Excerpt: 'Worlding the South: Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture and the Southern Settler Colonies' by Sarah Comyn and Porscha Fermanis (editors)
Louisa Atkinson, Oldbury Mill, c. 1860
‘‘Then came the high unpromising forests, and miles of loneliness’: Louisa Atkinson’s recasting of the Australian landscape’ by Grace Moore
A botanist, journalist, taxidermist, and fiction-writer, Louisa Atkinson (1834–72) was the first Australian-born woman to publish a novel, and a stern critic of violence in the name of progress. Gertrude the Emigrant (1857) appeared when its author was only twenty-three, but by then Atkinson was already an accomplished nature writer and a highly respected botanical illustrator.1 She had also begun to pen short stories for the local newspapers, and went on to publish five more novels (an additional novel, Tressa’s Resolve, was published posthumously). Atkinson’s works are remarkable for the sensitivity and wonder with which they depict the Australian landscape and its plant-life, while her fiction is closely attentive to European settlement’s devastating impact upon the land. She was a prolific columnist who published regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sydney Mail from the early 1860s until her death at the age of thirty-eight. In addition to providing rich descriptions of the flora and fauna she encountered on her many excursions into the bush, her columns also – because they ran over such a long period – mapped the changes wrought by settlers on the New South Wales countryside.
Atkinson was a regular contributor to the Horticultural Magazine, and her work was admired by botanists including Ferdinand von Mueller and William Woolls. Her name appears regularly in the proceedings of the Horticultural Society of New South Wales as, for instance, on 6 July 1864 when, at its Annual General Meeting, the society’s honorary secretary distributed edible tubers supplied by ‘Miss Atkinson of the Kurrajong’, who was keen for the members to taste them and to understand how Indigenous Australians used them as food.2 This example typifies Atkinson’s immersive and experiential interest in plant-life: she once sent a jar of ‘native cranberry’ jam to the Sydney Horticultural Society to allow its members to taste a fruit about which she had written.3 She celebrated native plants and wildlife, learning about them from the Indigenous men and women she knew. She even attempted to introduce a ‘Native Arts’ column to the Illustrated Sydney News in the early 1850s that would deal with Indigenous Australian culture. The feature ran twice before it was discontinued, although Atkinson wrote as though it was to have been a long-term venture.
Reflecting her great passion for Australian flora, Atkinson’s writing is notable for its rejection of European aesthetic conventions, offering a corrective to the settler novel’s picturesque and sublime framings of the outback as though it were an English vista.4 That she lived entirely in Australia is of undoubted significance in Atkinson’s advocacy for the distinctiveness and importance of Australian wildlife. Her upbringing was highly unconventional, and she spent much more time out of doors, observing plants and animals, than was usual for a middle-class girl.5 Unlike many of her contemporaries, she strove to capture the extraordinary beauty and difference of New South Wales and Queensland, while at the same time recording the rapidity with which change was being imposed upon the regions. Fascinated by Indigenous culture, Atkinson attempted to promote an understanding of the land’s traditional custodians and to highlight their more nuanced and reciprocal relationships with the natural world, although her racial politics oscillated between affectionate respect for the Indigenous men and women she knew personally and what Elizabeth Lawson identifies as ‘overt racism’.6 She also, as this chapter demonstrates, explored the destruction to the human and nonhuman worlds by settlers, whose attempts to make a home away from home failed to respect and understand Australia’s carefully balanced ecology and the people who had successfully managed it for many generations.
Louisa Atkinson’s country was Kurrajong, north-west of Sydney, which is also the Indigenous name given by the people of the Darug, or Dharug, nation for the types of trees (also known as the bottle tree) that once grew there. In discussing and using the term ‘country’ in this chapter, I take my definition from Deborah Bird Rose, who beautifully encapsulates the ineffable pervasiveness of country, and the mutual care and cross-species dependency that it envelops:
Country in Aboriginal English is not only a common noun, but also a proper noun. People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person … People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy … country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life.7
Atkinson’s sensibility towards country could not approximate this kind of Indigenous connection, but her location was quite literally defined by woodland, and she embraced that connection in much of her writing, even as she grieved for its violent removal. A keen observer of her surroundings, Atkinson was particularly interested in the failures of settler colonisation, which were frequently associated with violence of one kind or another, including violence against the land.
In this chapter I examine Atkinson’s representations of the massive land clearances that became a hallmark of settler interactions with country throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. I also examine Atkinson’s use of the bushfire as a trope to critique settler understandings of the Australian natural world. Focusing on her fire stories, I consider how her depictions of fire-setting and fire-fighting are distinct from those of her contemporaries (for instance Mary Theresa Vidal and Ellen Clacy) and how her writings sought to promote respect for the bush, both reconfiguring the forest as an imaginative space in settler culture, and reassessing contemporary debates about land clearance and the bush as a ‘resource’ to be plundered.
Pastoralism, land clearance, and bushfire stories
Atkinson’s position in relation to land clearance is interesting, given her background. Her father, James Atkinson, was a successful pastoralist who, when he died, owned more than 3,000 sheep and 200 cattle. He was a respected civil servant and the author of a prize-winning book, An Account of the State of Agriculture & Grazing in New South Wales (1826), which, as T. M. Perry tells us in James’ entry in the Australian Dictionary of National Biography, ‘was an important work’, emphasising ‘the problems of adapting European plants, animals and farming methods to a strange environment’.8 James Atkinson’s work is not cheerful reading for the modern environmentalist. It is clear that he saw forests as ‘obstacles’, to use Robert Pogue Harrison’s characterisation of them, and much of the book recounts in copious and painful detail the most efficient processes for eradicating trees:9
Some persons have preferred digging a deep hole on one side, and by throwing the stump down into it, have succeeded in burying it out of the reach of the plough; others have taken off a belt of bark all round the tree, and killed it while standing, afterwards clearing the land by grubbing or stump-failing. This is attended with some benefit, as the tree is then ready for burning as soon as it is down, but then the wood gets hard and dry, and is much more difficult to cut up. Some have barked the trees, and set fire to them standing; many will completely burn down, but a great many stumps and fragments will remain, and require as much or more trouble to be got rid of, than the whole tree would in the first instance; and it does not appear that much benefit arises from the system.10
There is something quite devastating about reading this volume of apparently endless suggestions for wiping out native forests. With his talk of stump burial, tree and grass burning, ring-barking, and killing trees while standing, this ‘management’ of the land reads today as nothing short of ecological vandalism. Yet within its context, Atkinson’s advocacy of ecocide was regarded as the height of effective land management.
James Atkinson was far from unique in his beliefs. Rose reminds us of the disturbance to the ecological equilibrium caused by settlers to country when she notes that ‘[s]ettlers laid waste to land as they worked it; their land use practices meant that they were always hungry for more land … They took with them their disregard for life-support systems.’11 With their European aesthetic and their sense of Australia as a disorderly space to be ransacked into submission, many settlers were challenged by the uncanny appearance of the twisty, sprawling eucalypt forests. Yet at the same time, they were quick to invest them with pecuniary value, so that often when we look at early histories of colonial ‘progress’, sections which appear to be devoted to trees are actually accounts of timber prices and market values. John Stephens in his emigrants’ guide, The History of the Rise and Progress of the New British Province of South Australia (1839), wrote of the stringy bark: ‘it is estimated that, if twenty thousand persons emigrated to the Australian shores every year, for the next century, there would be enough for them all’.12 Trees here are simply resources, and if Stephens is thinking about their expendability, it is only to the degree that he wants there to be enough to go around. His work pays no attention to renewal, or the need to nurture the forest, and it lacks understanding of the careful management needed to promote regrowth and regeneration.
While Louisa Atkinson’s background could easily have made her an apologist for pastoralism of this kind, she had an incisive understanding of the damage that land clearance was causing. Her representations of farmers in her novels are notable for the insights she offers into attempts to subdue the arid and unruly land by force. Furthermore, her writing is remarkably prescient in its understanding of the environmental impact of deforestation and the far-reaching legacy of drought with which Australia contends today. As a realist novelist, she recorded the changes that the settler community forced upon the land, often with deep insights into the long-term impact of what she was witnessing, although also with sympathy for migrant farmers who were ill equipped to deal with their new conditions.
Although not approving the culling of trees, Atkinson saw that one solution would be a more sustainable form of planting, whereby fast-growing species such as cedar and walnut might provide the wood that settler society consumed at an increasingly alarming rate. As she wrote in a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1870, ‘it would seem advisable to plant suitable trees largely year by year; for, while the woodman’s axe can fell the growth of a century in an hour, the forest springs up but slowly’.13 Despite her great love of Australian native plants and creatures, she saw no difficulty in allowing imported varieties of trees. Given her professional friendships with proponents of acclimatisation like Ferdinand von Mueller, it is perhaps unsurprising that Atkinson was able to imagine native and introduced plant-life living happily alongside one another.
Atkinson was alert from an early age to the trouble settlers could wreak in an Australian forest. In a short story, published in 1853, when she was nineteen, ‘The Burning Forest: A Sketch of Australian Bush Life’, she offered a vivid account of a fire caused by a careless itinerant gold digger, whose refusal to extinguish a campfire leads to the death of several members of a Scottish migrant family.14 Those who perish are shown to be hard-working and respectful of the landscape. However, the man behind the catastrophe, identified only as ‘Tom’, conflates the vastness of the bush with expendability. When he is asked to extinguish a campfire he has lit, against the urgings of the more experienced bushmen in his party, he declares: ‘you’re not so soft as to think I would take the trouble to put out a log when there are a thousand on every acre … Bother the bush, it is better burned. There’s plenty of it.’15 Here, Atkinson explicitly aligns Tom’s carelessness with the pastoralist tree-felling agenda, drawing a connection between clearance and fire. The fact that there are a thousand trees on every acre should, in and of itself, be a good reason to be sure that fires are put out. Yet Tom, though new to the bush, approaches it with a confidence akin to that of Stephens’ guidebook – a confidence that Atkinson wants her readers to realise is misplaced.16
Atkinson does not flinch from showing her reader the consequences of reckless conduct in the bush. She focuses on the terror caused by the flames, or, as her narrator terms them, the ‘devouring element’, along with the dread of the family as they await their deaths.17 While an adult daughter survives with her youngest sibling in her arms, the mother of the family watches and prays as her children are showered with burning leaves and then, one by one, drown in the pond to which they have retreated for safety. As the last child succumbs to the water, the narrator says of the mother: ‘Then all incentive to exertion was over, and she laid her weary head beside theirs, and the wave rippled over them.’18 While this scene may be a little sentimental for the taste of today’s readers, it offers a confronting reminder of the results of heedless behaviour in the bush. It also demonstrates a much more sophisticated understanding of cause and effect than many of the other settler fire stories that were beginning to appear in the colonial press and becoming a staple of Australian fiction.
One of the earliest literary depictions of a bushfire appeared in Mary Theresa Vidal’s ‘The Cabramatta Store’ (1850).19 While there are certainly earlier references in settler fiction, Vidal was the first to weave a bushfire into her story’s plot, although she lived in Australia for only five years.20 Fire appears very early on in the work, as a warning of the environment’s hostility to migrants. The story features the settlers Grace and John Lester, who have recently emigrated to New South Wales. Grace sees smoke when she is on a shopping trip and asks what it can be, to which the shopkeeper responds quite casually: ‘O, it is the bush-fires. Why don’t you see them every evening? I heard old Harry say … that he counted as many as nine or ten the night before last. Some say that’s what makes it so hot.’21 Another customer, a schoolmaster, interjects with the suggestion that the fires might be responsible for the warmth of Australia’s climate, before adding ‘but I suppose it is the heat in the first place which causes the fire, though I heard the gentlemen talking the other night, and some said they thought it might be the blacks, forgetting to put out their fires, and so it spreads’.22
The nonchalant tone with which these characters discuss fire points to the fact that the settler community had yet to fully learn its destructive force. The almost throwaway reference to ‘the blacks’ as responsible for the fire anticipates an anxiety that emerges in some later settler fiction, which imagines scenarios in which Indigenous Australians might turn fire into a weapon against Europeans. Here, the schoolmaster implies an absent-mindedness in relation to fire that is completely at odds with what we know today of its importance to Indigenous land management prior to Invasion.23 His words reflect a widespread misunderstanding of Indigenous fire practices, while at the same time signalling the casual racism which appears in many settler works, where inexplicable and unfortunate events are attributed to ‘the blacks’.
A few pages later, Vidal captures the speed with which flames could take hold, when she moves from a scene with her settler hero John discussing the importance of a campfire on a hot night to keep snakes at bay, to a dramatic bushfire – in the very next paragraph – as John travels home and sees ‘[t]he tall trees were some of them red hot to the top; the fire seemed to run apace, and every leaf and stack was so dry there was nothing to impede its progress’.24As John continues towards his home, he meets two men hurrying to fight the blaze, although they make it clear that there is ‘not much mortal hands can do now every thing [sic] is so dry and water so scarce’.25 Rather than going to assist with the unfolding catastrophe, John continues on his way home, improbably suggesting that there are already too many men rendering assistance. This is the last we hear of the fire – John goes on to eat his supper, showing an almost comic degree of sang-froid. That the fire does not have a lingering narrative presence is partly a consequence of the vignette form in which Vidal was writing, but it also suggests that, for the author, a bushfire was not significantly distinct from the kinds of fires she might have witnessed or read about back in England.26
The great fires of Black Thursday (6 February 1851) saw the beginnings of a shift in understandings of the power of the bushfire. Ellen Clacy was among the first to memorialise the day – on which almost a quarter of the colony of Victoria burned – in fiction. Like Vidal, Clacy did not remain permanently in Australia and seems to have spent very little time there, having travelled to the gold diggings with her brother in 1853 before abruptly returning to England after a couple of months.27 She made the most of her short time in the southern hemisphere, however, by supporting herself through writing articles and stories about her travels, adopting the nom de plume Cycla. Her short story ‘The Bush Fire’ appeared in Lights and Shadows of Australian Life (1854) and is notable for its extreme melodrama. As I have argued elsewhere, Clacy’s story uses the bushfire as a plot device to bring about a relationship between two characters of different social classes.28 The rugged, yet well-read working man, Hugh, rescues the aloof heroine, Julia, and his heroics allow the social distance between them to be effaced. Clacy’s story is specific as to its setting, capitalising on the topicality of the Black Thursday fires for its drama: ‘Was it a thick black fog approaching? No; horror of horrors, it was smoke! and, as it comes nearer, the red flames are discernible … the dense dark mass, intermingled with lurid streaks was behind her.’29 While no doubt thrilling to the Victorian reader, Clacy’s depiction of the fire is subordinate to her romance plot. Like Vidal, Clacy reveals little interest in the distinctiveness of the Australian landscape. Furthermore, while her bushfire offered an element of novelty to her story, it might easily have been interchanged with any other calamity from which Hugh could have rescued Julia.
Atkinson’s bushfire novels, ecology, and settler discomfort
As an Australian-born naturalist, Atkinson was better attuned to outback ecology than these more mobile women, and as a result her fire scenes are much more than fleeting adventures designed to bring about dramatic rescues. Fire was, for Atkinson, a reality of life in the Australian wilderness, and her attitude towards the bushfire made it much more than a plot contrivance. As ‘The Burning Forest’ demonstrates, Atkinson resists the settler propensity to contain the landscape by revelling in its difference, rather than attempting to understand it on European terms. She also recognises the need to preserve the ‘wilderness’ all around her, and is often critical of the pastoralists and their investment in clearing scrub. Moreover, her understanding of Australia’s ecology means that she writes with an awareness of fire as a recurring phenomenon, rather than representing it as a one-off catastrophe laden with opportunities for melodrama.
Dale Spender has helpfully distinguished Atkinson’s position from that of her English predecessors, observing that Atkinson ‘conveyed her deep and enduring commitment to her country’ and ‘experienced no conflict of loyalties between the old and the new’. If she ‘saw in Australia the possibility for the creation of a new egalitarian society’ it was one ‘based not on exploitation but upon the mutual respect of human beings who had regard for their environment’, giving her writing ‘a curiously contemporary appeal’.30 C. A. Cranston and Charles Dawson have similarly noted that ‘Atkinson introduced readers to indigenous plants and animals, rather than engaging in agoraphobic distortions that dismissed the local as dangerous or inferior to British biota’.31 Atkinson’s holistic attitude towards her surroundings made her acutely sensitive to, and appreciative of, the uniqueness of the New South Wales landscape. She approached what settler culture often saw as the bush’s hostility with curiosity and awe, and used her fiction and her journalism to teach her readers that its otherness was not unruly or vulgar but just fascinatingly different.
While Atkinson’s novels were somewhat derivative in their plotting, their attention to environmental detail makes them a valuable resource for understanding the ecological impact of settler encounters with the bush. In addition to being an annual concern for those who made their homes in and around woodland, the bushfire became for Atkinson an emblem of settler discomfort. Building on her early short story, she incorporated bushfires into two of her novels and began to gently challenge ideas of the fire as an enemy, along with the sensationalism that had already begun to surround its representation. She was also a vocal critic of forest clearance. In her first novel, Gertrude the Emigrant (1857) – the story of a young orphan, who has recently arrived in Australia – Atkinson made deforestation a backdrop to the novel’s action, thus signalling her awareness of the repercussions that could ensue from the wholesale removal of trees:32
It was a dull scene at the best; great stiff stringybark trees all round, or where they had fallen before the axe, the stumps remained, bleached white, or charred, by some bush fire, to a sombre hue; in fact just then Gertrude thought it looked not unlike a graveyard: the grass was brown and dry, and the trees, every hue but green; their scanty branches casting little shade.33
For Gertrude and the omniscient storyteller, the cleared ground is a deathscape, and its interweaving of the axe-felled trees with the charred remains of the fire seems to have been deliberate. Atkinson went a step further in her later – and very personal – novel Tom Hellicar’s Children (1871). The work opens with a description of the villainous embezzler Richard Hellicar’s home: ‘a red brick house, on a bare mound, with extensive fields spreading around it – bleak open fields cleared of trees’.34 The narrator draws attention repeatedly to the ‘cleared fields’ and ‘stumpy’ terrain, on one level representing the ‘improvements’ of farmers clearing room for livestock, but on another making a subtle equation between moral bankruptcy and the destruction of native forests.35
Elsewhere in Gertrude the Emigrant, Atkinson interlaces her delicate heroine’s illness with an oppressively hot summer. The unworldly Gertrude has fallen in love with an unsuitable rogue, Charley Inkersole, and her feverish sickness is a psychosomatic response to her inner conflict – she loves Charley deeply, yet she knows, as a virtuous young woman, that she should not. Following the conventions established by earlier fire-writers like Clacy and Vidal, Atkinson uses the fire as an outlet for Gertrude’s intense emotional arousal. Fearful at the prospect of being caught in a blaze, she cannot help but think of Charley, and her restlessness as the fire approaches the homestead becomes entangled with her attempts to suppress her desire for him. Having just learned that she is unlikely to see Inkersole for some time, the narrator observes of Gertrude that ‘the fire alarmed her, and she found she was repeating aloud “not till after Christmas”’. Readers are left to draw a parallel between the heat of the flames and the intensity of Gertrude’s passion.
Atkinson is, however, concerned with the fire not as a mere plot device, but as a recurring challenge of settler life:
When darkness did come, there were apparent, not one, but five, vast portals of burning red, in a solid mass, like sombre grey masonry, arching over head, from which glared out rays of light, as from a luminous world beyond. The air was still, hot, and close; the tree frogs shrieked by the water, and the grasshopper chirped. The smoke was sensibly thicker, and when Gertrude retired to rest, it was with a troubled heart, which yet was solaced by committing its burdens to Him ‘who comforteth us in all our distresses.’36
Atkinson’s description is attentive, not just to the heat and light, but also to sound. The reference to the shrieking tree frogs and the grasshopper reveal a deep attention to the fire’s ramifications beyond the human world. It also offers an interesting contrast to Ellen Clacy’s depiction of the Black Thursday fire, in which she imagines only silence: ‘Everything was hushed in an awful silence: the noisy birds, the animals, the reptiles, all living things had fled, and the fire came rushing on.’37 Atkinson’s representation of the effects of a bushfire is much more inclusive than those of her immediate literary forebears. For her, a fire is not simply a human tragedy, but an event that affects the equilibrium of every aspect of bush life. Moreover, what makes Atkinson’s writing distinct is an understanding of fire ecology – her narrators do not treat the approaching flames as a one-off event, but understand that fire is a phenomenon bush-dwellers need to accept and understand as part of their lives. As the fire historian Tom Griffiths notes, fire is ‘the genie of the bush’: unlike the ‘sprites, elves and wood nymphs’ that populate ‘the forest folklore of the northern hemisphere’, the Australian bush ‘harboured a rather different creature’ – one that required colonies to live alongside it rather than regarding it as a hostile enemy.38
Atkinson’s characters seem at least partially aware of the importance of remembering fires past, and the need to be prepared for the conflagrations yet to come. As flames appear in the distance, they think back to a bushfire three summers past, referencing its trajectory in relation to land clearance and noting how fires can ‘turn’ because of factors like running water and gusts of wind. This recollection of a recent fire is prompted by Gertrude’s outcry, ‘The bush on fire! Oh, what can we do?’, yet instead of sparking panic, her words bring forth the reassurance ‘Don’t be frightened: it’s away in the gullies’.39 Later, the characters seek guidance from Nanny, an Indigenous servant, as to where the fire will go next, and she speaks of how her people’s camps will be moved in response to the threat. While she does not develop the parallel, Atkinson sets up an implicit comparison between the flexibility of the land’s traditional custodians who decamp in the face of fire, and the vulnerability of the settlers, who must watch and wait.
The farm comes so close to danger that, the narrator informs us,
As night approached, the sun was shut out from their view, and a thick darkness veiled the earth; the wind rose, and carried up columns of sparks and blazes; then died down to a perfect calm: again arose, each time driving the flames before it with frightful rapidity, till a wall of fire shut in the farm.40
Yet the tone remains measured, with the narrator attending to the elemental detail of the experience, rather than the human dimension. When the novel’s hero, Edward Tudor, arrives, instead of sweeping Gertrude off her feet, in the manner of Clacy’s Hugh Clements, he calmly instructs her on what to do if the fire takes hold: ‘Mark the lowest line of fire, dash through [on horseback]; you must wrap wet blankets round you, don’t fear … get down to the long swamp, and stay in the water.’41 The plan turns out to be completely unnecessary, and Gertrude joins the rest of the household – men and women – in keeping the fire away from both the homestead and the harvest.
In resisting both the rescue and escape narrative (which had, by this point, already become somewhat formulaic), Atkinson recasts the role of the settler woman in relation to the land. While Gertrude, as a youthful new migrant must be instructed so that she may learn appropriate responses, the novel shows the other women of the household to be both resourceful and capable in their fire-fighting efforts. Atkinson here resists narratives of female endangerment in the bush, while at the same time rejecting the idea of the fire as a one-off event. The chapter ends with a focus on the changing seasons, and we learn that ‘the sweeping destruction of the fire was half-forgotten’.42 Yet while the prospect of autumn might provide relief, embedded in this reference to the changing seasons is a reminder that summer – and the flames – will return.
Atkinson was not, however, completely consistent in her disdain for those involved in deforestation or in her approval of acclimatisation. In her final, posthumously published serial, Tressa’s Resolve (1872), she offers a critique of the transposition of European farming techniques to Australia through the figure of Tyrell Love, a would-be gentleman farmer whose sheep station fails through his lack of environmental knowledge. Importantly, this work predates the so-called ‘nervous nineties’, which, as Susan K. Martin notes, produced works which were ‘rife with anxious hauntings … and stories of drought, flood, failed farming and environmental pests’.43 Atkinson was attuned to these concerns before they became mainstream anxieties, and in this work she sought to explore them through a lens that the settler community might understand – itself.
Fenced Enclosure and Cattle Trough, c. 1860
Mr Love purchases 40 acres and sets about clearing it almost immediately, romantically figuring the spaces as a ‘garden of Eden’ and fantasising about bringing the heroine Tressa to live there as a ‘sweet Eve’. The narrator describes the metropolitan character’s consternation at the vastness of the countryside:
Trees 200 feet in height and of huge girth: the fall of the first great forest king; felled with such infinite labour – so many strokes of the axe. First the great tree trembled, then a few sharp snaps, then a moaning sound as it slowly overbalanced and crashed to the ground, tearing away branches and smaller trees in its fall. It was a moment of victory for Tyrell, and he would not draw the inference from this first essay that to clear even one acre would be the work of Herculean toil and of time.44
Atkinson here effectively combines her knowledge of the toil involved in pastoralising the land with a lament for the fallen tree and the many that will follow. What the narrator describes here is a murder with the gigantic ‘forest king’ ‘trembling’ and ‘moaning’ as its long life is cut short. This scene encapsulates what Rose has termed ‘violent unmaking’, with its total disregard for the respect, reciprocity, and balance that govern Indigenous interactions with the nonhuman world.45
The narrator’s invitation to contemplate the ‘work of Herculean toil and time’ does not simply ask us to think about her hero’s labour, but also demands that we consider the indiscriminate destruction ahead, not just on this farm, but on land across Australia. Atkinson’s trees are sentient beings and it is not a stretch to suggest that they feel pain, just as she seems to in writing of their plight. In her novel of the previous year, Tom Hellicar’s Children, she had imagined the sap of a gum tree as blood-like, dripping down on the character Ruth, as she contemplates the removal of her children.46
The scene that Atkinson presents in Tressa’s Resolve is an ecological massacre site, the results of whose destruction reach down the years to the present day. Moreover, in reading it as such, it is important to emphasise that the discourse surrounding the clearing of trees from the land frequently masked settler efforts to clear people from that same space. Atkinson – who was fond of the many Indigenous Australians she knew personally – did not always engage with that concern explicitly. She often reproduced the pervasive ‘doomed race’ ideology in representing Indigenous people as a less vigorous group, who would slowly die out rather than adapt to the relentless modernity that licenced the felling of both trees and people, thereby eliding settler responsibility for their elimination.47
Inevitably, Tyrell Love’s sheep farm becomes a money pit and, fearful of being mistaken for a fortune hunter, the novel closes with Tyrell ‘suffer[ing] and struggl[ing] in silence’, unable to own his love for Tressa, who is condemned to a life of waiting and caring for her sickly aunt.48 A parallel plot involving Tressa’s sister Bessie sees the older girl working as a paid companion for a spoiled young woman named Adeline in Northern Queensland, whose husband, Andrew Murray, is even less able than Tyrell, attempting to run a sheep station in drought conditions. Atkinson draws parallels between Adeline and her environment, afflicting her with a deathly fever which mirrors the sweltering heat of the sun and the aridity of the land so that the bushfire that ignites at the height of Adeline’s ‘fatigue and alarm’ reflects both the intense neurosis that the environment stimulates in the young woman, and the tinder-dry reality of cleared land.49 Deliberately lit by Indigenous Australians, Atkinson’s narrator does not pause to consider why the fire was set, lingering instead over settler tribulations: the unforgiving heat and the difficulty of escape by horseback.50
Writing in a journalistic piece of an aborted journey in January 1861 through the Grose Ranges, Atkinson similarly notes the difficulties her party experienced moving through dense vegetation. Eventually, the group gives up, but she adds for her reader’s interest: ‘Since then the bush fires have swept away the greater part of this forest, charred stems and ashes are all that remain … when the rain shall have washed them, it may be safe to venture through this standing army of blacks.’51 Atkinson’s expression is fascinating here. As Susan K. Martin reminds us in an analysis of Charles Harpur’s poem ‘The Bush Fire’, ring-barked trees were a pale and ghostly presence on the landscape, frequently imagined as haunting reminders of the white men behind their destruction.52 With her ‘standing army’ of burned, blackened trees, Atkinson plays with emerging narrative conventions surrounding the forests which were being deliberately killed. Here, the charred eucalypts appear like sentinels, and there is a dignity to them that is entirely absent from representations of the abject sun-bleached, ring-barked trees to which she implicitly contrasts them. Atkinson was a sufficiently skilled botanist to understand the link between fire and renewal that underpins Australia’s ecology, and when equating the trees with Indigenous Australians, she gestures to the deep connection between the land and its traditional custodians.
Environmental journalism, slow violence, and settler ecocide
Atkinson’s novels offer fascinating insights into the impact of both fire and clearance upon settlers, Indigenous peoples, and their environments. Yet it is her journalism that truly marks her out as a pioneer conservationist and in which she is much more willing to condemn attempts to turn the land to productivity. While Atkinson’s fiction uses scenarios like bushfires to subtly initiate her readers into an understanding of Australia’s difference, she is more pointed in her attacks on settler ignorance of country in her journalism, particularly in her work on deforestation. Publishing only under her initials seems to have invested Atkinson with confidence, as her journalistic voice is undoubtedly that of an expert, and her many columns take in native animals and sea-life, plants (particularly ferns), land clearance, and the challenges associated with life in the bush.
Lawson has remarked that Atkinson was ‘unusual in noticing with alarm the decline of species in the districts she knows and treasures’.53 This was at a time when, as Tim Bonyhady notes, artists like Eugene von Guerard elided the settler impact on the land by painting Australian landscapes that were apparently untouched.54 Atkinson, by contrast, shows a passion in her writing for what the later botanist A. G. Tansley was to term ‘wild nature’.55 Lawson continues to highlight just how unusual Atkinson’s voice was by arguing that ‘a century and a half before the present crisis of native forests and selecting her words carefully, she blames “the extensive killing of the forests” for the loss of large flocks of birds and the making of deserts’.56
The article to which Lawson refers, ‘Climatic Influences on the Habits of Birds’ (16 June 1870), anticipates the dislocation that we see today as a result of climate change. Atkinson observes ‘considerable disturbance[s] in the animal kingdom’ following a drought in which ‘[s]ome birds forsook their usual haunts to wander … while others from a distance visited us’.57 These reluctant avian migrants have been displaced from their homes, and Atkinson was keen to make her readers understand their own complicity in their removal (readers of the 1870s were more receptive to discussions of dislocated birds than people). She was very conscious that human agency was accelerating environmental change on an unprecedented scale in Australia. Writing in her regular column for the Herald on 24 May 1870, Atkinson noted that on an excursion to Cavan to gather bivalve specimens from the Murrumbidgee river, she was struck by this change and its implications for the future: ‘But the scattered trees are evidently rapidly dying, pointing to a time when these ranges will be clear.’58 Elsewhere, she comments: ‘It needs no fertile imagination to foresee that in, say, half a century’s time, tracts of hundreds of miles will be treeless.’59 It is impossible to put a figure on the exact scale of forest damage in the nineteenth century, but modellers suggest that Australia has lost 40% of its trees since European settlement. There were some attempts to slow the onslaught. As early as 1803 Philip Gidley King, the third governor of New South Wales, attempted to legislate against tree felling on the banks of rivers and watercourse to prevent soil erosion, yet ‘[l]ike many efforts to protect the land, this one was ignored’.60
Atkinson wrote a piece which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 February 1871 that attacks over-farming, and in which she suggests that inexperience and ignorance might explain the relentlessness with which landowners cleared and planted. It is typical of her compassionate approach to landscape and people that she would appeal to good sense and goodwill, earnestly believing that education would bring about change:
Let us hope that a few good seasons will restore prosperity to the land; but it is very doubtful if the small landholder system can ever be permanent where a drought, or over-wet season, reduces the owner to want, unless a far more careful style of cultivation is pursued … Some people argue that the earth was made for man and must support him, and that his instinct will teach him how to cultivate it. Many a ruined farmer has tried the truth of this hypothesis.61
In addition to her dismay at how any man might come to Australia and reinvent himself as a farmer, regardless of his skills and knowledge, Atkinson was highly critical of the entitlement with which settler farmers approached the land. She deplored waste and, in the same article, she hit out at farmers who killed native animals but made no use of their carcasses or skins. Still, the fact that she continued to pen her column, week after week, suggests that Atkinson saw it as her responsibility to educate those around her.
Atkinson discussed some of the catastrophic harm caused by settler ignorance in ‘After Shells in the Limestone’, where she reveals a landscape that is almost post-apocalyptic in its deadness:
For some years past the black butts and flooded gums in the vicinity of Berrima have been dying, until now the ‘floss’ or treeless watersheds of that district are bordered by belts of dead timber. Even the woolly butts are now perishing, while in many localities miles of forest have died – apart from artificial means or ringbarking – that the ultimate consequence will be of a nature materially to affect those districts there can be no doubt.62
In the same article, she anticipates today’s conversations about forests as the ‘lungs of the world’ and offers a vision of Australia’s future that is uncannily familiar to the modern reader:
It would seem that the forests have acted as safety valves to carry off the superfluous moisture of the earth, and to attract that of the atmosphere, thus forming a circulating system. The minor vegetation is undergoing a considerable change. Rushes and aquatic plants present themselves in erstwhile dry regions. In time, there is much reason to fear, this excessive humidity will give place to the reverse; and like other treeless countries we shall suffer from an arid climate and soil. But our wide forests render such a catastrophe a misfortune in the distance.63
This prophecy of a ‘misfortune in the distance’ anticipates the ecocritic Rob Nixon’s reminder of what he terms the ‘slow violence’ of the settler community against both the environment and those who had tended it. Arguing that it is always the dispossessed who first experience the adverse effects of reckless environmental policies, Nixon notes that Indigenous Australians dubbed early European settlers ‘“the future eaters”: the newcomers [who] consumed without replacing, devouring the future at a speed bereft of foresight, hollowing out time by living as if the desert were a place of infinite, untended provision’.64 As early as 1870, Atkinson showed her readers that they were those ‘future eaters’, who take everything and replenish nothing. Admittedly, she regarded the problem as one that posterity would need to confront, and her scope for activism was limited, but she nonetheless wrote against the grain of a community who saw themselves as improvers, not destroyers.
Reading backwards from a present in which deforestation and global warming are extending the fire season, today’s Australians – particularly those in rural and outlying areas – can be certain that this misfortune is no longer in the distance. Gamilaraay and Yuwalaraay elders from Walgett in north-west New South Wales say that they have never seen conditions like today’s droughts, and they doubt that the changes can be reversed.65 That Atkinson was able to foresee today’s crisis is a testament to her prescience but also to her incisive understanding of ecological cause and effect. As Lawson has noted, ‘Louisa knew that the greatest problem was forest felling’,66 but she also saw the world around her as so much more than ‘high unpromising forests and miles of loneliness’.67 For Atkinson the forest is worthy of preservation, not just because of the sustenance it offers, but because for her it was both a home and a continuing source of amazement even as her home-making involved the dispossession of Indigenous Australians. The felling of trees became for her the epitome of casual waste and, in both her fiction and her journalism, it was at the root of all harm to the forest.
I would like to thank Lyndall Ryan and Angela Wanhalla for the opportunity to discuss some of the ideas in this chapter at their ‘Afterlives’ symposium (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa), and Richard J. King for discussions of Atkinson and fire.
About the Author
Grace Moore works on many aspects of Victorian literature and culture and her publications include work on Dickens, Trollope, pirates, fires, emotions and the environment, acclimatization, deforestation, climate change, crime writing, neo-Victorianism and animal studies.
She is the author of Dickens and Empire, which was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Award for Literary Scholarship in 2006, and The Victorian Novel in Context. She is the editor of Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation (with Andrew Maunder), Pirates and Mutineers of the Nineteenth Century, and Victorian Environments (with Michelle J. Smith). Grace is one of the Victorian section editors for the online Literary Encyclopedia, and her recent publications include an open access special issue, Fire Stories, which explores the interconnections between fire and emotions.
Grace is at present writing a book about the novelist Anthony Trollope and his representation of environmental change across the globe, while also finishing up a project on settlers and their representation of Australian bushfires.
Prior to her arrival at Otago in 2019, Grace taught at the University of Melbourne for fourteen years, where she was a senior lecturer. Most recently, she was a senior research fellow with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Grace has also taught at the University of Idaho, USA and the University of Bristol, UK, and she is a faculty member of the Dickens Project, based at UC Santa Cruz.
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