‘The Water Dreamers’ by Michael Cathcart


2009, 259p.

After seeing historians negotiating the publication marathon, I know that authors don’t always get to choose the name of their book.  Instead, it is often a decision of the marketing department of the publication company. However, if I were Michael Cathcart, I’d feel rather short-changed by the title of this book, which, even with its subtitle ‘The Remarkable History of our Dry Continent’ still doesn’t capture the nature of Cathcart’s question or approach.

The title ‘The Water Dreamers’ evokes for me poor old mad Sturt bashing around in the outback, Burke and Wills and the Dig Tree and C. Y. O’Connor suiciding before his Goldfields pipeline was pronounced a success.  All of these men- and it’s significant that they are all men- appear in this book, but it’s far more than that. Instead, Cathcart examines the way that Australia was imagined and written about in our  national consciousness and there is just as much about the ‘silence’ of the landscape as there is about ‘water’. I don’t know how you find a title that combines both these elements, but ‘water dreamers’ doesn’t do it. This is as much a book about cultural interpretation and literature as it is about engineering.

The book runs pretty much chronologically, starting off with the arrival of the First Fleet and those earliest transactions about water, a crucial concern for a ship’s crew that has arrived after months at sea and intent on forming a settlement. He features the now-invisible Tank Stream, so named because early engineering attempts imposed tanks onto its increasingly straitened flow, and the search for a better water supply which drove the the settlement towards the Parramatta and Hawkesbury Rivers. In the interests of Sydney-Melbourne balance, there is a similar chapter on the Port Phillip settlement, and the importance of the Yarra Falls as a barrier between the salt and fresh water needed by an infant settlement. He traces through the various expeditions that embarked from Sydney, Adelaide and the north western coast of W.A. in search of an inland sea or a large navigable river, and the various schemes proposed to turn the rivers inland (zombie plans that keep returning again and again). Drilling the Artesian Basin, and the construction of the Snowy River Scheme were both seen as ways of ‘solving’ the water problem. Engineering solutions have given way to market solutions, with water trading schemes abandoning Alfred Deakin’s long-standing philosophy that the water belonged to the river.

That’s one thread running through the book, and a fairly straightforward one at that. What gives nuance to Cathcart’s book is his parallel analysis of how the landscape was conceptualized. He points out that writers, from the very start, have commented on the “silence” of the Australian continent – whether it be the gibber plains or huge eucalypt forest- even though at the same time, they commented on bird calls, the crashing of timber, the howling of wild dogs, and the talk and shouts of nearby indigenous groups. Many early writers used the term “the howling wilderness”, a term from a 1662 North American poem ‘God’s Controversy in New England’, and one rather at odds with the supposed-silence that these Australian explorers deplored.

Cathcart is a pugnacious writer, and he takes on the popular view that explorers were obsessed with the idea of an ‘inland sea’.  While that is true of Sturt, Cathcart argues that explorers were instead seeking inland rivers, like the Mississippi, or the Amazon. Settlement occurred on the coast, not inland, and the first priority was to secure the coast, rather than penetrate the centre. Mitchell, Cunningham and Sturt heading off from New South Wales were looking for rivers, not seas, and they were often defeated by swampland rather than desert.

Cathcart also challenges the idea that exploring men conceptualized the land as a young virgin to be ravished and possessed. Instead, he argues, when Sturt, in particular, spoke of “lifting the veil” on Central Australia, it was the veil of mystery, not a wedding veil.

He identifies a stream of literature and reportage that he describes as ‘necronationalism’, exemplified by the disappeared Ludwig Leichhart, or Patrick White’s Voss, reaching its apogee in the public mourning and commemoration of Burke and Willis, who died beside a fresh water flow in a wet season.  ‘Hanging Rock’ and Lost Children are similar expressions of this necronationalism –  a nationalism based on death, which Cathcart argues would later be evoked in describing the ANZAC spirit.

Silence began to be conceptualized not as a sensory phenomenon, but a geographical zone that you entered and could leave, as you retreated back towards the coastline. It had a pictorial, representative aspect.  The ‘silence’ line largely followed the Goyder rainfall line in the 1860s.  Hubris in pushing beyond the Goyder line of the 1806s led to economic defeat when the seasons changed. This mapping of lines onto Australia was replicated sixty years later when the professor of geography at Sydney University, Griffith Taylor, published his own map that zoned Australia into ‘Useless’ ‘Sparse stock’ ‘Good Pastoral and ‘Fair Agricultural’ zones. This directly conflicted with the optimistic boosters of technology and engineering ‘solutions’ who looked to the construction of  dams, the reclamation of Lake Eyre and the development of irrigation schemes.

Cathcart spends quite a bit of time describing the Lemurian novels of the turn of the century, drawing on Theosophist ideas, that posited the hero Dick Hardwick as the explorer of a lost, fantastic Australia, before the time of the Aborigines. Such novels appeared across the Empire, but they were also distinctively Australian.

By now, it as clear that much of central Australia was occupied by a depressed desert, a void, an absence of nature. But the Lemurian novels held out the possibility that things had not always been thus. They invented a past based on one tantalising fact. At some unimaginably distant time, there really was an inland sea in Central Australia. Now, in the era of Victorian engineering, that sea was a blessing that the civil engineer could create. With this hope in mind, visions of this ancient inland sea swirled through the pages of the Lemurian novels. (p. 185)

And so, through literature and language, we can see the adoption of North American tropes of a ‘howling wilderness’, a ‘virgin’ land, and an empire- wide ‘lost civilization’ adventure genre all imposed onto the Australian landscape. We see the practice of drawing lines on maps to delineate arid zones disputed by the boosters of industrial and technological ‘solutions’.  Cathcart’s book is not just about explorers and schemes; it is also about literature and national consciousness, and concepts of geographical defeat and technological victory.  Does he succeed in melding the two? I’m not sure that he does, and he has the two threads running alongside each other, rather than interweaving them as a concise, integrated argument.

Nonetheless, this is a beautifully written cultural history that ranges across poetry, diaries and novels as well as nationalist stories of explorers and engineers. It tells a much more complex story about more than just water.

You can hear Michael Cathcart giving a lecture on this book (and you can read the transcript) from 2008 at https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/hindsight/the-water-dreamers/3255244

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: My own copy.



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