• This is one of a few articles I published elsewhere before Green Path was conceived or begun but is still relevant enough to deserve a place on the blog. The date-stamp will say 2010, the date of first publication, although the review was only added to GP in 2016.
Journeys to the Interior
Black Inc, 2010, $32.00
Nicolas Rothwell has been reporting from the North for many years now, covering the vast territory from Cairns, Cape York and the Pilbara down into the Centre. His articles and the journeys behind them are the source of four books which probably belong on the ‘travel’ shelf – Another Country, Wings of the Kite-Hawk, The Red Highway, and now Journeys to the Interior. They are not simply travel books, however, but poetic ruminations on people and places, his own inner voyage, and ways of understanding an environment which is profoundly strange to anyone brought up with a European sensibility.
Journeys seems closer to its journalistic origins than its predecessors. A trio of long essays sets the scene, but the bulk of the book consists of individual portraits of indigenous artists and community leaders, white explorers and naturalists, and significant locations. Each reads well but they don’t cohere into a single story. Then again, that is one of Rothwell’s themes: he has come to believe that this landscape resists our Western attempts to impose narrative upon it and can only be known through scattered fragments.
Another recurrent theme is a resonance between this ancient, worn-down country and a Western civilisation he feels is in terminal decay; it gives his work a pervasively melancholic cast which is the opposite of the typical bright, breezy travel book. For all that, he makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of a region that is foreign to most Australians – even to most Townsvilleans, although we live on the edge of it.
• This review was published in the Townsville Bulletin and then, in a longer form, in LiNQ before Green Path was conceived but is relevant enough to the blog to deserve a place on it. The date-stamp will say 2008, the date of first publication, although the review was only added to this site in 2017.
Landscape of Farewell by Alex Miller
Allen & Unwin (2007), 275pp, $35.00.
Eight novels in twenty years have established Alex Miller as one of Australia’s most respected authors. He received the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1993 for The Ancestor Game and another a decade later for Journey to the Stone Country, and has been shortlisted for it on three more occasions, most recently for the present book.
Landscape of Farewell revisits themes of Journey to the Stone Country (2002) but with quite different emphasis and treatment. The minimal narrative in the new book is little more than a frame for an extended meditation on history, culpability and reconciliation. In Australia that last word immediately means reconciliation between Aboriginal and European peoples, and that is indeed one of Miller’s subjects here but reconciliation between generations is at least as important to him.
One of the two central characters is Max Otto, a recently retired professor of history in Hamburg. Nearly 70 and grieving the recent death of his beloved wife, he is also immersed in a despair that is both personal and professional: he and his generation have failed to find a way to comprehend the war, and the failure has blighted their lives. A young boy at the time of World War II, Max forever avoided asking his father what he did as a soldier for fear of having to confront horrifying truths. Later, he retreated from it by making his professional specialty the Middle Ages. He has gradually realised, however, that both failures exemplify the self-protective but ultimately self-destructive amnesia of his generation of Germans:
When I was a boy during the war there was much I could not know, but I knew, as everyone knew, that an evil beyond the reckoning of humanity was being done in our names and that we were never to understand it or recover from it. It has haunted my generation and the ghost of it will not be gone until we are gone … No matter how lofty our moral principles, few of us proved immune to the pernicious charms of silence. My mother, my father, my sister and I. We all kept our silence. We children were crippled by it and lost our voices to it. [p227]
The other central character is Dougald Gnapun, an aboriginal man of similar age living in an abandoned mining township inland from Mackay. Dougald has been alone since his wife died, and he has taken on the responsibility of helping his people sort out issues of land ownership and traditional knowledge. He himself, however, has been away from his people’s country for decades for reasons which are never made clear.
Miller brings Max and Dougald together – against all probability – through Dougald’s niece Vita, a Sydney-based historian who meets Max at a conference in Hamburg, invites him to a similar conference in Sydney and then takes him to visit her uncle. The two men live quietly together, their relationship outwardly harmonious but strangely tenuous. They are together for weeks without impacting on each other and occasionally Max suspects that their inarticulate ‘getting along well’ is a fragile bridge over an abyss of mutual incomprehension.
Dougald is haunted by his need to pass on a story from his great-grandfather’s time:
‘I’m the only one left who knows the truth of what happened. If it’s not written down the truth of it will be lost when I die. It was told to me by my grandfather. It was his own father, my great-grandfather, who did these things and told him of them. … My fear is that I will die suddenly and it will be lost. That’s what I fear, Max. Not to die, I don’t fear that any more than you do. What I fear is to lose the truth of this thing.’ [p155-56]
The massacre at Cullin-la-Ringo near Springsure, the genuine historical incident at the centre of the book, occurred in October 1861 during rapid expansion of white settlements in Queensland. A party of settlers was attacked by men of the local tribe and nearly all were killed. One escaped to raise the alarm on a neighbouring property and the attackers were hunted down; reprisals, as so often in our colonial history, were bloodier than the attack that sparked them.
Dougald eventually tells Max the story as he had learned it from his grandfather but Miller transmits it to us only through Max’s imaginative re-telling, diluting its authority and immediacy while broadening its relevance.
His story preserved at last, Dougald takes Max on a trip to his ancestral country, a day’s drive away. The cliffs and gullies of remote Expedition Range, their destination, haven’t changed since the massacre. The emptiness and indifference of the country amplifies the individuals’ awareness of the ghosts they bring with them: the past haunts the present through the landscape. For Dougald, the visit to his great-grandfather’s grave high on the escarpment is a journey of reconciliation, re-integration, with the Old People and their country. Its effect on Max is almost complementary, though just as transformative, since it finally unlocks the chains he had forged from his past failings.
Landscape of Farewell is suspended in no-place and no-time. Expedition Range is unchanging while ‘Mount Nebo’, which can’t quite be identified with any real Queensland township, is explicitly a ghost. Even Max and Dougald are revenants of their respective pasts as much as real people in the workaday world. In such a limbo, realisations can unfold at their own pace.
Miller’s subtle suspension of realism is both a strength and a minor weakness, allowing him to grasp mythical, poetic truth at the expense of some loss of storytelling energy. If there is anything as explicit as a conclusion to his voyage of spiritual discovery, it is that we can only become whole by acknowledging our past and accepting responsibility for our present. But his achievement is not merely to tell us so, which is easy, but to induce us to see it for ourselves.
• This is one of a few articles I published elsewhere long before Green Path was conceived or begun but is still relevant enough to deserve a place on the blog. The date-stamp will say 2005, the date of first publication, although the article was only added to GP in 2016.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit Tasmania for a mixture of business and social reasons at the end of March 2005. The Tuesday after Easter was a perfect Autumn day in Hobart and my host suggested a trip to Hartz Mountains National Park, just over an hour’s drive South-West of Hobart (more info here). By the time we arrived it was nearly lunchtime, but we set off towards Hartz Peak anyway.
We walked as far as Lake Esperance and stopped for a sandwich. While we were there, another hiker pointed out to us a small cloud of smoke rising from a valley over to our East, between us and the Huon Valley.
We continued as far as Hartz Pass, the saddle leading to the peak, then decided that climbing all the way to the Peak would probably, unfortunately, turn the descent into a race against the sunset. (That isn’t the Peak behind our resting spot – it’s just the first hump to get over on the way to it!)
Did I mention the weather was gorgeous?
On the way back down we paused at this little pool near Ladies’ Tarn for a photo.
But look up: what’s this band of cloud across the top?
Look to the left, and up again… this was what that ‘little cloud of smoke’ had become.
We continued back to the carpark. On the way we noticed that the monster had a smaller partner nearby. We drove down the mountain to Waratah Lookout and stopped there for a few minutes. We realised that the cloud that was dimming our sunshine was the smoke from the two fires. It was still high enough overhead that we didn’t smell it, but it was making a bright day very grey indeed.
From Waratah you look down on the treetops, or out to the North and West…
Our monsters had friends.
By this time it was after 4 o’clock so we drove on down the mountain towards Hobart. The road runs alongside the Huon River beween Geeveston and Huonville. It had been a very beautiful part of the trip that morning, but on the way home it was oppressive and quite ugly: the lowering sun shining through the smoke turned the river black with dull red highlights and the golden grass to rust colours, and almost the whole sky was a murky grey-brown. The smoke was coming down to ground level too, and we could smell it in the air.
We might have stayed in the Huon Valley for the evening, looking around the craft shops and galleries and maybe buying something before finding somewhere nice for dinner but did not want to stay under that choking pall any longer than we had to. The Huon Valley lost our tourist dollars.
Our monsters ‘had friends’ in more ways than one. They were deliberately lit, by Forestry Tasmania.
It seems Forestry Tasmania call this kind of fire a ‘regeneration burn.’ It is the last stage in clear-felling a block of forest before planting it with seedlings which will in turn grow up to be clear-felled.
Now, the rationale for clear-felling rather than selective logging, the rationale for then turning perfectly good timber into woodchips, the rationale for then exporting the woodchips so that somone else can add value to them and re-sell them to Australians, and the reasons Australian taxpayers should support the whole scheme through government subsidies all strike me as being extremely dubious at best but I’m not going to address them here. I am not even going to discuss the morality of scattering poison baits afterwards to kill the wildlife which has been left nothing but seedlings to eat. I just wanted to talk about the ‘regeneration burn.’
Turning good organic matter into ash and carbon dioxide, killing every living creature in the process, contributes to regeneration the same way ‘ethnic cleansing’ contributes to peace and love. Calling it a ‘sterilization burn’ wouldn’t make the act any better but it would at least be an honest description of what Forestry Tasmania is doing. (Both phrases are offensive in themselves, too, because both are so grossly and deliberately misleading.)
Any industry which released this much CO2 and particulate emissions into the atmosphere would be regulated and/or fined into responsible behaviour by any rational administration. But not this industry, not in Tasmania.
I don’t usually think of myself as a tourist, but that is just what I was for most of that week, visiting Port Arthur, Bruny Island and the beginning of the ‘Ten Days on the Island’ arts festival. Most of my week was wonderful. This wasn’t.
‘Tourist’ means ‘money’ – clean, renewable, job-creating, environmentally friendly (but environmentally dependent) money – to the people of Tasmania and their government. ‘Souvenir’ means, literally, ‘memory.’ This is one of my souvenirs of a week in Tasmania.
Googling ‘regeneration’ plus ‘Forestry Tasmania’ will get you hundreds of hits. Explore them as you like. Please also feel free to write to the responsible bodies about the issue: Forestry Tasmania and the Tasmanian government will not change their current polices without encouragement.