Inside Story

Golden disobedience: the history of Eric Rolls

For Eric Rolls, historical writing needed to serve the future, writes Tom Griffiths

Tom Griffiths 9 August 2016 5300 words

Irrepressible optimist: historian Eric Rolls. Peter Solness/National Library of Australia

When I read A Million Wild Acres soon after it was published in 1981, I realised I had encountered something momentous. It was a history of a forest in northern New South Wales, the Pilliga “Scrub” (as it was disdainfully known), written by a local farmer, Eric Rolls. It is a regional history like no other, where birds, animals and plants share the stage with humans. I felt as poet Les Murray did when he wrote of Rolls’s book that he read and reread it “with all the delight of one who knows he has at last got hold of a book that is in no way alien to him.” I was living in Melbourne and was moved to write to the author, whom I had not met and could hardly dream of ever meeting, and who seemed to live in an extraordinary, magical and especially dynamic place. It was slightly mystifying because I recalled once as a child in the 1960s being driven through Coonabarabran, and I could remember the vast tracts of the Pilliga Scrub rolling endlessly past the car window. It had not seemed extraordinary, magical and especially dynamic then. Had it changed? Had I changed? Had this man’s book opened my eyes? All of the above. I had never before realised how strongly words on a page could animate actuality.

In my mid twenties and freshly home from my first trip overseas, I therefore wrote a brief letter to Eric Rolls, telling him that A Million Wild Acres was one of a handful of books about Australia that I would like to put in the hands of any visitor to help him or her understand my country. Now I would make greater claims for it. I think it is the best environmental history yet written of Australia, and I would hope it could be read not just by visitors but by all Australians. Eric was seduced by the vastness, mystery and wildness of the forest beside his farm, and by its “scented tunnels.” He ended up writing, as he put it, “the story of a forest which grew up and drove men out.”

I wrote a letter to Eric not because I wanted or expected a reply, but because I had to write it. But he did reply. He told me of the work he was doing on his history of the Chinese in Australia (which became Sojourners), offering me a brief, vivid snippet of his writing life. I now know that Eric got lots of letters like mine, and that he replied to more than I would have thought possible. I’ve been looking at his correspondence in the archives.

Eric’s papers, mountains of them, are in at least three libraries. He conducted a quiet, constant, private dialogue with his readers in parallel with his public writings and presentations. With such letters, Eric continued his quest to educate his fellow citizens, one by one. And among the correspondence you can find testimony from people moved by his books to write to him, even when writing does not always come easily to them. Some people normally unfamiliar with written words are clearly living Eric’s words. One wrote in stumbling script of A Million Wild Acres: “This is the first book I have ever read. Thank you for writing it. I enjoyed it so much I am now going to try reading other books.”

Another correspondent wrote at more length and with spelling difficulties:

Dear Eric,

Just a note or a few words, to say how much I liked your two books, A Million Wild Acres, “They All Ran Wild.” The best I have seen. I will get your other books and read them soon.

I would of liked to been with you, and read all the books and papers, and places you went to-get all the true information. A great bit of work. I do not no how many times I have read “A Million Wild Acres.” I no I have read “They All Ran Wild” twice last month.

… I lived all my early life at Pilliga. I will tell you more later. I like reading History of Australia. And you love the Bush, and no all about it.

… If you are ever over this way call in and have a yarn, and stay with your family. We have plenty of room. I will write again to you soon, hope you get some rain. “And keep writing,” all the best.

Yours truly…

And here are the words of another reader who admitted (like me) that she did not often write fan letters, but in this case could not stop herself: “I enjoyed your book more than I am capable of expressing. You made the Pilliga come alive on the page and I hope you make trillions… On nearly every page I found something to exclaim over (mostly I exclaimed how on earth did this man have time to fit in the farming!).”

Eric often wondered that himself. He wrote of the constant battle between words and acres, between the soil as a source of his originality and the farm as a demanding distraction. He knew that the battle to win time for writing was part of the necessary discipline. When I talked to Eric in his seventy-seventh year, he declared that “unless you feel so intensely about writing that you are prepared to murder anybody who stops you getting to your desk, it’s no use thinking of being a writer.”

In his book Doorways: A Year of the Cumberdeen Diaries (1989), Eric describes his workspace, his desk, as it was at his farm “Cumberdeen” on Pretty Plains. He always wrote with his back to a broad window, the words in front of him, the acres behind. “The imagination works better against a blank wall,” he says. But the sun on his back warmed him, reminding him of the outside world he was trying to capture on paper. Of his silky oak desk, he says: “Everything on it knows its place. Words come to it that I am not expecting.” On that desk were a pile of handwritten notebooks, eleven dictionaries and books of words, and a typed outline of his current book. He added five new pages of writing to the pile each day. Empty blocks of lined A4 paper sat beside him, as did the two fountain pens that had written all his books. In front of him was a large, disconcerting pile of letters that needed answering, and that we now know he would eventually get to. There was also a big splinter of fragrant sandalwood, a tail feather from a swamp pheasant, little soapstone turtles from China, a branding iron and two blocks of mulga.

Let’s imagine Eric there at his desk, wrestling with words and acres in the late 1970s as the book he has always wanted to write materialises into chapters – but never fast enough! He described the battle in letters to Sue Ebury, the editor at Thomas Nelson Publishers with whom he worked on A Million Wild Acres, and also to his agent, Tim Curnow.

In October 1974, Eric offered the idea of the book to his publishers and they accepted it immediately and enthusiastically. He told them he hoped that it might be finished in seven months. But two years later the final writing had hardly begun. On the first of June 1976, with years of experience, observation and research behind him, he took a deep breath: “The frame of the book is already mostly planned – it is only wording to be considered.” Three months later he reported: “I’ve got within a fortnight of beginning to write and am getting excited.” Another year later, in September 1977, Eric explained to his publisher that he had not yet signed their contract because he was “frightened harvest is going to fall on me like a guillotine when there are two chapters still to go. I don’t want to let anyone down and enough money has come in to keep me writing until harvest – so I’ll just do my damndest and see how far I get.” “Most days,” he added, “I read about six hours and write for six – if it is not ready on time it won’t be for lack of trying.”

But the acres continually interrupted the words. Another year later, in September 1978, he explained:

I lost three precious weeks writing when the lad who was working here burnt himself as he began crop spraying – he is still off work but I’m back to the writing. The tractor we use for odd jobs was burnt completely. I had to finish spraying then do the summer ploughing. It is cruel changing over from writing to farming unexpectedly. And I’d been concentrating so hard I was not even living in this century when it happened.

“One nearly gets torn in halves sometimes trying to lead two lives,” he exclaimed. But “Without the farm there would have been no book, even if it delayed publication.” Eric believed that contact with the soil preserves a writer’s essential sense of the ridiculous. As a farmer, he reflected that “Some years one can look back with considerable self-mockery and realise that if one had done nothing at all one would be much better off.” And Eric was never afraid of getting his hands dirty. Instead of writing a general statement like “ploughing killed native plants and encouraged weeds,” he reported: “I have had well-worked cultivation paddocks growing dense weeds up to forty centimetres high. I crawled about them looking for native plants and could not find one.”

In his house, he virtually re-enacted the settlement process he was describing. Just getting the right pioneers into the right places at the right time was a demanding and arduous job. He recalled: “I lined all the men up against one wall – thirty-seven men – each had a pile of papers, each named, all their years, and then I had the map at the other end of the room. I’d pick up a pile and march the man across the room to his place on the map… You had to see him getting there.”

A reviewer of the book, the environmental historian and philosopher George Seddon, later described these early chapters of the book as “like the Book of Genesis, with its endless ‘And Joktan begat Almodad, and Sheleph and Hazarmaveth, and Jerah.’ There is a walk-on-walk-off cast of thousands, and the detail is numbing – but this is the Pilliga Book of Genesis, and I think the author was right to put it all in.”

In July 1979, Eric reflected on a job nearly complete:

The end of the Pilliga book is in sight, thank God. I’m appalled that it has run so long over time. Each estimate I made seemed certain – I know how much I can do a day. Then what seemed certain plans for the farm would come unstuck and I’d have to do a couple of months’ hard work. It is hard not to go on writing and leave it. But one has to be practical. If we went broke in the middle of the book it would cost more time than ever. And there is not much leeway on the land now. Fixed costs are enormous and increasing. As much as I love the farm, it will have to be sold. It will not only cost me too much time but too many books. I’m also afraid it will cost me years of my life. It is excruciatingly difficult each time coming back to an unfinished chapter. So much reading has to be done again – days of it.

And on 4 October that year, 1979, he records: “I’ve just written the last word of the Pilliga book.”

Three years of intense writing, in the available spaces. But for years before there had been the source material of experience, of life with the soil, of walking and talking the forest, collecting scats to analyse animal hairs, learning the names of plants, often for the first time, mastering in words the craft of the timber-getters. And all that correspondence! Eric’s papers spill out with letters requesting and receiving information: To the curator of mammals at the Australian Museum, “How rare is the rat kangaroo?”… and could they possibly, as one old-timer attested, “be seen hopping about in dozens on a moonlight night”? To the Patent Trade Marks and Design Office in Canberra, “Can you tell me anything about early patents for barbed wire in Australia?” To the secretary of RAS Kennel Control, “Can you tell me if there is still a breed of dog known as a staghound?” To the president of the Quirindi and District Historical Society, “Do you know exactly how the old acetylene lights worked?” To Mrs King of the Tamworth Historical Society, “Have you any local information about the construction of George Clarke’s stock yards at Boggabri – near Barber’s Lagoon?”

It is the detail that matters, and it is getting it right that matters, too. “Much of the game of writing history,” he declares at the start of the book, “is keeping it true.” And keeping it true, for Eric, means not just finding out what happened, but also finding a sense of wonder about it, and understanding it in such detail and with such precision that he can make the story live. Use of the active tense – and his books bristle with it – requires quite specific knowledge. The passive tense, by contrast, allows slippage and can mask ignorance. Rolls’s prose is bracing and vivid. “At times,” he says, “I can even smell what I’m writing about.” His books won many awards, but he was particularly proud to win the Braille Book of the Year and the Talking Book of the Year, for he often said, “I write to make people see.” There is also a “swagger” to his style – and he consciously cultivates it – because it enables him to tell a story with conviction. This careful accretion of authentic organic detail generates the power of his non-fiction. But Eric would have refused that division of fiction and non-fiction. As he put it, “There’s imaginative writing and pedestrian writing, that’s all.”

Les Murray celebrated this literary quality in 1982 in a wonderful manifesto called “Eric Rolls and the Golden Disobedience.” Murray grew up near the great forests of the lower north coast of New South Wales, where his father had been a bullock driver and timber-getter, and he remembered his father’s stories of the thickening bush. He therefore seized Rolls’s “prose masterpiece” with a kind of elation because it gave credence and dignity to vernacular experience. Eric’s disobedience, explained Murray, was his freedom to sidestep received literary sensibilities, his ability to transcend the conventional boundaries between fiction and non-fiction and between humanity and nature, and his commitment to ecological democracy. In the early ’80s that unruliness seemed “to be available to non-fiction writers in greater measure than to other writers of literary texts.” “It is even possible,” he continues, “that the novel, a form we have adopted from elsewhere, may not be the best or only form which extended prose fiction here requires.” Murray was describing an Australian style of landscape writing as “made up of strings of vivid, minute fact which often curl up in intricate knottings of digression.” Nicholas Rothwell, working in this tradition and honouring it, sees the method as “a reflection of the bush itself in all its reduplications and its beginning everywhere and nowhere, its undelineated expansiveness.” Murray considered A Million Wild Acres to be like an extended, crafted campfire yarn in which everyone has the dignity of a name, and in which the animals and plants have equal status with humans in the making of history: “It is not purely human history, but ecological history he gives us… one which interrelates the human and non-human dimensions so intimately.” Murray compared its discursive and laconic tone to the Icelandic sagas. Through his democratic recognition of all life, Rolls enchanted the forest and presented us with a speaking land, a sentient country raucous with sound.

One of the book’s heroes is Eric’s beloved tree, the white cypress pine (callitris), especially the magnificent “Old Greys” that come to life in open grassland and die in heavy forest. The cypress pine was a kind of brother creature that also lived life passionately. Rolls wrote that “at pollination time when hundreds of cones go off together with a sharp crack and spurt brown pollen a metre into the air, the whole tree shivers.” “One does not expect a tree to move in passion.” When Eric died on the last day of October 2007, his family and friends had a coffin made for him by a local carpenter – it was a simple, oblong box with silver handles and was made of white cypress pine from the Pilliga.

When I spoke to Eric seven years before his death, he reflected on the writing of A Million Wild Acres:

I began to think that the whole forest seemed to be an animate thing, with voices, and that perhaps I ought to give the trees themselves an identity, and then I thought that’s absolute bloody nonsense, you’ve got a wonderful story to tell, just tell it in a straightforward manner in the best way it can be written. One of the reviews said that the whole book reads as though the trees themselves were telling the story, which delighted me. If I’d tried to do it that way, the book would have been hopeless.

One of Eric’s earliest public performances made nature animate. Every Friday afternoon at his kindergarten in Grenfell, his teacher Miss Postlethwaite used to tell the class stories. She would do this from her slightly elevated stage, with a mat at her feet. But she was rather dull. So one day, five-year-old Eric put up his hand and said, “Miss Postlethwaite, I’d like to tell a story this afternoon.” She said, “All right, come out here.” Eric was prepared. It was sowing time on the farm, so he went up the front and pretended he was a grain of wheat. He jiggled down into the ground and buried himself in the earth, pulling the mat over his body. Then the roots grew and the legs stuck out. Then leaves sprouted and the arms waved. The little boy wriggled and danced. As Eric recalled, “So I grew up, and a header came along and stripped me, and then the sheep went into the paddock and I got eaten.” He started telling stories every Friday afternoon, and adults began to join the gathering, too, making quite an audience. “I realised that telling stories was a good thing to do if you did it properly.”

Born in western New South Wales in 1923, Eric was five years old when his father drove north from Grenfell to Narrabri to take up his own farm. Well, it was not really his own farm; the rabbits owned it. The farm was too far from any school Eric could attend, so he had to wait until he was seven to begin lessons with Blackfriars Correspondence School. He recalled how he “spent two exciting years with a pack of dogs walking about hunting rabbits into burrows and hollow logs” so that his father could chop them or dig them out. He slept on the verandah of the wooden homestead, waking at night to watch the play of moon shadows and in the early morning to see the light come onto the Nandewar Ranges. Eric later won selection to Fort Street Boys’ High School in Sydney, where, as he recalled, he taught the other kids how animals reproduced and they taught him how humans did. He missed the chance to go to university because he got chicken pox just prior to his exams, and then the second world war intervened. After serving in Papua New Guinea he returned to Australia, where he farmed his own land for forty years on the edges of the Pilliga Scrub. Eric wrote more than twenty books, as well as hundreds of articles and essays, mostly in the second half of his life.

As the success of A Million Wild Acres both settled and unsettled his life, he did a stocktake:

On my sixtieth birthday I happened to be working out how many years it would take me to write the next five books: say another three years on this one, eighteen months, two years on that, seven years’ research and writing on the next big one. Then I realised with considerable shock how old I would be. I decided from then on to work words a day every day instead of acres.

The central story of A Million Wild Acres is a simple and compelling one, told richly and persuasively. It is, in Eric’s words, about the growing of a forest. His original achievement was to confront and provoke Australians with the idea that in many areas of the country, landscapes that had once been grassy and open are now densely vegetated, that there might be more trees in Australia now than at the time of European settlement, that forests – which we so readily and romantically see as primeval – could often be the creation of our own act of settlement. How many trees make a forest, he asked? “It is not a paradox that the fires that once kept our forests open should now cause them to grow denser.” Eric brought an observation that was commonplace in local lore forcefully into the scientific and historical literature. Many of today’s forests, Rolls reminded us, are not remnants of a primeval jungle: “They do not display the past as it was, they have concentrated it.”

Eric portrayed them as different and new; he revealed them to be exaggerated communities of plants and animals, as habitats both volatile and vulnerable. As Les Murray put it, Rolls’s work recognised that Europeans arrived in Australia to find a vast parkland, “a paysage humanisé and moralisé which the Aborigines had maintained for untold centuries.” The “wilderness we now value and try to protect,” agreed Murray, “came with us, the invaders. It came in our heads, and it gradually rose out of the ground to meet us.” However that thesis might be challenged in various details and regions, we will not now retreat from the fundamental and enduring truth at the heart of it. Eric offered us not only a scientific insight, but also a poetic one, and the two visions are necessarily intertwined.

Ross Gibson, who (with John Cruthers) made the award-winning film Wild based on Eric’s book, described his history of the Pilliga as an “unruly tract of local history” and “a deliberately feral book.” “Feral” is a fitting adjective for the work of the author of that other landmark book, They All Ran Wild: The Story of Pests on the Land in Australia (1969). “Wild” has often been used to describe nature that is untouched and pristine. But Eric the farmer found “wild” nature to be feral, mongrel and hybrid, nature stirred up, nature enlivened by human presence and intervention; it was dynamic, historical nature. So the forest that he grew in the pages of his book was “concentrated” and volatile.

When Eric’s editor, Sue Ebury, suggested the title A Million Wild Acres, Rolls had reservations: “I’m a bit dubious about another title with wild in it – I am partly civilised.” Eric’s own earlier suggestions had celebrated the novelty of the nature he described: “Pilliga,” “An Exaggerated Country,” “Unexpected Forests,” “Phoenix Forest,” or “Ungentle Men Unsettled Land.” “Wildness” fascinated him: the invaders – the cattle, rabbits, foxes, with their adaptability and sheer vigour even as they wrought damage – and the feral humans, too, the “wild men,” the “ungentle” white settlers of Australia. He was impatient with those who disowned such ancestors. “This book,” he writes in A Million Wild Acres, “is not written by a gentle man.”

A Million Wild Acres challenged the traditional contrasts of European settler thinking about nature. It revolutionised those assumptions that disturbed nature is somehow always lesser nature. Such views brought Eric into conflict with aspects of the green movement. At the same time as recognising the fragility and integrity of native ecosystems, he wanted to acknowledge the creative ecology of invasion. This relish for the fecundity of life and an irrepressible optimism also underpinned Eric’s joint advocacy of the causes of nature conservation, on the one hand, and human immigration to Australia on the other. He was always determined to see the creativity of encounter.

When Rolls was writing A Million Wild Acres, the conservation battlegrounds in Australia were the rainforests, most notably at Terania Creek in northern New South Wales in 1979. As Rolls acknowledges in his final chapter, woodchipping was also an issue and had become shorthand for indiscriminate forest clearing and exploitation. Rolls considered it a necessary industry committed to unnecessary destruction. So his book was written in the midst of those campaigns, when forests were depicted as timeless and primeval, and human disturbance meant the destruction of trees. He wrote a detailed regional study showing that forests could also be the creation of settlement. He wasn’t the first to notice this phenomenon: the anthropologist, naturalist and explorer Alfred Howitt, for example, presented his observations of the increasing density of forests in Gippsland to a scientific audience in 1890. The power of A Million Wild Acres was that it gave voice to a myriad of these earlier observers. And Rolls told a multi-causal story of how it had happened in one region, a place he knew intimately. He saw system and pattern and creativity in it. His book attracted little scientific or green criticism for over a decade-and-a-half, awaiting another political context. By the mid to late 1990s, the frontline of conservation battles had moved from the logging of old-growth forests on public land to the clearing of native vegetation for farming on private or leasehold land. In this new context, Rolls’s argument about the history of tree density was misinterpreted for political purposes by both farmers and scientists.

There was also continuing scientific and cultural resistance to recognising the significance and sophistication of Aboriginal burning. As Judith Wright wrote in her 1982 review of A Million Wild Acres:

It is as strange to me as to Rolls that some scientists and others still dispute the effect of Aboriginal fire-management, or even that there was such management. Again and again in my own reading of stock-inspectors’ reports in the Queensland of the sixties and seventies, there is reference to the change in pasture growth and shrub cover which followed the vanishing of the Aborigines and the fierce protectiveness of squatters for their timber fences, huts, yards and vulnerable slow-moving flocks of sheep. But no doubt such evidence is too much that of laymen to be trusted by academic ecologists.

The politics of this issue are so embedded and have such a long history that they are often unconscious. Scientific disdain for Aboriginal ecological knowledge was once racist; now it is sometimes simply anti-humanist. In other words, the same scientific suspicions can apply to settler knowledge – indeed to local knowledge of any kind – because it is human, anecdotal and apparently informal. So the debate about Rolls’s work sometimes presents itself as a clash of disciplinary styles, a methodological tension between the sciences and the humanities. The very qualities for which literary scholars and cultural historians celebrate Rolls’s book – its vernacular and organic dimensions, holism and narrative power – can be seen by others to diminish its scientific credentials. But Eric himself continually paid tribute to scientists, and his book Australia: A Biography (2000) was dedicated to them.

Eric was never afraid of a dangerous idea. He liked to tell it as he saw it. It got him into trouble, of course. When Pauline Hanson called Aborigines “cannibals,” he responded that she was more savage than any cannibal. When he wrote an article about the damage that cats do to the environment, the Sun-Herald reported that they had never had so many letters and phone calls about anything they had ever published, and Eric received violent threats, including from one woman who threatened to burn his home and his car and to destroy everything he owned. When researching an essay on the use and abuse of water resources for the Independent Monthly in 1992, he told the editor, Max Suich, of how his research had provoked a dark, watery threat: “I had no idea that things are as serious as they are, or that it will take so long to rectify them, or that there are such murderous forces at work opposing change. It is quite startling to be told ‘you better pull your punches or you’ll end up with concrete shoes.’ I haven’t pulled any punches.” He was just as ready to run the gauntlet of the conservationists as he was the developers or the bureaucrats. He was especially critical if any of them were “short on history.”

“People,” declared Eric Rolls, “must always be given hope.” He was an irrepressible optimist. He was prepared to deliver the hard, grim facts when necessary, but he also wanted to inspire action and guide change, and for that, he knew, we do indeed need hope. Historian though he was (as well as poet, farmer, cook and fisherman), Eric also believed that “tomorrow is more exciting than yesterday.” He had faith in the future, and in the capacity of people to meet it; he was a historian whose history had to serve the future for which he was so hungry.

There was a fearlessness about Eric’s work, as well as a swagger. And there is a complexity to A Million Wild Acres behind the compelling narrative power. It is a truly original work, yet it speaks directly to so many people; it is unique and pathbreaking, yet it also seems to represent an organic integrity and a common vernacular. That is Eric’s artistic achievement. That is why readers wrote to him, and why reviewers compared A Million Wild Acres to the Book of Genesis, or a campfire yarn, or an Icelandic saga. That is why it is possible for this to be the first book someone might ever read. •

This an extract from Tom Griffiths’s The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft, published last month by Black Inc., and full references are provided there. The essay draws on the papers of Eric Rolls in the Mitchell and National Libraries and an interview he conducted with Eric on 19 February 2000. An earlier version of this essay appeared in J. Dargavel, D. Hart and B. Libbis (eds) The Perfumed Pineries, Australian Forest History Society, Canberra, 2001, which was reproduced as an introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Eric Rolls, A Million Wild Acres, Hale & Iremonger, 2011. Other sources quoted above include: Les Murray, “Eric Rolls and the Golden Disobedience,” in his A Working Forest: Selected Prose, Duffy and Snellgrove, 1997; George Seddon, “Dynamics of Change,” Overland, 87, May 1982, pp. 55–60; Nicholas Rothwell, “What Lies Beyond Us,” Eric Rolls Memorial Lecture, National Library of Australia, 22 October 2014, broadcast on ABC Radio National “Big Ideas,” 6 November 2014; Ross Gibson, “Enchanted Country,” World Literature Today, 67 (3), 1993, pp. 471–6; Alfred Howitt, “The Eucalypts of Gippsland,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Victoria, 2, 1890, pp. 811–20; and Judith Wright, “A Chronicle of White Settlement,” Island Magazine, 12, 1982, pp. 44–45. For more on historical debates about vegetation change, see Tom Griffiths, “How Many Trees Make a Forest? Cultural Debates about Vegetation Change in Australia,” Australian Journal of Botany, 50 (4), 2002, pp. 375–89.