Award-winning author and Northern Australia correspondent for The Australian, Nicolas Rothwell reflects on his experience living in Australia's north and considers what lies in the Australian landscape and what we read within it.
Supported by Elaine Van Kempen in recognition of the contribution of poet, historian and naturalist, Eric Rolls
Nicolas Rothwell - The Landscape behind the Landscape
Date: 22 October 2014
Location: National Library of Australia
To the National Library and to the Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, Director General of the National Library. I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet the Ngunnawal people and acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution that they make to the life of Canberra and to this region. I also acknowledge and welcome other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be with us this evening.
It is a great pleasure to welcome you to this year’s Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture. We are honoured that it is to be presented by one of Australia’s most respected writers and journalists, Nicolas Rothwell. Our congratulations to Nicolas who has just been short listed in the fiction category for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for his book Belomor.
The Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture is named in honour of the great poet and historian Eric Rolls. Eric was born into a Western NSW farming family in 1923, after primary schooling at home through Black Friars Correspondence School he won his way into the selective Fort Street Boys High School in Sydney.
World War II started before he finished school and instead of going to university he joined the soon to be disbanded 24th Light Horse regiment. He then went to Papua New Guinea with the New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company to report movements of Japanese Troops and aeroplanes.
Eric began telling stories in public at five years of age, and by 15 had written his first major poem Death Song of a Mad Bush Shepherd, which was published by Douglas Stuart on the red page of the Bulletin; it was picked up and broadcast by the ABC and the BBC. He was a prolific writer, publishing 21 books and hundreds of journal articles and newspaper features.
He wrote for literary magazines, for the Australian Food and Wine Magazine Devine and for Slow, the international journal of Slow Food, the Italy based organisation concerned with the preservation of biodiversity of food species and the preservation of taste and flavour.
Eric Rolls was recognised by his peers as the doyen of Australian nature writing. He was patron of the Watermark Literary Society and mentor for the Society’s biannual fellowship for an emerging writer. He became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1985 and was appointed a member of the Order of Australia for services to literature and environmental awareness in 1992.
The National Library is most fortunate to hold the personal papers of Eric Rolls in its manuscript collection. The Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture has been made possible by the generosity of Eric’s wife, Elaine van Kempen, as a way of commemorating his life and work.
Sadly Elaine is not able to be here tonight, but she sends her warm wishes to us all for the evening. I would now like to hand over to a Canberran known to all of you, and someone who has previously delivered the Eric Rolls lecture, Dr Bill Gammage who will introduce Nicolas Rothwell, welcome Bill.
Thanks very much Anne-Marie and g’day everyone. It’s my privilege to introduce Nicolas Rothwell and Roger McDonald’s to thank him after, so you can see that we’re confident about what lies between.
You know Nicolas at least as the North Australian correspondent for the Australian Newspaper. I read that paper occasionally because it’s free at airports, although even then I hesitate. When I do pick it up my first thought is I wonder if Nicolas has an article in it. With Ted Egan he’s my guide to people and place in the north and centre, places so powerful in southern minds so remote from southern hearts.
In Australia Nicolas’ people are both indigenous and not. He shows the poverty and majesty, the aspiration and desperation of Aborigines strong in place and tradition but shackled by dominance and dependence. These are cruel jackstay positions. He observes and imagines too the ore and puzzlement of people from far places as they drift before the implacable poetry of the Outback.
He is captured by place, the land is always there shaping his ancients and new comers alike, luring them in, or driving them out. It’s land of the mind, captivating, dominating, unforgettable. Eric Rolls knew that about his country, in that sense he and Nicolas share much but Nicolas’ country is starkly different from what we southerners know.
One of his key place words is red, into the red, the red highway, stories of the red centre. Down here we know the centre is red, but when we transit north we sense what the English must have felt in 1788, this is not familiar, not normal, we must be careful, we must be alert.
Children of place see it differently, Eric Rolls made sense of place, his sharp and evocative eye for detail revealed both the grandeur of his country and what it made him. Aborigines do that, and so does Nicolas, many of his books are classified as novels, Heaven and Earth, Wings of the Kite Hawk, the Red Highway and Belomor, which as Anne-Marie said is short listed for this year’s Prime Minister’s prize for fiction. So yes they are novels but they argue that in imagination lies reality something of which Ally Cope would have approved of entirely.
Nicolas probes that zone constantly, his talk is titled The Landscape Behind the Landscape, expect a surprise. Nicolas.
What is the secret that hides behind the landscape? What are the half-glimpsed shadow-lines that draw us in? What mystery of energy or presence is it that we feel around us when we find ourselves alone in the bush, surrounded by the unfolding expanse of the country: plants, earth, ranges, sky, each element shaping and defining all the others. I pose these interlinked questions more as a set of soundings sent down into a formless dark than as steps on a track towards some systematic inquiry. They stand in close relationship to a different dilemma, a dilemma of political, or moral, nature - one that faces us with ever greater clarity as each fresh year in the settlement of Australia grinds on. How should we conceive of our place in the landscape of the continent we have claimed as our own: are we its custodians, masters, brokers, servants – and what is its place in our world of thought?
These issues only began to take form and gain prominence in my mind once I began travelling extensively on my own in the inland, and reading my way through the literature of the Australian landscape – the story of its exploration and discovery by westerners, of its ecology, of its nurture and its exploitation and gradual redesign at the hands of man. And as I look back now on those years of journeyings, when I used to think nothing of driving for weeks on end through the Kimberley or Pilbara, or the far western desert, down tracks I would fear to take today, I come to see that this was the phase of mid-life for me, a time of recalibration, when received ideas fragment and one begins to take a surer grasp of the world: the things that have true resonance in one’s being come to the fore, one sees again the sights of childhood; memory returns, and clears the way to further knowledge; one sees that frail darting swallow the self for what it is, a brief positioning of forces, a trace in time, one sees beyond what schooling first gave one to see of the world.
It was also in those days that I first encountered the books of Australia’s foremost writer of landscape history, Eric Rolls. I remember the moment. I was in the somewhat jumbled, eccentrically organized bookshop of the State Library of NSW, it was a Saturday afternoon, I was browsing aimlessly, and in one of the bargain bins beside the front entrance, amidst piles of genealogical studies and obscure monographs on public policy I chanced upon a book titled “A Million Wild Acres.” There was a subtitle as well: “Two Hundred Years of Man and an Australian Forest” – and there was just enough of a hint of eccentricity about that phrasing to make me pick the book up. On the cover was a faded little rosette in cornflower yellow, of the kind publishers once used to favour: “Age Book of the Year 1981,” it announced.
Who could resist? I plunged in, and I feel I have never quite escaped from those extraordinary pages, with their evocation of the history of the Pilliga Scrub, its creatures and its people. “A Million Wild Acres” opened a door for me: it described the bush in fine-grained detail, it found the beauty in its light and heat, it anatomised the wildlife of the scrub, it unravelled the pattern of the forest’s growth and change. The cries of night-owls, the crack of seed-pods bursting, the drift of pollen clouds through the branches, bees humming, cicadas calling, streams rushing, engines growling, old corrugated-iron shacks creaking – what did it not summon up? The bush was no longer a wilderness without distinction, it was full of grace and subtlety and depth. Swiftly I pursued the author through his multiplicit back-list, becoming, in the process, more familiar than I had been with the art and science of cookery, the history of Chinese communities in Australia, algal blooms on the Darling River and a myriad other sub-disciplines, until at last I tracked down a copy of his first prose masterpiece, the vanishingly unfindable “They All Ran Wild – the story of pests on the land in Australia.” It was a set of bravura essays detailing the spread and control of creatures as varied as foxes, rabbits, rats and dingoes. Its style was laconic, its field of evidence encyclopaedic, its touch light and perfect: on reading through its pages I had the uncanny feeling that I knew their writer, that I was in some diagonal fashion close to him. A few years later I did in fact meet Rolls, and spend time in his company, and he proved to be the epitome of warm and generous charm, but of course, like all writers of stature, he lived for his work, there was a reserve about him, he kept the best of himself for it, he was caught up in it, and it was through his books that one could come to understand his way of placing himself in the flow of memory and time. Those books embodied a cast of mind, a manner of thought, but also a way of life, a tradition, a history set within the landscape – and it was that aspect of “A Million Wild Acres” that compelled the poet Les Murray to explore the book in a long critical essay every bit as rich and free-ranging and judgmental as the writing of Eric Rolls himself.
It was first published in late 1982, a leisurely twelve months after the book it purports to review, but Murray’s “Eric Rolls and the Golden Disobedience” has such a quality of dash and freedom that it remains to this day a vital manifesto, setting out the special place of landscape literature in Australia, explaining the novel features of the enterprise and hinting at its overarching scale. Many of its assessments and its irresistible side-path meanders echo the ideas that swept through me when I was first making my way through “A Million Wild Acres” – and they clear the pathway to a wide plateau of thought and reflective artistry: the domain that I would like to explore further in this lecture, composed in memory of Eric Rolls. You do me honour by inviting me to give it, and give it here, at the National Library, amidst the soft yellow-green hills of Canberra, in the institution charged with preserving the words writers set down on the page, in the national cultural temple that seems most pure and principled in its aims.
I begin with an evolution. The role of landscape and the bush in the Australian imagination has changed in telling fashion over the past three decades, and that shift can be traced through a handful of litmus works – but I have the sense that there is further to travel down this road, and that forms of writing attuned to the landscape, in rhythm with country and with the realm of nature hold out the promise for us of a strange, late-dawning redemption, of rescue from the disquiet and near-despair that fence in and threaten the enterprise of literature today. What is the horizon-line that most fittingly draws us, that we should strive to reach? There are scores of enticing avenues of history and culture to follow up, but in the end they are just the easy, marked, blazed paths. The wordless questions the bush poses to us: they remain. This will be my end-point: the still point where we must see with an inner eye.
Perhaps close observation and keen listening can be a first guide for us: looking and listening like Rolls, whose even, on-running descriptions sound exactly like the flow of casual talk, of camp-fire yarning, and yet conceal the utmost craft and compositional restraint. Here he is, in a glorious passage from “A Million Wild Acres,” which I singled out many years ago when I was seeking to set down some ideas about the Australian mode of writing, and which I later found Murray had himself selected as the climactic point of the narrative in his own account. It is the story of the great Pilliga bushfire of 1951, or an episode in it, presented in a sequence, rapid, the emotions of both writer and reader jumping here and there as the scenes flash by:
“Initially some of the fire-fighters were not worth feeding. With so little equipment they saw no point in risking their lives for a bit of scrub. They played cards and let it burn. A young sleeper cutter, not mentally normal, could not resist lighting a few extra fires. Others risked their lives trying to cut breaks with the little graders. Noel Worland worked the first 63 hours without sleep. Ned Edwards spent 13 days and nights at the fire, his brother, Roy, 18.
“Arthur Ruttley was sent to take up the charge. He organized big bulldozers from coastal forests, five new graders from Sydney, water tankers from the RAAF. He flew in a plane load of forestry students to get experience. He recruited local volunteers and enough cooks to feed several hundred men. He kept everybody working. They put out the fire in three weeks.
“Noel Worland watched the forests for further outbreaks from a De Soutter aeroplane flown by Dick Burt of Baradine. The high wings were made of plywood and they drummed as the plane came in to land. The noise got louder and louder till at touchdown it seemed the plane must disintegrate. Dick Burt’s cattle dog rode with Noel on the back seat and licked his face while he was spotting. Each time he pushed it away it growled venomously.”
An even piece of narrative: a tale in which every actor has a name, and part. Les Murray, on reading this vast “regional-ecological” tapestry of stories, this shaggy-dog tale with actual shaggy dogs, was struck, naturally enough, by its remarkable thesis about the scrubland country around the little township of Baradine, today no more than a scatter of shops and houses surrounded by lush forest, all thick cypress pine and ironbark and manna gum. This treed landscape, Rolls concluded, on the basis of his archival researches, but also from his own observations and deductions, was recent, and the product of western man’s influence: it had been sandy, open parkland in the days of sole Aboriginal occupation, when fires were routinely set to cleanse the country. This was a radical interpretation when he published: it is the received wisdom among many environmental historians today. The process was straightforward enough. Settlers came in, and with them came new plants and grasses and animals, the great trees grew, and cast their shadow across the country. Cattle, horses, rabbits, dogs, they were the chief agents of the transformation, but there was the human tide as well, settlers: “Capable, adventurous, and extraordinarily adaptable, difficult, crude, vigorous, dishonest, selfish, violent. They differed only in the extent to which each of these qualities was developed. It is no use wishing they were different. To do so is to dispense with our culture” – and this is precisely what Rolls, in all his writings, was at pains to avoid. He wished to know, to drag the record of the past out into the light, to understand the agents and the forces that made Australia. He wanted to paint the country, not just its people. This led him to his particular method, which receives its most majestic long-form exposition in “A Million Wild Acres,” and has been taken up by a subsequent generation of writers and scholastic thinkers who make the land and its place in our life their chief concern. One can trace a chronological sequence of events in the book, there are chapters, but, as Murray says of it, its logic is accretive, “made up of strings of vivid, minute fact which often curl up in intricate knottings of digression.” It is, in short, a reflection of the bush itself in all its reduplications and its beginning everywhere and nowhere, its delineated expansiveness. Man is not the measure of this country, or this narrative: he has no special prominence.
There is anecdote, and tale, and natural vignette, and constant jumping between passages, and all this achieves a break from sequential time, and entry to a space Murray characterises as “a sort of enlarged spiritual present in which no life is suppressed.” It is, of course, a perspective that calls to mind indigenous modes of narrative from remoter parts of Australia, the story-cycles of the western desert, the songs of Arnhem Land; and it raises the thought that attention to the Australian landscape itself dictates the best way of describing Australian experience. Murray is tempted to push the notion further: “It is even possible,” he suggests, “that the novel, a form we have adopted from elsewhere, may not be the best or only form which extended prose fiction here requires.” This is an argument that has also tempted me, and has helped incline me to turn away from purely fictive prose narrative in setting down my own responses to remote Australia, and towards a writing system more hybrid, more shaped by joins and correspondences, more conscious of the break-down in forms and patterns and order in the world than of their establishment. There is another reason for my reluctance to tread the wide, well-worn road of bounded, narrative-shaped fiction. I believe forms in art have their time, they are at their strongest and most immediate when newly forged, and the story for them from that point on is one of increasing complexity and continual decline – and we are at the very end of the novel’s baroque evolution, it is life’s surface mirror in a million iterations, its fashions are arbitrary, it is powerless against the curtained void modernity has hung around our eyes.
This crisis of the form is matched by a crisis of function – one so profound that many of the great luminaries and masters of contemporary writing fear it may prove terminal; one so dark that few authors and critics are prepared to face it and hold it unflinchingly in their field of vision. Can it really be that the age of textual art is dying, that the high literary forms of the bourgeois age are passing from us in a last sputtering flare of intricate designs? Will mass culture extinguish literary writing, or confine it to some subsidised ghetto, or to the stunting cloisters of academe? Must we conclude that books no longer shape life to their own proportions, that poets are no longer the unacknowledged legislators of the world, that we who gather here in a library auditorium are merely members of an antiquated, dwindling sect? For me to begin to sketch the phenomenon is for you to recognize it and see it: there it is, blotting out all else from view, looming high above us like some wet-season cloud tower of stratocumulus over the coastline of the Top End. And what is the point of finesse, when all is demotic, of subtlety when all is blatant, of restraint and self-effacement when we live in a western Babylon of narcissism? These elements in our surrounds increase year by year, like some slowly growing atmospheric impurity, they change the composition of the world we must seek to know and describe: but they also shift the role of the writer, and the reader. They transform the scope of written, edited, published words, they make the task of literary witness yet more problematic. How to find and write truth, when truth is veiled by the illusions and passing fascinations of the time: how to hold meaning in through-written plots and tales when we are drowned in meaninglessness. This is one fearful aspect of the trap: the world is no model. But the trap is multiple, and cunningly designed, so cunningly it seems like one of mankind’s great achievements: the destruction of high culture may be revealed to us one day as high culture’s most outré and most fatal triumph, a terrifying, necessary end. Not only do books feel weightless: those who write them feel weightless. For many western writers, the belief in writing, the faith in writing’s power has begun to ebb, and fade, in much the way the fading belief in oracles slowly killed the Olympian gods. The sad, proud joke of Central European dissidents under late communist regimes a generation into the past still rings true, if with a changed resonance, today: “With us, nothing is free, and everything matters. With you, everything is free, and nothing matters.” And it is constraint and control that come to mind when we think these questions through. I found the clearest and most shocking formulation of the plight before us at the close of a detailed essay on the literature of dictatorship, written by the American short story writer, Deborah Eisenberg. It was a brief, succinct passage. It made me read it and reread it. It had the force of revelation for me. Her argument was simple: fiction’s power was slackening, the strength of falsification was rising in the world, but this assault on fiction was paradoxical; it was no assault at all. The forces arrayed against it were “more complex, more subtle and harder to trace than the distortions of an entrenched dictatorship, or for that matter of pure market capitalism.” The problem was the thin air of pure license: “Here in the West,” she wrote, “fiction writers are welcome to be absolutely outspoken; maddeningly, no one much cares what we say – we pose no threat. Is it because our writing is not sufficiently forceful? Because our potential readership has been trained to look elsewhere to gain an understanding – or misunderstanding – of their world, or has been, in the course of the single-minded cultivation of an army of consumers, ruthlessly undereducated? Because what contemporary writers perceive and say is in some fundamental way divorced from reality?” An agonised inquiry for a writer to make, and set down in print: “It is as if fiction has largely come to be treated as a self-enclosed area,” she concludes, “and judged by standards that have little to do with the living world beyond it.” It has, then, lost its potency and its capacity to convince; it is no longer taken for reality, nor does it reach through to another realm. Eisenberg closes her assessment with these lapidary words: “Whatever we have to say is in danger of being transmuted, as soon as it hits the paper, into something trivial and inessential. Perhaps part of the problem is that not only have we not located the obstacles to our meaningful expression, we hardly discern that there are any.”
That was written six years ago. The crisis is still before us; it has only deepened. It is a crisis not just of fiction, but of the entire wide field of imaginative writing in a time that looks for satisfactions beyond the written, static, marmoreal word. It is a global crisis, and it is local, it is with us here – indeed its effects could well be especially potent in Australia, given the hardscrabble origins of the writing tradition in this country, a place that outsiders treat as a sub-domain of the English language empire, its books seemingly legible by English speakers all round the world without any great effort, seemingly component parts of a global common culture. The writing life here is no more than two centuries old, more properly, perhaps, just over a single century, if we seek to highlight books written from the perspective of a particular Australian consciousness. A shallow time-depth, a dependent position in the Anglosphere of publishing, a certain democratic reluctance to exalt high culture forms that have a sheen of exclusivity about them: ground conditions of this kind might plausibly be expected to shadow our literary life. But I see another landscape. I see a seriousness among the writers and the readers who share in the idea of Australia as an uncompleted project, a great book even today being composed and revised and continuously redrafted all round us, a new achievement of mankind: flawed, born in the night of dispossession, inchoate, provisional, but still in its days of configuration and design. I see a culture that remains unplayed-out, conscious of what lies before it rather than the golden chapters of an impossibly vanished, all-dominating past it feels obliged to desecrate; conscious, too, of the indigenous realm that at once questions and underpins it. Above all, I see a special tradition without match elsewhere: a tradition of works made in the likeness of the landscape, work attentive to the country, its look, its feel, its reticence. Of course this is a tradition that would embrace Eric Rolls and Les Murray, but it stretches back before them, to the romantic landscape pioneers of exploration literature, and they have descendants, too, writers of our day – and it is to a handful of these authors, the ideas and attitudes that they express, their books and the character of this tradition in the remaking that I should now like to turn, in brief – to bring them into the light before looking to what lies beyond.
A school has formed. Unsurprisingly, given the need to recover lost chapters of the history of Australia’s settlement, it has a historical lean, but it is first of all a school of writing, caught up in the idea of place, in the idea of the Australian bush and ways of charting it, knowing it, matching it in words. The origins of this school may lie in the cultural nationalism of the mid-1970s, but it has earlier antecedents: the first local chronicle of Geoffrey Blainey, for instance, who was at pains to forge a fluent, supple kind of vernacular to convey the experiences of the miners of Mt Lyell, or the diaries and journey memoirs set down by the mid-century scientist writers of the inland, Cecil Madigan, who crossed the Simpson, for one, and the biologists Elliott Lovegood Grant Watson and Francis Ratcliffe, who both felt impelled to seek a poetic comprehension of the country they researched. There is George Seddon, whose hybrid essays opened up the Pilbara for me when I was a student of the deserts; John Mulvaney, who made the history of encounters between westerners and indigenous Australians his key to the landscape and its half-hidden resonances; and Bill Gammage, who brought his gift for full imaginative occupation of his subject-matter to the all-transforming firestick history of the land.
I said a school, but perhaps that’s not quite right. It’s more like a camp, a gathering of clear, collaborative voices – and indeed I can picture a camp-fire of this writing circle, this republic of landscape letters. I can see them in my mind’s eye: Tom Griffiths, Mark McKenna, Tim Flannery and Darrell Lewis and many more of them, all close up around the fire and leaning back against their rolled-up swags as the light dies away, and the endless conversation starts - the yarning with no precise aim beyond its own indefinite unfolding and modulation, while the embers spark and the stars wheel on deep into the night. I could single out each of these writers in turn, and write about every one of them with admiration and affection; about them and their golden books – books I have carried with me repeatedly on desert and savannah journeys, and sunk myself into like holy texts.
Each of them has made the landscape and its past and prospects his chief theme, and woven magic from his involvement with the country and the secrets that it holds, and offers up - but let me take as exemplar just one of their books, a very well-known one, Mark McKenna’s “Looking for Blackfellas’ Point.” I focus on it both for its striking programmatic similarities to “A Million Wild Acres” and its very obvious point of difference. McKenna was writing reconciliation literature. His book came out in 2002, and it caught its time. It was a history of the repression of history: it told the story of the settlement of the country just inland from Eden, on the far south coast of NSW, where McKenna had implanted himself and was bringing up his young family; but it was also, perforce, the tale of the slow, step by step extirpation of the local Aboriginal people from the records, and the blurring of collective memory throughout the southern reaches of the Monaro plateau. After long campaigns and shifts on the hectic stage of national politics, the past began its return, and McKenna’s book played its part in this process. Many locals who read it found their ideas about their country changing; some were able to piece together new aspects of the history of their families. McKenna’s aim had been very clear. He, like other conscience-stricken writers of his generation, had wished to repopulate the landscape of Australia’s settlement with the Aboriginal people who first held the land and whose presences in it remained so strong that there had been a need to write them out. He brought the Aboriginal peoples of the region back, acting on the idea that this would yield a truer history. Indigenous characters were already very present in the work of writers like Rolls himself, and like Murray, but with McKenna they, and their absences, take centre-stage, and fill his book with a strong surface tone of nostalgia and mourning: a tone that almost masks its wellsprings.
“Looking for Blackfellas’ Point” was reissued earlier this year: of course the political landscape had evolved. The dream of reconciliation with Aboriginal people had been overlaid by a series of new paradigms: intervention, apology, the ongoing campaign for constitutional recognition. But Blackfellas’ Point itself remained, a soft, curving promontory just up the Towamba River from McKenna’s home. He wrote an afterword to the new edition, describing the book’s place in his life and thought, and it is an intriguing piece of memoir, a detailed account of “ the one patch of earth to which I most instinctively belong.” The things that have come to matter to him, and the way they matter to him, and the way he expresses their importance to him all remind the reader of the approach taken two decades earlier by his precursors in the tradition. “I begin,” he writes, “to understand how crucial my experience at Blackfellas’ Point has been to the development of my writing as a historian. Solitude. Nature. Distance. Space. Independence. All my writing has been completed here. My voice is tied inextricably to the aesthetics of this one place.” The land’s look changes, season by season, year by year, but it remains, its presence remains. The natural world invades McKenna’s awareness every day: “A powerful owl slamming up against an upstairs window, its talons spread wide against the frame as it ducks under the eaves to raid a swallow’s nest just before dawn; weeds that sprout faster than the time it takes to remove them; drought that grinds down my resilience; king parrots stripping the fruit from our orchard; tiny, insect-eating bats flying into the house through the smallest gap, the persistent beep of their radar emissions keeping me awake at night; a large brown snake trying to force its way inside a flyscreen door; bush rats and antechinus gnawing their way into bedrooms; squadrons of insects attacking my reading lamp every summer evening; wombats bulldozing fences and wallabies eating exotic garden specimens.” No wonder he ends this list with a confession: “I no longer romanticize nature.” But he has come to know it well, and enter into an intimacy with it: a tie he had longed for, and had obscurely seen as necessary to his writing life. In some profound sense his home country defines him, despite his need to escape its embrace, despite his tending to feel, after long immersion in the landscape, “as if the valley would swallow me up.” He seeks immersion; he seeks to belong; he feels he does. And yet there is a bend sinister across his heart, which he expresses in his closing words: “Looking downriver,” he says, “I’ve often thought of the tonnes of sand that have buried the riverbed as a metaphor for the concealment of Aboriginal cultural knowledge that occurred in the wake of colonisation. Nearly all the names that were locally bestowed on every plant, creature and landform have been lost, as well as those for the stars in the night sky. Yet my awareness of the magnitude of this cultural loss has not stopped me from belonging to the land. If anything, it has intensified the awe I feel when I contemplate the depth of indigenous knowledge of country. By comparison, my attachment is shallow-rooted and transient.” Inauthentic in his authenticity: a striking thought, coming from so wide horizon a man – and it reflects the pronounced lean of today’s high intelligentsia, for whom Australia’s foundational achievements cannot wash out history’s primal stain. This curse is not one that either Eric Rolls or Les Murray, both of them born in the deep forest bush of NSW, felt on their skins when “A Million Wild Acres” came out and received its first critiques three decades ago. In their different ways, each of them had an easy intimacy with the indigenous realm, and with the Aboriginal people they had known all their life in their home surrounds. For them, the landscape was a shared space, it welcomed and it sheltered every living thing. But when this feeling, this conviction, is no longer predominant, a new settlement with country becomes necessary, it becomes urgent for writers and artists to effect a recalibration – and this is the adjustment that we see being played out in our cultural space in our day. Several pronounced trends in the world of letters reflect this recent shift. The emergence and exaltation of literature by writers of Aboriginal background, the tide of reconciliation-minded historical novels dealing with the epoch of colonial settlement, and, lastly, the rise of strongly ecological books and essays, works that idealise Australian nature’s pristine landscape rather than nature adapted by the incoming hand of western man. In this thought-world, the past era of exclusive indigenous habitation and land use figures as a time when the environment and man were in balance, when an equilibrium and harmony were in place. The type-specimen of this new literary species is a memoir written by the prominent expatriate feminist Germaine Greer, “White Beech,” which was published in late 2013 but has yet to be absorbed and taken up by the local cultural establishment, perhaps in part because of its arduous prose style, perhaps in part because of the unremittingly harsh verdict it delivers on Australia’s history and the devastation visited by incomers upon the land.
Yet “White Beech” is a true descendant of the tradition begun by “A Million Wild Acres.” It is the tale of a patch of inland forest just north of the border between NSW and Queensland, its history, vegetation and wildlife. Above all it is a love song to a single species, the white beech of the title, Gmelina leichhartii, “a stupendous tree, growing to forty metres in height, with a strait cylindrical trunk, only slightly flanged at the base.” The book is also the narrative of Greer’s decision, in December 2001, to buy herself a patch of rainforest in a locality known as Cave Creek: “sixty hectares of steep rocky country most of it impenetrable scrub.” Looking back now, Greer describes this shift in her course through the world as “an extraordinary stroke of luck.” She was settled in her British existence, she lived in tranquil surrounds in rural Essex, writing her occasional books and columns of opinion journalism, performing her sharply delineated role as a public intellectual, maintaining a vexed relationship with the country of her birth. Then she made her visit to the Numinbah valley, where the Nerang River flows: “Life grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. I went there as a lamb to the slaughter, without the faintest inkling that my life was about to be taken over by a forest.” As she writes, she found herself there in a realm that was unimaginably vast and ancient. Her horizons flew away, her notions of time expanded and deepened, her self disappeared. She would become the servant of the forest, its advocate, but at the same time just another component element in its connected, interwoven biomass. She walked down the creek, gazing up at the Bangalow Palms and Rose Apples that soared into the sky, and said to herself, over and over again: who could own this? “The azure kingfisher perched on a trembling frond to scan the creek for fish had more right to it than I,” she felt: the eels, scrub-wrens and cicadas were all properly co-owners – and so she christened her land in conformity with the protective venture she was embarking on. It became the “Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme.” For much of its mazy extent, “White Beech” is the chronicle of her efforts to come to terms with the country and piece together the record of its history, both during the colonial settlement of Australia, and in the very different times before Europeans began to farm and fell the eastern coast. The beginnings of the science of rainforest botany, the various schemes put forward to propagate plants from other far-flung possessions of the British empire, Greer’s own episodic attempts to make inroads into the Australian desert inland, green tree frogs and their peculiar charms, homestead architecture, bell miners, sea lavender, kangaroo vine and what it tells you – everything is thrown pell-mell into the onrush of the tale, in a manner slightly reminiscent of Eric Rolls at his most staccato. Greer’s personal tics are on full display: her obsessional hatreds, her fondness for piled-up detail, her unending self-involvement. Her strengths too: the quality she still has of unused-upness, her appetite for knowledge, her active, hectoring presence on the front-lines of her life. But it is the intellectual and emotional currents flowing just beneath the surface of “White Beech” that bring it to the eye. Despite the length of her absence from Australia, Greer feels herself tied to the country of her birth: “Everywhere I had ever travelled across its vast expanse I had seen devastation, denuded hills, eroded slopes, weeds from all over the world, feral animals, open-cut mines as big as cities, salt rivers, salt earth, abandoned townships, whole beaches made of beer cans.” Hence her project - a rehabilitation of land, and a rehabilitation of the landscape writing tradition.
Half a lifetime after the first appearance of “A Million Wild Acres,” much is changed. The forest landscape of the Pilliga between Baradine and Narrabri is no longer, for all its unemphatic majesty, world enough on its own, nor are the rainforests and the hazy plateaus of the Great Divide. No: consciousness of ourselves and our part in the landscape’s story has entered much more into the picture that we see. In his history of place Mark McKenna not only examines the past of the southern Monaro, but seeks to transform it, to rewrite it and reinscribe Aboriginal primacy in the region’s records and its archives. The Greer of “White Beech” would prefer to expunge colonial man from the bush forest landscape altogether, the better to restore and preserve the forest’s essence and its primal depth. Theirs are both, in their particular ways, projects of moral remediation; literary, historical and practical projects that seek to right a wrong. A great activism has entered into both the stewardship of Australian nature and the rendition of that nature in words.
At which juncture, this sequence sketched, let me turn, and turn abruptly, away, and tell you something of my own ideas and intuitions about the country of the far inland, its landscape and its skies; about the sand-hill deserts and the tropical savannahs, places where the soils are fine and red, and the eucalypts all burnt, where the spinifex stretches away like a carpet to the horizon-line, and mirages shimmer, and kites and eagles patrol the air; about the purple ranges of the Pilbara, and the serrated mountain chains around Lake Argyle; about the sand-flats on the shoreline of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the shaded rivers of Cape York; all these landscapes, and what they hold inside them for me.
But first I should take the story back – back to a quite different view on nature and landscape from the one I have been outlining: the rich tradition that was flourishing in Europe in the early 19th Century when Australia was first being opened up to western eyes, the tradition that animates the world-views of the initial explorers of the inland, Leichhardt above all, and Sturt and Eyre. It is a tradition that worships wilderness, the pure wilderness: wild rivers, deep chasms, the mist of the blue horizon line. This love for untouched nature rhymed uneasily with the mandated economic aims of the great probes and journeys the first explorers made across the Divide, in search of productive country and inland seas or waterways. Its impact may account for their fascination with the seeming emptiness around them, and for something of their reluctance to observe the constant signs they came across of indigenous impact on the land. It is a world-view that lives above all in literature, it is the sense of the romantic sublime, of the pure heights, where inspiration lurks, and fatal demons, and death as well. It is the romantic spirit one meets in the verse of Shelley and Wordsworth, and in the art of Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, it is in the onrushing literary torrents of Goethe and Rousseau, it gleams in the icy tales of Stifter and Novalis – and its landscape of origin is the high massif of the Alps that lie at the heart of Europe, those peaks of permanent snow, the silent country that pilgrims wishing to reach the Mediterranean and the treasures of the Renaissance were obliged, until the modern era, to traverse on foot, across steep mountain passes bound in ice.
It was in this landscape that I spent much of my childhood – summers, schooldays – in the valleys of the Swiss Engadine: spas and quiet resort towns with green slopes rising up beyond them to the peaks, the bare rockfaces and the snowfields reaching up into the sky. I knew the winding paths and the walking trails, and what lay down them - woods and clearings, lakes, views across ravines and river gorges. I can still see the park fountain-springs with their ornate shade cupolas, and the casinos and belvederes, the churches with their towers and their needle spires. I can picture in my mind’s eye the shaded path that runs from the village of Sils Maria down the promontory reaching out into the valley lake, and at its end the tall rock with Zarathustra’s night-song inscribed on its surface: Oh Mensch, Gieb Acht: Man, listen, what speaks in the deep midnight’s shade? It terrified me then, that carved and transformed rock, I was afraid to go near it, and yet compelled to – and it occurs to me now that such Nietzchean tests in childhood equip one well for whatever might come in the course of life. Those peaks that hemmed in the lake - the Julier, the far Bernina, the Corvatsch – they rose like storm-clouds around Sils, where Nietzsche was confined for his life’s last decade in his sister’s house, unable to speak, unable to pursue the journeys of his thought. He was in the final stage of his derangement; he would howl and howl all through the night. His friend Harry Kessler came to visit, and to bid the philosopher farewell. In a detailed passage of his journal, describing the varied emotions that swept through him during his stay in Sils Maria, Kessler reports that at the goodbye Nietzsche shook his hand, “peacefully and seriously like a beautiful and loyal animal.” How strong the contrast was for me in those days between the valleys, choked with all their tradition and history and culture, and the peaks. The peaks were untouched, they were trackless, they were pure. They were the world of beauty, grace and truth: there was nothing human in their vicinity but they measured man. I remember staring longingly up towards them from the rooms of the Grand Hotel at Schulz-Tarasp-Vulpera, in the wildest of all the valleys of the Engadine, almost on the border-line between Switzerland and Italy. Every step of that hotel’s corridors I can still see today, although it burnt down in 1989, and thus has come to symbolize for me the transformation of the divided continent I knew when I was a boy.
For decades after these beginnings I travelled widely, as a correspondent, and I saw many different kinds of landscape – but it was not until I came back to my paternal country, and started revisiting the grey-green bush I used to travel with my father long before that I felt again, in the far inland, that dissolving fire of clarity and self-loss I felt when I was a child under alpine skies. The join between two fragments of my life had been made – and often it seems to me a join that casts its bridging shadow across everything I seek to write about my experiences and encounters in the deserts and the north. Across the wild bush, too. When I move through that landscape I sense not just its contours and colours, not just its light and shade and its rock formations, but something more, something that seems both within it and beyond it - and even as I seek to capture it, I realize anew that the language we bring to the land is drawn from elsewhere, and is still slowly adapting its words to our surrounds. The bush I find in the remote rangelands is not the enlivened, spirit-laden bush that desert people see in their own country, nor is it that landscape covered over by the past, and full of names and recorded memories, that we confront in western countries where vanished time hangs in the air like an all-shading veil of damp, heart-chilling cloud. Whether in the back country of the De Grey River or the mulga plains of western Queensland, the sense I have in silent moments is similar. I feel a distance. I feel something remote, yet watchful: a distant presence. At the outset, when I was beginning these private little sorties and journeys of discovery of mine into the inland, years ago, I had no reasoned or well-developed idea of why it was I might want to give such attention to the country, rather than merely observe it and traverse it – and I went about my task, my program, methodically, but without great thought. Things only crystallised for me in more recent times, when I came across a long recorded interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the writer I admire more than any other of our age, for the artistry of his magnum opus, the Gulag Archipelago, as much as for its strength of witness. Its greatness is plainer still now its immediate time is gone, it is universal, not specific, and its granite strength seems linked to the peculiar circumstances of its composition: Solzhenitsyn was free, but under sharp surveillance, harried, troubled, forever moving, forced to write his words on stray leaves of paper, never in possession of a unitary manuscript. It was made in fragments but the work itself has no fissures, no imperfections. The filmed exchanges between Solzhenitsyn and the documentarist Sokurov run for more than three hours, the talk swirls here and there, but there is one moment that made a great impact on me. The filmmaker takes the writer’s hands and holds them: the words stop. The soundtrack is just Solzhenitsyn’s breathing: for a minute; two. Breath, life. It is the simplest, most intimate scene I have come across in this genre. The two men discuss the place of nature in the world of art. Solzhenitsyn had a clear view, unsurprisingly, having spent so much of his life plunged amidst nature: involuntarily, when he was jailed in Gulag camps in the deeps of the Siberian Taiga; by choice, when he was expelled from his own country and took refuge in the United States, in the state of Vermont, surrounded by its forests of maple and pine and spruce and yellow birch. There is a beauty in nature, Solzhenitsyn believes, and it has a purpose, or a consequence. “Beauty is the light of truth seen through matter,” he says. “It ennobles.” It lifts us up, it reveals the order of the world, and of ourselves. But there is apocalypse ahead, he says, a few words later, speaking simply, in a matter-of-fact voice: nature is dying. “We are going to destroy nature: it is dying inexorably.”
As I was drawing these ideas about landscape writing in Australia into focus in my thoughts, I had to make a trip north from the Queensland coastal wet tropics, through the savannah country, up the central spine of Cape York, and the initial stages of the journey were enough to bring that judgement of Solzhenitsyn’s back to me, as indeed, are most long drives that set out from the settled coastal country and head through the zone of agricultural exploitation into the more inhospitable reaches of the hot, arid bush. The first stretch of the road, the Mulligan Highway, is heavily travelled in the cool times of the year, by mining supply trucks and by the unending-seeming procession of Four Wheel Drive caraveners who want to tick off the long strait track to the tip of Cape York. About half an hour beyond the Palmer River roadhouse, an old structure built from sombre bluestone, there is a turn-off. This is the Peninsula Development Road, which traverses the Lakeland subdivision, a farming area, named not for its landscape, although it has a network of agricultural infrastructure and dams and irrigation systems, but for the early gold prospector William Lakeland, who passed through the area, well-armed, in the 1870s. Lakeland is a recent creation, but it is already a palimpsest-like landscape, filled with the remains of unprofitable ventures once supported and promoted by the state. Decaying teak trees and peanut groves dot the area; amidst dead plants, a new banana plantation lines the north-east side of the road for several kilometres. There are modern packing sheds, and dormitory accommodation blocks for seasonal workers; along the frontage of the dammed and channelled river there are farm homesteads, many of them prefabricated steel-span structures, the new quick-start lodging of the North. None of this has anything to do with the tropical savannah, which resumes abruptly once the land begins to rise up from the plain: anthills, gum-trees, the sequence of cattle stations begins afresh, the high sandstone ranges, rich in Quinkan rock art, enclose the road: Laura community looms up. It is the whole story, without a gear-change: the measured realm of nature, the hectic world of man. Only one speaks to us. What is the secret it seems to whisper? What do we hear there? What does it know that lies in wait along our road ahead? It completes us, it is the screen against which we can sense and see ourselves. Increasingly I feel the horizon in its silence is given to us as a clue; that time is the cocooning, nurturing chrysalis that holds us, within which we must come to understand our being and seek to perfect ourselves; and that the landscape, the natural world, the unending bush is the veil around us through which we must see. What we cannot know is the marker line that leads us on: what is unwritten there is what most frees us. We are change, and thought, and death: it in all its rhythms is changelessness.
Well you’re acclamation really reflects the statue of what we’ve just heard, I think that was astonishing Nicolas thank you so much and there was a [clapping] as I began listening I thought I’m listening to a selaqui or and then it became a manifesto and then it became a poem, then it became a literary critique and then it became aspects of local history, a whole kind of range of different frames emerged in that and unifying it completely and utterly was Nicolas’ voice. And that voice as I kept listening and – and gazing from – from the podium across to the – to the photograph there it kept reminding me of what the – the really despite sometimes in Nicolas’ talk I felt there was a – a little bit of despair creeping in for the value of the word, and then he’d suddenly change again like a – a light moving across the landscape and there was a strengthening and a re-belief and actually a great encouragement to the use of language. And I think that’s what Australia something that he says that I can express in a slightly different way that Australia does in cultural terms and that is to have this mark of distinction, I mean the great mark of distinction of Australia is space, it’s the ruling characteristic of Australia and Nicolas has moved through this space in his working life and it seems to have absorb its way into him, not as a raconteur, not as a bush yarner, not as – as a booster of a local area, but as a literary thinker and a literary personality and I think that has been – it has been a wonderful demonstration of that tonight and also the other thing I always feel is that the – the mark of distinction, you know we often feel we have traditionally in Australia the kind of western intellectual part of us has – has – has said well we’ve got really nothing particularly distinctive about us, let’s go to Europe and try and really grab a hold of culture by the neck and Nicolas came back the other way and did it in reverse, and that’s a pretty marvellous thing.
And that voice in the landscape I think is a real mark of cultural distinction and Nicolas has wonderfully demonstrated this to – demonstrated it to us tonight and I thank him very much for it, thank you Nicolas. [clapping]
We are fortunate to enjoy an evening like this thanks to the generosity of many. We are very grateful to Elaine van Kempen and her family for supporting tonight’s lecture. And I’d like to make special mention of our accommodation partners the Forest Hotel and Apartments and our beverage partner Eden Road Wines for their continuing support of our programs. Can I also say a very big thank you to Bill Gammage and Roger McDonald for their part in this evening.
We owe a great debt to – to Nicolas, he has been immensely generous in thinking about and preparing this evening’s lecture which really was lyrical, transfixing, vaulting and so I hope that you can join us in the foyer for refreshments, where he has very kindly agreed to sign copies of his books, tonight you can purchase them from our bookshop with a 10% discount. Thank you all for being with us this evening, but before we go – before we go upstairs can I ask you to thank Nicolas once again. [clapping]