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Australians and Their Landscape

Two new books capture the voices of a nation

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 1993


`TO the early explorers of Australia, it was like the dark side of the moon," muses Suzanne Falkiner, author of two books about how the landscape has shaped Australian writing.

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As Australian writers have come to terms with the harsh landscape of this hot, dry continent, it's changed how they felt about their country, what they wrote about it, and the writing itself.

The books are different from what their author first intended. Ms. Falkiner, a Sydney-based editor and fiction writer, originally contracted with Simon & Schuster, Australia, to write a book similar to "`Writer's Britain: Landscape in Literature," by Margaret Drabble (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979). The idea came from her friend, a bookstore owner and publisher, Lesley McKay, who was surprised there wasn't already an Australian equivalent of the British book.

"It was going to be a small, Christmas-present-sized book," Falkiner says, sitting at her dining-room table in a pool of light from a skylight atop her tiny 100-year old house in the suburb of Woolara.

She started out to do a book just about the wilderness experience, with one chapter on settlements. But her small folder on settlements grew until it was the same size as the wilderness file.

"I couldn't bear to cut it," says Falkiner. "I would have only had three pages per city." The publisher was won over to the idea of a more substantial book by her argument that there was only one opportunity to do a book of this type, so it had to be done fully.

"I already had a reasonably good working knowledge of Australia because I'd read voraciously as a child," says Falkiner, who grew up on a sheep ranch and studied by correspondence.

Her reading list for the project ended up being 30 pages long, and what was supposed to have taken eight months stretched into 2 1/2 years. "The Writers' Landscape" is now divided into "Wilderness" and "Settlement," each volume double the size of the original conception.

The books combine snippets of writings from the first explorers and the most personal and avant-garde of the young contemporary poets, with analysis by Falkiner. Lovely, evocative photographs support the text.

Not a chronological gathering of material, it attempts to move from the "physical landscape or geography of Australia as it was revealed to Europeans, to the landscape of the mind, rather than from the body of Australian literature to the real world."

She takes the reader from the fertile coastal wilderness to the inland desert, into Aboriginal territory, to pastoral regions, and finally back to the sea.

The earliest writers were explorers, then the officers who administered the penal colony set up by England to get rid of excess prisoners. Most convicts were either illiterate or too busy to write. But forgers, whose illegal writing got them exiled to Australia, often had cushy jobs that gave them time to write.

Later, settlers wrote of the difficulties of taming the harsh land, with its droughts, floods, fires, poisonous animals, isolation, and difficult soil. At first, what they did was compare Australia unfavorably with England.

"No tree, to my taste, can be beautiful that is not deciduous," writes Barron Field, a judge in New South Wales. "All the dearest allegories of human life are bound up with the infant and slender green of spring, the dark redundance of summer, and the sere and yellow leaf of autumn."

The settlers weren't used to space and silence. "Here you had this extraordinary, vast landscape where you could travel for weeks and not see anyone," says Falkiner. "And it was silent, because in areas where there wasn't a lot of water, there wasn't a lot of bird life or animal life.