Charles Massy: Reshaping the Landscape post-1770: Have We Yet Arrived as Australians?

On an early mountaineering trip to New Zealand when a student at the ANU in the 1970s, I stopped one day for a rest as we trudged up the Tasman glacier. We had dropped our packs on a large area of old, russet ice and I asked my companion (an experienced Kiwi alpine guide) whether this was some type of algae. Rather accusingly he said ‘No. That’s YOUR Mallee drought of the early 1930s!’ And he was right. Millions of tonnes of precious topsoil had traversed more than 3500 kilometres of eastern Australia and Tasman Sea to turn the Southern Alps red.

But how could this occur? Primarily because a destructive physical re-shaping of landscape by settler-farmers had, as its primary cause, an inappropriate imaginative re-creation of landscape, of ‘Country’. Thus it was no accident that the American dustbowl and Australia’s  1930s soil disaster occurred at the same time and for the same reasons. These were: first, settlers farmed the land with a false conception of the soils and climate (one based on a belief they were the same as those of Western Europe and New England America); second, governments were of similar mind and legislated accordingly (hence pitifully small soldier-settler farms); and third, there occurred the double-whammy of the early 1930s – drought and economic depression, which meant settlers over-worked the land to survive economically.

Crucially, it is extremely hard to change a socially shaped, imaginative conception of landscape. Geographer Griffith Taylor made an attempt early in the 20th century. For his sins he was chastised, hounded, and left for Canada. It took an outsider with more official sanction to describe the consequences that Taylor had warned of, and in the process to challenge our inappropriate imaginative constructions. That is, while Australia had neither a Steinbeck nor a Grapes of Wrath, we did have Francis Ratcliffe. This British biologist (employed by the CSIR) came in the 1930s to examine soil erosion and flying fox problems. In his evocative book Flying Fox and Drifting Sand, Ratcliffe spoke eloquently of ‘the remorseless forces of drought, erosion and drift’ in Australia’s semi-arid grazing lands, which he called ‘The Kingdom of the Dust’.

With fresh and trained eye Ratcliffe articulated the conundrum for Australian land-use that was created by imaginative preconception. One of the most ‘extraordinary’ and ‘discouraging aspects of the whole matter’, he said, ‘is the reluctance, amounting almost to stubborn refusal, on the part of the Australian people, to recognise the inevitability of drought.’ Why do I find Ratcliffe so poignant? Because I too in the 1982 drought saw dust flying off my farm. I too was a product of unexamined, non-adapted inherited tradition, who likewise thought our ancient, fragile soils were bullet-proof, and drought a random aberration. For all I know, some of my farm is also embedded in New Zealand’s glacial ice.

The first peoples of this land recognised the key elements of Australia’s landscapes, climate and adapted biota, and they evolved indivisibly practical, spiritual and imaginative systems that enabled them to live lightly within Country. Recently, some modern pastoralists and croppers have refined similar flexible and sensitive systems to not just survive droughts but also regenerate land. My just completed PhD research explored this exciting area. What these innovators experienced was a transformative shift to Australian adaptation, as I have done in my own thinking and land management: to what constitutes an antipodean catharsis. However, such an approach to broad agricultural landscapes still resides with a miniscule minority.

The main reason for this, alluded to by Ratcliffe, concerns what academics call ‘the social construction of reality’. Our imagination, perceptions and beliefs are shaped by the culture we are immersed in. Like colonial artists, early writers also struggled to depict the foreign landscape, vegetation and biota. For example, Barron Field (drama critic for The Times and friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth) in his Geographic Memoirs of 1822 found Australia confronting. Her ‘nature is prosaic, unpicturesque, unmusical’ he concluded. Over succeeding decades Field would have supporters.

However, whilst an ancient tradition of indigenous myth and story remained largely unknown and incomprehensible, white Australian writers slowly began to embrace and use Australianness and landscape in their work. This is often best seen in regionally-based story and history, such as Margaret Kiddle’s Men of Yesterday or works by a keen observer like Roger McDonald, and not just in landmark books such as Patrick White’s Voss or Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles. Growing up in the 1950s, books by Elynne Mitchell, Mary Grant Bruce, Jeannie Gunn and others spoke to a rural child interested in nature (notwithstanding their romantic distortions). Later a succession of writers like Ion Idriess, D’Arcy Niland, the ‘Banjo’, and Henry Lawson did likewise, along with a brace of perceptive and prescient poets like Judith Wright, David Campbell, and Les Murray. The Jindyworobak poets touched a deeper national identification chord, as did Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country.

Of significance also were writers who exposed the downside of colonisation: writers who put a mirror to our soul. I found landscape and the indigenous issue indivisible in such writers as Henry Reynolds, Judith Wright, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Sally Morgan. But more often than not for me it was the poets who most powerfully addressed the key issue of a maladaptive social construction of landscape and of ‘Country’. As I see it, there are a number of reasons for this ongoing ecological situation.

In an essay on environmental history, Eric Rolls[i] spoke of the experience of European settlers encountering an Australia that ‘was more a new planet than a new continent’.  After more than two centuries of settlement, the tragedy is that for ongoing immigrants from ‘other worlds’ our social constructions of reality have little changed. Beyond this, however, the key reason for mal-adaptation is that Australia was colonised at the end of those remarkable few centuries that culminated in the European Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and modern industrial capitalism. In terms of world-view shifts, this phase had profound impacts. No longer were the ‘organic’ imagination, ‘Mother Nature’, and the natural world indivisible (morally, ethically, practically, spiritually) from daily living. Instead, the ‘mechanical’ mind or imagination now reigned supreme. Nature, the land, and indigenous people were utilitarian objects, there for plundering for profit. Combined with a Euro-centric imaginative re-construction of natural reality, the result for Australia was disastrous – as testified by New Zealand’s red ice.

When writing about ‘Adam’, Judith Wright intuited these deep causes in Eve to her Daughters:          ‘…. The earth must be made a new Eden…’ she wrote,                                                                                                

                              ‘In the process he had to unravel everything;

                               because he believed that mechanism

                               was the whole secret…..

                               And now that I know how it works, why, I must have invented it’.  

In a number of poems, such as Australia 1970, Wright sings a lament to her country as she recounts the consequences of hubris.

Part of the mechanical imagination’s impact on Australia was also due to timing. Unlike the United States, Australia was colonised later and in the hey-day of a well-established British mercantile imperialism. In a book subtitled The Restive Fringe, historical geographer Joe Powell[ii] pointed out that the Australian colonies became an extension of an already developed metropolitan industrial capitalist system in Europe. As an immigrant nation we densely settled the coastal fringes; we exist still on the fringe of global affairs; and we are at the whim of the political and economic strategies of both major powers and aggressive transnational corporations. As A.D. Hope savagely wrote in Australia, we became

                   ‘a vast parasite robber-state

                    where second-hand Europeans pullulate

                    timidly on the edge of alien shores.’

As indicated above, there are other reasons for our apparent mis-placed imagining of landscape and Country. Post-1788 immigrants haven’t had millennia to learn how to walk lightly on the land. Not just ‘second-hand Europeans’ anymore, Australia has experienced successive and ongoing waves of immigration. Each one brings a different cultural and imaginative social construction of reality, landscape and relationship to nature. The exigencies and briefness of their settlement precludes any rapid imaginative adaptation to the new landscape, let alone a deeper understanding of Country. Allied with this is the issue that since the late 19th century we became one of the most highly urbanised nations on earth. This, for most inhabitants, necessarily meant a substantive lack of imaginative engagement with nature, with earthy soil, with the vagaries of the seasons. This in turn tends to preclude leanings to ‘biophilia’.

However, one doesn’t have to be urban to suffer this deprived ‘unknowingness’. Many farmers, cocooned in their shiny-new, insulated, air-conditioned, sound-wired, g.p.s.-directed, computer-controlled tractor cabins, are equally divorced. Les Murray, in his gorgeous evocation of the rhythms and repetitions of Aboriginal song cycles, perceived this. In The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle he wrote how

              ‘The stars of the holiday step out all over the sky.

                People look up at them, out of their caravan doors and their campsites;

                People look up from the farms, before going back; they gaze at their year’s worth

                of stars’.

Libby Robin[iii] says that as a people we have not yet begun to think like Banded Stilts: adaptive, flexible, light on the land, accommodating. Such a psychological settling and accommodation to a new continent is much harder than a physical settling. As ecologist Ted Lefroy[iv] identified, this was because the Anglo-European construction of Australian landscapes and their land-use reflected ‘unmet expectations rather than inherent properties of the continent’. Concerning non-Aborigines in Australia, Bill Gammage[v] is in agreement, stating that we are ‘still newcomers, still in wilderness’, still to ‘become Australian’. And in 2009 as I drove to Canberra one day, I listened to Aboriginal singer Neil Murray being interviewed on Radio National. He poignantly concluded: ‘A lot of Australians haven’t arrived yet.’

Therefore there are many reasons why, in terms of our imaginative engagement and in our social construction of landscape and Country, we appear not yet to have ‘arrived’. However, this need not remain the case. Whilst over the succeeding 190 years since Barron Field’s affront at Australia we appear to have been slow acclimatisers, nevertheless I believe that we can largely circumvent a required 50,000 years so as to achieve belonging and ‘arriving’.

How so? First, we now have an emerging holistic picture and ecological understanding of not just our landscape, of Country, but also of how our complex ecological systems possess a self-organizing capacity for regeneration. This understanding has been enhanced by an expanding genre of non-fiction writing through a host of informed general, technical and academic works. Poets like John Kinsella continue to cut to the quick on the issue, while a new cadre of nature writers are introducing fresh ideas, feelings and perceptions. Authors like Mark Tredinnick, Robyn Davidson, Richard and Martin Flanagan, among others, are informing us and creating paths to biophilia through sensitive insight into our biophysical environment.

But ongoing talk of ‘landscape’ is meaningless if we continue to trash and degrade it as the result of not understanding its complex functions. So whether informing, helping us to connect and feel, or inspiring us, I believe it is writers who can play a key role in helping us late immigrants to ‘arrive’ in this continent. This is because what is needed is a new land ethic, a new vision that goes beyond a static ‘sustainability’ concept, and more towards one encompassing a regeneration of land to ecological health. Why am I confident of this? Because I have just spent four years researching leading farmers who, across millions of acres, are ecologically regenerating their land, and doing so profitably. They have achieved this after a transformative learning experience; through a huge respect for Mother Nature and an understanding of how her systems work; through an overwhelming sense of place; and through an awakening of a lost spiritual and empathic sense.

Therefore, what I am calling for as we stand on the cusp of potentially monumental regenerative change but also monumental disaster is a deepening of our writing about landscape and Country. Such an expansion needs to be embedded in both a land ethic and a deep ecological understanding of this continent and its biota. It can be a writing that helps guide belongingness and ‘arrival’. Crucially, such a genre also needs to lead us to a dual reconciliation: one not just with the first peoples of this land but also with the land itself. Without these two we can never truly belong.

America seems to have developed such a genre. It dates back to a tradition which began with an earlier recognition of the wisdom of its indigenous people, and flowed through such writers as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, thence on to modern giants like Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry. This genre is deeply, ethically rooted in nature and an agrarian tradition, and was crystallised in 1948 when Leopold published A Land Ethic. Here he called for an ecological ethic in land-use which implied a limitation on freedom of action and anti-social conduct. Leopold argued the new ethic should locate humans as equal, not greater, members of their natural communities. It is an ethic that sees land health as the capacity for its renewal. Through a deepened genre, Australia urgently needs such a clear, informed land ethic. This is possible because it is agrarians who are now leading the way in practice. In addition there is a growing movement of urban gardeners and ‘foodies’ who likewise are striving for connection and a clearer articulation of the ethically and ecologically possible.

One of the first Les Murray poems I fell in love with was Rainwater Tank, which spoke directly to a ‘farm boy’. I cite here the poem’s ending:

          ‘…. The tankstand spider adds a spittle

            thread to her portrait of her soul.

            Pencil-grey and stacked like shillings

            out of a banker’s paper roll

            stands the tank, roof-water drinker.

            The downpipe stares drought into it.

            Briefly the kitchen tap turns on

            then off. But the tank says Debit, Debit.’

As with much good poetry, the poem’s reading can yield multiple meanings for different individuals. In the old tank I see not just the obvious metaphor for Australian drought and our profligate use of resources, but also something deeper in the spider. Her genetic imperative to spin a repeatable pattern in silk also represents for me the deeper drivers inherent in biology and ecological systems.  

A palimpsest is seen as writing material, manuscript or map on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for a second writing. We Australians who arrived after 1788 created an Anglo-European palimpsest of the Australian landscape, but one whose re-writing  continues to be of degraded or destroyed ecosystems, soils, grasslands, and forests. The hope I hold, based on what I have seen in the capacity for self-organizational renewal and regeneration, is that the original writing of the land has not been permanently erased. Instead, with care, empathic knowledge, respect and ecological sensitivity, the original ‘writing’ of ‘Mother Nature’ can be enabled to materialise again, to be expressed and so ‘read’ again – and in both our ‘minds’ and in our landscapes. To re-interpret Judith Wright’s words, the Australian landscape can ‘be made a new Eden’.

But we need our scribes (agrarian, urban and literary) to help us decipher, understand, and so re-create this land-writing. Because not until we attain reconciliation with both the land’s first peoples and the land itself, will we be enabled to ‘arrive’ and truly belong on this continent. 


[i] Rolls, Eric. 1994. ‘More a new planet than a new continent’. In: Dovers, S (ed.). Australian Environmental History: Essays and Cases. Oxford University Press.

[ii] Powell, Joe. 1988. An Historical Geography of Modern Australia. The Restive Fringe. Cambridge University

         Press.

[iii] Robin, Libby. 2007. How a Continent Created a Nation. UNSW Press.

[iv] Lefroy, Ted. 2002. ‘Fragility, health and design: Conceptual challenges for Australian agriculture’. Paper for

        2002 Fenner Conference Agriculture for the Australian Environment. Canberra.

[v] Gammage, Bill. 2011. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen & Unwin.