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Delicious descriptions: Clare Wright’s sources on the Australian landscape

November 13, 2014
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While the focus of Clare Wright’s The forgotten rebels of Eureka, which I recently reviewed, is the role of women in the Eureka Stockade, the book offers a wealth of wonderful insight into the times. As regular readers know, I have a specific interest in descriptions of landscape so I greatly enjoyed contemporary descriptions of the environment that Wright includes in her book. I can’t resist sharing some with you.

In the first chapter, Wright quotes from the diary of Englishman Charles Evans who walked to the diggings with his brother and another companion. He wrote of one place along their journey:

the scene from the hills was lovely beyond expression—the sun had set and a mellow twilight and the silvery rays of a full moon shed a soft light over the beautiful landscape … I cannot remember any scene in my own country … to excel it—I was going to say, perhaps even to equal it. (from his diary, 1853-55)

Ballarat Diggings c.1852

Ballarat Diggings c1852 – not so ugly, but before the rush was in full swing (Courtesy: State Library of South Australia, B29496

By contrast, English journalist William Howitt comments on the destruction of the landscape in the service of digging for gold:

The diggers seem to have two especial propensities, those of firing guns and felling trees … Every tree is felled, every feature of Nature is annihilated. (from his book Land, labour and gold, 1855)

According to Wikipedia, Howitt’s body of work draws from “his habits of observation and his genuine love of nature”. Environmentalism, as we know only too well, didn’t spring up in the twentieth century, but I always enjoy, albeit with a certain chagrin, coming across concern about environmental degradation in writings from the past. Wright, with her characteristically evocative language, writes that several diarists and letter-writers comment on the ugliness of the diggings. They “emphasise”, she says, “the conquest of culture over nature, the bulldozer urgency of conquest.”

For some reason that doesn’t fully make sense to me, Wright also quotes Mrs Mannington Caffyn from a book published in 1891, but I’ll share it because Wright did and because it is such an evocative description of Australian sunlight:

Australian sunlight is quite original, and only flourishes in Australia [me: Funny that!]. It is young and rampant and bumptious, and it is rather cruel, with the cruelty of young, untried things.

Many – though of course not all – of the 19th century sources Wright quotes in the book have a picturesque way with words. Mrs Caffyn’s example here was written for publication, but I enjoyed the expressive language used by several of the diarists and letter-writers too. The aforementioned Charles Evans, for example, says this of the plains between Melbourne and Ballarat:

stretching as far as the eye could reach were immense grassy plains undulating in emerald folds like the swell of the ocean.

I may write another more serious post on this book, if I can get my head into gear, but hope you enjoy these little descriptions in the meantime.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2014 4:16 am

    Love the description of the plains as well as the Australian sun. I’m sure glad we don’t get Australian sun in Minnesota, it sounds rather unforgiving!

  2. November 13, 2014 8:54 am

    Charles EVAN’s emerald seas of grasses fits perfectly with the way many early invaders saw the landscape – as described by Bill GAMMAGE in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth – all the result of Indigenous farming practices – unrecognised by the alien newcomers. Bruce Pascoe writes of similar things too in Dark Emu. And Don Watson in The Bush canvasses similar ways we now recognise were ignored by those early sheep/cattle farmers! I stand amazed by your wide reading and beautifully packaged reviews, WG!

    • November 13, 2014 9:17 am

      Thanks Jim … I love that you enjoy and comment on them.

      I’m going to put Watson on my Christmas wish list – I only heard of it a few weeks ago and decided it was right up my alley. I need to read Dark Emu too.

      I was intrigued to read a few years ago that the Monaro, which I presume was had been grazed to its current general treeless state was like that when the first white explorers “discovered” it.

  3. November 13, 2014 1:35 pm

    I share your fascination with the Australian landscape and always enjoy your posts on the subject. I always learn something from the comments too. With regard to sunlight – do you think there is something special about the light in and around Canberra? I do. Cut-glass clarity, so different from the light at the coast. And in relation to Canberra as the national capital, I used to think, during the decades that I lived there, that the clarity of the light seemed to promise truth, and that there was a great irony in that.

    • ian darling permalink
      November 13, 2014 9:06 pm

      It is fascinating to read these descriptions. I liked even the description of the Australian sun as bumptious especially from a place and time of year when our sunshine can only be described in various niggardly and pale words! Emerald seas of grasses….a bit different from a Lonely Planet version of modern Australia.

      • November 13, 2014 9:54 pm

        Ha ha Ian … on both points. You’re right about the Lonely Planet version and they are more right than wrong, but we do have seas of green – though not in many places, and in some of the places not all of the year. I was driving through some lovely green down along the Murray River in NE Victoria just a couple of weeks ago, but chances are by mid-summer they won’t be that.

    • November 13, 2014 9:43 pm

      Oh Dorothy, that’s below the belt! And anyhow, I reckon Canberra is true – it’s some of the residents (particularly those on the hill that may not be so!) But yes, I do Dorothy – hard to describe but it’s crisp and bright. Cut glass clarity is a good way to describe it.

    • Lithe lianas permalink
      November 15, 2014 10:09 pm

      We lived for three years in north western Queensland and enjoyed the same beautiful clean air and bright blue skies there which we put down to the fact that there was no industrial smog to spoil that ‘cut glass clarity’. (Though I must admit the occasional bedourie, i.e. dust storm of vicious density, did very occasionally ‘cloud the issue’.)

      • November 15, 2014 10:16 pm

        Thanks LL … not to mention the fumes from the stack when it blew in certain directions? Seriously, though, I think there are similarities in places away from smog, but some differences too depending on climate patterns and surrounding landforms?

  4. November 14, 2014 5:35 am

    Although people talk about the different colours of the Australian landscape it really is true. Having lived half my life in the USA (Michigan and Florida) and half of it in Tasmania the landscape colours are truly different. I never saw the colours of Australia in the USA and the colours of Florida are so much different from both Michigan (lots of white snow) and Australia. Writers often talk of the outback colours and many people think Australian colours are those hot dusky colours Tasmania yet has the shades of green and purple only found here. It is lovely to observe the various colours of sky and land as we travel around whether it be locally or overseas. I don’t think I ever really thought about landscape colours until I travelled Australia. Beautiful, everywhere.

    • November 14, 2014 8:10 am

      Thanks Pam … That’s interesting regarding awareness of colours. I know I am here all the time. I was in America’s west too … Not the east. Perhaps it’s related to places with big landscape spaces. Though, I think the variety of colours here is bigger and deeper?

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