Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Social Change in New England 1950-2000 7: Judith Wright

These are some of my favourite posts. Like many of the other posts I am repeating here, they were not written as history posts. However, they do capture elements of some of the key social changes that took place in New England after 1950.

Judith was born into one of New England's great pastoral dynasties. In 1950, the world she grew up in, while under strain, still seemed secure. By the time she died, it had largely gone.

The loss of the family properties marked Judith. In a world where the first son inherited, she had no claim to the land, yet it was hers in a very personal sense. The loss hurt.

The relationship between Judith, the family and especially her father and the land was always a complicated one.

She saw the land as hers, but came increasingly to recognise the rights of the earlier inhabitants. With time, her views on the society in which she grew up progressively shaded from positive to negative. I found this erosion, as I saw it, very sad.

I hope that you enjoy the posts. She was such a brilliant writer whose words had the capacity to present my own country to me.  

The Poetry of Judith Wright - Bora Ring, January 30, 2007

Judith Wright is probably New England's best known poet.

Her poetry, especially her earlier writing, has always resonated with me because it says something to me about the world in which I grew up, a world still deeply imprinted on my soul. I thought therefore that it might be fun to take some of her poems and use them as a window to look at different aspects of New England.

I suspect that many Australians still think of Australia's traditional Aborigines as simple hunter gatherers living in an ancient and unchanging landscape, although there is growing recognition of the complexity of their social and spiritual life. In fact, within the limits set by their tools and available food supplies they were also sophisticated builders.

The Bora Rings of New England and south-eastern Queensland are examples. As Sandra Bowdler pointed out, these earthen rings of eastern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland are significant ritual structures and are probably unique in the world as hunter gatherer constructions of known function which constitute notable monuments in the landscape.

Sandra goes on to describe them:

The earthen rings known as “Bora” are usually part of a complex of two or three rings, linked by a path or paths. They were used in what Sutton calls “man-making ceremonies”, that is, male initiation ceremonies. In the literature, we find that the large ring in the complex was usually part of a relatively public ceremony, with women looking on; the smaller ring was the site of the major initiation rites, for initiated men and initiates only. The purpose of the third ring is not as well documented in the literature. It has been suggested that these are women’s rings, but it is not clear to me that this was always the case. Bora sites were often (always?) associated with carved trees.
The average size of a large ring is about 25 - 30 m across, and a small ring 10-12 m. There is a wide range of variation however. The earth is mounded up to a height of c.25-50 cms. Usually there is a path, often to the south-west from the large ring, connecting to smaller ring.

Judith's poem starts by painting a picture of a Bora Ring now alone in the landscape:
The song is gone, the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.
Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring, the apple gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmurs a broken chant

The hunter is gone, the spear
is splintered underground, the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still

The rider halts, feeling that the ghosts are still present.
Only the rider's heart
halts at sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.

It is a wonderfully evocative poem. But it is also a very European perspective with its emphasis on the vanished Aboriginal past. In fact, that past was still present.

I am not sure when Judith wrote this poem, but at the time there were almost certainly New England Aborigines alive who had passed through traditional initiation at one of the Bora sites. Further, the knowledge of the sites and their significance has continued to be passed on.

Here we can compare Judith's words with the much later 1996/1997 Aboriginal description of a site near Bellbrook quoted by Sandra:

“This site is known as the passing out ground for initiates of the Thungetti tribe. It is one of several initiation Grounds in the Bellbrook area where different stages of the Bora ceremony took place. As such, it is still highly sacred to the Aboriginal elders residing at Bellbrook Mission, and is considered to be one of the most important of the initiation sites in the area”

Judith Wright's The Hawthorn Hedge - Regional Australia writers, 14 August 2007

Photo: Just about in the middle of nowhere, above the gorge, sits this orange tree. Presumably, once upon a time, a homestead once sat nearby. From Gordon Smith.

Across the Australian countryside you will find remnants of past settlement. Now they just sit there. Once they were a symbol of human hopes and dreams.

Judith Wright is one of Australia's premier regional writers. While she wrote on many things, her writing was formed by her early experiences in New England 's Northern Tablelands, the same area covered by Gordon Smith's photos.

Judith Wright's poem The Hawthorn Hedge captures one element of the New England experience. The very title is indicative of this, an English plant transplanted into an Australian environment to provide a feeling of home.

The poem begins:

How long ago she planted the hawthorn hedge -
she forgets how long ago -
that barrier thorn across the hungry ridge;
thorn and snow.

The phrase hungry ridge echoes another traditional Australian bush phrase, hungry country. This is country that has to be fed, but does not give a proper return for the effort. Snow, because snow is not uncommon in the high New England country where Judith grew up.

The poem goes on:

It is twice as tall as the rider on the tall mare
who draws his reins to peer
in through the bee-hung blossom. Let him stare.
No one is here;

We can see the hedge grown tall. However, it is not true that no one is there.

Only the mad old girl from the hut on the hill,
unkempt as an old tree.
She will hide away if you wave your hand or call;
she will not see.

Obviously the rider know that she is there. So we are left wondering why, how she came to this? Judith's next verse drives home the point:

Year-long, wind turns her grindstone heart and whets
a thornbranch like a knife,
shouting in winter "Death"; and when the white bud sets,
more loudly, "Life".

Now Judith contrasts present and past:

She has forgotten when she planted the hawthorn hedge,
that thorn, that green, that snow;
birdsong and sun dazzled across the ridge -
it was long ago

She goes on:

Her hands were strong in the earth, her glance on the sky,
her song was sweet on the wind,
The hawthorn hedge took root, grew wild and high
to hide behind.

I grew up in this country. When Judith writes, I can see and understand.

The Poetry of Judith Wright - South of My Days, 1 September 2007

Photo: Here, in the misty rain, Cooney Creek rises out of its bed and passes behind the old cottage. Gordon Smith. Cooney Creek crosses Waterfall Way, the main road linking Armidale to the coast, just to the east of the city.

In his Friday Australian poetry series, Neil (Ninglun) featured Judith Wright's South of My Days. This is a magnificent poem that, like all good poetry, stands alone independent of context.

While the poem does stand alone, the language and content of the poem are also deeply imbued by the world in which Judith grew up. I know and love this world, so I thought that I might continue my irregular series on the poetry of Judith Wright by placing this poem and its language in a context.

I am not going to repeat the poem in full. If you are interested, I suggest that you read Neil's post first, perhaps printing the poem off. At the end of the post I have added links to some of the other posts I have written on the Wrights.

The Wrights and the associated Wyndhams are one of the great New England pastoral dynasties whose story encompasses the rise and later fall of New England itself.

The story begins in the Hunter Valley in 183o when George and Margaret Wyndham purchased "Annandale", renaming the property "Dalwood" and building Dalwood House as a home. From there the family spread, acquiring a chain of properties along the eastern edge of the New England Tablelands and then stretching up into Queensland. Judith's own book, Generations of Men, captures the early history of the family.

Wallamumbi, the home property for Judith's branch of the family, lies on Waterfall Way to the east of Armidale just before that road plunges into the rough country of New England's Snowy Mountains. Look north, and the rolling green hills are all Wallamumbi.

The poem begins: "South of my day's circle, part of my blood's country,".

As Neil notes, Judith was then living to the north in Queensland. The spare elegance of these words captures location and love of country. Blood can be read in two ways, both her blood and that of her family. The poem goes on:

rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue leaved and olive, outcropping granite -

This is high country. Coastal hugging Australians know the eastern escarpment mainly as a distant blue range seen from a car window. Some venture as far as the national parks along the rim, the Barrington Tops, Oxley Wild Rivers, Dorrigo, New England. Far too few venture further in.

High country means cold. The "black-frost night" is a term Judith uses a little later in the poem. Snow is not uncommon, frost very common. The worst frosts, the black frosts, crisp the ground itself. This can actually crunch under your feet as you walk.

Much of the New England Tablelands is also granite country, especially in the west.

Granite takes many forms. The water-streaked dome of Bald Rock is the largest single granite rock in Australia. It's 750 metres long, 500 metres wide and 200 metres high. Sometimes you have several major boulders together such as Thunderbolt's Rock south of Uralla where Captain Thunderbolt used to watch for the gold coaches. Sometimes the granite forms flattish sheets.

Granite makes for poor soils. Trees are low, smaller, struggling. This can be, as Judith says, "clean, lean, hungry country." Hungry country carries two linked meanings: country that has to be fed if it is to be productive; but it also means country that can suck the spirit, the life, from the settler.

The poem goes on:

clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

There is a contrast built into these lines between the Australian "low trees, blue leaved and olive "and the very European willow and crabapple.

The early European settlers planted to remind them of home. With time, these plantings (run wild) became part of the landscape. Here, as in Judith's poem The Hawthorn Hedge, the plantings form a sometimes complicated link between past and present.

The old cottage" lurches in for shelter" continues the theme of "wincing under winter." This continues in the next verse:

O cold the black frost night. The walls draw in to the warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints: the sling kettle
hisses a leak on the fire ...

In the early period, cooking was done over an open fire. There was often a bar over the fire on which hung kettles, pots and pans. To avoid the problem of fire, kitchens were often separated from the main house by a covered walk-way.

In all places, the kitchen became the place to gather for warmth. At home in Armidale, my girl friends used to stand with their backs to the fuel stove, hitching their skirts up to capture the warmth.

The poem now changes direction with the introduction of old Dan with his "seventy years of stories". Now we come to something that is different from the modern metro atomistic society.

Judith grew up in a village world.

Tablelands' society was far more stratified than today. Yet properties then employed far more people, so Judith would have known and listened to the older hands. In my case, I remember old Mr Wallace who did the weekly gardening at our place and used to tell me stories about the clearing of the tall trees on the Dorrigo plateau.

In Judith's case, the stories would have resonated because of her own family past. So when Dan spoke of droving cattle from Charleville to the Hunter - "nineteen one it was, and the drought beginning" -she would have remembered stories from her own family experience.

In all this, Judith captures an idiom that is still familiar to Australians today despite all the changes. describing Thunderbolt: "He went like a luny, him on his big black horse."

The poem finishes. To quote Neil: And that closure: wonderful.

South of my days' circle
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of dark stories that still go walking in my sleep.

As they do for me too.

Judith Wright's "For a Pastoral Family" - and "Skins" 7 September 2007

This post continues my irregular series on Judith Wright, again inspired by a good post by Neil. I do not have a full copy of this poem, something that I must rectify. Again, I thought that I might usefully add a little context to the discussion.

Before reading this post, I suggest that you read Neil's post first. You might also read a rather interesting piece from the Cordite Poetry Review found by Neil that provides useful biographical material on Judith, as well as a commentary from an external perspective.

A year or so back I brought Judith Wright's autobiographical memoir Half a Life Time (1999). I bought it with anticipation, I read it with a degree of sadness.

We all interpret and reinterpret our own lives in the light of experience and events. Things change. As they do, we change. Here Neil quoted a much later poem, Skins, a poem that I had not see before.

The poem begins:

This pair of skin gloves is sixty-six years old,
mended in places, worn thin across the knuckles.

You can see here how she retains her superb control of English.

The poem goes on:

Snakes get rid of their covering all at once.
Even those empty cuticles trouble the passer-by

Note the references to the "empty cuticles". This is critical to the point she wants to make in the poem.

Now she says:

Counting in seven-year rhythms I’ve lost nine skins
though their gradual flaking isn’t so spectacular.

So she is comparing herself to the snake. This lays the basis for her final, tart, jab at those who were critical of her later, more political, writing.

You ask me to read those poems I wrote in my thirties?
They dropped off several incarnations back.

The difficulty for Judith is that you cannot easily disentangle yourself from your own life or family, nor can you stop people interpreting your work through their own current frames.

When I look at her work as a whole, I have not read all of it, I can see a gradual erosion in optimism, a darkening. You can see this simply by comparing Generations of Men (1959), Cry for the Dead (1981) and Half a Life Time (1999).

Part of this came from her growing political activisim. Her focus on the Aborigines and on environmental issues is well documented. Personally I find this later material much harder to read because I cannot disentangle my own views on issues from the writing.

I am not sure exactly when For a Pastoral Family was written, 1979 or 1980, not long before the publication of Cry for the Dead. This is message poetry, but one (as I see it) with an edge of bitterness. One part of the poem says:

Our people who gnawed at the fringe
of the edible leaf of this country
left all the margins of action, a rural security
and left to me
what serves a base for poetry,
a doubtful song that has a dying fall

The language is superb. Read it out loud several times and you will see what I mean.

I will talk about family - caught in the and left to me - in a moment. For the present, you will see what I mean by message poetry. To see a little more, go back to Neil's post and read out loud the words from To My Generation. There is a real passion there, captured in superb English.

To understand Judith, you have to understand her family. I tread cautiously here because in all families there are different views. While I knew many members of her family including her father, I did not know Judith. Her (Judith's) daughter may well have a different perception to me.

As I see it, there were two family members who had a particular influence on Judith.

The first was the matriarch, Charlotte May, who essentially built the family fortune. Judith knew about powerful women. This made her exclusion from the male line of succession doubly difficult.

The second was her father, P A Wright. Everybody called him PA, if not to his face. His sense of committment, his dedication to development and the New England cause was profound. In a comment on his post Neil wrote:

I find it fascinating that Judith Wright followed a line of thinking about such things as the environment and Aboriginal Australia before such things really became “fashionable”. You could say her poetry led her down that path.

One of the points that I have made to Neil in our on-going and enjoyable debates on Australian intellectual life is that certain concerns did not arise out of a vacuum.

In Judith's case, she had a father who (among other things) was involved in environmental issues. His concerns may not have been quite those that exist today, but he did fight to create his own national park, the New England National Park, the second(I think) in NSW. I will write this story up a little later.

PA died in 1970. At this point, Judith's exclusion from the land she loved became absolute. Then, towards the end of her life, she had to deal with the loss of the family properties.

First came the loss of Jeogla and the V1V branch (V1V was the brand) of the family. A little later came the loss of of V2V and Wallamumbi itself.

I do not want to comment on the commercial issues involved.

Richard Wright with his partner was my first ever consulting client. Both Richard (ViV) and David (V2V) Wright had a passion for good cattle and have played a major role in the development of breeds and of new objective measurement techniques. Both became involved in expansion plans that brought the empires down. Both suffered from the bastardry of the banks.

To Judith with her love of country, this was a disaster. In the words of the ABC Dynasties program talking about brother David Wright:

By December 2000, he had lost it all — his properties, his cattle and his wife to cancer. His sister, the poet Judith Wright, watched in despair and died soon after.

I suppose that I have come a fair distance from talking about Judith's poetry. But (to my mind) you cannot separate her from her family and the broader history of New England.

After thoughts

Re-reading this a little later, I do not think that I have the balance exactly right.

Judith's father died in 1970. This was the second important death in a few years, for her husband Jack McKinney had died in 1966.

I knew that Jack McKinney was older, but had forgotten by how much. He was born in 1891, only two years later than Judith's father (1889). It seems to me that Mr McKinney, her daughter along with her family and the family country formed a core in her life. So she lost her husband, then her father and finally at the end her family country.

Tracing all the influences on a life is always hard.

I used the New England National Park example to indicate that her love of the environment did not just appear, but had its roots deep in her past. I think something similar holds with her support for Aboriginal causes.

How do I explain this?

I have a problem here in that her work is so often forced into modern thought structures that can actually impede interpretation. Further, and as I suggested in the post, Judith's own interpretations shifted over time.

I think that we have to look at her writing and especially her poetry across several dimensions.

One is literary. Whether one agrees with her or not on particular issues, the power and passion of her words is tangible, a living thing. So we need to understand and study this.

But this does not make her writing valid as a historical expression. Her poem Bora Ring paints an evocative picture of a vanished race. Yet the people she spoke of were still alive, their traditions were still alive, at the time she wrote.

I cannot continue now. I have to cook tea. I will try to continue as a new post.


Browsing, I found that Ramona Koval had done an interesting interview with Judith just before her death that traces some of the effects of time on her thought.

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