Issue 36, July 2005 A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s  R e v i e w
Eco-humanities Corner
 

 

 
Introduction to Desert Gardens

by Libby Robin and Ian Donaldson

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The papers in this issue are drawn from a conference on Desert Gardens : Waterless lands and the problems of adaptation, convened by the present editors for the Australian National University 's Humanities Research Centre, and held at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, on 29, 30, and 31 March 2005. The conference, which launched the HRC's 2005 theme of Cultural landscapes, was the second in a sequence of three international conferences on gardens sponsored by a group of research institutions in the United States, Britain, and Australia. These were the Huntington Library, Arts Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino ; the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles ; the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities at Cambridge University (CRASSH); Cambridge University Botanic Garden ; and the ANU's Humanities Research Centre.1

Moving Gardens

The series bore the overall title, Moving Gardens, a title that reflected not just the mobility of the participants, but a central and uniting theme in all three conferences. Gardens create a comforting illusion of stability and rootedness, but are also subject to evolution and change. They move in a variety of senses, varying not only from season to season but more subtly over longer periods of time. Like the historians, philosophers, literary scholars, artists, and writers in a common conversation. The first conference, entitled Activity and repose: place, memory, and sociality in Chinese and Japanese gardens, convened by Stephen H. West (University of California, Berkeley), was held at the Getty Research Institute and the Huntington Library on 3 and 4 December 2004. The topic related to the Getty Research Institute's theme for the 2004-5 academic year, Duration, and to a focus of intense current interest at the Huntington, where a Chinese garden intended to complement the Huntington 's famous Japanese garden is presently under construction. Representatives of the local Chinese community from the nearby San Gabriel Valley (a community which now has approximately 600,000 members) were amongst the audience, participating in the often brisk debate concerning the signification and usage of oriental gardens in western settings. Many of the central features of a traditional Chinese garden, as several speakers showed, are themselves adaptations of elements that may be traced back for many centuries to supposedly foundational (but probably mythical) events: such as the famous fourth-century poetry contest at the Orchid Pavilion, historians, philosophers, literary scholars, artists, and writers in a common conversation. The first conference, entitled Activity and repose: place, memory, and sociality in Chinese and Japanese gardens, convened by Stephen H. West (University of California, Berkeley), was held at the Getty Research Institute and the Huntington Library on 3 and 4 December 2004. The topic related to the Getty Research Institute's theme for the 2004-5 academic year, Duration, and to a focus of intense current interest at the Huntington, where a Chinese garden intended to complement the Huntington 's famous Japanese garden is presently under construction. Representatives of the local Chinese community from the nearby San Gabriel Valley (a community which now has approximately 600,000 members) were amongst the audience, participating in the often brisk debate concerning the signification and usage of oriental gardens in western settings. Many of the central features of a traditional Chinese garden, as several speakers showed, are themselves adaptations of elements that may be traced back for many centuries to supposedly foundational (but probably mythical) events: such as the famous fourth-century poetry contest at the Orchid Pavilion, where cups of wine floated down a central, serpentine channel which has been for more than a thousand years a standard motif in representations and reconstructions of the traditional Chinese garden. The relationship between gardens and artistic creativity will also be a theme of the third and final conference, to be held in Cambridge University Botanic Garden from 8 to 10 July 2005. Here the title Moving Gardens is interpreted in another sense, with the emphasis on various ways in which those who visit and work in gardens may be emotionally and creatively transported. (For details, see http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/2004-5/movgardensthree.html)

Desert gardens as cultural landscapes

The Canberra conference, Desert Gardens, had ecological, environmental, and climatic questions always near the centre of the frame. It looked at ways in which traditional ideas about the role and function of the garden have been modified in relation to local conditions, and especially to one problem of increasing global urgency: the scarcity of water. The meeting had a genuinely international character, with presentations about Australia, India, Africa, Europe, the Americas and beyond. We even discussed the cold deserts of the polar landscapes (north and south) and Mars! The idea of desert colours flavoured the conference, from the red of Australia 's centre to the white deserts of Antarctica, the driest continent, all challenging the traditional green of gardens. The papers presented here in the Australian Humanities Review focus strongly (but not exclusively) on the peculiar difficulties of Australia, which is not simply a 'waterless' land, but a land of highly variable rainfall and uncertainty of seasons, the most climatically uncertain of the six continents. Australia's 'droughts and flooding rains' pose particular difficulty for gardens, and even in the temperate regions of the coastal fringe, there are many problems of adaptation for a garden culture imported from elsewhere.

It is significant that at a conference about 'desert gardens', many of the Australian gardens discussed were not in the zone actually designated 'arid'. The very word desert, with its traditional connotations of barrenness, emptiness, and desolation, is hardly in fact an accurate term to describe those areas of the continent to which it has often been loosely applied, as Bill Gammage argues in the opening paper of this collection. Like many other words used by early settlers to describe the Australian landscape, it is a highly problematic term, part of the European cultural baggage which a knowledge of Indigenous ways of living with the land might encourage us to employ with greater discrimination. Yet in the perception of many of these early settlers as Andrea Gaynor's and Harriet Edquist's studies of gardening on the Western Australian goldfields make clear the country to which they had come seemed a desert place of biblical proportions. Ironically, as Gaynor shows, it was often their own work of mining and deforestation that threatened to make the place just that. Gardening often, on the goldfields, the work of women was an attempt to mitigate the harshness of this seemingly barren land.

 Desert Definitions and Colours

The term 'desert' is difficult to define with precision and independence. As CSIRO scientist, Dominic Serventy, declared in despair: 'A desert occurs wherever it is said to occur. A definition by acclamation!'2 Deserts are places where 'dryness and heat are so excessive that normal agriculture is impossible in average years'.3 Since the late 1970s, cold deserts are also included since they too, exclude agriculture.4 Scientists often prefer the term 'arid zone' that balances the effects of precipitation and evaporation, both of which vary greatly between southern and northern Australia. Arid zone country embraces not just low rainfall and high evaporation areas, but also, in the Australian context, the lands with greatest variability and uncertainty of season. The Arid Zone Research Centre in Alice Springs defines arid and semi-arid lands as:

bound by average annual rainfalls of about 250 mm in the south but up to 800 mm in the north and about 500 mm in the east. Together with sub-tropical regions and the mountain high plains, they form the rangelands, where rainfall is too low or unpredictable or where terrain is too inhospitable for sustainable cropping or timber harvesting.5

But even this more precise definition fails to capture where deserts begin and end in the literary and horticultural imagination, as we discovered at our conference.

A conference panel session on the Red Shift (led by Libby Robin, with Deborah Bird Rose and Mike Smith) explored the strong links between understanding Australian deserts and national pride. The work of ecological scientists, Aboriginal people and archaeologists all contributed to shifting desert understandings over the twentieth century. Red Shift explored how new understandings of Australia 's arid interior shaped national identity in this settler nation.

At the height of the summer of 1901-1902, just after the Australian colonies had federated into a nation, John Walter Gregory, Professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne, undertook a journey around Lake Eyre. Perhaps the landscape was particularly 'dead' or dormant in that hot season, at the end of a very long drought. That year was in fact one of the driest summers on record for the century. The account of his trip was published as The dead heart of Australia in 1906. The idea that Australia 's heart was dead, dying, colourless or empty recurred over the century, but contrary views came to compete with this, even as European-style pastoral practices increasingly impoverished the natural biodiversity of desert country. One of the important alternative views was initiated in the 1930s by zoologist and museum curator, Herbert Henry Finlayson. He recounted his travels with 'man and beast in the heart of Australia ' in a book entitled The red centre. For Finlayson, this was not a dead heart but a red one. By putting people and other living creatures at the centre of his story, he allowed the heart to beat, and created a possibility for desert country to be perceived as a home for settlers as well as Aboriginal Australians. An empty land is monochrome, but a red desert has possibilities. The 'red shift' gave new significance to the Australian outback country. 

Desert Homes

Desert country has been increasingly adopted as part of Australia 's national iconography, with more and more colour. Not just red sunsets at Uluru, but also vibrant orange dune country, the crystalline white of sparkling salt-pans, waving gold hummock grasslands and brightly-coloured expanses of daisies adorn tourist brochures. The Centre is no longer forgotten or imagined in monochrome, nor is it empty or barren. Like deserts elsewhere, Australian arid lands are harsh places, limited by low, uncertain water supplies, but they can on occasion become richly vegetated following rain, and this is now appreciated and celebrated by non-Indigenous people as well as traditional owners. People live in this country and there is a growing awareness that they have done so successfully for many millennia. Our opportunistic desert garden hinterland increasingly attracts visitors from overseas and from the coast-hugging cities on pilgrimages to the Red Centre.

One of the key features of a garden is that it surrounds and nurtures a home. A dead desert is an 'other' land. Not until Australian deserts went 'red' could they be regarded as living lands, and embraced as a home and part of what it means to be a settler Australian. The questions of survival and adaptation, of making a home, under such conditions have interested visitors and desert dwellers alike. In the twenty-first century these questions have come together under a new banner of 'desert knowledge', an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration that emerges from the particular difficulties of living in harsh lands where water is scarce.6

Desert Imaginings

The five papers in the first section of this special issue of Australian Humanities Review are grouped under the heading of 'Desert Imaginings'. They examine various ways in which arid and semi-arid places have been viewed and cultivated in Australia, Europe, Africa and north America. Bill Gammage's opening paper argues that Australian Indigenous methods of managing the land redefine what 'gardening' itself can mean. Limited water supplies create the need for a scale far beyond the fenced private lands of a traditional garden. The second paper, by Paul Fox, considers how outside influences have dramatically changed these Indigenous landscapes. He explores the acclimatisation movement the moving of plants around the globe that was a signature of the colonial imagination in neo-Europes. Gail Feigenbaum's Getty Center cactus garden and the Algerian Jardin d'essai of Charles Salas's paper bring us two imagined and constructed 'desert gardens', with ideas and plants moved in from elsewhere. We finish with a question: what is the shape of 'desert imaginings'? Nature writer, William H. Fox explores the cognitive and historical dimensions of desert gardens in the Middle East and the Americas.

Adapting Gardens to Waterless Lands

The second section, 'Adapting gardens to waterless lands', focuses more closely on gardens themselves. Although all of these gardens are Australian, none is in the true red desert country. We begin with Christopher Vernon's paper on adapting visions for a green city for Australia 's capital, Canberra. In a place where annual rainfall averages only about 700 mm, and varies between only 260 mm and just over 1000 mm, the challenges for creating a 'suitable national landscape' are considerable. From Canberra we move east to 'Edge', the garden of poet and environmentalist, Judith Wright. Katie Holmes explores the relations between poetry and garden practice in dry country. Val Plumwood gardens just a few minutes' drive further east but on better watered country in Mongarlowe forest country. In her garden, wombats, waratahs and garden philosophies co-exist amicably. Plumwood challenges the ecological purists of the garden world, and calls for adaptable philosophies that accommodate the historical legacies of the settler Australian horticultural imagination, provided that they do not destroy habitat. Barry McGowan takes us west again well beyond Canberra and into the dry western division of New South Wales. He looks at the adaptations of a number of historical Chinese market gardens in water-limited lands. We then cross the whole continent to the Western Australian goldfields gardens of Andrea Gaynor and Harriet Edquist. These are in dry country, very close to the desert edge (for locations see http://www.walis.wa.gov.au/walis/content/wa_atlas_popup.html), but even these lands receive more than the magic 250mm that defines the desert for science. Finally we arrive in the western port of Fremantle, in the nineteenth-century garden of the lunatic asylum, where Terri-ann White's lucid prose teases out some multicultural responses to an intriguing garden of mixed heritage.

 

Libby Robin is at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University. Ian Donaldson is at the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University.

Further reading :

Cathcart, Michael 'Uluru' in Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths (eds), Words for country: Landscape and language in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2002, pp 206-21.

French, Alison. Seeing the Centre: the Art of Albert Namatjira, 1902-1959, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002.

Haynes, Roslynn D. Seeking the Centre: the Australian desert in literature, art and film, Cambridge ; Melbourne : Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Martin, Mandy, Libby Robin and Mike Smith, Strata: Deserts Past, Present and Future, Mandurama: Mandy Martin with Land and Water Australia, 2005.

Pierse, Simon, 'Painting the Rock: Images of Uluru by Michael Andrews and Lloyd Rees' Australian Studies, Vol. 17, no. 1, Summer 2002, pp 167-188.

Sherratt, Tim, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds) A change in the weather: Climate and culture in Australia, Canberra : National Museum of Australia Press, 2005.

Smith, M.A. Peopling the Cleland Hills: Aboriginal history in western Central Australia, 1850-1980, Canberra : Aboriginal History, 2005.

Smith, Mike and Paul Hesse (eds.) 23º S: archaeology and environmental history of the southern deserts, Canberra : National Museum of Australia Press, 2005.

Stafford Smith, D. M. and S. R. Morton, 'A framework for the ecology of arid Australia ', Journal of Arid Environments, Vol. 18, 1990, pp 255-78.

Veth, Peter, Mike Smith, Peter Hiscock. Desert peoples: archaeological perspectives Malden, MA : Blackwell, 2005.

Footnotes

1. The Canberra conference and related subsequent events in Melbourne were supported by a further group of institutions: the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, The National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, and the ANU's Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. Thanks are due to these institutions and to Richard Aitken, Professor Ian Chubb, Ms Louise Douglas, Professor Harriet Edquist, Paul Fox, Dr Jan Fullerton, Dr Katie Holmes, Ms Leena Messina, Dr Philip Moors, Dr Mike Smith, and Dr Gerard Vaughan for particular assistance.

2. D. L. Serventy, 'Biology of Desert Birds', in D. S. Farner and J. R. King (eds) Avian Biology, Academic Press, New York, 1971, pp. 287339, quote p. 292.

3. Ibid, p. 292.

4. This change seems to have occurred in the late 1970s. For example, in the first issue of the Journal of Arid Environments, J. L. Cloudsley-Thompson, in his editorial, called for articles about the 'problems of the inhabitants of the world's desert regions' (1978, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 1). In the second editorial, he explicitly mentioned 'intensely cold' environments, presumably including those that are not inhabited permanently such as Antarctica. (Vol. 2, No. 1, 1979, p. 1).

5. 'What Are the Arid Lands of Australia ?' in website for CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems: Centre for Arid Zone Research Alice Springs, http://www.cazr.csiro.au/aridzone_introduction.htm (accessed 21 June 2002).

6. Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA), an agency of the Northern Territory government, was formally incorporated in September 2003. In July 2003, the Desert Knowledge Co-operative Research Centre, supported by CSIRO, various universities and DKA began its key initiatives. Both originated in a Northern Territory government-funded 'Desert Knowledge Project', established in 2000.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also

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