DON WATSON The Bush: Travels in the heart of Australia. Reviewed by Jean Bedford
The Bush offers a narrative that includes Indigenous people, colonialists, settlers and migrants in a wide-ranging and sophisticated appreciation of our bush heritage.
Colonial and post-colonial Australians have always had an ambiguous relationship with the bush. For the first European farmers and settlers it was something alien to be fought and beaten into submission, while also the source of their livelihood and sometimes their great pleasure. We still regard it as integral to, and emblematic of, our national identity, yet in fact, as a population we avoid it and cling to the cities and the coast. Is the bush real to most of us or simply an iconic ideal? According to Watson:
The Australian bush is both real and imaginary. Real, in that it grows in various unmistakable bush-like ways, and dies, rots, burns and grows into the bush again; real in harbouring life. Imaginary in that among the life it harbours is the life of the Australian mind. It is by many accounts the source of the nation’s idea of itself. The bush is everything from a gum tree to any of the creatures that live in it or shelter beneath it, and it is the womb and inspiration of the national character …
The bush is squatter, selector, soldier settler … blockie, timberworker, tin miner, drover, drover’s wife … rabbiter, herd tester, shepherd, swagman, bush lawyer, bush mechanic, bushranger …
This absolutely absorbing book demystifies some of these imaginary notions of the bush, while also elegising (and eulogising) its realities in a more complex and sophisticated way.
In ‘Everyone was Happy’, the first chapter, Watson describes, with a novelist’s eye and a memoirist’s attention to detail, his childhood in Gippsland, where his family had settled barely a generation after the land was under Indigenous management. The chapter begins with an evocative portrait of Watson’s grandparents:
I remember my mother’s father in a tattered hat and trousers tucked into his rubber boots, striding like Hiawatha across the paddock from his cowshed. I remember her mother sweeping. He strode, she swept … Every morning she swept the gum leaves and cypress debris from those boards … Everywhere she wielded the broom with elbow grease and grim purpose. The back veranda was her frontier, those steps the ramparts of her civilisation.
Delightful as these images are, they are also a subtle introduction to several of the themes of the book – the role of farmers, the role of women, the way the bush would always encroach on those who wished to ‘civilise’ it and the way it seemed both welcoming and hostile:
Whatever affection they had for the natural environment, and whatever regret they felt for its passing, was buried beneath their fear of it and their uncompromising purpose – to pay the bills and feed and clothe their children … If the men who came to clear and cultivate it marvelled at the bush, rarely did they say so. They saw red soil, the permanent springs, the creek … and they took up their axes.
The Bush is astounding in its range. It uses the framework of personal memoir – Watson’s family’s history as settlers and farmers – as well as his own travels through Australia observing, and interviewing ‘bushies’ of various stripes, to investigate, among other things, the social, sociological, political, historical, literary, botanical, biological and geographical aspects of our relationship with the Australian environment. It rambles through travelogue, memoir, history, literature and analysis, all held together by the author’s distinctive and concise voice and the intuitive narrative structure of the born story-teller as it moves easily among pre-history, Aboriginal massacres, wars, disasters and the politics around contemporary despoliation of the land.
Watson grew up in Poowong, which onomatopoeically is ‘said to mean carrion or putrefaction in the language of the Bunerong’:
Our new farm was a broken-up bit of an old selection – the steeper bit … There were a couple of springs and a tussocky swamp … The boundary fence was broken down and the farm on the other side of it was a prodigious mass of blackberries, bracken, thistles and ragwort, as were the steepest part of ours. Rubbish, it was called, and in my youth and childhood it lay at the heart of the meaning of work.
He describes how the area was settled, as well as the lasting impact of this settlement on the Indigenous:
A handful of Methodists have as much claim as anyone to be the founders of Poowong … Presbyterians and Anglicans followed and built their churches in more sheltered positions … The old women who gathered under the trees after the [Presbyterian] service were too blackly fearsome for a boy to more than glance at.
Watson’s sympathies lie, uneasily, both with the hard lives of farmers, despite their seemingly necessary desecration of the countryside, and with the humiliation and displacement of its original inhabitants. An Aboriginal man who worked for the Watsons:
… had the expression of a man in hiding from a society which believed he had only a limited right to exist. I never saw that expression on a farmer.
There is a constant theme in the book of contrast between Indigenous and incomer views of the bush. Aboriginals had managed the forests with cool-burning regimes until the settlers came, hence the ‘parklike’ prospect that faced the colonisers. But: ‘The selectors lived in a world of fire, smoke and ash. They were always burning.’ Bracken to the farmers was a noxious pest that had to be rooted out to clear the pastures for cattle and sheep. To the Aboriginals it was a source of food and left to grow; the bush for them was (and is) also a rich source of spiritual connection and vitally important to their belief system, while European farmers battled against it, largely ignorant of its real potential and lacking in any deep understanding:
Indigenous knowledge of the natural environment was intimate and immense. The survival of Aboriginal civilisation through millennia is proof not only of a powerful and comprehensive system of belief, but of an adaptable one.
Many non-Indigenous writers and painters felt a mystical connection, of course, and attempted to depict it – Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, the stories and poems of Henry Lawson and the poetry of John Shaw Neilson spring to mind – and many are mentioned in this book, but unfortunately literature and art don’t cut it on a practical level:
It seems possible that the horror of being lost in it – an ancient fear, after all – made the bush that much more of an enemy, and removing it a much worthier project.
Both anecdotal and erudite (extensive research is evident in the 26-page Index) The Bush is beautifully written and composed, nostalgically elegiac, historically ruthless and often laconically playful:
We can date the European history of kangaroos to the moment at Botany Bay in 1770 when Joseph Banks sent his hounds after the first one he saw.
Don Watson The Bush: Travels in the heart of Australia Hamish Hamilton 2014 HB 448pp $45.00
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