|Issue 39 - 40, September 2006|
Reviewed by Mark Tredinnick
© all rights reserved
George Main has written, in Heartland, a critical and literary geography of the southwest slopes of New South Wales, the country where he grew up. His purpose is to come to a deep understanding of what he calls 'the ecological wounding' of this now much worked-over agricultural region, formerly (and, in a very real sense, still) the tribal grounds of the Wiradjuri. He wants to explore and explain how the grassy woodlands and swamps around Cootamundra that sustained the Wiradjuri and were husbanded by them came to be reduced to the 'uniform aesthetic of crops and pastures, towns and homesteads, fences and railway lines,' in which salt rises in river and soil, where diversity is staggeringly impoverished to such an extent that now even the yields of industrial agriculture, which has made the place over in this way, are imperilled.
Many others have tried to analyse this process of the wounding of country, as Main acknowledges, but much of the discussion, particularly at a policy level, has been carried on, especially in Australia, within the narrow rubrics of environmental science and resource management. (It is a part of Main's project to critique those discourses, explaining how they are constrained by the same reductive ways of seeing 'local particularities,' time and country that typify colonial landuse since settlement.) Main asserts, and he is right I think, that relatively few people have offered 'broader historical and cultural explanations' of such country as this. And this is what he attempts.
A cultural-historical exploration looks farther back and deeper down and farther afield—than more traditional, single disciplinary approaches—for explanations of ecological disorder. It seeks explanations in the cultural contexts—the sets of prevailing ideas and norms—out of which the practices arose that have manufactured the ecological disorder. Main quotes the great nature writer (and farmer) Wendell Berry in support of his approach: 'We treat people, places, and things in accordance with the way we perceive them.' We have so diminished the southwest slopes, Main argues, because we have not been able to see how much more they were than our colonising aesthetics and economics reduced them to. Wiradjuri people knew the southwest slopes as a much more abundant and animate place than settlers ever did, though some settlers are beginning to see that now, too, Main shows.
What Heartland divines are the dynamics of imagination and history behind the agricultural practices of white settlers, in order to offer an understanding of how a place on earth, such as this, has been so wasted; in order, also, to see if older, richer imaginings of country and time and place, especially those of the displaced Wiradjuri, whose lore was shaped by this very place and shaped it in return, might be brought to bear in the restoration of southwest slopes. If it is not already too late.
Main is writing in the ecotone between scholarly and literary prose—he writes Heartland as an ecocritic and as a writer. This is dangerous, edgy terrain; and, like all ecotones, it is where new forms emerge and systems (of thought, for instance, about culture and nature) renew themselves. George Main's book is one such new form, a new thought that arises out of his holding that difficult ground. We need much more of such writing, intellectually and artistically engaged with landscapes, with the ways they shape us and the ways our ideas shape, and often wound, and sometimes restore, places.
In Heartland, George Main is trying something much harder than many scholars in his field and have attempted—harder, too, than many writers have attempted—and his prose sometimes falls a little short of his ambitions for it. What he attempts is not only to cover many disciplines (history, literature, ecology, anthropology, and economics, to name the central ones) in his study of whether human presence in a landscape inevitably leads to degradation (of places and of human life). He also attempts to write himself, as a child of the geography he considers, into his narrative; and, as far as possible, to write in a personal, not merely a scholarly, voice. Main is more comfortable, I think, and his voice is more assured, as a scholar than an essayist or nature writer. There is, as a result, some awkwardness in the personal passages and some dissonance in the movement between them and the more analytical sections. But I am quibbling; and the cause of any occasional awkwardness is largely the weight of the undertaking. For Main's writing is always deeply felt, elegant and intelligent; his argumentation is carefully made and urbanely put.
To his theorising and scholarly reflection on the southwest slopes, Main brings an impressive and diverse array of other scholarship—David Abram, Deborah Bird Rose, John Hirst, Peter Read, Donald Worster, Fritjof Capra, Heather Goodall, Val Plumwood, Aldo Leopold, local newspapers, scientific papers, explorers' and settlers' journals, tourist brochures, council minutes, and natural histories. Main synthesises this material beautifully—sometimes brilliantly. Occasionally, his movement between sources of such widely differing weights and natures is a little hasty and bewildering (see pp 4–7). It is a small, and perhaps inevitable, price to pay now and then for the joy of such intellectual eclecticism in such a good cause.
But this book compels us because it works ground its author knows and loves so well. He grounds his analysis in local particularities with which he is intimate. He demonstrates an impressive command of the ecology of the slopes, and he takes the trouble to name his plants and animals and places in scientific terms, as well as the common (English) names of the settlers, and in the lore and language of the Wiradjuri. The work is ecologically, geographically literate, then, and culturally astute and inclusive. But over and above that, the work is expressive of Main's affection for and attachment to this place and its lifeforms. This is a quality of all the whole text, really, even where it is not trying to be personal; but it is a striking element of his descriptive and personal passages. For the book splices its scholarly, multidisciplinary considerations with fragments of a kind of landscape memoir—memories of his Cootamundra childhood and nature writing riffs upon his fieldwork for the book.
In marrying personal narrative with more traditional scholarship—the study of texts, the critical reading of various texts, the analysis of conversation and interview, the observation of country itself—Main follows the course advocated (and pursued) by ecocritics such as Scott Slovic, John Elder, Jonathan Bate and others; and of environmentally oriented historians like Tom Griffiths, Mark McKenna and George Seddon. Main pulls off this mixed-medium art form as well as any of them and offers us a book as wise and weighty and readable.
The originality and the value of George Main's book lie in its blending of personally inflected telling with disinterested scholarship; of intimacy and detachment; of passion and dispassion. This is both a piece of nature writing and a work of place-based scholarship.
In addition to its fragments of memoir, Main also includes reports interviews he conducted with some well-chosen residents of the southwest slopes. Main describes very nicely, for instance, his treading the country with local farmer Owen Whitaker (in the epilogue) and Kevin Gilbert and some of his family members, and he deftly employs quotes garnered in those, and other encounters, to enliven and bolster his narrative. These passages dramatise, voice and enact the arguments Main makes for coming into shared cultural and spiritual knowing of country.
And I was particularly pleased to find what good use George Main made of the life and writings of the very important and much overlooked Mary Gilmore, that ecologically precocious habitué of the slopes.
George Main's southwest slopes ring with many voices.
Heartland is an original, courageous and accomplished work of environmentally oriented cultural history. It belongs beside Peter Read's Belonging, Mark McKenna's Looking for Blackfellas' Point and George Seddon's Searching for the Snowy. It contributes in important ways to the greening of the humanities. It will deepen our understanding of how the Enlightenment cast a long shadow over Australian landscapes, and rendered many of them disorderly to the point of collapse. Yet it offers hope that—through the model of its author's own attachment to country, through the persistence of indigenous wisdom about land and time, and through the art, activism and husbandry of landusers willing to listen to the land and its old custodians—that some of the wounds in some of the places, such as the southwestern slopes of New South Wales, might still be healed. This book deserves a wider readership than scholars in the many fields it embraces. I hope it reaches the many readers I know are out there longing for good and true, if frank and doleful, tales about places and their people. I hope it wins prizes.
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