> Skip to content

Article  •  3 November 2016


Fragments of the bush

Don Watson introduces A Single Tree: Voices from the Bush.

When drought took hold and he could make no progress on his Mallee block, Jack Edey made a long drive to Canberra. It was 1927 and the nation’s government was moving there, and Jack thought he might find work with his truck. English-born, Jack had only been in Australia for a couple of years when the Great War began. He joined the AIF and fought at Gallipoli and in France, where he was twice wounded. His block, all scrub and unwatered, was one of those granted to returning soldiers. He’d spent several years clearing it and trying to get water from the nearby Murray River. By the time he set off to Canberra he was something of a bushman. His memoir, entitled From Lone Pine to Murray Pine, is studded with opinions and theories about the land he had been struggling with.

In Canberra, Jack pitched his tent on the banks of the Molonglo, dropped a line in the river and caught a Murray cod that weighed eight pounds. That evening he walked up the hill to the new Parliament House to meet his local member, P.G. Stewart, a pioneer wheat farmer and a man who had once carried a swag all over Victoria, and laboured on farms he now represented in the federal parliament. At dinner they were joined by none other than William Morris Hughes, the wartime prime minister. Hughes also had carried a swag in his younger days. Jack told him that they had met before: ‘“Met me before? Met me before?” repeated Hughes, and then I explained that he and Andrew Fisher had visited Monte Video convalescent camp when I was there after being invalided from Gallipoli.’ When the two politicians took Jack to look at the view from the roof of the Parliament, and Jack pointed out where he was camped and told them that he had a big cod waiting to be cooked, they both admonished him for ‘having the hide’ to let them treat him in the dining room when they could have all gone down to the river and shared the fish.

Jack Edey might have made the story up. He might even have dreamt it; daydreamed it while grubbing mallee roots or digging a channel to the Murray. Solitude and relentless repetitive work encour­age dreaming and obsessive thoughts. Epic narratives grow fixed in their minds. Good luck and bad. Loss and betrayal. What was said and what should have been. Guilt, triumph and regret. Some come closer to the truth than others, no doubt. A few are blessed with a poet’s insight. But folk with nothing more than a wish to tell what happened to them leave a record that speaks for the limitless variety of nature’s collision with their souls. Not all frontier stories are as benignly philosophical as Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life. Furphy brought the New Testament to all his thinking, but a lot of bush stories come from the Old one. Some are brutal, some splendidly boastful and exaggerated, some veer towards the desolate and bitter lamentations of Job – or Monk O’Neill, the cranky isolate in Jack Hibberd’s play A Stretch of the Imagination. The same varieties of tone can still be heard in the rheto­ric of rural politicians.

Jack Edey did not find work in Canberra. Told that work might be had on the new railway to Oodnadatta, he set off in his truck for Alice Springs. The story of his encounter in Canberra might not be true in every detail – the fish might have been a pound and a half – but it’s all perfectly plausible. In 1927, the lines between the city and the bush were porous: in Canberra, the ‘bush capital’, they did not exist at all. Urbanised though it was, in so many ways the nation grew up in the bush and wore the signs of that upbringing in attitude, speech, charac­ter, imagination and mythology.

A scientist told me to think of the bush as biota – matter – moving about. This book is a bit like that: a book of many things the word ‘bush’ describes, including men like Billy Hughes, P.G. Stewart and Jack Edey, all moving about. The bush is not one thing, but one word for innumerable things: the land itself, the vegetation, the soils, the animals, the light, the skies, the mirages – all moving about: and in all their variety, all the things that live in, under and about them; all the moods they harbour and the sentiments they stir; all that has hap­pened there, as far we can tell. The bush is farming, mining, invention, effort: wandering workers, walers and swagmen, prospectors, stock­men, whole families, travelling salesmen, campers, grey nomads, real nomads, insects, migrating birds – think of emus, the origi­nal Australian wanderers. Think also of stories, yarns, myths, jokes, poems, songs – language, words – and other vehicles of transmission. Think of every noble enterprise and every folly. The bush is a New World frontier and an ancient civilisation – and the ancients were also on the move.

This is a book of fragments: from history, autobiography, report­age, science, anthropology, prose, poetry and information bulletins. Fragments of experience, fragments of memory; of reflection, obser­vation and ideas. Taken altogether, the bits make for something like a fragmentary history of humans in the Australian bush. I mean an unwoven or undigested history. For a grand narrative, readers will have to piece one together for themselves, or go to the work of some­one who has. The authors of these fragments might be a good place to start. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by readers of even the greatest histories, and many of them turn up in self-published memoirs and typescripts stapled together by local history groups. Not that we shouldn’t read the histories, but it is worth bearing in mind Günter Grass’s observation that while we can remember frag­ments precisely, when we try to join them together into a story ‘there is a certain – not falsification, but a shifting’. More matter moving about.


Satisfying to the soul as narratives are, there remains the option to make do with the little story that each fragment contains, or at least suggests. Read closely, they echo from their own surrounds and speak with the urgency and sentiment that narratives sometimes suppress. In fragments we can hear more clearly the voices of the subject resonat­ing with the meanings of their own time and place. This is true when Abel Tasman tells us about uneasily surveying the coastal forests of the island he had just called Van Diemen’s Land in 1642, and it is just as true when Lucy Gray, two and a half centuries later, records a moment in her life on the Queensland frontier.

This collection contains some of the raw material of The Bush (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) and springs from that book. Inevitably, the concerns and many of the settings are much the same. It also reflects my effort in the earlier book to write into the story a good deal of detail that magisterial histories tend to leave to novelists and poets, and to draw into a general narrative some of the marvels described by scientists, naturalists, anthropologists and academic historians. What is a kangaroo, after all? What is a tree? A field of paspalum, a weed, a Merino ram? What is the Dreaming?

The Australian bush is at once a story of heroic, nation-building endeavour, one of chaos and ruin on an equivalent scale and a great deal in between. By some law of inversion (the one that also works in, for example, a Gabriel García Márquez novel), these epic dimensions are conveyed with more force in the minutiae and curiosities of life and events than they are in the most articulate testimony. To under­stand the destruction of a forest it is useful to know the effort that went into felling a single tree, and that knowledge affords us some understanding of the minds that did the clearing (or destroying, if that is your point of view). As with all stories of conquest, a certain fanatical streak runs through the history of Europeans in the bush, from the explorers to the great pastoralists, to the selectors. Fanaticism – or some other source of the indomitable, like religion or greed – was often a necessary condition of success, as it was sometimes of folly and failure. It still shows in the nature of some successful modern farmers and their political representatives, including the evangelists and pioneers of new ways with the environment. Readers might find occasional echoes of that disposition in the diaries and journals of set­tlement and land use collected here. They will also find a sometimes fanatical, sometimes chillingly pragmatic attitude in several accounts of settler dealings with the Aboriginal inhabitants. The journals of the peripatetic Arthur Ashwin or the Bowen mayor Korah Wills are just two of countless records that point to a pattern of brutality across the continent. It is present in descriptions of violence and injustice, and in the silences, euphemisms and denials. The Aboriginal names of the otherwise nameless dead that George Augustus Robinson recorded in his journal speak with as much force as Wills’ depravity.

Readers of this collection who reckon there is too much on the bush before Europeans arrived and gave it a name should remember that not so long ago in general histories of Australia fifty thousand years of human presence in the bush were commonly accorded a couple of opening paragraphs. The fact was well established by anthro­pologists and the more observant pastoralists and explorers of the nineteenth century, and Bill Gammage, among others, has restated it with irrefutable eloquence in recent years: the indigenous bush and indigenous human culture were inseparable. For sheer wonder noth­ing in Australia’s history outstrips that relationship. For this reason alone the story of anthropologists and archaeologists in Australia deserves to be recognised as the equal of any bush saga. And even if W.E.H. Stanner did not qualify on these grounds, he would be there for the brilliance of his writing.

But this is no literary anthology. Fine prose or verse was not a con­dition of entry. It is painful to think of the writers who are missing, just as it was painful to cut short the works of those who are included, not only the literary works, but the no less indelible records left by the non-literary. One could make a book about the bush from Patrick White alone, or from Thea Astley, or a dozen others. Without their education or literary skill, Albert Facey made a bestseller from his own experience, much of which was had on the land. But anyone who finds this book can just as well find all of them; and with just a little more effort, they can find largely unknown books as good as Facey’s. In place of classics known or not are these bits which, if nothing else, make for a commentary on the multitudes that the word ‘bush’ conjures and obscures. They have been selected on a set of very flexible principles. Variety was one of them. Across place and time, no book could do justice to it, but I have tried. Some I've chosen because they describe unique experiences, some because it seems typical; some because the insight is rare, some because the subject is. There are some that cast light into dark corners and some that light up the whole thing. Some tell us what the bush was, some what it is now. Some describe what has been done to it, some what it has done to us. Many of them I found moving, even mysteriously so.

Fragmentary as they are, true or less than true, all of them say something about what it means to live in this land, and some tell us a little about what it will mean when we learn how to live with it.

A Single Tree Don Watson

A Single Tree assembles the raw material underpinning Don Watson’s award-winning The Bush. These diverse and haunting voices span the four centuries since Europeans first set eyes on the continent.

Buy now
Buy now

More features

See all
Truth behind Reese's book club success

Everybody is raving about Reese Witherspoon's book club — here are the reasons for its success.

Books for when you need a good cry

Grab a box of tissues because these books are sure to get the waterworks flowing.

Daisy Jones and The Six – meet the band

Get excited for the TV adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid's bestselling novel.

5 tips for buying the perfect Christmas gift

We all want to buy a gift friends and family will love unwrapping this Christmas. Here are five tips for picking a book they'll want to devour.

The 3 crucial lockdown lessons from A Gentleman in Moscow

Can a life without luxury actually be the richest of all?

5 ways to celebrate Love Your Bookshop Day

It's time to let your favourite bookshop know you love them. Here are some simple ways you can celebrate Love Your Bookshop Day.

Audiobooks that perfectly match your favourite song

If you've worn out your favourite song perhaps it's time to switch to an audiobook that matches the mood of your best-loved banger.

What to read after watching Squid Game

Our top five books to read after bingeing the first season.

Five tips for surviving year 12 exams

As year 12 students prepare for their exams, author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, has some simple tips that could help.

Journalist’s haunting encounter at serial killer’s murder scene

When Garry Linnell stumbled across the grisly story of Frederick Deeming, he knew it was the one he wanted to tell.

Dire prediction of ‘uninhabitable’ parts of Australia

Greg Mullins, former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, predicts parts of Australia will record 50C days in just decades to come.

The 2021 Booker Prize shortlist revealed

The shortlist for the 2021 Booker Prize has been announced, with four Penguin Random House novels named.

Looking for more articles?

See all articles