Wednesday 27 November 2019

Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country edited by Julianne Schultz & Ashley Hay

Image: James Tylor, Turralyendi Yerta (Womma) 2017 Photograph with ochre & charcoal.

Place. Land. Country. Home. These words frame the settings of our stories. Griffith Review 63: Writing the Country focuses on Australia’s vast raft of environments to investigate how these places are changing and what they might become; what is flourishing and what is at risk.
How we speak of and to the world we live in requires us to make sense of where we are and where we’re going; it requires us to describe, interrogate and analyse our places from the smallest to the grandest of scales. In the second issue of Griffith Review, published fifteen years ago, Melissa Lucashenko wrote of ‘earthspeaking, talking about this place, my home’. All these years later, the need to hear all sorts of earthspeak has perhaps never been more urgent.

In the past, I would have gobbled up the stories, essays, poems and articles in a Griffith Review edition in one fell swoop. Leaving me with a general impression of the theme of the edition and a vague memory of some of the pieces. But this time, I decided to go slow.

Slow Reading is my new mantra. I want to read as thoughtfully, consciously and carefully as I can as often as I can. Obviously, not all books lend themselves to this approach. Some stories are lightly told, some favourite series are formulaic although lovable and comforting and some books are nothing more than a quick, easy holiday read. They all have their purpose, time and place.

But some books deserve more. And sometimes I deserve more!
Sometimes I want to devote more time to one book so that I can savour each moment, delve deeply and create a rich reading memory of my time with the book.

In recent times. Les Miserables was one such book, and I'm currently reading Moby-Dick with this slow reading approach. Back in February, when I acquired my copy of the Griffith Review 63, I decided to do the same. To slow read each essay and story. To let each one stand alone in my memory.

I confess, I didn't think I would still be reading it in November!

It also left me in a quandary about how best to record my slow reading experience. Giving each piece it's own post would be too laborious for me and rather dull for you, oh brave internet wanderer who landed on my page!

The passing of time has allowed the answer to present itself to me. Just like my Moby-Dick chapter posts, I will present each essay with a brief snapshot of the things that caught my eye or captured my imagination. Poems and stories I will leave for another time.

Introduction: On Suicide on Watch? The Enduring Power of Nature | Julianne Schultz (26th Nov 2018).
  • societies and cultures evolve in response to the environment in which people find themselves.
  • unforeseeable natural events have destroyed some civilisations...but others have been undone by over-exploitation
  • Arnold J Toynbee quip - more civilisations die from suicide than murder.
    • A classical historian and writer of comparative history.
    • Hugely popular and influential in the 1940's and 50's.
    • Now criticised for being more of a Christian moralist than an historian - ouch! (Encyclopedia Britannica).
  • Schultz believes that we may be on 'suicide watch' but we can still feel optimistic with a 'sense of agency'.
  • McLean Foundation and The Nature Conservancy commissioned writers for this edition.
    • The McLean Foundation is a family foundation that has four areas of interest: protecting Australia’s biodiversity; supporting inter-city, rural and remote literacy programs for disadvantaged Australian children; rural tertiary education scholarships; and community development programs. 
    • Their environmental funding to date has included establishing and supporting The Nature Conservancy Australia and their Nature Writing Prize. Robert McLean is the Chair of The Nature Conservancy Australia, a Senior Advisor to McKinsey & Co, and a Board Member of Philanthropy Australia.
    • I love that people like Robert McLean exist. Read his 2011 bio in the SMH here.
Essay: Crossing the Line | Ashley Hay
  • or the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • There are mechanisms and consequences we can already see and understand (the known knowns).
  • There are effects and impacts we can see happening without yet understanding why, or how they might impact each other (the known unknowns).
  • And then there are the 'unknown unknowns', the layers of knowledge about our planet's natural systems, their requirements, their reactions and interactions that we don't know about yet. The Things that we cannot see coming.
  • 30 yrs ago the CSIRO investigated what would happen if we doubled the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. 
    • 'Most of the consequences that science then predicted would occur by 2030 we've already seen.' Griffith University's Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe.
    • Including Perth's rainfall declining by about a quarter in 30 years. But what wasn't predicted was the decline by two-thirds of the run-off rate. 
    • 'it's hotter and drier when it rains, which means there's a more dramatic reduction in run-off' - which means there is less water available to be collected when it does rain.
  • A road trip is a kind of mediation. Time and space stretch a little and you pay different attention to the landscapes you move through.
  • biophilia - love of nature
  • The Permian-Triassic extinction, 252 million years ago, wiped out more than nine-tenths of all species. It took the ecosystems effected about 5-8 million years to recover.
  • The unknown unknowns in all of this are each and every one of us: what we purchase, what we vote for and what we insist on, as much as how we live.
  • Hay's solution - pay attention, witness this moment, imagine the unknowns, imagine what's coming next.

Essay: Lost and Found in Translation | Kim Mahood
  • Books in books - Kangaroo (D H Lawrence), Voss (Patrick White), To the Islands, Tourmaline, Midnite, Visitants and The Merry-go-round in the Sea (Randolph Stow), Animal Farm (George Orwell), Tracks (Robyn Davidson), The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin), Belomor (Nicholas Rothwell)
  • what is consistent in all these books is the presence of Aboriginal people in various configurations.
  • Ochre and Rust (Philip Jones) songlines are a 'kind of scripture, a framework for relating people to land, and to show that their relationship is inalienable.'
  • The major songlines, such as the Seven Sisters, are like arteries that carry the life force of the culture through the body of the country.
  • songlines are fixed in the landscape
  • but they can be performed anywhere, with permission.
  • the land is as conscious as the people who live in it.

Essay: Boodjar ngan djoorla: Country, my bones | Claire G Coleman
  • My bones are in the soul of Country, and Country is in my bones.
  • No matter where we go Country calls out to us.
  • I wept when I realised Country had not forgotten me even when I did not know Country. My old-people, my ancestors, would care for me.
  • Truth escapes in the end, lies cannot live forever.

Essay: A Fragile Civilisation: Collective living on Australian soil | Stephen Muecke
  • Ancient Indigenous civilisations and/or modern Western civilisations.
  • I would like to define civilisation as planned, sustainable collective living.
  • Yolngu as Indigenous example.
    • If the Yolgnu have flourished for up to 50 000 years, while the kind of civilisation based on large cities could self-destruct after only a few hundred, perhaps it is time to recalibrate what we mean by civilisations.

Essay: The Planet is Alive: Radical histories for uncanny times | Tom Griffiths
  • Amitav Ghosh - The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016)
    • we are knowingly killing the planetary systems that support survival of our species.
    • we half aware of this predicament yet also paralysed by it, caught between horror and hubris.
  • Anthropocene - a new geological epoch that recognises the power of humans in changing the nature of the planet, its atmosphere, oceans, climate, biodiversity, even its rocks and stratigraphy.
  • The Great Acceleration - from the 1950's when the human enterprise suddenly exploded in population and energy use.
  • Or the Sixth Extinction - humans have wiped out about two-thirds of the world's wildlife in just the last half century.
  • Big History - David Christian - history of the universe - global storytellers.

Reportage: A Change in the Political Weather? Forecasting the future of climate policy | Paul Daley

  • Carl Feilberg - late 1800's Queensland - human rights activist & environmentalist.
    • Bio coming soon by Robert ├śrsted-Jensen.
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
  • Daley wrote this piece Nov 2018 and talked about politicians being out of step with public opinion about climate change and that this would be evident in the federal election in 2019. Instead it showed that journalists were out of step with the broader public opinion about climate change. They were (I am) living in an inner city bubble and we all made the mistake in thinking that the rest of Australia (rural, suburban and city fringes) felt the same as us or had the same priorities and concerns.

Essay: We All Took a Stand: Margaret River versus the coal industry | David Ritter
  • Loved this piece.
  • I had no idea that this even happened - there is power in our stories if we choose to tell them.
  • The community of the Margaret River took on the coal industry and won.
  • Australia's approval systems for fossil fuel mining are antiquated and loaded towards the interests of developers.
  •  In this case, the political and business elite decided, emphatically, that some things are more important than the extraction of fossil fuels.

Essay: Life and Death on Dyarubbin: Reports from the Hawkesbury River | Grace Karskens
Essay: Rebuilding Reefs, Restoring Memory: At work in the waters of history | Anna Clark
  • Clifton Springs shellfish reef restoration project, near Geelong.
  • R H Tawney - doing history well meant contemplating the processes of how (and where) the past relates to people in the present.
  • over 95% of native flat oyster & blue mussel reefs have disappeared across southern Australia.
  • each generation remembers what fisheries were like at the beginning of their own lifetimes, so that the baseline of that ecosystem subtly changes over ever-lower bar is set as the 'new normal'.

Reportage: The Butterfly Effect: Stalking a giant in PNG | Jo Chandler
  • 1906 | Albert Stewart Meek
  • Ornithoptera alexandrae | Queen Alexandra's birdwing - largest butterfly in the world.
  • rural people do not always understand the outsider notion of 'conservation', and outsiders do not always understand what villagers think of when they imagine 'development'.

Memoir: The Suburbsm the 60's: What use a scrap of bush? | Kate Veitch
  • Growing up in Vermont and Nunawading.
  • An outdoor life, playing in the nearby bush.
  • Naturally, we never talked about our adventures to our parents. Nor did they ask. This was an era when parents had better things to do than hover over their children, monitoring their every move.
  • Healesville Freeway Reserve | 2012
  • The importance of place & childhood spaces.

Reportage: Eating Turtle: Changing narratives of the normal | Suzy Freeman-Greene
  • Heron Island
  • the heroes of the story are scientists.

Memoir: It's Scary but Nobody Cares: Challenging Australia's reputation for deadliness | Ashley Kalagian Blunt
  • A Canadian view of Australia, drop bears and other deadly creatures.

Essay: Valuing Country: Let me count three ways | Jane Gleeson-White
  • In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to recognise the rights of nature.
  • Rights-of-nature laws also now in Bolivia, New Zealand, India and Colombia.
  • three ways of thinking about the natural world - country, natural capital, rights of nature.
  • 2016 Fitzroy River Declaration recognises the river as a living ancestral being with its own life force.
  • 2017 Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron).
  • 2018 petition to protect the legal rights of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Capitalism is fundamentally opposed to preserving nature.
  • ecological economics.
  • protecting the environment is a good thing for humanity | Carl Obst

Reportage: Ghost Species and Shadow Places: Seabirds and plastic pollution on Lord Howe Island | Cameron Muir
  • Runner-Up Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing 2019
  • Shortlisted for the Eureka Prize for Science Communication
  • flesh-footed shearwaters | mutton birds
  • they vomit plastic. The parent shearwaters here are slowly feeding their chicks to death with plastic.
  • the plastic blocks their digestive tracts and can pierce internal organs.
  • A torrent of plastic is coming. More plastic was produced in the last fifteen years than in the previous fifty

Essay: The Cost of Consumption: Dispatches from a planet in decline | James Bradley
  •  2018 Living Planet Report
  • The sheer scale of the problem makes it difficult to think about.
  • As creatures disappear, we forget them, as baselines shift we adjust, and the world as it was is lost.
  • The Great Acceleration
  • For while population growth has played a part, the rise in GDP and energy far outstrips the rise in population. In fact it is humanity's booming middle classes...who are the problem. The ecological footprint of an average Australian or American is three times that of a Costa Rican, and almost eight or nine times that of the average Indian or African. It is also, significantly, double that of many Europeans.
  • The real problem is the insatiable consumption of the world's wealthy.
  • We already possess the technologies to deal with the problem - renewable energy, sustainable farming practices...better education and literacy, especially for women...basic taxation and economic reform...better governance....
  • Environmental justice is also social justice and intergenerational justice. But it is also interspecies justice.

Essay: Climate Change, Science and Country: A never-ending story | Brendan Mackey
  • the climate norm will be there is no norm.
  • scientists are not catastrophists - they project rather than predict.
  • Climate change may be a scientific discovery, but it is the humanities and creative arts that speak to what this means.

Reportage: Remaking Nature: Novel strategies in modified landscapes | Andrew Stafford
Essay: Transforming Landscapes: Regenerating country in the Anthropocene | Charles Massey
  • regenerative farming
  • Many of the world's desertifying environments are the result of human activity. In Australia - as in the Middle East...
  • in mismanaged landscapes the small water cycles are destroyed.
  • capitalist market economy believes in continual growth. Nature is viewed as a raw material for wealth and property creation.
  • to become landscape literate.
  • Paul Hawken | human brain is not wired to deal with future existential threats.
  • Project Drawdown
  • This is not a liberal agenda, nor is it a conservative agenda...this is a human agenda.

Essay: Encounters with Amnesia: Confronting the ghosts of Australian landscape | Inga Simpson
  • Judith Wright | The love of the land we have invaded, and the guilt of invasion - have become a part of me. It is a haunted country.
  • Louisa Atkinson | 1853 | The Illustrated Sydney News | Nature Notes

  • Eric Rolls | A Million Wild Acres | 1981
  • Mark Tredinnick | The Blue Plateau | 2009
  • One of the most obvious characteristics of Australian nature writingnis the tension, for non-Indigenous Australians, around how to write about our connection to the places we love, knowing that those places were stolen from others, and possibly sites of violence.
  • Although thinking of ourselves as a bush nation, we are, in fact, urban and suburban - and increasingly illiterate in nature.
  • Nature wanting to belong, a yearning for connection with the natural world and the places in which we live. To be at home....Instead of trying to write ourselves all over the landscape, it is time to hear what it is saying and write it deeper into our selves.

This is the very first Griffith Review I have read from cover to cover. 

Previously I have enjoyed the occasional essay or story when an online prompt led me to the one free monthly read I am allowed as a non-subscriber. I was, however, particularly drawn to the topic of this edition. I figured it would have lots to say about the environment, climate change, Indigenous perspectives and landscape. It did. 

My Goodreads wishlist has exploded as I pour over the individual the bibliographies and I have found new authors to explore. I have discovered new-to-me websites and environmental projects that not only provide the scientific facts about climate but also give us all hope that we can really look after this planet we live on, if we really want to.

I won't be able to devote as much time as I have for this edition to all future editions, or even to catching up on the back list editions. It will be a case of cherry-picking the topics and authors that interest me or challenge me the most.

The various essays, stories and poems in this edition, helped me to complete several squares on my AusReadingMonth Bingo card - NSW, VIC, QLD, TAS and WA. As a bonus, I also ticked off a few nearby islands - Heron Island, Lord Howe Island and PNG.



  1. Wonderful post...and so much to process!
    I will be returning to this review to discover as you said
    new authors. Interested in the coal industry vs Margaret River folks!
    Also science writing tips are always welcome: Cameron Muir (UNSW Press Prize and Eureka Prize)
    Climate change essays.....I love to read them.
    I have to laugh b/c I have a good friend who helped met through the weeks of recuperation.
    We love to talk...but he does not believe in climate change...and thinks Trump will win 2020!
    Opposites do attract!

    1. Wow , you two must have some very interesting/heated conversations at times!!
      I think you would love the Griffith Review a lot Nancy. Pick a topic that you're curious about and give one a shot (Ebooks are available as well).

    2. I did find Griffith Review on Amazon so I will look
      at what is available and doe a 'cover-to-cover' slow read!

  2. In theory, I'm a huge fan of slow reading. I try. Somehow I always, out of the corner of my eye, see that stack of shiny books awaiting me. Then I speed up and fly through the rest of the book.

    I wish I was a slow reader.


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