Don Watson, The Bush


Joseph Banks thought Botany Bay a suitable place for a penal colony, and with prisons in England overflowing Prime Minister Pitt soon got the transports happening.

From the late days of the eighteenth century almost to the end of the nineteenth over 165,000 convicts were sent to Australia. You can read a fascinating, if disturbing, account of this in Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore. Now in The Bush, Don Watson has written a superb book about the next steps in settlement of Australia: the land grabs by squatters, the destruction of most of the natural environment, the murder and exploitation of the indigenous people.  Somehow out of this, a myth arose, the myth of The Bush and its brave, dry, laconic male inhabitants.

All this was constructed on the myth of ‘Terra Nullius’ – an empty land with no inhabitants. But for those who were not blinded by longing for the orderly and small scale green of England, the signs of occupation and care for the land were everywhere to be seen:

…we find numerous references to a landscape that in its open orderliness and beauty looked like a ‘gentleman’s park’…places so much like European parks it was easy to think some banished civilization had made them. These parks had meadows, some of 4000 hectares, ‘waving with …grass’, ‘velvet like grass’; parks that looked like a field of corn; were ‘decked with flowers’…

The Aborigines who made these parks also made wells for people and dams for animals shaded by shrubbery and ‘apparently by art’. They had well-worn paths. They had ‘villages’ of stone or timber huts, ‘winter wurlies…built with mud in the shape of a large beehive’…

Major Mitchell saw the signs of occupation, Ludwig Leichardt even spoke about ‘systemic management.’ But the great machine of Colonization rolled on. The hubris of the white man who always thinks he knows better destroyed so much of the abundance of this country that we now have severe problems with drought, dust storms, mice and rabbit plagues, salinity and a general drying up of natural resources through over-development and mining at all costs.


On many occasions while reading this book my eyes were filled with tears; not just for the young aboriginal girls raped by the new settlers, not just for poor children like Bert Facey who were whipped almost to death by half-mad fathers, but for the land itself. The title of Xavier Herbert’s famous book says it all: Poor Fellow my Country.

 Here is Watson’s account of Lake Tyrell at Sealake:

The scrub that once surrounded the lake has gone. The sandhills that were once covered with Murray pines were all cut down a century ago. The spectacular blue-winged parrots and regent parrots that used to flock among them disappeared. By day, lake and sky seem to be as one, an unbroken chain of being. The effect is even more intense on a clear night when there is water in the lake. Then the lake acts like a ‘gigantic mirror’ with ‘every star in the firmament’ reflected in it, and to stand in the water ‘is like being suspended in space’….The Boorong people who lived there knew astronomy from studying the stars reflected in the brine. They saw the drama of Creation and the creators in the constellations, the mythical characters and tales from the Dreaming: the mallee fowl, emu, red kangaroo, snake, brolgas, possums. The 100 million stars of the Milky Way were the smoke of the ancestors, the Nurrumbunguttias, now living in the heavens.

 Not long ago an elderly man, a dear friend, said to me in all seriousness, ‘I consider the settlement of Australia to be one of the great achievements of Western Civilization.’ I am glad he is not still alive to read the story of cruelty, greed and destruction that is the true story of the settlement of Australia.

At no point does Don Watson rave and rant. In a moderate voice and in elegant prose he lets the story speak for itself. Highly recommended for any reader with an interest in Australia.

We hear his American Journeys is pretty good too.


18 thoughts on “Don Watson, The Bush

  1. Great review,Gert. I think there was a lot of bad things that happened all over when the explorers were about their business. What we did to the indigenous people of North America is a crime too. I hope we’ve learned our lessons.

    1. We hope so Leslie, but the myth of the easy going Australian dies hard here and it’s not borne out by our current attitudes to the rest of the world or even our own people.

  2. A familiar sound to this story for anyone raised in North America (and probably South America too). It’s fascinating to read of how the land looked before the colonizers came, because it suggests possibilities for restoration. Thanks Gert.

    1. I suppose colonization was ever thus,and perhaps even worse in places like the Belgian Congo? As you say the clues are there for the more enlightened farmers to follow in preserving their land with massive tree planting and different crops. Don Watson makes the point about the wasteful production of beef,’every Angus steer takes up to 54 kilograms of fodder to produce a kilogram of beef and drinks 40-80 litres of water a day,’an expensive luxury indeed. Your friends the chickens are a great deal more sustainable.

      1. I loved the picture painted in that brief excerpt, of the meadows, the dams and villages.

        I will probably do more work on that point (about the beef) in my MFA program when writing about wheat. The birds are definitely more efficient at converting grains and water to meat (and eggs). We spent a couple of weeks in California in March and became much more aware of the importance of water in the food equation. In Australia you must be very conscious of it too.

        1. We certainly are, going from drought to flood as we do. Many states have built desalination plants to prepare for the next long dry. And water use is a topic of heated debate, as with the seemingly unresolvable dispute about the use of the Murray Darling River system for irrigation for growing cotton and rice. In Australia for heaven’s sake!!!

          1. Hey, they grow cotton and rice in California too. And almonds. Have you gotten around to the almonds yet? The big thing in the US is to talk about how it takes a gallon of water to make one almond. Apparently that’s not so bad compared to other things.

            1. Had to check that out, but yes, wouldn’t you know, they are grown along the Murray River corridor. I don’t think it has come to general consciousness here that they take loads of water to grow.
              May I ask, are you still writing haiku and tanka?

              1. I was accepted into the Antioch Los Angeles Low-residency MFA program, starting in June, for nonfiction (my wheat blog). Very exciting, but sadly I have to take a rain check on Nar Nar Goon. Australia creates a stronger and stronger draw, so hope to get there in the next few years.

                Our “cohort” of students is identified as the “Vermilion” group, so I wrote a haibun with some history of vermilion and plenty of word-play (e.g., the Vermilonaires”), and sent it in. Have heard nothing back, so hope that they didn’t take it amiss. I write haiku daily for myself, and entered a poetry contest (did not win), And so forth. The tanka class was never offered, and it’s a form that feels a little foreign to me, so I’ve only done a few.

                And you? Am looking forward to the next book — is there one on the horizon?

                1. Congratulations! You are unstoppable.Nar Nar Goon can wait. We’ll still be here.
                  We are editing our sixth book at the moment but have book number three ready to go at the end of this year. An exciting mix of rebellious geriatrics, Norse Saga comic reading doctors and performing Pomeranians.

  3. Thank you Gert for this very interesting introduction to The Bush. We do have strong mythologies in Australia about who we are and the roles we play. It has made it very difficult for us to view ourselves in a true light and why we revert to these old stereotypes when threatened. I do find it unbelievable the way we view refugees given our own destructive incoming into this amazing land.

    1. Can’t wait to read the antics of the prancing Pomeranians. I feel that I know something about the rebellious geriatrics, and the Norse Saga comic-reading docs would be my nephews. It’s how they all fit together that will be so delicious.

    1. Thanks JoHanna. That book was life changing for me.Every time I drive through our parched landscape I think of it. Another brilliant book about Australia is Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore about the shipping of convicts here.Our beginnings are not auspicious.

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