The Need for Wilderness in British and Australian Tradition [2018]

Nov 30, 2018

Kate Downham

Judges’ comments: In 2018 the judges decided to reward two entries and thus there are two joint winners. We were impressed by Kate Downham’s pioneering exploration of the need for wilderness in the British soul.


The Need for Wilderness in British and Australian Tradition, by Kate Downham (Tasmania)

Long before the days of high speed travel, satellite imagery and internet communication, the British Isles consisted mostly of small villages surrounded by wild lands, mystery, and the potential of danger. The concept of innangard and útangard were a strong part of Anglo-Saxon spiritual tradition and ethics, where the family farm or the village would be the physical innangard centre of their lives. Outside this innangard was the unknown, the mysterious ‘other’ that in a later period became the focus of many folk songs involving tinkers, gypsies, highwaymen, and wanderers.

These romantic visions of the outside world continued into the age of exploration. Stories emerged from the mysterious land in the south of the world, of black swans, hopping animals with pouches, and other strange creatures. Visions were related of endless spaces and dreamlike landscapes from the twisting branches of the eucalypt, the red soils of the arid inland, joyful wattle flowers, fertile rainforests, and beautiful beaches. Folk songs continued, warning any wrongdoers that they would end up in Van Diemen’s Land, far away from their friends and families.

With the urbanisation of England, as the old farm and cottage based economies began to be replaced by factories and globalisation, the healthy and varied lives of past workers were replaced by drudgery, becoming interchangeable cogs in factory machines. Life in the distant colonies, with fresh air and a wealth of opportunities, began to have enough appeal for many to leave their homelands in search of a healthier life.

Cities began to emerge in Australia, and with this came the yearning once again for mysterious lands beyond. When Banjo Patterson wrote of his ‘dingy little office’ in the ‘dusty, dirty city’ it could be any city in the world, but the semi-wild lands where Clancy of the Overflow is shearing and droving are uniquely Australian, where the Anglo soul is free to live outdoors once again.

In the early novels of Henry Williamson’s A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, the character of Richard Maddison often regrets not having moved to Australia when he had the chance. His London life of mundane office work, polluted air and commuting on congested trains is contrasted with the appeal of farm work in Australia, where there was the opportunity for those in overpopulated Britain to return to the land once more.

Film Australia’s Life in Australia documentaries made to entice ‘ten pound poms’ to move to Australia in the 1960s depict a healthy Anglo society with work in familiar industries balanced by natural light, space, outdoor activities, relaxed lives and friendly faces. To watch these documentaries now can bring on a melancholy mood, as this idyllic Australia from fifty years ago seems to no longer exist. The average Australian on the street no longer appears to be the healthy and friendly face of the 1960s videos, but more akin to Banjo Patterson’s ‘pallid faces’ that ‘shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste’.

‘Clancy of the Overflow’ was first published in 1889, but the description of the city reads as though it could have been written today. Could it be that ‘their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy, For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste’ has simply been what always happens when anyone become polluted with city air and the values of the merchants? Or is it only some of us who appreciate the bushland and countryside?

Later in Henry Williamson’s A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight Phillip Maddison, the son of Richard Maddison is given the chance to move to Australia. He imagines what it would be like to be in a strange land without the English wildlife and English soil and chooses to stay in England. For those of us who have grown up in Australia, the Antipodean flora and fauna has become familiar and homely, the wattle blooms and subtle changing hues of the forest throughout the year stir joy in the heart. The lively birdsongs are now familiar, yet the wild lands beyond may still bring to mind the forests of long ago, the mysterious ‘other’ that inspired many sentiments in folk songs.

In Tasmania it is possible to walk for an entire month without seeing any other person or sign of civilisation. Even in England, before the motorways began to weave their way through almost every part of the land, the wild lands beyond the village would only last so long before a new village was encountered. Australia might well give us the wild lands that British folk need for a revival of songs and art forms. An American writer once said ‘Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread’. Could it be that with the destruction of the wilderness, as politicians from all sides prize growth and money above all else, that something we deeply need and have travelled over oceans to find is being destroyed?

© Kate Downham, 2018