Stralian Stories May 2014
“As only natives ride”: Lawson’s Adversity, Private Property and Australian Culture
Appearing in a number of Henry Lawson’s (1867-1922) collections The Fire at Ross’s Farm catalogues aspects of a romanticised Australian identity: assumed mateship, hardy toughness, hearts of gold, a sense of fairness and adaptation to landscape. But through Lawson’s simple, cut-to-the-bone prose and word power he creates harshness, uncertainty and a violence that at once dispels this romance.
Deft backgrounding and solid landscape portrayal builds a delightful tension in this work. We have the mean Squatter Black, and the underdog “selector” Ross, we have the “granite spur”, we have youth romance belying the rift between Ross and Black, and we have an array of rivalries, cultural and class-based, drawn out through the advent of a large bushfire; a force no-one can control.
Most Australians are careful with fire, its dangers sewn into our national psyche, our own deepest, darkest fight or flight response. Drought is common to the Australian landscape and bushfires are never far away, so Australians understand the pain, the grief and horror of these events deeply. Even in our winter, when watching bushfires in Greece or California on the news, the pictures are so familiar. The tension and seriousness create an inbuilt emotional pitch, an inner dialogue that sets off memories and stories seen and heard through our own families, communities, or media. When bushfires are around empathy is heightened, we are alert, and conversations between strangers are busy. Bushfires unify Australians because we know there is no one safe place in this country.
Fire has hammered and shaped Australian people. Aboriginal people routinely fire-farmed, and worked with fire in an organic natural cycle, but in Lawson’s poem whites find themselves anchored by private property and ownership. The Fire at Ross’s Farm covers a range of levels, but the basic tenet of the tension within the piece is founded on property ownership. Ownership of land creates the backdrop in which relationships are formed in this scenario. Black, the squatter, would have enjoyed his range, until the Government changed the law allowing others to “select” and occupy some of his holding, for the common good. Black was a part of the Squattocracy*. The occupation of Crown land without legal title was widespread, and often facilitated by the upper echelons of Colonial society, which possessed the means of production; running large numbers of stock and cattle on huge tracts of fenced land. Being ordered by government to share his land (stolen from Aboriginal people), would have surely caused red hot divisions and acrimony. Farmer Ross making a go of the meagre holding may well have added to Black’s infuriation.
Throw in fundamental cultural and religious divisions within white society at the time (Catholic, Protestant, Church of England, Irish, Scottish, English) and you have the makings of trouble.
It was, indeed, a deadly feud
Of class and creed and race;
But, yet, there was a Romeo
And a Juliet in the case;
And more than once across the flats,
Beneath the Southern Cross,
Young Robert Black was seen to ride
With pretty Jenny Ross.
Lawson’s own history is that of a loner and an outsider growing up in tough times, and in remote locations. He attended school at Eurunderee from October 1876 but suffered an ear infection, leaving him with partial deafness. By the age of fourteen he had lost his hearing entirely, which only served to enlarge his already foreboding sense of isolation informed through a semi-transient family life as his family unit chased gold. With his deafness, reading was a primary source of education for young Henry.
Lawson’s adult life and writing years were intertwined with alcohol, hard luck, mental illness, depression and attempted suicide. Lucky for us, he was able to capture the essence of an Australian reality in his experiences through his pen, whilst cultivating his own influential “voice”. His powerful descriptive abilities and use of local vernacular set a scene for establishing a real Australian culture in the approach to Federation; a time where many debates and discussions were about independence, isolation, amidst a crystallising sense of Australian identity. His writing of course went hand in hand with his politics – he was a nationalist – and working/mining class- socialist breed. These very elements created clashes with others including Andrew “Banjo” Patterson, who Lawson called a “City Bushman” implying that Patterson minimised the precariousness of bush life and thus undermining “the struggle” bush dwellers endured. This was a robust chapter encapsulated as The Bulletin debate. When responding to this episode years later, Patterson stated that he romanticised the strengths of rural life from the back of a horse with a cook in tow, and that Lawson’s experiences were solitary, and on foot. Patterson also stated that Lawson was a great writer.
Lawson’s subject matter came from his isolation, combined with his experiences on the road. The greatest influence here was a Bulletin-funded trip to Bourke, where Lawson experienced poverty and drought in the Australian outback, setting his imagination in a direction and tone that he would visit regularly throughout his writing life. Drive and encouragement for Henry came from his mother Louisa, an advocate of women’s rights and a publisher/writer herself, editing a women’s paper called The Dawn** (published May 1888 to July 1905). There is no doubt that this had political ramifications on Lawson’s worldview, and in his position as a well-read political commentator and writer who influenced public discourse and culture creation. With his spare, simple prose and poetry Lawson created a realism that many identified with. Some have compared Lawson’s power to that of other realists such as Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, as Lawson was prepared to use unhappy endings and bleak tones in his descriptions of landscape-dictated life.
There may be handshake at the end of this poem, but this should not be confused with the Australian cultural trait of mateship. There is a clear motivation for Black to come and help Ross with the fire, which is to ensure the safety of his son and to repair their own relationship. When Robert Black tells his father that the fire is near Ross’s farm and that he should “send the men”, Black tells his own son never to return if he goes to help Ross with the fire; a regret-filled salvo from a stubborn father simply chopping his son off. It obviously got the better of him as he turns up and helps Ross to put out the fire.
Now, father, send the men at once,
They won’t be wanted here;
Poor Ross’s wheat is all he has
To pull him through the year.’
`Then let it burn,’ the squatter said;
`I’d like to see it done —
I’d bless the fire if it would clear
Selectors from the run.
If Aboriginal culture is the hard bedrock of Australian culture, which I believe to be true, then Lawson helped pour the foundations of the Settler and Pioneer culture, creating a framework for national mythology at a time when Australia was searching for a national identity. A key ingredient to this national mentality is the romance of the bush; an ever powerful construct symbolic of perfection, driving “tree-changes”, and lying somewhere in the hearts of most Australians, peeking out on Anzac day, or when we win Olympic gold, but definitely when there’s a bushfire, or a tragedy, because Australians want to be “hurting together”. The romance of the bush is also tied to the notion of ownership and land; the land being the core narrative for Aboriginal people, every hill, every creek, every valley having a name, a meaning, a story. Land ownership and private property is the story for white society in Australia. Lawson shed light on these things through his work, and along the way paid homage to the elements that fulfil our landscape, underscoring man’s pointless, hopeless, position in the scheme of things, particularly the Australian bush.
Read The Fire at Ross’s Farm
FOOTNOTES: * Squattocracy: In Australian history, a squatter was one who occupied a large tract of Crown land in order to graze livestock. Initially often having no legal rights to the land, they gained its usage by being the first (and often the only) Europeans in the area. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squattocracy) ** The Dawn
Neil Boyack is a writer and social worker. He is creator and director of the Newstead Short Story Tattoo. His new book Self Help and Other Works is out now, Check www.neilboyack.com and newsteadtattoo.org