Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Thomas M. Wilson has had a long-lasting affair with the south-western parts of Australia, defined loosely as those areas cut-off by a straight line from just south of Geraldton in the north to around Esperance in the south-east. Such an area is equivalent in size to a small European country. There is little doubt that Wilson’s testimony about what might be discovered here can be accepted without question.
There are any number of ways of describing an area such as Wilson’s south-west, none of which are satisfactory given that the usefulness of the book must be gauged according to what the author describes. Thus it becomes critical that the reader know what the author set out to do. While Wilson devotes considerable effort to explaining what his book is about, the reader yet finds that a considerable amount of close reading is needed to understand what it is that is being described. For example, we read about the importance of the biosphere for the author’s view of the world; “to see and understand the long evolutionary history of the palms and trees, crabs and spiders, coral and fish around me” (10). He goes on to say that he did not understand the natural environment of the place where he was born, and there was no comprehensive guide to show him.
That “there was no single volume primer to introduce the traveller or curious local to the identity of this place, to quickly acquaint them with the contours of both its environmental and human history” (12) would be true, I would imagine, of a great number of localities in Australia. The language is becoming a little abstract for most readers but Wilson explains a little further. The book links the insights of biology to those of literature and culture i.e. to say “it connects understanding from geology and evolutionary science with the letters and journals, poems and paintings of the people who have lived here” (12).
I would see that as a very tall order. It is not a criticism, however, for Wilson continues that his book “seeks to return memory to its current inhabitants, and to take its cues from the ecological realities just as much as from social ones. It seeks to provide a broader view, so that we can construct a meaningful relationship with our home” (12), “a sense of self that is grounded in a place, and is meaningful” (13). If the reader has not abandoned the pursuit of the idea by now, s/he is not helped by Wilson’s categorical summary description of his reason for writing the book:
It would be many years before Thoreau would write of finding conviviality in wild swamps, and even more years before such ecocentric philosophy would penetrate the minds and hearts of a significant number of white Western Australians. Arguably, it has still not yet done so today. (94)
It soon becomes clear that Wilson is writing about ‘rewilding’. The book is, in fact, part of a tradition in environmental writing. For example, in the heart of Europe’s most heavily developed country, scarcely 30 kms from the centre of Amsterdam, lies the 5,000 hectare Oostvaardersplassen, an area of wetland reclaimed at great expense from the sea back in 1968. Closer to home Eric Rolls has written about his beloved northern NSW forests in A Million Wild Acres, while E.J. Banfield is well known for his championing of the natural beauties of Dunk Island. And of course Wilson, the author under review, made mention of Thoreau’s famous Walden Pond. He is indeed not disgraced to appear in such distinguished company.
The book is anything but a turn-off.
The early chapters give a masterly description of the south-west of Western Australia and include not only definition but also the practices adopted by the first races to attend our shores and leads into the very different approaches to land management by the white invader. For someone who is about to visit this part of Australia for the first time the information in chapter two is very appealing. Chapter three introduces the coming of the aborigines while chapter four sets out to describe the coming of the whites to this part of the nation, but unfortunately for white self-esteem, highlights the downright stupid land management of our forebears. Perhaps a shortcoming of the book is the author’s castigation of the white race at virtually every opportunity.
Unfortunately the substance of Wilson’s arguments is all true. As the chapters unfold he writes of the expansion of Perth, of the demolition of a rock bar at the mouth of the Swan River which changed in an instant from a million year old fresh water system to an estuary. Wilson tells of the heartless dynamiting of giant trees and the subsequent degradation of the soil, of the need to fertilize soils in the dry belt east of York and the resultant migration of cockatoos from the north with their devastation of the local bird life. It is anything but a pretty picture. Wilson’s summary of the ecological history of white Australia is to the point: “the destruction of functioning ecosystems and the living creatures that were part of them, and the consequent forgetting and loss of the bioregional identity that went with a great southern land” (195).
Wilson is above all things an optimist. His final chapters accept with regret that the white-man’s coming to Western Australia resulted in the loss of many creatures and plants of the biosphere. However, he explains that a program of ‘rewilding’ at the governmental and individual levels is not impractical. Becoming more knowledgeable about the place that is ours is the first step towards redeeming that which was lost.
This little booklet rewards the reader with each subsequent reading. Its lessons have practicality for anyone living anywhere on earth. Its universal application will appeal to most tastes and the lively explanations and the love of the author for his part of the planet are very appealing.
By Thomas M. Wilson