Siobhan Hodge reviews Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt by Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

Tony Hughes-d-Aeth, Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2017. ISBN 9781742589244

 

Siobhan Hodge

 

Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt is Tony Hughes-d’Aeth’s generous but intentionally not exhaustive examination of several key poets and writers writing between the 19th and 20th centuries in the Western Australian wheatbelt region. In this sizeable text, the literary engagements of Albert Facey, Cyril Goode, James Pollard, John Ewers, Peter Cowan, Dorothy Hewett, Jack Davis, Barbara York Main, Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood and John Kinsella with this confronting environmental space and history are examined. Hughes-d’Aeth sensitively explores the legacy of the region and highlights on-going areas of concern.

Central to the text is the sense of the wheatbelt as a unique space within Australia’s literary and social history. Demarcation of the wheatbelt is a striking geographic phenomenon; the contrast between golden pasture and green bush is a sharp outline, setting out where human agricultural endeavours become reined in by the minimum rainfall threshold, followed by the rabbit-proof fence. The result is a sharp “clearing line”, established by both nature and humans alike. Hughes-d’Aeth illuminates the history of creative writing produced in and about this place: “the event is the creation of the wheatbelt and the witnesses are the creative writers” (3). The wheatbelt is transformed; Aboriginal people are excluded and the land is “denuded of its native vegetation”, in early novels by Tom Flood (1989) and John Ewers (1946), while their white Australian protagonists reflect on the sublime, intimidating vastness of the space. Hughes-d’Aeth begins by tracing the colonial creation of the wheatbelt, briefly outlining its devastating impacts on the Noongar people, before moving on to a more detailed examination of the economics and logistics of establishment, as well as environmentalist poetics.

There is a questioning undercurrent to Like Nothing on this Earth: “How, for instance, is an economic scheme for financial gain through the sale of cash crops also meant (and indeed felt) to be a return to nature? What exactly is natural about farming, and how can it be reconciled with its eradication of wilderness in southwestern Australia? Ideology answers these questions where it can, and where it cannot, it offers up methods by which they can be forestalled, evaded, repressed or transmuted into questions which can be more satisfactorily answered”(23). In the 1880s onwards, poetry and prose begin to reflect on wheat as a call to arms – as in Banjo Paterson – or as a more “natural” labour in comparison to city work, as in C. J. Dennis’ works (28). Hughes-d’Aeth pursues an “ideology of the wheat” to link this period with later works. The early writers covered in this introductory chapter connect the nascent wheatbelt with toil, suffering, and a dogged sense of determination to persevere. However, this is at the expense of both the Indigenous people and the environment itself. Later writers, such as John Kinsella, are still grappling with the legacy of these impacts. In the chapter on Kinsella, Hughes-d’Aeth engages with the environmentalist legacy of the wheatbelt, but observes that “one of the virtues of his [Kinsella’s] practice is that he has no time for the cult of purity that can afflict and pervert both modern environmentalism and contemporary eco-poetry” (539). There is a space for “feral restoration”, that is respectful and resilient.  Arguably, this is the most productive space possible for the wheatbelt’s on-going literary legacy: one of respectful acknowledgement of what is and has been, coupled with decisive action to do better by the land, its people, and the native populations of animals birds and plants.

Much of Like Nothing on this Earth is grounded in Hughes-d’Aeth’s delicate retellings of wheatbelt writers’ life stories, and how these have come to be reflected in their works. In one chapter, Hughes-d’Aeth analyses Albert Facey’s biographical tale of deprivation, and his time as a virtual child slave on an early wheatbelt property outlines the hardships of the period and space. Hughes-d’Aeth comments that “the strange mixture of isolation and common purpose that fused settlers together in their disparate existence was never clearer than in accounts of burning” (53), referring to the process of extermination burns to clear and permanently kill native vegetation, rather than carefully controlled Indigenous methods. Facey’s depictions of settler participation in these decisive burns are a formative act on the environment, destroying native species in order to more readily impose crop production on the land. Hughes-d’Aeth notes that the process was almost sacramental, cyclic. In the chapter on Cyril E. Goode’s poetry, this tendency is highlighted again: “In Goode’s poetry, particularly his later lamentations, clearing – as actual work – is often derided and treated as a kind of purgatory to which he had been unfairly condemned” (106). There is a sense of divorce from the environmental impacts of the act of clearing, but also a further linkage of the  dehumanising, oppressive nature of many of the tasks undertaken by settlers, both unwittingly and indifferently, and even on their own personal level.

The chapter on Jack Davis is exceptionally detailed and insightful, examining an Indigenous response to the acts and ideologies within the wheatbelt. Like Nothing on this Earth provides a historical overview of systemic oppression of Indigenous people within the wheatbelt, including an assessment of the uncertain and easily resumed parcelling out of land by the Mission to Aboriginal people, effectively excluding these people from the central business model of the wheatbelt applied by both Facey and Cyril, namely borrowing against the value of the land (328). Hughes-d’Aeth notes that Davis “was unusual in that he was genuinely bicultural in this highly segregated world. Educated and literature, and the son of a citizen, he did not suffer from an innate sense of difference from the white owners of stations” who systemically discriminated against him (342). Davis’ writing was initially a means of staving off boredom from camp life and while working on stations. Hughes-d’Aeth reflects that “Davis was the first to express a distinctly Aboriginal sense of the interface between country and city that characterises the Western Australian wheatbelt. It was not just a distinction between production and consumption, or nature and civility, or the rural and the urban – but a fundamental difference in the kind of history one, as an Aboriginal person, could inhabit” (352). The aim of Like Nothing on this Earth is not to offer terms for reconciliation, but rather to better preserve and illuminate the historical roots of on-going issues within the region, and perhaps nationally. There is certainly room for more detailed Indigenous engagements with the space of this discourse.

In his own words, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth has produced “an amalgam of literary history, literary sociology and literary geography” (554). Like Nothing on this Earth situates both the facts and fictions of the Western Australian wheatbelt within the bodies of writers, poets and their texts, as well as the physical environmental tolls on the land and its people. Importantly, Like Nothing on this Earth is not intended as an exhaustive encyclopaedia; it is a text inherently designed to evolve, making space for new facets and forms. Hughes-d’Aeth does not criticise the wheatbelt’s on-going position as an invaluable farming resource that continues to be exploited, but pushes for a more nuanced understanding of its value. The wheatbelt functions as a sublime space and state, inspiring both awe and horror, as well as serving as a living emblem of on-going tensions between Australia, its people, and its environment.

 

Siobhan Hodge has a PhD in English literature. She won the 2015 Patricia Hackett Poetry award and has had poetry, reviews and articles published in numerous places, including Westerly and Cordite. She is Reviews editor for Writ Review and an Associate Editor for Rochford Street Review, and has a chapbook Justice for Romeo coming out with Cordite Books in 2018.

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