Partly the shagginess

Gum, Ashley Hay, Newsouth (revised edition).

The colonists of the First Fleet cursed the eucalypts around Sydney Harbour (which were just as likely to be the closely-related angophoras rather than eucalypts) as axe-blunting, good-for-nothing-but-burning wood. But by the mid-1800s, partly due to the efforts of one Ferdinand Mueller, or Baron Blue Gum, eucalypts, and the Tasmanian Blue Gum (Eucalyptus globulus) in particular, were touted as wonder trees – able to grow anywhere, impervious to pests and curing any ill. On my parents’ farm in the Wimmera we had a blue gum, which, in that dry environment, greedily sucked water from the garden and rose rapidly to twice the height of any surrounding trees. Blue gums of course have become ubiquitous in the Western District and elsewhere for timber plantations.

Blue gums were promoted overseas, in places such as Ethiopia and California. During World War II one US solider uttered surprise at how many (of ‘our’) California eucalypts there were in Sydney. The UN, in its early days decided eucalypts were the answer to the world’s fuel shortages. Not everyone was convinced – while Australians had embraced their other-worldliness, eucalypts’ shagginess offended some aesthetically-inclined botanists, and others decided they were introduced pests.

If their difference from European trees took some getting used to, as is evident from celebrated painter John Glover’s loving but far-from-accurate portrayals of their sinuous limbs, eucalypts were a large part of the turn from Australian colonists thinking they were English to them thinking of themselves as Australian.

Ashley Hay declares Louis Buvelot to be the first European painter to get the eucalypts right – it was partly the shagginess and partly the light – later inspiring the Heidelberg School’s paintings, from the pastoral scenes of Arthur Streeton to the messiness of Frederick McCubbin’s bush. Hans Heysen created icons, copied copiously by lesser artists, partly by, with the upper border of his canvasses, lopping the heads off his red gums in order to convey a sense of implied, imposing height. He would bribe the local council to retain trees he favoured for his subjects. Albert Namatjira’s gums were similarly iconic, prints of his work livening eastern seaboard suburban lounge rooms with their vivid rock colours offsetting the pale ghost gums. (One later artist assumed Namatjira’s saturated colours must be artificial, until a visit to the centre confirmed otherwise.)

Les Murray wrote that gums are ‘stood scrolls best read unopened’. Beyond the utility of wood and oil, and the role of trees in mopping up carbon, Murray hints at the almost spiritual need for gums to simply be there. Belinda Probert notes in a recent book that eucalyptus is promoted as a ‘nostalgic’ scent by one cleaning company, an odd idea really when you think that eucalypts are well and truly with us (although as Hay notes, the oil is not as ubiquitous in the household as it used to be). But while eucalypts became firmly entrenched as cultural icons, well into the second half of the twentieth century, foresters continued to think about how to make a profit out of them, even with the growing knowledge that their use as a resource from natural forests was not unlimited. Hay writes that there was much discussion about how to manage forests, but still with the ideology that, simply, trees ‘were for felling’. The photographer Nicholas Caire photographed eucalyptus regnans, another mountain giant, before they were all gone, as he and others like Arthur Streeton worried they would be, so that his grandchildren would see how big they had been. Another photographer, Harold Cazneaux, photographed an old river red gum in the Flinders Ranges and, perhaps equally worried about the longevity of gums, entitled his photograph, in slightly overblown fashion, ‘The Spirit of Endurance’.

Forestry is one threat to trees – clear-felling an obvious environmental disaster. One conservationist likens logging to whaling, while Bob Brown likened the chainsawing of forest giants in Tasmania to the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan buddhas. Perhaps these statements seem less hyperbolic as we learn how connected plants in a forest are, how important older trees are in ecosystems, and just how impressive these specimens are. Media attention on individual trees in Tasmania helped conservation there. Lately our attention has turned to the climate. Although eucalypts have adapted to a fire-prone environment, raging megafires are destructive. Not only did recent fires destroy millions of trees; more frequent and hotter fires may outpace the trees’ ability to recuperate, and warming temperatures may retard finely-tuned reproduction cycles. Gums are great survivors but also finely balanced.

Mysterious marshes

Imperial Mud, James Boyce, Icon Books.

The Fens, an area of low marshes and farmland on England’s east coast and the subject of James Boyce’s latest book, might seem a long way from colonial Tasmania and Melbourne, the subjects of previous books from Boyce, but what links them all is Boyce’s concern with the dispossession of Indigenous people, the transformation of rich lands in the name of progress, and the agency of Indigenous people often minimized in historical accounts. (Also: Boyce discovered he had ancestors who lived in the Fens.) The experience of particular marginalized people often has resonances with all marginalized people, whether they be Fennish, Indigenous Australians or Native Americans – the denigration by outsiders of nuanced ways of living on the land, and destruction disguised as civilizing.

The Fens is a rich, watery landscape, with an abundance of fish and birds that ‘astonished’ visitors and provided grass for stock, nourished by periodic silty floods. The Fens were subsequently densely populated millennia ago, archaeological studies show. Locals benefitted from common land, which supported both the itinerant and propertied, and later, the builders of monasteries were attracted to the land, becoming part of a rich, cultural landscape, as well as an abundant physical one, in contrast to ‘imperial’ attitudes which saw ‘unimproved’ landscape as unproductive (also reflecting contemporary negative attitudes to wetlands as the source of disease-causing miasmas).

This imperial attitude manifested explosively in the 1600s when an outsider aristocracy – newly enriched by the Reformation’s dissolution of the monasteries – eyed the land greedily and convinced the government that the land would be more productive if drained and enclosed. This simply meant, as it did elsewhere, more common land falling into the hands of the already-wealthy and an upsurge in inequality. ‘Improvement’ was simply theft, says Boyce, bluntly.

The locals went down swinging, even burning down John Welsey’s father’s house (he was alleged to have been a government, and therefore outsider, sympathizer), and using soccer matches as an excuse to get together and destroy newly made dykes and ditches. But opposition was depicted, in age-old fashion, as futile resistance to the inevitable march of progress, and the locals as lazy and susceptible to superstition. The theft was disguised in moral terms. The mysterious marshes were alleged to corrupt the locals, whereas drainage and enclosure would civilise them. The homeless, for whom the marshes had been a safety net, were criminalized.

The drained Fens are a site of industrial agriculture area now, but some of the wetlands are being restored. Ironically, drainage over centuries has lowered the land, making it more susceptible to inundation from seawaters. As is common, ‘improvement’ has turned out to have a downside. Artificial means of drainage must be maintained against the relentless creep of the ocean, and the spectre of rising sea levels from climate change, helped by intensive, industrial agriculture adding more carbon to the atmosphere, threatens to turn the area back into something like what it was when it was first peopled.

In broad daylight

In Plain Sight: An Investigation into UFOs and Impossible Science, Ross Coulthart, Harper Collins.

Is anyone up there? I’m talking about intelligent alien life that visits our planet periodically, generating UFO sightings. There’s certainly something going on. Just recently the US military, after decades of denial, has confirmed there are things in the skies they can’t explain. This was prompted by the New York Times releasing military videos of unexplained aerial craft, filmed at various times and monitored by numerous pilots and radar operators, that seem intelligently controlled and seem to defy the laws of physics. The New York Times also revealed the existence of a Pentagon taskforce that has been investigating such phenomena.

60 Minutes journalist Ross Coulthart says the military prefers the term unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) over UFO because the latter has associations with extraterrestrials, and the strange objects are not necessarily alien craft. Then again, the capabilities these craft seemingly display are way beyond the current technologies of any nations here on Earth. Coulthart spent a year talking to witnesses and government types, trying to get his head around all this, especially the fact that the US government has now confirmed it’s in the dark.

There have been reports of UAPs around the world for years. Indigenous Australians reported lights in the skies behaving weirdly before European settlement. In World War II pilots on both sides saw objects the allies dubbed ‘foo fighters’ tailing their planes. There have been mass sightings in New Zealand, and a panicked pilot over Bass Strait radioing that he was shadowed by a huge object before he was lost without trace. In the 60s, in Melbourne, a whole school class and teacher saw a hovering, silver craft in broad daylight, only to be told they dreamt it up. There are stories (and photos) of repeated, surgically precise mutilations of cattle in Queensland, and accounts of creatures that sound like something from The X-Files or Stranger Things. It’s all a bit spooky. Even some Apollo astronauts admitted later they saw odd things they didn’t reveal at the time.

UFO conspiracy theories really kick off with Roswell because of the rumours of crashed alien craft and the recovery of ‘lifeforms’ and alien technologies. Coulthart talks to many insiders – in cloak and dagger style, with variations on the standard line, ‘I can’t tell you all I know, but…’ Some claim the US has been trying to reverse-engineer recovered alien technology for decades, though one insider Couthart talked to said the military had simply been trialling mind-boggling technologies but had given up as they were also mind-bogglingly expensive. No wonder it’s so secretive – either the US military is trying to come up with game-changing technologies before the Russians and the Chinese, or the Russians or Chinese beat them to it, or, even weirder, they have evidence that aliens have visited the planet and the military has no idea what to do about it.

There have been patent applications filed in the US for technology exploiting quantum physics, supposedly allowing antigravity propulsion and G-force and friction nullifying electromagnetic shields, backed by the military who astonishingly told the patent office the technology was ‘operational’. We’ll see, says Coulthart. (One engineer said the application was gobbledygook.)

Things get really weird when he is told UAPs mimic human-made craft such as helicopters, and natural phenomena such as meteors, in order to go undetected. This ‘we can’t see them because they are in disguise’ theory is in the realm of the conspiracy theorist’s trump card: ‘well, they would deny it if they were covering it up, wouldn’t they?’ And then there’s punk rock star Tom DeLonge who has claimed to be collaborating on alien technologies with the military. (He’s also got lots of alien-themed merch for sale.) DeLonge quit his band to chase UFOs and believes, amongst other things, that aliens were present at the birth of Jesus. But Coulthart also finds evidence DeLonge really has met with US top brass. Were they indulging him or are they actually collaborating? DeLonge says, more-or-less, ‘I can’t tell you all I know, but…’

The 2015 incidents involving the US navy, as revealed by the New York Times, are particularly interesting, and not necessarily because of the videos themselves, which are grainy and black and white and not easily deciphered by non-experts. The craft in them, though, were spotted by the pilots in broad daylight while being simultaneously tracked by radar operators, who were in communication with the pilots and who also noted incredible accelerations and altitude changes. Even weirder is that the craft, of which there were several, in one incident disappeared only to reappear at a secret rendezvous location before the navy pilots had got there. Some sceptics blame the Russians, others are sceptical that the Russians could have technology that is so advanced it is unexplainable, let alone replicable, by the US. Other sceptics blame reflections off the water and exhaust fumes, but the craft were apparently seen and videoed by pilots and confirmed by radar operators. So Coulthart was told.

Coulthart is fond of using statements such as ‘Surely this is science fiction. Or is it?’ But he doesn’t swallow everything, and he confesses to initial skepticism. For the sake of a good story, he inflates balloons only to deflate them again, but he’s also sifting through the evidence (some of which is startling) and the nonsense (which is abundant) to try and get at the truth. Needless-to-say, while the truth may be out there, it’s not exactly easy to pin down.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Clearly, not everyone is making this stuff up. Coulthart says we can no longer dismiss so much evidence just because it points to something counterintuitive, shocking or with profound implications. And reports from numerous highly trained military personnel are a long way from the claims of a lone witness in the desert in the middle of the night. Yet even the US military are mystified. A much-anticipated Pentagon report released in June this year noted that investigations were, perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘inconclusive’.

Malevolent cherries

Last year, in the midst of BLM protests, a retrospective exhibition of Philip Guston’s works planned for a trans-Atlantic audience, due to begin in 2020, was postponed until 2024. Gallery directors feared that the images of hooded klansmen that feature in some of his late works might be misinterpreted, despite Guston’s well-known leftist politics and the well-known fact that the paintings send up rather than celebrate violent racism. Ironically, the exhibition was to be titled ‘Philip Guston Now’.

A number of new books were to also ride the coattails of the exhibition and Guston’s now-assured place in the canon. Philip Guston Now is the bulky hardcover companion to the exhibition, with a series of essays by other artists. Robert Storr’s equally hefty book offers an even more comprehensive survey in a coffee table book format.

Also ironically, the reaction from artists themselves, who decried the decision to postpone the exhibition and emphasized art’s duty to ask difficult questions, echoed the outrage of fellow artists directed at Philip Guston in the 1970s when he took a turn back to the figurative after being one of the leading lights of abstract painting. The reception of the late paintings, for which he is now recognized and lauded, was almost universally negative. Friends refused to speak to him. Critics such as Robert Hughes sniffed at the cartoon-like style. A lone voice was de Kooning, who said, amusingly, that abstract expressionism wasn’t a baseball team, and that an artist such as Guston was free to choose the style of painting he wanted. This occurred, though, in the context of a New York where ab ex was scaling the heights and leaving figurative painting in the bourgeois, dreary lowlands. (Ab ex became its own dead end, the point it was refining down to was not infinite, and painting eventually had to turn somewhere else. In fact, the point became the genesis for the Big Bang of postmodernism’s free-for-all.)

Guston insisted the paintings of klansmen were self-portraits, despite the fact of Guston’s Jewish heritage. His message, it seems, was that racism was so widespread, so much a part of American culture, so tolerated, that it couldn’t be dismissed as an undercurrent or just the views of a minority, and must be somehow confronted by Americans, not as something outside of themselves but part of their identity as Americans. The message was complex, but the imagery was cartoony, and maybe the recent gallery directors thought it could be misconstrued as making light of racism. But poking fun is not taking it lightly.

Looking at the late paintings now, they seem unique, for today as much as for the times in which they were painted. It took guts to do them. But Guston thought Ab ex was becoming irrelevant in the politics of the day. Not that it was an either/or exactly. In Philip Guston Now, David Reed points out that Guston wasn’t deliberately turning his back on abstraction, just bringing some figures in through the back door. I don’t think one has to be purist in painting (which Ab ex was becoming, as evident by the reaction to Guston of its acolytes). Painting is neither photorealist or antirealist. As Reed points out, since postmodernism artists have explored myriad ways of portraying particular versions of reality. For Guston, political reality in the 70s was perhaps disturbing, violent and dumbed-down. One can see how all that figures in the late paintings.

Guston’s abstract paintings usually retained a centre (unlike, say, the drip paintings of Pollock). They are like a bunch of flowers crudely rendered in the back of an Impressionist scene suddenly magnified and cropped to become the only focus of the canvas. Reds and pinks figure prominently. Then heads, rendered in thick black started popping in. Then Guston made a series of calligraphic drawings that were zen-economical. But not as an end point. Rather, they were a starting point, hoping something might come out of them. A series of small paintings grew out of the drawings, featuring household objects rendered in blocky black and the minimal hues of the previous abstract paintings – again, as if something in the background – perhaps in a cartoon strip this time – had been isolated and made to feature on the canvas.

Guston had painted klansmen before, in the 30s, but here they were cartoon characters, crude hoods with quizzical, innocent expressions (I think you can gather this just from the eye slits). The tension of the meaning – could these hooded figures be Guston/me? – was echoed in the tension of the colours. The pictures are cartoony but ominous. The red on the hoods looks like blood. But it’s paint, said Guston. They famously cruised around town, smoked and painted.

Not only can you tell it’s Guston from the weird, organic, blocky style, but you could also easily mimic it and people would recognize it as Guston-y, a sign of greatness. The dotted lines. The giant shoes. Often in the paintings there is a pile of things, often a pile of legs, hinting at the aftermath of some atrocity. Some paintings feature piles of rocks. The bodies are ultimately as expendable as rocks in the world Guston is evoking and critiquing. Even everyday objects look sinister in context. Have you ever seen a more malevolent pile of cherries? (The stems look like the bent nails found elsewhere.) Artist Glenn Ligon quotes H Rap Brown in one of the Philip Guston Now essays: ‘Violence is as American as cherry pie.’

America loves its cartoons, and in making the Klan into a cartoon, there is a danger of, perhaps paradoxically, humanizing them, like Chaplin doing Hitler. But of course they are human. When Guston says they are him, he means they could be any of us. He looks hard at himself, and doesn’t suppose he is without the capacity for violence and prejudice. And in portraying the Klan as absurd perhaps he is hoping that those people attracted to the symbolism, power and sense of belonging a shared racism can give can rather be swayed by seeing its absurdity.

Pacific oyster

Australia and the Pacific: A History, Ian Hoskins, Newsouth.

For many Australians, our relationship to the Pacific goes little further than the surf on our east coast. Our leaders say we are part of the Pacific when it suits them, but Scott Morrison has recently given a dismissive wave of the hand to Pacific nations desperate to act on climate change, effectively saying that if the submerging of Pacific nations is the price that has to be paid for Australian enjoyment of fossils fuels, then too bad. Sadly, while there are good sides to Australia’s involvement in the Pacific, especially in the provision of foreign aid, there is also a history of exploitation alternating with disregard. In the 1960s, Donald Horne, famous for putting Australia’s success largely down to luck, lamented that Australians were, in general, ‘oblivious’ to the Pacific.

Ian Hoskins is a historian of the relationship of land and sea and has written previously on Sydney Harbour and the NSW coast. Here he casts his net wider, in a comprehensive history of Australia’s relationship to the Pacific region. Of course, Australia is on the region’s edge and not all of the continent is oriented to the Pacific, at least geographically speaking. It is probably easier for Hoskins to sit in Sydney and ponder the Pacific than someone in Perth or even Adelaide. Perth is 3000 kilometres from the Pacific, and the continent is equally attuned to the Southern and Indian Oceans. What, one wonders, would our attitude to the Pacific have been if the English colony’s foundation had been on the Swan River?

Speculative histories aside, the book covers a litany of differences, in culture and attitude, even geology, between Australia and the Pacific. The only Australians to feel truly part of the Pacific are likely transplanted Pacific Islanders. And ignorance is not a recent phenomenon. Australian Indigenous people came from Asia, as did Polynesians and Melanesians, but millennia before. And there were little to no exchanges between them.

In contrast, in the 1800s there was as much movement as today, with trade in wool and flax. Colonists such as Samuel Marsden dreamt of an empire of flax but didn’t quite succeed as he had hoped. Though not quite the same as slavery in North America, and not as well-known, there is a history of race-based forced labour – ‘blackbirding’ – that saw Pacific Islanders kidnapped for indentured labour. One Australian merchant opined that the Pacific was simply ‘an oyster to be shucked’. Ironically, the practice of blackbirding was stopped due to racism. Some white Australians objected to the growing presence of Pacific Islanders.

The churches, such as Methodists and Catholics, were very busy in the South Seas, and, as in Central Australia, were highly successful. Although we know missionaries weren’t always culturally sensitive, and presumed the superiority of European culture, there were missionaries who, in contrast to the traders, were ‘astonishingly’ self-reflective and who emphasized that all people were one under God’s eyes. (This in opposition to the late nineteenth-century ‘science’ which at that stage was questioning the single-origin theory.) It is simply wrong to lump all missions into a negative, colonialist basket.

The attitude of most Australians, though, at the turn of the twentieth century, can probably be summed-up in The Bulletin’s proud motto – ‘Australia for the white man’. As well as assuming Indigenous Australians would die out, white Australians wanted to keep Asians and Islanders out. In what would be Papua New Guinea, missionaries opposed plans for Queensland to take over PNG because they saw how badly Queenslanders treated their native human population.

Racist sentiments persisted into ‘modern’ Australia, from Arthur Calwell in the 1960s to Pauline Hanson in the 1990s. In the 1960s, the Anglican Bishop of Goulburn, somewhat against the tide, reminded Australians they were part of an ‘Oriental’ rather than European setting, but a clash of location and culture and race continued. Prime Minister Harold Holt hedged his bets by saying that white Australians weren’t a superior race but their culture was just incompatible with that of the rest of the Pacific. As Hoskins notes, this throws doubt on one side of the colonial project – the supposed universally beneficial appeal of European values.

Of course, the Pacific covers more than the South Pacific. While Japan was an ally during World War I, white Australians felt wary of its otherness, perhaps legitimately so, considering World War II. That prejudice has been transferred to China of late, though of course Australians of Chinese origin have seen much prejudice since Gold Rush times. Today, our closest international partners, diplomatically, continue to be those to whom the majority of Australians are linked by race, rather than geography, despite Paul Keating’s intentions, and China is seen as a threat to Australian and American hegemony in the Pacific – again, sometimes for legitimate reasons, if we think of Chinese exploitation of natural resources in some Pacific nations (exploitation that is, though, not the exclusive domain of China). (Chinese influence is a major factor in recent riots in the Solomon Islands, exacerbated by long-running internal tensions.)

Ironically, the importation and enthusiastic take-up of, particularly, Christianity in the Pacific has seen further culture clashes. One example is the controversy over rugby star Israel Folau, whose conservative Christian belief in the damnation of gay people has been contrasted with a (secular) Western pluralism. Another example is the recent voicing by Pacific Islanders of theological arguments for the urgent need to combat climate change, in contrast to Western recalcitrance in reining-in Western lifestyles, in sacrificial Christian fashion, in order to mitigate the dramatic effects of climate change on our neighbours.

Where are the adults?

I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Bloomsbury.

I admit that it’s easier to read about the Trump presidency and the farcical, dangerous response to the election loss now that he’s gone. His petulant denial of the election results and his stoking of insurrection was unsurprising but still shocking, and there’s a sense of relief it ended when it did. (Although, of course, many Americans don’t think the same way.)

In A Very Stable Genius, Leonnig and Rucker outlined how bad Trump was. Then came 2020. It all looked a lot worse. Black Lives Matter protests, election shenanigans, the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, all came on top of policy failures and a half million deaths from Covid, the response to which was badly mismanaged by Trump. It was quite the year.

At the start of the pandemic Trump was reluctant to press China, which he had been just touting as a ‘very, very good friend’. His later ridicule of China, in typically immature style, was somewhat ironic. At first, he didn’t want to call it a pandemic, worried about how it would look on his watch. He effectively told state governors they were on their own, then delayed vaccines for his own politics.

He claimed a ‘natural ability’ in dealing with medical issues (something mocked by cartoonists and comedians), but he peddled crackpot cures and pushed health authorities to cut corners and fudge facts. Famously germaphobic, he nevertheless discouraged mask wearing, because he felt it made him and his staff look weak. But in the middle of the pandemic, after hearing all the advice for months, he asked a prominent health official, do masks really work? Yes, he was told. Months later he asked the same advisor the same question. When secret service personnel were endangered by the no-mask policy, they were left to wonder, where are the adults?

Trump promised to protect the American people, pledging ‘America first’, but it was always Trump first. Every issue was viewed through the lens of his own popularity. He values loyalty over truth, so fired anyone who told truths that made him look bad. The likes of William Barr and Mike Pence, according to the authors, were sycophants mostly, but were ultimately ostracized for not being sycophantic (to the point of illegality) enough. (Bob Woodward praises Mike Pence for, at the last minute, putting the nation ahead of Trump after the election loss, but the authors here say the obsequious vice president constitutionally simply couldn’t do anything that wasn’t treasonous. Besides, he likely saw the very large writing on the wall.)

When Trump lost the election, he tried to cause chaos. This is, perhaps, not surprising. The military were worried for months beforehand about what Trump would try to do if he lost. (Where are the adults? they asked.) Nancy Pelosi, genuinely concerned, quizzed the top brass on how they would keep a defeated Trump’s hands off the nuclear button.

We know what Trump is like, but it seems more shocking, more puzzling, more scary being systematically detailed this way. The book’s overall picture is of an ignorant, cruel, angry, narcissistic liar who nevertheless was politically savvy enough, or shameless enough, to appeal to his supporters’ prejudices and sense of grievance. In the middle of anger from black Americans at decades of racism, while Trump was initially sympathetic to George Floyd’s family, he mismanaged the issue, soon played the law and order card, and made simplistic signals to his racist supporters. Military leaders were disgusted by his attempt to politicise the military. (They should hardly have been surprised, though.) His use of the Bible as a prop underlined the unfortunate fact of the high level of support he received from evangelical Christians.

The question remains then, after all the chaos and nastiness, why 75 million Americans voted for him. Michael Wolff, another Trump political biographer, said Trump appealed to people without adequate reasoning capacity. This may be true of some Trump voters, but beyond this, there are two halves of America that are deeply disturbed by what they see on the other side, and deeply disagree on what American success looks like. And it’s worrying that Trump’s divisive, globally irresponsible, belligerent politics still have widespread appeal, and he’s talking about a possible run in 2024. We can’t feel a sense of relief just yet.

A rumble, the Earth splits

The Book of Unconformities, Hugh Raffles, Pantheon

‘They were hunting for iridescent blue pyrrhotite, delicate coraline aragonite, lustrous marcasite, opaque smoky quartz, semitransparent calcite, fully transparent rock crystal, blood-red rutile, hairy sheets of mountain leather asbestos, gem-quality brown tourmaline, prismatic gypsum, flaky muscovite, silky tremolite, silvery foliated talc […]’

So runs one passage near the start of Hugh Raffles’ peripatetic The Book of Unconformities. As with Philip Hoare, there is an accelerating enthusiasm in the prose. The locomotion of narrative occasionally reaches a critical momentum and runs over any potential sentence terminations. Like an avalanche, all is calm until something triggers a cumulative rush. The Greek rhetorical rule of triplets, utilised by the likes of Obama, doesn’t cut it here. It’s ‘all aboard’ and then some, like those overloaded Indian trains.

There is a list of what Lenape Native Americans thought, ate, cultivated, the abundance of words mirroring the abundance of New York pre-European settlement. Later, there is a page-long sentence describing the geological history of Svalbard (on the islands off the top of Norway), through the evidence of early forests, forests becoming coal, rocks being submerged then emerging again, plates drifting, climate shifting, mountains lifting, right up to whalers and traders tramping its shores, looking for animals to bludgeon, stab and hack, a deep history panorama in a frantic montage. There is a rumble, the Earth splits, the words pour out, hot.

The fecundity of these sentences helps reinforce that this book, ostensibly about rocks, is about more besides. Raffles describes the collision of cultures in what is now New York City, an unequal collision, like that between a bus and drunk driver’s truck. So, too, in Greenland and the Arctic, in the fever of exploration. Here is Robert Peary (who also appears in a book written by Iain Sinclair and B. Catling), hunting for meteorites. The Inuit had used them for making tools, shaping them with other rocks. As well as hunting interplanetary rocks, Peary had an anthropological bent. The Inuit couldn’t understand, understandably, why he wanted them to pose nude for photographs. All in the name of science, said Peary. If so, condescension. If not, then more sleazy motives. The meteorites were brought back to New York. So, too, the Arctic natives. This at the time when Indigenous peoples weren’t buried like white men outside of their native land, but their remains were deposited in museums, objects of (Western) scientific curiosity. Fossils, gemstones, stuffed animals, Indigenous people. Not everyone agreed, however. Are they not men? some asked.

Raffles does a North Atlantic circumnavigation, running limited express. He stops in the top end of the British Isles, in Iceland, in Svalbard. Then the Arctic and back to New York. Rocks and people along the way. The Lenape used to shelter in Inwood Hill Park, north of Manhattan. The rock shelters are still there, timeless, in forest, still there. In New York there is a neglected, decaying stone monument, a mini arc de triomphe that is quite large, a classical revival Stonehenge, former entrance to the estate of yet another rich man. It is now incorporated into the Brito Body Shop, a car repair establishment on 217th Street. Raffles writes that it is the ‘largest surviving structure of Inwood marble’ in New York. The marble was inferior to that of Vermont, up the road. Manhattan features Vermont rather than Manhattan marble.

Neglect is one thing, fear another. Rocks are thought of as living in some cultures. They outlive people but inspire strange bursts of hatred. At Avebury, an impressive 76 stones survive. But there were 600. Sometimes they just get in the way of the plough. (Trees also show the same intransigence.) But in the UK rocks were also burned, broken and buried to negate whatever latent supernatural (or natural?) powers the stones hold.

Does it matter? Isn’t there so much rock? Doesn’t it just get in the way? There are the archaeological considerations, but doesn’t rock provide some of our more awe-inspiring vistas?

Archaeology – is it preservation or disturbance? In Svalbard, the old whaling sites and Nazi outposts are off-limits. Preserved, not removed. Yet leave them and they will decay. The dilemmas. How does one fix these things eternally? But rocks flow. It’s not an oxymoron. They are made liquid by heat, but also by time. Collections of particles shoved around by infinitely patient force. The world is in flux. To preserve is to go against the flow. Raffles is responding to head-splitting and disorienting grief, from the death of two sisters. Is reaching for something solid the answer though?

The poetry had horses in it

Girt Nation, David Hunt, Black Inc.

History can be taken too seriously, but not by David Hunt. He has an ear for the absurd, and his history of Australia is irreverent and often bawdy. But then that is an undoubted underbelly of the story of our nation. His book is ‘unauthorised’ because, he writes, it’s good to challenge pseudo-official blinkered and sanitized distortions of history. Its more serious purpose is to use humour to point out our nation’s historical shortcomings.

Girt Nation is the third in the series, covering the late nineteenth century, when the states, despite being unable to agree on football, were heading for the climax of Federation, when Australia would become a proud, independent nation (while still clinging tightly to Britain’s apron strings).

It was a time when religious tensions were exacerbated by creating two education streams (Protestant and Catholic), when the people were united by their desire to beat England at cricket (even if white Australians frowned upon Indigenous players being needed to do it), and when Mary McKillop’s sisters, in the context of a post-gold rush depression, did so well in their charity work that they were reprimanded by their bishop.

The embryonic nation was nurtured by the likes of Henry Parkes who, when a wife died, would just replace her with his latest, younger mistress, and his polar opposite, Alfred Deakin, teetotaller and vegetarian (at least until they impeded his political ambitions), proponent of muscular Christianity, and enthusiastic cyclist. He indulged in the contemporary rage of spiritualism (he took advice from the spirits of Prince Albert and John Bunyan, the latter encouraging Deakin to pen an updated and ultimately dreadful version of Pilgrim’s Progress). (Not everyone was convinced; one prominent minister derided spiritualism while promoting the more sensible ‘science’ of phrenology.)

Deakin introduced a bill to, literally, not put a cart before a horse and fretted about irrigation and the yellow peril. (Australia’s national anthem does specify ‘Australia fair’ after-all.) As a secret, anonymous antipodean correspondent for a London newspaper he (bizarrely) criticized his own policies.

Australians (white and male), while they weren’t trying to keep the Chinese out, were trying to keep women from the vote. They ultimately weren’t successful at either. They were more successful at pushing Indigenous Australians to the margins (which were at the country’s centre), something it is hard to find anything to laugh about. At a parade in Sydney to celebrate Federation, the Chinese were not welcome (even though Chinese Australians had been in the country for ages), but Indians were (being pseudo-British). Aboriginal Australians were absent because, as one contemporary newspaper outrageously put it, there were virtually none left to witness the ‘triumph of the white race’.

Australians (white and male) were apparently voracious readers in the late 1800s, something that might surprise those of you not reading this review. Australians were very keen on poetry, including from the accident-prone Banjo Patterson and the depressing Henry Lawson, as long as the poetry had horses in it, says Hunt. Later attentions turned to celebrating the bushman (less so his wife, and even less so the original inhabitants). The Man from Snowy River successfully featured both. Sheep were also popular subjects, and Hunt notes that Australia’s national anthem was very nearly a song about a ‘sheep-stealing hobo’.

Phenomena from the heavens

Climate, Catastrophe and Faith, Philip Jenkins, Oxford

If I spill my coffee I can probably blame it on climate change. Climate is a perhaps over-extended explanation for many things, so it’s tempting to be wary of Philip Jenkins’ linking of it to religious movements as simply another academic tying research to fashionable currents. But, actually, it makes a lot of sense, because of course religion operates in a wider sociological and ecological context. Historians have noted the effect of climate on civilisations, so it’s no surprise religion is a part of this, and, further, phenomena from the heavens, mystifying until more recent times, have always been linked to whoever is up there. Wild weather, natural catastrophes and noticeable long-term climactic changes have always demanded an explanation. Jenkins more prosaically writes that the environmental context doesn’t explain everything, but neither is it nothing.

Times of change can unleash the four horsemen – death, plague, famine, war. Shortages can prompt political conflict, in turn prompting more apocalyptic, divisive versions of religion. There is a link between leaner times and Jewish pogroms in Europe. The Reformation, Jenkins argues, was helped by Rome being distracted by plague and famine due to failed crops throughout Christendom in the early 1500s. Jenkins also argues that Geneva’s theocratic regime under Calvin can be partly explained by stresses due to an unsettled climate.

New religions spring from cracks in societies weakened by the effects of climate change, as happened, Jenkins suggests, with the rise of Islam. In third-century Rome, Christianity grew partly because of Christians ‘conspicuously’ helping victims of the plagues brought on by unsettled conditions.

Hardships brought on by shifts in climate can be seen as judgement, prompting prophetic warnings and revivals, as we see in the Old Testament. Ninth-century Mayans increased offerings to their gods of the underworld during a prolonged dry spell. The message from pulpits was that vicious winters in the northeast of North America in the 1740s were punishment for ingratitude during more prosperous times. (With blessing comes the possibility of complacency.)  

In contrast, the 1300s, when Europe experienced milder conditions and good harvests, were times of church building and innovation in arts and theology. Even Cistercians, who frowned upon worldly wealth, couldn’t help but become wealthy themselves. Japan simultaneously experienced a warmer and more stable climate, and Buddhism and new artistic expressions flourished.

Religions can be spread, as they were notably to the Americas, by migrants fleeing hardships back home. But they can find in new homes, where religions compete, conflict when the climate turns against them there. In 1740s New York City, a series of fires stemming from, ironically, persistently cold winters, was blamed on (minority) Catholics. That same cold, argues Jenkins, made hearts more receptive to the fire of revivals under Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley.

A study such as Jenkins’ is of course partly influenced by current trepidations over what lies in store for us climactically. In Africa right now there are struggles between Islam and Christianity right where there is increasing desertification and water shortages. More positively, there has also been an explosion of analysis of how theology might inform our ecological duty of care, an indication that climate is currently changing the orientation of our biblical interpretation.

Look at Batman

The Modern Myths, Philip Ball, University of Chicago Press

There are different ideas about what makes a myth exactly, but most agree that myths tell us something fundamental about human nature. We’re familiar with Greek myths, but Philip Ball wonders what more recent stories may have been elevated to mythic status, even if we might not think of them in those specific terms.

Ball, a writer on science, here ascends the cliff and climbs into the cave to wrestle with those unscientific, literary creations that have become embedded in our collective psyche, beginning with Robinson Crusoe. Although mythology is contested, Ball has firm ideas about what we should be looking for, and what a myth is not. A myth is a myth because of the story, not because of the qualities of the writing itself. Some of the modern myths Ball discusses aren’t written well – Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula. The consensus of critics is that they are ‘messes’.

But a moral tale of good and evil doesn’t automatically qualify, so sorry, Harry Potter, Star Wars and even Shakespeare fans. If you claim your story is myth, as William Golding did of Lord of the Flies, it is, argues Ball, merely a fable. Rather, a myth grows beyond the intentions of the author, is only a myth posthumously, a cultural phenomenon, and will speak to different readers in different ways, because meaning can never quite be pinned down. Myths help us think through questions without promoting definite answers, and this is why they keep cycling through our culture.

So, while Robinson Crusoe may reflect the individualism of the Romantic age, or the power of English colonialism, or even a modern reliance on reason, we might read it, in contrast, as showing how humans can’t live without society, no matter how resourceful. Ball also notes how the setting of Crusoe’s island has in the twenty-first century been transferred to the context of space, as in the film The Martian. Being marooned is scary, and while technology connects us, it also allows for the possibility of greater isolation.

Ball says Frankenstein’s monster is the epitome of modern myth because it is ‘endlessly malleable’. While contemporary interpretations centre on the dangers of scientists playing God, Ball writes that upon the book’s release it was seen more as a criticism of the human hubris that led to the French Revolution – of the obvious dangers of the monstrous plebs, and things getting out of control. Obviously, it refers to the Greek myth of Prometheus, but even Mary Shelley can’t be relied on to explain her story’s meaning, and it has taken on a life of its own, if you’ll pardon the pun. Its power lies, says Ball, in Shelley’s humanising of the monster. This is no kraken or demon that is undoubtedly Other, but rather, because it (he?) is made of human parts, we are even privy to the monster’s thoughts, and, further, there are even questions as to who – the monster or his creator – is the more moral, the story raises uncomfortable questions about what it means to be human, and what constitutes life, issues that have become more critical for us dealing with AI and reproductive technologies, as well as what role humans have to play in a wider, ecological context.

Ball notes that the Frankenstein myth has been reinvigorated in Blade Runner and Terminator (Schwarzenegger recalls well the square-headedness of Boris Karloff), further reason to elevate it to mythic status perhaps. In the case of Blade Runner, the question is how autonomous human beings really are, and how programmed, relating of course to issues of free will, the influence of society on individuals, and how far we can travel from our upbringing and genetics.

When a myth doesn’t have a genesis in a definitive and self-contained literary text, it is even more malleable. Look at Batman, whose story has been endlessly played with. Ball says that when we speak of Batman, we need to ask, which Batman? The Adam West Batman may be less mythical material (though he may betray just how zany the whole superhero dressing-up thing is), but we can see in the various Batman iterations an uncertainty about his character and motivations (in contrast to Superman, who, Ball reminds us, is pretty one-dimensional, let’s face it, as well as being, we might add, not human anyway). If we are thinking of the Dark Knight, we might ask how far we can escape childhood trauma, whether revenge is ever good motivation, whether darkness can be defeated without becoming dark ourselves, and whether we are being honest about what darkness lies within us.