2009, 233p plus appendices
“This will be the place for a village!” John Batman wrote in his journal after he sailed up the Yarra River in June 1835 (whenever he wrote it – you never know with John Batman). But what was it that made him decided that THIS would be the place, instead of THAT? Gary Presland argues that it was the geology of Melbourne, and its effect on river courses and soil quality that led him to that decision. In this book Presland adopts the rather old-fashioned practice of natural history, an omnibus 19th century term that encompassed geology, meteorology, botany and zoology, to recapture the lost landscapes of Melbourne. Just as the adage goes about everything old becoming new again, natural history closely approximates environmental history, a ‘big’ history, and one which is prominent at the moment.
By looking for a “lost landscape” Presland goes back even further than the 40,000+ years of indigenous activity in Melbourne. As books like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth make clear, indigenous people both responded to but also manipulated the environment so that early settlers did not see a virgin landscape, even though they may have perceived it that way at the time. Both indigenous people and the white settlers who supplanted them have had to operate within features that were laid down millions of years ago through the geological formations that have shaped Melbourne’s topography. But, in order to draw in other features like climate, weather, flora and fauna, he has selected 1800 as his nominal Year Zero, as he integrates written and painted historical information and remnant vegetation data to reconstruct Melbourne’s lost landscape. By choosing a date close to European arrival (1802 for the Port Phillip bay area), he captures the conditions that both indigenous and European people had to contend with.
This book is essentially a reconstruction. The shape and nature of the original landscape of Melbourne, as well as the wide range of natural resources they contained, were a fundamental part of the Aboriginal world. They formed not only the physical context where people lived, but also supplied the very means by which Aboriginal society flourished. The arrival of Europeans placed different demands on those resources but also imposed different influences. The same nature that had sustained a rich Aboriginal society, determined the location of European settlement, even if later it needed to be massively altered to better accommodate the ongoing demands of that settlement. p.14, 15
The book is divided into two parts. Part I, which is by far the longest, reconstructs Melbourne’s natural history in five chapters: Ch 1: The Shape of Melbourne’s Landscapes, Ch,2: The nature of Melbourne’s climate; Ch. 3 Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands; Ch.4 Pre-European vegetation of Melbourne; Ch. 5 Pre-European Animal Life of Melbourne.
Chapter One contains two geological maps of Melbourne, and I found myself turning to them often throughout the book. Presland gives a thorough, if somewhat technical, account of the geological formation of Melbourne over millions of years. He then moves across Melbourne’s landscape by geological formation, but also roughly from east to west: The Nillumbik terrain, the older volcanics, the Brighton coastal plain, the lava plain and the areas of Quaternary deposit. You do need to know your Melbourne suburbs for this chapter to make sense.
Chapter Two looks particularly at rainfall patterns across Melbourne and the disparity between the east and west, factors which of course have implications for vegetation and fauna distributions. The chapter also contains historical information about the collection of weather data.
Chapter Three, Melbourne’s Streams and Wetlands was my favourite chapter in the book. Again, Presland moves from east to west in his analysis, and again assumes a degree of familiarity with Melbourne, but I found it fascinating to read of streams and waterways (some even without names) that have either dried out or been subsumed completely under drains and roadways. It was this chapter that made me feel closest to a “lost” landscape- as if it was still here, but invisible.
Chapters Four and Five that deal with vegetation and animal life I found less engaging. They tended to read like a long list. Chapter Four follows the geological features of Chapter one, while Chapter Five is divided into categories like mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes etc.
In Part Two of the book, Presland calls “The Influence of Nature on Culture”. For me, this was the hub of the book, and I was a little disappointed that it was only thirty-one pages in length. He starts this section by talking about why and how he came to undertake this book. He then moves on to consider the Aboriginal connection to the Port Phillip area, then returns to the question I asked at the start – Why THIS place for a village? He highlights the significance of the Falls, and European efforts in shaping the Yarra. He then moves to briefly consider future development. The book closes with a methodology chapter and lists of indicative vegetation in different types of woodland, and fish in the Yarra River.
This book was based on his PhD, which comes as no surprise although he has subverted the usual PhD structure (introduction, methodology, data, analysis). I’m not sure that this reorganization is completely successful. Although it does keep the most technical information at the back of the book, away from a general reader, the narrative itself is fairly technical and abstracting, despite its adoption of “we” language. Chapters Four and Five are too “list-y”, with little overarching argument. I wished that Presland had stepped onto the stage himself earlier, instead of waiting until Part II and page 197 to do so. I found myself wondering what a writer like Tom Griffiths would do with this material.
Having said that, I really enjoyed this book, most particularly Chapters One and Three. The book was published by Museum Victoria and it is replete with beautiful coloured plates right throughout the text. It’s always satisfying to read a book that shifts you in your perception somewhat, and Chapters One and Three did that for me. The blurb on the back says that “Gary Presland will literally change your view of Melbourne”, and I think that’s true.
Sourced from: my own bookshelves