Judith Wright, The Coral Battleground. 3rd Edition. Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2014. ISBN: 9781742199061 (p/b).
When I think of witness, I think of speech: on a street corner, in a court room, in a church. Reading’s Wright’s book reminds me that witness is a written thing – keeping true records and telling a story as it was are a duty we owe to the people who follow us.
This book is both a history and a handbook. It was first published in 1977 to document the successful (it was thought) struggle to preserve the Great Barrier Reef from wanton drilling and destructive mining. And now it is all happening again. This isn’t the place to summarise the past – rather, I am asking why we need a history and why we need a handbook.
An accurate history (of anything, here of a major environmental protest) gives us the events which happened, tells who was involved, shows how the many small sub-battles worked out in actual practice, at best documenting both sides of the battle. Wright gives extraordinary detail of the development of the protest, naming names, outlining procedures that worked and that did not work, the vast range of conflict amongst laws, disciplines, financial interests, individual personalities. She speaks throughout with the passion of someone totally involved.
Wright tells of her departure for India (on unrelated matters) and comments she received about India’s environmental problems, and says:
Australia, unlike India, had produced no religion, no philosophy, little art of its own. Its brief history was a rage of purely material exploitation; … we had the benefit of almost every advantage of the twentieth century. Yet we looked likely to destroy our own country in far less time than Indian cultures had taken to reach their own point of poverty, land exhaustion and over-population. And in doing so, we would have contributed far less to the world than India had done. (109)
Read as history, the book is a guide to what territory was covered, a clue to what needs to be watched in the future – and a testimonial to the many many people who worked toward what they had hoped would be a lasting solution.
But the solution was not lasting, and the book can also be read as a handbook for the next generation of protesters, to inspire them to stick with the hard slog they have taken on, and to show them they aren’t alone: some pilgrims are faced with the Slough of Despond, others face up to an oil company board of trustees. It is encouraging to know that survival is possible.
There is an interesting sub-plot running through the book – the care and feeding of experts. Wright is aware of the pressures put on the token scientist, the international expert called in to represent (alone) all of science on basically politically- or finance-driven committees. She points out, for example, the diffidence younger scientists can have when asked to work for a small or newly-formed organisation when such a choice may well scupper their careers. She reminds us again and again that geologists (or biologists or marine scientists or … ) are not at all the same.
In the case of a human ecologist appointed to a commission dealing with estuarine biology, she reminds us of the crucial point that scientific expertise in one field is not transferable to another along with the word “scientist”. This is a mistake anyone can make but which nobody should.
At the end of the book, Wright – poet and witness – talks about the future:
The Reef’s fate is a microcosm of the fate of the planet. The battle to save it is itself a microcosm of the new battle within ourselves. So this is not just a story of one campaign. The human atitudes, the social and industrial forces, and the people who in one way or another took their part in the campaign, represented a much wider field, and one in which the future of the human race may finally be decided. (186)
 Readers are referred to the matter of “Roy Meadow” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Meadow), where a level of medical expertise was assumed to be comparable to the same level of statistical expertise, with appalling effect.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor. Her collection of ghazals and glosas, Fish Stories, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.