Inside Story

Professor of everything

George Seddon helped his readers see Australia from the inside

Tom Griffiths 3 December 2019 3650 words

Lured by the challenge of new fields: polymath George Seddon. Detail from a photo held by UWA Archives, 61425P

George Seddon (1927–2007) was sometimes called “the professor of everything.” He did indeed hold appointments as a professor of geology, a professor of history and philosophy of science and a professor of environmental science, and he also taught in departments of English and philosophy. But there was something very unacademic about Seddon. Although he respected the scholarly literature, he also prized his organic originality. “I arrived at it in my own way,” he might say of an intellectual insight, pleased to have formed a position without the guidance of academic authorities. There was a cheeky pride in his native wit, in his ability to improvise and invent, to trip lightly over difficult terrain. This was the Man from Snowy River speaking.

These two images of Seddon — the professor of everything and the Man from Snowy River — are not as contradictory as they may at first seem. Professors are generally of something quite specific — even of accounting these days — and they preside over scholarly disciplines and social systems that discourage movement across them. To be a professor of everything is to be undisciplined. It is to be a maverick and a show-off; it is to elevate ideas over method, reality over abstraction, wit over earnestness. These are Australian bush virtues.

Seddon considered himself an intellectual more than a scholar. Being undisciplined, or temporarily disciplined, was his preferred state. In some senses he didn’t want to steep himself for too long in any one academic discourse, because his aspiration was not so much to master it as to reconnoitre (or even pre-empt) it. He enjoyed coming at things obliquely. That was the source of his originality. And it was perhaps an awareness of this that kept him moving, geographically and academically. Seddon was lured by the challenge of new fields in which to apply his adaptable intellect, and propelled by an uneasiness about becoming mainstream. The more one knows, or is expected to know, the harder it is to be cheeky. In the spaces and tensions between scholarly disciplines lies the freedom to be original. But one can’t dwell there; you have to keep moving.

Seddon’s family kept him moving from the moment he was born. His father was a bank manager and took jobs in various country towns in northwestern and central Victoria: Berriwillock, Romsey, Heathcote, Mildura, Nhill, Horsham. His adult life maintained the pattern on a larger canvas: Melbourne, England, Portugal, Canada, Perth, the United States, Sydney, Melbourne, Venice, Perth. His academic behaviour, as we have seen, was just as nomadic: English, geology, philosophy, history, environmental science, Australian literature. The first kind of mobility is common in academia, the second almost unheard of.

Academia — a wonderful word that concatenates arcadia, dementia and media — is international in orientation. In Australia at least, publishing or presenting overseas still has more clout than performing locally, and many Australian academics know Europe better than their own state. Seddon was an unusual academic in that he always knew where he was. “I’m a catchment boy,” he said. “I like to know where the rivers run.” Bushwalking was his favourite recreation. He fell between two stereotypes (or perhaps he straddled them). One is the intellect that is organic — that is emotionally and physically attached to one place and derives insights and meaning from that place. The other is the mind that develops through restlessness and, in becoming international, becomes almost placeless. Seddon presented a rare combination of the two: he was able to move easily in an international scene and say things of relevance to many places — he acquired Portuguese, Spanish, French, German and Italian, and in English he spoke with what he hoped was a “placeless accent” — yet he regularly invested creative energy in one place, and wanted to get to know it, physically and intellectually, from the inside.

This paradox was resolved, or at least accommodated, in his passion for gardening. Wherever he went, Seddon cultivated the soil and, quite literally, put down roots. The gardens he created have the same mixture of influences he carried himself: historical traditions that have to be respected, a dash of international style and a commitment to intimate native associations. He was determined to foster gardening habits that were frugal, ecological and local. His intensive local and regional studies — of Perth (with David Ravine), the Swan River, the Snowy River, and his own suburb of Fremantle — were his gardening writ large. They were the big backyards of his urban existence. In the 1970s, when Seddon was founding director of the Centre for Environmental Studies at the University of Melbourne, he became a key player in premier Rupert Hamer’s reconfiguration of Victoria as “The Garden State.”

His instinctively comparative mind was fascinated by contrasts of scale: he wrote in Sense of Place that “the world is now our toxic oyster” and he characterised the global village and the rebirth of regionalism as the tension between “jet-set and parish pump.” Seddon challenged the comfortable wisdom of “the tyranny of distance” and suggested we think of Australia as “a small country with big distances.” His work made strong connections between gardening and environmental history, putting the backyard into the national narrative, observing for example that “domestic lawn is one of the major irrigated crops in Australia.” An enthusiastic review of his 1997 collection of essays, Landprints, in the Sydney Morning Herald was even entitled “Backyard Solutions to Save the World.”

It would be easy to suggest that Seddon’s gardens and his regional studies were his response to city living and to a life of mobility, a sort of displacement therapy with its origins in a peripatetic childhood. (Even his birth certificate is dislocated. It says that he was born in Sea Lake, whereas it should have paid tribute to the nearby and otherwise little-celebrated Mallee township of Berriwillock.) Perhaps Seddon’s habit of attaching himself to place — and such a conscious, intellectual form of attachment — was his way of compensating for the social disorientation he experienced. He talked often of “orienting” himself — or, like the good naturalised Western Australian that he became, of “occidenting.” His strongest childhood memories were of landscape — the giant red gums of the Murray River and the damp volcanic undulations of Ballarat, where he went for secondary schooling — and he recalled the social stratification of country towns, where a bank manager’s family drifted somewhere in the middle tier of the professional hierarchy, with the doctor and lawyer above, the clergy and headmaster below. He experienced the marginality of boarding at a distant private school and of doing a compressed university degree at the end of the war. He then left Australia at the age of twenty-one to explore and work in Britain, Europe and America, to become a kind of occidental tourist. “I did all my youth very young,” he recalled.

Arriving in Europe was a revelation. Reflecting on his passage to England through the Mediterranean, he wrote: “This was the world of my schooling, yet I was experiencing it for the first time; the world where I was born and have lived most of my life, I have had to learn for myself.” He discovered that his education was upside down and that he had allegiances to both Europe and Australia. In Europe he encountered the sources of the concepts of harmony, proportion and composition that were deeply embedded in his aesthetic training, and he began to explore what was both enabling and disabling for an Australian working in these inherited cultural traditions.

Much of Seddon’s thinking and writing was to grow out of this dialogue across hemispheres, this self-consciousness as an “antipodean,” as Peter Beilharz observed in his review of Landprints. Seddon’s intellectual fellow travellers included Bernard Smith, the author of European Vision and the South Pacific (1960), Keith Hancock, the Commonwealth historian who was famously in love with “two soils,” and Joe Powell, a British-born Australian historical geographer who studied the fate of European images in the New World.

Seddon had two consuming passions: landscape and language. He was expert at reading landscapes and weeding the garden of words, and he believed in the practical insights that language offers to landscape design. Landprints united earth and paper in its title and was illustrated with inscriptions of nature and culture: concentric and radial sheep tracks, the feeding patterns of small crustaceans, the lines of middle-class Melbourne suburbia oriented to the compass. Seddon sought to master the grammar of landscape. He was interested in the history of words and loved playing with them.

And words opened doors for him. He recalled his two years as an English master at Winchester College, England, in the early 1950s, as “one of the most intense periods of my life.” In this setting, where “trained minds” were acquired by studying Latin and Greek, he felt “more alive than I have ever been before or since.” He found the college community to be “inclusive, deeply humane and deeply serious, committed to human decency, scholarship and ideas.” “But it was also exuberant, exhilarating, full of fun… I have never since been in a community of people who so loved their language… who delighted in its every inflection and richness and absurdity, and played with it, tossed it back and forth, as a precious toy.” He wrote to a fellow teacher there: “I saw myself [at Winchester] as socially disadvantaged in some ways — I didn’t have an upper middle class or aristocratic background — but the one entry to that society was verbal dexterity, wit. I could make people laugh and they could make me laugh.”

Seddon had an impish sense of humour, light and occasionally savage, as scathing as it could be self-deprecating. At Winchester he came under the spell of Walter Oakeshott, headmaster of the college from 1946 to 1954 and a notable scholar of medieval literature. Seddon had access to the college’s collection of medieval manuscripts, including the famous Winchester manuscript of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur discovered by Oakeshott. He also relished the opportunity to work with the headmaster on a notebook of Sir Walter Raleigh’s that contained preparatory material for his History of the World. All Seddon’s early mentors — Jack Dart, headmaster of Ballarat Grammar School, “the first person I met for whom intellectual inquiry was a passion,” Nonie Gibson (later Dame Leonie Kramer) and Ian Maxwell at the University of Melbourne, and Oakeshott at Winchester — were ardent teachers and scholars of literature.

Seddon described himself as having “a literary intelligence,” one that finds exceptions to the rule, argues from the particular to the general and is philosophical rather than theoretical, speculative rather than abstract. His linguistic bias made him interested in metaphors, especially in the language of science. To strengthen his understanding, he enrolled part-time in undergraduate biological and earth sciences while lecturing in English at the University of Western Australia. With the help of study leave, he completed an MSc and PhD in geology at the University of Minnesota in 1964–66. This lover of poetics found himself studying geology right at the time that it was embracing plate tectonics, a dramatic paradigm shift for the discipline. He found that geology shared with English “the taste for particularity, the delight in the infinitely varied living earth.” Geology deepened his sense of time — Fernand Braudel, master of la longue durée, thus became his favourite historian — and strengthened both his empiricism and pragmatism. Seddon’s geological imagination enabled him to suggest that, from an agricultural point of view, a useful question to ask a continent was “Did you have a good Pleistocene?” It was a question that Australia failed.

I can’t help but see George Seddon as part of a masculine tradition of nature and landscape writing in Australia that goes back to the nineteenth century, one that celebrates country childhoods and explores tensions between the city and the bush, the field and the academy, and the amateur and the professional. Writers such as Donald Macdonald, Charles Barrett, R.H. Croll, Alec Chisholm and Crosbie Morrison promoted Australian nature and landscape to the general public through newspapers, books and, later, radio. They identified an informal bush education as the source of special moral and physical virtues, and advocated a combination of indoor and outdoor learning, of intellect and feeling, science and romance. Seddon once wrote an essay entitled “In Praise of Country Boys,” exploring the practical and political benefits of a country upbringing. He was more scholarly than any of these predecessors, but he shared their combination of vernacular and learned wisdom, their fascination with the determinism of place, their love of the essay and occasionally their scepticism about “armchair theorists.” He was eager, for instance, to assess the likelihood of ancient Aboriginal occupation of parts of the Snowy River gorge by drawing on his own experience of camping there, his intimate canoeist’s knowledge of where the sun falls and the wind blows.

He was himself very much a country boy. “Boyish” is one of the words I would choose to describe Seddon. It is a term now out of vogue, but in the early traditions of Australian nature writing, there could be no more positive an adjective. Macdonald, Barrett and Chisholm wrote “Notes for Boys” as well as “Nature Notes” in early-twentieth-century Australian newspapers. “Boys” was, for them, expressive of a sort of freedom and emotional irresponsibility that they hankered after for life. In “Notes for Boys” they passed on bush lore, martial instruction and the sense of a sacred male camaraderie that thrived in the open air of Australia. “Boyhood,” and a country boyhood at that, was the ideal of this masculinist culture.

Although Seddon did his youth very young, it stayed with him. Perhaps it was the benefit of having a long-lived mother. Seddon in his seventies still had a spring in his step and a youthful air, and he loved being cocky and cheeky, at once infuriating and lovable. He refused to be politically correct. His prose was manly, his metaphors often masculine. Robyn Williams wrote of Seddon’s “intellectual physicality” and Sam Pickering of his “muscular” prose. This was partly Seddon the field scientist coming through, his commitment to a vigorous outdoor inquiry, but it is also the “boy” testing himself and revelling in his sensuous engagement with nature.

But if Seddon in this sense brought echoes of an early twentieth-century culture unfashionably into the beginning of the twenty-first, he was also, in many ways, ahead of his time. Seddon was a connoisseur of landscape, of its surface forms, the arrangement of its features, its felicitous routes of passage, yet he was able also to plumb its depths and mysteries, to analyse it formally and technically. Whereas his approach may have been received initially as a novel contribution to environmental planning, historical geography or landscape architecture, it came to be celebrated as a forerunner of environmental history. By subtitling his 1994 book on the Snowy River “An Environmental History,” Seddon recognised this shift in his concerns and invoked a lineage he admired, one that embraced Keith Hancock’s Discovering Monaro (1972) and Eric Rolls’s A Million Wild Acres (1981).

Searching for the Snowy was like them in its scholarly devotion to, and creation of, a region, and in its integration of scientific, literary and anecdotal sources. Also like them, it featured the author in the landscape and offered a subplot of discovery, of searching, setting a modern, personal exploration alongside the earlier ones recounted. As Seddon put it: “The basic form of the river, perhaps appropriately, is that of a giant question mark.” And so was his book. It began with the confession that writing about the Snowy was “hard going,” largely because of the challenges posed by environmental history, a mode of inquiry demanding a new kind of literary and scientific integration. As with Hancock and the Monaro and Rolls and the Pilliga, it is the relationship between Seddon and the Snowy, between person and place, that is so intriguing. The three authors explore ways of knowing a tract of earth, ways of coming to possess it, materially, economically, intellectually and emotionally. They want to own it, not in the sense of dominating it but of belonging to it, of learning to identify and live with it. Instead of the illusion of Australia’s apparent “empty spaces,” Seddon yearned for the “fine detail of our land [that] was celebrated by those who came before us.”

“Sense of place” had long been an everyday phrase with Romantic origins, but Seddon gave it Australian substance and academic currency. He acknowledged that Sense of Place (1972) was his best-known book in Western Australia and described it later as “an old-fashioned regional geography.” But what made it distinct and prophetic was its concern not just with physical patterns but with the imaginative apprehension of the land, and the fact that both perspectives appear in the one book. It is subtitled “A Response to an Environment,” and this was a further novelty, for the book was an emotional as well as scientific document, a personal search for identity and belonging through the use of observation and research, through science and history.

Seddon’s self-revelatory foreword to that book explains how, upon his return to Perth after six years away from Australia, he felt cheated: “The country was all wrong… This wasn’t what I had come back for; where were the ferntree gullies, the high plains, the trout? All the plants scratched your legs… you couldn’t take a running stream for granted. It was slowly borne in upon me that I wasn’t an Australian at all, but a Victorian.”

In Seddon’s later years, the study of place — how it’s constructed and understood, and what connects people to it — returned as a primary concern of social scientists. And in the same period, local history assumed new significance as a means of decentring orthodox and national histories. The homogenising effects of international mobility and global commerce renewed questions about what constitutes local distinctiveness, and elicited a new curiosity about the resilience and power of place.

“Place” also came to have particular significance in postcolonial societies where it denotes territories that are often still contested, where settlers are still coming to terms with a land that is theirs but not theirs, that is neither the Old World nor a sanctioned indigenous inheritance. In an Australian polity percolating with contested native title politics and green sensibilities, local history acquired a new moral and environmental edge. In the decades after the appearance of Seddon’s book, “sense of place” became a fashionable term that sharpened into political questions of “belonging.” As he himself observed in 1995, the phrase had come to invite the question: whose place?

Seddon the antipodean turned Australian histories upside down, thus righting and reorienting them. He helped to generate the new environmental narratives that emerged in late-twentieth-century Australia in place of the imported, imperial accounts of origins, those views from outside that looked longingly to distant shores. The discovery of deep time — biological and human — entailed a journey into the continent itself, an “inside” view that demanded a truly indigenous history; it meant abandoning the narrative of the nation as a footnote to empire. Plate tectonics literally undermined Australia’s history of original isolation. It revealed that the island continent only became a separate entity in the recent geological past and that most of the country’s fossil history is cosmopolitan. It focused the attention of Australians on a geological genesis in the southern hemisphere, followed by a relatively brief, formative journey north. From the 1960s, archaeological research took Australia’s human history back into the Pleistocene, bringing geological time and storytelling into an exciting and unexpected convergence. George Seddon, that ebullient offspring of English and geology, delighted in articulating and elaborating this revolution.

Judith Brett has argued that academics rarely write convincing prose because the bureaucratic organisation of their working lives and the institutionalisation of knowledge into disciplines makes it very difficult for them to take writing seriously. It is, she suggested in 1991, often against the grain of their jobs to communicate with people outside their discipline or with a wider public. That Seddon was such an elegant writer is another unacademic thing about him. It was Brett who, as editor of Meanjin in 1986, published his first thoughts on the Snowy, the essay that brought his work forcefully to my attention. Seddon’s restlessness, as we’ve seen, freed him of some of the shackles identified by Brett. It’s why his natural medium was the essay, which after all is an essai, an attempt, a trial. The essay is a prose form that enables movement, subjectivity, a lightness of touch, a brave synthesis, and sometimes sacrifices substance for stimulation; Seddon mischievously called the essay “sub-academic.” It’s a form that allowed him to find heaven in a grain of sand, range across traditional boundaries of knowledge and parade his cleverness in an entertaining way. Seddon was Australia’s most distinguished landscape essayist, our equivalent of Britain’s W.G. Hoskins and America’s J.B. Jackson.

Among the many fruits of academic restlessness is that no one really owns you — but nor do they necessarily celebrate you. Seddon’s vision has enduring significance today: he made life better, planners more thoughtful and landscapes more beautiful; he helped us see our country from the inside. He was a maverick, an original. He was steeped in the classics and planted in the earth; literature and place were combined creatively in his chemistry. In his boyish way he encouraged us to “wag school” from time to time, to climb fences, to play, and to challenge what we read with what we feel, hear and see. •

This is an edited extract from the introduction to George Seddon: Selected Writings, edited by Andrea Gaynor, released last month by Black Inc.