The Bush - Travels in the Heart of Australia

Hamish Hamilton, an Imprint of Penguin Books, 2014
By Don Watson

Reviewed by Janine Kitson

Part memoir, part history, part travel journal, Don Watson unpeels the bush mythology attributed to shaping so much of our national character, arguing that we must acknowledge the abuses of the past and respect the ecology of the land and its original people if we are to develop as a nation.

Watson will no doubt, at first, raise the hackles of some — particularly the farming community — but patience is needed in reading this insightful book.

The history of Australian agricultural enterprise has been, among other things, a story of mistakes: false understanding, false assumptions and false conclusions. You learn as you go, or you learn from what others have learned, or believe they have learned. In the absence of scientific knowledge most farmers have made do with intuition or imagination, including, on occasion, faith in an omniscient God and visions of reward both spiritual and temporal. A thousand cases go to show that, along with droughts, floods, pestilence and unspecified misfortune, the Australian cocky has to number himself among his most persistent and destructive enemies.

The Bush unpeels entrenched biases about how rural Australia is viewed. Watson, former speech writer to Paul Keating, attempts to understand what the interior landscape must have first looked like to the first Europeans who explored it — magnificent, pristine and abundant. It was land that was owned and cared for by indigenous Australians whose knowledge of it was intimate and immense.

What followed European occupation was sheep and their hard hooves that soon destroyed much of the land and dispossessed indigenous Australians. The trees were cut down, ringbarked, and burned. The land was overstocked and irrevocably changed.

The book in many ways is the history of agriculture — sheep, cattle, wheat and dairy — that is synonymous with land-clearing and involved the silent massacres against indigenous Australians: silence and guilt because nobody wanted to talk about the profound violations in which they had participated or witnessed or heard about.

What the historian James Boyce said of Tasmania is also true of the mainland: “that ‘[f]ar from historians exaggerating the suffering caused by British settlement... the truth of the crimes committed is still to be faced’.

Apart from being killed, this was the fate of the Aborigines:

Their hunting grounds would be taken up by sheep, their fish traps removed to make way for wool-laden paddle-steamers; the “ricks and haycocks” Mitchell saw stretching for miles along the Darling would fade from sight and memory like the native millet (Panicum) they were made of. In a very short time, in keeping with pastoral and agricultural economy it supported, the overland route from Sydney to Adelaide would be the songline of the monotheists, and all the Aborigines would be mendicants, waiting at the slaughter-yards for sheep’s heads and plucks to roast on their fires, and at the missions for blankets and blessings.

Don Watson touches on the staunchly defended conservative anti-intellectualism of many country communities who persistently see the bushland as wasteland that needs to be “improved”. He argues that this ignorance has been disastrous for the land.

To the extent that Australians think the bush defines them, they therefore lack self-knowledge …. Scholarship and intellectual skills, being as useless as tits on a bull (as they say in the country), attract distain or sullen rural reserve. As it did in the United States, this anti-intellectualism easily outlived the closing of the frontier and put a permanent stamp on the national cast of mind.

This is a fascinating historical analysis that every Australian should read.

Available for borrowing at Federation Library.

Janine Kitson is a casual teacher.