I had planned to go on a roadtrip to the Mallee this week on my own, but an infected tooth has seen that trip cancelled. Instead I am reading Don Watson’s book The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia (2016). From what I can gather the book is based Watson buying a 4WD in 2009 and setting off across the eastern part of the country on a road trip. Along the way he interviewed scientists, bushies and graziers. The book is intertextual in that Watson constantly refers to other books about the bush, and though there are photos, there is no mention of what photographing the landscape might mean. It is a literary text.
It is a sprawling, rich book, in that it is part memoir, part travelogue, part deconstruction of myths (e.g., mateship, national character ) part natural history and part history of both the white silence about the Frontier Wars and the clearing and unsustainable land use by the pioneer settlers, pastoralists and farmers. Watson writes from within the lived experience of growing up in this extensively transformed landscape, and he is examining his own relationship with the land and his past as well as that of the pioneer settlers and pastoralists.
His argument in the book is that linguistic domination is the foundation of modern Australia, the frenzied clearing of the bush and the killing of the Aboriginal people has been the fundamental building block on which our national character has been formed. Our society is built upon violence, dispossession, appropriation and a militant misunderstanding of those with whom we should have listened to and respected.
The chapter I am reading is on the Mallee and it is entitled ‘A collision of cultures’, which refers to Paul Carter’s Ground Truthing: Explorations in a Creative Region—a spatial history of the Mallee. Watson is driving through the Victorian mallee in 2011 during a mouse plague. He notes that the mallee refers to both the southern edge of the arid zone in a band of mallee scrub extending from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to south-central NSW, and in South Australia and Victoria to a specific place bordering on the lower Murray.
This is a land of wheat, scorching heat, mice and locust plagues and dust storms that is notable for its solemn silence and emptiness. The chapter on the Mallee is about demonstrating the linguistic domination by the white setters who were indifferent to the language and culture of the Indigenous people.
One of Watson’s insights is that religion and faith were a key part of the reasons people used the bush as remorselessly as they did. He links religious and moral motivation to the settlers’ determination to subdue the bush; he reads biblical metaphors into the early white Australians’ struggle with the elements, the bushman’s profound distrust of city dwellers, artists, and academics and all things intellectual. This is the frontier mentality that covered its tracks of destruction.
Watson doesn’t say much about the 21st century Mallee directly. The contemporary Mallee is not the bush: it is wheat country with a few birds or trees and pockets of bush. He mentions one of these pockets, the Ngarkat Conservation Park, which he says has been shaped by European colonisation, and is not a wilderness. Watson observes that it is not possible to restore the Conservation Park to its pre-European ecosystem, given the current access to the 4 wheel drive crowd.
What emerges from the chapter on the mallee is ‘The Bush’ has now come to refer to the country outside the cities. It is a mythic concept that means everything and almost nothing, and a myth that Watson seeks to deconstruct, so that we can see the scale of destruction, namely the sheer number of trees cleared at settlement and the violence against Aboriginal Australians.
The forests are gone, the bush is the past, rivers have been killed and the landscape wrecked. The future of regional Australia is one of the farmers fading away along with the towns, landscapes and character of rural Australia, as the young escape the fate of the old, and are replaced by the corporate agribusinesses.