by Libby Robin
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The Littoral Zone is billed as ‘the first collection of ecocritical essays devoted to Australian contexts and their writers’, and as such it makes an important contribution to the Ecological Humanities in Australia. But such a billing also raises questions: why have there been no earlier ones? And why is this excellent collection published in the Netherlands and the United States, but not in Australia?
The answer to the first question is that it is, perhaps, not very Australian to regard nature writing as ‘high art’ – or to use the term the editors use in their introduction, ‘belletristic’ (that is, of or pertaining to, belles-lettres). Historically, Australian nature writing has been earthy and popular, rather than transcendental. Australian nature writers were ‘of the people’, and they wrote first for daily newspapers, not in leather bound tomes. While Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, John Elder, Barry Lopez and other North American nature writers are part of an elite canon known both in their home countries and internationally for their high art, the chroniclers of Australian places and nature were known in their day as newspaper columnists, and have been largely forgotten since. In 1996, Tom Griffiths reconstructed ‘The Natural History of Melbourne’ (echoing Gilbert White’s famous Natural History of Selborne (1789)). He used the distinctive voices of Donald Macdonald (1859?-1932) and Charles Barrett (1879-1959), nature writers who have (still) received little scholarly attention. Griffiths commented that their ‘romanticism . made them marginal to the history of science, and their practical, descriptive orientation .placed them outside the study of literature and culture’.1 Their works were later published in books, but best known through the immediacy of the widely distributed newspaper column and essay. Robert Zeller in his chapter, ‘Tales of the Austral Tropics’, and Cheryl Taylor, the leading North Queensland regional literary critic, made similar points about Ernest Favenc (1845-1908) and E.J. Banfield (1852-1923), whose work first appeared (respectively) in the Bulletin, and in regional newspapers ( North Queensland Register, Townsville Daily Bulletin ). Favenc, Banfield, Macdonald and Barrett were all concerned with constructing, in Cheryl Taylor’s words, ‘the new nation’s vision of itself’.2 In a sense, the urge to be national and political in Federation Australia interfered with the ‘purity’ of their natural history, and their legacy as nature writers has been overlooked.
Ecocritics seeking an abstracted nature – a wilderness without humans or society – will be disappointed by Australia ‘s offerings. However, as this collection shows, there is a distinctive way to appreciate Australian places and the writing about them, and the first thing we need to do is rid ourselves of the expectations of elsewhere. The writers in the collection each approach their ecocriticism differently. Perhaps not unexpectedly, north American authors, Robert Zeller and Tom Lynch, focus closely on the literature; they help us read the literature of North Queensland and Central Australia as bioregional writing. CA. Cranston, whose ‘formative geographies include Egypt, Ceylon . Hong Kong. the American Southwest and twenty years on a temperate island in the Southern Ocean’ (p. 292), looks at the Island as a maker of people and literature. She takes insularity seriously through the close scrutiny of particular small islands. Cranston ‘s places are about an ecology of mind, her nissology (island-study) both psychological and aesthetic.
Other writers use visual cues. Green is a colour of exception in Australia. Ruth Blair and Tony Hughes-d’Aeth use greenness (and its absence) to point to singularity in their respective regions. Blair writes about the Green Mountains of South-East Queensland where the mountains are so close to the sea they are green, not blue. This is a surprise in Australia where generally the eucalyptus oil hangs heavy in the air, rendering mountains blue from the Darling escarpment in the West, to the famous Blue Mountains inland from Sydney. Green Mountains are worthy of comment, and these have many stories. Hughes-d’Aeth writes of absence in the Western Australian Wheatbelt. He begins with the sharp line between the muted green of the vegetated inland of his state, and the ‘wheat-coloured yellow’ on the satellite image used for weather bulletins. The yellow/green edge follows the rabbit-proof fencelines, delineating a cropping zone stretching from Geraldton to Esperance. This is a global contrast, not just an Australian one. The “‘clearing line’ is the most obvious visible sign from space of humans’ effect on the planet'(p. 46). This ‘picture taken every day from well beyond the biosphere’, displays ‘the central ecological problematic of the Western Australian wheatbelt, which is that of radical disappearance’ (p. 47). The light, bright yellow is where ‘in the space of less than one hundred years, an area the size of Scotland has been cleared of its native flora and fauna.the satellite tells the story in summary. It’s gone.’ (p. 47). The literature of the Wheatbelt is haunted with this loss, even though remnants of native bush do remain on the ground on a small scale.
One of the privileges afforded Australian ecocritics writing about local places is the possibility of a personal response: these are their places, and they can add their own layer to the literary. Bruce Bennett writes of ‘a beach somewhere’, and although all the beaches he discusses face west on the Indian Ocean side of the continent, the ‘beach somewhere’ experience is something shared by most suburban Australians. City Beach, Bennett’s own beach, is accessible by bicycle from his suburban home in the 1950s, and in his chapter, we ride with him, grabbing a towel and racing him to the water. Places are about memory and ecology intertwined, and this is a particular advantage for those writing about the places of their childhood.
Kate Rigby’s childhood place was Canberra, far from the Littoral Zone. However, her ‘Ecopoetics of the Limestone Plains’ provides the strongest synthesis of the ecological, the literary and the personal in this collection. Perhaps it had a particular appeal to me, because I now live in Canberra, and it is sometimes hard to find the poetic in a place famous for faceless bureaucrats and ruthless politicians. Canberrans need counter-narratives like this of our ‘designed’ place:
Where the labile river, named “the Thunderer” in the language of the Indigenous Kamberri in acknowledgement of its boisterous ways when in full spate, used to wend its fickle way, a placid lake now fills the flood plain, named ‘Burley Griffin’ after the architect who designed the federal capital (p. 154).
Rigby writes about all sorts of writers, including scientific as well as literary, as she creates her own ecopoetics of a place surprisingly rich with stories:
Where a cutting was made to create the road that circles Capital Hill, which now houses the political centre of the nation, a massive geological unconformity was revealed.[representing] “a gap in geological time”.It seems strangely fitting that the new Parliament House, where disjunctions and disagreements within the polis are also brought to light, should be sited at this place of unconformity within the very earth’s crust (pp 153-54).
The political and the ecological engage awkwardly in this otherwise ‘typical Australian pastoral country’. The place is ecologically national as well, and the politics of nature are played out here:
The non-annual climatic patterns that are characteristic of Australia generally, together with the unexpected ways in which the land responded to the colonists’ activities. provided settlers with ample opportunity to encounter nature, not as a passive ground but as the locus of an independent, and not necessarily congenial, agency, perhaps even a Trickster of sorts (p. 158).
More than most other chapters, this one compels the reader to do more than look at the landscape; Rigby urges us to recognise the ‘demonstrably edible’ in the ‘nourishing terrains, and to seek their continued, or, in many cases, restored flourishing for the benefit of a more-than-human community of life’ (p. 172).
Neither the transcendental romantic wilderness view (the American canon) nor the pastoral romantic (the classic British genre) work for the Australian landscape and its peoples. What Australian writers have that other Anglophone nations do not (with the possible exception of New Zealand ), is a scientifically literate readership. In Australian (and New Zealand ), places settled by Europeans after the Linnaean scientific revolution, the language of science interpenetrates the cultural in writings about nature. Indeed, as I have argued in How a Continent Created a Nation, science in Australia provides a primary, authoritative voice for nature.
A scientific literary voice emerges throughout this collection, for example in Tom Lynch’s chapter on Literature in the Arid Zone, where the nine deserts of Arid Australia, ‘70% of the total landmass’, are named initially, but the ‘Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia’ is used to locate the actual literary sites. For example, the ‘ Tanami Desert bioregion’ is an inspiration for Olaf Ruhen’s Naked under Capricorn (1957), Marie Mahood’s Icing on the Damper (1995) and her daughter Kim’s, Craft for a Dry Lake (2000). The ‘Broken-Hill Complex and Simpson-Strzelecki Dunefields bioregions’ give rise to Myrtle Rose White’s No Roads Go By (1932), Beyond the Western Rivers (1955) and From That Day to This (1961). While the idea of bioregional writing and a distinctive bioregional voice has appeal, the fact that an ecocritic must rely on Land System survey science to name the various literary regions within the Australian arid zone shows the extent to which science and culture are interwoven here, and slightly shocks the reader expecting the autochthonous sense of place implied by ‘bioregionalism’.
The idea of the Littoral Zone itself plays with the tensions in the Island-Continent. The world’s largest island/smallest continent has long been a trope, but CA. Cranston takes this much further in her chapter on islands, where she considers insularity in its physical and emotional forms, reminding her readers that the ‘island’ of Tasmania is ‘in fact an archipelago state, composed of 334 islands’ (p. 221), and that Western Australia has 3,747 islands (p. 222). She is interested in the spaces between, and the looking out, contrasting with Elizabeth McMahon’s approach to the ‘encapsulated whole’, another take on the tension between island and continent in Australian literary imaginings3. McMahon argued that the song ‘My Island Home’, used in the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, was a metaphor for the place of Australia in the world. The song and associated choreography could have been about singer, Christine Anu’s home island, Mabuiag in the Torres Strait – or perhaps Elcho Island, the home of the song writer, George Rrurrambbu. Or did it represent the single landmass of Australia ? Given the Olympic moment, perhaps it went further, with the finale representing the planetary globe, something that spoke to all the athletes present. It is more difficult to speak about unity in fragmentation, but CA. Cranston makes a case for the issues of the Australian literary whole being accentuated in the fragments as she looking closely at the literature of islands: Three Hummock Island and King Island, (both in Bass Strait, Tasmania), and then that of the tropical North Stradbroke Island. These islands explicate self-sufficiency in Eleanor Alliston’s memoirs of Three Hummock Island, Escape to an Island (1966) and Island Affair (1984); in Anne Shimmins’ King Island novel Eden Observed (1999) we find the ‘salvage and renewal of farming’; and Stradbroke Dreamtime (1972), a prose work by poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, captures the ‘Aboregionalism’ and tension of living in a cross-cultural world. All these themes are important in all literature about Australians living in their environment, not just on islands. They are social and practical, as well as environmental, and they give ecocriticism in Australia an earthy flavour that makes it difficult to pass off as either transcendental or ‘belletristic’ in an international sense.
Ecocritics everywhere are concerned with the ‘relationship between literature and the physical environment’, as Zeller and Cranston observe (p. 7). In Australia the scientific precision of a very physical (and not always positive) environment is ever present. Engaging with ecology in Australia means in Mark Tredinnick’s words, dealing with the ‘definitive pastoral enterprise’ of clearing land and raising sheep – and the inheritance of ‘paddocks (increasingly saline and eroded)’ (p. 123). Tredinnick’s chapter tackles the problem of ‘pastoral poetry’ in Australia through the lens of poet, Robert Gray, from the north coast of New South Wales. While British nature writing often uses the pastoral to take the reader, in British poet Terry Gifford’s words, ‘on a journey from the court to Arcadia and back to the court renewed’4, both the upper class ‘court’ and the imagined pastoral Arcadia are entirely missing from the Australian scene. Contrast Gifford’s pastoral with Australian poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s term ‘squatter pastoral’, used to describe the poems of David Campbell of the Monaro plains, cited by Kate Rigby (p. 163). The vantage point of the Australian poet is not the mythical classical shepherd of Arcadia, but the practical bushman and selector. Even the most privileged Australian squatter has a history of dirt under the nails, while seventeenth century country squires, like Robert Herrick needed the imaginative tropes of the classics to conceive their place because their class was a barrier to dirt. In Australia class is another problematic category, not a cause for celebration.
In a place where pastoralism is a business of the post-industrial era, literary language can easily be mistaken for anachronism. There were no Edenic years before the industrial revolution in Australia : European settlement in 1788 brought the agricultural and industrial revolutions simultaneously. As George Main shows in Heartland, a literary study of his home country in the south-west slopes of New South Wales, the pastoral and agricultural sectors have developed as ‘industrial’ in style, and the scale of industrialisation has augmented greatly since the 1950s in an era that is now recognised globally as the ‘Great Acceleration’ in natural resource use.5
Judith Wright’s oeuvre, both as a poet and a public intellectual, grapples with the pastoral livelihood and the costs of it, both in displacing the Indigenous owners of the land and in damaging the land itself. Her work crops up in more than half the chapters, and while the guiding force of the book is the bioregion, Wright is the only writer to be accorded a chapter in her own right. She is, in a very real sense, both bioregional and national – and is an important uniting voice in this book. Veronica Brady concentrates on her poetry, and ‘ways of rejoicing in the world’, but in Blair’s chapter, she is the voice of Tamborine Mountain, a lush rainforest mountain very different from where she grew up on the New England Tableland. Blair reaches out from Tamborine with Judith Wright to include some of her other ‘places’, the Great Barrier Reef further north in Queensland, which she defended in Coral Battleground. Wright’s Tamborine home was also the place where Oodgeroo Noonuccal retreated to write Stradbroke Dreaming, a key text in CA. Cranston’s Islands chapter. Braidwood in the Canberra district was the place of Wright’s later years, and Kate Rigby folds Wright into her Limestone Plains lyricism. Braidwood is now the place of a Two Fires festival, which celebrates the Arts and Environmentalism, the two driving forces in Wright’s life, in March each year. And although New England did not have its own bioregional chapter, there is a separate interdisciplinary study of land, people and memory in New England, High Lean Country. Its title echoes the ‘clean, lean, hungry country’ of Wright’s 1940 poem, ‘South of My Days’, and the poem forms a prologue to the book.
Tredinnick and the other writers who grapple with the pastoral in this collection confront the issue that in Australia pastoral is about work, not leisure. This makes it very distinctive from the subjects of high art elsewhere, particularly the wilderness literature of north America. While Elle Leane’s chapter on Antarctica engages interestingly with a wilderness literature that is, in a sense, 42% Australian, the Antarctic continent does not represent the birthplace of any Australians, and her chapter deals with ‘exceptional’ rather than Australian ecology. The physical destruction of the ecological systems of Australia by pastoral and agricultural activity is at the heart of ecocritical engagement. Such destruction renders both Arcadian and transcendental voices false in the wide brown land.
In a stinging critique of transcendental environmentalism in his own country, the American environmental historian Richard White suggested that the authority for writing about environment should begin with work, not leisure. He argues this case in a brilliant paper: ‘Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?’6 Wilderness is deeply problematic wherever there are Indigenous peoples (that is, everywhere except Antarctica ). This is particularly so in Australia with its history of ‘Terra Nullius’, and far more so than the editorial introduction to this book suggests. I think the reliance on Tasmanian perspectives has led to statements such as ‘environmentalism has developed in similar ways in Australia and North America ‘ (p. 9), and this view is difficult to support nationally or historically. The book’s focus on ‘The Littoral Zone’ is perhaps an excuse for privileging the Tasmanian campaigns for Lake Pedder (1970s) and the Franklin (1980s), but ecocriticism must also deal with the earlier, rather different idea of ‘bushland’ that was central to field naturalists’ campaigns for a century before the American term came to Australia, as well as to the more recent Indigenous challenge that ‘wilderness is a whitefella word’. Oral traditions and storytelling are the ‘high art’ of Indigenous peoples, not literature. Perhaps, as Tom Lynch suggests, we need to consider visual arts as well as storytelling in our bioregional understandings, as this is more inclusive of Indigenous perspectives. Mitchell Rolls in his chapter on ‘The Green Thumb of Appropriation’ also reminds us that Aboriginal custodians sometimes have very different ideas about the role of non-indigenous (‘feral’) animals in their country from the dominant views of scientific environmental managers. Ecocriticism in Australia has to engage with the parallel intellectual revolutions wrought by global change and Indigenous revival, and allow for ‘conversations in place’ between the two.
The answer to the question of why this is the first ecocritical collection of Australian writing has taken me on a long and roundabout route through this stimulating book. The second question – why are Australian publishers not supporting such a venture? – remains. At a price of 64 Euros (over $100), this book is not going to reach an accidental popular audience in Australia, the one that nature writers themselves historically wrote for in newspapers. Our great nature writers have seldom attracted the big publishing efforts that North American writers enjoy. ‘Nature Writing’ is a common category in North American bookshops, but is seldom found in Australian ones, despite the well-stocked shelves in ‘Popular Science’. The very interdisciplinary nature of place-based writing demands that it be democratically disseminated, and if the bookshops do not have the space for such interdisciplinarity, publishers will not be brave enough to go for big print runs. Google is a great leveller. Perhaps the fact that our Ecological Humanities corner is in Australian Humanities Review, a free on-line journal, will alert new readers from the arts, the sciences and the ‘generally environmentally concerned’, to the renaissance of writing about Australian nature that this collection celebrates.
Libby Robin is an environmental historian at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and the Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia. Her latest book is How a Continent Created a Nation (UNSW Press 2007). e-mail: email@example.com
Atkinson, Alan, J.S. Ryan, Iain Davidson and Andrew Piper (eds) High Lean Country: Land, People and Memory in New England, (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2006)
Costanza, Robert, Lisa J. Graumlich and Will Steffen (eds.), Sustainability or Collapse: An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth ( Cambridge, Mass and London : MIT Press, 2007)
Cronon, William (ed) Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, (New York: W W Norton, 1995).
Griffiths, Tom Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia (Cambridge and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Main, George Heartland: The Regeneration of Rural Place, ( Sydney : UNSW Press, 2005)
McMahon, Elizabeth ‘Encapsulated space’, Southerly, 65 (1), 2005, 20-29.
Robin, Libby How a Continent Created a Nation, ( Sydney : UNSW Press, 2007)
1.Griffiths, ‘The Natural History of Melbourne, in Hunters and Collectors, 1996, p. 122
2.Quoted in Zeller, p. 202.
3. McMahon, ‘Encapsulated space’, 2005.
4. Quoted by Tredinnick, p. 125.
5. Kathy A. Hibbard et. al ‘Group Report: Decadal-scale Interactions of Humans and the Environment’, in Costanza et al. (eds.), Sustainability or Collapse, 2007, 341-375.
6. White, title of chapter in Cronon (ed.) Uncommon Ground, 1995, 171-185.