Review of Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, by Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

Abstract

In this lengthy and ambitious work, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth employs an ‘event/witness’ model to relate the history of the wheatbelt, a portion of Western Australia consisting of approximately 50 million acres (3). Hughes-d’Aeth has a very keen interest in this region, a gigantic cleared space where all the native bush was cut down in two periods of avid assault on the natural and primordial landscape that had existed for some 40,000 years or more and inhabited by Indigenous people.

In this lengthy and ambitious work, Tony Hughes-d’Aeth employs an ‘event/witness’ model to relate the history of the wheatbelt, a portion of Western Australia consisting of approximately 50 million acres (3). Hughes-d’Aeth has a very keen interest in this region, a gigantic cleared space where all the native bush was cut down in two periods of avid assault on the natural and primordial landscape that had existed for some 40,000 years or more and inhabited by Indigenous people. During the years 1900 to 1930 approximately 17 million acres went under the plough, and from 1950 to 1970, another 20 million acres were turned into agricultural gold. Wheat reigned supreme, and the native inhabitants, the Noongar people, had to go elsewhere – seventeen Indigenous groups were displaced from their immemorial lands. Some hung on as workers, but in the main wheat farmers inhabited the vacated land.

Hughes-d’Aeth claims in the title of his book that the wheatbelt is ‘like nothing on this earth’, and what he means is that the concentration of wheat-growing in one sustained cleared space is unique – a kind of agricultural land factory. In contrast, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland all produce wheat as well but without the massive impact upon the environment.

Comparison with the United States is instructive: the North American wheatbelt extends from central Texas and Oklahoma, through Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota to Alberta, Canada. Wheat is also grown in numerous other states, including New York, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania and even North Carolina. Australia’s international production of 25 million metric tons compares with the Ukraine’s 24 million metric tons and Pakistan’s 26 million metric tons, but all are left in the wheat dust by the United States (55 million metric tons), Russia (60 million metric tons), and the two lions of the wheat world, India (95 million metric tons) and China (of course), 126 metric tons.

Still, Australia’s concentrated wheatbelt does have its unique ecologically disruptive history, and this is all that Hughes-d’Aeth needs to tie that space to a sustained eleven-chapter analysis of eleven wheatbelt authors. The writers, as we shall see, have reputations mostly confined to Australia, but a similar study of American writers of the Midwest, for example, would yield few authors well known in Australia.

Hughes-d’Aeth regrets that Randolph Stow grew up in the region but not on wheatlands and therefore could not be included because he wrote about sheep stations and graziers instead of wheat farmers. Hughes-d’Aeth is forced to admit that his subject, the wheatbelt, ‘has struggled to be a site of heroic action’, conceding that its ‘basic structure is, in fact, a bourgeois one’ (13).

Hughes-d’Aeth takes his subtitle from Oceana Fine (1989), a novel by Tom Flood whose narrator, driving across a portion of the wheatbelt in the late 1970s, observes, ‘The landscape is so immense, hot and huge . . . that I fear it might swallow me’ (6). This trope of being lost in a landscape is very common in American writing about the experience of encountering Western prairie spaces, seen in novels like Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1927), Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass (1936), historian Walter P. Webb’s influential The Great Plains (1931), and virtually every chronicle of the journey westward in the nineteenth century. And, of course, one cannot forget Frank Norris’s epic The Octopus (1901) in which the villain drowns in a shipload of wheat.

Hughes-d’Aeth makes emphatic what he sees as the specialised, industrialised aspect of the piece of geography labeled the wheatbelt: the ‘almost total destruction of the pre-existing lifeworld of the southwest of the continent’ (4). It’s the total concentration of wheat to the exclusion of anything else that marks the uniqueness of this agricultural/once natural space that the author returns to again and again. And at the end of his preface, he says it once more: the eleven writers are witnesses ‘to a socio-ecological event of planetary significance: the eradication of the lifeworld of southwest Australia’ (8).

Things started out rather innocently in the wheatbelt, a rainfall region where, before farming was introduced, a diverse ecology existed. All that vanished in the factory-like appropriation of the land for one exclusive purpose – growing wheat. In the beginning the project sounded a lot like frontier settlements in the United States – namely, a small family-based homestead, enabled by the Australian Homestead Act of 1893 much like that of the United States Homestead Act of 1862. George Throssell, possessing the impressive title of Minister of Lands, declared in 1897 that ‘160 acres and a wife was all that was required to make the majority of Perth young men happy’ (16). Earlier in America it had been forty acres and a mule. But size mattered, and a wheat farmer’s reach quickly accelerated, and from 1900 to 1930 a thousand-acre farm was the more desirable goal, and so it went, right into the twenty-first century, when the amount of acreage increased to 20,000 acres.

The first literary harvesters of the wheatbelt were two well-known versifiers: Banjo Paterson and C. J. Dennis. Not surprisingly, it was Paterson who was first out of the gate, and in 1914 his ‘Song of the Wheat’ perfectly captured the ascendancy of wheat over traditional pastoral practices:

We have sung the song of the droving days

Of the march of the traveling sheep –

How by silent stages and lonely ways

Thin, white battalions creep.

But the man who now by the soil would thrive

Must his spurs to a ploughshare beat;

And the bush bard, changing his tune, may strive

To sing the song of the Wheat! (27)

Dennis’s doggerel ‘Wheat’, published four years later, was a bit frantic compared to Banjo’s song:

Wheat, wheat, wheat. It’s a game that’s hard to

Beat –

Sowin’ it an’ growing’ it – it’s what the nations eat.

Tho’ it ain’t a life o’ pleasure,

An’ there’s little time for leisure,

It’s contentin’, in a measure, is the game of growin’

Wheat. (27)

The eleven chapters that form the bulk of Hughes-d’Aeth’s book begin with Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life (1981). Facey is a very sympathetic figure who spent twenty-four years in the wheatbelt, divided into two twelve-year segments: one before the Great War and the other after the Great War in which he lost two brothers and saw his own health compromised for the rest of his life. Hughes-d’Aeth uses Facey’s experience to focus on the crucial act of clearing the land by fire and plough. The Indigenous people of the area had for thousands of years used controlled burning to regenerate the bush, but settler burning was something altogether different. Burning-off seasons were a regular feature of wheatbelt life in the early days, and controlled burns, followed by cleanings of any remaining roots or stumps, assured that the primeval forest was obliterated once and for all. Animal and bird habitat were systematically destroyed to make way for more cleared acreage.

This intentional and prolonged ecological destruction for a presumably higher cause – profits and feeding the world – receives a cautious and largely neutral note of approval by Hughes-d’Aeth. He writes at the end of the Facey chapter: ‘It is not that I wish to say that the clearing should never have happened. I accept the wheatbelt as an economic good and as a path in life for many.’ He continues: ‘I think the question remains open whether too much was cleared and whether a more cautious approach to the matter might have preserved some greater proportion of the natural environment’ (74). Thus, he turns away from environmental activism to the goal of recording literary documents of feeling and experience.

Despite being each author’s advocate, Hughes-d’Aeth does at times seem critical of wheatland environmental exploitation. The trend begins with Cyril E. Goode’s mordant poems written in the Depression era. ‘The Grower of Golden Grain’ is a far cry from the earlier wheatland poets:

Buried in the lonely bushland with the everlasting flies,

There for years he swung the hatchet long before the sun would rise;

And in Nineteen Twenty Seven when the crops were fine and tall,

Planted he five hundred acres – Brer Rabbit ate it all. (93)

From the 1930s on, Modernist currents shaped the poetry and fiction emerging from the wheatlands. Peter Cowan, influenced by William Faulkner and John Steinbeck (with Thomas Hardy in the background as well), created a literary aesthetic of regionalism in volumes of short stories like Drift (1944) and The Unploughed Land (1958).

According to Hughes-d’Aeth, the poet Dorothy Hewett is ‘the most significant author to come out of the wheatbelt’ (175), though such a judgment might trouble devotees of later poets like John Kinsella. And the prize for the ‘wheatbelt’s most famous novel’ (433) goes to Elizabeth Jolley for her novel The Well (1986). Curiously, Jolley never resided in the wheatbelt, though she and her husband owned a ‘hobby farm’ in the Darling Range, and as an English-born woman who had grown up in the Midlands, she was interested in land, ownership and stewardship. If Jolley enjoyed success and wide readership, Tom Flood, author of Oceana Fine, has not. Hughes-d’Aeth devotes thirty-two pages to this complex novel, part Moby Dick and part metaphysical puzzle that makes it the ‘Great Australian Wheatbelt Novel’ (500), if there is one.

As we get closer to the present, ecological urgency takes over. This should not come as a surprise. The last author discussed, poet John Kinsella, provides a ‘real-time analysis of the challenges he sees everywhere in the wheatbelt – species loss, environmental degradation, chemical poisoning, genetic modification’ (503). His poetry – spare, mythic, at times willfully demanding – posits the thesis that ‘humans are the wheatbelt’s virus, killing it with the blind efficiency that the calici virus kills rabbits’ (537).

It’s a long road from celebratory doggerel to the postmodernism of Kinsella’s Syzygy (1993):

out-back. the tractor

no longer bushbashing

but suppurating spray

from soil, frisking

clean air

& tourists

warm in town (296–97) (524)

In The Silo (1995), a long poem structured along the lines of Beethoven’s sixth ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, Kinsella fully embraced ‘the role of wheatbelt bard’ (525). Kinsella’s poetry and the insights of another wheatbelt author, Barbara York Main, lead our wheatbelt guide to conclude: ‘The ancient ecosystems have been shattered and now exist in fragments or remnants. The result is a place cleared in large part into the rectilinear allotments of industrialised agriculture and delimited by precise rainfall quanta. But this alienated zone is shot through with the memory of the previous, marvelously intricate living world. The memory exists in the embattled biota of remnant wheatbelt bushland, but also in the enduring lifeways of the Noongar and other Indigenous groups’ (551).

In his epilogue to this 557-page tour of wheatland literature, Hughes-d’Aeth arrives at a rather diffident conclusion: ‘I do not have a final view on the future of the wheatbelt. I accept that it is a crucial farming region, which produces food and fibre that serve humanity and contribute to the local, state and national economies’ (555). His final judgment, however, seems very mild by the preachments of current eco eschatology: ‘It may be the case that the extent of the clearing exceeded prudent usage and was driven by short-term gain at an unacceptable environmental cost’ (556).

Like Nothing on this Earth is a very readable book. Tony Hughes-d’Aeth’s prose is always clear and his commentary unburdened by the jargon and theory-ridden thickness of much of criticism published in the United States at the present time. Finally, he makes the reader want to read some of the authors explored, and that is no small accomplishment.

Published 5 July 2019 in Volume 34, No. 1.. Subjects: Natural environment - Literary portrayal, Western Australia, Western Australian literature & writers.

Cite as: Graham, Don. ‘Review of Like Nothing on this Earth: A Literary History of the Wheatbelt, by Tony Hughes-d’Aeth.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 34, no. 1, 2019. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.e487f5777e.