A bit of a catch-up post on the Gaia/Nature challenge today and sharing some overdue links. Curlygeek at the excellent book blog The Book Stop has been reading for the Gaia challenge and like me, they also included Lisa See’s excellent historical novel The Island of the Sea Women in reads for the challenge. And they read another that I have yet to get to Jane Goodall’s Book of Hope and a bit of a favourite of mine DaraMcAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist. I think I have already shared the link but just in case it is worth sharing twice, Curlygeek writes great, informative book posts.

I am a little behind on posting some of my own reads for the challenge. Most recently I finished Luke Stegemann’s original and remarkable Amnesia Road: landscape, violence and memory An usual and remarkable reflection on landscape and history, examining the experience of violent history in a rural and regional area of Australia and comparing it with the relatively recent violent past in regional Andalusia Spain. I picked this up because there are not a lot of contemporary works looking at the South west Queensland region, my own backyard and an area we travel in frequently. It is a region that is not often written about or celebrated, an area where brigalow merges into mulga, and black soil gives way to red dirt. Roadkill is abundant, and road trains and utes fly down the highways between shrinking rural outposts. It is a place of absences and forgetfulness, and these days ever expanding broad acre farming.

Stegemann writes magnificently and lovingly of this largely unloved region; “At dusk, a helix of parrots, swerves traced invisibly upon the sky. Then night, with its implacable dimensions: under a meadow of stars the south-west country lies. Galaxies are loose, a-sail, above; the night sky is brimming with companion stars. Lengths of white dress trail through a billion miles of gas and universe-debris; shapes fan from black zenith to horizon, where the day is, and swing back through the starmass. Next is morning, with its glistening significance. And then, a heavy blue noon. (p51).

Loss is central to the work, the loss of lives, the loss of memory and the loss of language. In the age of globalisation, Stegemann argues, language loses “its intimate connection to place“. (p52). The inadequacy of English to capture the complexities and subtleties of this region is compounded by the untranslatable nature of some Indigenous concepts and the incalculable cultural loss of Indigenous languages themselves, with their sophisticated subtle meanings, leaving Europeans with a kind of unknowing which precedes the forgetting:

“With the loss of Indigenous culture and life went fragile elements of language and knowledge, and the intense relationship between the two. Old pathways across the starmass and its contrapuntal fields of black were lost. Tracks through the endless mulga scrub fell away, unused. Ways of reading the land and sky went quiet. After millennia, Australia’s Indigenous peoples faced a predator, and on that predator came, with weapons, grog, and disease: their dark materials, shaping to shape the world.” (p.86).

Amnesia Road is a record of history and the violent new order imposed on this new Eden, a lament for the land and her people. Stegemann finds that violence continues in the contemporary meeting out of violence against wild dogs and dingoes and the ongoing bloodletting of roadkill. There is much that is graphic and shocking in Stegemann’s account. A son of migrant parents, Stegemann is a Hispanist scholar and a Queenslander, who offers a valuable and challenging insight into our history, with the side-by-side exploration of the drive towards remembering and forgetting that Spain is also experiencing after the violence of the civil war and the bloodshed of fascist rule. Stegemann’s attempt to parallel the story of colonialism here, and its inherent violence, with a similar tale of horror that is within his scope of knowledge and experience is curious in itself. It is difficult for white Australians to tell this particular story, the story of the frontier wars, without inflicting further theft and disrespect. Yet it is a history that should be told and acknowledged. It is a complex and nuanced history and there is a danger of reductionism and what Stegemann calls new forms of amnesia. He warns against the dangers of dogmatism, the dangers of polarisation and reductive tribalism in social media debates about how we think about the past; “…relentless positioning that will not accept ambiguity, nor offer the gift of forgiveness.” (p232).

While I am often disappointed by the simplification and intractable positioning that occurs on social media, I am not sure I can see the democratisation of history and ideas as an overall bad thing. I would like to think the ongoing conversation can eventually lead to a greater understanding of complexity, empathy and an ability to eventually agree on respectful compromise and problem-solving. It is easy to be seduced by simplification, by nostalgic myth making and by intractable anger. Right now it seems Australia is on the cusp of a new maturity in our sense of our past and identity, and that can only be a good thing if we can overcome our prejudices and bias. If we can learn to listen and refrain from shouting down voices of dissent no matter how much they might challenge our own moral positioning. Stegemann is critical of the middle-class left but there is also an acknowledgement of the dogmatic nationalism of the right. I confess to finding this a provocative and challenging read and to be honest, I am still processing the ideas, it is undeniably an important contribution to any discussion about Australian history and identity.

The highest praise I think I can give a book is to say that I will be looking to acquire my own copy of the title for re-read and future reference and Amnesia Road is one such book. Stegemann has a rich prose style and stimulating ideas. It is a book to be savoured and pondered over, although much of the content is dark and challenging, it is clear that Stegemann has a deep love and appreciation for the stark landscape and history of western Queensland:

These landscapes cannot be boxed or taxonomised; they cannot be fenced or fixed. The wires and roads that cross them are temporary fictions that give some brief level of access, before disappearing. These landscapes predate and will outlive us. They are essentially indefinable: try as we might, the languages of the European traditions fall short of capturing their flowering dimensions. Poets stumble before their aching beauty: of dark blue quiet and mauve space rimmed with gold and orange thread; the beauty of bony grasses, a skyline of old man saltbush crinkle. Their creeks and rivers are incalculable, bending and blending in lazy curves of caramel and ochre. Ignoring all human ambition and vanity, they are transcendental. They are both unadorned and impossibly rich. They are the yapunyah stand at noon; they are hairy panic and lignum tangle, purple love grass and the bloodwood tree; they are black box and river gum; matuka grass and cockatoo; sulphur springs and parrots. They are dog fence and kurrajong, iron bark and cypress pine; they are sandalwood and quandong; nardoo, gargaloo, coolabah and needlewood; they are wilga parakeelya and white flowering skin cracker. They are Thargomindah nightshade and the native apricot. They are emu apple, mulga snake, sago bush and yellowbelly; they are hawk and eagle on the wing. They are the softest air, and duststorm days; they are home to the million ways of floodwaters, of branch and anabranch. They exist within and beyond the turn of seasons. They are sweet, gentle and unforgiving. (pp41-42).

My recent kid’s nature read also considers the notion of loss or disconnection from the natural world, with a focus on language, the incredibly beautiful The Lost Spells by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris. MacFarlane and Morris’s earlier collaboration The Lost words is well known and loved, an effort to restore nature words to the vocabulary of British children after the OED children’s edition decided to drop a number of nature words from its pages. The Lost Spells its sequel continues to evoke the beauty and magic of nature through gorgeous illustration and enchanting verse. While the contents are very British centric there is no denying the universality of the beauty and charm of The Lost Spells, from the glorious blue cover featuring a barn owl to MacFarlane’s simple but evocative language:

Rest your head now, silver seeker; / close your eyes and cease your searches / where the blackbird brightly perches, / where the catkin softly brushes, / hear among the gleaming birches.

While the sheer beauty and simplicity of this book is universal, and we do have many wonderful Australian children’s nature books, I just wish we had an Australian equivalent of this gorgeous book, I would love to see our flora and fauna celebrated in a similar way! The magic of our bushland and its creatures given the same evocative reverence.

Language, art and beauty help us maintain or sometimes re-ignite our connection to the natural world, so important for our physical and mental well-being and the preservation of the environment and all creatures within it. The Lost Spells is a gem of a book, inviting reflection and connection. It is the sort of book that would make a beautiful gift for a child or a nature-loving adult, while aimed at younger readers it is a book that can equally be appreciated and treasured by an adult. It is a valuable addition to what is my growing collection of beautiful books for dipping into, on drab days, in between days, a book to inspire wonder and reflection.

The Gaia/nature challenge started in part by wanting to share a love of the natural world and to encourage all to connect and care about nature. The Lost Spells is very definitely a book to inspire connection. If you read any great nature titles let me know, so I can link back to you or feel free to leave a suggestion in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Things lost, amnesia and the Gaia challenge

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