‘The Bush’ by Don Watson


2014, 378 p & notes

I’m almost embarrassed to think how many times I have borrowed this book from the library and had to return it still unread once my renewal limit was reached. I first borrowed it after it received Premiers’ Awards in both NSW and Queensland and it was announced as the Indie Book of the Year in 2015.  I borrowed it again months later, but then decided to read Don Watson’s earlier book Caledonia Australis instead (see my review here). And now, after multiple renewals and many months, I have finally finished it.

I was wrong to see Caledonia Australis and this most recent book, The Bush as companion pieces.  The earlier book (originally written in 1984) is a product of Don Watson the historian, but The Bush, with its subtitle ‘Travels in the heart of Australia’ is more similar to Watson’s American Journeys or his more recent Quarterly Essay The Enemy WithinIn both these books Watson travels to different locations and milieus, talking with people, looking out the window, sniffing the air.  This is very much the way that you need to read The Bush. It was only when I realized that, and stopped looking for a clearly defined argument, that I began to enjoy it.

I only found the map, too, once I sat down to write this review, and I feel rather annoyed at myself for overlooking it earlier.  The map shows the breadth of his travels, extending almost 3/4 around the circumference of Australia and leaching inland.

He calls his book The Bush but as he points out, that short word is too small to contain all that ‘the bush’ evokes:

the bush is any one of many different kinds of forest, scrub, woodland, savannah, rangeland, grassland and desert, made up of countless species in countless combinations of shape, colour, light and atmosphere so ephemeral and various that, unable to cope with them, our collective imagination has rendered all as bush, and often reduced it to a river red gum combined with a flock of sheep.

Collapsing into a single word or image tropic rainforest and mulga, and all the ecosystems in between, is a natural enough convenience, but the bush describes much more than vegetation and its native creatures… It has equal measures of what was there before Europeans came and what is there now.  It is what we have done to the natural environment and what it has done to us.  The world outside us and the world within.  Wilderness, home and garden.  Temple, nursery and slaughterhouse. (p.69- 70)

The book starts with the personal: his grandfather striding across the paddock to his cowshed, and his grandmother sweeping the back veranda. Watson is a country boy (and already there’s the slippage in terminology between country/bush) from Gippsland, and in the final chapter he tells us that some forty-odd years later he has returned to the bush, albeit the very different bush of the Macedon Ranges. In between the chapters range across the Mallee and Wimmera, the Murray-Darling Basin, the Mitchell Grass Down and the West Australian wheatbelt.  The chapters are arranged, however, at a human emotional level as well as a geographical one: “The Bush Means Work” or “Striving to Stay in Existence” “Farming the Flood Plain” or “The Bush Will Not Lie Down”.

Each chapter starts with an italicized paragraph of subheadings to signpost the content to come, similar to those found in an old-fashioned novel (I’m sure that there’s a word for this, but I don’t know what it is).  These prefacing epigraphs (is that the word I’m looking for?) reflect the meandering, ruminative nature of the chapters, which branch off and diverge into unexpected places.  There are many lists, particularly of trees, grasses, birds and fish. There are also many commentators along the way: the present-day people he has met on his journey, explorers and visitors to Australia who diarized their impressions, settlers who documented their memoirs, historians who have responded to these primary sources, and fictional characters crafted by mainly Australian writers drawing from and replenishing the well of the Australian imagination about the bush.

For, as he says:

The Australian bush is both real and imaginary. Real, in that it grows in various unmistakable bush-like ways, and dies, rots, burns and grows into the bush again; real, in harbouring life.  Imaginary, in that among the life it harbours is the life of the Australian mind. It is, by many accounts, the source of the nation’s idea of itself…. The bush is a social construct as well as an ecological one: as much as the things that grow and live there, we define it by the people who inhabit it. (p66)

Embedded within the landscape are people, both Indigenous and European. There is no one ‘Indigenous’ chapter here, tacked onto the front or the back of the body of the book.  Instead, the Indigenous and European presences are interwoven throughout the chapters, sometimes existing side-by-side, at time working at cross-purposes, sometimes in a state of active hostility.

Much of the book reflects struggle with physical elements like soil, water, fire but its final words (before an oddly placed appendix) are those of in the realm of the emotions:

It can do no harm to settle on the public mind a deeper and more honest knowledge of the land than anything that myth and platitude allow, or to encourage love to overrun indifference… We need a relationship with the land that does not demand submission from either party, that is built more on knowledge than the hunger to possess, and finds the effort to understand and preserve as gratifying as the effort to exploit and command.  In the end it is possible to love and admire the bush… Except we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again.  (p.373)

I enjoyed this book so much more once I started to look at it as a series of essays, rather than an argument in itself. They are beautifully written, and would lend themselves well to being read aloud, and being read over and over. You don’t need to read it in one go, and you don’t need to read it only once.  It’s the sort of book that belongs on your own bookshelf  and it will, on mine- especially now that it has been released in paperback.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library  (again and again)

My rating: 8.5



9 responses to “‘The Bush’ by Don Watson

  1. Me too, Janine, this is one of those ‘I-must-read-it’ books and yet I’ve never got round to it.
    Just wondering: I read short stories with my father (now in aged care) – do you think The Bush would be suitable for reading aloud in 10-15 minute bursts?

    • I don’t think so, actually. The chapters are fairly long and they’re very discursive. Almost like a daydream.

    • Although, come to think of it, if he’s not fussed about actually following a plot line, he might really like it. The writing is beautiful but they are more like reflections than anything else. But perhaps that might be just what you’re looking for.

  2. Janine love your review of The Bush. You’ll have to have have a look at a new book Don has released A Single Tree : Voices from the Bush which is a compilation of excerpts from source material he drew on in his research for The Bush. Includes writings ranging from naturalists, explorers, settlers, diarists, local historians, elders, artists, writers and poets … spanning the centuries. His selection is most interesting you can sense what caught his eye or connected on his travels. Sparks interest in other writers not encountered or looked at for a while. You correspondent Lisa might find this suitable for reading to her Dad.

  3. I spend as much time in ‘the bush’ as I can. And yes it is a construct which forms part of the ‘Australian Legend’ so I think about it a lot too, Interesting the distinction with ‘the country’ (‘country’ is another thing again). I think of farmland as country but not bush, but they are not hard and fast distinctions are they? But as you can imagine I’m very prejudiced against the europeanised green of parts of Gippsland and the Western District and the Southern Highlands with their pines and autumn shades. Not Bush!

    • Perhaps because the Victorian parts attracted my interest, perhaps I’ve emphasized the Victorian aspect too much. When you look at the map, you realize that he really has written about a wide range of environments. But I, too, kept thinking “Hold on, is that the BUSH? or just the country?”

  4. Another title added to my long “To Read” list. Thanks also for the reminder about American Journeys which is at the bottom of the pile by my bed.

  5. I might give it a try, thanks, Janine:)

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