discover Britain’s favourite nature book. That’s not surprising, because Britain is where nature writing was born (in the Western world at least).
In the Hampshire village of Selborne, the 18th-century parson Gilbert White was born, lived most of his life and died. He might have passed through the world entirely unremarked had it not been for his habit of writing detailed letters about the countryside he knew so well. These writings became the first modern nature book in English, The Natural History of Selborne, which was published in 1789 and has never been out of print since.
His observations provide a window into the nat ura l world before the indust r ia l revolution changed it forever.
It inspired Charles Darwin and revealed White’s deep respect for nature, which continues to influence those who love and write about it today.
White’s death in 1793 coincided with the dawn of the Romantic movement, whose focus on emotion, spontaneity and feelings of transcendence changed the way people thought and wrote about nature. Poets like William Wordsworth (1770–1850) (“I wandered lonely as a cloud/That floats on high o’er vales and hills/When all at once I saw a crowd/A host, of golden daffodils”) arguably kick-started the nature conservation movement.
By 1938 the genre was being satirised by the gloriously acerbic Evelyn Waugh, whose comic novel Scoop immortalised the hapless Boot, a journalist who wrote of the countryside in feeble, sentimental, helplessly hilarious prose (“‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole’”).
It was perhaps the creeping awareness of what we were losing in our increasingly urbanised lives that led to the 21st-century resurgence of the genre, thanks to writers like Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin and Helen Macdonald.
IN AMERICA, HENRY DAVID THOREAU is regarded as the father of nature writing. Famously, he went to live alone in a cabin he built on Walden Pond to “suck the marrow out of life”. John Muir’s passionate defence of the mountains ensured he influenced not only the creation of America’s national parks, but the work of seminal writers including Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey, too. And it was American marine biologist Rachel Carson whose 1962 book Silent Spring sparked the modern environmental movement and informs the work of modern US nature writers such as Annie Dillard.
Where, though, are the equivalent writers in Australia? Where are the bookshop tables groaning with lyrical evocations of the many wondrous places and creatures of this singular continent? Where are our prizes and polls and newspaper articles?
In the 19th century, says Inga Simpson, a novelist and nature writer who also teaches workshops in the genre, there were plenty of amateur botanists who translated their interest in the natural world into what we now call nature writing.
“In the mid-1800s Louisa Atkinson wrote newspaper columns about nature – the first was published before Thoreau’s Walden came out, but she said similar things,” says Inga.
In 1909 newspaper editor E.J. Banfield published The Confessions of a Beachcomber, the first of three nature writing books about Dunk Island, off the north-east coast of Queensland.
“He was compared with Robert Louis Stevenson and Thoreau,” says Inga, “and got international reviews and acclaim. So Australia was on the map with nature writing then.”
Professor Tom Griffiths, environmental historian at the Australian National University, Canberra, notes that some 19th-century writers modelled themselves on Thoreau, including Donald Macdonald, who wrote a column in The Argus called “Nature Notes and Queries”, and also Charles Barrett, a journalist and author.
“They were writing consciously in the tradition of Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies and Henry David Thoreau,” says Tom. “In the early 1900s Charles Barrett, with two other nature lovers and supported by Donald Macdonald, set up a bush hut, which they called Walden, in the Dandenongs. It’s very explicit, very self-conscious. They thought of themselves as being like Gilbert White; they wanted to know everything in their neighbourhood to do with nature and describe it. And they’re consciously trying to evoke an intimacy and sentimentality and affection among their fellow Australians for the strange but beautiful nature in this place.”
Yet none of these early Australian nature writers are widely known. Why not? It’s perhaps to do with the strangeness of the nature they were writing about. Writer Eric Rolls wrote that to European settlers, Australia “was more a new planet than a new continent”. Unlike North America, whose novelty to European colonisers was tempered by the fact that at least it was in the Northern Hemisphere and so had familiar seasons, very little in this upside-down continent made sense to its earliest European inhabitants. “For the settlers here, it was much more foreign and strange and hostile,” says Inga. “It was a tough existence to settle here and try to forge out a living.”
Poet and author Mark Tredinnick calls it “the bloodyminded difficulty of the landscape, the way it resists the plough”. And for those practical settlers, the plough was the purpose of the land. Its economic value was its only value.
Tim Winton, whose novels need no introduction and whose two landscape memoirs reveal his deep connection with his home state of Western Australia, says: “I wonder if this reticence [to read about Australian nature] has something to do with a lingering sense of cultural cringe, a residual anxiety that our places and nature aren’t quite important enough to write about.”
That anxiety and struggle have left their legacy in the way we think and talk about the bush today. “The way the landscape features so often in our fiction, it’s so Gothic,” says Inga. “The bush is a place where children are abducted and murdered, or women are frightened and alone – not comfortable and at ease and at one with it.”
WE’RE SO ESTRANGED from our own landscape, says Mark, that we still haven’t made sense of those upside-down seasons. Of spring, summer, autumn and winter, he says, “Those very northern European terms are lovely, I use them in my poetry – but they manifestly don’t work. They do a savage kind of injustice to what is really going on in any given part of Australia.” The Aboriginal people who live around Sydney speak of six seasons, not four, for example. Those seasons, says Mark, “are right and real and ancient because they note the interconnection between the winds and the rainfall and the flowering and what the birds do. All that stuff mattered because you didn’t eat if you didn’t know which season it was.”
Yet few Australians today need to know nature so intimately. According to the World Bank, 86 per cent of Australia’s population were living in cities in 2019.
“To the outside world,” says Mark, “we’re all deserts and kangaroos and outback, but we actually live in ghettos by the sea. They’re pretty ghettos, but they’re profoundly disconnected from the bulk of the landscape.” Our urban disconnection from nature, he says, means “we’re living in a world that isn’t here. We’re constantly aware of what isn’t rather than what is.”
This unfamiliarity extends not only to the seasons but to the very language we use to describe natural features. The literature colonisers brought with them was, of course, English literature, full of descriptions of English landscapes that simply didn’t exist in Australia. “None of its diction and speech music fitted,” Mark says. “Words like glen and brook just do not belong here. And we tried to make them fit, but they wouldn’t. And so then we blamed the land, rather than changing the language or listening for the languages that were already here.”
So why didn’t writers listen? At fault is the bloody colonial history our modern society still finds so hard to confront. Back in 1968, anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner coined the phrase “the great Australian silence”, meaning our collective unwillingness to face that history. “The great Australian silence is certainly a powerful part of Australian public culture,” says Tom Griffiths. “Australian nature writing is mired in the difficulties and legacy of conquest. Australian writers have to deal with this and increasingly they know they can’t feel too easy about the availability of this land for a transcendental and aesthetic appreciation without first coming to grips with who lived here for so long first.”
Inga agrees: “Australians carry this guilt and unease with the landscape. I think that’s connected to its Indigenous history, that we came in and annihilated that. And now most people don’t know how to connect with Aboriginal Australians and ask questions to learn more.” And Tim Winton believes: “Tom Griffiths is right about the colonial anxiety. Traditionally, talking about landscape meant eventually you had to talk about those who came with it. Or you spent a lot of time avoiding their presence.”
Several Australian nature writers of the mid-20th century did try to deal with this history. In 1935 zoologist Hedley Finlayson wrote The Red Centre: Man and Beast in the Heart of Australia (before colour photography became widespread, the fact that Australia’s centre was red was news to most of its citizens). “As Finlayson wrote about Australian nature,” says Tom, “he began to really appreciate Aboriginal knowledge, the fact that Aboriginal
“To the outside world,” says Mark, “we’re all deserts and kangaroos and outback, but we actually live in ghettos by the sea.”
people are living in the Red Centre who are biologists and ecologists and know their animals and plants intimately.” He cites Alice Duncan-Kemp, who grew up on a remote pastoral station in south-western Queensland in the early 20th century, as another example. “She was educated by the Aboriginal people who worked at the homestead and who would take her and her sister for walks around the land,” says Tom. “Her books were trying to make a literary version of Aboriginal storytelling. So Australian nature writers were among the earliest writers to try to come to terms with Aboriginal presence in the landscape.”
AKEY FEATURE OF NATURE writing is a spiritual, or mystical, focus. “Nature’s cathedral” has become such a well-known idea that it’s almost a cliché, yet like most clichés, there is truth at its heart. We do turn to nature for reasons beyond the merely physical; we do treat it like a church, seeking healing or knowledge or peace. This idea has given rise to an entire subgenre of books that focus on nature as a physical or psychological cure ( Nature Cure by Richard Mabey, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, Losing Eden by Lucy Jones).
Yet in Australia, for a non-Indigenous writer to write about something so intrinsic to many Indigenous people’s traditional way of being – a deep knowledge of, love for and connection to nature – can feel uncomfortable at best, morally wrong at worst. And it cuts to the heart of what it means to be Australian.
“Among writers, there’s a lot of sensitivit y at the moment around appropriation,” says Inga Simpson.
Thanks to a conversation with Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu, Inga now feels reassured she is doing the right thing by writing about her love of the land. “He heard me read a piece about ironbarks which won the Eric Rolls nature essay prize and spoke to me afterwards, saying he could tell I had a feeling for that country. It was just a small sentence, but it was very encouraging.”
Of trespassing on the Indigenous sense of place, Mark Tredinnick says, “You have to be careful in this space. But writers, especially if they’re non-Indigenous, can shy away from this [mystical] space where Thoreau and Robert Macfarlane and Nan Shepherd and others go with ease. They shy away for good reason – the reason being that this is someone else’s country and we took it, and now it’s not appropriate to take their cosmology and way of understanding the world, too.”
For non-Indigenous writers, there is a way to create nature writing that is respectful to the original inhabitants, Mark believes. “As a descendant of the people who took the land and killed the people, is it still possible to enter into that country and find yourself in it? I think it’s at least worth trying. I do think it’s possible to transcend cultural limits, at least for moments, and have a direct experience of landscape.”
Inga teaches nature writing courses and uses Annamaria Weldon’s essay Threshold Country as a kind of template for how to do nature writing responsibly in this country.
“She consulted the Noongar Elders and worked closely with one particular Elder, and really sought to understand his perspective and the Noongar perspective,” says Inga of Annamaria. “That’s a really good model of consultation, of
acknowledging prior occupation and much deeper knowledge and connection.”
Nature writers are always seeking that deeper connection to the land, but by the genre’s very definition, it may be unattainable. “Nature writing focuses on a view of nature as separate from us to some extent,” says Tom. “Even though it’s striving for intimacy, nature is there to be observed and enjoyed and appreciated as a further dimension of life. Whereas in Aboriginal worldviews, it’s inextricable from everything. It is completely seamless with history and being.”
SO LET’S LISTEN TO those Aboriginal people who have insight into that connection. Let’s listen, for example, to Victor Steffensen, who wrote the crucial book Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia. This is not traditional nature writing, but, asks Tom, “Do we have Aboriginal nature writers? This is where I come up against the limits of this inherited literary genre of nature writing, because it focuses on this view of nature as separate. So when I think about nature writing in Australia, I think how am I going to include Aboriginal perspectives? Not just white perspectives of Aboriginality, but Aboriginal voices. And does that shatter the category of nature writing? And maybe that’s a good thing.”
Because of the strangeness of the land to Europeans; their lack of appropriate language in which to write about it; and the unalterable fact of colonisation, the question we started with (where is Australian nature writing?) is perhaps the wrong question.
“There’s an increasing delicacy in Australia about writing about Aboriginal land with the term nature writing,” says Tom. “So we mightn’t find our freshest, newest books about land and nature in nature writing. We might find them somewhere else, or uncategorisable. Nature writing as a category might have problems here.”
So if those bookshop tables covered in books labelled ‘nature writing’ don’t exist, where can we find this kind of writing? Eric Rolls is often filed under Australiana; Deborah Bird Rose under anthropology; you’ll find Tim Flannery’s books called environmentalism; Mark Tredinnick’s The Blue Plateau was local history; Ellen van Neerven and Kirli Saunders are poets; Rebecca Giggs’s extraordinary Fathoms: The World in the Whale is science writing; Elyne Mitchell wrote children’s books; and Inga Simpson’s Understory and Angela Rockel’s Rogue Intensities were classed as memoir. Often, Australian nature writing can be found in novels. Indigenous authors Nardi Simpson, Tony Birch, Alexis Wright and Tara June Winch write beautifully about the bush (and everything else). James Bradley practically invented the cli-fi (climate fiction) genre in Australia. Tim Winton is renowned for his landscape writing. Kate Grenville, Alice Bishop, Cate Kennedy and Jane Rawson are contemporary authors whose novels and short stories sing of Australia, and before them all, Patrick White wrote unforgettably of the bush in Voss. With the resurgence of the genre overseas, perhaps the time has come for publishers to start classifying books as nature writing, which might lead to the category becoming more recognised and popular in Australia.
But currently, no such convenient category exists. The genre of nature writing in Australia, like the country it describes, is wilder, bigger, more unruly than elsewhere. No neatly stacked tables in bookshops, but instead restless, angry fiction, sharply perceptive memoir, elegiac children’s writing. Writers must create without the comfort of a clearly defined tradition on which to draw, and with the onus to consider and consult First Nations people.
“We’ve got Indigenous languages and literatures here that show us the way,” says Mark Tredinnick. “We need to find a way of writing that has this sclerophyll cadence and syntax. That’s the thing that we’ve taken a hell of a long time to do.”
But he’s confident we will find it, and moreover, he’s confident it will have its own uniquely Australian accent, forged of its history and modern multicultural nature. And it will be threaded through with what Mark has called “the land’s wild music”. “The music is here,” he says. “We just need to allow ourselves to hear how the lyrics go.”
Australian writers are rising to this challenge, with a recent rush of outstanding nature books by wordsmiths including Sophie Cunningham, Rebecca Giggs, Harry Saddler and Vicki Hastrich.
And crucially, we can now read Indigenous people’s words about their own country: Nardi Simpson; Tara June Winch; Tony Birch; Melissa Lucashenko; Claire G. Coleman; Bruce Pascoe; Ambelin Kwaymullina, Ezekiel Kwaymullina and more.
Although it’s growing on ground that initially looked intractable, this complex, capacious, crucial genre is flourishing in its own uniquely Australian way.
No neatly stacked tables in bookshops, but instead restless, angry fiction, sharply perceptive memoir, elegiac children’s writing.