Jackie French is the Australian Children's Laureate and a super-prolific writer of over 115 books: numerous children's and teen novels and series, picJackie French is the Australian Children's Laureate and a super-prolific writer of over 115 books: numerous children's and teen novels and series, picture books (my favourite is still Diary of a Wombat), adult novels (general and historical) and non-fiction for adults and children. Her work is often concerned with the truth of Australian Aboriginal heritage and contemporary circumstances, with history that's been forgotten, wilfully misunderstood or deliberately shunned, and a deep and abiding love and respect for the land.
All of these things come together in this brilliant, superbly-written account of Australia's formation as a nation, our attitude and 'care' of the land, and our myth-making. Centred around the thesis that the land makes a nation, especially this one, French delves into several topics with a fine eye, a sense of humour and a critical approach to farming and mining practices.
I have always believed that Australians - both Indiginous (which would seem obvious) and 'white' Australians - are and have been shaped by the land. That all the stereotypes associated with Australians - from the positive (laconic and irreverent sense of humour; self-deprecating abhorrence of 'tall poppies'; community spirit and neighbourliness; bravery and courage; hard-working; laid-back and easy-going; innovative; friendly and welcoming) to the negative (racist etc.) - have their roots in our relationship with the land and what it takes to survive here, whether you adapt to it as the Aboriginals did, or whether you try to mould it into a semblance of an English pastoral landscape as the British did. This understanding started to form when I was studying for my undergrad many years ago; Let the Land Speak confirms and explains it.
There was so much to learn here. So many things I had never studied properly, or hadn't learned about in so long I could barely remember anything about them (Gallipoli, for example), or had never really known anything about at all (the Eureka Stockade). French brings it all to life and writes an unflinchingly realistic account that wouldn't have been welcomed even thirty years ago. Aboriginals, like Asians, weren't even human; the world had been provided to us by God to do with as we will (such arrogance still survives today, but few people will admit it); our victim-hood at Gallipoli is more important to focus on than the fact that we were the invaders; Joseph Banks was a great man; Aboriginals didn't farm or have any impact on the land - these are just a few of the common understandings that have been around for a long time. Let the Land Speak is the best kind of history book, because it allows you to see history being made - not the events themselves, but how they're disseminated, recorded, passed down, understood and misunderstood. French's book shows quite clearly not just how important and necessary the study of history is, but just how far from the truth kids' common understanding (that history is about memorising facts and dates) truly is. Also, you can almost see French's keen historical mind at work as she investigates, uncovers, links and connects details and context to form a likely account.
Mixed in with history and an examination of contemporary agriculture and mining practices are short snippets, stories and anecdotes from French's own experience, that truly bring the book to life. It is this contextualisation and authorial presence that really makes the book accessible, relateable, fascinating and almost intimate. The idea that historians have no bias or angle or perspective has never been true, but you rarely get to see it. Jackie French makes free with hers, not only using a few of her own experiences with Aboriginal people to flesh out her - and our - understanding of their culture and lifestyle, but also using the place of her home, the Araluen Valley in NSW, as an example of one of thousands of micro-climates and micro-landscapes in Australia. The detailing of how gold mining, farming, drought and wildlife interact and affect this one valley is an example of what can occur, but it also serves to illustrate just how varied and diverse the landscape is. One of French's persistent calls is for us to stop seeing the land as a "One size fits all" landscape. We continue to view Australia through a British lens, seeing a uniform landscape everywhere we look. Even here in Tasmania, an island state that has rainforest, alpine climes, hot and dry areas and misty, frosty regions, people still tend to think that what works in one area will work in another, that what is native to one place is, by default, native to all.
Perhaps the most alarming moment for me was in learning about 'firestick farming' - a misunderstood Indigenous technique that "has led to disastrous bushfire strategies" [p.5]. The 'myth that the land must burn' to protect us, to rejuvenate and replenish is a dangerous one because it is applied across the board, and by people who don't really understand it - or what they're burning. What I learned from Let the Land Speak is that, alongside our fire-dependent ecosystem (the one we've all heard about, and assume is a blanket case for al bushfire-vulnerable areas), we have 'fire-resistant' areas, the kinds of trees and plants that can actually halt a bushfire - but if aggressively burned, will be replaced by a fire-dependent ecosystem.
So called 'controlled' burning has created fire-dependent forests. Ironically, large parts of Australia are now far more prone to bushfire, all in the name of trying to reduce it. Once you have created a fire-dependent landscape, it does need burning to reduce the fuel load. But even in these areas the wrong kind of burning increases the risk of uncontrolled bushfire, it doesn't decrease it. In fire-dependent areas, burning in the wrong way and at the wrong time can leave dead wood that will make a bushfire burn hotter, as well as encourage grass growth that may dry like tinder in summer.
'The bush' is not homogenous. Even in a small area of, say, fifty hectares there may be several forest types, with different burning regimes needed to maintain them. Most fire agencies try to control burn on a regional basis, ticking off a certain number of hectares each year. In doing so they are making the bushfire danger far greater, creating larger areas that burn easily because the only plants that survive are the fire-dependent ones that burn hard, fast and often. [pp.56-7]
Since reading this, I have felt moments of panic when I hear people talking - sounding so reassuring and knowledgeable, too - about controlled burning and preventing bushfires. I want to jump up and grab them and shout, "Don't! Just stop a moment, let's think more carefully about this. Don't do it so you can look like you're doing something! How many people, Aboriginal or others, do you employ who understand the landscapes in each area?" Just this week, bushfires have wiped out large areas of South Australia, close to Adelaide, and Victoria. While most big bushfires are deliberately started by idiots, the way they get so out-of-control, so big, so hungry, so quickly could be a much larger problem, and one we need to look at closely before we make it even worse.
In fact, that is an on-going pattern of Australia since the arrival of the British. French does well in explaining their context and reasoning, without diminishing the repercussions. Let's face it: we've fucked up this land good and proper. Landcare wasn't established until the 80s and while it's done a lot, it's not enough. French sheds some light on why we persist, as a nation, a government, a culture, an economy, to focus on mining and agriculture - but mining especially - as a source of wealth even though it isn't one. It ties back to the centuries-old belief among European nations that there existed, somewhere in the vast unmapped Southern oceans, a vast land of gold. It was an entrenched belief, an unfounded certainty, that means we're still looking for some kind of untapped wealth. Gold mining here doesn't bring in much money, in reality, and uses mind-boggling amounts of water (yes, in a country that really doesn't have any to spare), yet we keep on opening new mines. Australia is a country founded on, in French's words, 'five hundred years of misunderstandings' - and many of these persist. We are still determined to farm as if this was England, just on a larger scale, and - this is one of my pet peeves - we build stupid houses poorly designed for the climate, then spend extra money heating and cooling them (interestingly, older houses - with thick walls, high ceilings, verandahs and, in the case of Queensland, raised up on stilts to allow for floodwaters to pass by as well as air to circulate and cool the house - are better built for this climate and landscape than all the houses I see around me on a daily basis).
French covers a great deal in Let the Land Speak, and while this is a history book like most history books in the sense that it is humans who are the focus much of the time, the land of this continent really is given a voice. More specifically, French ties everything back to the land, to the land that shaped us. From the interesting explanation of why the continent wasn't settled prior to the First Fleet, despite it having been 'discovered' and partially mapped so many times before Cook, to the big drought of the late 19th to early 20th century that brought the states together into a single country, at the end of the day the land itself is the dominant force here. The book covers the following topics:
Introduction: the goat droppings that changed history 1 The real First Fleet 2 The Ice Age that made three hundred nations 3 Cooperate or die 4 The women who made the land 5 Terra incognita: Dreams of gold, and a land without grass 6 The goat, the grocer's assistant and the mistake that led to a nation 7 The colony that didn't starve 8 The second, third and fourth Australians 9 The lost tigers and the sheep that ate Australia 10 How we almost won Eureka 11 The history of our nation in a pumpkin scone 12 How a drought made us one nation 13 Truth or propaganda? The bronzed Anzacs of Gallipoli and Kokoda 14 A land of flooding rain 15 A short history of great big farming misunderstandings 16 This generous land: Terrapaths, moral omnivores and how to survive the next millennia 17 The next hundred years: Twenty-four predictions
The first four chapters cover Indigenous Australian habitation, from the arrival of the first humans to how the women shaped the land - all of it fascinating. As much as I love this land right down to the marrow of my bones, and feel so incredibly at home here, I still often feel like an invader, trampling and contributing to the destruction or ill-use of an ancient and fragile land of which I understand too little, while the 'original' inhabitants can only watch, made voiceless and toothless. I am empathetic enough to feel what it must be like for me as a privileged white to have some other, alien being muscle in, evict me, and clumsily try to apply alien farming and food-gathering techniques to a land they don't understand. Between the inability to communicate and the ingrained belief that the natives are subhuman, or not human at all, why would the invaders even think to ask them about the land, or seek their help and advice? It's a common theme throughout modern Australian history and storytelling, this blind arrogance and fear that in seeking Aboriginal assistance, you acknowledge your trespasser status, your ignorance, your wrong-doing. It is this instinctual, ingrained but silenced, denied and terrified knowledge that have done wrong and continue to do wrong that is behind our incredible racism towards the Aboriginals. We all have it, this niggle, this tiny spike right in the cockles of our hearts, that we are born with, that we are in the wrong, that we are invaders, that we have harmed the land - it unites us as much as anything the land can throw at us, but as long as it stays there rather than be drawn out like a splinter from a pus-filled abscess, it will continue to fester, we will continue along the path we have trodden down to bare dust, and nothing will change.
I have to confess, I skimmed through the final chapter of this book. I wouldn't normally do such a thing, but I found French's 24 predictions to be so dispiriting, scary, pessimistic and depressing that I just couldn't read them all. The sad truth is, this book isn't and won't be required or even popular reading, it will be shunned and dismissed by conservatives, and merely stoke the ire of "true blue Aussies" who don't like their personal beliefs in our myths to be confronted. And it's a damn shame. This is a book I must and will read again, and again. It not only taught me a lot, opened my eyes to new understandings and truths, but it also reinvigorated my love for this land and its peoples - all of us, all us 'boat people'. I would like nothing more than if this book became seminal - if it influenced future policy or changed attitudes etc. But I know Australians. We have such a great life here, we don't like change, we want to achieve a level of comfort and then stay there. Like most people in the world, we hang on to our prior understandings of our world, and the older we get, the more dogmatic and bigoted we become. At the end of the book, I realised anew just how little I know and understand about my land, my country and continent. I can't name the bird making that song, apart from the obvious few (kookaburra, magpie, plover etc.). I'm no good at identifying trees or plants. I don't know enough about the different climates and ecosystems. I only recently learned that quolls ate meat! Shameful. I've got a lot to learn, and this book was a fantastic place to start. ...more
This short little book explores the largely incomplete history of today's iconic Christmas tree. As Brunner puts it, "What drove people to go off intoThis short little book explores the largely incomplete history of today's iconic Christmas tree. As Brunner puts it, "What drove people to go off into the forest, chop down a tree, put it in their house, and decorate it in the first place? Is it really just a pagan remnant - as conventional wisdom has it - or is the history behind it more complex? What is the symbolic message it conveys?" [p.3]
As German writer Brunner digs deep into the few records and vague accounts of the tree, it quickly becomes clear that there's no definite answer, no straight-forward path to the origins of the Christmas tree, no pivotal moment - nothing as clear-cut as, say, Coca-Cola's dressing of Santa Claus in red and white for their advertising, something we've been stuck with ever since.
Still, I had thought that, Christianity co-opting a pagan festival at the winter solstice just as they did for Easter, that the tree must go way back and have some quietly profound meaning. Let's just say, I was hoping to hear that, because it would have been so interesting. I was also remembering that British TV show where a group of people went off the grid and lived exactly as people lived in the middle ages, from the food they cooked and how, to building their own homes with the tools they would have had etc. I remember seeing the episode around Christmas time and they made a feast and brought in greenery to decorate the house, and I think there was some mention of superstitions. Brunner does delve into some of the superstitions, but often they were superstitions against having a tree in the house.
In fact, according to Brunner, the Catholic church was the last denomination to embrace the Christmas tree - for the longest time, they outright denounced it. It seems that, by and large, the Christmas tree came together in an adhoc manner, originating in certain parts of Germany, and it is a natural evolution of our deep connection to the natural world, no matter how industrial and computerised we become.
The attraction of all things green, colorful, and glittering in the cold season is elemental. Green has long been considered the color of hope, and midwinter greenery was thought to radiate and summon vitality and fertility, to keep harm at bay. The custom of celebrating the changing year with greenery was already known among the Romans, who used bay branches. In the fourth century, Saint Ephrem the Syrian reported that houses were decorated with wreaths for the festival on January 6. Medieval sources mention evergreen branches, with sharp needles, fastened to the door of the house or hung in the home. Demons, witches, lightning, and disease - they believed - were powerless in the face of this life force. [p.12]
According to Brunner's digging into historical records, the Christmas tree is quite the modern invention, one that didn't really take root until the 19th century - so it's not near as old as I'd imagined. The details of the early versions of the trees is quite fascinating, especially the mechanised trees under which nativity scenes or other decorations were placed. Later, the practice of putting presents under the trees evolved. They used to put real candles in the branches, and house fires were unsurprisingly common at that time of year. There are lots of interesting little details in this book, along with some colour plates and other reproductions of paintings in which early versions of the Christmas tree figure.
Brunner does some solid research here, and his writing - translated as it is - is smooth and clear. He doesn't have that personable, charismatic or charming quality that goes so well with popular non-fiction: he can be a bit dry at times, though perhaps you can only write as interestingly as your subject-matter. There was only one moment of humour, and the lack of historical documentation to support research into the Christmas tree was disappointing. But not Brunner's fault. He did an admirable job of picking out descriptions and other details of its origins and metamorphosis from old novels, newspapers, advertisements, public announcements and various other sources. It was me who was disappointed, that something I love so much should have had such ordinary beginnings, and could just as easily have disappeared as quietly as it had arrived.
It will only take a few hours out of your day to read about the history of the Christmas tree, but it it well worth it. If nothing else, it fills the little gap of ignorance in your head that is always there when we think about Christmas trees - and I love filling the many little holes of ignorance that exist in my knowledge, and understanding the history of things helps me understand the world I live in better. ...more