Standing on the Wharf, Weeping

Greg Dening

  • The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia by John Gascoigne
    Cambridge, 233 pp, £45.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 521 80343 8
  • Looking for Blackfella’s Point: An Australian History of Place by Mark McKenna
    New South Wales, 268 pp, £14.50, August 2002, ISBN 0 86840 644 9
  • Words for Country: Landscape and Language in Australia by Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths
    New South Wales, 253 pp, £15.50, October 2001, ISBN 0 86840 628 7
  • The Land Is a Map: Placenames of Indigenous Origin in Australia edited by Luise Hercus, Flavia Hodges and Jane Simpson
    Pandanus, 304 pp, AUS $39.95, October 2002, ISBN 1 74076 020 4

Earlier this year, bushfires engulfed the east coast of Australia. In Canberra, where I work, five hundred houses were lost. The National University was in a state of shock. Mount Stromlo, an icon of Australian astronomy since Federation, is gone, with all its telescopes and research data. In Melbourne, where I live, the air was thick with smoke from fires 300 km away. The stench frightened us all day. In the mountains to the north and on the high plains to the north-east, there were fires along a 350 km front. The temperature was 44 °C; the winds were blowing at up to 100 km an hour. The land, with its extremes of fire, drought and flood – and its beauty – is always in our faces.

Among those who were safe from it all, there was a lot of talk: letters to the editor; talk-back radio; ugly, snapping, extravagant talk – about punishing arsonists, incompetent bureaucrats and irresponsible conservationists. And much spin: from the Government, political parties, churches, emergency services, utility companies. The haze of the spin hangs over us like the bushfire smoke.

Perhaps, then, this isn’t the time to write of the ways the human spirit has imprinted itself on the continent. It could seem irrelevant or, worse, romantic. But then again, maybe this is just how it does imprint itself, with assuring and conflicting stories; with creative art and destructive development. The past is as kaleidoscopic as the present, and the authors of these four studies make a case for writing new sorts of history of a polymorphic Australian past in which the simplifying polarities of race and culture are confronted with the humanity common to both.

The first people on this continent reached its southernmost point, the south-western tip of what we now call Tasmania, forty thousand years ago. In their creation myths, ancestral spirits breathed life into the land, a life that was celebrated in stories, songs, sand sculpture, ochre paint. Every rock, river, mountain, hill, camp, track and ritual spot on the continent has had many names in its time, so that even the most deserted place has a history. The imprint of the first inhabitants has been overlaid: in the last two hundred years, all parts of the continent have been renamed.

A little over a year ago, two historical items were put on the Memory of the World Register (the list of documentary heritage launched in 1997): James Cook’s journal of the Endeavour, written in his own hand; and the Edward Koiki Mabo Papers, the record of Eddie Mabo’s landmark case before the High Court, which gave legal recognition to the fact that indigenous land ownership existed before European settlement and was not, in some cases, extinguished by the Crown.

The Endeavour journal is catalogued ‘MS 1’: in number and sentiment the foundation document of our National Library. I have used it in my own work, and I confess to the awe with which I turned pages written on that most extraordinary voyage around the world to Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and up the eastern coast of what Cook calls ‘New South Wales’. I have no difficulty identifying with all Cook’s doubts, contradictions and impossible choices.

The Mabo papers are something else. They represent a struggle for justice, and tell the sorts of story that must be told when deep time enters the present. Memory joins us to a past, whereas history, especially legal history, sometimes keeps us distant from the past. There are paradoxes and contradictions in memory, certainty and uncertainty. Memory reaches deep into our personal and social selves. The Mabo papers are a triumph for a land imprinted with memory.

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