This summer I’ve been captured by three stories in particular. All have been caught up with the landscapes I reside in—particularly how memory seeps into my surrounds, bleeding and blending the lines between the literary and the literal. Books about landscape associate the external with the internal world, back and forth, one reinforcing the other. I can look out from the verandah to see the refractions of these tales, the memories I have created in the land, and the history of the country in which I live.
The first of these tales is Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. The book explores the way we relate to environment by beading together a series of memoirs about ‘wild places’. Macfarlane visits Rannoch Moor, the southern Holloways, Loch Coruisk, and other nooks and crannies safe (for now) from human industry, all the while battling to define the term ‘wild’, and reflecting on what actions these wild places provoke in us. At the book’s opening, Macfarlane asks friends to send him beloved places they have visited, hoping to construct a ley-line of sites to visit in a nature pilgrimage. Having made his list, he constructs a journey through many corners of the British Isles. He visits lochs, mountains, rivers, moors, forests and tors, observing the particular reactions these ‘wild’ spaces call forth from the often-untapped regions of the body and mind. As he journeys, he creates a cartography of land and culture, a symbiosis between physical and mental maps, of inner and outer worlds.
He begins to trace the definition of ‘wildness’ by noting the role of these places in human longevity—not only regarding space and resources, but also in creative and philosophical matters. These places are the few remaining retreats where the brain performs multi-directional stretches. In the shadow of a mountain, or observing a loch left after glaciation, we are forced to process non-human time scales. We must consider the longevity of trees, the shaping forces of evolution and geology, and the puniness of our kind within those movements. Yet Macfarlane also reflects upon how the mind is simultaneously drawn to heel by the wild, where the present demands attention, the now, the sun, the wind, danger and joy. He describes the sensation of apathy one feels when in a wild landscape:
All travellers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest. In small measures it exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.
It is a melancholy story, showing the diminishing wild spaces in our world, built of flash-frames of Macfarlane’s journey. We are with him as he swims in an icy river, or runs his thumb over a stone warmed by the sun, and worn smooth by centuries of flowing water. His experience is ours.
I found this an important exercise in empathy. In the British Isles, the animals that I have stained with my prejudice (as damaging, blameless imports from other lands, or misplaced cultural baggage) are, of course, held at the same esteem as our own native animals. A fox, or deer, or a rabbit is terrible and beautiful at once, when considered from different angles. On one Macfarlane-inspired walk, I saw a fox across a gully. It was lithe and quick as it ran off, the fiery mantle obvious amongst the eucalypts. On impulse—some itch to be acknowledged, seen by this creature—I clapped. I was enraged by its self-assuredness. It stared at me over its shoulder across the distance. It watched me for a long time and then moved on, unhurried. Have-a-care, Macfarlane was right—we are but a blip in the eyes of an ecosystem. The lands, the animals, the plants, the microbes do not care for political borders or our hierarchies of value. And there is great comfort in that.
The second story I read this summer complements Macfarlane’s foci—Don Watson’s The Bush.
Watson, once speechwriter to Paul Keating, explores the mythological symbol of ‘The Bush’ in Australian culture. It is at once hard to read and compelling, familiar and unfamiliar. He picks apart how central ‘The Bush’ (our concept of it and the reality of it) has been central to the creation of colonial Australian identity. Examining the hidden—or obfuscated—colonial histories, and negated First Nations’ histories, Watson begins to illuminate the birth of modern Australian culture. The way we built our identity by destruction of forests, by emptying, by burning, by killing, by creating vacuums where there was once richness. He brings to light some of the experiences of early colonials, their paradoxical involvement in the clearing of the land, yet their simultaneous attention to detail and appreciation of the environment, of flowers, birds. Here Watson observes the violence and subtle bending the human mind can perform in pursuit of justification.
Colonially, ours is not an old country—but when viewed against the immense backdrop of First Nations’ history, we realise the severity and violence of occupation on culture and landscape. Watson shows that the two are irrevocably molded, one to another, push-pull, culture to landscape. He identifies how we warp definitions to our advantage, how the landscape becomes a tool for our use, how ‘The Bush’ as a mythological space 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.
A while ago, my father, without preamble, sent my sister and I a long document he’d been working on in secret—a pamphlet of memories from his childhood, growing up in Reedy Flat. He retold of whistling foxes in with my grandfather, killing snakes, exploring up the creek (fishing rod in hand). In these vignettes, he illustrated again and again the interminable cruelties and privileges of rural colonial life. Reading this in tandem with The Bush, I felt, with a kind of ‘once-removed nostalgia’, my father’s experiences, echoing those same sentiments as Don Watson. My own history in the landscape was drawn interminably close and made puny against the backdrop of old ecosystems, and even older cultures, that the land has witnessed.
With tenacity, Watson has interwoven his own meditations of accountability, personal guilt, grief and memory throughout the book. This is not an analysis-at-remove—instead it is emotionally charged, with a cross-section of concepts and contributing factors surveyed in the forging of current day Australian identity. The Bush does not seek to pin the evolution of modern Australia to a historical timeline of events, a cause-and-effect chronology. Instead, Watson only begins to unravel some of the complex by-ways, ambitions, violence and momentum that began in the last century, and even now have not come to full revelation, but continue to bloom like a portentous thunderhead over the country.
The third story I have recently been captured by is a genre trilogy. The Monster Blood Tattoo series by D.M. Cornish follows a boy trying to forge a path through the Half-Continent: a world of Dickensian characters and monster-laden wildlands. Here, both people and monsters are equally fearsome, and Rossamünd, the protagonist, must meditate on the boundaries of humanity and monstrosity as he comes of age. Cornish’s descriptions of landscape are Adelaide-tinted, and I see the same symbols in my own surrounds. His knowledge of space—turpentine trees, magpies, sparrows, agricultural landscape, pine trees—are interwoven into the fictional world of the books, and they become the gateway by which I immerse myself into the world of the Half-Continent. Cornish filled a series of twenty-eight sketchbooks with extraordinary details of history, landscape, taxonomy, politics, maps, clothing, and family lines. There is detail and depth in these books that is oft-sought and rarely found in genre fiction. The vast world Cornish created lingers on the periphery of every descriptive paragraph—detail that demands a lateral expansion of imagination.
These childhood series are always tenuous to re-visit: will they hold up to adult scrutiny? Yet Cornish’s series seems to have ripened on the shelf. The Australian landscape—diverse, with dark nooks, bush-tangled valleys, sharp cliffs, made hollow by the vast sweeps of ‘emptiness’ to the west—seems to draw out an estranging quality of writing, the surreal and the uncanny in our fiction. Australian genre-fiction (thinking of Isobelle Carmody’s work, Richard Harland’s Heaven & Earth trilogy, Gillian Rubenstein’s Galax-Arena, and of course, Paul Jennings’ short fiction) immerses the reader, but also, at remove, sheds light on our perception of and co-existence with the country. This, too, is the value of D.M. Cornish’s beautiful trilogy—these works meditate on how we are embedded in the landscape and our lingering histories. Through the rich imagined worlds of genre fiction, I reflect upon my own existence in this landscape and how I might better pay respects. The road ahead is long and weed-tangled.
Georgia Angus studies anthropology with a focus on ethnobotanic relationships. When not bushwalking, she writes and illustrates weird tales that explore our relationship to land. Her work has been featured in The Dark Mountain Project, Voiceworks, and Gargouille.