I picked up Don Watson’s The Bush with curiosity and a touch of incredulity. For a country predominantly set by the sea, our inherited cultural myth seems to be set by the bush. By the massive interior wasteland where almost no one goes: dangerous, desolate, and defining. The idea was generally interesting to me but I wasn’t entirely convinced why a rather large book was required on this subject, and by Watson of all people. But in it, the language and romance and facts and sheer shocking history of Australia makes an incredible story to tell. Watson explores the history, cultural attachment, romantic ideas and factual reality of everywhere not-city where Europeans have settled, farmed, mined and explored.
Almost off the bat, Watson dispelled my idea of an exploration of the great interior wasteland. His concern is the bush in all its permutations: the scrub, highland, melee, forest, farmland, salt lakes: wherever a kind of human life is possible. I also learnt very quickly that a lot of the wasteland that my subconscious assigns to ‘somewhere out west’ of where I am is not the natural state of this continent: that much of it was man-made damage since European settlement.
This was a huge point for me: it is hard to overstate the impact white settlement in Australia has had on the environment and its existing peoples: after reading this book I don’t believe there is a single country area that remains in a pre-European state. When we talk about addressing the serious disservice white ancestors did to the flora and fauna, it’s hard to even know where to begin because they did so much, so unthinkingly.
In sum, Watson seems to show that the treatment of the indigenous people, animals and plants of Australia by Europeans seems to be typified in a conquering attitude whereby an inferior environment could simply be improved upon by sheer will. This passage is worth quoting at length:
European behaviour since settlement began [is of], serial psychopathy: of men and women hacking and gouging; hurling themselves at rival kingdoms, plant and animal alike; poisoning the ground; uprooting, planting and uprooting again; crashing and roaring about, making fortunes and going broke, shooting anything that might move against them…in general obeying the demands of every neurosis peculiar to our species, and for trying to survive their furious assault, declaring nature treacherous.
It seems stunning that such uninformed and damaging decisions were repeatedly made over decades, as if the perceived superiority of the people making these decisions simply had to be made apparent before thing started to go their way. Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Watson does note the dissenting voices at the time, as well as the non-white players in settlement, but they were not heeded.
The trouble with The Bush’s narrative is really the trouble with the bush today: how to balance the history, the people, the industry and economy, the environment. Because of Watson’s personal connection to rural Victoria, at times his preoccupation with modern and contemporary farming life seems to be at the sacrifice of the indigenous people and the environment. But while sometimes cynical (like about us trendy city types with our desire for sustainable and organic produce), Watson does return to these other themes, interrogating the history and how to get the balance needed. I suppose this is an acknowledgement that I wouldn’t have expected from someone from ‘the bush’: that we are currently out of balance, and something needs to change.
Because what it comes down to is this: Watson shows that we have been out of balance with the bush since European settlement. Farming in Australia has been subsidised essentially since white settlement. And while there was an initial bounty, within one generation the wealth in the soil had been exploited and stripped, leaving the first settlers’ children hungry when their turn came. They were so extreme in their approach to the existing environment and indigenous people: the sheer numbers of Emu heads brought in, for example, when a bounty was placed on them due to spreading the prickly pear seed is completely sickening. But this is history. It is a history that I find shocking and fascinating and totally worth knowing. A point Watson returns to is how do we usefully use this history to ensure we don’t make the same, destructive mistakes again. And make no mistake: these were horrific, damaging decisions for the flora, fauna, indigenous people, as well as for the settlers.
But Watson’s point never takes the tone of the preacher or lecturer: this book is his exploration of these ideas. He clearly values historical and contemporary contributions from the spectrum of perspectives and he quietly interrogates them, but his respect for every individual touched on is apparent. His writing is easy to get into, sometimes a little sentimental, but is appreciation for what he is writing on is apparent and relatable.
Watson is a beautiful writer, and this book balances the facts with the poetry well. He is at turns romantic, passionate, informed, and a little bit rose-coloured. His depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for the topic is palpable and infectious. Watson tells the story of the bush through personal recollection; discussion with contemporary farmers, researchers and scientists; facts and statistics; and a lot of historical first-person accounts through diaries and letters. By using these resources he seems to capture the rumour, the mood, of what life was like in those times. This is a real strength of the book: the experience of the bush through the direct voices, where possible, of those there.
While Europe’s initial approach to Australia and its environment was extreme, Watson doesn’t feel that the solution should be extreme in return. An often touted refrain – to retreat fully from the bush to allow it to return to ‘pre-European’ state – is seen by many as a mistake. We now know that the pre-European bush is not a bush without human intervention: Watson cites archaeological evidence that shows active bush management by local indigenous people for at least the last 10,000 years of their 40,000 year existence in Australia. Further, exotic species of weeds and animals are so firmly entrenched in the bush today that leaving the environment to its own devices is not really viable. Watson explores some really intriguing contemporary research that managing bush regeneration through a controlled utilisation of weed species: using their rapid growth to strengthen riverbanks and regenerate soil before a staged removal to make space for the natives.
These are just some of the ideas Watson covers across this very big theme. In a way, it’s a challenge to chose a subject like ‘the Bush’ to write on: the history, the baggage, the damage, the ongoing economic, environmental and cultural importance. But he does it, in turns through romantic recollection, fact, and first-person accounts from both the past and today. Watson explores the feeling Australians have for the bush – the call of the kookaburra, our idea of ‘space’, suburban Australia’s view of gum trees – and what history and myth has informed that. It’s a fantastic, almost compulsive read, and Watson balances tone as he balances the intersecting stories and perspectives. Australians have a varying, important, complex relationship with the bush, and this book does well to cover it.