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date: 23 August 2017

The Environment in Australian Literature

Summary and Keywords

While the relationship between humans and environment in Australia stretches back some 50,000 years, the colonization of the continent by Europeans in the late 18th century dramatically altered Australia’s ecology. Creative literature has responded variously to the encounter that colonization precipitated. In particular, modulations appear through successive epistemological and ideological paradigms: Enlightenment rationality, romantic sensibility, nationalist celebration, and ecological alarm. While early conservationist impulses are visible in the colonial period, in the middle of the 20th century, the birth of the modern ecological consciousness understands that not only particular species or habitats are at risk, but the entirety of nature seems to suddenly face a historically unprecedented vulnerability. In this sense, it is methodologically useful to separate Australian environmental texts between those that are “pre-ecological” and those that are “post-ecological.”

Keywords: ecology, environment, colonialism, Enlightenment, romanticism, nation, indigeneity, bioregion

Australia in the Eye of the Enlightenment

The relationship between literature and the environment in Australia is intimately bound to the colonization of the Australian continent by Great Britain in the late 18th century. The focus on literature makes the subject a necessarily smaller one than the relationship between human and environment in Australia, which extends back through fifty millennia. The onset of European settlement in the comparatively recent past brought the written word into collision with the oral universe of Indigenous Australia. It also brought the European Enlightenment, and from the outset “Australia” (as it would come to be known) was apprehended as an object of scientific enquiry. The first detailed written descriptions of the Australian natural environment were thus in the form of scientific observations, including those of the botanist Joseph Banks (1743–1820) who sailed on the Endeavour voyage (sponsored by the Royal Society) that “discovered” the eastern coast of the continent, making landfall on April 29, 1770. The profusion of new botanical forms led Banks to name the harbor in which the Endeavour landed Botany Bay, and for a while this name became a metonym for the continent itself. The Enlightenment remained the guiding paradigm when the First Fleet arrived in 1788 and is lucidly preserved in the published journals of, for instance, Watkin Tench (1758–1833).1

The influence of the Enlightenment was challenged at the turn of the 19th century by the eruption of romanticism in Europe. Understood as a reaction to Enlightenment rationality and its material correlate—the Industrial Revolution—romanticism invested the natural world with a metaphysical mandate. In the wake of romanticism, writers (particularly poets) were seen to draw their potency from their closeness to nature. The early decades of the 19th century show the intermingling of Enlightenment and romantic thinking in Australia. First Fruits of Australian Poetry (1819) by Barron Field (1786–1846) contains his famous poem “The Kangaroo.” In this poem, Field’s quizzical note of satire is directed as much against the inadequacies of reason as it is against the curious creature addressed by the poem:

  • For howsoe’er anomalous,
  • Thou yet art not incongruous,
  • Repugnant or preposterous.
  • Thou can’st not be amended: no;
  • Be as thou art; thou best art so.2

Despite its mannerism, the poem celebrates the animal’s capacity to frustrate scientific categorization. In this early moment in Australian writing, where the hinge between the Enlightenment and romanticism is still visible, the kangaroo becomes a symbol for the emergent settler-colonial polity of New South Wales. In other words, biotic uniqueness is seen as a sign of a certain proto-national exceptionalism.

It is possible to view these early Enlightenment-era texts as “environmental literature” inasmuch as they address the natural world that this “new” continent disclosed. However, some caution is required. The word environment, used to designate the natural world and not simply one’s surroundings, is a relatively recent coinage arising from the middle of the 20th century. The appearance of environment in this sense signaled a new conception of the relationship between the human and nonhuman world. One might call this moment, the dawning of ecological consciousness. Its key feature was the seemingly sudden awareness that the human species sat within a network of natural systems whose continuance was no longer guaranteed. In the study of literature and the environment, one is forced to treat differently the works that came after the dawning of this consciousness from the works that preceded it. This points, in turn, to two main ways in which literature and the environment can be studied in the Australian context. The first is as a technique for re-reading the archive of Australian (post)colonial writing. One might now find in such texts an incipient environmentalism, the presence of a quality that if it existed today would be called “green” or “ecological.” As Tim Bonyhady puts it in his study of environmental attitudes in colonial Australia: “There were literally no ‘conservationists’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The term was coined only in the twentieth century. Yet … many of the key ideas that underpin modern environmentalism already had keen champions … by the late eighteenth century.”3 This revisionist project—rereading the colonial archive ecologically—remains a major avenue of enquiry, and scholars are still only beginning to pursue this aspect of Australian writing. The second major avenue for literature and the environment in Australia is the consideration of literary works that have emerged since the dawning of ecological consciousness in the middle of the 20th century. These works constitute environmental literature in a much more particular sense than, say, the journals of Watkin Tench. Here, authors are seeing the environment according to a modern consciousness of environmental issues and within a pattern of contingent interdependence that we call “ecological.”

Pre-Ecological Environmental Texts

As the natural world of Australia was apprehended from the beginning of the colonial period through the discourse of science, the foremost environmental texts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were the works of scientists or those given scientific briefs within exploration or survey missions. The term for such work at the time was natural history, and it involved the taxonomic studies of botany, zoology, geology, and geography. The journals of early explorers such as Matthew Flinders (1774–1815), Thomas Mitchell (1792–1855), and Charles Sturt (1795–1862)—and of the scientists who accompanied them—all contain sustained descriptions of the natural world. To these we might add the work of early colonial scientists such as Ferdinand von Mueller (1825–1896) and Pawel Strzlecki (1797–1873). Charles Darwin also visited Australia in the Beagle in 1836. Natural history, however, was not solely the preserve of the professional scientist, but was pursued by enthusiastic amateurs throughout the 19th century. Although its origins lay in the Enlightenment, because romanticism was centered on the reverence of nature, natural history remained a popular mode of writing and in fact took on a new urgency as romanticism transitioned from an aesthetic theory to a demotic mode of being. Excluded from official positions by their gender, women nevertheless were among the most astute of the early writers on Australian nature. Georgiana Molloy (1805–1843), Louisa Anne Meredith (1812–1895) and Louisa Atkinson (1834–1872) all made detailed studies of the natural world that are recorded in their letters, journals, and published writings.

The question of how to discern the “environment” in works that precede ecological consciousness is an important one in the study of literature and the environment. Following the seminal work of Lawrence Buell on the American nature writer Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), contemporary eco-critics tend to insist on the presence of something more than simple description. For Buell, an environmental text was one in which “the nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.”4 The primacy of the nonhuman—as site of narrative interest, as locus of ethical quandary, or even as an intrusive opacity and felt sense of difference—are what mark out a boundary for Buell between a text in which the natural world appears as mere “backdrop” and one where the nonhuman acquires a paradoxical agency. Australian scholars have also sought to identify features that distinguish certain texts as environmental from this earlier epoch. In the case of Louisa Anne Meredith, Tim Bonyhady singles out the writer’s activism in protecting animal species from rampant hunting as a critical feature of her life and work. In his words, Meredith “articulated her environmental priorities and the limits of the expanded sense of moral concern that led her to campaign strongly to protect animals.”5 Another example is William Howitt, who had written natural histories and romantic poetry in England before migrating to Victoria during the gold rush of the 1850s. Once in Australia, he kept notebooks and published Land, Labour, and Gold (1855), which contained detailed descriptions of the Victorian bushland interspersed with quotations from Wordsworth and others.6 Judith Johnston has discerned the presence of a “green language” in Howitt’s work, taking this term from Raymond Williams’s consideration of the English rural poet John Clare (1793–1864).7

More conventionally literary forms, such as poetry in the 19th century, were under the sway of romanticism and an emerging tradition of landscape poetry. In fact, landscape has often been the rubric under which Australian literature of the environment has been studied. In the revisionist study of Australian colonial writing from an ecological point of view, a major task is the disassembling of the cultural apparatus known as landscape, which became consolidated in crucial studies such as Judith Wright’s Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965) and Brian Elliott’s The Landscape of Australian Poetry (1967). In an Australian context, landscape is wedded to an aestheticization of the natural world that is closely connected to, and ideologically implicated in, the colonial experience. In this sense, finding the singularities of the natural world requires reading against the grain of the aesthetics of the landscape tradition. Significantly, as a sense of Australian literature became formalized during the 20th century, one of the measures for whether a work was authentically Australian was the extent to which the landscape was seen in its own true terms. Elliott writes: “The best Australian poets present an awareness of their environment which is basically clear and undeceived.”8 This kind of direct and unmediated access to environment would no longer be extolled by most critics, but the idea that the veil of European romanticism was torn away at the end of the 19th century to reveal the true and authentic Australian Bush has been a remarkably durable one. Certainly one sees a version of this thesis in Judith Wright’s Preoccupations in Australian Poetry. In her consideration of the poet Charles Harpur (1813–1868), whose reputation she did much to rehabilitate, she notices a “split-consciousness” caused by the conflict between British cultural inheritance and the Australian “environment.”9 For Wright, this split runs not only through Harpur’s work but through the whole canon of Australian landscape poetry that she investigates. Wright is typical in the way she sees a newer, truer apprehension of the environment emerging in the nationalist art and letters of the 1890s, although her willingness to see this as dialectically maintained in a split-consciousness adds a productive nuance to the standard hypothesis.

Both Wright and Elliott use the word environment, a term that was already beginning to carry a significant semantic load by the time they were writing in the mid-1960s. Ideas of the environment were already prominent in the 1930s, particularly in right-wing (Fascist and Proto-Fascist) circles that associated “race” with country in elemental terms, as the Nazis did in their paeans to “Blood and Soil.” The literary modernism of the time was also inflected with these ideas, as may be seen in the cultural theory of T. S. Eliot, such as After Strange Gods (1934); and Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (1948).10 The essentializing of culture through nature was also a feature of Australian reactionary nationalism of the interwar period, most notably the radical nationalist tract The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen (1901–1965).11 But similar claims could also be seen on the left, as in Vance Palmer’s lurid call-to-arms “Battle” from The Meanjin Papers in 1942, which called upon an Australian “spirit” that was “[b]orn of the lean loins of the country itself.”12 Both Stephensen and Palmer invoked the natural world in quasi-spiritual terms to secure a living foundation for the national polity. In a nation of predominantly antique soils, it is interesting that soil became a particular object of fetishism. The nature writer and children’s author Elyne Mitchell (1913–2002), wrote in her book Speak to the Earth (1945), that the “Earth is a balance between man and the soil” and extended this thesis even further in Soil and Civilization (1946): “But really to rebuild the living soil of Australia requires a national awakening of vital awareness—an extension of consciousness so that all, city dwellers and countrymen, deeply know the land to be part of the entity, body and soul, that is each individual.”13 The tenor of Mitchell’s plea owes something, no doubt, to the existential uncertainty caused by World War II, and Mitchell’s husband was a prisoner of the Japanese at the time she wrote these books. Nevertheless, the linkage of nature (“the living soil”) to nation (“a national awakening of vital awareness”) is a persistent feature of writing from the middle decades of the 20th century.

Partially inspired by P. R. Stephensen, South Australian poet Rex Ingamells (1913–1955) wrote his own manifesto, Conditional Culture (1938), calling for there to be a “clear recognition of environmental values.”14 For Ingamells, “environmental” meant those things that pertained to Australia in its particularity—this is what Ingamells means by a “conditional” culture. The “Jindyworobak” literary movement that Ingamells founded was dedicated to discovering and promoting a nativist aesthetics. A friend of Ingamells, the Western Australian writer John K. Ewers, propounded this view in a series of lectures in 1944. For Ewers, the “real problem that faced creative writers in a new land” was “the problem of harmonizing themselves and their works with their environment.”15 So in the Jindyworobak vision, the environment was to act as a homeostatic guide to authentic Australian art. While both Wright and Brian Elliott distanced themselves from the naivety of the Jindyworobak movement, the basic idea that the worth of poetry corresponded to the exactness with which it captured environmental particularity was retained in their assessments. In this sense, the landscape tradition of Australian poetry was both reified and relativized by the Jindyworobak intervention. Wright’s analysis of Harpur offers something that remains useful to contemporary Australian eco-criticism:

Harpur’s treatment of the forests and hills of the Hawkesbury country [in poems like ‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ and ‘A Storm in the Mountains’] is blurred and generalized by distance…. Yet the chief impression that remains of it is a true picture…. [T]he landscape is massed, not detailed; but the description is, for anyone who has looked westward over the hills of the Hawkesbury country, both exact and illuminating.16

Wright introduces the criterion of place-specificity to the more generalized Jindyworobak understanding of “environment.” In eco-critical terms, there are the beginnings of a bioregionalist apprehension in Wright’s judgement, and if she is correct, then this would extend, however rudimentarily, into Harpur’s verse as well.

As well as the particularities of bioregions that occur sporadically in colonial writing, reading early Australian texts environmentally also reveals environmental continuities and changes. The process of colonization caused significant disruption and destruction to Australian environments. However, it is also important to remember that environments are themselves dynamic systems. The discipline of environmental history in Australia, beginning with the work of W. K. Hancock and continued by Geoffrey Bolton, Tom Griffiths, Libby Robin, and Andrea Gaynor, has done much to uncover the impact of colonization on the Australian environment, as well as the impact of the environment on colonization. This has been supported by work from historical geography by Griffith Taylor, J. M. Powell, and J. M. R Cameron, among others. One particular feature of the Australian environment is its susceptibility to fire. Many Australian ecosystems depend on fire, but the phenomenon of fire in the Australian environment straddles the natural and the human. More specifically, Indigenous Australians use fire, and have over many millennia. In this sense, human intervention significantly shaped the Australian biotic profile well before European colonization. But as well, the disruption of Indigenous firestick farming caused a change in the accumulation and distribution of fire fuel loads that seems to have altered the nature of bush fires in Australia. These issues remain hotly debated, but they show another way in which creative literature intersects with Australian environment. In fact, colonial literature, as the literary historian Grace Moore has recently shown, is replete with descriptions of bush fires; so much so that the bush fire chapter became an almost mandatory episode in the Australian colonial novel, with the pattern set by Henry Kingsley’s The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859).17 Harpur’s poem “The Bushfire” (1851) is another early example:

  • Or down the flickering glades
  • Ghastfully glaring, huge dry-mouldered gums
  • Stood ’mid their living kin as banked throughout
  • With eating fire, expelling arrowy jets
  • Of blue-tipped, intermitting, gaseous flame,
  • Boles, branches—all! like vivid ghosts of trees.18

Fire exists in a state of ambiguity in colonial writing. On the one hand, it is nothing other than the natural, periodic burning of a biological system in a fire-prone climate whose species not only have evolved to cope with fire but also are optimized to thrive in its recurrence. On the other hand, the sudden and seemingly utter nature of fire seems to associate in the colonial mind with the process of destruction taking place before their eyes in the name of pioneering the land. The conflation of natural fires with human destruction was aided by the fact that fire was widely used as a method of land clearing. The ambiguity of fire can be seen in Harpur’s poem, where a mixture of terror and beauty inflect the descriptions. Wright would later thematize the ambiguity of fire—as divine creation and human destruction—in the title poem to her collection The Two Fires (1955).19

Other tropes in colonial literature also seem to advert to an environmental destruction happening always in the background. Images of ring-barked forests, while not prevalent, do recur at the edges of colonial fiction and poetry. Even Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic poem “My Country” (1911 [1908]) features the image of “A stark white ring-barked forest / All tragic to the moon.”20 Perhaps more striking is the recurrence of the death (or maiming) of characters by falling tree limbs, most famously in Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894) and Barbara Baynton’s “Squeaker’s Mate” (1902).21 And another prominent trope, the “lost child” (a child who has wandered into the bush and disappeared), as well as referencing a real hazard, seems to substitute a landscape that is disappearing for a landscape in which the innocent are lost. It is possible to understand these gestures as the return of the ecological repressed. The events certainly have an uncanny quality in the postcolonial sense set out by Ken Gelder and Jane A. Jacobs in Uncanny Australia (1998).22 Likewise, in the strain of melancholy that was a notable feature of the poetry of Harpur, Henry Kendall (1839–1882), and Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833–1870) and Marcus Clarke’s novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1870–1872), there appears a persistent unease for which the natural world seems to become the sign.23 The “funereal” stillness of the Australian mountain forest that Clarke notes in his famous preface to Gordon’s poems becomes a gothic marker of subdued malevolence. At the least it is indicative of a distinct estrangement from the environment, even as it precipitates a kind of negative intimacy or oppressive, intrusive absence.24 Again, it is a little difficult for the ecologically minded literary historian to retrieve an environmental text from such an overdetermined landscape, but as Wright makes clear in her discussion of Harpur, bioregional specificity will often find a way of making its presence felt.

The pivotal era in Australian nationalism was the turn of the 20th century, and the decades either side of Federation on January 1, 1901, saw a concerted enlistment of the Australian environment to the cause of national mythology. It is here that the bush is formalized as a mythic topos. The bush was not an evacuated, sublime nature, of the kind valorized by the romantics, but it does not quite reduce either to a wholly pastoral landscape. In Australia, the bush is both the natural world and the world of settler agriculture. This is a telling ambiguity because, with colonization, the former was continually making way for the latter. To celebrate the bush, then, was often to obfuscate the extent to which agriculture was directly destructive of the natural environment. In the writers associated with the Sydney Bulletin—A. B. Paterson (1864–1941), Henry Lawson (1867–1922), Barbara Baynton (1857–1929), Joseph Furphy (1843–1912), Miles Franklin (1879–1954), “Steele Rudd” (1868–1935)—the bush became a mythic ground in which a nation was coming into being. Once more, work is required to disaggregate this bush into something like an environment in ecological terms. A famous example of a poem that celebrates the Bush, Paterson’s “The Man from Snowy River” (1890),25 locates the remnants of a sublime, romantic nature in the poem’s setting:

  • And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
  • Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
  • Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze….

However, the natural world in this poem—“mountain ash and kurrajong,” “stringy barks and saplings,” “wombat holes”—is mediated through the anthropomorphic metaphor of “the man” and his “pony.” In this way, a certain cult of wilderness is retained, but only to be put into the service of a vitalistic nationalism. In On Our Selection (1899), another Bulletin writer, “Steele Rudd” (the pen name of Arthur Hoey Davis), provides the narrative of a settler family (the “Rudds”) in the Darling Downs in the 1870s.26 The stories relate in a comic register the basic destruction of Australian ecosystems to make way for the small-scale mixed farms that were being promoted by each of the Australian colonies from the 1850s onward. This “selection literature” also encompasses stories like Lawson’s “The Drover’s Wife” (1892) and Baynton’s “Squeaker’s Mate” (1902) and shows the life of small-holding settlers trying to eke a precarious living from a seemingly hostile land.27 Read ecologically these stories depict the personalized and quite intimate quality of the violent struggle that took place to secure the agricultural colonization of the Australian continent. These “battlers” heroicized in the Bulletin school, are in fact waging a war against the natural world, which they conceive as being against them. So, in this way, Australian ecosystems are infused with an antipathy and become the cipher of class inequality, social restriction, the convict system, provincial inferiority—all condensed into a single battle against an uncaring Bush. This struggle against the land persists as a kind of ur-narrative through Australian literature, encompassing works like Katharine Susannah Prichard’s first novel, The Pioneers (1915); Patrick White’s modernist epic The Tree of Man (1955); and A. B. Facey’s bestselling autobiography, A Fortunate Life (1981).28

Post-Ecological Environmental Texts

The veneration of the bush, while still a popular trope in Australian life, ceased to carry the sole burden of national substantiation after World War I. With that war, a new and powerful mythology grew around the Australian soldier that did not so much displace bush nationalism as internalize it in the sacrificial figure of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). But, as Miles Franklin (1879–1954) stated in a lecture at the University of Western Australia in 1950: “With the bushmen’s reign has gone a gathering tradition and an idiom from coast to coast.”29 The relative decline of the bush “idiom” signals a change in the relationship of Australian culture to the natural environment. In the 1930s, the anthropology of Aboriginal Australia was also entering both critical discussion and popular consciousness. Likewise, the sense of an imperiled environment was already emerging strongly in the Jindyworobak school. Capricornia (1938), by Xavier Herbert (1901–1984), though not exactly an environmental novel, contains an acute sense of European-initiated environmental and cultural destruction.30 The arrival of European settlement in the Northern Territory is figured as “The Coming of the Dingoes,” a bio-event that precipitates a cascade of extinctions. The novel’s intimacy with the monsoonal climatic pattern of northern Australia, and the patterns of life this determines, mark it out with a bioregional specificity that makes it ecologically modern despite other narrative features that belong more properly to the Victorian novel. The celebration of tropical Australia in Capricornia is circumscribed, however, by a more tragic sense of ecological destruction. Phrasing it slightly differently, Brian Kiernan summed up the novel’s pessimistic stance as follows: “The energizing principle of this world is its destructiveness and at the end we are left with the sense only of this world continuing in its tragi-comic way to further unbalance the relationships between man and man, man and Nature.”31 This would be developed on an even grander scale in Herbert’s epic novel Poor Fellow, My Country (1975).32 Eleanor Dark’s (1901–1985) historical novel The Timeless Land (1941), the first in a trilogy, also deals with the arrival of Europeans in Australia and, like Herbert’s Capricornia, Dark’s narrative contains a heightened sense of the irrevocability of loss.33 While directed at the cultural destructiveness of colonialism to Indigenous people, each of these novels evinces an awareness of this cultural loss within a broader consciousness of environmental cataclysm.

The key writer in the emergence of the new environmental consciousness into Australian national letters was Judith Wright (1915–2000). Wright and her husband, Jack McKinney (1891–1966), were early contributors to the Meanjin Papers, a journal that was founded in Brisbane in 1940, and Meanjin published Wright’s first volume of poetry, The Moving Image (1946).34 Written during the war years, it introduced a consciousness of ecological destruction (and Indigenous dispossession) that was far more acute, intimate, and shocking than anything that had been written before. Lines in the poems fall with quiet devastation. “Soldier’s Farm” begins: “This ploughland vapoured with the dust of dreams.”35 On the one hand, they are lyrics of interior suffering and loss, but on the other, they gesture continually from human desolation to ecological despoliation, so that it becomes difficult to say which is causing the other, or whether, in a modernist variant of the pathetic fallacy, these two miseries move in sympathy. “Country Town” begins:

  • This is no longer the landscape that they knew,
  • the sad green enemy country of their exile

And then continues:

  • This is a landscape that the town creeps over;
  • a landscape safe with bitumen and banks. 36

“Country Town,” like many of Wright’s poems (“Bullocky,” “South of My Days”), relates a double loss and is narrated by a figure who feels doubly disinherited. In the first instance, what is lost is the colorful life of the pioneering generation, with its epic grandeur, harrowing privation, and world-making bravado. But embittering this is the realization not only that “they” (the “pioneers”) are gone, but also that their vaunted deeds consisted of such rampant destruction of older worlds (natural, Indigenous). The bush is no longer a powerful foe to be opposed and conquered but a vanquished wasteland of eroded gullies and drifting dust. And people hide from the shame of this inside the shiny walls of an aseptic, amnesiac modernity. This is the grim critique that emerges in The Moving Image.

One can see a similar sensibility in the poetry of Dorothy Hewett (1923–2002) as early as the poem “Testament,” written in 1945.37 Both Wright, in the wealthy pastoral stations of New England, and Hewett, in the recently opened up wheat belt of Western Australia, saw in the degraded landscapes of their upbringing evidence of a metaphysical disturbance (see Figure 1).

The Environment in Australian LiteratureClick to view larger

Figure 1. The beginning and the end of Western Australian wheat belt at Ghooli, 350 km east of Perth.

Photograph by author.

But environmental historians like Bonyhady and Griffiths have noticed that the drought conditions captured in Wright’s poems from The Moving Image, and seen too in contemporaneous paintings by Russell Drysdale, record a significant El Niño event that took place in the 1940s.38 This kind of reading cuts across the bleak metaphysics and palpable colonial guilt of Wright’s poems. In Hewett, the dust that pervades Wright’s poems as an insidious apocalyptic sign is replaced with the salt that is affecting more and more of her father’s paddocks. Again, eco-critics can use the appearance of salt as a theme in Hewett’s poetry to discern the emergence of secondary soil salinization as an environmental issue in Australian consciousness. Her biographical poem “Testament” (1945) does not mention salt once, but in “Legend of the Green Country” (1965), which in many ways updates and expands the earlier poem, the words salt or salty recur ten times.39

In the late 1940s and through the 1950s, a movement toward a second and much more acute sense of the environment than the one that had emerged in the 1930s appeared. If the first environmental consciousness came about in an atmosphere conditioned by the devastating economic collapse of the 1930s, where the natural equilibrium of the market was found utterly wanting, the second iteration of environmental consciousness was prompted by the dawning of the nuclear age. It is not entirely coincidental that the decisive text in modern environmentalism, Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring (1962), was published in the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis.40 Neville Shute’s On the Beach (1957), set in Melbourne in the aftermath of an atomic war, captures the atmosphere of existential threat created by the nuclear epoch, particularly with the emergence of thermonuclear bombs in 1952.41 The Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal (then known as Kath Walker) used the emergence of nuclear weapons to adroitly satirize the supposed superiority of Western technology in her poem “No More Boomerang” (1966).42 But again it was Wright who led Australian letters to this much sharper awareness of just how fragile ecosystems could be. Arguably Wright developed the first Australian ecopoetics, at least in the written language of settlement. Robert Zeller locates a decisive shift in Wright’s poetry in the collection The Two Fires (1955).43 This volume moves away from a more conventional romantic view of the natural world in her earlier work, and toward a post-romantic ecological view. In “Gum Trees Stripping,” from this collection, Zeller notices that there is a consciousness of the human as an animal cut off from nature by language. The obstruction caused by the signifier to the natural order is captured plainly in the declaration: “Words are not meanings for a tree” (21). This biocentric poetics emerges in other poems from The Two Fires, notably “At Cooloolah,” which begins:

  • The blue crane fishing in Cooloolah’s twilight
  • Has fished there longer than our centuries.
  • He is the certain heir of lake and evening,

And continues:

  • But I’m a stranger, come of a conquering people.44

Another early environmentally conscious writer was Peter Cowan (1914–2002). Cowan’s novel Summer (1964) is set in the wheat belt of Western Australia. At the climax of the novel, a section of remnant bushland is bulldozed to make way for more farming land. The event is narrated from the point of view of a goanna in the path of this machine: “The crash of metal destroyed time and meaning. The ground moved, the soil quivering and breaking…. Then the log rolled, the soil climbed, and the eyes of the reptile saw without interpretation the tops of the broken bushes.”45 Also from the Western Australian wheat belt and indicative of a shift in Australian letters toward an ecological vision was Barbara York Main. Main’s two books Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) and Twice Trodden Ground (1971), as well as stories she wrote for the journal Westerly in the 1970s, combine natural history with literary fiction and are rare Australian instances of the belletristic nature writing that is such a feature of North American letters (Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, E. O. Wilson).46

With the advent of the era of mass environmental protest in the 1970s, the environmentalist became a literary figure in Australian literature and a number of novels began to thematize particular environmental struggles. Judith Wright became more and more committed to environmental activism, and her book The Coral Battleground (1977) recounts the history of the protest movement that sought to prevent drilling, dredging, and sand-mining in the Great Barrier Reef.47 The protests surrounding the inundation of Lake Pedder in Tasmania in the early 1970s can be seen in a novel like James McQueen’s Hook’s Mountain (1982), and Tasmanian environmentalism also features in works such as Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Café (1990), Richard Flanagan’s The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997), and Julia Leigh’s The Hunter (1999).48 Leigh’s novel, in particular, is a taut meditation on the finality of extinction and exhibits a post-romantic ecological awareness that draws on the work of the American writer Barry Lopez. Environmental protest also appears prominently in the climax to Thea Astley’s It’s Raining in Mango (1987), which fictionalizes the blockade of a road through the Daintree Rainforest in northern Queensland in the early 1980s.49 Tim Winton’s Shallows (1984) deals with the protests leading to the eventual closure of shore whaling in “Angelus” (Albany) in the late 1970s.50 Environmentalism in the 1980s was also the basis for Ben Elton’s satirical novel Stark (1989), which follows the fortunes of a ragtag environmental group in Fremantle who are battling a consortium of big business planning to colonize the moon because the earth had reached a catastrophic ecological tipping point.51

The theme of protest is also present in a much more recent book, the Indigenous author Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006).52 In this novel, a Gulf community is trying to prevent the mining of its ancestral land. Alex Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country (2002), though written in a rather different register, is also built around the dramatic confrontation of mining interests and Aboriginal title.53 Wright’s next novel, The Swan Book (2013), is set a century in the future in the wake of a world-ending series of “Climate Wars.”54 The relationship between Indigenous land rights and environmentalism is a complex one. Often, there is a close coincidence in the protection of the environment and the protection of Indigenous country, but at times there is a tension. Moreover, the conflation of Indigenous culture with the natural world is vexing. Although politically advantageous in some cases, it has had the effect of turning Aboriginal people into a “protected species” and nullifying their capacity to change, adapt, and meet challenges. One Indigenous group in Miller’s Journey to the Stone Country, for instance, is the proponent of a dam that will flood ancestral country. In this respect, it is worth noting that another Indigenous author, Kim Scott, in his novel That Deadman Dance (2010), celebrates the Aborigines who participated in the shore-based whaling enterprises in the years of early contact on Western Australia’s south coast.55 There is an intriguing contrast here between Winton’s novel Shallows, and Scott’s novel, as they both deal with shore whaling in Albany’s King George Sound, albeit with events roughly 150 years apart. The activity of whaling operates in completely different registers in each of the novels.

The turn of the millennium has seen the emergence of “ecopoetics” as an organizing concept for Australian authors, particularly poets, whose work addresses the natural world and sustains a journal like Plumwood Mountain, named after the pioneering Australian eco-feminist philosopher Val Plumwood. In a rather different and iconoclastic spirit, Australian ecopoetics is also challenged by the work of the Western Australian poet John Kinsella. Kinsella’s “counter-pastoral” poems, stories, and essays about the Western Australian wheat belt radically oppose the neo-romantic tendency he sees in other forms of ecopoetics, which, for Kinsella, deplete the natural world of its otherness. Within the academy, eco-criticism and the environmental humanities more generally have matured and become significant sites of scholarship and research particularly through organizations such as ASLEC-ANZ (Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture, Australia and New Zealand) which is affiliated with ISLE (International Society of Literature and the Environment). ASLEC-ANZ publishes the journal AJE (Australian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology), and scholars associated with this group include Tom Bristow, Ruth Blair, CA Cranston, Rod Giblett, Rebecca Giggs, Kate Rigby, Libby Robin, Deborah Bird Rose, and John Ryan. Of these, Bird Rose is of particular interest for the way that she, as an anthropologist, has attempted to develop a sense of Indigenous ecology, both in terms of traditional land usage and as an evolving practice and mentality in contemporary Indigenous communities of Northern Australia. Bird Rose’s work offers a way of coming to terms with the careful cultural translations required to speak about, for example, an Indigeneous ecopoetics. In turn, it might allow the reconsideration of a work such as Bill Neidjie’s Story about Feeling (1989) as an eco-text, without falling into the trap of cultural reappropriation.56

Discussion of the Literature

The study of literature and the environment in Australia is still emerging. The appearance of the journals Plumwood Mountain and the Australian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology provides dedicated outlets for Australian eco-criticism. Mention should be made of CA Cranston and Robert Zeller’s pioneering anthology The Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and their Writers (2007), which adopted a bioregional approach to the study of literature. By the Book: A Literary History of Queensland (2007), edited by Patrick Buckridge and Belinda McKay, is notable for also taking a (bio)regionalist approach to the way it organizes its writers. For an international example of this approach, see Tom Lynch, Cheryl Glotfelty, and Karla Armbruster, The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology and Place (2012). The two most significant theoretical interventions into the field of literary environmentalism remain Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City (1973) and Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination (1995). Williams’s book requires some adaptation to be valid in the context of a settler colony like Australia, but its basic analysis of the pastoral myth and its modulations through English creative writing over the centuries continue to make it a touchstone for cultures that derive from the European tradition. Buell’s study of Thoreau is a much closer parallel of the situation that occurred in Australia, although some of its suppositions also need adjustment if they are to be extended to the antipodes.

In terms of the early period of Australian colonization, a number of works are particularly useful in understanding the relationship between colonizer and the natural world. Robert Dixon’s The Course of Empire: Neo-Classical Culture in New South Wales, 1788–1860 (1986) provides an excellent account of the extension of “Enlightenment” thinking into the sphere of early colonial cultural production. Paul Carter’s iconoclastic study The Road to Botany Bay (1987) remains a landmark critique of discursive power in colonial Australia and the extent to which the continent was colonized by words as much it was by people, plants, animals, and technology. Simon Ryan’s The Cartographic Eye: How Explorers Saw Australia (1996) also focuses on the appearance of the natural world to those tasked with surveying it on behalf of Empire. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers (2003) provides a probing analysis of the extant accounts of contact in the early years of the New South Wales colonies and helps introduce the picture from the other side of the frontier as well. But, for a direct investigation of environmental thinking in the colonial period, Tim Bonyhady’s book The Colonial Earth (1998) serves as the clearest guide, though various works by his occasional collaborators and fellow environmental historians, Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin, are also extremely valuable. Griffiths, in particular, addresses the work of Eleanor Dark, Judith Wright, and Eric Rolls as ecological historians in his recent study, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft (2016).

There have been a number of studies that have attempted to deal with the cultural (including literary) representations of Australian environments. Roslynn Haynes deserves mention for authoring two such works, Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film (1998) and Tasmanian Visions: Landscapes in Writing, Art and Photography (2006). Cheryl Taylor (North Queensland), Philip Mead (Tasmania), and Bruce Bennett (Western Australia) have also provided invaluable regional literary histories with varying degrees of ecological inflection. Paul Carter’s book Groundtruthing: Explorations in a Creative Region (2010) is an innovative attempt to use literature as a way of understanding the Victorian Mallee country, while Tony Hughes-d’Aeth’s research on the wheat belt of Western Australia is also interested in the history of literature and ecology. Another body of scholarship that bears tangentially on the environment in Australia is that pertaining to the history of gardens. In this respect, Reading the Garden: The Settlement of Australia (2008) by Katie Holmes, Susan K. Martin, and Kylie Mirmohamadi is valuable and so is Paul Fox’s Clearings: Six Colonial Gardeners and their Landscapes (2004).

Peter Pierce has written the definitive study of the trope of the lost child with his book The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety (1999). The seminal study of Aboriginal land use was Sylvia J. Hallam’s Fire and Hearth (1975), although the topic has received wide exposure since the publication of Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011). Recent scholarship on the Jindyworobak movement by Ellen Smith, Peter Kirkpatrick, and Jayne Regan has helpfully updated the pioneering work of Brian Elliott on this fascinating literary movement. The ecological significance of Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow, My Country has been explored by Frances Devlin-Glass. Indigenous conceptions of the environment are considered in Bonyhady and Griffiths’s edited collection, Words for Country: Landscape and Language in Australia (2002), and in various works by Deborah Bird Rose, most notably her classic study Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture (1992).

Further Reading

Bird Rose, Deborah. Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Bonyhady, Tim. The Colonial Earth. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Bonyhady, Tim, and Tom Griffiths, eds. Words for Country: Landscape and Language in Australia. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Buckridge, Patrick, and Belinda McKay, eds. By the Book: A Literary History of Queensland. St Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Carter, Paul. The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.Find this resource:

Carter, Paul. Groundtruthing: Explorations in a Creative Region. Nedlands, Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Clendinnen, Inga. Dancing with Strangers. Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2003.Find this resource:

Cranston, CA, and Robert Zeller, eds. The Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and their Writers. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007.Find this resource:

Devlin-Glass, Frances. “The Eco-centric Self and the Sacred in Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow, My Country.” Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (JASAL) 8 (2008): 45–63.Find this resource:

Dixon, Robert. The Course of Empire: Neo-Classical Culture in New South Wales, 1788-1860. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Elliott, Brian. The Landscape of Australian Poetry. Melbourne, Australia: Cheshire, 1967.Find this resource:

Fox, Paul. Clearings: Six Colonial Gardeners and their Landscapes. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Gammage, Bill. The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011.Find this resource:

Gelder, Ken and Jane A. Jacobs. Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Griffiths, Tom. The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft. Carlton, Australia: Black Inc., 2016.Find this resource:

Hallam, Sylvia J.Fire and Hearth: A Study of the Aboriginal Usage and European Usurpation in South-Western Australia. Nedlands, Australia: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2014. Originally published 1975.Find this resource:

Haynes, Roslynn D.Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Haynes, Roslynn D.Tasmanian Visions: Landscapes in Writing, Art and Photography. Sandy Bay, Tasmania: Tasmania Polymath Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Holmes, Katie, Susan K. Martin, and Kylie Mirmohamadi, Reading the Garden: The Settling of Australia. Carlton, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Lynch, Tom, Cheryl Glotfelty, and Karla Armbruster, eds. The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology and Place. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Pierce, Peter. The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Ryan, Simon. The Cartographic Eye: How Explorers Saw Australia. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973.Find this resource:

Wright, Judith. Preoccupations in Australian Poetry. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1965.Find this resource:


(1.) Watkin Tench, Watkin Tench’s 1788, Comprising A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and A Complete Account of the Settlement of Port Jackson [1789 and 1793], ed. Tim Flannery (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 1996).

(2.) Barron Field, “The Kangaroo” [1819], The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, ed. Nicholas Jose (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2009), 67.

(3.) Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth (Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 2000), 26.

(4.) Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 7.

(5.) Bonyhady, Colonial Earth, 131.

(6.) William Howitt, Land, Labour, and Gold, or, Two Years in Australia: With Visits to Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land [1855] (Kilmore, Australia: Lowden, 1972).

(7.) Judith Johnston, “William Howitt, Australia and the ‘Green Language,’” Australian Literary Studies 29.4 (2014): 36–47.

(8.) Brian Elliott, The Landscape of Australian Poetry (Melbourne, Australia: Cheshire, 1967), 277.

(9.) Judith Wright, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1965), 1.

(10.) T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer for Modern Heresy (London: Faber & Faber, 1934) and Notes toward the Definition of Culture (London: Faber & Faber, 1948).

(11.) P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia: An Essay in Self Respect (Gordon, Australia: W. J. Miles, 1936).

(12.) Vance Palmer, “Battle.” Meanjin Papers 1.8 (1942): 5–6.

(13.) Elyne Mitchell, Speak to the Earth (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1945) and Soil and Civilization (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1946), 5.

(14.) Rex Ingamells and Ian Tilbrooke, Conditional Culture (Adelaide, Australia: F. W. Preece, 1938).

(15.) John Keith Ewers, Creative Writing in Australia (Melbourne, Australia: Georgian House, 1945), 28.

(16.) Wright, Preoccupations, 13.

(17.) Grace Moore, “Home Is Where the Hearth Was: Fire, Destruction and Displacement in Nineteenth-Century Settler Narratives,” Antipodes 29.1 (June 2015): 29–42; and Henry Kingsley, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1993 [1859]).

(18.) Charles Harpur, “Bushfire,” in The Poetical Works of Charles Harpur, ed. Elizabeth Perkins (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1984), 173–180.

(19.) Judith Wright, The Two Fires (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1955).

(20.) Dorothea Mackellar, “My Country” [1911], The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, 388.

(21.) Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians (London: Ward, Lock and Bowden, 1894); and Barbara Baynton, “Squeaker’s Mate” [1902], in Barbara Baynton, eds. Sally Krimmer and Alan Lawson (St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1980), 11–26.

(22.) Ken Gelder and Jane A. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation (Carlton, Australia: Melbourne University Press, 1998).

(23.) Marcus Clarke, For the Term of His Natural Life (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2016 [1870–1872]).

(24.) Marcus Clarke, Preface to Adam Lindsay Gordon’s Sea Spray and Smoke Drift [1876], The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, 188.

(25.) Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson, “The Man from Snowy River” [1890], The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, 256–248.

(26.) Arthur Hoey “Steele Rudd” Davis, On Our Selection (Watson’s Bay, Australia: ETT Imprint, 1992 [1899]).

(27.) Henry Lawson, “The Drover’s Wife” [1894], The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, 266–271.

(28.) Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915); Patrick White, The Tree of Man (New York: Viking, 1955); and A. B. Facey, A Fortunate Life (Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981).

(29.) Miles Franklin, Laughter, Not for a Cage (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1956), 222–223.

(30.) Xavier Herbert, Capricornia (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938).

(31.) Brian Kiernan, Images of Society and Nature: Seven Essays on Australian Novels (Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 1971), 94.

(32.) Xavier Herbert, Poor Fellow, My Country (Sydney: Fontana, 1975).

(33.) Eleanor Dark, The Timeless Land (New York: Macmillan, 1941).

(34.) Judith Wright, The Moving Image (Brisbane, Australia: Meanjin Press, 1946).

(35.) Wright, Moving Image, 18.

(36.) Wright, Moving Image, 21.

(37.) Dorothy Hewett, “Testament,” in Collected Poems, ed. William Grono (Fremantle, Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1995), 36–39.

(38.) Tim Bonyhady, “The Cross of Erosion,” Australian Humanities Review (June 1997). Online.

(39.) Hewett, Collected Poems, 72–79.

(40.) Rachel Carson, The Silent Spring (London: Penguin, 2012 [1962]).

(41.) Neville Shute, On the Beach (Melbourne, Australia: Heinemann, 1957).

(42.) Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), “No More Boomerang,” in The Dawn Is at Hand (Brisbane, Australia: Jacaranda, 1966), 26–27.

(43.) Robert Zeller, “Judith Wright’s Nature Poetry: The Problem of Living ‘Through a Web of Language,’” Antipodes 12.1 (June 1998): 21–25.

(44.) Wright, Two Fires, 30.

(45.) Peter Cowan, Summer (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1964), 177.

(46.) Barbara York Main, Between Wodjil and Tor (Brisbane, Australia: Jacaranda, 1967); and Twice Trodden Ground (Brisbane, Australia: Jacaranda, 1971).

(47.) Judith Wright, The Coral Battleground (West Melbourne, Australia: Nelson, 1977).

(48.) James McQueen, Hook’s Mountain (South Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan, 1982); Carmel Bird, The Bluebird Café (South Yarra, Australia: McPhee Gribble, 1990); Richard Flanagan, The Sound of One Hand Clapping (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1997); and Julia Leigh, The Hunter (Ringwood, Australia: Penguin, 1999).

(49.) Thea Astley, It’s Raining in Mango: Pictures from the Family Album (New York: Putnam, 1987).

(50.) Tim Winton, Shallows (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1984).

(51.) Ben Elton, Stark (London: Michael Joseph, 1989).

(52.) Alexis Wright, Carpentaria (Sydney: Giramondo, 2006).

(53.) Alex Miller, Journey to the Stone Country (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2002).

(54.) Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Sydney: Giramondo, 2013).

(55.) Kim Scott, That Deadman Dance (Sydney: Picador, 2010).

(56.) Bill Neidjie, Story about Feeling (Broome, Australia: Magabala Books, 1989).