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It is not easy finding good second hand bookshops in regional areas – at least not in my recent experience in NSW. For me an indicator of something special is the range of local history carried – books and monographs that are specific to the area and that one might not find elsewhere.

Armidale and surrounds are an exception; almost certainly because the town has a University of long standing and high repute - the University of New England - and there have long been good researchers and writers in the Armidale and District Historical Society.

There are two good bookshops there. The first, Burnett’s Books, has been in the beautiful little town of Uralla (20 minutes south of Armidale) for at least a decade. That place is worth a visit in its own right because of the new boutique brewery, McCrossins Mill Local Museum and the Uralla Wool Room (the latter is owned by my sister – so I should add a disclaimer).

My nicest find in Burnett’s was a 1960 edition of The Australian Legend signed by the author. Russel Ward, of course, taught at the University of New England and completed that foundational study of Australian identity there in 1957/1958 when it was published. So my volume is not quite a 1st Edition but it’s signature and location give it a very nice provenance and proximity to the author.DSCN5913

Another discovery had both local associations and relevance to the Sydney Harbour history I was writing at the time. That was Nancy Keesing’s Garden Island People in mint condition published by the Wentworth Press in 1975 but signed by the author and dedicated to Russel Ward in 1983.

That trawl also produced Laurence Le Guay’s Sydney Harbour, a photographic work from 1966 (the year I arrived in Sydney Harbour as a boy in a boat!) with a great preface by Kenneth Slessor.

Burnett’s has some gems but don’t go there expecting conversation. Despite my many purchases I rarely get a hello – it is at the ‘Black Books’ end of the spectrum for those familiar with that comedy series.DSCN5914 At the friendly end is Boobooks in Armidale itself. I visited their new premises the other week fired up with a need to find out more about local history because of a couple of drives through the surrounding grazing land that left me breathless with its beauty (see my previous blog-post).

It was a fruitful visit. Sitting on top of a new acquisitions table was RB Walker’s Old New England – a 1st Edition from 1966 by Sydney University Press in mint condition. And a great read.

Down in the local history section was another 1st Edition; this one EJ Banfield's Last Leaves from Dunk Island. There is very little literature about the Australian coast before the post-war period and the poetry of John Blight and a few others. Robert Drewe and Tim Winton were pioneers of a genre as late as the 1980s.

The temptation to get this volume because of my interest in the coast increased when I saw in a child's hand the dedication to 'Daddy' followed by the names Judith, Bruce and Peter. There, too, was the original Armidale bookseller's stamp.

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The Wrights were a prominent local family. A quick consultation of the online Australian Dictionary of Biography confirmed my hunch that this was Judith Wright's Christmas present to her father - probably chosen by her and on behalf of her younger brothers. The datDSCN5911e '1925' means the gift was likely prompted by the family's recent cruise north to SE Asia, taken as a last attempt to improve her mother's health. Ethel Wright died the following year and the young Judith was devastated. Last Leaves is double the treasure because of its provenance.

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I recently spent a few days up on and around the New England plateau in northern New South Wales. It is a region so-named when the first squatters moved in back in the 1830s because of its climate rather than any physical resemblance to an English landscape. The association has stuck and been amplified by architecture – the two central grand churches are Gothic and Norman and the area’s largest house Booloominbah (1888) is a tour-de-force of architectural Anglophilia, right down to the celebration of the life and death of General Gordon, the hero of Khartoum, in a stained glass window. The old and more recent deciduous plantings in town and around outlying properties have added a natural association to Old England. The autumn colours were breathtakingly beautiful.

These reds and golds contrasted with the surrounding pastoral landscape and remnant forest which was a subdued grey green. And because New England is granite country the boulders which often lie strewn around the pastures emphasize that muted palette.

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I was struck by the effect that landscape had on me. The expanse of ground and concurrent vastness of the sky – filled with clouds that were punctured by occasional sun - was obviously dramatic. But there was a melancholy about the scenes which I had felt before but never quite so strongly. Aesthetic, rather than depressive melancholy, is prompted by contemplation. Its certainly not joyous but neither is it debilitating and corrosive. Indeed it can be seductive. The philosopher SØren Kierkegaard wrote of it as a ‘love’ - a mistress to which he kept returning. For my part I couldn’t help stopping to look and photograph what I saw in an attempt to capture the quality.

There must be some psychological basis for the connection between the emotion and aesthetic – hence the term ‘sombre’ colour I suppose.

But there is so much that is cultural – right down to the feeling of loneliness that an empty landscape can evoke. For me the cultural is always historical. Swirling around in my head when I looked around were imagined narratives of those who colonised the place – both squatter and shepherd - and those who were dispossessed. Beauty and wonderment was mixed up with sadness. There was also a wondering about a landscape transformed by clearing - though remarkably there is no consensus on what the original place was like. The explorer John Oxley likened it to parkland. Was this because of Aboriginal fire-stick farming or was it a natural open forest?

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Melancholy was a powerful theme for the writer Judith Wright whose roots were embedded in the area but who became aware that her connection to the place was still relatively recent and that her family story was one of wealth derived from dispossession and environmental transformation. She reprinted her poem ‘south of my days’ in her 1999 autobiography. The first verse is:

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
Rises that tableland, high delicate outline
Of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
Low trees blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite –
Clean, lean hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
Willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
Branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen,
And the old cottage lurches in for shelter…

My own family moved constantly after we arrived in Australia in 1966 so there are no roots – even recent – for me to agonise over here. But we did live for a while in a country town not too far from Armidale and Wright’s reference to an old cottage and green lichen recalls my own discoveries of empty houses and derelict orchards. Even as a boy the presence of abandonment evoked a strong melancholy - beauty and sadness merged. Its a response that goes back at least to Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem 'The Deserted Village'; though as a boy I was hardly aware of broader social forces that led to abandonment - central to Goldsmith's poem and no doubt underlying the places I came across. However that sense of a landscape disappearing and an economy shifting - constant centralisation and homogenisation - now adds to the historical basis of melancholy. Dispossession gives way to dispossession, disappearance to more disappearance.

Those feelings were reprised when I drove through Tyringham – a tiny place north 120 kms of Armidale named after another in Buckinghamshire but one I had always associated with poor timber mill families. Tyringham began as a series of slab huts one of which may still be there.

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I stopped to photograph that and was directed by a local to two graves a short distance away.

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Behind the grave site was a planked house on the verge of collapse, with a windmill nearby. It turns out that the headstones are those of John and Isabella Perrett who established the village and ran the local hotel and store from the mid-1800s. They died in the 1890s. A century later their plot is being overtaken by tobacco tree and ivy, and the place they created is melting away. More sadness and beauty.

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Shark on show Coffs Harbour 1915, From State Library NSW collection
Shark on show Coffs Harbour 1915, From State Library NSW collection

The response of authorities to the recent awful shark attack off Tathra Beach on the NSW south coast could not have been more different to the vigilantism of the West Australian government after the spate of attacks on that side of the continent. In the west, protection afforded the endangered Great White Shark was set aside with the support of the conservative Federal Government so that that species could be killed, along with other types, by baited drum lines or shooting. People’s absolute right to swim unthreatened was deemed paramount and this underpinned the renewed right to kill normally protected sharks.

There was none of that in NSW. Not even a hunt for the predator itself – a fish which all agreed must have been large.

Neither did the public urge a pursuit. Instead there was a wave of grief and dignified expressions of sympathy for Christine Armstrong and her husband Rob, both regular ocean swimmers. Rob concluded that the extent of the support was less reflective of the manner of his wife’s death, than the esteem in which she was held.

It was a significant distinction because there are few fears for Australians as perennial as shark attack. Aboriginal people regarded the animals with trepidation even as they were incorporating them in creation stories. The sea-faring British were well aware of the fish before they colonised these coasts. There was already, quite literally, an unsavoury association between sharks and ‘man-eating’ among sailors when the Endeavour headed out to the Pacific in 1768, ultimately to sail up the Australian east coast. Then Joseph Banks suggested that the crew’s reluctance to eat stewed shark was founded on ‘some prejudice founded on the species sometimes eating human flesh’.

Awareness of the threat of attack in Australian waters developed in the first months of the colonisation of Sydney Harbour. A wobbegong, which continued fighting for life after it was caught in 1788, was described as ‘voracious’. The newcomers noted the fear sharks inspired among the Harbour clans who had lived with the creatures for generations.

Convicts and the guards were warned off swimming in the harbour – the beginning perhaps of a tradition of Australian ‘life-saving’ regulation.

Over the following two centuries some 228 people were killed by sharks (Taronga Conservation Society Shark Attack Files, http://taronga.org.au/animals-conservation/conservation-science/australian-shark-attack-file/latest-figures)

As a fear-driven hatred of sharks grew concurrently, countless thousands of the fish were killed. A lot were caught for food but many more for fun; and quite a few of those out of vengeance. Recreational fishing burgeoned from the end of the 19th century. Game fishing was glamorous by the 1930s when American writer Zane Grey visited these waters and caught sharks and other big fish. Radio and TV celebrity Bob Dyer continued the association between wealth and catching sharks in the post-war years. There was even a sense of noblesse oblige as the rich helped rid the oceans of malicious creatures.

Photographs of slain sharks in this period share something with the grotesque photographs of lynching victims in the USA. Both typically feature a crowd around the cadaver, sometimes grinning, sometimes grim, but always sanctioning the debasement and killing of the monster among them.

It was recollections of this type of tableau vivant that novelist and conservationist Tim Winton evoked in his recent denunciation of the baiting of drum lines and by-passing of laws protective of sharks in his home State: ‘I remember enormous distended carcasses suspended from meat hooks and steel cables in jetties in Albany… Western Australia’. (Sydney Morning Herald 14 December 2013) Though admitting some attitudinal changes, Winton saw much that remained the same.

Winton’s anger prompted writer Richard King to characterise his pessimism as misanthropy. It ‘is important not to demote human beings from masters of the universe to spiteful monsters’. King’s attempt to understand the widespread protest against the Western Australian ‘shark cull’ was, itself, a strange piece. Though ultimately agreeing that we enter the sea at our own risk, King felt the need to dismiss the emotion of those criticising their government’s reaction to shark attack as part of a ‘cause celebre’, an example of ‘the politics of easy indignation’. (The Monthly, March 2014). ‘Precisely why this issue has gripped the collective imagination is a difficult question to answer’, he wrote. And indeed he didn’t answer it.

The shift in attitude to sharks has been quick. But so too was the change in our attitude to whales. Their dismembering was a tourist attraction when Winton was a boy in Albany in the 1960s. We had been hunting them mercilessly for 150 years before that. However within 20 years of Winton’s experience, Australians were helping to dislodge stranded whales along their coasts. There is now a near universal national revulsion at Japanese whaling in southern waters. Knowledge of the ecological disaster that whaling entailed has been joined with a moral disapproval at the cruelty of their slaughter. So, too, with sharks.

Perhaps, in Australia, our attitude to marine fauna follows with a lag that to land animals. Hunting is no way near as acceptable and widespread as it was the 1960s, let alone the 1860s when rambles routinely involved the shooting of anything that moved.  We were creating terrestrial parks a century earlier than their marine equivalents.

The latter are still very much contested. But debate over marine parks in the NSW state elections of 2011 suggest that some are also beginning to question the sanctity of recreational fishing – long regarded as an almost sacred right among Australians, and the last widely popular form of killing wild animals.

As with the shark cull in Western Australia, the Federal Government has clearly indicated its willingness to roll back marine park protection. It will be interesting to see how the debate unfolds.

The sense of an unmitigated right to kill has underpinned our attitude to nature for centuries. Coupled with the means and propensity to completely destroy entire ecologies, it has been disastrous.

If a bit of humility or ‘indignation’ - however ‘easy’ - leads to a questioning of this, surely that can only be a good thing.

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I’ve never understood the urge to cheer when something is destroyed, however spectacular the destruction might be. My feeling is that objects embody effort, skill and time – and sometimes a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. All that is worthy of respect and consideration, at least. There are some exceptions to this of course; not least the toppling of the statues of tyrants. The golden likeness of the brutal Enver Hoxha of Albania is a good example.

The demolition of the towering Port Kembla copper smelter chimney last week produced whoops and claps from the audience assembled to watch the structure come crashing down. Admittedly I didn’t grow up near what the Daily Telegraph (20 February 2014) referred to as the ‘infamous’ tower. My washing was never spoiled by it, nor did I breathe in its exhaust. Perhaps some of those who cheered were really glad to see the thing go because of the bad memories it triggered and what it represented – though it hadn’t been operational since 2003. Perhaps the chimney was something of a tyrant in its own right.

But reports also suggested there were those who shed a tear. Some worked at the place, others considered it a defining landmark. One man’s father helped build the stack and was too upset to see it destroyed. The chimney was just under 50 years old; built in 1965 it symbolised the post-war industrial development of Port Kembla. The copper smelter gave many immigrants their first permanent job. Indeed for a community that now suffers from chronic unemployment it was a very obvious reminder of a productive, even heroic, past.

‘A relic’s worth’, as the writer David Lowenthal points out, depends in part ‘on what use its serves’. If the retention of the chimney serves no purpose as a reminder, an icon, a focal point of community identity then I suppose its loss does not matter. Lowenthal goes on to say ‘everything surviving from the past has some value which is forfeited unless it is preserved’. I’m not sure, however, if that value or the depth of community feeling was much assessed in Port Kembla.

Retaining the obsolete industrial monoliths of the 20th century is fraught. They are often hard to re-use and expensive to maintain. Some are contaminated, though in the case of the Port Kembla chimney reports suggest that the asbestos had been removed. Size and retention cost are the reasons that the 60 year old Garden Island hammer head crane will be dismantled. Its removal will profoundly change the skyline of Sydney Harbour, cutting the last significant focal link to that waterway’s industrial past.

But at Catherine Hill Bay – a small State Heritage Listed mining settlement on the NSW’s central coast – the case for retaining the massive coal loading jetty may just have become stronger. It was not included in the Heritage Listing and was slated for demolition for the same reasons as Sydney Harbour’s hammer head crane. However, a fire in late 2013 that destroyed other heritage sites in the 130 year old town left most of the jetty intact. The local Progress Association and Lake Macquarie City Council hope the owner, Lake Coal, will fund its restoration. It is unlikely that any reuse can be found for the structure – it is too high to be used as a fishing wharf. But it has ‘symbolic’ value as a link to the origins of the settlement. And as one of the last of the long jetties that once extended like fingers into the sea from Byron Bay to the Illawarra it surely has state significance. Maybe the case can be made again as plans proceed to build the large subdivision just south of the original settlement. Maybe funds might be found through that development. For the jetty would be clearest reminder of Catherine Hill’s historical reason for being.

The Catherine Hill Bay jetty before the 2013 fire
The Catherine Hill Bay jetty before the 2013 fire

There is precious little industrial heritage left on the NSW coast. The phenomenon of sea change has so transformed towns that it is hard to imagine our relationship with the coast before the advent of surfing and mass holidays. Structures like the Catherine Hill jetty help offset that collective amnesia.

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Signs for the times: the mystery of the urchins of Gordons Bay and the case for multi-lingual signs in marine parks and reserves.

We treasure favourite spots along the coast. Surfers at north Narrabeen have long agitated against dune modification and other interventions that affect their prized point break. Elsewhere volunteers pull invasive bitou bush from dunes. This collective consciousness has been apparent since 1972 when the first marine protected area was created in NSW.

One of these, the Bronte–Coogee Aquatic Reserve, includes Gordons Bay, near Clovelly in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. There locals are proud of the blue gropers which inhabit the easily snorkelled water.

But recently they have become concerned about the apparent demise of common sea-urchins (Heliocidaris erythogramma). The departure of the urchins is linked to the presence of a type of green microalgae (referred to strangely as ‘black algae’) and the two are apparent evidence of an ecosystem out of balance. Careless snorkelers are blamed for crushing the creatures as they walk out to deeper water and, as urchins eat algae, it would seem to follow that the algae is blooming in the absence of grazers.

However, recent Daily Telegraph articles (3 Feb 2014 and 14 Feb 2014) make the somewhat misleading distinction between marine algae and seaweed, talking about the former coating the latter because urchins are no longer eating the algae. Seaweed - kelp, strap weed etc - and algae are one and the same. Urchins eat algae such as kelp and can themselves be responsible for creating rocky barrens. Their population can rise and fall and rise again as food sources are depleted and recover.

It may be that the proliferating algae is a different type not eaten by urchins and the spread is caused by something else – possibly an overabundance of nutrient from run-off. There is a suggestion that spoil dumped after the recent dredging of Botany Bay may be affecting marine life.

Far more than any terrestrial environment, marine systems are in flux. It will be interesting to see what transpires at Clovelly and who, or what, is to blame for the absent urchins.

Elsewhere around Sydney, it is ‘collecting’ that is the concern. Long Reef, near Collaroy on the city’s northern beaches, has been an aquatic reserve since 1980. The taking or killing of invertebrate marine life is forbidden – as indeed it is at Gordons Bay. Yet people still occasionally wander out with buckets and take shellfish, presumably for personal consumption.

Australians have a long history of collecting seafood. For thousands of years Aboriginal people gathered shellfish, congevoi, urchins etc, as a mainstay of their diet. The Anglo-Australians who gradually colonised the coast from the late 1800s undoubtedly had a more restricted taste. Congevoi was just used as fish bait, but they too gathered rock oysters where ever they were found right up into the 20th century. Possibly the small groups of Chinese fishers who established camps at Port Stephens and elsewhere were more adventurous.

(For many years collecting for curiosity’s sake was also a popular past-time. Indeed the 1952 classic Australian Seashores, written by William Dakin, Isobel Bennett and Elizabeth Pope, included a section on ‘how and where to collect’ and some advice on how to kill the specimens one retrieved)

As terrestrial hunting has become marginal and contested, the sea and coast provide us with our last wild harvest. Most obviously this occurs with fishing, but crabbing and the trapping of lobsters are still ‘traditional’ features of many ‘Aussie’ summer holidays.

In recent years other groups have brought their own traditions. It is not unusual to see people from Asia and the South Pacific – immigrants or possibly tourists - picking over rock pools and platforms; just as the Chinese fishermen of Port Stephens almost certainly did in the late 1800s. In most cases this is entirely legal. There is a wide range of sea life that can be taken, even in habitat protection zones; from urchins to periwinkles to turban shells.

Information about collecting is freely available on the internet and there are sometimes signs on site – though strangely I couldn’t see one at the northern end of Long Reef when I visited last week. But surely it makes sense to have information out there that is multi-lingual and easy to absorb. Signs such as that at Port Stephens (picture taken in 2011) are great but the information is complex and for those who aren’t proficient reading English, this is daunting and, I suspect, disregarded.

Port Stephens Marine Park sign

Multi-lingual signs, I would suggest, may even give ‘non-Anglo’ groups some sense of owning the issue of collecting – or at least sharing the responsibility for managing it. It seems better to inform than blame. Small signs, perhaps with symbols, could be placed nearer sanctuary zones. These can be referred to quickly by others who might be concerned at what seems like illegal collecting. Fears, indeed, may be allayed.

And in those areas where clumsy and careless snorkellers are known to be treading on urchins, simple signs can specifically address that.

Below is a link to Undertow Nicole Steinke’s wonderful ABC Radio National documentary on our many relationships to the coast.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/undertow3a-stories-from-the-land27s-edge/5246012

 

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