Natural Selection: Ecological Postcolonialism as Bearing on Place

By | 1 February 2016

Dennis Haskell explores the same terrain in ‘Inland Sea’ (2006, pp 62-63). He takes that great colonial preoccupation with the search for the inland sea as his motif while:

All over the sunburnt country
on hills, by rivers, on flattened plains
the dirt is turning white:
a silent snow
that falls from below

In this ‘non-economy of salt’ we can ‘watch bad luck / become bad management’. The poem concludes with a terrible irony as we watch:

all Australia
become a dry, dead sea,
fulfilling our founding fathers’ dream
-a nation gone multicultural
in sight of a country
at last wholly white.

The land is stolen, cleared and irrigated in an attempt to gain control over it, to make it productive. Dispossession of First Nations and salinity are two consequences. As Judith Wright shows in ‘Australia 1970’ (1994, pp 287-288), the ‘land will have its revenge’:

I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust,
the drying creek, the furious animal,
that they oppose us still;
that we are ruined by the thing we kill.

She reminds us, along with Haskell and Kinsella, that for ecocriticism and writing of place to be more than just another discourse ‘come of a conquering people’ (Wright 1994, pp 140-141) it must be part of the postcolonial project.

So nature writing informed by science and post-colonialism is intimately connected with an awareness of place. In a postcolonial sense, Australia is quite unique. Unlike many other places, many of its writers are not indigenous peoples rediscovering and claiming their own culture but writers descended from the original colonial power that now identify themselves as culturally separate from their colonial origins. Their problem lies in their colonial past. They are forced to explore how they can truly identify with Australia as their own if they no longer accept the ideals of colonialism. Are they not, in fact, still perpetuating some kind of colonial hold on this land? How can they reconcile their new values with a homeland that once belonged to someone else? A significant number of poems, written by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, question this contradiction of belonging.

One of the first concerns of colonialism is the determination to survey, name and map the land. To a large extent it is these activities that give a colonial power control and ownership. There are several poems that question these activities as they took place in Australia. John Manifold in ‘The Map’ (1978, p 91), for example, expresses his preference for Aboriginal place names over the imported English ones. For Manifold the ‘land prefers’ the place names of ‘Binna Burra, Bindebango, Mullumbimby’ because these are the names ‘that belong’. By restoring Aboriginal place names on our maps we might have a starting point for according Aboriginal culture a new respect and recognition. For David Martin, however, this is not enough. In ‘The Other Map’ (1960, p 96) he argues that restoring Aboriginal place names might be very nice but in the end this is just another form of cultural appropriation. It can be a gloss to avoid dealing with the real issues. As Martin writes:

Gerringong is nice for rhyming,
Illalangi, Burradoo:
Having killed the rightful owner
Must you pinch his handle too?

For Martin, place names are like symbols, they are important but ‘men aren’t judged by what they say but by what they do’ (1960, p 96). In this argument John Kinsella would agree with Manifold. In ‘Against Depression’ Kinsella writes, ‘small bush reserves might expand … and be known by their indigenous name’ (2003, p 166). Martin agrees with Manifold and Kinsella, however, that the Aboriginal prior occupation of this country needs to be acknowledged and respected. Lionel Fogarty has written of this long and rich period of occupation in ‘Scenic Wonders – We Nulla Fellas’ (1995, pp 100-101). Fogarty reminds white Australia that ‘this is no scenic wonder we giving, but 1000 million layers / of Murri season – open air’. Samuel Wagan Watson has developed this challenge in ‘poem 9’ (2005, pp 67-68). Wagan Watson asks:

how do you know?
that the mud doesn’t feel the pain
of your weight upon its resting place
how do you know?

like the snake that rushes before your feet
and you the only audience
a gift only for your eyes
from the old people
how do you know?

Unfortunately, as Wagan Watson reminds us, the story of the white colonial settlement – invasion – of this country has rarely been a good one. He writes in ‘a bent neck black and flustered feather mallee’ (2005, p 36) of the ‘blood soaked earth through massacre / war / and plague’.

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