The Australian Century: The Land

Published in The Weekend Australian, February 24-25, 2001
This tough resilient continent is finally earning due respect from its erstwhile conquers, argues Asa Wahlquist.

Hard Yards

Most Australians live clinging to the coast, dreaming of the red centre. Although we are the second most urbanised country in the world, we identify not with the built environment, but with the land. That identity is, in part, as old as Federation, but it is finding new expressions. Over the past century we have been learning to see our land.

In the words of historian Helen Irving, "we believe in Australia as landscape. We identify with the bush and the outback, rather than the cities. They are not what makes us Australian. City dwellers most of us, we are invited to think of ourselves as Australian by conjuring up images of being alone, or with a few mates, facing the landscape as it stands, untouched by human hands, our birthright."

But, a century after Federation, we now understand that land has not only been touched by human hands, it bears their imprint.

In May 2000, singer John Williamson addressed the crowd who had walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of reconciliation. He talked about being in Namatijira country, "he taught us to see it", Williamson said.

Wandering alone under the desert sky, Williamson said he thought his were perhaps the first feet to walk there. With a jolt, he realised there had been 50,000 years of occupation. Disgusted with himself, he returned to camp and wrote the song "A thousand feet had been through here", which he sang to the crowd, with Namatijira's great nephew, Warren Williams.

Our birthright, to stand alone on a beach, in a rainforest, or gazing at A.B. Paterson's "vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended and at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars", is exercised with a very different consciousness today.

One hundred years ago, Australia was still a nation to be conquered: there were rivers to tame, land to be cleared, plains to be irrigated. The vision was of a green and settled land, an antipodean Europe. Settlers were encouraged to think of themselves as conquerors of land and soil. In some parts of the country, they still do.

The words of Kentucky poet-farmer, Wendell Berry, on North American settlers could equally be applied here. "'They came with visions of former places but not the sight to see where they were…they did not know what they were doing because they did not know what they were undoing'"

A century later we are not only counting the cost of that misplaced vision, but we are learning to value this ancient weathered land, watered by the most erratic climate on earth.

Historian Michael Cathcart says Australians "are caught between two irreconcilable ideas, they still dream of a green and pleasant land, but they are learning to see beauty in the arid zone. It is a question of where do you find nature? The irrigation projects were build by people who were compensating, wanting to bring nature into a place where nature wasn't."

Water has always been fundamental to settlement and exploration in Australia.

Early explorers searched for an inland sea. Cathcart points out the great irony that, for a nation so obsessed with water, the central feature of the nation is the mighty rock, Uluru. And perhaps no place symbolises so starkly our changing attitude to our land. In the 1960s a mere 5,000 Australians had visited Uluru. Last year 271,000 Australians, and an even greater number of overseas visitors, travelled to experience the magic of the site.

Further south, an unprecedented number of tourists have been travelling to Lake Eyre, to marvel at the usually dry salt bed now flooded by a vast sea. But it is not just a matter of seeing the expanse of the Lake, smelling the dry salt wind, or feeling the heat reflected off the blackened gibber rocks. To really experience Lake Eyre, visitors need to bring an understanding that this is the end point of one of the last great wild river systems in the world.

It is a place that, when dry, can be among the most hostile on earth. But when it rains heavily somewhere in its vast catchment, up in the Channel Country of Queensland, or perhaps south of Alice Springs, the waters that trickle slowly down the shallow sloping river beds, across the braided channel system, precipitate a massive explosion of life. Extraordinary numbers of plants, fish, insects and birds breed up. It is a throw-of-the-dice strategy, to reproduce quickly when the rains fall, but results in only a small number of them surviving. More often it ends with huge mortalities, piles of dead fish and plant matter, heaped along the shores of the Lake.

To stand on the edge of the waters of Lake Eyre, with some knowledge of its ecosystem, is to stand in awe of the extraordinary adaptability that enables its many organisms to survive the wildly unpredictable climate. It is to marvel at its resiliance, and be humbled by its ferocious struggle for life, a struggle humans are not spared.

Beside the track from Lake Eyre to William Creek is a slender white cross, commemorating Austrian Caroline Grossmueller, who perished there. How did the endless burning sandhills, the screes of gleaming blackened rocks, the low pale spiny plants and the dome of the searing sky appear to her European eyes, more accustomed to a gentle, green and closely settled land?

From the rip at Bondi Beach, to the box jellyfish in our tropical seas, the venomous snakes, the poisonous spiders, the great whites of the Southern Ocean, and the crocodiles across the north, the treacherous ice of the Snowy Mountains and the desiccating desert heat, Australians know they live in an awesomely beautiful but dangerous land. If we are cavalier about the risks, preferring to chance the thrill of the surf and the threat of shark attack for the huddled safety of the shore, or fish brazenly for barramundi from a tinny on the Kimberley's Mary River while huge crocodiles bask nearby and watch, or even risk too many of the sun's burning rays, that is how Australians have come to terms with their land.

But these wild lands are no wilderness. In 1992, the Mabo judgement rejected the long-held legal fiction of terra nullius, a land belonging to no-one. And with that has come a new understanding of its long history of indigenous occupation and management.

In her book, Burning Questions, Professor Marcia Langton argues the concept of wilderness denies the very existence of Aboriginal biogeography. She calls it the scientific equivalent of terra nullius, and says that Australian natural resource scientists have been blind to indigenous knowledge systems.

Wilderness, according to Professor Langton, continues the colonial assumption "that this land (wilderness) is not and has never been, governed by human institutions, by government of laws". In fact, she says Aboriginal fire regimes have imprinted a human signature on the land.

The first European eyes saw Australia as a poor scrubby, impoverished, even barren land. They were repelled by the arid landscape, bitterly disappointed at the dry salt lakes, the endless sand plains.

Environmentalist George Seddon, a Victorian by birth, said his first response to his current home of Perth was that it looked misshapen. "I had to learn to look differently, and it took times for at first I was unsettled. The concepts of harmony and proportion and composition are for Anglo-Australians like myself, deeply embedded in European culture."

Seddon argues it was premature to remove the inscription terra incognita (land unknown) from much of the map of Australia. "We are still reinventing ourselves as a continent and a people. We redefine ourselves both positively and negatively against a primarily European past."

He says that North Americans, lacking Europe's great cathedrals, sanctified instead their natural monuments, like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. "We have constructed an Ayers Rock cult in the same vein."

And Seddon challenges European notions of Australia's poor land. He says that, although the soil in WA's Stirling Range National Park is described as infertile, yet it has "considerably more species in the one park than in the whole of the United Kingdom". It is a statement that could be made about many parts of the nation. Although the soils might not be suited to European plantings, we are rich in native plantlife, birdlife and insects. And these are adapted not just to Australian soils, but to its very erratic climate.

Seddon says that Australia not only has a great diversity of birds, but also one of the highest percentage of nomadic bird species in the world. Kangaroos are also wide-ranging. Plants have highly opportunistic methods of reproduction. Seeds will lie dormant for years, then sprout and flourish at the first heavy rains. Others require fire to germinate, or die back to a lignotuber. Plants that have scarcely increased in mass for years, flourish with extraordinary rapidity after rain.

In a curious change of perception, Seddon says he has begun to see Australia as having an insect-driven ecology. "Australia is as rich in herbivores as Africa, but that in place of the antelope there are insects. Especially in northern Australia, our ecology is insect driven: Australia has 1,000 species of social insect, the USA has 400 and the UK 46."

At the Australian Museum, they are discovering, or to be precise describing and naming on average one insect species a week. In the June 2000 edition, of the Records of the Australian Museum, for example, there were descriptions of four new molluscs, and 27 new earthworms. In 1998 they published a total of 112 Australasian species that were completely new to science.

We enter the second century of Federation, with so much still unknown, so many scientific frontiers yet to be explored, described and most importantly, understood.

Already so much has changed.

A century ago, who would have thought that sleepy billabongs are as biologically active as sewage treatment works, producing huge sinks of nutrients waiting for a flood to sweep them onto the floodplain and nourish the land? And that floods and droughts are integral to river health? That the European notion that a river confined to a defined and regular water course, fails to understand that in Australia a river can be a string of water holes one year, kilometres wide the next, and the vast floodplains are as important as the channel itself?

We could end the century of Federation counting the losses, the cleared forests and woodlands, the extinct marsupials, the threatened birds, fish and amphibians, the lost topsoil, the salinated paddocks.

But we could also enter our second century of Federation rejoicing in the resiliance of our unique landscape, determined to understand it. So much that we cherish about ourselves, our resilience and endurance, our love of the sun, our openness, an optimism in the face of adversity, not to mention a prediliction to gamble, we can relate back to our land.

And in understanding our country, with its variable climate, the unpredictable pulses of its rivers, the unique adaptations to those flow, we will learn to really celebrate what makes us Australian.

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