9 April 2014 – Let the Land Speak by Jackie French (Harper Collins 2013) is one of those wide-ranging, beautifully written deeply personal books that feels like a gift from a very generous and inquiring mind.
In many ways it is the logical companion book to Bill Gammage’s The Greatest Estate on Earth, as the story of what happened next when colonial approaches entered and irrevocably changed the indigenous Australian landscape, and in turn, how the landscape shaped the newcomers.
The book weaves in and out of the personal account of French’s own experience of living on a property in the Araluen Valley in New South Wales near the Australian Capital Territory, practising self-sufficiency and learning to understand the climate, the flora and fauna and the Indigenous culture which is mapped in vegetation and landscape.
This gives a framework for her analysis of the impact of landscape, and also the historical events and cultural trends that shaped non-indigenous land management styles. The relationship between the landscape and people is considered in the context of livestock, clearing, mining, fencing and planning for urban growth.
Her gift for historical research unearths some contrary views on popular shibboleths of Australian history, such as the chapter about the early years of the convict settlement and the story still told today in history classes that the colony almost starved. By applying the lens of culture to the available documents, she demonstrates that it was bias toward the familiar that was the issue, not lack of food.
This notion that bias toward the familiar has been responsible for many of the more disastrous land management mistakes, and in fact still hampers our society’s ability to embrace change and accept the environment as it is, becomes an ongoing thread. There is a parallel with the message of the sustainability movement that the familiar (coal-based economy for example) is not working, and must change in the face of the indisputable facts of climate change.
It’s a “dip in, dip out, and then go and have a think” kind of book. In some places quite haunting as French outlines the landscape lying beneath modern life and what it is trying to communicate to us.
Being written by a superlative author, one with a gift for wit, imagery and the absurd makes it a lighter-hearted read than many other texts in the field. There is also a fundamental love and optimism for humans as a species permeating the narrative, which prevents it from falling into the tone of didacticism or hectoring.
This is not a lecture, this is a passionate and thoughtful reflection on the Australian landscape and how both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples have approached living in it. It is also a mud map of how contemporary Australians can learn to hear the land and let us shape our decision-making in positive ways, growing as a result into a more resilient and sustainable society.