Louisa Atkinson, A voice from the country: January (Review)
Louisa Atkinson, as I wrote in a post a few years ago, was a pioneer Australian writer. She was a significant botanist, our first Australian-born woman novelist, and the first Australian woman to have a long-running column in a major newspaper. It was a natural history series titled A Voice from the Country which ran in The Sydney Morning Herald for 10 years from 1860. I’ve shared here a few natural history articles/essays written by Americans, such as John Muir, but never an Aussie one. That’s going to change here, now – for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I can, given the articles are findable through Trove, and secondly because the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge plans to focus this year, among other things, on classic Australian women writers. You can’t be a more classic Aussie writer than our Louisa!
But, which of Louisa Atkinson’s many columns should I do? I read a few and decided on one from her first year. In fact, I think it might have been the very first in the series. It’s titled “January”, which makes it particularly appropriate this month. Atkinson was living in Kurrajong, on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains, in “Fernhurst”, the house built by her mother.
So, the piece is about what it says, January. She describes the birds and plants in particular that you see in January in her region. Here is the opening sentence:
A WARM drowsy month, without the opening promise of Spring or maturing riches of Autumn.
Beautiful don’t you think, and it perfectly catches the middle of the Australian summer, particularly when you read the next couple of sentences:
In dry seasons the grass is scorched and white, the dust flies along the road before the least puff of wind, much to the annoyance of the traveller. The observer of nature finds his field of observation limited, yet not altogether barren.
In other words, it is dry, more yellow I’d say than white, and there’s nothing much happening, nature-wise. “Much” though is the operative word, because it’s “not altogether barren”, as she goes on to show by describing, for example, the activity of various birds such as the “waterwagtail or dishwasher”, laughing jackasses, lowries. Now, here’s another reason I chose this piece – her language. There’s the obvious fact that Atkinson has an engaging way of writing about nature, but what I want to explore here is its unfamiliarity.
By this I mean unfamiliar expressions and names. Regarding the former, I often find in articles I locate through Trove, language that is more erudite than we see in today’s newspapers. It suggests a higher level of literacy in readers. Take, for example, Atkinson’s use of “ferruginous” to describe the colour of a fungus. We might find that word in a novel these days, but not, I expect, in a general interest newspaper column. Of course, it may also suggest that newspapers were geared more to the elite than to the general populace? I don’t know enough about newspaper history to say any more on this. Sometimes, it’s more that word usage has changed. For example, Atkinson writes that some young birds “essay flight”. We rarely see “essay” used in that sense these days. I love that reading these older articles can give us insight into other times beyond the subject matter of the writing.
The other unfamiliarity relates to her naming of things. I know what laughing jackasses and lowries are – kookaburras and crimson rosellas*, respectively – but these names aren’t commonly used now. However, I have no idea what a “waterwagtail or dishwasher” is. Is it the willie wagtail and nicknamed dishwasher because its tail swishing back and forth reminded people of a dish mop? So, I did a Google search, and found an article titled “21 Facts about Pied Wagtails” from UK’s Living with Birds website. Facts 6 and 7 are:
6. Few birds have as many country names as the pied wagtail. They range from Polly washdish and dishwasher to the more familiar Penny wagtail, Willy wagtail and water wagtail.
7. The origin of the washer names is a mystery, but it may be because women once washed clothes, as well as pot and pans, by a stream or village pump, the sort of place that pied wagtails also frequent.
So, not the action of their tail perhaps but the places they frequent? I’m not a bird expert, but my understanding is that this White or Pied Wagtail is a “vagrant” in Australia, and that what we call the willie wagtail is from a different family. Which one – if either of these – is Atkinson talking about? Regardless, my point is that reading past writing can trip us up when the writers described plants, animals or objects using terms or names we don’t use now. We have to be careful – particularly those of us not expert in subjects – about drawing wrong conclusions from our reading.
POSTSCRIPT, 31 Jan 2017: Pam (Travellin’ Penguin) checked out “dishwasher” through her bird contacts, and was pointed to the book Austral English, which says that it’s “an old English bird-name for the Water-wagtail; applied in Australia to the Seisura inquieta … the Restless Flycatcher”. It quotes from the 1827 Transactions of the Linnæan Society, that the bird “is very curious in its actions. In alighting on the stump of a tree, it makes several semi-circular motions, spreading out its tail …”.
Enough of that, though. Let’s get back to Atkinson and her description of the lowries (i.e. crimson rosellas). They are common to my garden – and her writing captures them perfectly:
A flock of lowries, young and old, frequent the fields, whence the oaten hay was gathered, nor confine their depredations there, assisting themselves liberally to the ripening peas and beans, which the gardener intended for seed, and even pursuing these favourite morsels into a verandah where they are spread to dry. The flock presents a brilliant appearance ; the full plumaged birds are vivid crimson, blue, partially pied with black, whilst the nestlings are variegated with green.
And now to conclude I’m going to jump five years to a report in the The Sydney Morning Herald in January 1865 of a meeting of the Horticultural Society of Sydney. It reports on various attendees bringing all sorts of plant specimens to the meeting, most of them exotic, and then, towards the end, there’s this:
Miss Atkinson, of the Kurrajong, sent a jar of jam, of the Lisanthe sapida, with the following remarks –
“LISANTHE SAPIDA – A small shrub of the Epacris family, bearing a crimson fruit, enveloping a single stone; good bearer, crop lasts about two months or more, coming in in November. To make jelly—boil the drupes, adding a few spoonfuls of water; when soft strain the juice off, add one pound white sugar to a pint, and boil to jelly. The fruit makes a pleasant tart—the Lisanthe Sapida grows in poor sandstone ranges. If any member of the societv would like to cultivate the shrub, and cannot procure the fruits in their locality, it is to be met with in the Kurrajong.”
A vote of thanks was given to the exhibitors, and more especially to Miss Atkinson, who it was remarked had made herself most remarkable for her endeavours to bring colonial productions into notice.
The lisanthe (or lissanthe) sapida, aka native cranberry, is, as you might have guessed, a plant native to Australia. Lovely to see recognition, by her peers, of a woman, and one who clearly loved and promoted the natural environment in which she lived.
* Mountain lowry is an alternative name for the Crimson rosella but is not, I believe, the most common one, particularly in New South Wales, but readers can correct me if I’m wrong.
“A voice in the country: January”
in: The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1860