Book Review: The Bush by Don Watson

The Bush has been on my shelf for a couple of years and I have often flicked through the index for information on a town or place. An example is West Wyalong, which Watson describes below.

It had boomed after gold was found in the district in the early 1890s, and wheat and sheep kept it going when the mines declined in the 1920s. So much of the confidence and style of those good times was written on its facades, but the main street resembled a film lot after the shoot was over. (p. 252)

The town of Jerilderie also gets a mention – this is Ned Kelly country:

Whatever he stole from colonial banks, and cost colonial governments in the effort to catch him, Ned has more than put it back by lending his image to the tourist industry (not to say to art and literature). (p. 248)

When I came across an audio version, read by Watson himself, I thought it was time to experience the book as a whole.

The term, the bush, can mean different things but it generally refers to a sense of wilderness. It can be slim pockets of trees and shrubs on the outskirts of cities or towns or land beyond urban limits. Or sparse plains where signs of life seem few and far between. It can be challenging to define the bush:

The Australian bush is both real and imaginary. Real, in that it grows in various unmistakable bush-like ways, and dies, rots, burns and grows into the bush again; real, in harbouring life. Imaginary, in that among the life it harbours is the life of the Australian mind. It is, by many accounts, the source of the nation’s idea of itself. The bush is everything from a gum tree to any of the creatures that live in it or shelter beneath it, and it is the womb and inspiration of the national character … The bush is a social construct as well as an ecological one: as much as the things that grow and live there, we define it by the people who inhabit it. (P. 66)

Themes link a narrative that encompasses generations of farmers, settlers and battlers. The care and management of the land by indigenous Australians is also covered: the wisdom of land practices developed over thousands of years was largely overlooked. Settlers were determined to clear a path of their own and maintain a degree of independence from a life on the land. This theme is evident in the early sections of the book. Living on the land meant being your own boss, and this was superior to being a wage slave.

A love of the bush is evident in Watson’s writing. Lyrical descriptions from early explorers describe pasturelands seemingly waiting for cattle and sheep. Watson shares memories of childhood growing up on a mixed dairy and sheep farm in Gippsland. There is also despair at the losses. Farming, soil degradation, mining, weeds, rabbits and the rest have taken a toll on the land. Later chapters include regeneration programs including Lake Cowal, West Wyalong where land is being reclaimed after gold mining. The amount of resources required to extract enough gold for a wedding band is sobering, to say the least. Changes to farming methods also provide the opportunity for a better future.

A wide variety of sources have been used to provide the material for a book of this scope. A companion book, A Single Tree, includes some of the original source material. Sources are interwoven through the chapters, echoing and reinforcing themes. This is clearer upon reflection, rather than whilst reading.

This is a book in the tradition of A Million Wild Acres by Eric Rolls. History and personal stories, memories and impressions blend into a coherent narrative. It is wise, witty and upfront about what has brought the bush to this point. It is a great read and reference book. It offers many insights into why the bush still holds a special place in many Australian hearts.

There is a link here to an excellent review by Rosemary Sorensen on the Sydney Review of Books. A review of A Single Tree can be found on The Australian website here.

[Photo: bush outlook at Blackheath, Blue Mountains National Park]

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