Issue 1, 2006 | Belinda Probert

George Seddon: in Retrospect

George Seddon The Old Country: Australian Landscapes, Plants and People, Cambridge University Press, $49.95.

This year I found myself thinking more carefully about Australia Day than I ever have before. There are probably many reasons for this, including the deliberate destabilization of my own sense of being Australian which I brought upon myself by migrating to the west coast for a couple of years. In Perth the national day seems to be celebrated with far greater enthusiasm than in Melbourne. At the same time, the current resources boom is a reminder of this state’s development through periodic waves of investment and immigration each of which seem to erase previous physical patterns of accommodation to the environment. It is a reminder of the youthfulness of the Australian nation (something which is less visible in Melbourne).

In Perth it is also hard not to notice that we inhabit an ancient continent unlike any other – a natural environment that that helps define Australia. So rather than bristling at the Prime Minister’s Australia Day attempt to define our cultural and political distinctiveness, linked to our British and Irish origins, I found myself thinking about our continued inability to understand our unique physical environment.

This thinking would not have been fruitful were it not for the pick of my Christmas reading, and if I could nominate an Australia Day book for 2006 it would be The Old Country: Australian Landscapes, Plants and People, which George Seddon offers us as his ‘last and final book’ – a book about how we might come to feel more ‘at home’ as Australians. Cartoonists responded to Howard’s definition of Australian-ness by suggesting a National Identity Test that requires knowledge about the application of the LBW rule. Seddon might prefer us to know the difference between a boab and a banksia tree. But his is no simple environmental nationalism, even if he does give us many reasons to think twice about planting Mexican poppies or other exotic garden ‘escapees’. Indeed, kookaburras are as invasive and destructive in Perth as lantana in the north-east of the continent.

Seddon knows that preaching and moralizing about environmental problems won’t change our ways because the way we see the landscape and the way we garden are shaped by culture and history, not science - ‘gardening is a cultural expression as well as an environmental response’. But he does want us to recognise the inability of explorers such as Burke and Wills, and Warburton with his ‘mindless assumption of superiority’ (77), to learn from Australia’s indigenous people how to survive in this landscape – though this may sound too much like support for a black arm-band view of history for Australia Day.

Elsewhere Seddon has written about Europe, past and present, being our cultural and intellectual heritage, and the way this rich imaginative world gives us images of human habitats that are ‘sharply dissonant with our own’, creating an ‘inescapable tension in being or becoming Australian’ (Landprints xiv). In this new book he elaborates on this dilemma for people who have come to Australia from the north, to a continent that has come from the south ‘with a physical history that is nothing like that of any of their homelands’. Did we rapidly learn to propagate and spread the Norfolk Pine around the continent because of ‘its symmetrical Christmassy branches on which it was easy to hang northern European dreams’? (xv).

Seddon’s sensibility has been shaped by his experience of growing up in Victorian country towns and then moving to Perth after a period working in Canada, but its power and persuasiveness are the result of his ability to integrate academic training in literature, geology and environmental planning. He hated western Australia. ‘The country was all wrong, and I felt cheated…All the plants scratched your legs. The jarrah was a grotesque parody of a tree, gaunt, misshapen, usually with a few dead limbs, fire-blackened trunk, and barely enough leaves to shade a small ant.’ Seddon had to learn to see the environment (most famously explained in his book Sense of Place,1972) which initially seemed monotonous, without landscape. He tells us about Judge Barron Field who deplored ‘the monotony of grey-green eucalypt forests’ around early Sydney, and I remembered my similar reaction to the forest of mountain ash in the Cathedral Range state park near Melbourne.

The reaction of settlers has been one of resistance and denial. Seddon defines the dominant garden form in suburban Australia as the ‘clearing in the forest’ – a lawn opening out from the rear of the house, backed by a ring of exotic shrubs and trees, with a foreground, middle ground and background. Nothing like this is to be found in the Australian landscape which is often a ‘seamless continuity rather than a series of set views’ – captured so powerfully in Fred Williams paintings.

To sustain this form of garden requires the addition of large amounts of fertilizers and water. Mineral fertilizers not only kill local wildflowers which have evolved with this ancient continent and adapted to the lack of nutrients, but in Perth at least they pour through the sand into the waterways, encouraging algal bloom (12). In Subiaco I am surrounded by delightful gardens full of roses, agapanthus and lavender, with many of those peculiarly west Australian ‘registered verges’ being hand watered every morning. The old street trees - gnarled and fat-trunked local peppermints (Agonis flexuosa) - are being dug out and replaced with south American jacarandas which hold their leaves in this hot dry place for barely 5 months of the year.

Like Seddon, I think constant watering creates a landscape that is out of harmony with the natural environment (plant form, leaf colour, sky) which, in Perth if not Melbourne, is a ‘powerful physical presence’. I am also particularly struck by the pervasive use of palm trees in public or corporate spaces as though we want to imagine ourselves living in an exotic holiday resort or a casino, as opposed to feeling at home. As Seddon says: ‘We live in old landscapes with limited water and soils of low fertility, yet with a rich flora that is adapted to those conditions, as we are not. There is much to learn from it, but we have been slow learners.’ (xv)

Why are we still finding it so hard? As each glorious western Australian eucalypt or banksia comes into flower I ask people for their names. It doesn’t matter how long anyone’s family has lived in Australia - only my botanist or agricultural scientist colleagues can tell me. Australians will respond to the scent of eucalypt or the sight of acacia in flower but Seddon argues that we lack ‘knowledge, affection, associations, stories, so that awareness is part of the fabric of our consciousness’ (129). He has written elsewhere about his own childhood in rural Victoria, and the impoverished countryside of the Wimmera with its natural vegetation and animals replaced by exotics and weeds. The continent’s geology and latitude about which we understand so little produced plants and animals that were easily pushed aside by the settlers’ monoculture. There was no Walden Pond, no Wind in the Willows, no childish familiarity with marsupials except perhaps the possum. As Seddon argues, today’s multicultural Australia is rich in many ways, but ‘its adaptation to the physical realities of an old unyielding land is not one of them. Being Australian in the sense of belonging to the land has always depended on an acquired skill.’ (240)

In The Old Country Seddon devotes a chapter each to three distinctive kinds of Australian tree that could take their place alongside eucalypts and acacias in our affections: the boab, the ancient conifers (such as the Norfolk and bunya pines as well as the recently discovered ‘living fossil’, the Wollemi pine), and the banksias. In south-western Australia it is the banksia that ‘lights up the world’.(129) It is not difficult over here to understand how May Gibbs, walking through a grove of these distinctive trees, saw ‘sitting on almost every branch’ ‘these ugly little, wicked little men’ who were to become the Banksia Men in Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918). May Gibbs also drew other West Australian plants with great care, and Seddon salutes her role in helping generations of Australians towards what he calls ‘an imaginative possession of their own environment’ (152).

A constant theme in much of Seddon’s writing has been the importance of the suburban garden and gardening in Australian culture. He is sceptical about contemporary enthusiasm for ‘mediterraneity’, pointing out that there are few parallels in geology, latitude or temperature. Olive trees are indeed ‘iconic’, but of what? ‘Another hemisphere, other cultures and values’. He sees gardening as a site for imaginative possession of our environment; his own reconciliation with the landscape began with an interest in the west’s wildflowers, and it is easiest to begin by loving our plants. When I migrated to Australia (Perth in the 1970s) there was an early wave of enthusiasm for native plants and they became more readily available. Gardens with mission brown plank fences held in forests of eucalypts, and I planted in blissful ignorance. My first garden in south Fremantle is like a nature reserve today, almost 30 years later – the house invisible in a thicket of red flowering gums. We had no idea what to do with these unfamiliar plants. But to visit the King’s Park wildflower festival now is to be overwhelmed with ideas and images.

Like Seddon, I have never cared for bush gardens (while admiring their makers). His chapter on garden design confronts the limited critical vocabulary available; the being Australian might mean; and the work done by three pioneers of conscious design based on Australian plants – Edna Walling, Ellis Stones and the relatively unknown Oliver Dowell whose best planting survives in the University of Western Australia’s famous Sunken Garden. But on the whole we have consistently ignored the wise words of a Sydney settler in 1839: ‘stonework, and terraces, and large shady trees, the characteristics of the Hindostanee gardens, are more suited to our climate, than English lawns and flowerbeds (192).

On Australia day I found myself thinking not about our social and political history and the threat that the Howard government represents to Australian values such as ‘the fair go’. As bush fires raged over east, and young Australians wrapped in the national flag drank themselves silly on the shores of the Swan River, I planted a new peppermint (Agonis flexuosa) out on my unregistered nature strip, in the middle of all those local government sponsored jacarandas, and pondered about what I see as George Seddon’s central point. ‘The enduring form of possession is imaginative possession, which is fed by knowledge, understanding, associations, stories and images, affections and, finally, incorporation of the environment into the self, until it becomes part of our sense of personal identity. We are yet fully to possess Australia in this sense – we have alighted rather than settled. It takes time, but we have made a beginning’ (118)

This review was commissioned and first published in The Australian Financial Review on 10 February 2006.