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A living landscape

A country in mind by Saskia Beudel cover
A Country in Mind
by Saskia Beudel
UWA Publishing
378pp
$29.99 AU
Published December, 2013
ISBN 9781742584942

In the preamble to a lecture at the University of Sydney in 1984, which was published the following year as the essay ‘A First Place’, David Malouf said:

My purpose tonight is to look at the only place in Australia that I know well, the only place I know from inside, from my body outwards, and to offer my understanding of it as an example of how we might begin to speak accurately of where and what we are.

A Country in Mind is written at an angle to this idea: Saskia Beudel is concerned with the gaining of knowledge of an unknown place – and also, at the same time, with gaining self-knowledge – by studying the Indigenous and white histories of central Australia, and the various effects, over time, of bodies in a landscape: the effects of walking through it, caring for it, exploiting it, changing it, farming in it, living and dying in it.

Throughout the book, Beudel draws comparisons and contrasts between Aboriginal and European ways of seeing and being in this desert landscape. Her vision of this part of the country and its history recognises one view of it as a living, even sentient, entity in which Western anthropocentrism gives way to a cosmology at once more dynamic and more reciprocal. She quotes the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose’s description of the Aboriginal relationship to ‘country’:

Rose writes of reciprocal interrelations between people and place, humans and nature: country is a place ‘that gives and receives life. Not just imagined or represented, it is lived in and lived with … [People] speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country … People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy.’

Beudel’s exploration of these various bodies of knowledge includes her own bodily experience of place, and of learning to know a place by walking in it. This idea is dramatised in the first chapter, ‘Gorge’, where her account of walking the Larapinta Trail through the MacDonnell Ranges abruptly develops into the recollection of a life-threatening situation. Taking a short cut and diverging from the marked trail, she and her partner find themselves in a deep, dark and intermittently water-filled gorge and seriously at risk, both of them hypothermic from the freezing water and claustrophobic in the narrow channel overhung by dark rock:

I knew at that moment, with clarity, that if I gave in to panic I could drown. It would be that simple – a loss of control, and I would drown in this tight dim rocky chamber.

In its dramatic landscapes, as well as in the way it draws in and freaks out the reader, this chapter is reminiscent of ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s ‘Being Prey’, a classic personal account of being attacked by a saltwater crocodile in the Kakadu wetlands; Beudel’s book is informed by the same combination of scholarly intelligence, physical exuberance, ecological awareness, and highly articulate terror in the face of death. Plumwood narrowly escaped being literally swallowed up by the landscape and its creatures, for a crocodile will drown you and then eat you; Beudel muses on what it means to die in an unlocatable place, and concludes that she too, with her partner, would have been, in a manner of speaking, swallowed up by the country:

We had left details of our route with friends, but, against the usual walking protocol, had altered our proposed route to enter the gorge instead. We would have been engulfed by this location, so in place as to have become invisible.

Writing in response to the Howard Government’s proposed restructuring of Australia Council funding in 2005, Robyn Archer made a point about the performing arts in her essay ‘The Myth of the Mainstream’ that is equally true of literature:

A conservative view of the arts still dominates and is reflected in the division of Performing Arts into the discrete sectors of Theatre, Music, Dance, Visual Arts and Opera – and this is the view that such a restructuring supports. The fact that these generic borders have disappeared in the best and most successful work all over the world means nothing to these bureaucrats …

I was reminded of this eight years later when Helen Garner got up at the inaugural Stella Prize award night to give her keynote speech. The Stella Prize includes both fiction and non-fiction in open competition, and Garner is central to the history of that decision. ‘I was married for some years,’ she said in her speech,

to a writer who believed in a very, very severe hierarchy of forms. To him, the novel was at the top, pre-eminent, its banners fluttering above crenellated ramparts. Anything but the novel he considered lightweight, lower, less worthy of his attention. And further, he policed the boundaries of what one was allowed to call a novel. … I shifted sideways, away from the tyrannical fortifications, into non-fiction, that thing without a name of its own, where I felt free, and still do … I love the idea of fluid form. I can’t stand the taxonomical thundering.

A Country in Mind defies the conservative view, the taxonomical thundering, and all other attempts at generic border protection. Subtitled ‘Memoir With Landscape’, the book is also a history of sorts and a ‘memoir’, not only in the sense that it winds family history and personal experience into and through the broader discussions, but also in the sense that it intermittently approaches something I would call intellectual autobiography. This is a much underrated and under-explored piece of generic territory; while ‘spiritual autobiographies’ abound, intellectual ones seem sadly rare. The inner life, whether spiritual or secular, often doesn’t have the same currency as public achievement or celebrity status, or even just a racy sex life, and this is perhaps even more true of Australia than of elsewhere. But in among the masses of information about central Australia and its landscapes and people that Beudel patiently orders and explores, there are chunks of information about the fields of study, the cultural experience, the exertions of research, and the personal history that have combined to fashion the self that is now venturing down into Australian desert gorges and up the slopes of Indonesian live volcanoes, and then writing about the experience. We learn what has produced the mind on display in these pages, sifting and sorting information and ideas.

Beudel’s interdisciplinary approach is crucial to the arguments she makes, which are essentially about interconnectedness: of public with private history, of place with memory, of body with country, and of the region’s history, geography, geology, zoology, botany and ecology – all of them are interrelated forms of knowledge and intersect with Indigenous formations of knowledge and belief. From chapter to chapter, she negotiates the shifting borders between those areas, as well as between the contrasting Indigenous and European visions of country, its purposes and its features:

Depending on whose point of view you’re exploring – pastoralist, Indigenous inhabitant, anthropologist, scientist, artist, travel writer, tourist, road-maker, explorer – the desert is indeed more like a continuum of landscapes than any one fixed thing. Our reckonings of its value vary markedly.

The book consists of a Preface and 21 chapters, most of which could stand alone as discrete essays, but which, taken together, form a kind of narrative that looks like emu tracks: a central line of story, with gaps, from which multiple narrative and expository digressions and excursions branch out. So the focus and scale of the writing shift constantly, from a whole chapter on one kind of exotic vegetation – buffel grass, an introduced species that has taken over vast tracts of central Australia to the detriment of native vegetation – to the chapter headed ‘Dust’, which dances across the topics of groundwater, songbirds, overgrazing, desert fauna, Australian fiction, and the often unintended consequences of agricultural practices and scientific experimentation.

This mixing of genres and of disciplines is a brave thing for a writer to do, and it has its pitfalls and dangers. It is not clear who the intended audience of this book might be. Beudel seems at pains to write for a general readership, and from topic to topic she does this very successfully, using cultural theory and scholarly material in a carefully non-alienating way that maintains a delicate balance. She addresses the general reader with no visible oversimplifications or other dumbing-down.

But because of the broad spectrum of subject matter and the truly startling array of topics it covers, the book is in danger of losing much of its potential readership before the end. Any reader who is not a scholar, for example, will probably struggle through the chapter ‘Desert Notes’, which while conveying pertinent facts is also a personal account of the manifold processes, instruments and techniques of research – phone calls, tape recorders, the reading of obscure records in public offices and libraries. This produces a kind of meta-research, in which the deep excitement of tracking down, discovering and reading obscure or unknown documents and other information won’t always be apparent to people who have never felt it themselves. A reader whose interest is in Indigenous and European contact history since white settlement might become impatient or bored with the personal reflections about Beudel’s feelings and family. And a reader who was gripped by the drama of the opening chapters, with their experiences of death and near-death, might not last the distance of the exhaustive disquisition on the history, structure and habits of buffel grass.

Because of its determinedly interdisciplinary approach and its multifocal nature, this is a difficult book to describe in any kind of useful way to a prospective reader. It has things in common with Robyn Davidson’s Tracks (1977) and with Barry Hill’s The Rock: Travelling to Uluru (1994), but is more academic than either, making extensive use of the scholarly work of, in particular, Tim Rowse and Deborah Bird Rose. In places it recalls, and once approvingly quotes, Eleanor Hogan’s Alice Springs (2012). And in its focus on the interconnections between landscape, walking, self-fashioning and self-knowledge, it can be seen an antipodean version of Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways (2012) or even Will Self’s mostly urban-focused PsychoGeography (2007), perhaps the two best-known ‘walking books’ of recent times.

Beudel relates that she began walking – proper walks, long ten-day hikes in various places – as a complex response to bereavement, after the death of her troubled father and then, only two weeks later, of her loved maternal grandmother. Accordingly, the book begins with the death of her father, in a short preface that seems full of a kind of foreboding beyond the simple fact of life ending:

And then very clearly and all of a sudden I saw life drain from my father’s face. Colour left, like a tide ebbing. His skin became yellow and waxen. We waited, not knowing what to do, with no good place to go.

The walks were also a way of being alone with her new partner, and in the next chapter, ‘Gorge’, she skilfully conveys the ways in which forging their relationship, establishing trust and the limits of trust, are intricately bound up in the way they negotiate their life-threatening situation together. This sets the scene for the rest of the book, establishing the notion that human self-fashioning and the making of connections and memories are deeply and inextricably connected with place. And that is reinforced by the introduction of a new character: the couple’s baby daughter, Beudel’s first and so far her only child, whom she wastes no time in introducing to this country and to the pleasures and mysteries of walking.

I walked with Olive after dinner. She was older now, and had just learned how to walk. We stopped to watch a willy-wagtail … a larger bird darted low, splicing the air just above our heads. A sacred kingfisher in the dusk.

This imagery of figures in a landscape is used to evoke the experience of being-in-place, not only in Central Australia, but also in other places, especially Sumatra and Holland. It may be Beudel’s training as an artist that makes her so adept at conjuring up this visual imagery and suggesting its many layers of meaning beyond the literal. Without spelling it out, she gradually builds up a picture of a reciprocal process: she uses her family to make sense of landscape, and landscape to make sense of her family – the latter involving, among other things, a disturbing and rather dangerous-sounding expedition to Indonesia to familiarise herself with the landscapes of her father’s war-ravaged childhood. Her Dutch father’s life had been one long story of displacement, as she recalls in a stark sketch:

my father … was born in the pre-World War II Indonesia that existed under Dutch colonial rule. He spent the war as a child prisoner in Japanese camps on Sumatra, and was ultimately ousted, along with the rest of his family, through violence during Indonesia’s post-war struggle for independence. He spent a few years in Holland before working at sea, then migrating to Australia, caught, perhaps, in a double displacement: first from what had been his childhood home in Indonesia, then from his purported homeland of Holland.

Carefully avoiding any suggestion either of appropriation or of claiming some sort of moral equivalence, and demonstrating awareness of the dangers of both, Beudel uses her understanding of the displacement that shaped her father’s life as a way into a consideration of the lives of Aboriginal people in central Australia and the degree to which enforced displacement has produced the conditions of their contemporary lives. Of this kind of separation from one’s country, in both senses of that word, she writes:

landscapes can be lost in this way … They become remembered places, held in mind. At once literal and figurative, concrete and fugitive.

The idea of home inevitably plays a part in this train of thought, and Beudel’s skills as a stylist come to the fore here as she chooses exactly the right adjectives for what she sees: in describing the land around the strange homestead at Glen Helen, built by the original lessee, one Fred Raggatt, she writes:

There is violence, dislocation and dispossession in this landscape … The place abounds too with scrambled, baffling notions of home and home-making.

Beudel also keeps before the reader the importance and usefulness of visual representation. Clearly a fan of John Berger, whose work she sometimes uses as a sort of touchstone, she also uses her own training and experience as a visual artist to explore the different ways of seeing, framing and understanding landscape. She quotes Alison French, a scholarly expert on the painting of Albert Namatjira, who offers a more informed reading of Namatjira’s work than any I have seen before:

French argues that Namatjira was motivated by twin frames of reference: ‘making art and being in country’. ‘The particular kinds of landscape or facets of nature that drew him,’ she writes, ‘were qualities that came from a deep understanding of ecology, a knowledge of different types of plants coexisting and surviving in particular places under specific conditions.’

There is also a whole short chapter, ‘Darkroom’, on her father’s pursuit of excellence in photography – ‘It was during our winter holidays that I saw my father at his best. He wandered the shorelines with his camera and spare lenses, kneeling in the sand’ – and another, ‘Easel’, that begins with an affectionate account of her maternal grandmother’s late blooming as a hobby painter, and opens out into a history of her own development as visual artist. The pursuit of understanding of a landscape through new ways of looking, seeing, thinking and framing is something that runs in the family.

Throughout the book, Beudel uses a technique that approaches – and seems to be trying, humbly, to learn from – Aboriginal ways of seeing country, of the dynamic interrelatedness of people, animals, plants and the land itself, to write her own story. There are sobering lists of extinct native animals and plants, but there are also regular moments when the living landscape of central Australia – rocks, wagtails, kingfishers, camels, red pea flowers, ants – is represented as a single, dynamic, complex entity, as at a particular camping spot:

a masked wood swallow (Artamus personatus) hunted for insects, moving back and forth from the bloodwood tree overhead and a half fallen dead tree nearby with bare limbs tapered to pared-back points by termites. The swallow used the two limbs – one living, one dead – as vantage points like banks of a river, surveying for insects in flight in the current of air between.

This holistic vision of her ‘country in mind’ grows on you as you read, underlined by the book’s ending. A downbeat description of an excursion to the Desert Park on the outskirts of Alice Springs to see endangered species existing now only in captivity – ‘all finished up’ – is transformed by an unexpected moment of optimism, even joyfulness, at the end:

Just outside the door was a large lizard, which I thought for a moment was one of the exhibits, then realised it was basking in a sheltered sunny spot. We paused to adjust to the sharp high light of another clear desert day.

References

David Malouf, ‘A First Place: The Mapping of a World,’ Southerly 45:1 (1985)
Val Plumwood, ‘Being Prey,’ Kurungubaa, vol. 4 (18 January 2011).
Robyn Archer, The Myth of the Mainstream: Politics and the Performing Arts in Australia Today. Platform Papers, no. 4 (April 2005).

Helen Garner, ‘The losing game of writing books to win,’ The Australian (18 May 2013).