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You Can’t Kill Myths: The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia by Don Watson

The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia by Don Watson
The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia
by Don Watson
Hamish Hamilton
427pp
$45 AU
Published October, 2014
ISBN 9781926428215

When my stout Sealyham terrier trod on an ant, she yelped so piteously I took her to the vet. A smear of salve on her paw, I headed back to our bush block blaming Don Watson. If his magnificent book The Bush had not included information about the bull ants known as jumping jacks, the sting of which can cause a fatal anaphylactic reaction, I might have rubbed the pooch’s paw, told her to toughen up, and taken her home to another girth-expanding treat, rather than to the vet, where we discussed jumping jacks. The vet said she had come across them when she was a kid and remembered the bite was nasty. We talked too about how many snake bites she had treated already this spring (four, not bad for October). I told her I had been reading Watson, and was trying hard to modify my hatred of the browns and blacks we encounter throughout summer as they hunt bushrats and frogs, turning up when you least expect to see them. As Watson told a gathering in Bendigo Library a few weeks back, more Australian deaths have been caused by horses than snakes, but we don’t take to horses with spades every time we see one.

The vet had never heard of Don Watson. This is, I think, about as odd as my not knowing, until Watson told me in The Bush, that koalas have a design-fault, due to their being descended from wombats. Their pouches open downwards, but the fortuitous development of a ‘kind of drawstring’ prevents the baby koala falling out. We love our fabulous and unique animals and like to boast about their cuteness or scariness – but not so much that we bother to become educated about them, and certainly not enough to be ashamed about the brutal ways we have found to slaughter them across the years. And to be fair (if that’s the right word), the killing of non-native animals has an equally macabre history. If it moves, chop it up; if it doesn’t, chop it down.

Brought up on a Gippsland dairy farm and educated at La Trobe University, Watson has lived for the past eight years in the bush at Macedon, 60 kilometres north of Melbourne. My vet, whose practice is in Castlemaine, another 60 kilometres up the Calder Highway towards Bendigo, likes to read and is interested in many things, but in my brisk run-down of Watson’s career, only the reference to his having written many of Paul Keating’s speeches connected. Ah, she said, did Watson write the Redfern speech? Her question would, perhaps, make both Watson and Keating grimace, since Watson’s account of that 1992 speech in his memoir, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), prompted a public argument between the two men about who had the right to claim authorship.

The Bush is not likely to enter the popular discussion with nearly as much drama and force as that speech, or that book, or that controversy. But it deserves to. This is a book every Australian should read. The kind of people we are, the kind of nation this is, the big myths and the way they have been forged – these are the stones with which Watson’s builds his book. The Bush is many roomed, with many staircases leading up to attics where junk is stored and down into dark cellars where the bodies are buried, and with balconies overlooking gardens and outhouses. It is time for the ignorance to end. What kind of education leaves out such intriguing facts as the koala’s ingenious pouch, or any of the other information Watson imparts about the fauna of the country we live in? As for the flora, speaking as someone who latterly has become enamoured, if not overwhelmed, by the multitudes of flowering trees and shrubs we live among, what kind of nation not only works hard to remove most of them, but also leaves more than half its plant species unclassified?

Ignorance of which way a koala’s pouch opens is not a heinous crime, it’s true, but my failure to know supports Watson’s suggestion that there has been, since European arrival and settlement, a general lack of interest – which swerves towards belligerent animosity – in the continent’s natural history, just as there has been a tendency to elide uncomfortable facts about the history of colonisation. Sometimes, as in the complete lack of reference to Indigenous Australians in the Waltzing Matilda museum at Winton, which leaps from the age of the dinosaurs to the arrival of pioneering pastoralist Ernest Henry ‘in a single bound’, this signals what Watson calls ‘cowardice’. He wonders, in his eloquent and sometimes sardonic way, why it is that other countries with vicious and even genocidal pasts can talk about their history and acknowledge what happened in order to understand why, but in Australia we prefer to uphold the bush tradition of pretending certain things never happened, or at least finding euphemisms to neutralise them.

*

What happened to Indigenous people when the British turned up is an essential part of the history of the bush, and in his second-last chapter, ironically titled ‘No smallness in it’, Watson uses accounts written by the white settlers themselves to refute claims that ‘dispersal’ did not mean killing and that the numbers do not indicate genocidal intent. He goes on to describe meeting Tom Donovan, a man of Kalkadoon and Irish-Afghan descent, who has scratched out a living in the vast cattle country around Mount Isa. This contemporary portrait sits alongside a description of how the spinifex and brigalow country, like so much land across the continent, has been changed by fire, grazing, development, salinity, clearing and the extraordinarily stupid introduction of weeds and pests. The portrait of Tom, with his no-bullshit attitude and his passion for fossicking, allows Watson to approach his account of frontier violence in a steady and personalised way, a technique he uses beautifully throughout the book, which is balanced between historical accounts, analysis, commentary and challenging inquiry.

No matter how many times you read first-hand accounts of frontier violence, they never lose their distressing impact. After a description of Tom Donovan’s stoic and suicidal tendency to consider snake bites a part of life, the chapter takes us to Battle Mountain, 100 kilometres north-east of Mount Isa, where in 1880 about 200 Kalkadoon were killed by Inspector Frederick Urquhart’s assault party in reprisal for the killings of several people over a number of years. Watson doesn’t follow up Urquhart’s story, although the Australian Dictionary of Biography, after mentioning the ‘slaughter’ of Kalkadoon at Battle Mountain, tells us Urquhart went on to take charge of the criminal investigation branch of the police force and that, despite his ‘vindictive and tyrannical nature’, he was appointed Queensland’s chief inspector in 1905, with the support of political friends. The Dictionary also tells us he was considered ‘well read’, with a ‘cultivated intelligence’, and apparently wrote a book of verse titled Blood Stains.

Watson does not treat his readers with anything less than respect. He never overstates the bleeding obvious, such as the cruel logic by which, time and again, a white death was avenged by the deaths of dozens of Indigenous people. Neither does he sell us short; his selection of information is delivered in prose that has the cadence of an elegy, but with a sharp edge:

In 1883, at Lawn Hill station in the far north-west, a travelling companion of the intrepid Caroline Creaghe told her ‘he saw 40 pairs of blacks’ ears’ nailed around the manager’s walls. The manager, Jack Watson, was notoriously ‘hard on the blacks’. In the east, Korah Halcomb Wills, the first mayor of Bowen, whose daughter married the manager of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, was hard on them too – ‘for the good of the whole civilized world’, he said. For the good of his soul, perhaps, while the rest of a hunting party looked on, he dissected and flayed the flesh from an Aboriginal man and took the skull and bones home in his saddlebags. In his day, the blacks were ‘dispersed in hundreds if not thousands’.

No underlining of the awful irony is necessary when Watson later quotes from the papers of Sylvester Doig, who justified his murderous ways by pointing out that the Indigenous people did not have ‘any idea of the English law of trespass’.

Much of the power of these pages comes from the almost casual build-up. Watson, on the road as he has been for much of the book, arrives in a cloud of dust at Hughenden in north-central Queensland. You have seen the inside of the hotel he describes, if not in reality then in one of those popular gothic-horror Australian films about psychopathic bush murderers. ‘No hotel actually being used for the purpose of serving food and drink ever hosted a more miserable scene,’ Watson writes, and adds a few more sentences that circle almost delicately around his distaste:

One could not be happy in that hotel. If it had any good purpose at all it would be as evidence in the case for hunting and gathering.

He gathers his strength, controls his anger, and marshalls his powers for what he must go on to write. His next paragraph takes us to the heart of the area’s terrible history, which the people of Hughenden, some of whom can be found slouched at the bar in that dreadful hotel, continue to refuse to acknowledge as terrible:

Evidence for the case against that way of life can be found a few kilometres east at Skull Creek, one of the many going by the name in Australia. There is another one – Skull Hole Creek, about 220 kilometres south, near Winton. This, the tourist brochure says, ‘was the site of a massacre of aborigines in retaliation for the murder of a teamster’. The hunt ‘climaxed at Skull Hole’, which is a ‘good place for a picnic and bird watching’.

Watson’s journey in The Bush takes us across land and through time, as well as around ideas. When he tells the stories of people past and present, he lets descriptions of their lives and their own words do much of the work. He tries to understand what kind of people lived and live in what his own family called ‘the country’, rather than the bush. We meet settlers like Robert and Lucy Gray, who were ‘not exactly landed gentry, but through their Queensland enterprise they planned to make enough money to correct this disadvantage’. A bit greedy, wonderfully optimistic and insouciant, unquestioningly racist, and yet self-justifying and patronising, they were your average colonial profiteers. They looked on their time in the colony as an opportunity to make good and, if possible, enjoy themselves. In Lucy’s diaries, we hear her talking about how her husband was ‘out all day after niggers … giving the blacks a lesson … after the blacks’. Unlike many who found themselves in a continent so different to the place they had come from, she rather liked the sky and landscape of Queensland, and was excited by the romance of mustering.

This almost physical lust for the masculinst ideals at the root of Australia’s mateship myth runs through many of the stories Watson recounts. He pursues the reasons behind simplistic, unchallenged attitudes held by Prime Ministers and poets alike. Watson wants to know what motivated the people who, within the space of a lifetime, damaged the bush so thoroughly it is ludicrous to hope for remediation. He starts out determined not to judge, but it would take a saint to document the tragic lunacy that led to the destruction of irreplaceable landscapes without a shaking of the head or a wagging of the finger. All through The Bush, people are scrutinised without rancour, though you can sense the effort of self-control behind pages which describe particularly nasty or stupid behaviour.

When Watson spoke to an appreciative audience in Bendigo, he smiled at his propensity for what Keating called ‘returning to the dark to feed’, a wonderful description of someone who refuses easeful ignorance. Predictably, perhaps, a fellow got up at the end of the talk to ‘have a go’ at the writer, saying that humanity’s plague-like numbers have made a return to the ways of the first Australians impossible, so we might as well accept that we will go on impoverishing the land in the name of progress, no matter how short-term the benefits. Watson mildly turned his answer back to the main theme of his book: the disconnect between what we see and what we feel about it. The accusation that Watson is advocating a bleeding-heart return to some pre-European Australian Eden is as wrong-headed as an attempt to control prickly pear by shooting emus. ‘You can’t kill myths,‘ he writes at the end of The Bush, ‘but that doesn’t mean there is no other way of seeing things or that you can’t cultivate something more profound and useful to coexist with them.’ We need to ‘love’ the bush he says, not try to tame it, or punish it for not being like somewhere else, or possess and exploit it to satisfy our pathologies. Indeed, he says, ‘we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again’.

*

Part of what gives The Bush is symphonic quality is that its thematic sweep is constantly undercut by the note of irony. Here is a man jaded by the opinionated chattering of city life turning to the bush for relief, as the pseudo-gentry of nineteenth-century Melbourne did with their estates in the Black Forest. You would have to be mad to think it’s going to be a walk in the park.

In the chapter ‘A Collision of Cultures’, he describes driving through the Victorian Mallee in 2011, when one of the periodic mouse plagues was in full swing. As he hears and feels the mice under his car wheels, he captures the eerie horror that the bush evokes, which is deep in the national psyche, and examines his objectives:

Down the floodlit tunnel of death I went, zombie-like, as if in a nightmare that wouldn’t stop. It seemed to be a metaphor for the human, as much as the mouse, condition. But by the time this thought came to me, the horror had passed and I was pretty well immune to the carnage, and this also seemed to be a metaphor for something. For the history of settler colonialism, perhaps; for the frontier where moral immunity issues from the act of possession itself, however egregious the act may be. It might have been a metaphorical way of saying that folly lies at the heart of the search for historical understanding (if that is how the objective of this and many other trips I took might be defined). Why try to recover the unrecoverable and awaken the dead? To blame them, when you know you would have done the same? To punish the living, the good people watching telly by the lights that every now and again I could see faintly on the plains?

The darkest moments of this account are often followed by glimmers of hope, as though Watson is rallying himself along with his reader. He follows this gruesome scene of rodent carnage with a description of meeting two wonderful Mallee people, Ken and Val Stewart, who have a solid sense of right and wrong, and a clear understanding of the damage done to the land they have lived on all their lives.

Watson’s questioning of his objectives has less to do with his own misgivings than it does with his investigations into what former Prime Minister John Howard, following Geoffrey Blainey, called ‘black armband’ history. The term is used as a patriotic ticking off of anyone who dares to criticise (‘If you don’t love it, leave’), but it also signals a complex yearning for community that can be easily exploited in cynical ways, and expresses the conviction that we have to stick together, as mates, no matter what. The mateship myth exercises Watson a great deal in The Bush because he believes there is a fundamental dishonesty in its construction and that tracing it to its source in the bush can help us understand why it is held so dear. Here, as in every aspect of this rich book, Watson has prepared his ground with formidable reading, and while he could have included more details about sources and who said what where, there is a joy in reading a text that shares so much information from other works without becoming bogged down. Russel Ward, for example, was just one of a gaggle of authors who wrote with hearty conviction about the Australian ethos being forged in the bush and how this gave rise to an ideal type that was ‘pragmatic, intolerant of authority and class distinction, sceptical and profane, but with a collectivist rather than an individualist faith’ and to men ‘who believed in sticking together, a fair go for all – mateship’.

‘Not in our neck of the bush,’ says Watson, who describes the values of the Presbyterian farming community in which he was raised: ‘indolence was unforgivable, along with all forms of ostentation, vanity, immodesty and observable ambition’. The mawkish sentimentality that accompanied the hard steel of intolerance in so many tough bush souls also disguised what Barcroft Boake called the ‘fiend melancholia’, which drove him and others to suicide. ‘As much as the Australian frontier drew folk together,’ writes Watson, ‘both the records and the literature suggest it drove others in on themselves, put a wobble in their psyches – buggered them, they might have said.’ A recent news report about a triple shooting in north-west Victoria included reactions from locals who talked about supporting each other ‘because that’s what country people do’. The same report suggested that the killings were the result of a neighbourhood dispute about dust. The bush might put a wobble in susceptible psyches, but it also attracts psyches that are pretty wobbly to start with.

One of the big existential questions Watson asks is: what might be the effect on those who make often heroic efforts to crash their way into and through the bush? The history of clearing and unsustainable land use is one of mistakes and failures. These can be discussed relatively dispassionately so that we might, perhaps, do better in the future. But there is another way to think about, for example, the story of the annihilation of the northern New South Wales ‘Big Scrub’, with its majestic red cedars, now all gone; or of the many ‘first-rate forests destroyed for second-rate farms’, as a forestry department boss declared back in the 1920s. In the chapter entitled ‘Striving to Stay in Existence’, Watson writes about the essence of trees, their spiritual significance throughout history, and the way in which, perversely, some of those who felled trees with a religious sense of purpose were convinced they were doing God’s work: ‘The sooner they clear the trees, the sooner God’s sight can be restored and His kingdom on earth realised.’ Against this, he sets our own sight: what we cannot fail to see when we look at trees, ‘not as an impediment or a utility’, but as a powerful presence:

The colour, light, movement and sound it generates; the vigour, strength, fecundity, the life force. The moods, the terror and the wonder it excites. Trees provoke the imagination and enliven the senses; they suggest mystery, remind us of freedom, lift our spirits, and carry us, if unconsciously and only for an instant, back to nature and in proportion to it. … We plant trees for their many practical uses but also to affirm life and commemorate birth and death. The power exerted by trees on our minds, and the strength of our relationship to them, may exist quite independently of their vast utility to our species.

Such musings will not appeal to those who prefer to compartmentalise their reading into fact and fiction, poetry and philosophy, science and art. But for those who admire the unfolding and beckoning richness of W. G. Sebald, say, or enjoy falling in to the viscous depths of an Alice Munro story, the moments in The Bush when Watson lifts his head to the sky to ask simple but huge questions are mesmerising. If trees are so important for human well-being, in not just practical but also spiritual ways, what can it mean for someone to ‘fell, ringbark, poison, root out or in some other way bring about the death of trees’? In a recent memoir, quoted by Watson, Lyle Courtney wrote that his father’s part in helping to ‘destroy for farmland perhaps the best hardwood forest the world has ever seen’ caused such guilt that he was haunted by it all his life. Courtney’s dad acquired a ‘deep repentant understanding and mateship with nature’. I suppose some would call that a black armband view.

Like Courtney’s father, Watson yearns for this new kind of mateship, one that learns from the undeniable mess made of the bush over the last 200 years and commits to doing better. Surveying the slashed, bludgeoned and burnt Mallee, Watson recalls one Reverend Sutherland, who ‘saw God in the mallee roots’ because of their ability to spring back to life after sustaining so much damage. Trying once again to find hope beneath smothering religious fanaticism and avidity, Watson wants to know if ‘men wreak havoc on the natural world because it is in their nature to do so or because they imagine their existence depends on it’. Whatever the answer to that question, he says, ‘hope seems to rest on their willingness to look upon the other parts of nature with the same reverence that they look upon the part that is themselves’.

When Watson visits the busy and impressive Michael O’Brien, who practises no-till chemical farming in the black soil-plains around Walgett, he comes away sceptical, perhaps because he does not perceive reverence or love in this trail-blazing farmer’s ambition and success. Yet stories like O’Brien’s, and that of Tammy Atze, who farms saltbush near Waikerie, are examples of what is being done with new knowledge about the bush and its relationship with human society. Watson has ‘a little rush of faith’ when he meets people such as David Millson, who has a ‘dream’ for his property at Mount Hope (fair dinkum) in Victoria that will restore native vegetation on the wasteland it had become. Millson’s dream is pretty simple: he wants to ensure that the land can still be farmed in another twenty or 50 or 100 years – a hope that was not part of the equation for the pioneer settlers, pastoralists and farmers.

*

That is where Watson’s journey through the bush takes us. In the final chapter (which is not quite the final chapter, as it is followed by an appendix in the form of an essay about the two animals on our coat of arms), he returns to his home in the so-called Black Forest at the tail-end of the Great Dividing Range. He wanders around his ‘bit of bush’ with all his collected knowledge to see if he can come up with, if not a new approach to old problems, then at least a better understanding of what the problems are.

But it is a bit like the never-ending nightmare of the squashed mice: the Black Forest, renowned for its mighty trees and glorious autumnal colours, is a mishmash of regrowth in the wake of fire and clearing, like every other bush landscape Watson has visited. He recalls William Ferguson, who was appointed Victorian Inspector of Forests in 1872, and who ‘with great assiduousness’ established a state nursery at Macedon by clearing native regrowth and planting Himalayan and Californian trees: 27 species of conifer, firs, pines, cypresses and cedars. What a relief, the Inspector of Forests declared, from the ‘dismal appearance’ of native forests.

Watson is not fanatical, like one of my neighbours, who has crowded his modest bush block with so many ‘local’ plants, each one wrapped in a green plastic sleeve, that it looks overstocked and unnatural. Grass cutting is a bourgeois affectation, apparently, so the cheek-by-jowl acacias and grevilleas have to compete with feathery grasses turning sere for the fire season. Watson’s nurseryman is a purist too, selling only plants endemic to the region. There is a lot of interest in this kind of thinking and Watson is in two minds, because he knows how quickly Australian plants from other regions can take over and destroy locals, but he also has ‘confused and contradictory affections’ for the kind of landscape created by European oaks and maples. As he contemplates what it means to be pulled in two directions, practically and emotionally, he draws together once more the broad boundaries of his arguments to make the point that what we do with the bush, how we behave in it, is as much about saving ourselves as it is about saving the planet.

Quoting the historian W. K. Hancock writing in the 1930s, Watson notes that people destroyed the bush ‘with the best of themselves, not the worst’. They sought ‘a romance of the spirit, a fulfilment of the soul’. But if ‘much that is good in us comes from the bush’, it is also the case that turning away from the past, refusing to face its consequences, perpetuates the false Australian identity Watson identifies. It continues the violence inflicted on both the landscape and our souls. ‘So long as the narcissistic myth endures and we go on looking at the bush for flattering images of ourselves, we must remain to some degree unacquainted with both parties.’

When Watson sums up his meandering book, we are asked as many questions as are answered for us. He is uncomfortable as a campaigner, preferring to persuade by thoroughness of argumentation rather than brow-beating. Although The Bush has a graceful fluency, he must have found some of the writing difficult, particularly when grappling with mythical and spiritual ideas. His loathing of imprecise and dishonest language – the ‘weasel words’ favoured by advertisers and governments – has made him a guru of plain-speaking. But can plain-speaking cope with such a magnificent expanse of a topic as the bush? Yes indeed: Watson’s final pages move from a prognosis of the likelihood that things will change, to an analysis of what it would take to initiate change, to a suggestion of how we might proceed if we were to undertake such a change. In the bush, he says, we can know ourselves, and that can be as beneficial for us as it is for the bush.

It is (or perhaps should be) difficult to say ‘we’ when Australians are so diverse. But we go on doing it. This ‘we’, which Watson shows depends on our bush myths, has some peculiar characteristics. He returns often to his point about how strongly the ideal of mateship is identified with the ‘boy / man from the bush’ mythic type. This is despite the fact that established country people came to consider themselves a different breed from the bush hicks who preceded them. The celebration of bush identity is selective. People visit the Waltzing Matilda museum in Winton in search of ‘authenticity’, or linger in Jerilderie, a town which ‘leverages’ the Ned Kelly myth by plastering images of the gun-toting bushranger in his helmet everywhere (despite the fact the bank in that town was robbed without armour). Watson points out that John Monash has much more to do with Jerilderie than the ‘ironclad sociopath’, but Monash doesn’t provide the kitsch interest of Ned Kelly, he decides.

Open The Bush at any page and there are observations and considerations that lead to ideas about what it means to be Australian. Such ideas were, for a while, much debated, but they are now increasingly subsumed beneath reactive debates. Watson challenges ‘us’ to change social and national values that are a higgledy-piggledy compendium of received wisdom, often wrong-headed and self-justifying. By showing how Victorian values shaped the bush and our image of it, Watson makes us wonder what might have been, if a different people had colonised the continent at a different period of history – or if it hadn’t been colonised at all. It can be sensible to regret, but it is not useful if it only fosters nostalgia, and Watson cautions against the ‘regressive spirit’ of a nation that resorts to clichés about the bush rather than taking pride in production, research or manufacturing skills: ‘So long as we believe that some part of us is a sort of stringybark-and-greenhide, natural-born bushie or woodland elf, we spare ourselves the effort to excel in more sophisticated things.’