THE OPPOSITION OF the city to the bush was, of course, one of the great topics of late nineteenth century Australia. Although beaten up by Bulletin writers and cartoonists, it was arguably part of the process of transforming immigrants into Australians. At the very least, the public debate meant that those who lived in coastal cities could not forget the land behind their backs.
Even in the 1950s, when I was growing up, this opposition was still regarded as a natural polarity: like the difference between winter and summer, or northern and southern hemispheres. With monotonous regularity, at school we were asked to debate the proposition ‘It is better to live in the city than the bush' (or vice versa).
And yet something that was neglected in all this was that, until the 1950s and even the 1960s, most Australian children growing up in cities were acquainted with the bush. It was a place they inhabited not just when they went to stay with country relatives for a holiday, but every weekend or even every afternoon as they played.
For example, when I was a very young child living on Sydney's North Shore, my mother frequently took me through the bush of Lane Cove, where she herself had played as a child in the 1920s. As we walked, she taught me the names of indigenous plants and birds. We collected insects and tadpoles in jars (letting them out again after a day or so). When I was seven, we were living in the suburb of Denistone. Every day as I walked home alone from the train station, I passed through a bush gully, where I would stop and explore for a while with no thought of being molested by a strange man or catching a disease from the rubbish that was already starting to pollute the tiny creek.
On the south-west side of Sydney, in the same era, a boy called Ken Searle was spending his free time in the Wolli Creek Valley, which was in easy walking distance of his Kingsgrove home. With other boys in his gang, he collected melting bitumen from the road on hot days and used it to waterproof the canoes they made from rusty sheets of corrugated iron and paddled down the creek. When the boys were a little older, the same bush valley provided a hideout where they would go to smoke cigarettes.
Four decades later, our cities probably have even more areas of accessible bushland (thanks to the lobbying of environmentalists), but I wonder how many children are in the habit of using it – either alone, or with other kids, or even in the company of an adult.
One reason is that children are busy with the demanding attractions of organised sport, television, computer games, music lessons and studying to get into a selective secondary school. An even more powerful reason is the combined fear of traffic and strangers which prevents parents from allowing their offspring to disappear and do things by themselves.
Because this alienation of urban children from the bush has been happening over the last few decades, we now have a generation of parents who have never played in the bush, who would not feel comfortable clambering up a rock shelf, and who could barely tell the difference between a wattle and a gum tree. Add to this the fact that our society has received, since the 1970s, successive waves of immigrants to whom the country seems as alien as it did to the first generations of British immigrants. For many people who have recently arrived from Beirut or Ho Chi Minh City, the only time they see the bush is when a television news report shows it on fire. Why would they take their children into it?
I STARTED THINKING about all this a couple of years ago when Ken Searle and I were invited by the principals of a group of Muslim, Catholic and public schools in Sydney's south-west to run a project which would encompass the theme of Harmony, and which would encourage a group of sixteen children (aged from seven to twelve) to write and illustrate some sort of book. We would have a whole six days (spread over six weeks) in which to do this.
As it was up to us how we wished to interpret ‘harmony', I immediately decided that the way to do this was through the land – through the ngurra, as the Eora of the Sydney coastal region would have expressed it. My idea was that we would go for a bushwalk in the nearby Wolli Creek Valley, and study the harmony that exists in the natural environment. At the same time, we would try to find out how the traditional owners of this ngurra had lived in harmony with the country, and how they had worked to preserve the law of the land. Through being in the bush and studying the plants and animals and seasons, I believed that we would all find a source of harmony within ourselves. Finally, I hoped that we would develop a sense of harmony as a group, by exploring and working together.
If this was to happen, I felt that a spirit of harmony needed to be reflected in the actual practice of writing and illustrating the story. We needed collaboration, sharing and a special type of teamwork.
Through working as consultants from 1998 to 2001 with an inspirational team of Anangu teachers at Papunya School in the Northern Territory, Ken and I had been able to experience Indigenous principles of learning. Although in the Harmony project we would be working with children who came from a variety of cultural backgrounds and who lived in an urban environment, we resolved to follow the Papunya model of education: first by recognising the knowledge the students brought with them from their homes and communities, and second by encouraging the students to work collectively and collaboratively. This is different from the spirit of intellectual competition and individual ownership which tends to be fostered in the mainstream education system.
In another way as well, this project offered Ken Searle and I an opportunity to play a variation on a theme which we had been developing in our separate art practices over many decades. Since he was a boy, Ken had been going into the landscape of the city and drawing. The major works for which he is best known are large portrayals, in oil on canvas, of regional cities such as Geelong and Ballarat, and of the working-class suburbs of Sydney and Adelaide. Even his recent series about Papunya are not in the tradition of gum tree painting, but are a depiction of the community and its ‘backyard' of desert ngurra. Ken always says that he ‘walks into a painting' – exploring and sketching on site for a few months before he begins the composition.
As a historian, I too have always done my preliminary research by walking and looking and making mud-maps. When, many years ago, I did a fourth-year Honours thesis on the suburb of Balmain in the Great Depression, I realised that I needed to understand the geography of this peninsula before I could understand how people had lived there.
This experiential way of research showed me how to see the Aboriginal land that lies beneath the city's thin skin of buildings and bitumen. When I say this, I am not claiming any great spiritual connection. From the simple knowledge that water runs downhill (a fact of which many urban adults seem ignorant), one is able to determine where the fresh water was, and therefore where the First People liked to camp. If a particular road or path is easy to walk because it follows the lie of the land, you can be sure that Aboriginal people walked it too.
This way of thinking and researching led me by surprise, one night in 1986, to the idea that underpins the picture book My Place, which traces the stories of some twenty decades of fictional children who live on a piece of land which shifts backwards through time into Aboriginal history. The brilliant cover for this book, produced by Donna Rawlins, shows the bush as a kind of archaeological layer beneath the city.
IF KEN SEARLE and I brought decades of thinking and working to the Harmony project, this was irrelevant to the sixteen children who had been chosen to work with us.
On day one, as we all met each other, I knew that the bottom line was that we needed to have fun. The children's backgrounds were Aboriginal, Anglo-Celtic, Bangladeshi, Lebanese, French, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Iranian, Filipino and Somalian. Many of the parents stayed for our little opening ceremony, at which I acknowledged the Traditional Owners and distributed bush flowers (hastily picked that morning from my garden). As she was leaving, a Chinese-Australian mother shyly asked me if I would be able to teach her child the names of the plants. ‘Sure,' I promised, although at this stage I didn't even know which student she belonged to.
On the morning of the second week, as the parents delivered their offspring to us at the starting point for the bushwalk, I did a quick survey. Of the sixteen students, one boy had spent a lot of time in the bush of northern New South Wales with his alternative-lifestyle parents. His knowledge – of birds in particular – was so extensive that the officer from National Parks and Wildlife reckoned he'd have to look out or Nathan would take his job. A girl whose family (originally from Eastern Europe) had been living next to the Valley for three generations regarded this particular patch of bush as her playground. Another girl had been there a few times. However, although all the children lived in the area, most had never been into the Wolli Creek Valley and ten had never been in any Australian bush. I felt as if I was being entrusted with a number of precious eggs. Would I be able to carry them along a track and up an escarpment without any of them breaking?
As they arrived, the children joined Ken for a quick on-site drawing session. The pictures which they produced at this point encapsulate the very notion of the bush in the city (or vice versa), for they show the contentious stack of the M5 underground motorway as well as trees, rocks and a willy wagtail. More drawings done later that day, while we were sitting in a sandstone rock shelter on the edge of the escarpment, would show suburban houses beyond the gum trees, the railway line that runs parallel to the creek, and the planes that soar along the flight path above the ridge line.
During the four hours or so of the walk, we studied the creek water (both fresh and tidal) and collected soil samples, jammed a collaborative poem mimicking bush and city sounds, did rubbings of the ancient ripples in the sandstone escarpment, listened to a talk by a local historian, observed birds and lizards, identified indigenous plants and learned their Aboriginal uses, and identified exotic plants which had invaded from nearby gardens.
TOWARDS THE END of the walk, we sat in a little gully and mapped how Aboriginal people might have used its resources. One boy was concerned to discover that the Eora would have lived in the rock shelter. ‘But people would have seen them getting dressed!' he exclaimed. Another child thought the gully would have been a good living place for its traditional owners because it was convenient to Bardwell Park railway station. Others drew a plentiful supply of possums and wallabies into their maps. Meanwhile Nathan identified the feral tobacco plant and taught everyone how to eat the fresh shoots of the Lomandra. After lunch, we broke into three groups and produced journey maps on huge sheets of paper as a way of recording our discoveries and revising our understanding of the topography.
Over our next two sessions together, back in the classroom, these maps became the basis both of the individual books that the children began to make, and of the collective story which we started writing and drawing together. While Ken and I helped the students brainstorm geology, science, botany and history (including Aboriginal history), we were constantly amazed by their thirst for knowledge about the bush.
‘I think I saw a beard heath (Leocopogon),' wrote the ten-year-old girl whose mother had asked me to teach her plant names. The surprising thing was that I had not shown the children this particular plant, having thought it best to stick to the obvious casuarinas, wattles, banksias and paperbarks. Dora had found the beard heath for herself, both in the bush and in one of my reference books, and had worked out the convention of using the Latin species name.
‘Does anyone remember how long ago the sandstone escarpment was formed?' I asked, a fortnight after we had done rubbings of the ripples.
Liam (who was in Grade Four) put up his hand. ‘Was it 230 million years ago?'
Like little haiku-machines, they wrote poems about the creek and the trees and the birds, about harmony and respect for country. Under Ken's instruction, boys as well as girls drew flowers and leaves and seedpods. It didn't occur to anyone that this might be sissy: it was science.
By the end of the fourth week, as the students went on holidays, I knew that what they were producing was so interesting that we could aim for a commercial publication rather than just slapping a book together on a photocopier. Ken and I approached Allen & Unwin (with whom we had previously produced a number of books), and they quickly came on board. The principals agreed that we could have an extra two days with the kids.
Because many of the photos from the first walk had adults in them, we needed to do a quick second bushwalk, as a photo shoot. On the first occasion it had been September, and the bush was bright with the gold of wattle. Six weeks later, the wattle was finished and the white flowers of kunzea and tea-tree dominated the palette.
When we got back to school after our second walk, I asked the students: ‘What did you notice had changed in the bush?'
‘Us!' they shouted with one voice.
I was astonished.
They elaborated: ‘The first time, some of us were scared. We didn't know the bush and we didn't know each other. We walked all spread out. This time, we walked together in a clump.'
They were right. It was evident in the photos. I nearly cried at the time, and I am nearly crying again as I write this.
IT WAS ONE of those clumped-up photographic images that Ken and I used on the cover of Going Bush. You can't see all the faces because the students are so close together, but everyone is there.
In another way as well, everybody is represented on this cover. The drawn landscape of the bush track along which the photographed children walk is a collaborative work, composed by Ken from sixteen pieces of artwork which the students did. This image is framed by photographs of the bark of two trees from the dry sclerophyll forest which flanks this part of the track.
At the end of our time together, the students anonymously wrote their evaluations of the project. One of them declared: ‘On this journey I experienced the bush and I experienced life. I also found a brand new way to learn, and know new things.' As these children go back into their homes and communities, they take their newfound understanding with them. With any luck, they will talk up the experience to their families and neighbours, and will even take them into the bush. As well, the published book helps spread the message into the wider society.
This, of course, was part of the underlying rationale for the whole exercise. While politicians want kids to study civics and newcomers to pass some sort of test before they can officially become Australians, surely it is important to encourage everyone to experience the country itself before we expect them to connect with a political notion of country which was imposed on the continent a bare two hundred and twenty years ago.
Such a hope is not difficult to achieve. As these sixteen children discovered, going bush does not mean trekking to the back of Bourke. It can be as simple as feeling the Aboriginal land that is always under our feet as we walk through our cities.