The Lyrebird project takes its name and inspiration from what Paul Carter (in The Road to Botany Bay) describes as ‘one of the most remarkable compilations of settler records’ (1987: 151). The Land of the Lyrebird. This text is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it brings to life in vivid detail a place which no longer exists. More than that, it outlines in vivid and remarkable detail the process by which the destruction – or rather transformation – of (this) place is enacted. And even more than that, it covertly and sometimes overtly forms a nuanced critique of this process of amnesia. Curiously, even though the narrative has something of the grandeur of the sort of frontier mythology which forms such a prominent role in the North American sense of nation building, it somehow manages to narrate its own erasure.
The book is composed of a large number of ‘recollections and experiences’ of the first settlers, as well as more specialised essays on – for example – roads, the dairy industry and aspects of the extinct or barely extant natural history of the area, also written by the settlers. Part of the sense of erasure comes from the impetus of the book itself, that the the process of making was an attempt to preserve not the place, but its memory; that the text becomes a kind of last-ditch captive breeding program of memory. There is little doubt that this impetus has merit, but it also has resonance with the more insidious attitude at the time to the ‘dying race’ of the first Australians.
‘The time’ here is the early 1920s, some forty years after the events described in the book. The fact that this land was settled so late, late 1860s to 1880s – given how close we are to the economic powerhouse that was Melbourne in the second half of the century – gives some indication of how difficult the area was. As Carter points out, the project was delayed by the Great War. It’s hard not to wonder how the war affected the text, or perhaps at least how it was read, and indeed how we might read it. There are resonances to the images not of Gallipoli but of the Western Front, of struggle and almost inconceivable privation, and mud…
Another part of this sense of erasure is a certain defensiveness of tone. This from W.H.C. Holmes: ‘The quarter of a century forming the transition stage from primeval forest to farm homesteads has in other lands, such as Canada, produced writers in prose and verse…’ (1920: 173). There is a sense throughout that not only will the forest itself vanish, but so too will the memory of it. There is a sense that the retelling should matter but doesn’t, that the story is a great one rendered all but invisible by the culture’s apathy to such things. Indeed they might be right, that in our myth-making there is an alarmingly lazy lack of specificity in ‘bush’ or ‘outback’.
So, the ‘death’ – that melancholy thing – of the forest is never questioned as policy, or morality, or in terms of free will or better judgement. It can only be lamentedon an individual basis. This is exemplified by W.W. Johnstone, who is forced to resort to verse:
Never more shall I wander, awe-struck and subdued,
While the shades of deep night on the forest did brood,
And feel, when along those great aisles I have trod,
I worshipped alone in a temple of God.
But away with these fancies. ‘Tis better today
Where the forest encumbered, the children now play
As Carter points out (1987: 171), Johnstone is hardly convincing in conclusion. Johnstone’s lament also echoes the Romantic apprehension of the sublime; a perhaps unconcious moment of fin de siecle, where the deep engagement with place gives way to the determinism of progress that the twentieth century demands.
There’s more to be said on this text.
Carter, Paul (1987), The Road to Botany Bay, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
The Land of the Lyrebird (1998), The Korumburra and District Historical Society, Korumburra