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Exploring historical imaginings through works of fiction featuring Nicholas Drayson, Dr Libby Robin and Mathew Trinca
Historical Imagination Series, Friends Lounge
National Museum of Australia, Sunday, 24 June 2007
HELENA BEZZINA: Welcome to the second public conversation around historical imagination. My name is Helena and I’m a senior program officer with the National Museum of Australia. When we first started this particular project there was some questioning around the historical imagination and why would you have a public conversation around it. The first presentation was fantastic and basically the idea is to look at and consider how imagination informs and inspires the work of historians, and how historical research can and does inspire and inform the work of fiction writers.
The previous session was actually quite amusing. Frank Moorhouse was one of our guests and he mentioned how he became so involved as a fiction writer in his historical research that he actually felt he might want to write a historical text, at which point his agent said he needed to go for a holiday. It was a really witty and interesting discussion, and I’m sure it will be the same again today. So thank you for coming.
Mathew Trinca has agreed to facilitate today. He is a historian and is currently working as the general manager of the Collections and Content Division here at the National Museum of Australia. I’m going to hand over to Mat to introduce our guest speakers.
MATHEW TRINCA: Thank you all very much for coming along.
The title of this series, ‘Historical Imagination’, really suggests a dialogue between history and the imagination, a dialogue that looks to the creative possibilities of history and reminds us that the practice of history is in fact something of a conversation between past and present. It also encourages us to think beyond the conventional division between history and memory. That is, it suggests a more dynamic relationship between our subjectively described memories and recollections, and our reconstruction of the past through historical narrative.
Now that’s different I think from regarding memory simply as a source, alongside all the other historical sources such as documents and archives - the things that historians spend their lives poring over - for the writing of history. The phrase ‘Historical Imagination’ implies that the relationship between memory and history is not nearly so neatly defined. It elides any sense of difference really between them and that both are entwined and reciprocal rather than divided and instrumental.
Today we’re joined by two scholarly writers whose historical imagination I think draws on similar themes, but whose work has been realised in quite different ways. Nick Drayson is a novelist and nature writer who has also worked for the National Museum of Australia. Nick’s writing has included columns in the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Good Weekend’ magazine and The Australian Women’s Weekly. He also won the inaugural Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize in 2003.
Nick’s first novel, Confessing a Murder, was widely acclaimed and shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year. His latest novel, Love and the Platypus takes as its subject an actual historical figure, William Caldwell, the British naturalist who in the late nineteenth century famously confirmed that the platypus really did lay eggs. Nick still works as a consultant for the National Museum and most recently was advising us on acquisitions detailing the history of platypus study, research and activism.
Our other conversationalist, Dr Libby Robin, is an academic historian well-known for her work in environmental history. Since 1999 Libby’s worked at the Australian National University, and this year we’re pleased to say she has rejoined the staff at the National Museum as one of the inaugural senior research fellows at the Museum’s new Centre for Historical Research. Libby has authored and edited several books including a history of ecological consciousness in Australia, Defending the Little Desert and a history of ornithology, The Flight of the Emu. Her most recent book, How a Continent Created a Nation, explores the relationships between nature and nation in Australia. The book introduces characters such as a banded stilt and a platypus from the natural world and shows how they’ve been historical actors, agents really, rather than passive constituents of a human-centered environmental landscape.
I think Libby’s book also asks us to look again at the exceptionally unique character of Australian landscapes and see these as part of our national dreaming, our self-understanding as a nation if you like. She says that the book developed in part, I think very generously, from her work some years ago as a curator on the Tangled Destinies gallery, which was one of the foundation galleries here at the Museum. These days it’s known as the Old New Land gallery.
This is interesting because both Nick and Libby worked on that gallery together. So in some ways today this discussion is really a continuation of one that clearly has been going on for some time between them both. This afternoon both Nick and Libby will read extracts from their published work, and then each in turn will speak about their historical imagination and the way that it’s informed their practice as writers and scholars. Then after those presentations we’ll move to a more informal discussion and hopefully take some searching questions from the floor. So without further ado I’ll pass over to Nick to read an extract from his book. Libby will then follow up with the extract from hers and then both in turn will have some short remarks before we begin the conversation proper.
NICK DRAYSON: Thank you very much, Mat. As Mat said, both Libby and I are going to start out doing a little reading. It will only be about five minutes. But before doing so, I should set the scene. We’re in Queensland, the year is 1883 and William Caldwell, whom Mat mentioned, a young Scottish scientist is camped beside the river where he hopes to discover once and for all what all Australians seemed to know at the time but wasn’t really believed in Britain: that platypuses and echidnas laid eggs. So yes, we find him beside the river where he’s met up with a couple of locals, two sisters, Mary and Ettie Brown. They haven’t known each other very long so they address each other formally:
‘Have you yourself looked into a microscope, Miss Brown?’
‘I’ve seen pictures of objects under a microscope, but no, I have never looked myself.’
‘Then, what shall we show you?’ William looked around him, and around the camp site. ‘I know. Donald, fetch me an onion.’
Donald [his assistant] rummaged in the tucker box and pulled one out. William opened his pocket knife.
‘I am sure you have peeled an onion, Miss Brown, and you know that between the thicker layers are even thinner layers, as thin as tissue paper. There, I have a small piece on the blade of my knife.’
William spread the piece of onion skin onto a glass slide, added a drop of water and covered it with a small glass slip. He placed the slide onto the platform of the microscope and adjusted its various knobs.
‘Now what do you see?’
Mary Brown bent over the microscope. ‘Nothing. Oh yes. I see rows of what - pale bricks? But it is as if they are transparent, and I can see small things within each brick.’
‘What you are seeing is cells, the building blocks that make all living things, and the organula within them.’
‘I shall take your word for what you say, Mr Caldwell,’ said the woman, still peering down the microscope. ‘And how big are these cells?’
‘The ones you are looking at? Perhaps each one a hundredth of a hundredth of an inch across. So think how many there must be in the whole onion, Miss Brown.’
‘I shall think about it, though probably not for very long. But tell us, Mr Caldwell, why do you need a microscope to see a platypus?’
The question brought a smile to William’s lips. ‘I need to look at the very earliest stages of the embryo, of the baby platypus just as it begins its development, when it may consist of only a few cells not much bigger than the ones you have been looking at.’
Ettie Brown turned her face towards him, a small frown across her brow. ‘And how do you obtain these cells, Mr Caldwell?’
‘By simple dissection. If I can find enough platypus embryos at the right stage of development I will be able to make a sequence of slides showing growth and development. Then I will be able to compare this sequence to that of other mammals and so will learn much about the relationship of platypuses to them, and to other animals.’
The girl nodded.
‘You know, it may surprise you, Mr Caldwell,’ said her sister, ‘but I don’t think I have ever seen a platypus.’
‘I regret that we do not yet have one to show you, Miss Brown. As I am sure you know, they only leave their burrows at dusk. I am afraid that a burrow is all we could show you at the moment.’
‘I would like that,’ said Mary Brown. ‘Perhaps Donald could show me.’
‘An excellent idea,’ said her sister, smiling sweetly. ‘And Mr Caldwell can stay here and explain to me exactly why it is necessary that so many creatures must die so that he may see how they live.’
By the time Donald and Mary Brown returned from the river William was feeling distinctly hot and flustered. The girl had really been most annoying. How could anyone doubt the advantages of science over superstition, of knowledge over ignorance? But the way she twisted his words, the way she went off on tangents of the main question, it was almost as if she didn’t want to understand.
‘I disapprove of killing for sport, Mr Caldwell,’ had been her final words. ‘And what is your science but the sport of intellectuals?’
Mary was also showing sign of exertion from her climb back up the riverbank.
‘It was so easy to see, once Donald had shown me. He says he can tell where the possums are, too, by the scratching on trees.’
‘I am delighted, dear sister,’ said the girl. She looked at William. ‘And most envious.’ She stood. ‘But thank you so much for all your kind efforts, Mr Caldwell. And thank you especially, Donald. You have been most hospitable, and your damper is quite delicious.’
While Donald unhooked the nosebag from their horse, Mary Brown helped her sister into the gig.
‘Oh, but before we go … Mary, perhaps you could get those things from the box?’
Mary Brown took a basket from the box under the seat and handed it to William with the smallest of smiles.
‘We thought that you might like a change of diet, Mr Caldwell,’ said Ettie. ‘Goodbye.’
‘Goodbye, Miss Brown, Miss Ettie. Please, come and visit me - us - again at any time. And thank you.’
With one hand William waved the two women goodbye. With the other he held tight the basket that contained, nestling on some straw inside, 12 brown and speckled eggs.
And now I’m hoping Libby is going to tell us all about the Rottnest snipe.
LIBBY ROBIN: That’s the one. Thank you very much (reading from How a Continent Created a Nation).
Banded stilts are fairly common waterbirds, familiar to anyone who has had a holiday at Rottnest Island near Perth. They are also regulars on the South Australian coast and occasionally turn up further east. But they ‘go missing’ from time to time. Not at any regular time, but suddenly the whole large colony - thousands of birds - is up and off. Where do they go? Where do they breed?
This question intrigued the ‘oologists’, or scientific egg-collectors, of the early twentieth century. Ludwig Glauert, curator of the Western Australian Museum, lamented that ‘information concerning the birds’ “winter migration” was of the vaguest possible character’. How could such a well-known bird ‘keep its [nesting] secret so successfully’? Other similar waterbirds, some of them as small as 30 or 40 grams, travelled to Siberia, undertaking annually an arduous round trip of some 25,000 kilometres. Birds such as godwits, sandpipers, knots and the tiny red-necked stint defy the unpredictable Australian climate, and find an evolutionary advantage in breeding in short, reliable northern summers, where the long daylight of June-July triggers the breeding of mosquitoes, and the boggy tundra is largely free of major predators. The banded stilt also changes colour to breed (like each of the Siberian-breeding species), so was assumed to be part of the Siberian winter migration. But ornithologists had no hard evidence to support this. Meanwhile the numbers of banded stilts appeared to fluctuate significantly, but irregularly, not annually.
The very wet year of 1930 provided the solution to the banded stilt mystery. Mrs BE Cannon, a Western Australian wheat farmer, wrote to Glauert about a huge rookery of breeding birds near her home on the inland edge of the wheat belt. She sent a blown egg and three photographs, and asked the name of the bird. There were ‘thousands of them on a sandy spit running out into Lake Grace’, she said. A parcel of 23 unblown eggs followed. Glauert and his ornithological friend, Clee Jenkins, realised they had discovered that banded stilts bred in Australia, not Siberia.
Before 1930 was out, the idea that banded stilts bred in ‘winter’ was also challenged by finds at Lake Callabonna, in South Australia’s north-east. Neil McGilp and Matt Morgan, long-time birdwatchers from South Australia, heard reports from Mr R McKay, manager of Moolawatana Station, of a rookery of nesting birds on an island in the lake. On 11 January 1931 they followed his rather tedious directions and waded out ‘three-quarters of a mile’ through ‘two feet of water and six inches of mud’. To their amazement and delight, their efforts were rewarded with ‘a densely packed mass of banded stilts’; about 54,000 of them that took to the air ‘with a whirr of wings, raising quite a dust as they did so, and revealing thousands of eggs on the bare ground’. There was no protection from the merciless heat (recorded at 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade) or the hot wind, the only vegetation being ‘a few samphire bushes’. McGilp and Morgan commented: ‘It seems somewhat extraordinary that the second discovery should have so soon followed the first, after the nesting of these birds remained a mystery for so many years.’ The shock of finding not just a colony of banded stilts, but a breeding event at the height of the hot southern summer, defied all expectations.
The banded stilt is the only waterbird to depend almost entirely on the harshest parts of the Australian arid zone for its breeding habitat. The availability of its very specific food, brine shrimp, dictates where and when it will breed. The tiny shrimps flourish only sporadically in ephemeral salt lakes. The stilts’ downy young walk across the country as ephemeral lakes dry up and become too saline. Stilts do not breed at all for several years, then a wet year will bring on an explosion of nesting. The cycles of the sun are meaningless for this bird; its breeding season is simply ‘after rain’ - immediately after, when the brine shrimp population irrupts. The birds move quickly to follow rain in inland Australia, even if the sky is clear blue at Rottnest.
Banded stilts’ nests were hard to find by experienced ‘oologists’, not because they were secret, but because the egg-collectors expected them to be elsewhere. The idea that nesting is not annual, not seasonal and not affected by day length defied all standard assumptions. Banded stilts can teach Australians much about living with boom-and-bust ecologies: how to take opportunities as they arise, but never to expect regularity.
The banded stilt’s world challenges all fiscal models built around yearly cycles. The global economy is annual, implicitly catering for seasonal agriculture and industry. The world’s fiscal cycles follow the seasons. It is easier to make an international treaty that protects migratory birds on regular seasonal flights along international ‘flyways’ than to manage lands within a single nation for unpredictable, non-annual seasons. The banded stilt’s eye view casts light on some of the problems of finding a place for Australia in a global world. It offers a parable from the Australian interior.
MATHEW TRINCA: Two very captivating excerpts from those books that I think will give you a strong sense of the flavour of both the works. Nick, perhaps you’d like to make some remarks about historical imagination in your work?
NICK DRAYSON: Absolutely. First, Libby, this is a wonderful book she’s written and, as far as I remember, that little piece that you read out was titled, ‘Thinking like a banded stilt’, which was a reference to a phrase used by the American early conservationist, Leopold Aldo, who encouraged Americans to think like a mountain, not to think like a human being on a mountain, but to think about what the land is thinking and feeling. I thought that was just a beautiful analogy. That was a fascinating bird, the banded stilt, or as I said earlier what used to be known as the Rottnest snipe. People used to shoot them and eat them. I was thinking earlier today, prompted by a person who is in the middle of writing her thesis and she was asking me, as somebody who’s already been through the process, ‘Is it worth it?’ Sometimes you just feel like giving up and getting a regular job instead of going through this self-inflicted torture, and I hope I made encouraging noises. As Mat said, my writing is both what we might call factual about natural history and perhaps we’ll talk later about the difference between history and natural history and perhaps there are connections too. But for me it was an absolute liberation when I’d finished my thesis to start writing a novel - ‘Hurray! I can make it all up’. (laughter)
Although I don’t find the process of writing particularly easy, there’s still a part of me while I’m writing a novel saying, ‘Hurray! I can make it all up.’ However, I seem to have used history and historical events to provide the background for this novel Love and the Platypus and my previous one, Confessing a Murder, but the kind of history that I’m looking for is a history with lots of gaps in it. I can remember when Libby and I were working together here at the National Museum about six or seven years ago, just before the Museum opened, and we were developing the exhibits and thinking about what we wanted to say about the environmental history of Australia. One of my jobs was to develop a little exhibition on the platypus. It’s an absolutely fascinating animal. I could go on for hours about its biology, the history of its discovery and the discovery of all its wonderful characteristics. But there are certain people involved in the story too, one of whom has become the protagonist of this novel, William Caldwell. I tried to find out about him. What we know is that William Caldwell was born in Scotland and that he went to Cambridge University and did very well there. He was studying embryology, which was the great fashionable science of the time. It was thought that, if you could study the embryos of animals, you would often see similarities between the embryos of very dissimilar animals. For instance, you may have seen pictures of very early human embryos or other mammals which have a little tail. This was thought to give a clue to their relationships. This shows that the history of the evolutionary history of mammals goes back to the amphibians.
This was William Caldwell’s job when he came over here. We know he camped by the Burnett River in Queensland. We know a little about what happened there and we know that he wrote one paper of his results. He discovered that yes, platypuses did, as everybody in Australia said they did, lay eggs. He discovered what those eggs looked like and what the early embryo looked like. It resembled more the development of a reptile than other mammals. He sent off a telegram announcing his discovery to the scientific world: ‘monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic’, which means more or less what I just said. He wrote a paper about it which was published by the Royal Society after he got back to Britain called ‘The developmental biology of the marsupialia and monotremata part one’. He also studied kangaroo developments as well as monotreme.
And then he vanished; he never wrote part two. I tried to find out about him. There were little snatches, there is a little bit in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. I found his obituary in Nature; he died 1941. I tried to find a photograph of him and couldn’t find one anywhere. What a wonderful subject for a novel; nothing known about him, I can fill it all in. A very different reaction from a historian who I’m afraid isn’t allowed to do that. To me both history and fiction at their best are telling stories. We’re telling them in different ways. The story that I’ve been telling in Love and the Platypus is a story of the early colonial history of Australia, something about the history of science both in Australia and its relationship with science in Europe, and it’s also a romance. Very few historians get to write romances. So in a way being a novelist is the same as being a historian, but it’s a lot more fun. However, Libby, you might have something to say about that.
LIBBY ROBIN: I think it’s quite fun doing things the other way. But I think your work, Nick, is a wonderful example not just of the historical imagination but of imaginative natural history writing. Just as the characters of a novel need to be fully imagined, so too does the environment. William Caldwell’s observations not just of platypuses but also of chufs, wasps and brush turkey mounds create a living and breathing world full of other non-human characters. It’s these that make the novel both unusual and rich and recreate a full life for William in the absence of historical facts. He’s on an international scientific front here and in the local university of the back blocks of Queensland, if you like. Nick’s museum curator’s eye is also apparent in the descriptions of the bully beef tin and the lovingly detailed billiard table. Such details are not gratuitous; they’re actually integral to the plot. A reader concerned just with the mysteries of the main story needs to take close attention to both the social and natural details, as tucked neatly within such passages of delightful prose are often clues that unravel the plot’s twists and turns.
I also use natural history in my history writing, sometimes as parables like the banded stilt one that I read earlier, but more generally as a way to fully imagine the world that my historical characters are grappling with. The natural world is and must be a historically accurate character in my narrative, not merely a background against which the events of human history are played out. This is indeed part of my argument, so natural history is fundamentally a character in my history writing.
My interest is in exploring the dynamics and evolution of environmental ideas in Australia. I guess my central concern has been the frequent inattention to natural history in the understanding of Australian history, and the mismatch between the imagination of identity and the reality of the Australian environment. The banded stilt story introduces the tone of attention to natural history that creates the book and also gives me the narrative way to introduce the rather abstract idea of a mismatch between nature and nation. I’m just going to follow on the section that I was talking about with banded stilt and show you how I use it.
How a Continent Created a Nation traces other exceptions to patterns generated by Old World expectations that force us to consider nature and culture together in this land, as Aboriginal Australians have done for a very long time. Historians in Australia cannot afford to treat the environment as a stable backdrop against which the momentous affairs of state are played out. The idea that there might be some connection between how the Australian nation sees itself in the world and how it treats its nature has haunted me for some years. The role of government science as an authority on natural resources for Australia as well as for other nations has a long history.
In this book, I turn this around to explore how the responses of the natural world shape scientific thinking, making it at times distinctively local. Scientific ideas about nature have become cultural in this exceptional land. The relations between the old nature and the new nation are tense, at times even violent. Cultural histories of natural identity seldom allow the land a role as a partner in constructing the nation, yet the partnership between cultural identity and natural possibilities must underpin the search for sustainability and for finding new and peaceful ways to dwell within the limits of this land.
Farmers, Aboriginal people and scientists all grapple with the natural world in different ways but they’re all keen observers of life around them and there’s no doubt that the life that they are observing at different times has been greatly altered by Australia’s history. So the book takes slices across society, considering nature in the school curriculum; the great and famous wool economy, which of course we share with New Zealand but seldom talk about; and the ideas of strange nature that brought William Caldwell and other international scientists to Australia from the colonial period.
Most of the book is concerned with the period since Federation. I’m seeking a serious reflection on the ‘continental’ in our nationhood since 1901. Edmund Barton, Australia’s first prime minister, famously declared, ‘For the first time in history we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation’, and his idea of a distinctive Australian nation has been the focus of much history writing. For example, Russell Ward’s history of Australia from 1901 to 1975 is called A Nation for a Continent, but he and most others have looked at the nation and the nation’s society rather than the continent, its environment, as the creative force behind the authentic Australian.
The history of science in this country has been sparse and seldom carried on in places where identity studies are running in parallel. This Museum is one of the very few places that has taken land and people together in the context of what it means to be Australian. While I was working here in the 1990s I puzzled as to why certain collections had become national when others clearly national in purpose had never made it. Sir Colin MacKenzie’s embryological and anatomical collections ended up in the National Historical Collection. There are specimens showing a platypus nestling at 14 days, four days and 14 weeks. The horror of the number of platypuses taken in order to show one at four days, four weeks and so on is something that’s informed both Nick’s work and mine. I think the piece that he read out really questions that in a beautiful way. It’s one of those things; we’ve got this collection with all these amazing platypuses, but how did we get it? Why have we got it? And why is it a national story? Anyway, getting this collection was a fluke of history. It was only accidentally part of a history museum, yet these objects provided the backbone for the platypus stories that inspired Nick and me in different ways to consider Australian nature in the European imagination.
My work as a curator on the land and people team for the Museum in the late 1990s also forced me to reconsider the research I’d been doing in the history of Australia and to see some of the ways that science in this country has taken a distinctively Australian turn. Science drives, of course, for universal truth but this doesn’t mean that all things are true everywhere. Science has a cultural context just like any other intellectual or imaginative endeavour, and in Australia it’s overwhelmingly been driven by national imperatives. Indeed, Australian science is still required to be immediately useful, as ongoing criticisms of university and CSIRO spending show.
In my book I follow this national trajectory that’s driven the sciences’ natural curiosity to some far-flung places, particularly the Centre and the north, where scientific research has often justified both exploration and development. A Swedish historian of science, Sverker Sörlin writes about what he calls the internal colonisation of Sweden’s icy north by the scientific elite of the south; that is, colonisation by people who are of the same nation. He calls it ‘internal colonisation’. I consider some of the same phenomenon in our tropical north. Although my book is about history, just as it was going to press, Senator Bill Heffernan re-enacted the same thinking, making my book more topical than I could have anticipated. ‘Let’s just move north,’ he suggests, ‘as a solution to the ongoing serious water shortages of farmers in Southern Australia. After all, 65 per cent of Australia’s run off falls on north Australia compared with just 6.1 per cent on the Murray Darling Basin where we have over 70 per cent of our current irrigation.’
If you look at averages, it seems a logical idea. If you look at history, however, it seems more complicated. The idea of developing the empty north has a very long history. In the climate of post-war reconstruction ‘Nugget’ Coombs declared northern Australia as one of the largest under-developed areas of the world. Coombs was appointed to develop northern Australia because his Prime Minister, John Curtin, was anxious about the future security of Australia.
A CSIRO team led by agronomist CS Christian in 1946 undertook a comprehensive scientific survey of the major regions of northern Australia, surveying country from Darwin, south to Katherine and east to the Arnhem escarpment. In his view, ‘only a quarter of this area held out a good prospect for dry land agriculture. The rest was unsuitable because of rugged escarpments and saline tidal swamps.’ Indeed out of all Australia’s vast tropical north, only the Daly River basin in the Northern Territory seemed both politically and environmentally feasible for a major agricultural scheme.
Thus, this is exactly where Bill Heffernan is looking again six decades later in 2007. This imposition of ideas from the south has a long history of being unpopular with the locals and, unsuccessful in the long term without their support. My chapter on the empty north traces a failed cattle and sugar initiative in the 1880s, a failed Jesuit mission in the 1890s, a failed government experimental farm in 1913, failed peanut-growing experiments in the 1920s and the 1950s, and continuing initiatives with low success for the rest of the century.
There is much in the recent hydrological discoveries about the Daly River, which is fed all year round by ground water unlike most Northern Territory rivers, to show how specific local knowledge is really important and how fragile and vulnerable the Daly River basin environments really are. Everything in this history suggests that grand ideas from elsewhere don’t work there. The idea that people who have made major blunders elsewhere in Australia should come and impose grand national scheme on the Daly is seriously unpopular, and for good reasons. In 2007, there is a local mantra ‘We don’t want another Murray’.
I guess what I’m saying is that following the historical imagination and tempering it with stories of natural history from museums and elsewhere can be unexpectedly relevant to public debate. Concerns about the present and future of this country are tied closely to how we understand ourselves in the world. Since I write non-fiction I can read my last paragraph from my book How a Continent Created a Nation without spoiling the plot too much. It seems a good place for me to finish:
National identity is something rather more important than what domestic politicians tout as nationalism at the parish pump. No nation is an island in the global world any more. Even an island-continent is a part of the main, which is the whole blue Earth. Just because Australians are better than most nationals at drawing the outline of their own island-continent, this does not mean they understand how Australia fits on a world map. Most could not draw the outlines of many of the Asian nations that are geographically our nearest neighbours. Even closer to home, the knowledge of the arid zone, the north and the south-western corner of the continent, all globally exceptional environments, is poor in the big cities of the eastern seaboard where most Australians live. Drawing the coast does not indicate an understanding of the country, or how rain falls on it. There is still little public understanding of many environments within Australia and how they are different from each other and the rest of the world. Australia’s independent ‘national’ voice in the global world depends more than ever on deep, locally-grounded understandings of its variable and uncertain environments.
MATHEW TRINCA: Thank you both for taking us inside some of the thinking and the ideas that have underwritten both books. I would like to just pick up on that a little bit further before I think we get to some very interesting questions about nation and nature, common to both your works. But I’m fascinated to know when we’re thinking about the historical imagination, if you can both reflect on the moment when you decided to write these books and what that was? Very frequently these are not just single moments but can both of you think of a provocation, of something that spurred you to write the particular books that in a sense you have outlined imaginatively in your presentations today?
NICK DRAYSON: Well for me, Mat, as I was saying earlier, it was the realisation about how little was known about this particular man. But, on the other hand, I do have a grounding in research on nineteenth century Australia so I felt that here was a story that could be well located. It’s not just a romance, it’s a meditation on the way science works to some extent and it’s also, I hope, a meditation on the Australian landscape. Many of you will have spotted that I wasn’t born in Australia. I’m always fascinated to read accounts of visitors to Australia coming here, like myself, and their reactions to the country which is very much part of the whole history that Libby is talking about; of Europeans coming here and in some ways trying to impose their own perceptions of landscape on a very different land. So for me that was a great opportunity.
One of the things that Helena mentioned earlier when she was talking about the last historical imagination session that we had here at the Museum was how Frank Moorhouse was talking about doing historical research for his forthcoming novel and how he was so interested in the research he thought, ‘Well maybe I should be writing history’. I have never been tempted myself but I thought that was a very interesting point. I expect many of you have heard it said that there are two ways to write fiction: you can either do a lot of research and then come up with the story; or you can do the reverse, you can write the story, unconstrained by research, unconstrained by the facts, and then do the research afterwards to add a bit of verisimilitude or whatever you need to do. My first degree was in the philosophy of science and then I studied science for many years. So I’ve always grown up with this idea of assembling the facts with a theoretically blank mind and then making a theory to explain the facts. And I suppose, and I don’t know whether this is true Libby, is that how historians ideally work?
LIBBY ROBIN: I don’t think I work ideally (laughter). I think the idea of a single moment works better with a plot, than with the book that wrote itself for me. I was half way through it before I knew I was writing a book, then I realised I had a few problems that I needed to sort, and then gradually I was sorting the problems. The final order of the book kept shifting until the very end, which you could never do in fiction. So I guess that’s where the historical imagination has freedoms.
If you take slices across Australian history, you can slice them many ways. How you organise the book depends on the overarching theme and you don’t really know that until you’re finished; that was the way I worked. There are some much better historians here who I’m sure could do history much better than I did, but this is the way this book was written so I might as well be honest. It was more a series of problems. My life in the Museum threw up all sorts of questions that I wouldn’t have thought about if I’d just been trained in the history of science. But I also took my history of science to another department and I’ve been working for the last seven years as the one historian in a department that is largely made up of scientists at what is now called the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. I have had to explain what history is more often in the last seven years than I expected that I would ever be asked here. I’m constantly aware of what history can and can’t do and am generally trying to explain that I’m a historian and not a prophet. That’s the line I have to hold most of the time, because scientists are very interested in projecting to the future, talking about the future, and the idea of going back to the past is not something that’s natural for them.
Part of this book has been, I guess, a conversation with my two work places where, in the Museum, Nick and I were some of the few who were particularly interested in science and natural history in a much more social history museum; and in my other job I have to explain what history is. They are very different work places, but it seemed that there was a common element, which was that this understanding of the Australian environment and how it related to our national image was a problem in both places.
MATHEW TRINCA: One of the great pleasures about writing is that you frequently set out with some sort of intent but the destination that we arrive at is very different or has taken you somewhere else. I’m interested, Nick, in hearing you talk about the two ways to write novels because in a sense you’re touching on that. Notwithstanding the fact that one does that research and then moves forward to actually write the novel, did you find at the conclusion of the work that what you’ve realised is something other than where you thought you might have been heading at any given time?
NICK DRAYSON: That’s a very interesting question, Mat, and one I’ve pondered on myself. My experience of writing fiction may not be the same as other people’s. When I start a book I really don’t know where it’s going. I had a wonderful moment with this particular book, Love and the Platypus. I had William Caldwell as far as Bundaberg on his way up to the upper Burnett River. He was in a hotel and a bushranger walked in. ‘Where did he come from?’ I thought to myself, but he became one of the important characters of the plot. I don’t think historians are allowed to do that.
MATHEW TRINCA: I’m interested to hear whether you’ve surprised yourself in this book and in what way?
LIBBY ROBIN: Absolutely. I think the idea that if you don’t learn anything by writing it, why would you do it? It’s not that you necessarily have to have a bushranger walk in, but sometimes you can put two things that are historically correct together and no-one’s put them together before - or I’m not aware that they’ve put them together before - and they seem to sing differently or something. There’s something that works between them. History writing I think is all about synthesis, putting things together, not pulling things apart. So in that way I guess it’s not unlike writing a novel.
NICK DRAYSON: Again, what about the connection there between history and science? You’re both in a way working with facts, but how many scientists would say that they bring imagination to their work? There would be some, but many wouldn’t. What’s your experience of working with all these scientists as a historian?
LIBBY ROBIN: If they’re going to be a good scientist, they’re bringing imagination to their work even if they’re not admitting they are; that’s my view. But I think there is a difference between breaking things down into smaller parts in order to understand those parts better, which is often a scientific and more of an analytical method, and putting things together again to make a good story, which is more the historical method and certainly the method of novels. But the idea that you know where you’re heading in the first place, I think that’s a myth of science. I think the scientists have to say that in order to get their grants but they don’t know what they’re going to find out. I’m not talking here about the people who perhaps model the world but people who actually do empirical studies of the world.
NICK DRAYSON: Yes, speaking of applying for grants, I’ve just applied for a literary grant. Interestingly enough, they ask you, ‘What do you expect the result of your work to be?’
LIBBY ROBIN: So you have to be imaginative.
NICK DRAYSON: Exactly. If I were to say, ‘Well what I really want to do is just be paid to sit down and I don’t know what’s going to happen’, I probably won’t get the money.
LIBBY ROBIN: You won’t get the money, no. And that’s what the scientists have worked out too. So they set out a method, as you know well because you’ve got a science degree. But I sometimes think the moment of creativity is when you are surprised, not when you prove the null hypothesis to be true or false but when a hypothesis steps in of its own accord and takes you over. That’s the exciting thing about writing.
MATHEW TRINCA: It’s interesting that in a sense we’ve, structurally in both history and in literature, erected such an artifice and a form around it in terms of having to apply for grants and having to, in a sense, know what you’re doing before you’re doing it. I wonder whether that suppresses opportunity for that kind of creative endeavour?
LIBBY ROBIN: Is accountability going to kill creativity? It could do.
MATHEW TRINCA: If you talk to the accountants I’m sure they’d argue the opposite that what you’re getting is much more deliberate and intent creativity. But it’s interesting to wonder at how you can create opportunities for people to do exactly what you’re saying; that is, to spend some time thinking and wondering about the next piece of work that is to come.
Are there questions in the audience on this or anything else that we’ve been talking about today?
QUESTION: I’m interested in the limits of the imagination. If the imagination is a form of empathy, a way of entering into a character or world that you haven’t sort of experienced, what happens when you’re trying to deal with material that is anti-pathetic to your own understandings and practices? You’ve mentioned the scientific kind of approach to collection, and that’s come up in both of Nick’s novels as a site of exploration and also the way people deal with the environment with a huge array of different approaches. How do you get away from just setting yourself up in opposition to aspects of the world that you don’t find easy and entering into them and in that way presumably gaining understanding of them in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise?
MATHEW TRINCA: How do you inhabit that which you dislike in a way?
NICK DRAYSON: I had an instance of that myself. We were talking earlier about the historical William Caldwell. In the paper that he wrote about his research, he details exactly how many specimens he obtained; ie how many animals he killed. He killed about 1300 echidnas and about 500 platypuses. Now to me that’s carnage. This was over a few months. I had the dilemma of ‘well, I think that wouldn’t be acceptable today and most readers of a modern novel would find that very off-putting’. I didn’t exactly lie but I played that down. I didn’t detail in the novel how many specimens were sacrificed, again to use the jargon, in the pursuit of science. Although from the little extract I read, I do bring up the question of how science is conducted. I’ve had that experience myself. What about you, Libby?
LIBBY ROBIN: There are two parts to this question: the question of how do you imagine that which you’re uncomfortable with, and also how far can you impress your imagination in order to tell a story fairly or to understand it better? I guess the limits of the imagination are being clear about what you don’t know but you might not want to necessarily say, ‘but no one knows this’. Nick is right, this Caldwell is a spectacularly unknown character in the history of Australian science. He turns up in my book, too, but I do mention the word ‘carnage’ with him. There is a tension between who you don’t mention because we don’t know much about, and the silences are sometimes important to bring up. So I guess the imagination has to be: is this an important silence for the historical story you want to tell or is this something that is better left right out in order to keep the narrative flowing? I guess it’s a matter of judgement. I haven’t got a very concrete example.
MATHEW TRINCA: I wonder if sometimes the antipathy that you’re feeling for that condition is precisely why you search then to study and explore that space, and it’s the close study of that that somehow resolves a way for you to come to some understanding of it? Perhaps ‘empathy’ is not quite the right word but to come and understand in a way that you might not have otherwise. It’s a provocation to the study in a way.
LIBBY ROBIN: Yes, it’s not an either/or; it’s a third way.
MATHEW TRINCA: You’ve both talked about your Museum experience and the way it’s had an effect on your work but I’m interested in hearing you talk about the material world and how that’s coloured your work? It struck me when we were talking about this collision of history and memory, this is the great thing about objects - it is certainly an argument that a curator would make - that they look both ways to history and memory. I think in both your works the material world is so strongly figured, for obvious reasons, Libby, and clearly as a very much a condition of your work, Nick. Do you think about it in certain ways; do you think about the texture or the grit of that?
NICK DRAYSON: I don’t think texture and grit is what I’m thinking about, Mat, but I am certainly thinking about stories. There is a platypus collected in the early part of the twentieth century by Harry Burrell, who wrote a wonderful book on platypuses and to me that pickled specimen has so many stories to tell. I found it very interesting working in the Museum how one object can be used to tell so many different stories. I think the role of the Museum is to choose which stories to tell because of perhaps its personal taste. I’m a bit of an old-fashioned kind of museum person. I remember when I first arrived at the National Museum and Dawn Casey was explaining how this was a new kind of museum. It was a museum more of social history; it wasn’t one of those old-fashioned museums full of stuffed animals. I immediately bridled and thought, ‘What’s wrong with stuffed animals?’ I’m glad to say that in our gallery we did manage to sneak a few stuffed animals in.
I remember at the time going to see the new Museum of Sydney, which many of you will have visited and which is again a new style of museum in that there’s very little interpretation. It’s full of objects, but you’re almost left to hear the stories from the objects themselves. Now I think that’s cheating, because in fact we’re choosing which objects to put on display so we’re equally able to choose which stories to tell about these objects. But we have to say that each object can tell many stories.
So this platypus will tell us the story of platypus biology. It will tell us the story of Harry Burrell, the vaudeville comedian turned self-taught naturalist. It will tell us the story of Colin MacKenzie who assembled this collection of biological material. It will tell us the whole story of the National Museum. It will tell us the story of science in Australia - many, many stories. Do you get that same feeling, Libby?
LIBBY ROBIN: Yes, I think you do, but it does depend on having the real object. There are people in this room who have actually taken the Museum of Sydney to task because there’s a little confusion between what’s real and what’s not real. The idea of a prop or something that helps tell a story is all very well if there is a story, but it’s much less good if there’s no story. So there is a problem there. There’s quite a thrill about the real specimens in jars, the fact that the fluid is going from them and we have to do things about looking after them. There are a lot of different stories.
MATHEW TRINCA: There are a lot of practical concerns the minute you’re talking about objects.
QUESTION: Just to pick up on that point, I find it disappointing that in the Museum here we don’t have an authentic skeleton of a diprotodon on display but some kind of synthetic assemblage of material that purports to be a model of a diprotodon. There’s also a little model of Sturt’s boat down there.
LIBBY ROBIN: I was just going to say there’s a historical reason for the diprotodon being as it is. At the time when we were imagining that exhibition there was a real skeleton but the legs were missing. We never did find those legs so we couldn’t put part of the skeleton in without the rest. The conservators were concerned that what was left of it was too frail to put on display. The display had been imagined with the real object and then had to be fixed with a later one, so there was an historical reason for the way it did turn out.
QUESTION: Well many people would be interested to know that the diprotodon was in fact legless.
LIBBY ROBIN: We tried really hard to make other people legless too, because there was a bottle of wine on offer for anybody who could find it.
QUESTION: But that’s an important point.
LIBBY ROBIN: In fact it wasn’t the bones, it was a cast that was made at the time of the Lake Callabonna finding. So it was an 1899 cast that had been made, and this is a cast of the cast. The story was actually about the cast because it was to do with the discovery of that, not to do with the diprotodon itself.
QUESTION: So in all of that we lose sight of our diprotodon.
LIBBY ROBIN: All of that’s hard to say in 30 words.
QUESTION: There is a point I want to make briefly in passing: I wanted to lament the changes that have taken place in the Australian Museum in Sydney and the recent almost elimination of scientific research from that museum. I think that’s a tremendous tragedy.
LIBBY ROBIN: Indeed.
QUESTION: With your work, to what extent is your imagination either constrained or stimulated by a study of the context of the times in which these things happened? In a little bit of research I’ve been doing, I’ve been trying to trace the tour of a musician in 1877 in Australia and I keep being distracted. I let my eyes wander to something else in the newspaper and see the context within which this man was working, which added in my imagination tremendously to how he was reacting to the times but of course it may or may not have been true. Did you use that sort of technique yourself to build up the context?
NICK DRAYSON: That’s one of the perils of research isn’t it? You can just get so carried away and it’s why I think we all love doing research. It’s much easier to do the research than actually write anything, much more fun. I was talking earlier about the different approaches to writing fiction, whether you do the research first or you do the research afterwards. My own way of doing it is to do the research afterwards. In fact, this story is set by the Burnett River up at Gayndah. I’d never been there when I wrote this story, and it didn’t bother me at all that I’d never been there. I didn’t feel the need to go there. I’m very happy to be able to just imagine things as they are or as I think they will be.
Later on after I’d finished writing this book but before it was published, I did go to Gayndah and found it was very much as I’d imagined, which was a great relief. Though these days there’s a dam just above the town which supplies water for irrigating citrus orchards and the river is a tiny trickle. I don’t suppose there are many platypuses in the Burnett River downstream of Gayndah these days.
Just another little story as an aside: I was driving from a little town called Gin Gin, which appears in the novel, to Gayndah and saw a branch off to the old Gayndah Road and it was a gravel road. So I turned down it. I was going along the road, which was very narrow and mostly through bush. A ute came along the other direction and said, ‘pull off, pull off, there’s a big logging truck coming along,’ and the woman who leant out of the window to tell me to pull off the road was absolutely Mary Brown. So there must be something cosmic going on there.
QUESTION: Could Libby say a few words about writing about the gaps in history without making it up?
LIBBY ROBIN: You have to say that there’s something missing, so you have to have a sense of A and C to recognise that B might be missing, and you can certainly research A and C, if you see what I mean. But the idea that this trajectory needs talking about; you have to have a reason to articulate that there is a gap or a silence. A tremendous effort has been made to look again at the silences around Aboriginal history in Australian history. There is tremendous political reason to do it in the present, as well as ethical and other reasons. Often it’s the political impetus of the present that does drive you back to look for silences in history. You’ve had a story about your family and it’s got all the blokes in it but none of the women. That’s one of the classic ways people come to history and silences, I guess. So writing about the things that are missing usually takes a particular reason in the present. After all, history is a conversation between the reader in the present and the fragments of the past that remain, and the historian’s job is to make the conversation work.
NICK DRAYSON: That brings up a very good point about fashions in history and fashions in fiction. At the moment, as Libby is saying, a lot of people are looking for the absences of the Aboriginal voice in the history of Australia. How many Australian novelists are doing exactly the same thing? In Caldwell’s writing he mentions that he used the local Aboriginal people as collectors. All zoologists used to do this: they’d go and pay the local people to bring them the specimens. As far as I know, Caldwell hardly mentions the people and doesn’t give them names. He just says, ‘I used so many local Aboriginals’. I don’t think he mentions the tribe they came from or anything. A later German researcher who went to the same area met one of the people who had helped Caldwell and does name him but gives him his European name. In my novel I’ve been able to name people, imaginatively, and bring out some of the silences that you do find in the historical record.
LIBBY ROBIN: Absolutely.
MATHEW TRINCA: There’s also a fashion for counter history as well, the ‘what ifs’ of history and people exploring those, some time ago, probably less so now. Libby, what do you think of the idea of exploring historical absence?
LIBBY ROBIN: What if something had been otherwise?
MATHEW TRINCA: Yes, that’s right.
LIBBY ROBIN: I think it’s a very powerful technique. I think it’s a way to tackle the silences obviously and the sorts of questions that the ‘what ifs’ come from often come out of present political imperatives, so there is that tremendous value in it. I don’t know, I’m going to be interested to see. There is a ‘what ifs’ book about American history that’s been out for a while and there’s a new ‘what ifs’ book about Australia that’s been out for a couple of years. I’m not sure how they’re going to go in secondary schools. Are people going to think history actually happened like this? There’s a fair bit of - well, historical imagination I guess you’d call it. If you go for a little Google on the web, you can find out all sorts of things about history that you didn’t know happened, and sometimes you have to be a little careful about what the sources are. They’re often secondary school essays.
NICK DRAYSON: It’s like talking, as I did earlier, about fashions in history and in literature. If we look back at some earlier accounts of the history of Australia, we might think they’re closer to fiction than what we’d call history today.
MATHEW TRINCA: Of course, this question is something that’s a great argument in Australia in the last five or ten years. It seems to me that part of the basis of what some have called imprecisely ‘the history wars’ has been a battle about historical truth so described, and a sense of responsibility to the past as well. How does one deploy imagination responsibly, or should we even worry about that? In literature, is it enough simply to be imagining and in a sense the responsibility should be lost?
NICK DRAYSON: Yes, I believe that, Mat, and I’m happy to argue that. I know that this can engender some heat but I’m of the opinion that a novelist can write what the hell he or she wants to. But definitely it would be different for a historian.
LIBBY ROBIN: Yes, and also perhaps one step more difficult for a scientist. It’s a very interesting problem. What you’re imagining and what you’re leaving out is a question for any field of endeavour, and in every field of endeavour it is informed to some extent by national imperatives, your funding or whatever. You see wonderful cases in science of things happening that no-one expected because the grant had to be written in this particular way. I think the whole idea of desert science in Australia, which I write about in my book, is a really good example of this where the Australian desert is different from deserts elsewhere. So it doesn’t fit strictly into international desert science; it doesn’t fit into Australian history. Yet what’s the iconic thing about Australia for the rest of the world? Its deserts. So the science is trying to do the national work but it doesn’t actually acknowledge that that imaginative leap has been made.
QUESTION: I was just thinking about the idea of imagination. When you’re writing from a historical perspective and a novel historical perspective, I imagine there must be some imagination in terms of how you interpret, and that can open up the imaginative side to historical thinking?
LIBBY ROBIN: Absolutely. I think the creativity is not necessarily in making up things; the creativity is in selecting things, in leaving things out. It’s the same whether you’re doing a museum display, you’re writing a book or you’re writing a novel; you have to edit in a sense. There’s an infinite possibility of things that could be there; it’s what you leave out that makes the story. It wouldn’t otherwise have a shape, and that’s the creativity.
NICK DRAYSON: Yes, because history is not just a collection of facts, it is a narrative. Some of you may disagree and Libby may disagree, but to me I think we’re all telling stories and it’s a sort of natural way of communicating whether it’s history or romance. People have to read the books, so we have to do our best to make the writing attractive. Scientists very often use a formula to avoid that problem so that they will have a little introduction, discussion of methods, presentation of results and any conclusion that may be drawn. In a way they’re trying to dampen down any creative interpretation that their work might entail. I don’t think it works. I love it when I read a good scientific paper that is well written.
MATHEW TRINCA: It’s a sense of language that is important it seems to me in both practices, if we’re going to describe them that way.
LIBBY ROBIN: The scientists I work with often think of history as documents. They’ll say ‘I did some history’, meaning they found a piece of paper which had on it data points from 1878. I keep saying to them, ‘That’s not history, that’s a primary source for history. It’s not something that tells the story. You have to tell a story about this; you have to show why anybody would be interested in the rain gauge on that day in 1878.’ That is the sort of piece of paper they come in triumphantly and say, ‘I have some history,’ and then they put those dates often into a model and project to 2025 out of it, without understanding the context for how the rain was collected, whether there was somebody going past filling the rain gauge up outside the pub; those sorts of things get forgotten. A real history has to take its context into account.
MATHEW TRINCA: That’s what makes that wonderful dialogue between past and present, I suppose; it constitutes history in a sense or historical dialogue. Thank you everybody for what has been an absorbing discussion. I’ve certainly enjoyed it. It shows that imagination is intrinsic to the business of filling in gaps and also to the business of making connections; clearly in the case of making connections between nature and nation in the way that we have heard Libby talk about today. Thank you to our two conversationalists, Nick Drayson and Libby Robin.
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Date published: 10 January 2008