Monday, 1 February 2016

Book Review - The Bush by Don Watson

The Bush : travels in the heart of Australia by Don Watson

Melbourne: Hamish Hamilton, 2014                          ISBN 9781926428215

What to make of this book. Don Watson, known for his speech writing work for Paul Keating, and more recently his exposes of management speak, has in this book written a series of inter-connected ruminations on the Australian bush: what it was, what it is, how it came to be that way.

This is of course a huge task. Where do you start describing the countryside of a continent that stretches from 10 to 40 degrees of latitude, taking in the tropics, desert, temperate forest and alpine areas? They are all "the bush", but are all so different, is there a way that you can write about all of it? This is the problem at the heart of this eminently readable, enjoyable and enlightening work

Watson tackles this problem by firstly acknowledging it, and dividing the book into sections that discuss various aspects of life in the country, beginning with his own childhood dairying in Gippsland. The opening chapter describes how, in little more than two generations, vast tracts of virgin rainforest were cleared to create the grassy hills we know today as South Gippsland.

If there is any theme to this book it is of the destruction of, and change to, the bush since white settlement, and before - as he points out, the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia had been "farming" the country for thousands of years before the white man - he notes that Edward Curr doubted if "any section of the human race has exercised a greater influence on the physical condition of any large portion of the globe than the wandering savages of Australia." The changes wrought by the new settlers were quick, and dramatic - the combination of clearing for pastoral use, the impact of pastoral animals and the defoliation of native plants and trees had a dramatic effect on native wildlife, waterflows and soil condition. The introduction of exotic species likewise has had a detrimental effect on the land; ironically, given the reason for their introduction, to the farmer's disadvantage.

Who were (and are) the farmers? Watson shows us that contrary to the widely held idea that the man on the land is a happy independent example of the human race, many people in the bush have been slaves to the banks, or to itinerant work, and constantly short of the comforts city folk take for granted. There have not been a huge number of long-term success stories in the bush, and plenty of failures, many brought about by ill-thought out schemes such as solider-settlement in areas such as the Mallee, where people ill-equipped for a life on the land were sent to land ill-equipped for agriculture.

Unlike some people in the bush, Watson does not shy away from the destruction of the Aborigines. Recent historical work has exposed what has always been in plain sight: that many Aborigines were hunted down and killed, either by using some pretext, or often none at all.

Watson delves deeply into the ambivalent relationship settlers have with native flora and fauna, and how even today we struggle to accept what actually belongs, desiring rather to impose our own ideas on the land. He points out that much of Australia's flora has yet to be classified, which has led to a marvellous imprecision in identifying what might be useful - "The bush personality is fed and watered by imprecision. What is useful - or a bastard of a thing - gets a vernacular name. What is neither useful nor a bastard is not worth knowing about. But while there's generally a consensus on what's a bastard, what is useful is a matter of opinion." The fact that we have not found it important enough to scientifically evaluate what's out there to see what is useful is telling.

Some of Watson's best writing is on the bush personality - to adapt to a harsh landscape, men and women became hard. The cruelties of weather, fire and heat led to cruelties in the populace, and to resigned acceptance of hardship, and in equal measure to mateship and bastardry.

He writes of attempts to reclaim and repair the land, and discusses what that actually means - reclaim it to when? If to before white settlement, then doesn't that imply that Aboriginals should be living a traditional life on such land, cool burning, creating pastures for kangaroos, and all the other things they did in managing "virgin" bush? This is a question that has no answer.

Watson's book is mostly about the changes agriculture have wrought on the land, but he does point out that it was mining rather than farming that has left the biggest scars on the land - most sclerophyll forests in the Central Highlands of Victoria were cut down to shore up mines, process gold, and to house and heat miners. What grew back was not the same as what was there before.

And that is the key - what we have now is not what was there. This is a tragedy, but Watson does not necessarily blame those that were responsible: "A frontier exists in a moment of transformation: one civilisation and the environment in which it exists give way as a new one is brought into being. This is a violent and self-interested act regardless of the particular means by which it is carried out, but also one redeemed by the hardships endured by those who perform it, and contradictory as it may seem, by the purity of their motives, their brave hearts, the grandeur of the colonial enterprise."  This is the nub of why the bush is a controversial place -  this is still happening there today, and the effects of that transformation are still evident.

The extensive notes at the end of the book are an invaluable source of reading material about the history and the current state of the bush, and are well worth delving into. The index is less useful.

The final word in this review should go to Watson - his final paragraph - "You can't kill myths but that doesn't mean there is no other way of seeing things, or that you can't cultivate something more profound and useful to coexist with them. It can do no harm to settle on the public mind a deeper and more honest knowledge of the land than anything that myth and platitude allow, or to encourage love to overcome indifference. Throughout Australia there are people whose daily lives are led according to a philosophy of just this kind. There are farmers who farm this way. We need a relationship with the land that does not demand submission from either party, that is built more on knowledge than the hunger to posses, and finds the effort to understand and preserve as gratifying as the effort to exploit and command. In the end it is possible to love and admire the bush both as farmers do and in the kind and curious ways that the woman in Western Australia loved the birds and the sight and the scent of the black boronia; they way that the farmer further down our watercourse, who by his neighbours' lights should have been busy cutting his bracken, loved the lyrebirds that surrounded him as he lay gazing in the gully. Except we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again."

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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