Monday, February 12

A Wayward Tourist.

Nature, over billions of years, has shaped a marvellous Australian landscape, an ancient backdrop to our mere 230 year old, post-British-invasion, cultural identity. Since the early British colonies, the Australian cultural identity has developed and changed from that of a near British replica that failed to honour or acknowledge indigenous Australians, to a multicultural enlightening urbanised mass reconnecting with a sense of place in our environment. Inspired by Mark Twains enthralling account of his 2 month lecture tour of Australia in 1897 entitled the “Wayward Tourist,” I have composed this article which looks at early Australia and how it has developed as an emerging young nation with a unique melting-pot identity.

When Twain wrote the Wayward Tourist in 1897, Australia had just recovered from the effects of the earlier land boom and was enjoying the highest living standards in the world. His lectures speak diversely of Australia’s many endowments, although not shared by the aboriginal community. Twain devotes several chapters on their plight, at pains to point out a people downtrodden from colonisation yet retaining remarkable skills as hunters and trackers. He deplores the ultimate decimation of the Tasmanian aborigines with a brilliant yet savage use of “black humour”; please excuse the pun!

Our sense of humour and romantic notion of the bush still persists, as was epitomised by such remarkable poets as Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Lawson was a city bound chap; only venturing out in the bush briefly for a month during his life. Hardly surprising with such a population concentration in the eastern seaboard, exasperated ever since due to a lack of arable land. Today Australia remains one of the most urbanised countries in the world.

I also think our own sense of humour and lack of reverence to authority is still prevalent with a propensity to “pull one legs” so to speak. Amongst good friends it's even acceptable to affectionately refer to an older colleague as a “silly old bastard”. Twain himself appears to have become susceptible to having his own leg pulled by the locals as he refers to a story of a sheep eating cockatoo.

At that time of his visit, before the advent of Federation at the turn of the century each State was loyal to mother country England. After Federation that commitment continued with huge sacrifices (60,000 killed in WW 1 from a population of 4 million) in both world wars. It was perpetuated further by Prime Minster Sir Robert Menzies who served as Prime Minister between 1939-1941 and then uninterrupted from 1949-1966; retiring at aged 70.
Menzies was more English than the English themselves. Famous author and archaeologist Jared Diamond (Author of Collapse; why civilisations collapse and Guns Germs and Steel) remarked at a recent lecture when last visiting Australia that during his earlier visit in the early sixties the country was a carbon copy in thought and culture of England. Menzies presided over a period of rapid post war growth, fuelled by migration under the White Australia policy and exceptionally high birth rates. There were 4 million births between 1946 and 1961, and that group known as the Baby boomers still have considerable political clout.

Australia remained somewhat of a cultural desert for artists until the late fifties and early sixties when a number of important cultural centres were finally established that supplemented the earlier establishment of the Australian Broadcasting commission in 1932 ( The ABC ). In 1956; The Australian Opera, 1959; the National Institute of Dramatic Art and in 1961 the Australian Ballet. Despite these additions Australia continued to import most of its culture from abroad particularly from the “Dream machines” from what was being manufactured in America. Roy Rogers and tales from the Great Dividing Range featuring cowboys and Indians dominated my childhood memories, as did spitfires, fighters and tales about adventures set in England.

Today I still think we suffer from a lack of home spun culture. Not many people realise that more attend culture and art in Australia than Sport, but the institutions that serve us, including all popular mediums continue to be under funded and forced to import and rely on an ever increasing slice of programmes from overseas.

The post war period continued on at times in blissful ignorance, with racial prejudice and abuses never far away, hidden away by a majority who enjoyed a seemingly carefree existence, much like as is described by author Bill Bryson’s account of the life and times of Thunderbolt Kid in America when he recalls that “growing up was easy. It required no thought or effort on my part. It was going to happen anyway”.
In Australia Aborigines were still not considered Australian citizens until finally as a consequence of national referendum they were given the vote in 1962.

It was in the sixties that most of the earlier post war respect for authority was challenged with the arrival of the flower power generation who protested against the establishment and authority. More liberal ideas flourished which brought improvements for a more open society but I think it was also a time of self indulgence exclusive to those who fully endorsed its self serving ideology.

Since then culture and diversity which was a feature of the aborigines has been more recently adopted by the Australian Government. Multiculturalism has been introduced to the Australian way of life with varying degrees of success. As a country we have the highest rate of intermarriage between first and second generation migrants.

Further to these positive changes is a changing attitude to the land. I think this aspect is well summed up by Jarred Diamond when he talked about Australia and what has changed from over 40 years ago when he was last here. It was all about the Land, he said, the new spirit within the country that acknowledges it is not here for us to do with it whatever we please.We have a responsibility to preserve it for ever. He saw grounds for cautious optimism. I also see the same glimmers of hope for our old land; Politicians of both persuasions are finally coming to groups with the need for land care conservation and looking after the environment.

To day I think the most striking difference Twain would observe in Australia is our changed attitude to the land; this would be a real revelation.


bohemiantroubadour said...

When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.

- Mark Twain

Lee said...

Well expressed, Lindsay...very interesting and thoughtful post. Thanks. Hopefully we are growing wiser about land-care issues and not repeat our mistakes of the past.

I think there is more emphasis put upon land issues in the schools now than what there was when I was growing up.

laura said...

Fascinating post. Mark Twain wrote right as the Industrial revolution was making it's way across the earth - when the steamboats were still a great fascination so he might still be shocked by how we treat the earth but would have to value what Australia is doing in terms where we all have been.

This struck me: "Today I still think we suffer from a lack of home spun culture. Not many people realise that more attend culture and art in Australia than Sport, but the institutions that serve us, including all popular mediums continue to be under funded and forced to import and rely on an ever increasing slice of programmes from overseas."

Maybe that's a big part of the decline in cultural arts in the U.S., too. We don't really have anything homespun. I'd never thought of it that way before. I just watched a program that claims the American novel is dying because our culture does not support truly great novelists.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi BT, Lee & Laura
Thankyou for your interesting input.
Best wishes

JBlue said...

Some of the best actors of our time come from Australia: Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Russell Crowe....

lindsaylobe said...

Yes JuBlu -They have made their mark; however the Australian Film industry is in dire straits.

Best wishes

Val said...

I wish I could share your optimism about how much Australians identify with the land, their sense of humor, appreciation of their own achievements in the arts etc.

However, since 1974 when I first arrived here, I have seen the positive steps you mention eroded by the slavish following of a more dominant "culture" and a most un-Australian worship of the dollar. I would prefer the Australia of 1974, but hope one day that we will wake up from the nightmare of economic rationalism and get back to being down to earth.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Val

Thanks for your comments

Economic rationalism has affected Australia. We all work longer hours with less leisure time; time previously available to be spent in the community. This had led to an overall decline in social capital. However I also think back in 1974 there was far less knowledge on sustainability and some woefully bad agricultural practices being continued. This was addressed finally as Land Care was introduced in 1989 as a government funded iniative which enable groups to receive grants and technical advice to help better maintain the native landscape and set up the vital corridor sanctuaries which interlink the properties within each respective land care group. There are 4,000 community Land Care Groups currently engaged at many different levels.
Land Care Groups have transformed the country and farming communities.
The conclusion that Dr Chris Williams reaches In His Book Entitled “Old Land, New Landscapes, “ is for the communities and Nation to accept there is no common panacea or methodology going foreword. Rather what’s needed is a partnership approach with nature itself. We need to make a covenant with nature, to respect and learn at both the grass roots areas on the farm, in the communities and at the highest levels of society. The old landscapes will never reappear fully, but we can, in our dreaming, create a new landscape, one that will last for ever, but we will need to respect our partner, Mother Nature.

We have had 10 years of a conservative Federal Govt with little appetite for the environment. But the tide is turning now don’t you think?

Best wishes

Val said...

I agree that there seems to be much more awareness of our environment and its needs amongst the average Australian, and that IS encouraging, but the timing of the new-found "awareness" on the part of the current government smacks of political opportunism. Somehow I just can't take that seriously, or that it will be part of any "core" promises.

lindsaylobe said...

I agree the politcs arising out of a concern for their environment is a more recent phenomenon with this present Govt. However there many on either side of politics more committed than Howard; who I think is likely to retire after the next election.

It’s a complex situation but I feel the current position is not enhanced by the current aid programme to farmers. Consider the value of rural land in Australia and indeed in many parts of the western world and why it is vastly overpriced. This is a consequence of continued income support to farmers over successive frequent droughts that ensure the price of land remains unrealistically high. Overseas huge subsidies paid to farmers inflate the value of the land.

Rural land in Australia has appreciated in real terms around 5-6%, that’s 5-6 % above the rate of inflation over the past 20 years, putting undue pressure to obtain commensurate improved returns.

I also think Australian farmers are the most efficient in the world and most are responsible environmentalists who do a magnificent job looking after the land for future generations. During dire times such as we are currently experiencing they immediately begin de stocking and mitigating the effect of drought, in other words caring for the land. Many are debt free 3rd generation farmers whose reserves and or alternative incomes tide then through these most difficult of times.

What I favour as an alternative to income support is government assistance in the form of interest free loans, made during such times but to be repaid during good seasons. I think most farmers would prefer a loan to income support schemes, which is nothing more than a handout.

I also think additionally its worth considering a heritage type annual payment, in recognition of the Farmer custodian role of looking the land, that's on our behalf to preserve it for future generations.

On the longer terms I believe the current exceptional circumstances will not be so exceptional in years to come, but I also believe the Australians farmers will adapt and cotinine to preserve the land for future generations in a sustainable way. That means much more diversity for Farms, a sole farming income will be unsustainable, and other income streams will need to be added for it to be viable overall as we experience drier conditions. This is already occurring to a marked degree and will accelerate in the near future. In effect it will be engaging of country and the city, with new industries such as echo tourism, as it always could have been. The dichotomy or tension between country and city, farming and non framing and or industry need not exist at all as we are all co dependant upon one to another.

In fact I think it will be true for most countries the world over. The pooling of skills and sharing between communities that is between country and city allows us to learn together as to how to be sustainable, in partnership with nature. Its how we evolved and its how we will survive the future.
best wishes

Ingrid said...

And hence Australia is the birth country of Permaculture!!