I’ve been asked to say a few words about that other Canberra, the other half of the ACT which lies beyond and above the Murrumbidgee River: Canberra’s mountain hinterland, the northern end of the Australian Alps. 

Here are several examples of how some people, writers and others, have responded to that landscape and to that place:

Walter Griffin, while working on his design for the national capital, wrote of ‘the blue distant mountain ranges forming the back scene of the theatrical whole’.[1] So he was aware of the integral aesthetic relationship between his city and its hinterland.

One passer-by who visited Griffin’s Chicago office was an Australian woman whose name you might know - Miles Franklin.  Born at Talbingo and raised partly at Brindabella, she was taken aback by Griffin’s landscape model based on the plans and painting of the Canberra area sent to the architects competing in the international design competition.  Afterwards she wrote home to her Aunt Annie of how she had been transported back to her youth.  ‘I thought I was looking out over the ranges towards Brindabella once again’, she wrote.[2] 

A blacksmith’s son is not the sort of person you’d normally think of as a poet.  But Edgar Williams was the son of the blacksmith here on the Molonglo River, born in the latter nineteenth century.  Construction of Parliament House in the 1920s alienated him and he lamented the changing landscape.  Edgar found solace in the native trees, flowers, birds and ‘the purple hills unmoved [by man]’.  In ‘Canberra in 1927’, a poem in which he recorded his feelings, it is ‘the everlasting mountains’ and the ancient rounded hump of Mt Coree that give him succour.[3]

Twenty-six years later in 1953, writer Katherine Susannah Prichard was staying in suburban Ainslie (presumably at her son, Ric Throssell’s, home).  She found Canberra ‘smug’ and ‘un-Australian’, and found happiness instead in the gums of Mt Ainslie and in the distance ‘the blue divine mountains…assuring me that this is still Australia’.[4]

That last comment is especially intriguing and reminds me of Elyne Mitchell’s significant non-fiction works (set in the Upper Murray and the Snowies but about the high country region nevertheless).  In A vision of the Snowy Mountains she wrote of the mountains as being for her a symbol of ‘a profound belonging to the Australian land’.[5]  That Prichard and Mitchell both saw the high country as part of the essence of Australia, and perhaps of being Australian, is particularly interesting.  This is especially so when it is remembered that mountains in this time-worn land are fairly rare; our average elevation above sea level is only 300 metres.  Australia’s snow country is in fact only one tenth of one per cent of the continent’s landmass.

How does the writer describe this mountain landscape?  What colours are in his or her word palette?  We’ve already heard blue and purple, which in this land of eucalypts and broad vistas is highly appropriate.  On the Goodradigbee River at the foot of the western slopes of the Brindabellas lies Koorabri.  Here for extended periods stayed Gwen Meredith, conceiving of an ABC radio serial that enchanted Australians for an amazing 27 years and which was well inspired by such a place – Blue Hills.  For a time Blue Hills was, reputedly, the world’s longest-running radio serial.

There’s also grey and green – green which in this land of brown is so refreshing to the eye.  Grey is more than the bark of mountain gum and snowgum.  Grey is also granite, that stone which is emblematic of the Australian Alps.  Granite boulders look smooth from a distance, perhaps an invitation to lie down on them.  But there is the deception, for their weathered mineral content often has left a very rough surface when seen - and felt - close up.  You wouldn’t want to accidentally slide down one.  This highlights the need to know the bush up close and personal. Walter and Marion Griffin’s conception of Canberra’s Land Axis is a case in point.  The axis – a keystone of Canberra’s design - is very well executed between Mt Ainslie and Capital Hill.  But the Griffins intended that it should lead the eye all the way to our highest ACT peak, Mt Bimberi.  What they didn’t know is that Bimberi is invisible from most of Canberra.  Beyond Capital Hill the axis is lost.  The Griffins made their plans in North America.  You cannot know the bush from afar.

You need to know it and know it intimately so you can write about it and, in my case as an historian, to understand the lives of the people about whom you are writing.  What the mountain country is like to travel over and what it might be like to work in (if your historical figures are, for example, stockmen, dam builders, surveyors) or play in (skiers, brumby runners). There are its textures (the smoothness of water-worn streambed boulders; the rough fibrous bark of brown barrel timber, the rusty imperfections of old corrugated iron).  There are its smells (the strong eucalyptus of Alpine ash forest after rain, the aroma of fireplace woodsmoke ingrained in an old hut).  There are its sounds (the ‘squeaky door’ screeches of gang gang cockatoos, the creak of a loose sheet of iron on the stockmen’s hut that has withstood blizzard for eighty years or more, or the sound-absence of a windless snowfall, formed as descending flakes seem to completely suck all noise from the landscape, creating a void of silence found nowhere else outside the snow country).  There are the emotions that this place conjures, like the intimidation of wind roaring over a ridge top as a cold front approaches, or the pain of windblown snow or driving rain in the face.

It is in the high country that seasons are extreme.  So for the writer there’s a need to know the climate – especially as cold is such a central part of the mountains and our experience of them:  the bitter bite of winter, the crunch of frost under foot.  Personally experiencing these things helps to take you into the lives of the people of this place.   For many people during the dark days of the Great Depression, rabbit trapping brought in badly needed cash, and winter was the main time for trapping as the pelts were thickest then.  Trying to set rabbit traps on a winter’s morning with numbed fingers fumbling with the frozen traps would have been excruciating.

One writer who knew this high country was Miles Franklin.  We are well aware of her mountain youth, but less well known is that she revisited the Brindabella Range as an adult and author.  She was related to Jack Maxwell, who from the late 1920s as the Upper Cotter catchment ranger led annual brumby running forays on those steep and timbered slopes.  Miles joined in on these trips, riding, camping out with the gang, and recording her observations in a little notebook.  Her experiences in that mountain place, together with the mountain culture and its stories that she absorbed when young, shine through in her novel All that swagger, winner of the SH Prior Memorial Prize in 1936, and for me and many other readers one of her best books.

In my 2009 book Rugged beyond imagination, I pursued the theme of how the place – the mountain environment - shaped the people who lived, worked and played there, just as those people endeavoured to shape that place.  As a historian, I am informed by, and sometimes use, others’ words to convey place and earlier people’s relationships to it.  NLA holds the marvelous diaries of  late nineteenth century grazier George De Salis, a 30 year collection, accessed only with family permission, containing wonderful insights into and observations of the high country life including detailed descriptions of landscape and George’s responses to it.  He loved the mountains, and I came to like him.  But he was still a product of the age in which he lived.  I’ll never forget my dismay at reading his diary entry recording his pleasure at his daughter’s first kill with her rifle – the animal shot was a platypus.  Such are one’s times.

The meaning of this place, and the ways in which we might relate to it and write about it, were different a century ago compared to what they are for most of us today.  The era of ‘leave only footprints and take only photographs’ was still a long way off.  Queanbeyan newspaper editor and Canberra-as-capital proponent John Gale did repeated trips into the mountains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and wrote lengthy articles about them.  Gale, like his contemporary De Salis, was very fond of the high country, but had no qualms about souveniring wildlife.  After writing of the exquisite beauty of a lyrebird that he saw, Gale lamented ‘”Things we see when we haven’t a gun!”…A lyrebird’s tail in its best plumage would probably have been mine’.[6]

In the high country, written records are sometimes in short supply, as so much of the past is in people’s memories.  So you use the words of those who didn’t write about their lives but remembered them.  You use oral history.  You are committing to paper for the first time these people’s stories so there’s a great responsibility of doing justice to sources and being faithful to them. Often there’s a considerable difference between spoken and written English, especially among the bush people.  You can listen to some people fully engaged for hours, but the transcript is almost unreadable.  I’m skeptical of books that produce oral material in large tracts of perfect English, purporting to be an exact transcription.  Many bush people – and urban ones too - just don’t speak like that. The need to balance readability with authenticity is important and sometimes difficult.  Editorial intrusion is at times needed but needs to be used with care. 

One of my fondest recordings is of Beryl Fisher nee Woods, who as a little girl in 1920 was caught in a blizzard after being sent out to bring in the milking cow from away in the hills.  If anything reflects the essence of the mountains, it is stories of sudden snowfalls.  Beryl had the dialect of the bush, and her possessive pronoun ‘my’ was often ‘me’ – ‘me feet were that cold’, she said (she had no boots on through the drama), and when her mother treated her for hypothermia, washing her alternately in warm and cold water, Beryl said ‘she washed me feet…and me hands and me face’.  Beryl also said ‘tomorrer’, and dropped the ‘g’ from cooeeing.[7]  During the usual process of negotiation between editor and author, when the first editor working on the book saw this she asked me whether we really needed to have all this.  I replied yes we did.  I felt it was very important to retain the authenticity of this bush speech.  Otherwise we ‘grammar-cise’ these people, and something integral and genuine to country and to place is lost.  (By the way I was very happy with the way the finished book was produced by NMA Press.)

So, what did some of these people say about their country, their landscape, their mountain place?  Keith Green had his home resumed in the 1960s for the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.  But he retained an enormously strong sense of connection.  ‘I love the valley’, he told me in 1995,  ‘I’d still dearly love to be living there.  It’s always home.  I still consider it’s ours and we’re able to share it.’[8]  Most photos of the Tidbinbilla valley before the 1960s show a heavily ringbarked landscape.  I asked many of my Tidbinbilla interviewees which landscape they preferred, the rung landscape of their time or the regrown landscape of the 1990s.  Invariably the answer was ‘today’s landscape’.  But there was an important proviso: ‘we’re not trying to make a living from it now’. 

Wonderfully named Everard Oldfield, stockman for many years, like many of his ilk recalled the life more than just the landscape.  Annual trips to the summer snow leases glowed in his memory, particularly nights staying in the old hut in the Upper Cotter valley en route to the leases.  When I told him the old Cotter Hut had gone, he sighed disappointedly, ‘Well, that’s buggered the Cotter’.[9]  Built elements in the landscape can be a strong focus of place memory.

When in 1990 I took Bill and Joan Bootes back to their former grazing property at Gudgenby, it was the changed sounds that most touched Joan.  There were no sounds of cattle any more.  For her, the landscape was as much acoustic as visual.

To Jean Reid the natural environment was vastly more important than the built one.  She was almost bereaved to have left the local river: ‘I miss the water.  I miss the running stream most of anything I have ever missed…You can build a house and build a shed but you cannot build a stream’, she reflected.[10]  Jean’s statement reminds us of one of the key characteristics of the mountains, that in this wide brown land, the high country is a place of clear, clean water.

One disadvantage of being part of a ‘literate’ society, in the sense of the written word being paramount to the spoken, is that writing risks removing us from the sounds of words.  We lose accurate pronunciation of words taken from other cultures – in this case, Indigenous words, particularly place names.  Last year while part of a team led by Ian Atkinson making a TV documentary ‘Connection to Country’, I spoke with Ngunnawal man and ACT parks ranger Adrian Brown.  As snowgum smoke drifted up from his little fire in the Gudgenby valley, Adrian pointed out that most Canberrans and visitors call the ACT’s mountain national park Namadgi, but to his people it is Namadgi.  Adrian was highlighting that common Indigenous emphasis on the first syllable in place names, in contrast to our Anglo emphasis on second or third syllables.  Early settler society was an inherently oral one like the Indigenous one it succeeded, and so retained the sound of many words learned from the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, Walgalu and Ngarigo, and those forms of pronunciation survive today in the oral testimony of later generations of bush people.  So the modern Boboyan should be Bobeyan, Goodradigbee should be Gooradigbee.  Conveying the sound of these words is another challenge for the writer.

The mountains, as well as being a place of cold, are also a place of fire.  2003 vastly changed the alps landscape.  The bush recovers from fire, but the forests which follow major fires are inherently different to those preceding, and the mountains will not be the same in our lifetimes.  Snowgum has to grow from lignotubers and forms a multi-stemmed ‘mallee-like’, rather than single-trunked,  forest.  Alpine ash has to grow again from seed and won’t reach maturity for decades.  Fire changes our relationship with landscape and with place, and how we write about them.  

I’ve twice been to the Arctic; the Inuit have 50 words for ice.  How many Australian Indigenous words there are for fire, I don’t know – maybe Bill will tell us tomorrow in his address.  I’m sure there are many.  But whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, we need to be able to properly write about fire.  We’re hearing in this conference about how some fine writers are doing that.  Important writing has emerged from Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday, and there has been some good ACT community writing in response to 2003.  It’s encouraging that these works have been written, as most Australians hear about fire through the media who (especially in the case of television media) use an extremely narrow range of words over and over again – the bush is always a tinderbox, the fire is always an inferno, the buildings are always destroyed by a firestorm.  It is good that Australian writers can offer something more deeply penetrating and more meaningful than that.

I hope that when you again look out to that skyline to our west and south – say when you leave this building today – you might think about how we can continue to write that mountain hinterland into our nation’s cultural consciousness.  Thank you for listening, and I hope you enjoyed my photographs as well.

[1] Sparke, Eric, Canberra 1954-1980, AGPS, Canberra 1988, p.8.

[2] Roe, Jill (ed), My Congenials: Miles Franklin and Friends in Letters, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 2010, p.84.

[3] Gillespie, Lyell L., Early Verse of the Canberra Region, Wizard, Canberra 1994, p.vii.

[4] Roe, op cit, p.722.

[5] Mitchell, Elyne, A vision of the Snowy Mountains, Macmillan, South Melbourne 1988, p.12.

[6] Barrow, Graham (ed), John Gale’s Brindabellas and Australian Alps, Canberra 1985, p.50.

[7] Beryl Fisher interviewed by Matthew Higgins, Tidbinbilla Oral History Project, Tidbinbilla Pioneers Association, Canberra 1995.

[8] Keith Green interviewed by Matthew Higgins, Tidbinbilla Oral History Project, Tidbinbilla Pioneers Association, Canberra 1995.

[9] Everard Oldfield interviewed by Matthew Higgins, Namadgi Oral History Project, Kosciuszko Huts Association, Canberra 1990.

[10] Jean Reid interviewed by Matthew Higgins, Tidbinbilla Oral History Project, Tidbinbilla Pioneers Association, Canberra 1995.