Reviewed by E. B. Heath
Griffith Review 63: writing country – a compilation of essays, memoir, reportage, fiction, poem, and a photo essay of eight images – presents differing perspectives on the connection between people and place. The contributors are writing from a range of disciplines: science, politics, history, a lived experience, or fictionalised accounts. The work is uniformly of a high standard and a pleasure to read.
There is not space enough to comment on all of the thirty-one contributions, the essays chosen being just a small sample of those that resonated at the personal level. Ashley Hay’s piece details scientific data and acts as an eloquent alarm, as in: ‘ Wake Up! The house is on fire’. Paul Daley – ‘A change in the political weather?’ – brings political activist, Carl Feilberg, to our attention and details the dithering political leadership in Australia on climate change. Kim Mahood’s fascinating essay, ‘Lost and found in translation: who can talk to country?’ explains the significance of language, particularly songlines to Indigenous cultural connections with country. Almost as a reply, regarding who could talk to country, a Wiriomin-Noongar woman, Claire G Coleman writes an historical eulogy for her ancestors in a mix of prose and poem. ‘Boodjar ngan djoorla: Country, my bones’, is a beautiful piece that evokes an emotional understanding of Indigenous connections to country.
In the introduction Julianne Schultz quotes Toynbee: More civilisations die from suicide than murder. And for many of us, climate change does feel like a suicide-by-denial. For Indigenous Australians, however, it must feel more like murder – the murder of a close relative. Schultz hopes Writing the Country will imbue an appreciation of our wonderful environment and a determination to take action to protect it. Perhaps, as suggested by Stephen Mueche in his essay, ‘A Fragile Civilisation’, we should start by redefining established definitions of ‘civilised’ to incorporate ideas of sustainability. Similarly, Brendan Mackey, ‘Climate change, science and country’, suggests western world view is hampering our ability to face climate change and thinks we should reflect on the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Australia. A change in perception does seem to be happening. Tom Griffiths reports in ‘The planet is alive’ that environmental historians have not just added nature to the categories of historical analysis, but question the ‘very separability of culture and nature’.
The first essay, Ashley Hay’s ‘Crossing the Line: unknown unknowns in a liminal, tropical world’, is a pleasure to read. What is less enjoyable, or rather downright frightening is the message that this fluent writer imparts. It concerns the effects of climate change that will impact our everyday lives.
Readers might expect to read about scenarios of predictable or probable outcomes; how scientists are working on models and algorithms that will give us a picture of our environment in the future, however dire that might be. Perhaps not expecting expressions such as: ‘unknown unknowns’, ‘wild cards’, and ‘new uncharted territory’.
However much the above is not the language of science, it has come down to this – we just do not know how our current predicament will end. Climate change variables are moving fast and we do not have reliable data to feed into working models. In 1988 the CSIRO investigated the consequences of a doubled carbon dioxide, the predictions made then for the year 2030 have already occurred.
There are two features of climate change that must be considered – atmosphere and biosphere. We can still (but for how long we don’t know) have a positive influence on atmosphere, albeit a slow acting force, but we can effect change. Whereas, once a species in the biosphere has been eradicated there is nothing to be done. And species are being knocked out at an alarming rate. In his essay ‘The Costs of Consumption: dispatches from a planet in decline’ James Bradley gives some frightening statistics about just how many species human have wiped out.
As Hay writes she is traveling from Brisbane to tropical Queensland with her husband, who is researching a particular deadly disease carrying mosquito that has relocated from Papua New Guinea to northern Queensland. But she worries that that is not the only thing that is moving south. In fact current calculations suggest the tropics are moving eighty-five kilometres south each decade from its normal boundary on the Tropic of Capricorn. At that rate by the end of the century Northern New South Wales will be a hot and steamy and tropical. This is Australia on the move and it will impact all twenty-five million of its inhabitants.
There is room for a cautious optimism. And this revolves around the fact that human systems can and do change rapidly. Our hope rests in what each and every one of us purchase, what we vote for, what we insist on and how we chose to live. Even a small group of determined people can effect huge change.
Paul Daley expands on people power influencing politics. He provides a concise overview of just how abysmal our political leaders have been regarding climate change in ‘A Change in the political weather? Forecasting the future of climate policy’. Interestingly, we could all be in a different position had Carl Feilberg been attended to one hundred and thirty years ago. Daley gives us an account of this forward thinking man and goes on to detail the hesitant policies from those of Howard to the present day. The voters in Wentworth, a safe Liberal seat, voted for an independent candidate, running primarily on the issue of climate change. Perhaps now there might be some change, although, as Daley says, only because our politicians have had a taste of electoral destruction.
Kim Mahood addresses a more esoteric aspect of country in ‘Lost and found in translation: who can talk to country?’ As detailed above, academics are defining culture and nature as irrefutably linked. Language has long since been identified as a guiding force, and in turn guided by culture. Mahood goes further linking language and country, and the idea of country understanding its native languages. This comes from an Indigenous Australian perspective, and to the Western ear seems a little far-fetched, nevertheless, something resonates, even if the concept is slippery.
Mahood starts by citing novels in the European tradition, particularly the trope of ritual manliness, quoting: Lawrence, White, Stowe, and Rothwell. These writers reacted to the Australian landscape with some uniformity; they sensed the landscape and inhabitants as a ‘menacing’ – ‘void’. Lawrence writes more directly, rather than translating the Australian scene to an imagined place. At the beginning of Kangaroo, an astute novel set in Australia, he views the bush as: ‘biding its time with a terrible ageless watchfulness, ..’. But, by the end of the novel, comes to appreciate its enchantment, ‘He loved the country … it had a deep mystery for him, and a dusky, far-off call that he knew would go on calling for long ages before it got and adequate response, in human beings.’ Sensitive Lawrence seemed to sense a non-human attempt to communicate.
Mahood cites John Bradley, who has worked for decades with the Yanyuwa people. He introduces us to the Aboriginal songlines as a way of speaking to country in the language it can hear. In a recent essay ‘Can my Country hear English? – Reflections on the relationship of language to country’ he explains that it is important to counteract the tropes of menace and emptiness: To sing the country approximates bringing it into being in all its richness and complexity, and the loss of language … causes place, known, beloved and meaningful, to revert to featureless, primordial space.
Mahood was involved in setting up an exhibition Songlines – Tracking the Seven Sisters, and through this experience wondered about ‘a collective consciousness shared by the custodians of particular country, in which the landforms of their country reflect their own psychological terrain,’. She writes in some detail about this songline – it makes interesting reading.
Claire Coleman’s ’Boodjar ngan djoorla – Country, my bones’ lyrically relates her family’s sad history, a history of injustice and brutal treatment at the hands of colonial settlers. To read Claire’s work is to understand that intimate connection with country. ‘My bones are in the soul of Country, and Country is in my bones.’
Rather than on Country, Claire seems to walk with country, as you might walk with a respected elder, and her ancestors have done so for 55,000 years. Country and people – it is hard for her to distinguish where one ends and the other begins, rather, it feels as if the two are entwined into one consciousness.
‘And I have no home but the home in my bones
And the bones of my ancestors scattered down the creek.’
Griffith Review 63: writing the country is highly recommended for its bold assessment of the current and projected state of our country and for the scholarly, balanced presentation of the content within.
Griffith Review 63
Writing the Country
Edited by Ashley Hay
ISBN 9 781925 773408
Pp295 By subscription