On telling the past

I avoided Australian history at school, as much as I could. I found it boring.

I liked learning about the Russian Revolution, about Classical Greece, about the manoeuvring of European states between the First and Second World Wars, about the Industrial Revolution. Big stuff. Stuff with capital letters. It didn’t seem that anything much had happened in Australia.

So I remember reading Henry Reynolds’ The other side of the frontier in the same way some people remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Princess Di died or the Twin Towers came down.

I was living at Henley Beach, just a block back from the sea. It was the late nineties. It was summer. I remember the couch I lay on, a tatty mustard-brown, probably picked up from hard rubbish.

I remember the book being not so much like a lightning strike as a series of earthquakes.

The other side of the frontier was first published in the early eighties, so I was already more than a decade late in reading it. It details the violence involved in the colonisation of Australia, and the fierce Aboriginal resistance to the European invaders. It attempts to count the number of those who died as a result of that violence, as well as from introduced disease and loss of access to traditional lands and resources. It has been described by some as a ‘black armband view’ of Australian history.

Since then, there have been many nuanced, thoroughly documented, beautifully written texts on the highly contested history of contact. But Reynolds’ book was important – for me, and for history as it is practised in Australia.

*

As a child I lived in the Adelaide Hills. I loved that landscape dearly and still do.

As I’ve researched and studied Australian environmental history, my lingering sense of the damage there, the scale of clearing, bare hill upon bare hill, has intensified. And following that, the question of absences: who was there before us? What happened to them?

In one corner of our property in the Bugle Ranges, half an hour’s drive on dirt roads from Mount Barker, there was a small pile of stone, the ruined remains of an old homestead. I used to play there sometimes. There were ancient fruit trees growing nearby, stunted by age and patched with lichen. Gorse ran wild on the hillside below, all dark prickles and soft bright yellow flowers, the stems still black from when my parents had tried to burn it out only to find it grew back stronger after fire.

I wondered about who’d lived there before us, who’d left that ruin. But I’d never looked back further. It was as though, in my mind, those hills had been empty before the almonds and apples and mulberries were planted.

To realise, many years later, that my sense of this place that I believed I had known so intimately, that I had loved in my blood and bones, was based on a fundamental forgetting, shocked me deeply.

*

I had no idea what I was doing when I started postgraduate studies in history at James Cook University in Townsville, North Queensland.

Townsville is a full 2 500 kilometres from Adelaide, or three long days and two uncomfortable nights by bus. It is dusty, sunny and dry for nine or so months of the year, then in the wet season it rains, at times so hard that if you are driving you have to pull your car off the road and wait it out. The heat and humidity of the wet make you wish you were dead (or at least cryogenically frozen until the weather improves). Mangoes, an expensive treat down south, are left to ferment on the ground where they fall in their hundreds and cause a hazard to cyclists. Late in the afternoon, flying foxes fill the air with dark shapes as they travel from roost to roost. It is a place by turns beautiful and hard.

When I say I had no idea, I mean it. As I began researching and writing my thesis, I undertook a process of exploration which felt like taking slow steps forward in pitch black. Sometimes this was thrilling, sometimes it was dull. Sometimes it was frankly terrifying.

Did I actually have an idea? What on earth did I think I was doing?

Henry Reynolds had been working at James Cook University when he wrote The other side of the frontier, and though he’d moved on well before I arrived, both of my supervisors had been taught by him, and his influence was palpable.

I read explorers’ journals and beach-combers’ diaries. I looked through decades and decades worth of local newspapers, and hundreds of scientific articles. I hunted through personal papers, ethnographies, biographies, listened to oral history interviews, and talked to a few actual people too at various points.

*

One of those I was fortunate to speak with was Len Webb, known as the father of Australian rainforest ecology. He’d spent decades working as a research scientist in North Queensland, and I spent a lot of time reading everything he’d written about what he’d done before I finally got up the courage to go and meet with him to ask him about it. As well as being a scientist, he was a conservationist, a campaigner for the environment, and a friend of eminent Australian poet Judith Wright.

I went to his home in Brisbane. He and his wife were extremely gracious and I spent two days sitting and talking with him. He was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and no longer trusted his memory, so he agreed to speak with me on the basis that I wouldn’t use anything he said directly. I was happy just to talk.

The thing that I had become fascinated with in the course of my research was the way in which scientists working in the field in North Queensland were both observers of, and participants in, massive environmental and social changes.

They were driven to do what they did, for the most part, by love of what they studied. From all I read this seemed as true of the nineteenth century botanists and collectors as it was of the ecologists of the late twentieth century. Many of these researchers spent long periods of time in the rainforest, came to know it intimately, often with the help of local Aboriginal people, and many said openly that they were changed by that experience. Webb spoke to me of how his growing understanding of the ecology of the rainforest shifted his fundamental sense of his place in the world.

On the other hand, for much of the history of North Queensland, science has been strongly aligned to transformation of the landscape for ‘productive’ purposes. As such, most of the scientists I studied were also in some sense active participants in the processes that resulted in massive clearing of the lowland forests, and which pushed Aboriginal people from their traditional lands. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, Queensland scientists were warning of the damage caused by ‘progress’, of the losses that could never be recovered.

Anyway, Len and I talked. We drank tea. I asked the sorts of questions I thought I should ask. And I remember at one point, Len turned to me and said, ‘But you’re not interested in any of that really, are you? What you’re interested in is people.

And I realised he was right.

The older I get, the less interested I am in the big things, the things with capital letters, though I understand that they matter a great deal.

I’m more interested in individuals. In how they lived. How they made sense of things. Why they did the things they did, though what they did might sometimes appal or horrify or amaze me. I’m interested in how they saw themselves and their lives.

*

I gave up history to write fiction. This is a natural progression in a sense.

As a historian, I liked to write about the nineteenth century partly because that era fascinated me, the rate of change and growth of knowledge in that century is incredible, but also because I found the thought of writing about people who were still alive to be paralysing.

As an author of fiction, I can make people up completely. I can get inside their heads, look out through their eyeballs, and feel through their skin. Footnotes be damned.

But all that history has helped.

For me, history, like good fiction, confronts you with the realness of other people; with the fact that other lives, and other perspectives, matter. That the past, too, was as real as this present moment. That how we respond to it is vital.

As a novelist, I think there can be few more important things to know than that.

*

It’s been years since I’ve been back to the Bugle Ranges, but it is a place that has stayed with me.

Even now, I can trace the exact shape of hills and valleys, the dam we dug out of the sticky earth, and the damp, natural springs that seeped from the ground nearby. In my mind I can follow the fence-line that marked the border of what we thought was ours. The memory of driving, half-asleep, in darkness down a dirt road is still, on some deep level, what I think of when I think of going home.

For me, this was a landscape that allowed my imagination to roam wild. It gave me hiding places, and room for stories, an appreciation of the tiny things that we share our spaces with, a love of mud, and a sense of what it means to be in the world.

And it gave me more questions than answers.

Image courtesy of HilllsRain

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