Notes from the Field (iv)

I headed to WA again in late November for conferences & research, and took my boyfriend with me so I wouldn’t have to drive & bushwalk on my own. We stayed in Fremantle and I left him to his own devices while I went to the Ecological Society of Australia conference to listen to a symposium on Indigenous Biocultural Knowledge. There were plenty of interesting presentations, such as the investigation of dieback in culturally significant Melaleucas in the Laynhapuy Indigenous Protected Area in northern Australia. The results of Western scientific methods of investigating dieback corresponded with the information derived from interviews with senior traditional owners ie both methods indicated that 70% of the problems were caused by salinity and erosion from pigs and buffalo. Another team monitored bilby populations by drawing on Indigenous ecological knowledge on where bilbies were distributed an how they liked to live, and combined this with their data on population levels. I was dismayed to see that these bilbies had once lived in the eastern states too but now their last stronghold is in Indigenous land that covers the deserts of WA and the NT. Their populations had also shrunk in quite a small space of time.

Some of the presentations also described different models of working with scientists. Some maintained their autonomy and slowly built up relationships with stakeholders, others are employed via the federal government, but worryingly funding for this is not secure. The Country Needs People campaign is raising awareness about this – you can head to their page to read about the work rangers do and sign a petition to support them. Speakers also stressed the importance of collaboration, rather than appropriating information, or coming in and doing a project and leaving again, rather than forming continuing relationships.

As a literary scholar at a conference for scientists, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to understand anything, but the presentations were all clear and straightforward.

Then we headed down to the south west, stopping on the way at Lake Clifton, which houses thrombolites (our ancestors!). Annamaria Weldon writes about this lake in The Lake’s Apprentice and the area was beautiful – the light silvered, the lake choppy and foamy with wind. The b/f, whose first degree is in ecology, looked around for bugs while I took photos.

We headed on to Margaret River, through which I’d travelled when researching A Curious Intimacy, but never stayed at. We were a little way out of town in a lovely house among the eucalypts. Nearby was an abandoned vineyard through which wallabies hopped.

I needed to get to know the area, so I’d arranged a tour with Sean Blocksidge, who was informative, funny and very personable. I couldn’t get over how blue the sea and sky were. A few wildflowers were still out; it had been an incredible season because there’d been quite a bit of rain, but generally the rainfall is decreasing. The wineries also use a lot of water so it’s uncertain what will happen to them as climate change affects the area. Sean took us canoeing on the Margaret River, which was still and tranquil, and showed us a part of the Three Capes Track. I also just about turned inside out when I saw the Nuytsia floribunda was in flower - botanists in England were desperate for this plant but they could never get it to grow, because they didn't realise it was a parasite. I hadn't seen it on previous trips because it only flowers at Christmas (and is known as the Christmas tree, although the Noongar names for it are moojar, moojerool, munjah and mutyal).

We did another tour with Josh Koomal Whiteland which was fantastic. Josh is a Wadandi man, and he's now based in Dunsborough. With a stick he drew a map in the dirt of the different groups which lived in the south west, and explained about the six seasons, and how eating different plants and animals is contingent on their breeding or flowering times. I wished I could have learnt more about this, as it made my brain explode, I but figured he needed a tour that interests a wide range of people (it also included a look around Ngigli Cave where he played his didge, which was wonderful). Josh had a great sense of humour and a gentle disposition. A snake lived near the drain, so he got out his stick in case he needed to move it on. ‘It’s their place, too,’ he explained.

Another highlight of the trip was having a cuppa with Bernice Barry, who has published a very detailed and extensively-researched biography on Georgiana Molloy, The Mind That Shines. There were plenty of parallels between her own life and Georgiana’s, and after researching Rosa and Maud Praed for so long, I wondered if, as researchers, we’re drawn to those whom we have synchronicities because we understand their motivations and actions. At any rate, that sense of connection is important when you’re working on a project that takes a long time, otherwise you’d get bored and walk away.

We were heading to Augusta the next day to have a look around, and Bernice suggested we check out the granite rock where Georgiana sometimes collected (and would have had to get there by boat). She also recommended Castle Rock, to which Georgiana dreamed of moving, and when we got there I could see why – the water was exquisite. I was bitterly disappointed that I hadn’t packed my swimmers, but the b/f said we could come back – I hope so!

Thence it was back to Fremantle for the bi-annual InASA conference, the theme of which was ‘Encountering Australia’. I presented my research on ecotones and caught up with some fab folk who I hadn’t seen for a while, and listened to a splendid keynote by Kim Scott on the importance of listening to and growing Noongar language.

Before we caught the plane back, we ducked into the art gallery to see the ‘Unknown Land’ exhibition, about Europeans’ first views of Western Australia. I’d seen a few of these in books, but I hadn’t known that Louisa Clifton, who came to Australia as part of the ill-fated Australind settlement in the 1840s, was also an artist. Her lithograph of Koombana Bay was intricate, its muted, melancholy blues very unlike the bright seas we'd seen, although that could just be my interpretation as I know she wasn’thappy about having to leave England. Women didn’t get much of a say in those days.

I was a bit sad to fly back east – I loved Freo and the south west is a marvelous and overlooked part of Australia – but after a month of living out of a suitcase I was also desperate to wake up in my own bed, tend to my beleaguered plants, and get a coffee from the café on the corner.



Notes from the Field (iii)

The last few months of this year were unbelievably hectic, being filled with conferences and travel. Despite the exhaustion occasioned by running around the country, I met plenty of great people and listened to some wonderful papers.

At the beginning of November I flew to Sydney to listen to and present at the Australian Women’s Writing Symposium, which I wrote about here. I returned to Brisbane to do my marking, then came back to Sydney to speak at Quantum Words, a science writing festival organised by the NSW Writers Centre – a post about this is in the pipeline.

I’d booked a week of annual leave to try to finish my Praed book at my brother’s place in the Blue Mountains, but as it was the first time I’d stopped properly for a while, I got sick. I also ended up having to finish my marking and write conference papers, so that was a bit of a disaster.

Passed this fellow when out for fresh air & caffeine.

Passed this fellow when out for fresh air & caffeine.

Then it was back to Sydney for the ASLEC-ANZ environmental humanities conference, where I presented on two ecobiographies, Dick Roughsey’s Moon and Rainbow and Margaret Somerville’s Body/Landscape Journals. There were wonderful keynotes at this conference, including Alice Te Punga Somerville, Elspeth Probyn and the wonderful artist John Woolsley, pictured here with his taped-together notes. Alice stressed the importance of included Indigenous scholars in one's work. 'Who's in your ecology?' she asked. 'And does it include Indigenous academics?' It's a point worth remembering & acting upon.


Alas I could only spend a day at this conference, as the next day I headed down to Wollongong for the Colonial Formations conference, which was just fantastic. I wish it hadn’t been on at the same time and that I could have stayed there for longer. In a keynote, Jane Lydon discussed how anti-slavery contexts were applied to Australia, for example the second fleet to Australia was contracted by slave owners, and the 1830s saw the height of anti-slavery discussions but it was also when colonial violence was endemic in the south west. She referred to the limits of empathy, in that we might feel but not act and a representation of suffering might obscure a slave's subjectivity. Coldness and compassion are two sides of a coin, which I thought was an interesting idea. There was also the secrecy of massacres - the frontier violence of Myall Creek was obscured for decades. Even Rosa Praed, writing about the Hornet Bank massacre decades afterwards, distorted her narrative.

Then there was an absolutely brilliant panel on collectors. Deidre Coleman of The University of Melbourne spoke about Henry Smeathman (1742-1786) an entomologist about whom she is writing a biography. In 1781 he wrote an essay 'Some account of the termites, which are found in hot Countries', and Deidre looked at how he used the termitary and the way in which termites colonised as a metaphor for human colonisation. She also described how insects helped him to communicate with a range of classes, including wealthy collectors and the people of Sierra Leone, where he collected. He sent natives to collect for him but their curiosity and bartering was overwhelming and drove him nuts. Ann Coote of UNE then spoke about Indigenous guides and collectors in a very clear and well laid-out presentation on why Indigenous people agreed to collect for Europeans. Reasons included obtaining useful goods and information, personal prestige, communal stability and the protection of Country by controlling the movements of collectors. Jude Philp, senior curator at The University of Sydney, then talked about collectors in Papua New Guinea in the 19th Century, and how some of these made their way into Aberdeen University so that people in Scotland could know something of Papua New Guinea. And Simon Ville, a professor of economics and business history at Wollongong, ended the session with a discussion of how the commerce of collecting - how prices were negotiated, for example, or the reputation signalling of naming.

View from train window.

View from train window.

It also happened to be the last day at the university for my good friend and former poetry teacher, Alan Wearne. At lunch we had a coffee and Alan printed out his latest poem for me. Then I caught the train back to Sydney, a trip which is simultaneously too long and invested with my ambivalent memories of Wollongong, but also very pretty.


Review of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms



Anita Heiss’s latest novel opens with a man running from a prison: the Japanese internment camp of Cowra in 1944. Hiroshi finds safety with an Aboriginal family, who hide and care for him. Gradually, a romance develops between Hiroshi and Mary Williams, the young Aboriginal woman who takes him food.

Heiss writes what she calls ‘choc-lit’ – or chick lit with an Aboriginal focus – but you would foolish to dismiss this as fluff. Her work, whether fiction or non-fiction, is always firmly focused on educating audiences about Aboriginal culture and the ongoing effects of colonialism and racism. She’s a smart woman: popular fiction is one of the most widely read genres, and by inserting her themes into her popular novels she aims to inform a wide range of readers.

This is a difficult road to take, as readers of this genre pick up books expecting to be entertained. If there’s a whiff of anything otherwise, they don’t care for it. I don’t think that will be a problem for readers of Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, for in this work Heiss blends popular fiction and politics beautifully. 

There are two main techniques she uses to achieve this. The first is Hiroshi’s point of view. By using a character who knows nothing of Aboriginal culture, who is initially ‘suspicious as to why these dark people are helping him and where they actually come from’ but who grows to love them deeply, Heiss articulates how race is a construct and that hunger, kindness, fear, homesickness and desire are qualities that belong to us all.

The second technique is the use of metaphor, specifically that of imprisonment. The prison from which Hiroshi escapes represents not only the physical camp for internees, but also the camps on which Aboriginal people were forced to live – the mission stations and reserves – when their land was taken from them. As Banjo, Mary’s father, says, ‘We are treated like prisoners too, at Erambie. We shouldn’t be on rations. We should all be paid the same for the same work and have enough money to buy food for our families – not just flour, tea and sugar rations and whatever we can hunt or manage to grow. It’s not fair for anyone. The prisoners of war are just like us’.

Heiss also addresses contemporary concerns, such as negative representations of Aboriginal people in the media. Merv, a singer and football player, makes a name for himself in Sydney and is written up in the paper. Mary, who reads the article about him out to the family, comments ‘At least this is a positive article about Aboriginal people. You’re always saying what they write about us is bad, Mum.’ And in Mary’s family itself there is much to be proud of. The Williams take in a stranger and scrimp to find food for him, as many Aboriginal people did for Europeans they were shipwrecked on Australia’s coasts. They take an interest in Hiroshi and his culture, as Noongars did in whalers and the first colonists when they arrived in south west Western Australia (Kim Scott writes about this beautifully in That Deadman Dance). At the same time they aren’t saints, for no one is. Through Kevin, who is jealous and has a temper, Heiss shows that every family has its arguments, and that different viewpoints need to be aired before one can arrive at a resolution. 

At the heart of the novel is an important emotion: empathy. Romance is definitely important too, not least because it drives the plot, but without empathy, romance can’t happen. Empathy often takes some work – intellectual as well as emotional. As Banjo exhorts his brother Kevin, ‘What if our brother escaped from a POW camp like this bloke? Wouldn’t you want someone to look after him and treat him like a human being?’ And this is what the novel does, as all good literature should do: it takes us out of our everyday lives and into a new world, where we become invested in and learn to care for its people. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who argues for the importance of including emotion in philosophy, writes in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (1995), novels invite us to ‘concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own’ (xvi). And this in turn is a precondition for respect for human dignity (xvi).

So if you’re reading this book by the beach (and I hope you are!), you’ll not only enjoy the plot and characters (perhaps woven with the smell of salt and sunscreen and the sounds of kids yelling), but you’ll also quietly exercise your heart as well.


This is my seventh review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


Notes from the Field (ii)

This year has turned out to be such a rollercoaster that the best I could do was hold onto my hair, rather than pen any blog posts about my research. However, it’s the post-Christmas lull and, in between sleeping off an exhausting year and swimming off the excesses of the festive season, I’m catching up on my posts.

In July I headed to Canberra to present on my research at the annual Association for the Study of Australian Literature association. This was a really good conference hosted by the ADFA branch of UNSW, and fittingly the theme was ‘Capital-Empire-Print-Dissent’. Also fittingly, the first speaker (for the Barry Andrews Lecture at the National Library) was Indigenous author Melissa Lucashenko, the first keynote was American Indian scholar Chadwick Allen from the University of Washington, and the first panel consisted of three excellent Indigenous scholars: Alice te Punga Somerville, Jeanine Leane and Evelyn Araluen Corr. I also went to a masterclass held by Chadwick on Allison Hedge Coke's Blood Run, about the Blood Run earthworks site and Indigenous mathematics, which totally knocked my socks off. I also ducked off to the National Gallery of Australia to look at Fiona Hall's latest exhibition. I've always loved her work because she plays around with plants.

National Gallery of Australia.

National Gallery of Australia.

When I returned to Brisbane I had to move house, which was stressful and exhausting, then I turned around and flew to Perth for some more research in the archives and also for a tour of the wheatbelt hosted by the literary journal Westerly. I was keen to expand my knowledge of things literary in WA in general, but what really compelled me to sign up was that our guide was Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, who has been doing some excellent ecocritical work.

The tour was fabulous. We began at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre and were given a guided tour of the house and gardens by an Irish woman who had lived there after the Prichards sold it. She became interested in Prichard when random people such as literary devotees or Russians (Prichard was a committed Communist) turned up on her doorstep. Her talk was entertaining and interesting and I liked listening to the sway of her voice.

Labelled shelf in Katharine Susannah Prichard's writing shack.

Labelled shelf in Katharine Susannah Prichard's writing shack.

We were then bussed off to York, where we had morning tea in the Flour Mill Cafe. The orange soil of this area was striking against the blue sky. In fact all of teh sky in WA is incredible.

Flour Mill Cafe, York.

Flour Mill Cafe, York.

Thence we went up to Mt Brown lookout, which had excellent views. On the way I chatted to UWA publisher Terri-Ann White about books on water (or the increasing lack thereof) and firestick farming in WA. After a potter around the York Wildflower Garden and some lunch, we headed to St Saviour’s Church at Katrine, where poet John Kinsella and his partner Tracy Ryan read out some of their work over a cuppa.

York Wildflower Garden

York Wildflower Garden

I also did a guided walk with volunteers at the Kings Park Botanical Gardens. These free tours are fantastic – the guides are extremely knowledgeable and tell really good stories about the plants in the park. For someone who finds reading science papers quite difficult, it’s a great way to learn about botany.

Kings Park.

Kings Park.

Back in Brisbane I led a couple of classes in poetics for a tutor who was away, and also began tutoring fora Women Writers course. I gave lectures on Keri Hulme’s The Bone People for this course, and also The Timeless Land for the Australian literature course. Teaching was pretty time consuming, although my students were the best I’ve ever taught – they were intelligent, motivated and politically savvy – and gave me much hope for our future, which we desperately need in these times of Brexit, Trump and the stale, unimaginative and faint-hearted politicians who currently lead Australia, although that verb might be generous.

I also helped the graduate students put together their Work in Progress conference, the theme of which was 'On the Edge', and organised an evening of creative writing alongside this, which went really well. And then it was time to head to Sydney, Wollongong and Fremantle for conferences and research, but more of this in another post.