TEXT review


Walking through land and memory

review by Autumn Royal

 

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Saskia Beudel
A Country in Mind: Memoir with Landscape
UWAP Publishing 2013
ISBN 9781742584942
Pb 378pp AUD29.99


‘How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in? How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it?’ So asks Barry Lopez in his celebrated work Arctic Dreams (Lopez 2001: xxvii). Saskia Beudel positions Lopez’s questions as the epigraph to A Country in Mind: Memoir with Landscape, engaging with such queries by exploring the intricate connections between the preconceived dichotomies of environment and culture, histories and current social issues.

At ‘surface’ level, it may appear incongruous to evoke a text such as Lopez’s – a work exploring the Arctic terrain and its histories – as an epigraph for a book that is predominately situated in the central Australian desert. But asLopez himself writes: ‘The Arctic, overall, has the classic lines of a desert landscape: spare, balanced, extended, and quiet’ (Lopez 2001: xxiii). Such divergent associations are imperative to consider when reading A Country in Mind, as Beudel intertwines genres of memoir, travel literature, historical and ecological writing in order to reveal the complex interplay between history, memory and landscapes. In following such an interdisciplinary approach Beudel is able to shift focus between her personal insights of family history to descriptions of landscape, to detailed reportage of indigenous and settler accounts, and wider ecological issues.

Within the opening pages Beudel elucidates upon the action of walking and its intrinsic importance to her approach in composing A Country in Mind. As Beudel explains, it was after the deaths of her father and maternal grandmother that she felt compelled to pursue the catharsis of walking expeditions, hiking trips spanning around ten days – the act of Beudel’s walking becoming more purposeful and focussed with each journey. Beudel poetically describes how the action of walking has informed both her writing and her personal philosophy: ‘Rhythm integrates into thought, into words, into language’ (2).

A Country in Mind opens with an account of Beudel’s final days spent with her terminally ill father. Beudel’s descriptions are acute and moving, particularly for the way she captures the uncanny contrast between the obligations involved in that act of living and the awareness of an imminent death. Beudel recounts how she came to understand her father was ‘close to death when he stopped giving [her] cash to buy him packets of cigarettes’ (xi), and how she visited her father in hospice after attending a friend’s wedding – Beudel eventually wearing the outfit she wore to the wedding as her ‘funeral garb soon after, as if [she’d] chosen it for that purpose’ (xiii). All of these observations are expressed in the preface, one of the most affecting sections of the book. Nevertheless an elegiac pulse is sustained throughout much of Beudel’s writing.

The subsequent chapter is entitled ‘Gorge’. The title suggests the depths to which Beudel involves herself in her surrounding environment, and that this has not been without risk. This chapter details a time where Beudel and her partner discover themselves in danger while crossing a gorge during a walking expedition along the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory. Beudel’s description of her precarious ordeal creates an element of suspense, which also underlines the importance of memory and the role it may play in the process of writing. Beudel allows the reader to be aware that she is piecing together an account based on memory, this can be demonstrated in lines such as: ‘I can’t quite remember the exit out of that channel. Oh yes. It opened into a cave…’ (8). The ‘Oh yes’ interjection is a direct indication of a sudden act of recollection, allowing Beudel to acknowledge her own subjectivity within this work.

Following her incident in the gorge, Beudel does not, as perhaps would be expected, develop an aversion to this area of Australia. Instead Beudel becomes captivated, asking: ‘…how could this place not become a place to return to?’ (27). Consequently, whether it be physically or imaginatively, Beudel continues to return to the gorge: ‘...lodged within the western MacDonnell Ranges, where history and its legacies are up close to the surface, palpable somehow, and a microcosm of the nation’s broader past’ (27). This ‘broader past’ suggests the colonisation of Australia and the impact is has had, and still continues to have, on Indigenous Australians and their relationship to the land.

After recalling the writing of Linda Jaivin, Beudel introduces the West MacDonnell Ranges with the paintings of renowned Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira. Beudel vividly describes and contextualises her surroundings driving towards Redbank Gorge along Namatjira Drive:

The drive flanks folded quartzite and sandstone ranges that were produced around 300 million years ago, and now create a complex landscape eroded into multiple ridgelines and gorges in rich hues, rockfaces with looming blue peaks, interspersed with pale swathes of open space, bleached spinifex, low mulga scrub, and open soil. It’s all instantly recognisable as Namatjira country. (28)

Such emphasis on Namatjira’s paintings allows Beudel not only to acknowledge their cultural and historical importance, but also to accentuate how his art has ‘taught us to see this landscape in particular ways’ (29). There can be an appreciation for the landscape, but Beudel is acknowledging that she, and all other non-Indigenous Australians, are still gazing upon an environment that is deeply sacred to its original people.
As Beudel explains, settlement has impacted upon the contours of the Australian landscape and, in turn, the Aboriginal Dreaming:

…what is at stake in the wrecking of ceremonial sites, sacred trees, waterholes, and so forth, is not simply physiological ruin, or attack on a sentimental attachment to place: it is rupture to a whole order of being, a whole ontological system that plays back and forth between human beings and the topographical and ecological specifics of their environment. (168)

It is Beudel’s multifaceted approach that enables her to avoid repeating a shallow and rigid account of the environments and materials she interacts with, revealing the tangential interplay between memory, histories, ecology and understandings of place within landscape.

To conclude, this extract introduces Beudel’s writing of her father’s history, demonstrating how Beudel endeavours to problematise a linear understanding of the past, allowing for the gaps – the gorges – to breathe and endure:

The events I’m touching upon involve at least two sets of conflicting memories and histories. Because of this it is almost impossible for me to write redemptively of my father’s past, or to recuperate it in any simple way, especially writing from within a settler culture such as Australia’s, where the question of dispossession is still pressing and unsettling.’ (51-52)

 

Works cited

 

Autumn Royal is a PhD candidate at Deakin University. Her work has appeared in publications such as Antipodes, Cordite, Rabbit, and Verity La. In 2012 Autumn was the recipient of the AAWP Postgraduate Conference Paper Prize.

 

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TEXT
Vol 18 No 1 April 2014
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