Inside Story

Reaping what was sown

An unconventional history shows us personal and emotional engagements with the history of the WA wheatbelt

Susan Lever 4 May 2017 1775 words

Nature meets industry: West Australia’s wheatbelt. Allan Rostron/Flickr

Like Nothing on This Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt
By Tony Hughes-d’Aeth | UWA Publishing | $49.99

If you look at a satellite image of Australia, you’ll see a diagonal straight line on the southwest bulge of Western Australia where the dark brown-green colour of forest gives way to a pale green. It’s so clear that you can see it even on television weather maps – the extent to which the forests were cleared by European settlers so that they could grow wheat. As Tony Hughes-d’Aeth explains in Like Nothing on This Earth, this mark on the landscape is only a century old, and represents one of the most dramatic transformations of the land in the history of Australian settlement.

The clearing of the forests for wheat was a concerted effort of destruction, subsidised by governments that enticed working people onto the land to cut down bush and burn it to ashes. Aspiring farmers willingly joined the rampage, fuelled by the promise of land and a profitable business. In practice, they found that they could earn more from clearing the land than growing crops on it, so the rural cycle turned from the hard graft of knocking over the bushland to the celebration of mighty fires, rather than the traditional round of sowing and reaping. When one area was cleared, they moved on to the next.

These days, the WA wheatbelt produces grain for export and looks like a profitable concern, but its history is a terrible story of the industrialisation of agriculture at the expense of the land, the people who lived there before settlement, the animals, birds and trees, and, ultimately, the people who cleared it.

Such a story might be told in a conventional geographical history, surveying changes to the landscape and the politics of settlement, but Hughes-d’Aeth is a literary critic, aware that the process had a series of literary witnesses. He traces the century-long history of the wheatbelt through the work of well-known writers including Albert Facey, Jack Davis, Dorothy Hewett, Elizabeth Jolley and John Kinsella – and some lesser-known, such as Cyril E. Goode, James Pollard and Barbara York Main. A few others – J.K. Ewers, Peter Cowan and Tom Flood – may be familiar to easterners interested in Australian literature but are hardly household names outside Western Australia.

Hughes-d’Aeth uses Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life, not published until 1981, to provide an overview of this history. Facey’s family saw the wheatbelt clearing as an opportunity to rise from poverty to the ownership of land – that European dream. Like others from the eastern states, they were attracted west by the promise of the goldfields but found themselves working as labourers and suffering immense privation. As an eight-year-old, Facey walked 220 kilometres barefoot to get to his uncle’s holding, at what would become Wickepin. He tells a story of child slavery and neglect, but also gives an account of a general phenomenon – the movement of people in search of a fresh start on the land. His later experiences of the first world war, life as a soldier-settler, and ruin during the Great Depression are representative of life in the wheatbelt.

The enterprise of clearing the land had a moral dimension, Hughes-D’Aeth comments, a belief that the people as well as the land would be improved by this massive, grinding effort of labour. Of course, a literary tradition of pioneering and pastoral life already existed in the eastern states, where squatters rode their horses among rolling hills, growing wealthy from their sheep and cattle. It was romanticised – as writers such as Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy and Barbara Baynton attested – but it adapted a longstanding notion that Australian rural life could be “pastoral” in the literary sense, lived in harmony with the natural world. This notion couldn’t stand a chance in the wheatbelt; Hughes d’Aeth thinks Steele Rudd’s stories of hopeless family labour on a selection are the closest equivalent to the experience there. As James Pollard presents it, farming the wheat was “a numbing and endless cycle of tasks, and not a moving and redemptive expression of life.”

In a range of poems and stories, Goode, Pollard and Ewers tried to reconcile pioneering and pastoral mythology with the lives of the “wheat men.” But their experiences led them to sometimes bitter reflections on the impossibility of the task. Goode’s poem “The Power Farmer’s Soliloquy” makes the contrast clear, with its images of roaring engines and grinding gears – a wheat farm was more like a mechanised factory than a place of communion with nature. He wrote his collection of poetry, The Grower of Golden Grain, in the decade before the Depression drove him from the land; he published it himself and sold it door to door on the streets of Melbourne.

These aspiring literary writers also turned to natural history as consolation. Pollard wrote a weekly nature column for the West Australian in the 1920s that elicited a response from readers wanting to learn about the birds, insects and plants they found in the remnant parcels of bush around them. Ewers, a school teacher, sought him out to share their mutual interests in nature and literature – with Ewers publishing two novels about the wheatbelt experience. It was clear to them that “nature” was not the farm.

Hughes-d’Aeth reads literary writing and history in a novel way, and provides new insights into both. Peter Cowan’s reticence can seem like a wilful refusal to let the reader near the essence of his novels and short stories, but Hughes-d’Aeth reads this “understated prose” as an expression of Cowan’s experience of the “amazingly barren open spaces” and the isolation of his years as an itinerant labourer among the wheat. Cowan was young enough not to know the land before it was cleared, and educated enough to recognise the modernity of the agricultural world in which he lived. “Nature” has no romantic resonance for him, and his work presents an alienated modernist view, appropriate to the monotonous land and work in the wheat.

Dorothy Hewett was also a child of the wheat country, in her case from one of the families who prospered there. Hughes-d’Aeth sees her story “The Wire Fences of Jarrabin” (first published in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1957 as “My Mother Said, I Never Should”) as the first literary recognition of the social divisions and the segregation of Aboriginal people there, while her poem “Legend of the Green Country” finds a mythic dimension through her own family history. He regards her musical drama The Man from Mukinupin as the high point of her career because of the way it counterpoints the layers of myth with the realities of wheatbelt life, and introduces a sense of “tragic time.”

Yet it took Jack Davis, publishing after 1970, to speak for the notable absence from wheatbelt literature – the original inhabitants of the land. Davis was not a wheatbelt local – his people came from the Pilbara – but his nine months at the Moore River Native Settlement made him a crucial witness to the treatment of the Aboriginal children and teenagers who were removed to there (mainly from the north) in the 1920s. Moore River, now infamous for its appearance in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, was also in wheat country, and Davis’s play No Sugar put its racist and mercenary principles on the public record. In some respects, his plays responded to Hewett’s Mukinupin by asserting that there were other invisible mythologies and other realities operating in wheatbelt society.

These connections between writers, including the importance of Judith Wright to Hewett and Kinsella, and of Oodgeroo Noonuccal to Davis, suggest an ongoing line of literary engagement with the Australian environment. The work of Randolph Stow, Henry Thoreau and William Wordsworth are also frequent touchstones through the book. Tom Flood, of course, is Hewett’s son, and her influence is clear in his novel Oceana Fine, while his work shares a generational shift towards postmodernist ambiguity with John Kinsella. In 2000, Kinsella and Hewett collaborated to produce Wheatlands, a collection of their poetry about the wheat country, with accompanying photographs.

It is Kinsella who offers a kind of conclusion to this literary witnessing of the damage of twentieth-century history. Growing up partly on a wheat farm with his father, partly in the city with his mother, Kinsella was always aware of the dual inheritance of the wheatbelt. He was the boy who cheerfully shot rabbits and trapped birds, and he acknowledges his own participation in the crime of destruction. As an adult, he finds some satisfaction in the emergence of the salt from beneath the surface of the land, as a sign of a return of a still powerful, if infertile, nature. In 2009, he moved back to live in Toodyay with his family, choosing to confront the dilemmas of the guilty human attempting reparation. This is symptomatic of the situation of all Australians who feel responsible for their environment, recognising that “the undisputed monarch of feral animals is the European human,” as Hughes-D’Aeth puts it. “In Kinsella’s poetry we have the wheatbelt functioning as an allegory for post-humanist despair.”

This is an expansive, monumental book – as lengthy as most literary histories of Australia, let alone a region. Hughes-d’Aeth gives a brief biography of each of his authors and reads their selected work closely and sympathetically. Though he can see the shortcomings of some of their writing, he gives such importance to their life experience and their testimony to a real world that these seem minor. He also takes into account the shifts in literary ideas and genre over time, moving from nature studies and memoir to stories, novels and poetry. It is a generous book in every sense, and a remarkable example of what literary criticism can do when it is not bound by narrow theories or tastes.

Of course, a conventional history could cover some of this ground – Hughes-D’Aeth refers to Geoffrey Bolton’s A Fine Country to Starve in,among others – but this literary evidence lets us see personal and emotional engagements with history. This kind of literary criticism amplifies the writing by putting it into a meaningful context. It demonstrates the centrality of literary writing to our understanding of ourselves.