Phillip Hall reviews The Lake’s Apprentice by Annamaria Weldon

Annamaria Weldon, The Lake’s Apprentice. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing, 2014. ISBN 9781742585574

with reference to Mark Tredinnick, The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2009. ISBN 9780702237102

 

Postcolonialism’s Primacy in Place

Phillip Hall

 

George Seddon (1998: 105–9), a major multi-disciplinary thinker and pioneer in the study of place, describes place-based writing as a “literature of intimacy with places, with country”. The Lake’s Apprentice can be described as belonging to this genre of place-based literature. Weldon’s “place” is the Yalgorup National Park, located on Western Australia’s south-west coast. It includes the magnificent chain of lakes between Mandurah and Bunbury (this is Bindjareb Noongar Country). Weldon’s beautifully presented book is a collection of lyrical essays, poetry and photography. Weldon has described the purpose of this art as being one that is “attending to the individuality of things, the hidden essence of their specific details, their dynamic processes … Through profound attention, something may be called into presence” (74). She quotes Murdoch University’s Professor of Sustainability, Glen Albrecht, to elaborate on this idea: [this is a state] “where the boundaries between self and the rest of nature are obliterated and a deep sense of peace and connectedness pervades consciousness” (74–75). Is Weldon’s apprenticeship to “place” successful in achieving this lofty “calling into presence”; as a nature writer is she a “faithful witness” to the “wonder that lies in the detail, and in the harmony of the whole” (112)?

Weldon begins her book by introducing the parameters and contours of her project with the following sentence from Mark Tredinnick’s, The Blue Plateau: “There is a practice of belonging and it starts with forgetfulness of self” (viii). Following this quote is the wonderfully imagist and finely observed poem, “The Practice of Belonging”. Here Weldon elaborates on Tredinnick’s thoughts and describes her “discovered country”, “folded like a hinge between twin skies” where:

… the sleeping boobook

becomes a wood carving, enters the tree

and leaves without a wing-beat, dissolving

 

in a shadow-screen. Look, you say to me

at his way of belonging – this gradual

arrival that begins with letting go.

(viii-ix)

In this preface to her project, Weldon invites us to “linger” because “slow parting tastes sweet as a vine’s late grapes”. These are beautifully expressed sentiments but what do they actually mean? For a writer inhabiting a landscape to which they earnestly want to belong, what does it mean to “forget self”? Is it to write as “anonymous”? Surely not! And couldn’t the world just as easily sing back the lyrics of Skyhooks: “Ego is not a dirty word, don’t you forget what you’ve seen or you’ve heard” (pretty useful advice for a nature writer). So how does Tredinnick develop this idea in his text, The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir? After writing the sentence that Weldon chooses to quote above, Tredinnick continues: “Don’t come to the plateau to find yourself … come to find the plateau”. And he continues:

Belonging is a practice, not a birthright … Attachment grows if you abandon yourself, if you let a place in … this practice [of belonging] is performed best when it’s an accident of one’s being and staying somewhere, making some kind of a life and some kind of a living from the country. (Tredinnick 2009: 169)

For a non-Indigenous twenty-first century writer to continue with these speculations without thinking to prioritize the custodianship of the Traditional Owners and their Culture is astounding. How can a non-Indigenous person have any sense of “belonging” in a settler place like Australia without remembering and interrogating the colonial past? But Tredinnick rides through his “landscape memoir” on the horse’s back with his family of pioneering colonial timber-getters, cattlemen and road-makers. He smudges the reality of dispossession (because it is always others who committed the violence: 23–27) to romanticize how hard (and heroically) these men worked to stake their land claims, dying from work accidents (154–55) and “exhausted by sixty-six years of claiming a valley” (43–44). As he later writes: “Clearing has been the great Australian project” (119) and with no sense of postcolonial irony Tredinnick describes this clearing:

And in the valleys below the cliffs where the mallee ash and the clumpy conifer hang out, farming the trees was a way of making a living. When you cleared, you left standing the marketable trees. When your cattle money was not enough, or when the price of wool dropped too low, you could harvest those trees and sell the timber. You could push the forest further up the slopes. (2009: 119–20)

So while Tredinnick is sensitive to the critique of ecocriticism the real hero of his tale remains Les: a tree-feller who was also a “sculptor on a tractor” (he was “erosion itself … with his gift for whispering a dozer”, 159). But it is Les who “was the valley’s prodigal son. He was the one she [the valley] loved best” (223). “Not one thing – not fire, not flood, not snow, not heavy morning frost, not broken drive arms, not a half-broken back – stopped the man husbanding the valley” (232):

Les loved the [valley] the way a man loves his wife … In the valley he shot more snakes and dogs, more parrots and wallabies and wild horses, he dug more dams and made more roads and cut more timber and blew up more old huts than was strictly necessary. He shaped the ground and altered the grasses and put out more superphosphate than the valley would have liked. He diminished the valley he loved. (Tredinnick 2009: 236–37)

Tredinnick may regret Les’ “diminishing” of the valley but the reader is still positioned to cheer Les on as the pioneering hero who the valley “loved best”. In Tredinnick’s “valley love-in” the Traditional Owners and rightful Custodians, the Gundungurra, are dispossessed yet again. Tredinnick may only spare a few thoughts for this treatment of the Traditional Owners but he writes at length of the harassment of the inheritors of the pioneers by the agents of National Parks and Water Board as they seek to extend state control in the valley for the greater good: “They dammed the river and they flooded the Valley, so that a city on the coast might take the water that falls on the plateau” (18). The choppers of Park Rangers and the Water Board circle us: “And riding off, back in the trees, free of them, we were our own men again.” (97). These agents of the state were forever “locking gates” and “all this proved was that this country had been taken from these men. It was not theirs to ride anymore” (98). But as if to counter any postcolonial objection to the values embedded in his landscape memoir, Tredinnick, in his epilogue, concedes that while living in the “Blue Plateau” he “spent too little time … in the company of the first people’ (260). But by then it is too late.

Why does Weldon choose to foreground a quote from such a colonial text in her project? And does it really matter? The poet and philosopher, John Charles Ryan, would certainly think not. In his recent Cordite article he asks: “Can ecocritical over-thinking taint the pure delight of the poetic well?” (Ryan 2014: 1). Tredinnick is an exquisite writer (especially of poetry) so is it really of consequence what values he embeds in his landscape memoir? It is dishonest for a non-Indigenous person to claim to have any sense of belonging in Australia without first remembering and interrogating the colonial past. As John Kinsella (1996: 37) writes: “A sense of belonging to the land [in Australia for a non-Indigenous person] is marred by guilt … The European rural is laid over the Aboriginal land, working hard to obscure and obliterate memories of the past”. Judith Wright (1994: 140) would add that if the creation of a place-based literature does not highlight the perspectives of what we have come to call postcolonialism it is just another discourse “come of a conquering people”.

I think, therefore, that it is a curious decision that Weldon makes to prioritise Tredinnick’s text in her own, especially as she is so careful to situate her work within the vital program of postcolonialism. Weldon writes beautifully of Bindjareb Noongar Culture and Story and respectfully seeks the permission of the Traditional Owners to write of their Country and share the Language names for seasons, bush tucker and medicines. When starting her residency at Yalgorup National Park she seeks out an Indigenous guide and mentor to “welcome her to Country” (10–11) and orientate her walks and musings: “George Walley was, from the beginning, a cultural guide and mentor; the first to recognize and affirm my growing attachment to his country” (3). It is George who leads Weldon to the site of the Murray River historic Pinjarra Massacre of 1834, a “very strong place” where the “trauma of old wounds is deep” (8–12). The memory of this site lingers throughout Weldon’s essays, poems and photographs, as does the continued guidance of George. When looking at Weldon’s thrombolite photographs George smiles: “there are portals everywhere at Yalgorup, and you’ve found them already. Just be there with an open heart” (8).

The Lake Clifton thrombolites, we are told by Weldon, are “rocks of deep time” (31); “lacustrine fossils formed by an accretion of residue from photosynthetic bacteria at their living edge” (17); they are “complex communities of microscopic organisms” (19); “they look like low circular columns broken off at the base, edges worn smooth and round by the water and wind” (19); they are “responsible for raising the Earth’s early atmospheric oxygen levels through their photosynthetic processes, thus enabling other life forms to exist” (6); “they grow just 0.1–1.0 mm higher each year” (17); “they have lived at Lake Clifton for thousands of years due to rare and successful adaptation” (20); “they are living fossils and critically endangered” (68); and they are known to the Bindjareb Noongar as “Woggaal Noorook … eggs laid at Yalgorup in the Dreamtime by the female creation serpent as she travelled south” (21). Along with George Walley, it is the thrombolites that are the true heroes of Weldon’s creative recording of place. They teach her “to slow down” (95). “In stillness [Weldon writes] I have become more receptive to nature’s sacraments, aware of its orders and anomalies, attuned to the cadence of creation” (95–96).

In Weldon’s creative responses to Lake Clifton’s thrombolite reefs it is clear that she is a “faithful witness” to the “wonder that lies in the detail, and in the harmony of the whole” (112). She writes equally well of the Indigenous knowledge of seasons (see for example 8–9, 25–27, 67, 103, 160); of Melaleuca (see for example 28–29); of bush tucker and the relationship between Indigenous food gathering and ecology (see for example 42-43, 50, 124-129); and of the natural history of turtles and of the role of vocalisation in their adaptation (see for example 124–31, 142–43). She also explores the role of science in park management, such as in the measuring of nutrient levels and the possible impacts this might have on the thrombolite reefs (45), on attempts to regenerate the tuart trees throughout the park (99–102) and on the release of calicivirus as a control on rabbit populations (137–38). As Jason Cowley (2008: 9), the editor of the British literary journal Granta, has written: “the best nature writers do not simply want to walk into the wild, to rhapsodize and commune; they seek to see with a scientific eye and write with literary effect”. Weldon over-whelmingly deserves this highest praise.

There are some unfortunate times, however, when she anthropomorphises nature with lazy and sentimental results. Trees are not “generous in the habitat they provide to other life forms, often at the cost of their growth”, (101) – they are trees. And her description of a population of splendid fairy-wrens is particularly silly. Weldon writes that these small birds were “deliberately showing off … pivoting to catch the dappled light, so that it flashed on … their courting plumage”. She ends this rhapsody with the following banal reflection: “These are companionable birds, and when they fly alongside me in the bush, singing melodiously … I feel as though I am being welcomed and watched over” (107). Natural History tells a far more interesting story of the role of vocalisation in establishing group bonding and in aggressive territory display. These birds were not welcoming Weldon; they were “aggressively” warning her off! Weldon’s use of descriptive language can also be at times over-done. She is a little too often “overwhelmed”, “astounded”, and “acutely conscious” as she “thrills to nature”, while witnessing another “unforgettable night” and “nursing a profound disorientation”. But these are quibbles in what is a remarkable achievement. As Weldon says herself: when responding to place “we navigate by science but also by story” (24).

Weldon’s lyrical essays are enhanced by her photography, which is generously positioned throughout this part of her book. It is strange, therefore, that the poetry is sectioned off by itself with none of this colour and visual display. Part 1, which is made up of “essays, photos and nature notes”, is certainly where this book’s confidence and achievement rests. The poetry is more uneven. Much of Weldon’s poetry is rich in visual description, such as this evocation of Lake Clifton’s thrombolite reef:

By midsummer my lake is a sculpture

park lapped by sun, receding

water, bleached shores of thirsting

microbes that survive by sipping

groundseeps …

(180)

In another poem she describes the Yalgorup National Park as: “indented coves, salt-bitten / scrub, scoured dunes – / litanies of names for periphery” (216) while the trees: “say it slant, sinuous / pale limbs sky-flung / haloed in winter sun” (221). These lines are finely observed and demonstrate Weldon’s keen eye for visual imagery and ear for the cadence of language. But too often the poetry is didactic, teaching the scientific facts that Weldon has researched about the reef; so when standing before the thrombolites Weldon reminds us (yet again): “I breathe in, we / are breathing oxygen they release” (180) and “imagine, microbes exhaling / and ozone translating sky / blue” (210). And we shouldn’t need to be told that the thrombolites are “sacred stones” (180). Occasionally she resorts to cliché in her imagery, such as when responding to a massacre site, she: “holds her pen like a spade, to disturb / the surface” (187), or when she attempts to capture moments of the “sublime”. In “Homing”, for example, Weldon resorts to cliché in an attempt for profundity:

Essential in Zen landscapes

white space

separates earth and water.

 

Blank page or salt-edged lake

it is a place to which

thoughts flock.

(192)

While in “Hooded Plover” she writes:

Weeping is permitted in the ruins

of her scrape.

 

Fragments of unfledged line the sand hollow

where promise died.

 

A shallow grave for broken shells.

 

See how they point

to fragile, empty skies.

(208)

This description relies so heavily on sentimentality and plainly observed didacticism that it sinks into pathos. This is a great shame because, apart from these moments, this book has so much to enjoy and admire. The University of Western Australia’s press – UWA Publishing – has housed Weldon’s creative vision superbly. And Weldon’s respectful postcolonialism and homage to a “place” of such astounding cultural and ecological significance is exemplary. The book she constructs is not without need of some renovation but it is a dwelling I am pleased to call “home” while inhabiting her space. The Lake’s Apprentice is a significant contribution to the growing genre of place-based literature.

 

References

Cowley, Jason (ed) (2008) Granta: The New Nature Writing 102 ( Summer).

Hall, Phillip (2011) “gathering points: AUSTRALIAN POETRY: a natural selection”. Doctor of Creative Arts thesis, Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/3471

Kinsella, John (1996) “The Pastoral, and the Political Possibilities of Poetry”. Southerly 56, no 3: 36–42.

Ryan, John Charles (2014) “Australian Ecopoetics Past, Present and Future: What do the Plants Say?” Cordite Poetry Review 48, no. 1 (1 December): http://cordite.org.au/essays/australian-ecopoetics-ppp/

Seddon, George (1998) Landprints: Reflections on Place and Landscape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tredinnick, Mark (2009) The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Wright, Judith (1994) Collected Poems: 1942–1985. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

 

Phillip Hall works in remote Indigenous education in Borroloola, the Gulf of Carpentaria. He has been adopted as a Gudanji man; known also by his skin name of Jabala and his traditional or bush name of Gijindarraji where he is a member of the Rrumburriya clan; he is Jungkayi (custodian) for Jayipa. Phillip published Sweetened in Coals with Ginninderra Press in 2014.

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