“He strode, she swept.” The opening image of Don Watson’s maternal grandparents in The Bush is unforgettable. More than five decades after he knew them as a child in 1950s Gippsland, Watson brings them to life on the page with the depth of affection and clarity of observation that can only come with the passage of time. Now that their world has vanished, Watson is determined to retrieve it. We do not know their names. In fact, his parents and grandparents are the only characters we meet in the book who are not named. Yet they are also the characters we know most intimately. By deciding not to name them, Watson has made them universal. They become creatures of myth, like the characters in the greatest of Henry Lawson’s short stories.
Watson begins with memoir. There is no alternative. The bush is the very fibre of his being. He grew up with it and he has almost returned to it. You can see him closing his eyes and recalling every detail of his Gippsland childhood; his parents’ voices, the music and rhythm of their conversations and stories, walking again through the rooms of his family home, all the sensory stimuli to memory washing over him at will. He has forgotten little. And he sees the big things just as clearly as he sees the minutiae of daily life: the silence of the bush that was mirrored in the silence of those who inhabited it, as the most important things in life were left unsaid; his grandmother sweeping the back verandah, determined to keep the bush at bay in the name of her civilisation; the incessant drive for house tidiness and paddock pride; the “phlegmatic”, outwardly unsentimental character of the male farmers; the repression of “observable ambition” and any intimation of “self-love”; the relentless desire of both men and women to fight and overcome the bush; and the burying of all their doubt and unease in the nobility of never-ending work. Perhaps they knew all along that everything would be taken from them. Watson’s grandparents lost their childhood homes to bushfires.
More than most writers, Watson is several voices in one: satirist, irascible critic, melancholic romantic, staunch patriot, historian and speechwriter, amateur botanist and ornithologist, observer of politics, and the eternal enemy of cant and solecism. All of these voices coexist in Watson’s prose, sometimes competing for ascendance. He is capable of varnishing the myth of the bush legend (“the womb and inspiration of the national character”) and immediately undermining it (“The bush is nine-tenths nonsense”). His work has always been marked by a refreshing lack of artifice. But the voice that takes command in The Bush is, as Manning Clark might have said, the lover and believer. It’s an overwhelmingly affectionate portrait, one that’s never sentimental or indulgently nostalgic, and one that defiantly resists lamentation. For the bush that Watson evokes is largely unrecognisable to most Australians today. They have grown up in the suburbs and cities and rarely head west of the Great Divide save for one or two journeys into the interior, performed with the aid of an airconditioned LandCruiser with a well-stocked car fridge. We are no longer of the bush as we were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of us know Bali, London and Tuscany better than Charters Towers, Kalgoorlie or Broken Hill. As Watson explains, his “people” once spoke of themselves as living “in the bush”. This soon gave way to living “in the country” or “on the land”. The bush quickly became “old hat”.
If there is a structure to The Bush Watson doesn’t spell it out. He meanders and darts about like a bowerbird in search of the brightest jewels in the scrub. The book shifts effortlessly between memoir, travelogue and history. We go where we go: the Mallee, Narrandera, Walgett, Hughenden, Jerilderie and many other rural regions and towns. Initially, there appears to be no rhyme or reason. But we quickly learn to trust him. It is a book built on a lifetime’s reading. Like W. K. Hancock (who is quoted admiringly), Russel Ward and Manning Clark, among others, Watson is drawn to confront the bush – its mythology, its songlines of hardship and sacrifice that form the scaffolding of national identity, and the thinly veiled “horror” that lurks just beneath its parched surface.
As we move from one region to the next, we walk in the footsteps of the explorers, the diarists and the swagmen, the soldier-settlers, miners and farmers, and the flora and fauna that they initially misunderstood or despised but slowly learnt to love. Watson’s descriptions of birdlife convey a joyous, childlike awe before nature, just as his discussion of the Mallee scrub betrays the depth of his botanical knowledge. In one finely chiselled paragraph, he manages to convey the hold that the tree has on the human imagination: “the height, the mass, the form; the force, tenacity, grace or agelessness it expresses. The colour, light, movement and sound it generates; the vigour, strength, fecundity, the life force. The moods, the terror and the wonder it excites.”
Familiar figures appear and disappear throughout The Bush, alongside Watson himself: Henry Handel Richardson, Marcus Clarke, Joseph Furphy, Miles Franklin, Henry Lawson and Albert Facey. They are all here, along with the usual culprits – ticks, flies, snakes, blackberries, rabbits, prickly pear and weeds of countless variety. He tries to come to terms with the litany of “mistakes” that comprise the history of Australian agriculture: the damming of creeks and rivers and the ploughing of their banks; the flight of native fauna from so many areas the settlers invaded; the relentless and brutal clearing of the “gloomy” forest; the use of pesticides to control the weeds and “the destructive impact of introduced species”. “In the space of a single century,” he declares, “they wrecked it.” So many who lived and worked the land stubbornly refused to accept it for what it was.
Yet for all this, Watson remains committed to the same dream that drew his grandparents to their farm in Gippsland: “the original objective – to be masterless – remains the defining, heroic value of rural life”. And in each stray, tender image, such as his description of red gums as “gnarled old matrons, all elbows and bumps, watching over sheep and cattle”, or his wistful evocation of the Murray, the river that “drowns you in feelings of unutterable time”, he suggests that despite all “the wanton ignorance and destruction”, the magic of the bush has refused to die.
At the heart of The Bush lies a dilemma that has haunted much of Watson’s work since Caledonia Australis, his history of Scottish settlers and their dispossession of Indigenous people in Gippsland, was published in 1984. The child of the bush has long admitted his feelings of discomfort and guilt at being the inheritor of the spoils of his ancestors. He knows that the bush is a bundle of contradictions: “Wilderness, home and garden. Temple, nursery and slaughterhouse.”
Just as the war with the bush has made us who we are, so too has the war with the Aboriginal peoples. The further we penetrate into The Bush, the more we can see Watson grappling with these twin themes of environmental destruction and Indigenous dispossession. At times he appears to be trying to persuade himself that this darkness has not corroded the heart of the country (“the mistakes are so many and so devastating in their consequences that the story overall is one of triumph: over formidable, indifferent and inscrutable nature, over all kinds of hardship”). He tries to find redemption in the work and lives of his forebears and so many like them, and he struggles to reconcile the contradictions. Even the violence of the Australian frontier he sees as “one redeemed by the hardships endured by those who perform it, and, contradictory as it may seem, by the purity of their motives, their brave hearts, the grandeur of the colonial enterprise”. Like the nation itself which, in a former career, he sought to redefine as a more “postmodern” and creative society, he insists on finding salvation amid “the horror”.
For all the times that the most striking words of Watson and Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Park Speech have been quoted (“It was we who did the dispossessing … we committed the murders”), few have remembered the paragraphs that preceded them: “Didn’t Australia provide opportunity and care for the dispossessed Irish? The poor of Britain? The refugees from war and famine and persecution in the countries of Europe and Asia?” As much as its prime ministerial admission of dispossession, what gave the speech its power was that Watson and Keating reminded Australians that if they could “build a prosperous and remarkably harmonious multicultural society” then this had to include the nation’s Indigenous people and the recognition of their history.
There are moments in The Bush when both the cadence of Watson’s prose and his preoccupations are reminiscent of the speechwriter. There is the same willingness to speak for all of us (“when we declare our love for the bush we profess self-love, and when we harm it, inflict self-harm”), the same desire to seek national reconciliation through the acknowledgement of past sins (“We may as well own up to all the carnage: a bit of truth and reconciliation will help us to grow up”), and the same biblical echoes in the rhythm and content of the prose (“in the beginning there was the bush, and it was there when the first humans arrived”). Tellingly, the undeniable affection this commanding writer holds for Australia is accompanied by a profound sense of frustration and disappointment with a “practical” country that so often fails to respect and honour the contribution of the intellect and imagination. He is mystified by our insistence on clinging to the “hollow and overrated creed” of mateship.
There is no doubt that The Bush stands with Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth as one of the most important books published on the history of this country in recent years. Both books share a determination to reveal Indigenous cultures of land use at the same time as they document the failure of the European imagination to accommodate them. They are also built primarily on European sources rather than Indigenous testament, oral history or the knowledge of contemporary Indigenous sources. The bush that Watson unveils so eloquently is primarily the bush of the settlers and their descendants. He writes of the frontier as a place in which one civilisation “gives way” to another, a place of “winners” and “losers”. He movingly describes the way in which Aboriginal people became “servants, mendicants [and] fringe dwellers” – “the remnant dispossessed”. While he is attentive to their burning of the country, their hunting and fishing practices, their use of bush tucker, their creation myths, their fierce resistance to the invasion of their lands, and their substantial contribution as labourers and stockmen, with one or two exceptions, such as Watson’s mercurial portrayal of the part Aboriginal, Afghan and Irish bushman Tom Donovan, Aboriginal bushmen and women do not live as vividly in the pages of The Bush as his portraits of farmers such as Michael O’Brien (NSW Farmer of the Year in 2009).
The final chapter seems a fitting coda, and probably should have been where the book ended. The appendix on the coat of arms (or at least the most prominent part of it, the kangaroo and the emu), as valuable as it is, adds less than it might have done woven into the preceding pages. For it’s in the relatively brief last chapter that Watson manages to distil all of his concerns into one final meditation. He is at home at the foot of Mount Macedon, free of the city and “the din of predictable opinion”, especially his own. Burdened with the knowledge of the “myriad accounts of European behaviour since settlement began, of serial psychopathy”; of men and women “hacking and gouging” and “poisoning the ground”, he wrestles again with the horror of what we have done to the country (“we are all, to some degree, implicated”). Perhaps it’s not the bush that’s perverse and defective, but us.
He reflects on the bush as it is today. He rejects the calls of native fundamentalists to rip out the exotic species from our gardens. His claim to possession is fragile and he knows that fire will one day take his home, just as it once took everything from his grandparents. And he asks as much of himself as he asks of us.
Watson ends with a clarion call for an end to the environmental destruction of the past. He asks that we put the same amount of energy, money, science and government support into repairing the bush as we did into wrecking it. We need to make a kind of reconciliation with the land itself and by repairing it make it our home. “Except”, he cautions, “we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again.”
The Bush is the crown in Watson’s oeuvre, a magnificent, sprawling ode to the best in Australia, a challenge to us all to find new ways of loving the country. WW
Hamish Hamilton, 448pp, $45
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Don Watson, The Bush". Subscribe here.