Terra Australis : Landscape as Medium in Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country

Since the finding of the Australian High Court in what has come to be known as the Mabo decision of January 1992, the phrase Terra Australis which is much used by Herbert might be taken to represent a significantly altered conceptual space, a space whose history and geography no longer begin in terra nullius and terra incognita but in Mabo country, a terrain whose distinctiveness has shifted away from the binary patterns of city and bush, constructed by white nationalism, towards a more volatile and complex notion of what and whose the landscape might be. It is no longer possible to think of the bush of Terra Australis as - in Graeme Turner's phrase - the 'authentic location for the distinctive Australian experience' (26) without becoming distrustful of those words 'authentic' and 'distinctive' and without at least recognising that as Mabo country Terra Australis insists on itself as the location of many experiences. Among Australian writers Xavier Herbert is not alone in long having recognised a multiplicity of territories competing for the same space, and though I think it would be presumptuous to see him as a precursor of Mabo country, even in their titles Herbert's two major novels signal the problematic of Australian nationalism, that is its relationship to territory, a relationship whose cultural, historical, political and social aspects have become even more complicated since Herbert wrote his impassioned polemical narratives. And of course it is impossible to disentangle something called 'landscape' from the wider horizons of Herbert's nationalism. It is rather as if the geography, the physical Territory of Herbert's narrative, is both the material and the medium through which a space of meaning is constructed; everything that happens there shows, as Edward Said has commented, that 'Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings' (6).

The very specific country about which Herbert writes, the North West, the Top End, the Territory, is a testing ground of culture, of Australianness, of nationalism, partly because he writes about it as a frontier society explicitly demarcated from the rest of the continent and busy writing a 'new' history. Consequently the physical geography that Herbert so pointedly draws our attention to doubles as a map of moral and cultural worth and the responses of his characters to the landscape are never just pragmatic or aesthetic. So when I talk about Herbert's landscape I cannot simply talk about something against which or around which the narrative happens and events take their course. The landscape is the means by which Herbert's novels project cultural self-representation, which is always problematically multiple and fractured.

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Published 1 May 1995 in Volume 17 No. 1. Subjects: Aboriginal Australians - Literary portrayal, Australian landscape, Australian landscape - Literary portrayal, Australian literature and writers, Gender - Literary portrayal, Geographic isolation, Narrative techniques, Nationalism.

Cite as: Wevers, Lydia. ‘Terra Australis : Landscape as Medium in Capricornia and Poor Fellow My Country.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 1995. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.5cb49e1a44.