Essay

Encounters with amnesia

Confronting the ghosts of Australian landscape

NATURE WRITING HAS never been more popular. In recent years it has become an international publishing phenomenon, with titles such as Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, 2014), Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, 2015), Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate, 2016) and Sy Montgomery’s How to be a Good Creature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) scoring significant worldwide success. Australia, too, has its own rich history of nature writing. For more than a century, nature writing was the primary literature for writing the country; a vital part of the ongoing process, for settler-Australians, of coming to feel at home in what were initially unfamiliar environments, and of creating a sense of national identity around them. Yet, today, nature writing is not widely known or understood here, and it’s apparent that more Australians have read H is for Hawk (18,000 copies sold so far according to Bookscan) than any of our own contemporary works.

Our inability to recognise and embrace our own nature writers could well be a continuation of a colonial cringe towards Australian flora and fauna, and a cultural tendency to reject or suspect anything too ‘romantic’ written about home. But there is something deeper going on. Literary engagement with nature and landscape has never been straightforward for non-Indigenous Australians. Judith Wright perhaps expressed it best in Born of the Conquerors (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991): ‘The love of the land we have invaded, and the guilt of invasion – have become a part of me. It is a haunted country.’ Knowing a place means taking on its history.

The natural world is, of course, intrinsic to First Nations’ storytelling traditions, which don’t distinguish between the human and the natural world. As a written genre in the Western tradition, nature writing first emerged in England in 1789 – the first full year of colonial settlement in Australia – with Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, a seasonal account of a Hampshire village and its surrounds. White applied the detailed gaze of natural history writing – which, in a period of exploration, collection, categorisation and colonisation, had been focused on the exotic – to home.

In the US, nature writing was established in 1854 with Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s account of his retreat from society to a cabin near Walden Pond, in Concord Massachusetts, in order to live more sufficiently. Finding no literature that gave expression to nature, Thoreau set about creating one. From its beginnings, nature writing has been concerned as much with the writing as with nature – a search for words, images and sentences suggestive of the landscape itself.

While at first glance a romantic narrative of retreat, nature writing has always been a quiet revolutionary. Its rise, and waves of resurgence, have closely mirrored community environmental concerns. Walden was Thoreau’s response to witnessing America’s forests recede dramatically within a generation. He and other early nature writers offered an alternative voice to the colonial and capitalist ethos, which views nature solely as a resource. Nature writing is ecological, rather than anthropocentric, showing humans to be only one part of an interconnected set of ecosystems. Ever since, nature writers have been influential in conservation movements, inspiring shifts in public attitudes and government policy, and establishing nature writing as a literature of environmental awareness.

Australian nature writing has much in common with the British and American traditions, but it has also evolved in ways of its own, shaped by the continent’s unique landscapes, flora and fauna, the nature and timing of Australia’s colonisation, and our long Indigenous histories. Colonised more than 200 years after America, Australia’s nature writing hasn’t had as long to develop. More importantly, it emerged at a different point in history: when rationalism and science had more influence than romanticism. And while nature writing’s romantic and pastoral traditions were easily adapted to America and Canada’s more familiar northern-hemisphere environments, Australian landscapes, plants and animals were initially strange and unknown.

The history of Australian nature writing maps settler-Australians’ growing familiarity with, and affection for, their local landscapes, as well as developing notions of national identity connected to concepts of ‘the bush’. But our nature writers haven’t only reflected our evolving relationships with our landscapes; they’ve helped shape them. After the literature of exploration faded, nature writing became the primary mode for exploring our evolving relationships with Australian landscapes.

 

IN 1853, THE year before Thoreau’s Walden was published, Louisa Atkinson’s illustrated nature notes began to appear in the The Illustrated Sydney News. At just nineteen, Atkinson became the first Australian-born woman to write a regular column in a newspaper. The first of her monthly columns, ‘October’, sets out her intentions:

In these busy times, and in the universal pursuit of wealth which characterises the state of things among us, the beauties of nature are in danger of being overlooked…there are many old inhabitants – nay, even native Australians – who know little of the natural history of this great continent. Confined to the town, and engrossed by its pursuits, as they are, the thousand wonders of the creation vainly invite their attention. Perhaps a few remarks on our natural history, in a simple and popular style, may be acceptable. So numerous are the writers who have illustrated the beauties of England, that ignorance of them, on the part of any one who can read, must be voluntary. Australia, a land of many wonders, claims a similar attention.

The call for a return to nature in response to rapid development and increasing urbanisation is one of the most recognisable tropes of nature writing. A sentiment we recognise with increasing urgency today. As Tom Griffiths points out in Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination (CUP, 1996), British works of nature writing like A Natural History of Selborne had been packed in many a settler’s suitcase. Atkinson hoped to convince her readers that local landscapes were just as worthy. Almost fifty years before federation, Atkinson refers not just to New South Wales but to ‘this great continent’ and ‘Australia’, fostering an emerging national identity based in our landscapes, flora and fauna – a land of many wonders.

Nature writing’s concern with language took on particular importance in Australia. Describing local landscapes, plants and animals in a language formed in the northern hemisphere, out of very different environments, proved challenging. As a starting point, Atkinson uses plain language rather than scientific jargon, and avoids comparisons to England.

Reading the history of Australian nature writing, it is remarkable how long our writers have been saying the same things. We just keep forgetting. Atkinson refers to Indigenous Australians as the original owners of the land and white Australians as invaders. Her columns demonstrate what would now be considered an ecological perspective, characterising forests as ‘safety valves’ and predicting widespread environmental change as a result of clearing and farming practices.

Somewhat controversially at the time, Atkinson frequently rode and camped in the bush. Her columns are grounded in lived experience and her knowledge of natural history. Running for several years, they not only educated a wide audience but fostered pride in and affection for the fauna and flora of the Blue Mountains, Berrima, the Monaro and Shoalhaven. When she died in 1872 following complications from childbirth, only thirty-seven years old, Atkinson had just completed editing a collection of all her writings. Unfortunately, the manuscript was lost somewhere in Germany during the Franco-Prussian war and, to date, has not been located. If Atkinson had lived longer, or her book-length work had been published, the history of Australian nature writing might read differently.

 

WHILE THE FIRST anthology of nature writing was published in the UK in 1936, and in the US in 1950, Australia’s first collection, Land of Wonder: The Best Australian Nature Writing (Angus & Robertson), didn’t appear until 1964. The illustrated collection features 155 short extracts from the earliest explorers to Miles Franklin’s Childhood at Brindabella (Angus & Robertson, 1963). It includes an early piece from Eric Rolls, who was, at the time, emerging as a poet and nature writer. ‘Action beneath the stars’ describes a mother hare thumping her legs in alarm when Rolls picks up a leveret while ploughing. Rolls’ life on the land brought a pragmatic approach to his nature writing and ecology. Here was a nature writer Australia could embrace.

His most celebrated work, A Million Wild Acres: 200 Hundred Years of Man and an Australian Forest (Nelson, 1981) is an ecological history of the Pilliga forest since settlement. It demonstrates the damage done by clearing and settler farming practices, challenging previously held perceptions of our relationship with the land, including the assumption that Australia was more heavily treed at settlement than today. Its argument that Indigenous Australians controlled forest growth through burning, although now widely accepted, was controversial at the time.

Rolls sought to describe the Pilliga in a local vernacular, reminiscent of its landscapes, plants and animals, and accessible to a broad readership. A Million Wild Acres layers details, anecdotes and various histories in a colloquial style that is grounded in a lifetime of farming the land. Yet, in a separate essay, ‘Writing from Experience’, Rolls explains that the process of researching and writing the book revealed new depths of character and story:

…the plants behaved as I didn’t expect plants to behave. They ought to be characters I thought, they are more than plants. And the soil had reacted unexpectedly. It seemed to resent what men and their new animals did to it. In many places the land changed and drove men out.[i]

With A Million Wild Acres, Rolls attempted to convey the perspective of the land itself, showing the interconnectedness of living things as well as the consequences of human actions. His most imaginative writing is reserved for trees. One unforgettable passage describes his experience of standing near a stand of native Cyprus pines or belahs, brown and heavy with pollen cones, when they

burst open in groups and spurt streams of pollen a metre into the air… If one is near a pine when all the cones burst together, one hears a crack like a pistol shot. The branches recoil and the tree shivers. One does not expect a tree to move in passion.

A Million Wild Acres remains one of the most-read works of non-fiction in Australia. And, with a body of work including more than twenty books when he died in 2007, Rolls remains our most significant and best-known nature writer. In The Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, Tom Griffiths’ suggests that Rolls’ ‘voice has become part of this land and has forever changed the way we live here’.[ii]

 

WHILE ELSEWHERE NATURE writing was expanding and diversifying, a second Australian anthology was not published until 2003 – and it wasn’t exclusively Australian. Mark Tredinnick’s introduction to A Place on Earth: An Anthology of Nature Writing from Australia and North America (UNSW Press, 2003) emphasises the lyric essay, honouring ‘the great contemporary writers in this field, most of who are writing in America’, and placing their work alongside that of Australian writers ‘for whom nature writing was something new’. The collection includes complete essays or sections of longer works, including Eric Rolls, Tom Griffiths, Pete Hay, Ashley Hay, William Lines and Tim Winton.

Tredinnick’s own work of nature writing, The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir (UQP, 2009), was part of a regrowth of Australian nature writing, and a shift back towards the romantic American tradition. The Blue Plateau layers human and natural histories of the Blue Mountains with Tredinnick’s attempt to find a place in the landscape. Like the Australian nature writers before him, part of Tredinnick’s endeavour is to find a local vernacular of place. In his creative writing PhD thesis, Writing the Wild (University of Western Sydney, 2003), Tredinnick describes his process for choosing words and phrases that are suggested by the place itself:

I favour a lexicon of concrete, plain, old and clear words… They are more apt than words like ‘ecosystem,’ ‘scenery,’ ‘vegetation,’ ‘flora and fauna’ to conjure in a reader’s mind something they can grasp, imaginatively, through their senses, not merely through processes of cognition. I try in this way to keep the country of my text alive with moving, sounding breathing, eroded forms.

Tredinnick relates the writing of The Blue Plateau to the Blue Mountains’ own formation, his words ‘falling like sediment from streams, forming a bed that will harden and rise and erode into the form of the finished book’. While Thoreau saw himself reflected in the landscape, in The Blue Plateau Tredinnick sees the landscape in himself. He, too, is ‘a landscape of loss’.

But that isn’t the whole story. The Blue Plateau addresses deeper issues of belonging for non-Indigenous Australians. The genre more broadly has had a tendency to erase any complicating features from the landscape, including its original inhabitants. One of the most obvious characteristics of Australian nature writing is the tension, for non-Indigenous Australians, around how to write about our connection to the places we love, knowing that those places were stolen from others, and possibly sites of violence.[iii]

In The Joy of the Earth (Collins, 1969), Alec H Chisholm describes his childhood discomfort around ironbark forests, walking the ridges and gullies on the outskirts of Melbourne, where ‘most of the “old men” of the tribe had long since been cut down’, leaving second, third and fourth regrowths. For Chisholm, the dark, furrowed trunks of the ironbarks lend ‘a kind of brooding dignity’.

Sometimes, it seemed to my boyish fancy, the ‘brooding’ of the trees became almost fearsome. This was the unhappy case, chiefly, when dusk enveloped the ridges and gullies on dull days in winter. The ironbarks had now shed their friendliness. They were, perhaps, revengeful phantoms of the black men who had once frequented these forests. Especially was I uneasy when passing a spot on a ridgetop in which white pipeclay contrasted with the sombre colour of the trees.

While this tension doesn’t seem to have thwarted the development of the genre in the US or Canada, in Australia it has brought a self-consciousness to our nature writing. In Australian literature more broadly, the dispossession of Indigenous Australians has been conflated with the land, such that the landscape itself seems to evoke a sense of loss.[iv] And maybe that violence is held in the landscape – rather than just in our imaginations or in ourselves – lingering in the soil and rock, sand and water, shrubs, grasses and trees. They remember. For nature writers, the haunting Judith Wright described encompasses not only guilt in relation to dispossession, violence and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, but a consciousness of 80,000 years of history, emphasising, for non-Indigenous Australians, our own lack of deep connection.

The Blue Plateau places recent settler history in the context of geological time, acknowledging Indigenous histories much more overtly than the majority of earlier nature writing, which implicitly takes for granted the right to belong. Tredinnick links dispossession to language: ‘If a place is your life, if it is the very words in your mouth, and it is taken, what do you say, and who are you then, and where?’ He shows settler-Australians to be complicit in the ongoing losses of language of place, laying down a template for future nature writing: ‘Anyone from a settler culture who opens themselves to the landscape where they find themselves and the history they inherit must carry Indigenous presence, past and present, in mind. All white belonging in Australia must feel subjective.’

Without extensive consultation – Tredinnick acknowledges he ‘spent too little time on the plateau in the company of the First People’ – the Gundungurra remain romanticised and absent. The Blue Plateau none­theless opened up new ground for reimagining Australian landscapes, histories and notions of belonging, identifying nature writing as a way forward, even a potential site of reconciliation, in a time of rapidly escalating environmental change.

 

YET, A DECADE later, despite the proliferation of British and American titles, there still isn’t widespread engagement with Australian nature writing. In part, this forgetting of our nature writers is an extension of our disconnection from nature itself. Although thinking of ourselves as a bush nation, we are, in fact, urban and suburban – and increasingly illiterate in nature. We just don’t seem able to connect our actions to the state of the world, or conceive that this is our habitat too. Let alone take responsibility for the lands we like to believe we own, or for the wellbeing of all our people. Australia isn’t, of course, alone in this failure of imagination; but somehow, for us, it is connected to our amnesia about our Indigenous histories.

Judith Wright, in ‘Upside Down Hut’, connected the dispossession of Indigenous Australians to the destruction of our natural environments, seeing the two as a perpetuation of the violence and ignorance that continues to hold back Australian writing because it arises ‘from a state of mind that imposes itself upon, rather than lives through, landscape’.[v] Nearly sixty years later, little has changed. Except now the environmental crisis is racing towards the catastrophic. Nature writing works against this sort of colonial and anthropocentric thinking. Or it should. But this is where Australian nature writing has been stuck – the writing and the reading of it – limited by the inability of non-Indigenous Australians to come to terms with our short but ugly history on this continent, and the contrasting ancient histories of our First Peoples. We’re still imposing ourselves on the country, rather than living, writing and imagining through it. Letting it speak through us.

While emerging as a dissenting minority literature, today’s escalating environmental concerns have swept nature writing into the mainstream.
The UK’s so-called ‘new nature writing’ has sprung out of its urban fringes and wastelands, its gaps, spaces and in-between places – as nature and art are always inclined to do. There is an increasing urgency about it. Wonder is no longer enough; new nature writing is the literature of survival.

Australia’s new nature writing is also emerging from the edges, margins and thresholds: the gaps and silences of our language and history. In a genre long dominated by men, there is a pushback from women reconciling the whole history of a place with their own experience. Works like Maya Ward’s The Comfort of Water (Transit Lounge, 2011) and AnnaMaria Weldon’s The Lake’s Apprentice (UWA Publishing, 2014) incorporate settler-migrant notions of belonging with ecological concerns and traditional Indigenous knowledge.

The central essay of The Lake’s Apprentice, ‘Threshold Country’, which won the inaugural Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize in 2011, focuses on Weldon’s gradual attunement to the Lake Clifton thrombolites in Western Australia’s Yalgorup wetlands. These ancient lacustrine fossil mounds, formed by the accretion of residue from photosynthetic bacteria, are ‘like circular columns broken off at the base, edges worn smooth and round by water and wind’.

This tidal zone between land and sea, freshwater and salt, is the central metaphor of Weldon’s essay. Coming from the small island of Malta, Weldon, too, is caught between two environments, two cultures. For non-Indigenous Australians, ‘Our stories about who we are all begin somewhere else.’ Rather than a place where something stops or ends, this threshold country is an ecotone, a dynamic place, ‘where life must adapt to survive and grow’. Weldon is immediately drawn to the landscape but it doesn’t offer itself up to her: ‘It was as though the thrombolites were forming sentences, strung from words of a lost dialect. I tried to listen, wanting to understand, but heard only the rhythmic lap of water against the pylons, wind soughing in the sedges.’

Weldon apprentices herself to the lake, and to Noongar Elder George Walley, who helps her ‘learn his local landscape like a second language’. Walley shares the Noongar creation story of the Woggaal’s Noorook, eggs laid in the Dreaming by the creation serpent as she travelled south from the Swan River, which Weldon relates to contemporary scientific theory, crediting microbialites with raising the earth’s oxygen levels and enabling life to evolve. In both stories the eggs embody life, a point of potential shared understanding, which highlights the precious fragility of the thrombolites.

This lake-bound microbiolite reef is the largest in the southern hemisphere. At least 2,000 years old, thrombolites grow less than a millimetre per year, ancient and enduring, yet susceptible to the slightest environmental change. Before a viewing platform was built, many thrombolites were crushed under the feet of careless visitors. Now they face a much greater threat: encroaching development. The vulnerability of this particular landscape serves as a warning of much wider environmental impacts, particularly on Australia’s shorelines and, by extension, to the reader’s own local places.

The Lake’s Apprentice links caring for local environments and acknowledging traditional Indigenous custodianship, showing this marginal landscape as a point of intersection for settler and Indigenous histories and knowledges. Weldon’s process of consulting traditional owners in conjunction with time spent in place, paying attention to what has been lost and learning to see what remains, situates brief white-settler occupation within the much larger scale of Indigenous histories on this continent – within deep time. The humility of Weldon’s approach allows a deeper experience of connection to Lake Clifton, where ‘land holds history the way lakes hold reflections on their surface, the way Lake Clifton holds fossils shaped like memories under its skin’. Nature writing’s particular attention to place offers the means to unearth such history and memories. Weldon finds a sense of belonging, not by retreating to a remote idyll and writing about it, but by engaging with Lake Clifton in scientific, ecological and cultural terms. And, most importantly, by opening herself up to the landscape:

Like every story at Yalgorup, mine has water running through it, sweet and salt, in drought or inundation, above and underground: I’m estuarine, bi-cultural by nature and circumstance. Like the fresh water which seeps from springs and collects deeper down, I’ve arrived after a long journey. The salt was always in my veins. I am at home here.

Nature writing – this white-settler literature – is, at its heart, about wanting to belong, a yearning for connection with the natural world and the places in which we live. To be at home. The natural world is not other, it is us; it is everything. Instead of trying to write ourselves all over the landscape, it is time to hear what it is saying and write it deeper into our selves. Australia’s new nature writing is here, and with it an opportunity not only to reimagine our relationships with the natural world but to read the past and write our future.

 

References

[i] Rolls “Writing from experience”. Orana, v.30, no.3, Aug 1994. 171.

[ii] First published in Obituaries, Sydney Morning Herald 7 November, 2007.

[iii] Noelene Kelly, “‘Singing Up’ the Silences: Australian nature writing as Disruption and Invocation.” Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, Vol. 1, 2011/2012.

[iv] Tom Griffiths Hunters and Collectors: the Antiquarian Imagination in Australia. Cambridge UP, 1996. pp 3-4; Noelene Kelly, “‘Singing Up’ the Silences: Australian nature writing as Disruption and Invocation.” Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, Vol. 1, 2011/2012 p3.  Libby Robin, “The Eco-humanities as Literature: A New Genre?” Australian Literary Studies, vol. 23, no. 3 2008. p295.

[v] Australian Letters vol. 3 no. 4 June 1961. pp. 30-34

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