Sunday, August 18, 2013

being a barren waste

"[A]s Stella became more intimate with the Mallee Scrub, its nameless attractions grew on her," writes Catherine Martin, noticing the "white immortelles -- those snowy blossoms of the desert," and their "coronals of silky petals round their deep-gold hearts, on brownish dry stalks, with a few slender leaflets" until she finds two good words for them, "pensive radiance." She sees this delicacy; she runs naturally to the idea of destroying it. Farmers should come to the Mallee, she says, they should sink wells for the groundwater and they should cover the earth with fruit trees. "Nature waits to be governed by obedience to her conditions. Dig, and ye shall find; water, and ye shall reap. If the principle that anyone who makes wasteland productive became its owner were enforced, the Mallee Scrub, instead of being a barren waste, even in appearance, might soon become a great granary of fruit and corn."

But won't the flowers die, I wondered, "brilliant little orchids; scarlet and yellow pea-like flowers; the pale lemon blossom of the native clematis; the small purple geraniums,' obviously they would be eradicated if their parched habitat was replaced by shadowing wet fruit trees, oh surely this is clear, but it doesn't occur to her that this is so, and nor does she realise that this idea of hers goes against a set of qualities that she admires in her heroine: a refined aesthetic delicacy, a subtle appreciation of nature, a resistance to mainstream coarse things, all of which should say, Keep the Mallee that has nothing to befool your soul.

There is this impulse to crush in us, I think, a natural impulse; we would build on the sky if we could; we would hoon on the moon.

By the end of the book you have realised that Catherine Martin has a plan for Australia. She would like to see it covered in small farms with a cow and a cottage. She sees the urban poor revitalised. They can come from England, they will have the opportunity to become prosperous at last on their farms. They will have to stop being urban as well as poor. She was not the only one in the 1800s who looked at Australia and saw a cleansing bath for the destitute. So Mr Micawber becomes a magistrate and Mrs Gummidge cheers up. Prostitutes marry into birdlife. Vance Palmer wrote in 1954: "There is no doubt that during the latter half of the last century the Australian people were acutely aware of their isolation, and were determined to turn to account the freedom it gave them by building up something like an earthly paradise for the common man" (The Legend of the Nineties, Melbourne University Press).

Catherine Martin is in the strange position of being able to see the scrubland and not see it. Or not strange: it must have been affecting a lot of people. So it is only commonly strange. She can write about the landscape as if she is enraptured and she can also hold the contradicting theoretical view that it will be better in the future if people destroy it. The Mallee is worth describing carefully with paragraphs of words, it is precious, and then another set of words arrives, and she uses the word "waste" to dismiss the scrub, though "desolation" just a short way before was not dismissive, it was used with respect because the austerity of the desolation had made her calm and stricken.

Now a new set of words has arrived from somewhere else, a different compartment of the brain, however you'd divide it, or conceive of it -- this set of cuckoo-baby words that comes into the nest of the other words, mimics them and wants to kick them out, not because the cuckoos are vindictive but because it is their nature to behave like thugs. The force of tooth and claw is at work in the ink world. The shapes of nature repeating themselves, repeat themselves, and the behaviour that it detectably living presents itself in the unalive object.

The tenor of her mind alters; the alteration is in the language. The observed landscape that depends on colours and objects and enumerations (it is only a "few" leaflets and they are "slender," and the hearts of the immortelles are not gold but "deep-gold") and also on the longer vowel sounds ("snowy," "deep") is displaced by a swift appeal to tradition ("Dig and ye shall find ..." with its "-ig" "-ind," "-eap") -- the businesslike tone of someone addressing a known quantity -- a quote, a book, a commercial enterprise, the peopling and the tenor of a nation, which had been on everybody's minds since the mass of gold-hunters had arrived in the 1850s to displace the pastoralists from their role as Australia's nouveau riche.

She is not searching and finding, as she was doing in the sentences about "the pale lemon blossom of the native clematis; the small purple geraniums", locating and observing each flower. She is pre-empting and deciding.

Geographically her prose is infected by two different areas, one, the area of the Mallee where the writer observes and is uplifted and humble, and, two, the interior of parliament or another room where people in power construct their abstract decisions of government, and where humility is not an asset.

She is trying to provoke the reader's agreement with a tone that is the opposite of her previous relaxed exactitude of fact.

(They did farm the Mallee eventually but the land does not produce the "fruit and corn" she wanted, instead the farms grow primarily wheat, barley, canola, lentils, chickpeas, vetch -- dryland crops -- with some sheep and cattle.)

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