October 2014

Arts & Letters

Shaped for good purpose

By John Hirst

From stick insects to swagmen in Don Watson’s ‘The Bush’

Out of what he calls his “confused and contradictory affections”, Don Watson has written a loving rumination on Australia, the landmass, and those who live on it and from it. The Bush: Travels in the heart of Australia (Hamish Hamilton; $45) is a mix of memoir, travelogue and prescription, and of natural and human history, enlivened always by sparkling evocations of people and place. The mix comes mixed: “Our new hills were steeper; blue gums, not mountain ash, were the dominant tree, the soil was grey, and there were more Presbyterians.”

Watson is a conservationist, but he’s the son-of-a-dairyman greenie rather than the inner-city or Nimbin variety. His heart is with the people and the country they made, even while he laments the effects of their pioneering. He affronts the inner-city sensibility by mentioning casually that every year in Australia 800,000 poddy calves, “each of them as pretty as Bambi”, are slaughtered. Of Nimbin itself he writes that it has the appearance in its post-Aquarian era “of a fossilised relic of hippiedom, a marijuana-pickled, bad-taste rural slum”. He admires more the towns that the first settlers created so soon after they were established, with their “halls, schools, hospitals, roads, churches, agricultural shows, Sunday schools, libraries”.

Watson glories in lists: all the trees in a forest, all the things that were made from its timber. He won’t talk about saltbush until all the varieties have been named. The lists of flora and fauna all come with their Latin nomenclature. Watson is a respecter of science. For all that bad science has sometimes aided in the ravaging of the land, overall rural Australia is “a miracle of science” and he looks for better science to continue the repair. Though the Aborigines are seamlessly part of this book, he does not succumb to the modish view that they can guide the regeneration of the country.

The Aborigines appear as victims of colonisation, but more regularly as users of the flora and fauna, the same resource used or not used by the European settlers. That anchors them more securely as an Australian people than as victims of dispossession. In a typical passage, Watson treats of possums by beginning with the ones on his parents’ farm in Gippsland, Victoria. After establishing what sort of possums they were (mountain brushtails, or Trichosurus cunninghami), he proceeds to discuss possums as food for poor farmers and how they tasted; possum hunting as sport, practised by boys he knew; and then Aboriginal uses of possums in food, clothing, ball-making (for football), burial rites, and rubbing fat and ash into body incisions to make initiation scars pronounced and permanent.

Watson refuses to be captured by easy categorisations or received opinion. The understanding of the frontiersman Arthur Ashwin must include the fact that after killing many Aborigines he made others “his servants, mistresses and close companions”. Watson’s account of Aboriginal attitudes to land includes a group of Aborigines who deny the certain existence of some rock art in their country. They have no story for it so it does not exist. This seems to indicate, says Watson, “how much more their understanding of the country owes to religion than it does to anything resembling science … [it] offers only an illusion of understanding and control”.

This is a great sprawl of a book. To several chapters it must have been difficult to assign titles. Beneath each title there is a list of subjects to be covered, perhaps to suggest coherence – or to show the reader what a ride it is going to be. A traveller will be prompted to varied reflections, but the route of Watson’s travels is not clear. Best just to hold on and be enchanted by all the matters your guide has to discuss. Chapter 9 begins at Narrandera on the Murrumbidgee, which leads to a discussion of towns, but includes later an excursus on the difficulties of classifying Australian plant species. In chapter 11, a stick insect lands on Watson’s tent, which prompts the thought, “An insect history of the bush would be useful,” and we get a three-page sketch to keep us going. So the book achieves its encyclopaedic reach not systematically but by its constant readiness to take up new subjects or take another turn around the country.

The writing is crisp, witty and sardonic. There is in Watson a grounded quirkiness: “Our glumness we owed to no one’s prejudice, but to the weather and our own natures. Our happiness, in the main, we owed to our cows.”

In his 2002 Quarterly Essay, Rabbit Syndrome, Watson, despairing of his country, suggested that Australia join the United States and give up the absurd project of being a nation. The thinness of the national literature was part of the indictment: “Henry Lawson has had his day and will not endure like Mark Twain – or Kipling for that matter”. Twelve years later, Watson finds Lawson worth noticing. He reports regretfully, “The bush would not lie down”: for ten years a prime minister wore a bush hat and talked of bush “values” and “practical mateship”. So Watson tests the factual basis of the bush legend in the imaginative literature and reportage on the bush and its people, the works of Lawson and many more – a very wide range of reference, much of it new to me. Far from depicting stalwart, independent yet matey men, the literature presents a very mixed lot, some of them quite unsavoury and predatory: “what need of mateship without its opposite”. As much as the bush was a nurturer of mateship, it was an outdoor asylum for the eccentric, mad and psychologically damaged.

Watson knows that these manoeuvres will not destroy a legend; he is one in a long line of failed legend-busters. His larger purpose, despite the book’s title, is to destroy “The Bush” itself. His own family did not think of themselves as living in the bush; they were primary producers in the country. Watson thought he was in the bush only when he went camping in the Great Dividing Range. Now “the bush’” is used for the whole country in all its variety: “In the modern sense the bush means everything and therefore almost nothing. It is nine-tenths nonsense.” Watson sees the term as a barrier to true knowledge, and to project the national character onto it is another way of unknowing: if “we go on looking at the bush for flattering images of ourselves, we must remain to some degree unacquainted with both parties”.

But he is not immune to the legend’s power. He concludes his examination of swagmen, nearly all loners, with an observation from Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life. Looking at a swagman from afar, the narrator, Tom Collins, reminds himself that “the God in man, the only God we can ever know, is by His own authority represented for all time by the poorest of the poor”. Furphy wants us to conclude, says Watson, that how we treat a swagman if he camps in our paddock or comes to our door is the touchstone of Australian democracy. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ features a swagman and it remains the unofficial national anthem, to the great puzzlement of outsiders who don’t think of suicidal tramps as national heroes. Though Watson does not say it, this means the bush legend shapes us for good purpose.

Watson was Paul Keating’s speechwriter and wrote a book on his prime ministership. In The Bush there is very little politics: who’s in and who’s out has affected neither the great movements of claiming and repairing the country nor the role of the bush in the national imagination. There is “the government” that settlers relied on and railed against, but that is government without a party-political colouring.

In his final chapter, Watson reveals that eight years ago he returned to the country. He went not to the family dairy farm but to Mount Macedon, 60 kilometres from Melbourne, which despite his own strictures he calls the bush. On the slopes of the mountain dwell both the commuters to Melbourne and the rich in their manicured country retreats, but here also is the Black Forest, or what remains of it. That forms the subject of his final essay in natural and human history.

Watson went bush to escape “the din of predictable opinion, especially one’s own opinion”. I infer that this includes the mental conformity of partisan politics, like hating John Howard, which he has not quite given up. That a conservative prime minister invoked the bush deserves more attention than the scorn Watson gives it.

He has been refreshed on Macedon: “I was glad for the silence, the view into something else, and the birds.” Always for Watson it is the birds. I greatly enjoyed this book; there is an extra pleasure awaiting bird-lovers.

From this retreat Watson has contemplated what humans have made of this land and opened his mind to us on that grand subject. In his poem ‘Australia’, AD Hope thought that our prophets might come from much further inland than Mount Macedon, but Watson is an original, with an authentic, prophetic voice.

John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

A young boy holding two dead possums at a trappers camp in the Blackall district, Queensland, 1908. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria
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