Natural Selection: Ecological Postcolonialism as Bearing on Place

By | 1 February 2016

For poets concerned with interrogating these values of colonialism, and with challenging the record of non-Indigenous land use, the modes of the anti-pastoral, or ‘hard’ pastoral, are often preferred. For the most part this is because the poets writing in these modes are aware of the ecological issues confronting rural Australia, often brought about by our own poor land management practices, and of the dispossession of Aboriginal people. Indeed, as we have seen, John Kinsella has described his poetry as ‘poison pastoral’ (2008, pp 132-133 and 152-153). He reminds us, however, that:

These negative pastorals…as steeped in death and destruction as they might be, are actually affirming as much as they are condemning. The value of human communication…is paramount…. Pastoral in Australia is about confrontation, recognition, conversation, and, one would hope, reconciliation. (2008, pp 132-133)

John Kinsella is not alone in the way that he approaches ‘hard pastoral’, building on the foundation laid by Judith Wright. Laurie Duggan is another important poet who has written similarly.

Jayne Fenton Keane has written that ‘in Laurie Duggan’s ‘Pastoral Poems’ we witness a direct critique of the aged and Euro-centric pastoral myth that has evolved in the bush poetry and sentimental nature poetry of Australia’ (2010, p 22). Duggan began this critique in his pioneering book-length documentary poem, The Ash Range, first published in 1987. This poem is a careful and intimate meditation on the landscape – the natural and human history – of the Gippsland region of rural Victoria. As such Duggan’s text is one of the first Australian poetic examples of a serious and sustained creative response to place as ‘cultural landscape’ in the way described by Tom Griffiths (1996). Duggan’s ‘hard pastoral’, so sympathetic to the contexts of ecological science, environmentalism and post-colonialism, is certainly about ‘confrontation, recognition, conversation and … reconciliation’ (Kinsella 2008, pp 132-133). In The Ash Range, Duggan intercuts his poetry with diaries, journals and newspaper stories in order to celebrate the biophysical environment of the Gippsland region and to interrogate the story of its European colonisation. Duggan is alert to the ruthlessness of this colonising story, of the occupation and culture of the Original Inhabitants and of their massacre (see for example pp 19-24, 33, 40-42, 56-59 & 75). In responding to this place, which Duggan clearly knows so well, he also maintains a sense of irony and distance, in his awareness of contradictions. A typical Duggan way of expressing himself occurs near the end of the book where he says, describing drinkers in a pub, ‘There is a message at the bottom of every glass. / Dust blows off the road outside, / and the stars, Crux, Bunjil, look down / on a telephone booth in the middle of the bush’ (1987, p 263).

Duggan continues this investigation of rural Australia, foregrounding the contexts of environmentalism informed by ecology and postcolonialism, in The Collected Blue Hills (2012). In Duggan’s more recent pastoral poetry, however, his focus has included urban and suburban sites. Duggan might label this poetry as ‘techno-pastoral’, which he describes in his major study of early-twentieth century Australian Fine Art, as an examination of urban space ‘as a site of contention in the ongoing debate about nationhood’ (2001, p xxi). As Duggan shows, Australian cities may be diversified in their built environments and culture, but this has often come at considerable expense to the natural environment. So Duggan writes in his long poem sequence ‘Louvres’:

From water so foul
fish still jump
a shore of disintegrating ply
a palm tree, washed
to these rocks from somewhere.
The glare, through skylights
from the windows of warehouses. (2003, p 53)

In ‘Blue Hills 38’ (2003, p 153), Duggan describes the layers of suburban building and rebuilding over a previous sheoak and gum forest once rich in Indigenous occupation as a type of palimpsest. The poem begins: ‘Lanes I will never trace / of sheoak and flowering gum / fork through these suburbs’. The poem continues to describe the construction of a railway and the draining of ‘lowlands’ before finishing so memorably:

The settlements exist under these layers;
their clutter of architectures testify
that paradise is momentary
            and jerry-built.

Some of Duggan’s ‘techno-pastorals’ are, however, far angrier in tone and devastating in their environmental critique of urban development. So in ‘Blue Hills 66’ (2006, p 63), Duggan writes:

April 2005     toxic
excavation ditch reveals

water table a 
bare metre down

bollards masked
for spray paint

the last warehouse
plastered and wired

life on the river
(as told in

The Gumleaf Book
of Estuarine Verse)

coloured lights
in the cool air, the street

bounces off the ceiling

Duggan can always remind us that in urban development, despite all its conveniences and cultural attractiveness, so often all ‘that’s left’ is ‘dismantled / asbestos roofs / steel beams’ and ‘dragged and burnt / concrete slabs’ (2006, p 21). And when urban dwellers look to the sky, hoping to see ‘purple patches / the clouds hang / then lift, rain / to the north’ (2006, p 23), often what they see are the signs of even more environmental decline:

a sky dark
with dust
from the west
coats the loft   (2006, p 25)

Duggan’s ‘hard pastorals’ interrogate the belief in careless progress and that it is in technology, rather than prevention, that we are to find solutions to the environmental problems that we cause in both rural and urban areas. Duggan’s ‘hard pastorals’, along with the contributions of such poets as John Kinsella and Judith Wright, are models for what a postcolonial ecocritical poetics of place, which is informed by ecological science, might look like.

If nature poetry wants to be place-based – to aspire to be an interrogation of the values and experiences of colonialism, and be attuned to the values of ecocriticsm informed by the science of ecology – it needs to take the time to attend to the detail. This means not only observing the natural world closely, it also means paying attention to the science and history. Without this, close observations have no context and richness of understanding. Our approach to place requires recognition, and knowledge, that our experience is concerned with the intimate relationship between the human and non-human, between the social and the ecological (Griffiths 1996, p 277). Only then will we have a nature poetry that befits the challenge of John Cameron to attend to the detail in place: that informs the reader about the animal and plant species and their surprising interrelationships; that provokes the reader to question how the human and non-human world can possibly cohabit; and that inspires the reader to pay closer attention to their own place in the world.


I would like to thank Penelope Goodes, Matthew Hall and Kent MacCarter for their considerable editorial skills in helping me prepare this essay for publication.

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