Australians and Their Landscape

Two new books capture the voices of a nation

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

`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.

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.

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"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.

"But the settlers moved inland and the survival imperative became less strong because there was enough food, and a new generation of Australians were born who were able to look at the Australian landscape and find beauty in it for its own sake," says Falkiner.

In researching, she was able to bring back into history women who were relegated to the ash heap until the women's movement rediscovered them. Barbara Baynton was completely ignored until 20 years ago.

"It was mainly men who went out to the bush to settle. Women came as a bit of social engineering to try and correct the balance," says Falkiner. "Women tended to get left in the house or hut while the men were away working. For some women, there were tremendous problems of loneliness and isolation. For other women there were actual perils."

Barbara Baynton writes of a woman alone in a cabin with no weapons, listening in terror as a convict she'd fed earlier in the day hacks away at a weak point in the house with a knife.

"Baynton did point out the obvious, that bush myth that the Australian bushie was good-hearted, humorous, reliable, hardworking," says Falkiner. "Most of the men were hardened ex-convicts. They were quite capable of robbing, taking advantage of anyone they found.

"In the Western [US] myth, there were always goodies and baddies," she adds. "In the Australian bush myth, we never really allowed for baddies. Where the image was inconvenient, it tended to be negated completely."

More people have written about the bush country than live there. Most Australians live in cities around the perimeter of the continent. In the second book, "Settlement," the landscape is still a vital presence. "Even in the urban writer you find there are bush fires on the outskirts of the city or floods in the outlying suburbs that still feature as dramatic events," Falkiner says.

"Out beyond metropolitan Perth there are stretches of quite pitiless but utterly attractive landscape," writes Peter Cowan. "Even here we put down instant towns and suburbs that are replicas of Perth - or other such Australian models. The new iron ore towns of the north, for instance. This does make for sameness, yes. Yet a few miles outside their air conditioning and supermarts one can die in a couple of days, left alone."

Writers write of the sameness of the suburban sprawl of five-room houses set on quarter-acre lots, the stifling respectability, the boredom. Often, the mystique of the outback hovers in the background.

In George Johnston's "My Brother Jack," one character says, "There was something brilliant and buccaneering about Hughie, that ought not be shut up in a shop, that ought to be out in the Territory hunting camels among the legendary gallant bones, or shooting crocodiles in the wet north."

Some Aboriginal writings are included, but Falkiner says that combining what has traditionally been an oral culture in this collection of writing proved challenging. To take a portion of a song-cycle and make it understandable to non-Aborigines creates a major transformation in the art form, says Falkiner. "[The writing included in the book] is Aboriginal culture as it revealed itself to European settlers in written forms. I'm not attempting to speak for Aborigines and say, `they thought.' "

She singles out the late novelist Patrick White as the writer who almost single-handedly changed the way thinking Australians felt about their country. "He was one of the first to put forth the idea that we had to develop a spiritual relationship with our landscape; to be aware of ourselves as a people in it," she says. "We couldn't be just second-class Englishmen in a colonial outpost. We had to come to terms with it, otherwise we had no future."

Despite the frenetic pace at which Falkiner drove herself to make up for asking for more time, "I found the whole thing riveting," she says. "I bored my friends witless."

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