Australia is defined for me through its landscape. My first memories are of a country town crouched at the edge of mountains, a mighty river, the mysterious ‘outback’ somewhere beyond. Fringe dwellers hovered in the background, shadows at the periphery of a reconstituted English village where the formal Arts Institute and colonial town architecture faced the village green.
Occasionally glimpsed, these dark shadows of a fading culture and its weary remnants—people who might as well have been invisible—were relegated to the shanty town of a strange world whose existence held little interest or value to them. Or they to the new inhabitants.
Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014) by Bruce Pascoe
I recall an old Aboriginal man hovering at the edge of the park, across from the ‘bottom’ pub, with skinny bowed legs, wearing a faded flannel shirt and battered bush hat, the badges of a one-time stockman, which set him one notch higher than his peers, who kept their distance. But from afar all silently watched the unfathomable building of a new world through sad, veiled eyes.
My grandparents’ house had a brass plate by the front door proclaiming its name to be Cricklewood, a reminder of the London they had left behind. In the lounge room I stood before the fireplace, hands clasped at chest to recite ‘My Country’.
I couldn’t truly visualise ‘an opal hearted country’ or ‘where lithe lianas coil’ but when, at age seven, I met the poem’s creator and asked what was it really like, she crisply told me I should one day see for myself.
My grandfather, who’d left school at 14 and soon after departed England to sail to Australia, read copiously. A gentle, humorous man, he yarned to one and all, but more importantly, as he taught me, he listened, really listened to the stories from old timers or the mixed races, be they Aboriginal, Chinese or Afghan, and who sometimes came knocking for odd jobs and a bit of tucker.
My grandfather would therefore not have been surprised to learn that our original inhabitants have not only a rich artistic culture but also a flourishing agricultural lifestyle that has extended over their 60 000-year occupation of ‘our’ country.
But such views were, and are still, questioned, so Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe’s compelling Dark Emu, Black Seeds is incredibly important. Researched from many sources, particularly from evocative notes and diaries of early settlers and explorers, Dark Emu teaches us that the so-called wandering ‘hunter-gatherers’ practised agriculture, aquaculture, built houses, used fire as land management, harvested grain and baked it, implemented food storage as well as observing rich cultural and ceremonial practices.
However, colonial farming techniques were not well suited to this hemisphere and landscape. The impact of sheep and cattle quickly disposed of the local tribespeople as a healthy environment was degraded, their food sources disappeared and they were pushed further from their lands. Pascoe’s writing may be factual and almost blunt, but the message is powerful, if ignored by most of today’s agricultural, mining and so called ‘development’ industries.
It gives me a physical, sickening pain to drive by or fly over the moonscape scars of bleak gouged land where what is really a momentary resource, benefiting few, has tragically wiped out nature’s beauty, decimating a culture with total disregard for its history, its art, and the land that sustains it.
Private Lives: Australians at Home Since Federation (2008) by Peter Timms
I grew up in a Sydney beachside suburb between sojourns with my beloved grandparents. So when I came upon Peter Timms’ charming Private Lives I recognised the transformation of the Australian home with some nostalgia, regret and amusement. ‘Behind the front door of every suburban house, a quiet revolution has been going on. The place our grandparents called home 100 years ago has little in common with the new media nests we now inhabit …’ Timms writes.
As we tour from room to room, the illustrations from old photographs, paintings—such as Sali Herman’s inner-city terrace buildings and lifestyles—evocative advertising, home decor magazines and product catalogues are riveting, entertaining and chart an extraordinary architectural and lifestyle journey for the Australian family:
The changing social mores are reflected in the changes of the home. The twentieth century, despite its many marvels, was not an easy time, even for the most fortunate enough to be living in peace and prosperity on the periphery of world events … Their lives during the worst years of economic depression, warfare and social upheaval … can tell us much about who we are today and what shaped us.
We journey from do-it-yourself to project homes, when ‘charm’ became ‘smart’ and the moment when ‘ordinary folk sought refuge from troubled times in overstuffed armchairs and gaudy floral carpets’, while ‘progressive eyes turned to Sweden …’ And so began the ‘modern’ era of Scandinavian furniture and pared-back design.
My grandparents’ Federation house is little changed, though surrounded by rusting and rotting beauties that I long for city tree-changers to preserve and restore.
Our country town struggles to maintain its heritage moniker. Council factions razed the last Cobb and Co. coach stables in the state, attached to the back of a pub, while city investors, seeking ‘olde worlde’ dwellings to reinvigorate as B&Bs or foodie havens for the local gourmet produce, or those seeking to move from exploding Sydney and restore the valley’s old homes and find a more peaceful lifestyle, are finding less and less heritage remaining. In their place are new, dull, nondescript, unimaginative buildings. Timms’ examples echo present-day issues:
A young [journalist] David McNicoll whining in print in 1939 about the ‘appalling decline’ in Sydney’s home-life, put the blame firmly on foreigners in flats, in that order … A few years later when government housing commissions started razing inner city slums for apartment blocks, they were working on the assumption that clean, efficient flats equipped with modern amenities would be welcomed by folk from derelict old cottages with outside dunnies and rising damp. The euphoria didn’t last long … lobbies, lifts and corridors degenerated into grubby dangerous wastelands.
So were the ‘old days’ a time of simple pleasures or suburban dreariness? Gone is the home redolent with the wafting smell of a Sunday roast leg of lamb in the electric oven, where grandparents lived with the family, rather than visited, writes Timms. Today a grandparent takes lunch alone in the ‘village’, living out their days trying not to be a nuisance.
The journeys of families through the Australian landscape continues, navigating the changes of time, government and circumstance. Owning a home is becoming a dream beyond most present-day Australians. Adult children live with parents, inheritance the surest means to achieving the great Australian dream of home ownership.
Sunlight and Seaweed—an Argument for How to Feed, Power and Clean up the World (2017) by Tim Flannery
This generation’s spectre of climate change is no longer prophetic or impossible, but a reality. One fears not for the next generation but for the present. It’s on our heads, we saw it coming and did nothing. So it was somewhat comforting to read the latest writings from entertaining and erudite environmentalist, scientist, explorer and academic Tim Flannery, who takes a more cheerful stance, although the grim reality hovers. Sunlight and Seaweed follows his The Weather Makers, which explains for anyone still in doubt that climate change is happening and something has to be done about it. And fast.
In Sunlight and Seaweed, Flannery presents some solutions for Australia to devise new methods of providing life’s essentials. The book focuses on two solutions. Well, not total solutions, but what he calls ‘fundamental building blocks’. One solution he suggests is concentrated solar thermal (CST), capable of delivering an energy trifecta—electricity, high-quality heat and energy storage—as well as clean water. CST will play a vital role in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, in growing food sustainably at a very large scale and in cleaning up polluted soils and water—all at the same time.
The second idea, which is where the seaweed comes in, is PV-powered mid-ocean kelp farming (PMKF). Hopefully the horrifying spectacle of plastic clogging the oceans and littering beaches (except in front of luxury resorts, but walk around the corner and, ugh) will be reduced and sucked up and processed for something useful. Meanwhile the kelp will be supplying mountains of high-quality protein in the form of shellfish and fish, and by absorbing masses of carbon, the oceans will begin to clear and be clean again as corals recover.
‘Armed with CST and PMKF, humanity will command cheap, clean power harnessed to the most efficient food-production systems yet devised, which, as they work, have the potential to clean up the environment on a massive scale,’ Flannery says.
In clear, conversational style, Flannery argues his case, which is convincing and quite fascinating to contemplate as one reads. One can only hope he is right and that his 2050 vision will come to pass. He admits he’s been called a naive optimist, but he feels he has history on his side. He adds, ‘It will take vision, leadership and some luck. But wisdom, vision and determination can take us there.’
But will it come fast enough to save the landscape, not just of Australia, but our planet? For, as I look around me everywhere I go, I weep a little inside and feel I am watching a loved one age and die a little each day. So I arm myself with history, and hope and pray that Flannery is right and that he’ll be heeded. But one can’t help but wonder what stories will be painted in ochre and what the private lives of everyday Australians in 2050 may be like. •