With Don Watson in search of lost Mallee (Plant Portrait X*)

I was born in the Nhill Hospital but because my parents moved on when I was only two, I can't really say I lived in any remembered way in Nhill.

Still, I experienced Victoria's Mallee as a child through regular visits to my cousins' house, a few miles (as it was then) out of Hopetoun. After my father died when I was six, and we had moved to Euroa via Wangaratta, my two younger brothers and I spent even more time there, enjoying an odd mix of dusty, anarchic adventure and access to a vast library of mostly humorous English writing, all in paperbacks.

Don Watson also spent time in the mallee, but mostly as a contemplative adult, long after his childhood in Gippsland. I've just finished reading his The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia and there is plenty in the book that resonates and causes me to reminisce.

Book Cover: The Bush

Watson's family, like many who farm, say they come from The Bush. I've always said I come The Country. My rural life was in country towns, the son of teachers. Don Watson's was from a farm, or two. In his book Watson travels from his childhood to his penultimate home in Mount Macedon (he has recently moved back to the city), via much of eastern Australia.

Watson's description of the Mallee, in particular, rings true. The mice plagues, I remember well. He mentions tails dangling from cracks in the ceiling (one of the more savoury stories amid the mass slaughter of these rodents). I remember lying awake at night waiting for them to drop to the floor and during the day lifting up sheets of corrugated iron to shriek in horror/excitement at the seething mass of whiskers and tails beneath.

And Don Watson marvels, as he should, at the plans of the 80-year old Bosisto company to increase their eucalypt oil production in the Bendigo whipstick, just east of the Mallee, to not only out-compete China (today's leading producer of eucalypt oil) but to one day produce a substitute to petroleum. (Bosisto's fascinating story was also featured on a recent episode of ABC's Landline.)

Mostly, though, the Mallee is and was about wheat and sky. One of my stronger childhood memories is waiting on the station at Sea Lake, with no other soul around that I remember, watching the sun rise and then the dust from my uncle's car grow closer, all in relative silence before I was enveloped into the noise of the Hopetoun household.

I also remember sitting on the veranda of a house not far from my cousin's place, with farm junk scattered around, watching a sunset I think. It's often about watching, and about the softer edges of the day, when it's not so hot and not so harsh.

In the early years I would be viewing the Mallee from a caravan placed somewhat arbitrarily in the one or two hectare, square property plonked in the middle of the wheat fields (not, I should add, in the middle of this road somewhere in Victoria - this is clearly just a toilet stop for me). My uncle was a lawyer with offices in various of the local towns. He had a huge, and to his children greatly wearing, knack for funny stories and he liked to grow Australian plants in a fairly haphazard but courageous style,

Not every one likes the mallee. Watson says that the first Director of Melbourne's Botanic Gardens, Ferdinand von Mueller, bypassed it on his way to collect plants further north in Australia.

The book is about much more than the Mallee. It reaches from the soggy forests of Gippsland to the lonely interior of the continent. From Aboriginal care to European distrust. I like that Don Watson sees his later search for imperfections (in life and language we presume) as coming from being taught to 'spot the thistle in the daffodils'. This kind of upbringing, he muses, make you see faults before loveliness.

It's a meandering story, at times as tangled as the weedy scrub European settlers have allowed to replace the bush they cleared. That's not a bad thing and I have a tendency to stray a little myself. Here, for example, is my uncle's Valiant in which I later learnt to drive (in this picture I am a small boy talking to my mother in the back seat, while my father I suspect is taking the picture). It is parked next to what I presume is Lake Lascelles, just out of Hopetoun, on which my cousins sailed every now and then, when it filled. Or perhaps it is Lake Albacutya further to the west. As Watson notes, like Lake Eyre, these Mallee lakes are remnants of the long departed inland sea.

As you'd expect, Watson's book has some lovely writing, with sparkling sentences and sentiments such as this, describing those in search of Red Ceders in the Big Scrub in the mid-nineteenth century: "We don't know how far they regressed, if at all, but if they are indeed among the progenitors of the national character and values, it might be a calculation worth making."

One of the best is almost lost in a bracketed aside after a story of a boy's lie about checking a windmill leading to the death of a hundred cattle: "Along with birdsong and room to roam, it is one of the privileges of a country childhood to live in permanent fear of a biblical drubbing should one neglect to shut a gate or turn off a tap". That same privilege seeped through to us townies who schooled and played with kids from the farms.

Notes: After writing this I interviewed Don Watson for the radio version of Talking Plants, to run over the Christmas break on ABC Radio National. Turns out he's a keen gardener and, as you'd expect, able to link gardening and plants to the bigger questions in life. (You'll note the images here contain few attractive plants, reflecting accurately my memories of the Mallee.)

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed.