Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt (2017) is a sizeable book, almost 600pp, covering the history of a small part of Western Australia with a current population of maybe 100,000, depending which provincial cities are included. I have already referred to it – in fact that was my reason for spending fifty bucks to buy it – in my posts on Jack Davis (here and here) and will do so again when, hopefully soon, I get to Dorothy Hewett. So this is not so much a review as an introduction.
Hughes-D’Aeth writes that when he first saw a satellite image of WA he was struck “by the sharp line that ringed Perth to the north and east, stretching roughly from Geraldton to Esperance and marking out an area most West Australians know as the wheatbelt.” This line, known as the clearing line, “follows the rabbit-proof fence which also marks (more or less) the minimum rainfall threshold, the 10-inch line … below which cropping is unsustainable.” It also nearly coincides with the outer edge of Noongar country, the home of the Indigenous peoples of the South-West.
Outside the line is semi-arid scrub and the remnants of the Great Western Woodlands, the world’s largest remaining temperate forest, on the in side is sandy farmland, degraded to within an inch of its life and criss-crossed with salt pans. The wheatbelt’s other boundary is a line from north of Perth south to Albany, excluding the Darling Escarpment, Perth and the high rainfall, heavily forested south-west corner. I know the wheatbelt well as I drive through it 3 or 4 times a week, I spent all my school holidays on wheat farms (in Victoria), and in earlier years I delivered farm machinery into WA and spent a season carting grain, including from Nomans Lake where Albert Facey ended up (map).
This book traces the creation of the Western Australian wheatbelt during the course of the twentieth century by considering the creative writing of those who lived in the wheatbelt at various points in their lives and then wrote about that experience.
The eleven authors covered, who get a chapter each, are:
Albert Facey (1894-1982)
Cyril E. Goode (1907-83)
James Pollard (1900-71)
John Keith Ewers (1904-78)
Peter Cowan (1914-2002)
Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002)
Jack Davis (1917-2000)
Barbara York Main (1929- )
Elizabeth Jolley (1923-2007)
Tom Flood (1955- )
John Kinsella (1963- )
Of these I have read Facey, famous of course for his ‘primitive’ memoir, A Fortunate Life, bits of Hewett, Davis, and Jolley and I really must get to Kinsella. Notable by his absence is Kim Scott, whose home country (see Kayang and Me), around Ravensthorpe, west of Esperance, was opened up to cropping after WWII, though the author mentions him briefly in the Introduction. The others I not only haven’t read, I haven’t heard of, so I have some reading to do.
The author does however discuss at some length two other important authors he has excluded: Randolph Stow (1935-2010) grew up on farms around Geraldton, but in his writing focussed on larger properties, ‘stations’. “Crops are a distant background , and one sees no evidence of the ideology of wheat.” KS Prichard (1883-1969) is more difficult again. Hugo Throssell had taken up land at Cowcowing before the war, and on returning home he married Prichard and took her there for two years before she could stand it no longer. She does not mention this in her autobiography or in any of her novels. Only in the short story “Christmas Tree”, included in the collection Potch and Colour (1944) does she tell the story of a woman “looking over her farm for the last time, as the bank has called in their mortgage”. (Nathan Hobby’s review here. In looking this up I see that Hughes-d’Aeth is Nathan’s PhD supervisor.)
Elizabeth Jolley did not in fact live in the wheatbelt, though The Well is set on a wheat farm near York or Brookton, just over the Ranges from Perth, the location also, a century earlier when land clearing had just started, for The Boy in the Bush by DH Lawrence and Mollie Skinner. Two other well-known books not included are The Fringe Dwellers, Nene Gare, which is not about farming, but Mr Comeaway’s work on the Geraldton wharves would have been mostly lumping bagged wheat; and Xavier Herbert’s memoir of growing up in the wheatbelt, Disturbing Element.
In his Preface Hughes-d’Aeth says that the ‘event’ of the creation of the wheatbelt was also the destruction of “a vast territory of native wilderness with a bio-diversity almost without equal on the planet.” Total land cleared up to 1970 was 200,000 square kilometres (by comparison, the landmass of Britain is only 230,000 square kilometres). He then says something that I have often thought and even sometimes argued (here for instance):
I have gradually come to realise the particular value of creative writing as a document of record.
Hughes-d’Aeth touches on another subject I have discussed elsewhere, the contrast between farming and the outback pursuits of the mythical Australian. In the poems and stories of the 1890s “we find bushrangers and drovers, boundary riders and billabongs, shearers and prospectors. We do not find many stories or songs about people farming grain.” These are the rival ‘legends’, of the independent bushman on one hand and the pioneer, stay-at-home man with his wife and kids, on the other, working to scratch a living out of a bit of dirt.
Though as wheat farming grew in importance, Banjo Paterson at least changed his tune:
We have sung the song of the droving days,
Of the march of the travelling sheep –
How by silent stages and lonely ways
Thin, white battalions creep.
But the man who now by the soil would thrive
Must his spurs to a ploughshare beat:
And the bush bard, changing his tune, may strive
To sing the song of the Wheat!
(Song of the Wheat, 1914)
In his Epilogue: The Wheatbelt in Deep Time, Hughes-d’Aeth sets out the arguments justifying his methodology and adds, “There is no exact precedent in this country for what I have done in studying creative writing and the Western Australian wheatbelt, though I am by no means the first to draw a relationship between Australian literature and place.”
There are many, maybe 120, illustrations, although being included in the text they are of only photocopy quality, good endnotes (yes, I’m getting used to them) and a useful Index. While in places the writing has an academic feel, perhaps that is just Hughes-d’Aeth not treating us general readers as idiots.
Overall this book represents a fascinating approach to an area that is at once Western Australia’s economic heartland, outside of the mines at least, and a potential ecological tragedy. I am looking forward to reading and maybe even reporting on the individual chapters.
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth, A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2017