About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Friday, 31 January 2014

"I Love a Sunburnt Country"

While my overseas readers will probably have no reaction to that line, I'm sure my Australian ones will recognise it immediately. It is the first line of the second verse of a poem called My Country, written in the first decade of the 20th Century by a young Australian called Dorothea Mackellar who was travelling in Britain and Europe. It is in the form of one side of a conversation with someone who loves the misty European countrysides, acknowledging that love while expressing her own passion for the harsh extremes of Australia. She was from a wealthy Sydney family, but spent formative time on family property in the mid-west of New South Wales. The poem caught the Australian imagination and was widely printed in newspapers. It has been put to music more than once  - most recently, and somewhat mind-bogglingly, by eminent Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin for the Vienna Boys Choir! I recall  singing a version at primary school, though I can't determine what the origin of that tune was. To many of us it's still an unofficial national anthem. (To many of us too, that's no bad thing as the official one could plausibly be described as a dirge-like tune accompanied by words that range from archaic-weird to not-quite-as-good-as-banal. That's a subjective view of course...)
Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae, Fitzroy Falls, New South Wales.
Presumably singing his own anthem.
This is a week which began with Australia Day, commemorating the day in 1788 that a small armada arrived in Sydney harbour to found a convict colony and claim the entire country for Britain, regardless of the fact that it had already been fully occupied for some 50,000 years. For obvious reasons this a pretty divisive day here. As I have implied numerous times in this blog's postings, I never cease being profoundly grateful for my ridiculously undeserved luck at being born in this remarkable land. 'Pride' however would suggest taking credit for things I'm only the beneficiary of, not responsible for. And that good fortune carries, for me, an obligation of stewardship, and my periodic criticisms of actions which damage the land and our society stem directly from my passion for it. You can't claim to love someone or something if you stand back while it's being assaulted.

Anyway, enough of that. I thought it might be fun to illustrate, line by line, at least the second and third verses of My Country, from my own perspective. (The whole thing is worth reading and some of it is surprisingly modern.) The first verse is her acknowledgement of her imaginary English conversation companion's love of softer climes, the last three talk about the recovery of the land from drought when the rains come. The "droughts and flooding rain" reference is a perfect summary of the El NiƱo nature of our climate.

I love a sunburnt country,
West MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia
 A land of sweeping plains,
Theldarpa Station, far north-western New South Wales
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Musgrave Ranges, Northern Territory-South Australian border
Of droughts
Droughted Mitchell Grass plains, west of Boulia, far western Queensland
                       and flooding rains.
Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia
I love her far horizons,

Lake Eyre South, South Australia
I love her jewel-sea,
Head of Bight, South Australia
Her beauty and her terror - 
burning spinifex at night, Uluru National Park, Northern Territory.
 The wide brown land for me!
Castle Hill and Chambers Pillar on the horizon, Northern Territory.

A stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
            (Well, like all of us she was a person of her time - I don't need to illustrate this bit though!)    
The sapphire-misted mountains,
View from Mount Kosciuszko, New South Wales.
The hot gold hush of noon.
Illyarrie Eucalyptus erythrocorys woodland, South Beekeepers Nature Reserve, Western Australia.

Green tangle of the brushes,
Monsoon forest, Litchfield National Park, near Darwin, Northern Territory.
Where lithe lianas coil,
Chichester State Forest, New South Wales.
And orchids deck the tree-tops
Bulbophyllum (or Oxysepala) shepherdii, Nowra, New South Wales.
And ferns the warm dark soil.
Tree Ferns Dicksonia antarctica, Monga National Park, New South Wales.
And there I shall leave Dorothea - and you - and come back to a more conventional posting next time. Thanks for bearing with me!


1 comment:

Flabmeister said...

Very clever: well done!

However I must say that the country is currently a tad too sunburnt (and macropod munched, although the resident swampie is now doing willows n the creek rather than our camellias).