February 2006

Arts & Letters

‘The Old Country: Australian Landscapes, Plants and People’ by George Seddon

By Alan Saunders

When is Australia going to stop being young? I may have miscounted but, as far as I can see, of the 193 independent nations states listed in the CIA World Factbook, no fewer than 143 are younger than us. Even if you allow that many of these have ancient political cultures – the date of foundation is just the date when they happened to win their independence from whatever foreign power was running them last – the fact is that Australia is no longer a stripling among nations.

George Seddon, that great polymath, holds to the view that Australia is new in its politics but ancient in its geology (a telling comparison: for his mother, Britain was ‘the old country’, but the British ice age was a mere million years ago, while Australia’s is two hundred million years in the past).

This is the work of an environmentalist, but it’s also the work of a gardener, his sensitivity to landscape honed by years of practical work. What, he asks, should we be planting? Is it utterly wrong to plant exotics – roses, daffodils, whatever – and what about going the Mediterranean way and trying to recreate Italy in the Adelaide Hills?

Seddon approaches the issues with an admirable lack of dogmatism. He refuses to be romantic about Aboriginal custodianship of the land – was burning such a good idea? – and, though he favours the use of indigenous plants, he is not averse to the occasional exotic, and points out that, in any case, there really isn’t such a thing as an Australian plant. (Australia is a continent: a Victorian plant can be as foreign to West Australia as anything from Europe.)

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written and beautifully produced, and the author is an ornament to the universities of Melbourne and Western Australia and to his country.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

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