Regarding Australia

A history textbook we studied at High School showed pictures of the Australian landscape drawn by early British settlers. The scenes they showed seemed far too domesticated, with trees standing amid grass. This, we were told, was because the artists still looked at things in a British way, and had been in Australia too short a time for their eye to adjust to the more harsh reality.

This never convinced me, and in his recent book The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) Bill Gammage argues that the countryside that the British encountered around Sydney Harbour did, in fact, look like a park. This was because indigenous Australians (Aborigines) had for long tended it, in particular by the use of fire, to create an environment with plenty of grass in which game could be hunted effectively. The European settlers, however, failed to recognise their achievement, and under their hands lands that had resembled parks became quickly covered by the scrub familiar to contemporary Australians.

Gammage’s argument is supported by a vast array of evidence, and seems incontrovertible. It has important implications for our understanding of traditional indigenous practices, a major and difficult issue, and the management of fire. But it prompts me to consider how artists have responded to the Australian landscape. It has often made them uncomfortable. Think of the arid outbacks of Russell Drysdale, sparse and desolate, or the bleak city spaces of Jeffrey Smart, environments from which life seems to have been sucked out.  (Smart, of course, has lived outside Australia for decades, and he is interested in the built rather than the natural environment.) Both artists are really concerned not so much with the scenes but an awkwardness felt by those who inhabit them. 

Australia remains a settler society. While Paris is emptied every August as people depart to spend their holidays in their native commune, and millions of people in China annually journey to their home village to celebrate New Year, such feelings of loyalty and being connected with a piece of territory are absent here. Perhaps they will come one day, but I suspect that a serious relationship between settler Australia and the land is a long way off. How many centuries, or millennia, does it take to achieve such a thing?

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