October, 2011: Flying Fox, Drifting Sand (1938), by Francis Ratcliffe, has turned out to be a book I'm still talking and thinking about, months after having read it.
I've puzzled over Australia and my relationship to it since I was a child. When I was 19 or 20, I wrote, for a short film: "I really love this country - not a motherland to me, but my husband-country." There's something particularly intense about optional love, chosen love, an elective affinity - I can't afford to be complacent about my love for Australia, for there's the danger that, if I stray, I might go and fall in love with another country. There's also the danger that Australia might prove, after all, to have no love to spare for me. More from that short film: "I know this place, I want to know this place, I want to be inseparable from this place." This passion of mine has endured. Filling in a questionnaire for the Telstra Road To Tamworth a couple of years ago, in the 'Biggest Influence?' space, I answered: "Australia. I've been eating, drinking, breathing, listening to, looking at and thinking about it all my life - I am made out of it."
Few of us feel we really belong here; rather, we long to belong. Francis Ratcliffe was a young English biologist commissioned in the early '30s to come to Australia and, first, to conduct a survey of the flying fox colonies that lived along the east coast of Australia; later, a survey of the 'desertification' of South Australia and western N.S.W. The times being what they were, these surveys were done not for the protection of the flying-foxes or the landscape, but of primary industry - fruit growers and graziers. Ratcliffe was exactly the type - young, adventurous, curious, full of his own sense of purpose - who had been coming to Australia for more than a century, ostensibly to make his reputation, to 'get ahead' by means of pillaging and plundering (hundreds, or even thousands, of flying foxes were shot and boiled down in the making of this book) all in the name of progress.
Australia attracts do-ers and dreamers alike, and often one turns out to be the other. Ratcliffe, the do-er, wrote up his surveys on flying foxes and drifting sands; but then Ratcliffe the dreamer wrote this book, which is one of the most poetic responses to Australian landscape, and the people who live in it, that I've ever read. Ratcliffe is a biologist, not a poet; he doesn't conjure up the poetry from inside himself - he, with his keen eyes, notes it down as it appears before him. His responses have that vivid clarity, or purity, of senses open wide with surprise, even shock. When he came to Australia, it had not crossed his mind that he might fall in love with it.
Here's his description of his first willy-willy:
"The power of a willy-willy is amazing. I know, because I have been in the middle of one. It was just such a day as this - scorching and still; and I had been helping a man put up a windmill. We were resting from our labours, and the billy was on the boil. I had been reading the instructions about the oiling of the mill, and was holding the printed folder in my hand. I remember my companion had just made the delightful statement that he hated shaving at that time of year, because you felt every one of the six legs of the flies which walked over your face, when I noticed that the foliage of some trees about fifty yards away suddenly began to dance and toss in a most unnatural fashion. I simply could not understand it; for, as I say, there was not a breath of wind. The branches heaved more and more wildly and a cloud of dust rose up between the trunks and started to move in our direction. I hardly had time to pull my hat over my face before the willy-willy hit us. Some seconds of mad confusion followed; and when I deemed it safe to open my eyes, the dust column was a hundred yards away. In it was entangled most of the litter which had been lying about from the unpacking of the windmill parts; while the lubrication brochure, which had slipped out of my hand when I grabbed my hat, was floating like a little white butterfly high up in the sky. A pair of eagles, which had been circling overhead for the last half-hour, was apparently so smitten with curiosity that they swung over to investigate it."
It's the sort of writing that I love - like Felix Bartlett's, Richard Henry Dana's, and Albert Gaston's (the latter wrote a great account of his time on the Coolgardie goldfields), because I can trust it. They are observers who can also convey; they are not artfully 'making things up' - they are telling me, to the best of their ability, 'what happened'. I seek this in fiction, too.
Ratcliffe's observations of people are equally trustworthy. So many people made an impression on him, it's inadequate for me to cite one or two. Please just read the book! I think about this passage, especially "the saddest-faced girl":
"A man wise and experienced in bush travel once gave me counsel as follows: 'If you want the best directions on a strange road, get them from a woman. I don't know why it is - whether they don't credit you with any intelligence, or whether they have the imagination to realise how useful it is for a stranger to have a list of signs and details to let him know that he is on the right track...'
"I remembered this advice when it became perfectly clear that the rather self-satisfied gentleman, who was trying to give us directions for a road which (as it subsequently turned out) he had not travelled upon for nearly twenty years, preferred to send us on our way with inadequate and inaccurate information rather than lose face by asking the advice of his family...So I sought out the womenfolk, while the other two listened politely to the lord and master. From one of the saddest-faced girls I have ever seen, I obtained an astonishingly detailed and accurate map. It was drawn on the lid of a cardboard box; and I kept it for some time as a memento and exhibit. Later, in a fit of depression, I threw it away, wishing to wipe out all my memories of a place which I thought was a little bit of hell on earth."
His survey of people makes me think that, in Australia, human-animals grow like the flora and fauna - very diverse, and peculiarly adapted (by isolation, by extreme conditions) to the spot where they live. Australia is not a place that gives birth to cultural movements, but to exceptional individuals (by exceptional, maybe I mean weird), who often disappear without discernible trace. My unfounded belief is that these individuals - the people who loved Australia at the cost of their lives! - have a great influence on the way we live. Australia is dangerous, and deep-down, we all know it. We are safer around the outskirts, in the cities, all huddling together...safer, but not entirely safe.
For his second commission, Ratcliffe drives along the Birdsville Track. It's affecting to read of a scientist getting a case of the heebie-jeebies (more so than reading of a poet getting them - poets go out of their way to get them):
"We arrived at the main channel of Cooper's Creek in a weird three-quarters light, with the western sky shining a luminous green. As we dropped down from the stony slopes to the flat bed of silt, a chill fear took hold of me. The dry bed of that dead river, which rose in the plains of inland Queensland, and vanished in the salt-pans of Lake Eyre without knowing the sea, was the most eerie and haunted spots I have ever visited. Moreover, it was haunted by no friendly and comprehensible ghosts, but by the spirits of broken tribes which died misunderstood.
"For mile after mile we drove over the smooth grey silt, through a forest of dead and dying coolebah trees. It was an awful scene, so colourless, so utterly unfriendly as to be almost menacing. I peered ahead through the crowded trunks, hoping every minute to catch the faint pale gleam of sandhills, which would mean that we had reached the north bank of the channel."
Later, he says:
"Looking back on it [his trip along the Birdsville Track] now, little but the interest and humour remain. The uneasiness, which almost overpowered me at times, has faded. It has faded, but not disappeared. I can never think of the Cooper and the Diamantina as mere rivers. They have spirits of their own, which are not friendly to man."