The Australian landscape is so unlike what I grew up with. The land is so vast with properties as large as all of Jutland and red dessert running the depth and breath of the continent with sparse populations of people, sheep and cattle. The population density is 2.9 people per km2. Comparatively, 131.3 people live on each Danish square kilometer and every bit seems cultivated and tamed.
The Australian fauna is like something out of a magical picture book: kangaroos and wallabies get around by bouncing, koalas look like cuddly teddy bears from a toy shop, mammals lay eggs and colourful parrots and lorikeets screech rather than sing, drunk on the concentrated nectar of native flora.
The flora is also uniquely evolved, none better than the eucalypt, tall timber with sparse crowns, providing at best speckled shade to those seeking its protection, risking the dropping of massive branches at no particular notice. They have learnt to suck every bit of moisture out of the ground that surrounds its roots and provide just enough nutrition in the leaves for sleepy koalas living in the fork of their trunks. Red gum, blue gum, scribble gum, rose gum, ghost gum – there are more species of gum tree than can be counted. The smell of eucalypt in my nose, clearing the sinusses in dry winter, is so different from earthy dank smell of the beech, oak and pine forests of my wet childhood winters.
When we lived in Bunya, on the Samford Range, dry schlerophyl forrest surrounded us. Tall gums towered over us and young saplings crowding the understorey, observing our transformation of the landscape as we built our home and gardens, knowingly nodding to the kookaburras’ laugh ringing from their brances. Our hopes to live gently and sustainably on our land were challenged by the years of drought, the hard baked soil of clay and shale and water-stealing gum trees. We later learnt that the land was cleared in the late 1800s to build Brisbane’s wharves and public buildings and then abandoned when farmers found it too poor for a sheep run. So it regenerated to its natural state until subdivided into 2 hectare blocks in the late 1900s. We bought our land in 2000 and lived in our self-designed house from 2002 to 2010. We loved our time in Bunya: it was a time of Australian dreams, plans and optimism; but eventually we were beaten back to comfortable suburban Brisbane.
In his award winning novel, Eucalyptus, Murray Bail touches on the myth of Australian identity. It is a timeless story about a widower landowner, who loves two things: his carefully cultivated eucalypt collection on his vast rural property and his beautiful daughter, Ellen. Like in a fairy tale, he announces he will give his daugther away to the first man who can complete the challenge: naming all the eucalypts on his property. Strangely resigned to her fate, his daughter gradually fades away. Two suitors are on the scene – Mr Cave who walks the land with her father to identify each tree, and a stranger, who turns out not so strange, meeting Ellen in the forrest and on her sick bed to tell her stories that sustain her. The closer Mr Cave gets to name all the trees on the property, the sicker Ellen gets, and the more compelling become the stranger’s stories.
Each chapter is named after a spieces of eucalypt. As I read the story in my suburban home, I am reminded of the selfishness of eucalypts and the harshness of the Australian landscape that we felt when we lived in Bunya, just 22 km from the capital city centre. How much harsher would that landscape be away from the sea board in the red centre?
Bail seems to poke fun of that most enduring Australian self-identity: that of the bushman living in the outback, the brave pioneer of new frontiers. Even when the myth was developed in the 1800s by ‘bush’ poets like Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, people predominantly lived close to the sea, as did those writers themselves. But the idea of Australians as conquerours of the landscape still prevails today – perhaps most accurately depicted by open cut mines scarring the landscape – when really the majority of people live in safe, unchallenging and comfortable suburbia on the seaboard, rather than in the bush.
Australia is still a harsh landscape. It invites you in with its raw beauty and its potential, but offers little in return for hard work and spits you out when you have been defeated. We feel it perhaps not often, in our urbane homes with manicured palm tree gardens, where we have been able to cultivate and control the land to suit ourselves. Nonetheless, in 2011, Mother Nature demonstrated our limited security so devastatingly, when Brisbane River broke its banks and flooded the once swampy plains of its delta, where Brisbane now stands. Flood water sweept our status symbols and security out into the bay, leaving a trail of stinking mud and devastation.
Just like Ellen’s relationship with gum trees was one of ambivalence, so is my relationship with my adopted country: I love this country for its breath-taking beauty and I despise for its harshness and unreasonableness which reminds me constantly of my own insignificance and indeed that of our entire species.