Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia — Don Watson’s Challenge to a National Myth.

Watson, Don. "The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia." Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne (2014).

“The legend insists the national character was moulded by the land’s embrace, yet it is just as true that the bush did not so much embrace its denizens as license their eccentricities and instincts. In the bush they could be lord or wanderer or miserable wretch, or many other things to which their souls were suited, including both creator and destroyer.” (147)

In this vein, Watson—bravely, in this reviewer’s opinion—takes on the foundational, pervasive myth of the Australian bush. This “land’s embrace” is symbolic of the Australian character, the crucible through which our national identity has been presumably formed. The archetypal nature of this real-and-imagined landscape continues to speak into who we are—it shapes and re-shapes our understanding of what it is to be Australian. The majority of Australian art made across genres explores and imaginatively inhabits the bush, but does not perhaps fully contest its assumptions and associated images/“truths”; we swallow wholeheartedly and unquestioningly the psychic, created and geographical space that Watson argues in his epic work is myth—and not an innocent or palatable one. 

Watson works like a literary/philosophical surgeon of sorts to dissect this myth in many different ways: environmental, scientific, linguistic, ethical, sociological and with approaches that assist us to more fully understand and contest those values, many of which are deeply at odds with the Australia that many of us have constructed for ourselves. Our idea of mateship, for example, the “fair go,” and a no-nonsense rooted connection with the land, free from the elitism and caste system of Britain, are all essentially, Watson suggests, fantasies. What really has happened in the bush? How has it been a site for desecration and destruction, and in what ways has this violence to the land and her people been the true foundation of Australia? The land, he argues, has not had a fair go, the indigenous peoples have not had a fair go, and in reality there is a deeply disturbing, cognitive dissonance between the Australia we have imagined for ourselves and the actual Australia whose sinister ramifications and impacts continue to fester at the base of our society. In this way Watson’s work is deeply challenging, as much as for the diligent and convincing research as well as the ideas that he foregrounds—and compels us to face, especially in passages such as the following, where Watson discusses mass tree-clearing:

There is, as well, a sense in which these clearings concealed as much as they revealed. Any new culture will soon take up myth and denial. It becomes a matter of manners to pretend not to know that something uncivilised has happened; it’s likely one of the first skills of any civilization. In the bush it was and remains a defining one … The light the settlers let in shone on the virtue of their own necessitous lives, but blinded them to the ruin on which they were built. (208)

The Bush possesses many musical/thematic strands that are symphonic when woven together, and often Watson chooses one story, one event, or one specific geographic location in order to extrapolate and investigate his themes. In this way he contributes to the conversation on colonialism and the ways Europeans have visited a deep and ongoing violence upon the land and its indigenous peoples. Language specifically is one way that Watson attempts to parse out this aggression. He goes so far as to argue that linguistic domination is the foundation of modern Australia, that abusive treatment of the bush and its original inhabitants has been the fundamental building block on which our national character has been formed—our society, Watson argues, is built upon violence, appropriation and militant misunderstanding of those with whom we should have listened to and respected. He tackles specifically the names European patriarchy gave the land, and explores the power of naming to erase culture:

The Mallee and countless other places got their names from Aboriginal words misheard, from Aboriginal beliefs and relationships misunderstood or carelessly recorded, from vocabularies compiled with the assistance of Aboriginal intermediaries who lacked local knowledge, Names were given to places without connection either to their meaning or to the Aboriginal people who had once been there. (160)

Watson grounds the book in his own experience growing up in rural Gippsland and refers to this often, especially in the first half of the book. This establishes his credibility as critic, to ensure that Watson is not, in his turn, using language and ideas to colonize a discussion—he writes from within the lived experience of growing up in this brutally transformed landscape, and he is as much examining his own relationship with the land and his past as he is pointing the finger at anybody else. And his account is not unbalanced, even as it is searingly critical at times; Watson is also quick to provide examples of moral character, the very real difficulties that settlers faced, the poverty and social marginalization within their own cultures that informed and affected the way these people “settled” the land and the changes they wrought to it. In other words, The Bush is not a simple tale of good and evil, but of multiple layers of discontent and injustice that meant Australia inherited—and saw played out—the inter-class warfare, gender disparities and racial oppression: injurious elements of Imperialism that migrated along with the convicts to the Great South Land. Language, he argues throughout the book, has been and continues to be a deeply embedded part of this (ongoing) colonial experience:

The relationship was colonial, and the presumptions were colonial. To rename Aboriginal places (or to rename Aboriginal people), to proceed without a care for their language and beliefs, was not murder, but murder proceeded from the same convictions, as did the seizure of lands and all measures considered necessary to retain them. Felony murder might cover it, or reckless indifference. And in the Aborigines’ decline into mendicancy and humiliation, alcoholism and disease, this same absence of any will to understand was an accessory. (162)

True to the symphonic nature of this work, Watson takes on the religious nature of this colonialism—another brave maneuver as the separation of church and state has always been a strong part of the Australian psyche and society, and we might be loathe to consider that we have been as much a force for oppressive evangelism as anywhere else in the world. According to Watson religion and faith were a key part of the reasons people used the bush as remorselessly as they did. Watson links religious and moral motivation to the settlers’ determination to subdue the bush; he reads biblical metaphors into the early white Australians’ struggle with the elements, the bushman’s profound distrust of city dwellers, artists, and academics and all things intellectual. He writes that:

Christians never wanted for ways to justify or forgive themselves the crimes done to the Indigenous population. Hypocrisy greased the wheels of dispossession. In the Old Testament they found divine authorization for their work of conquest, and from the New the made the calculation that by being Christians in a pagan land, taking hold of it, they were spreading the message of grace and salvation. That was another thing the bush became—a church. (168)

But Watson carefully refrains from moralizing, even as he dissects morality and actions that definitely come up wanting. He acknowledges the disturbing truth that the deeper one looks, the less one is able to draw absolute judgments on the people who lived out their lives in the bush, many of whom were the degenerates and desperately marginalized people, as well as those who struck out on their own and were not so much oppressed by the dominant culture but had marginalized themselves. There is a liminoid aspect of this landscape, and Watson deals always with this real-and-imagined space, confessing:

But what becomes of the goldmines if the trees are not felled and burned? Good human lives were lived where the forest had been, enterprise was rewarded, the fellowship of men and women flourished, history was recorded. The bush we know would not exist if we had not cut it down. (190)

Watson writes that the story of the bush “is a story of heroic labour and sacrifice, and at the same time one of human beings granting themselves and option over all creation, to be exercised at will and in accordance with any whim or impulse, vanity far from least among them. If the history of the bush appalls us, it is not for the destruction alone, but also the willfulness” (214). Watson is clearly appalled, and wants us to be too—but not to stop us moving forwards. Rather, his is a call to forge an Australian identity in which we can truly take pride; to do this, he suggests, we must grapple with our past and its legacy. 

The Bush is an intense, scrupulously researched and challenging exposition of the fundamental way we see ourselves as Australians. Watson issues a radical challenge: to probe into the past with all its tragedy and violence and then take responsibility for it. And in this he challenges us to also take up the positive parts of the myth—as we have struggled against adversity, carved out our place against the elements, been tough and strategic and determined, then let us be so in the way we carve out our future in Australia. And we cannot learn to do this well if we do not take an honest, thorough look at the crimes hidden inside our national identity.