Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Going Bush

"She lay on the mudflats between nightmares and the ropy unknown day. A magpie sang. In November, the creepy Rabbitoh had told her , the magpies pecked your head and made blood pour down your face. Some country she'd been sent to." - His Illegal Self (Peter Carey)
The Australian Bush - Merrimbula
Bush Near Merrimbula

The "she" is one of the main characters in Peter Carey's novel, His Illegal Self. A young Boston woman who has fled the U.S. to Australia.

Peter Carey is an Australian expat who lives in New York. So am I. I love reading his latest novels as they invariably straddle the two countries. Not only that - the places in those two countries are my favorites - Manhattan, and the Australian bush.

And I love novels set in the Australian bush. Janet Turner Hospital's Charades, Murray Bail's Eucalyptus, Keneally's The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, and of course almost any of Patrick White's, are just some of the novels, that when read in another country, transport Australians back to the Australia of their minds.

What is it about the Australian bush that we Australians love, and that we Aussie expats yearn for? After all, 84% of Australians live in urban areas, and rarely set foot in the bush - though we all claim to know it.

The Australian bush is frequently described as harsh, uninviting and beautiful - at the same time. It pervades our literature, our paintings and our films. It is at the hear of our very culture. It is and was the heart of the first Australians. It created their Dreamtime.

And many of us grew up fearing the Banksia Men, and adoring Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. We proudly learned Dorothea MacKellar's Sunburnt Country" at school - a poem that celebrates the beauty and terror of the bush. More Australian films, from the first feature length narrative film - "The Story of the Kelly Gang" (1906) through Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Breaker Morant (1981), Gallipoli (1981), Man from Snowy River (1982), Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Evil Angels (1988). Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) , Ten Ten Canoes and Jindabyne (2006) use Australian bush as either background or setting.

The bush is part of our language. We have 'Bush Telegraph' ('Grapevine', word-of-mouth), bush tucker (food gathered from nature, in the outback), bushwalking (hiking in the bush), 'gone bush' (disappearing, leaving the city), Bush Bike wines (Western Australia). When we are tired we are 'bushed'. A national hero, Ned Kelly was a bush-ranger (bandit). We have bushfires (wildfires in the US) and bush lawyers (untrained people with opinions).
Sidney Nolan - Kelly and horse, 1946

I wonder when I last went to the bush? I know that it wasn't on my last two trips to Australia (2007). Perhaps before that - 2003? Five years ago then. And yes I miss it, though I probably won't go on my next trip. It's a bit like living in New York and rarely going to MoMA or the Met. You don't need to; it's enough to know that it's there.

What I'd REALLY like to do is "go bush", although that term has some weird connotations in the current U.S. context. And I AM "bushed", bushed-out as well.

Where I would REALLY like to be right now, is to be camping somewhere in the Flinders Ranges. Lying on a banana lounge under a shady gumtree, drinking too-hot black tea. And what would I be reading? A book set in New York, of course ...

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