Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Water Dreamers: The Remarkable History of our Dry Continent, by Michael Cathcart

The introduction to this remarkable book says early sections of The Water Dreamers were published in various publications between 1995 and 2006. That’s a long gestation period for a book, some fourteen years, and it shows in the text’s nuanced and considered approach.

Cathcart has obviously meditated long and deeply about his subject, illuminating his thoughts with a reading list that often resembles a cabinet of exotic and bizarre curios. (The details of the Burke and Wills funeral make for Gothic horror: two glass-topped coffins displayed the corpses for public mourning. Wills’ skull was missing; Burke’s hands and feet were eaten by dingos. The Age called it ‘indescribably disgusting’.)

In one section that deals with late nineteenth and early twentieth Australian novels, stories of uninhibited imperialism and racism, Cathcart notes, ‘I suspect that most readers will be startled to learn that such a literature exists in Australia.'

As the title suggests, The Water Dreamers is very much a portrait of the white Australian subconscious. When the first fleet landed, they brought with them an attitude formed by the wet climate of their homeland. To turn Australia into a Garden of Eden, one that abideth forever, there must be an abundance of water. The fevered dreams of settler imagination soon clashed against reality, as Australia proved to be unforgivingly dry.

This led many heroic explorers to search out water, and later when that project was found wanting, nationalist hopes turned to hydro-engineering. To talk realistically about the limits of water in Australia was seen as verging on treason.

A good case in point is Griffith Taylor, an analyst in climatic conditions, who claimed that Australia’s central arid zone was too hot and dry to permit farming or settlement. This was deemed dangerously unpatriotic talk. For his intellectual honesty, Taylor found his book A Geography of Australasia (1914) banned by the Western Australian government from the state’s schools and university.

As Cathcart writes, ‘The equation was clear. An optimist was a patriot. A pessimist was a traitor. Taylor was libelling Australia.’

Taylor’s career was soon stymied by the Senate of the University of Sydney (one of his enemies was a member). In 1928 he accepted a chair at the University of Chicago. Australian populism had won out over reality. The Sydney Morning Herald confessed itself blessed to see him go.
While one half of this book highlights 200 years of Australian water folly, of wild dreams ending with a 21st century water crisis, then the other half of The Water Dreamers is a vividly imagined history of Aboriginal dispossession.

On this Cathcart writes in a powerful and poetic vein, describing how Aboriginals struggled to retain their land against creeping white usurpation. While whites would continue to carpet Aboriginal lands with all the trappings of European civilisation, their delusions of superiority meant no one considered that the Aborigines’ 40,000 odd years of experience in Australian water management might yield some insights.

Rather, Europeans continued to see most of Australia as a dead, arid land haunted by a death-like silence. This is a secondary theme of The Water Dreamers. The introduction states, ‘This is also a book about silence’. We are frequently asked to imagine the sounds and silences of the past.

Cathcart extensively describes what the Australian landscape sounded like. The quotes from contemporary sources repeatedly demonstrate a gloomy dread of the timeless silence. It sends a shudder through many an explorer’s soul.

‘The land did not whisper seductive entreaties into the ears of the explorers. In fact, it often repelled them with a mighty and ‘death-like silence’ – a vast indifference that threatened to reduce the men themselves to silence, or to bone.’

In much of these accounts there is almost a hostility to the natural environment, a wish to erase the deathly silence with the busy hum of capitalist industry. It highlights how Australians have struggled to harmonise with their natural environment, carpeting it over with English gardens, Empire architecture and sprawling motorways.

Notes Cathcart, ‘In fact, the explorers’ journals express anxiety, tedium and alienation more often than they proclaim a triumphal geography.’

There is a darker history yet: the activities of the lawless squatters and their impact on the first Australians. The success of the pastoral industry was built on Aboriginal blood. Ironically, it’s the squatters that produced the colonial economy that genteel urbanites, liberal in their attitudes, would live on. An inheritance we all now take advantage of.

The Water Dreamers is a haunting and thought provoking history of a dry land that refuses to yield to the fevered imagination of its colonisers. With our current water crisis do we continue to dream on, or do we submit to the land and live within it?

The first Australians have had some 40,000 years of experience in understanding Australia’s eco system. According to Cathcart, there is still hope for us, even if it has taken 200 years for the realisation to dawn that Australia is a dry land that will shape us, and not we it.

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