Mark Tredinnick, The Blue Plateau: a landscape memoir (UQP 2009)
As well as being a poet and writer of personal essays, Mark Tredinnick teaches writing in both creative and business contexts (not that I think business is never creative, but you know what I mean). I went to one of his Sydney Community College courses a couple of years ago, and not only got a boost for my writing but also was introduced to contemporary nature writing – Mark had us read passages from some of the great American practitioners, did a non-pushy but in my case successful sales job on The Land’s Wild Music, his book about them, and talked about his own longterm project, a memoir about the Blue Mountains. At the Sydney Writers Festival this year, beside stacks of his Little Red Writing Book and Little Green Writing Book, there was the memoir, The Blue Plateau, in print at last.
You don’t have to scratch far in non-Aboriginal Australian literature before you come across the idea, usually accompanied by an element of yearning, that people live in close mutuality with the land they inhabit. It could hardly have been otherwise – the first settlers were discovering a new nature. Barron Field had fun describing a kangaroo
Nature, in her wisdom’s play,
on Creation’s holiday
and it probably makes sense to read a lot of Henry Lawson’s stories as exploring the deep interconnection of humans and environment – as in the oddly bathetic final sentence of ‘The Bush Undertaker‘:
And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush – the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands.
Not to mention Judith Wright and all those poets who wrote about the landscape of the mind (‘South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,/rises that tableland’ etc).
Mark Tredinnick is consciously part of a different tradition. Just as Patrick White decades ago revolted against ‘the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’ which he saw as dominating Australian literature, looking instead to European models, Mark T looks to North American models. I know this, not because I’ve read any of them, and not just from the enthusiasm of The Land’s Wild Music, but from references embedded in the text – explicitly to Barry Lopez, in a nod and a wink to James Galvin, and perhaps by a mention of bell peppers where someone writing in an Australian tradition might have said capsicums or red peppers. The book offers a wealth of stories, mainly of three families – two who lived in the region for generations, transformed it in big and small ways by their labour, and were transformed by it; one who came as an immigrant and found home there. Actually make that four families, the fourth being the author, his partner and children: their stay in a place up on the ridge by Katoomba, and Mark’s attempt to belong there, is a central narrative thread. Many of the stories are classic bush yarns – miraculous escapes from bushfires, lives lost from flood and rockfalls. That is to say, they have the subject matter of classic bush yarns: they are told in elevated, mellifluous language, rich with simile and, especially, personification, a very far cry from the tightlipped, sardonic discourse we have come to think of as typically Australian. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the book is a tapestry of yarns in the manner of Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life, though in more high-falutin language. True, like Furphy’s fabulous book, it lacks a straightforward linear structure. But it is a very different beast: self-described as something that has been eroded, leaving only fragments of its whole, it is indeed fragmentary, to be read, I think, almost like a book of poetry. Some of the “poems” are ten pages or more long. The narrative of Les and May Maxwell stretches through the whole book like a backbone. There are many outcrops of observation, reflection or anecdote that are barely a paragraph long.
(A newspaper review on the weekend lamented the absence of Indigenous people, except ‘obliquely’. And it’s true that no Indigenous person appears as a character. But one of the distinctive features of The Blue Plateau is the way the Gundingurra people are a constant, though abstract, presence. Perhaps this is a book that’s easy to skip. And that’s every reader’s right, but one that, when exercised, makes it hard to be an accurate reviewer.)
Improbably, the opening paragraph reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s descriptive writing. I thought at first that to mention this would be to make fun of Mark Tredinnick’s elevated style. But that ain’t necessarily so. On reflection, I think it’s fair to say that my favourite fantasy writer manages to slip brilliantly lyrical writing past our defences by taking the mickey, Mark’s lyricism is full frontal, dares us to laugh, and restores the mickey to readers who are timid about lyricism in their prose. Here are a couple of excerpts from The Blue Plateau and bits of Terry Pratchett. See if you can tell which is which.
It’s early September, the driest month of the year, and the valley is rolling over into summer. The sun has been out all day, and now what’s left of it has fallen into the valley and is lying there on the yellow grasses like whisky in a glass.
The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.
[The] soft yellow light of dawn flowed over the sleeping landscape like the caress of a gentle lover or, as some would have it, like golden syrup. It paused to fill up valleys. It piled up against mountain ranges. When it reached [placename here], it built up in heaps until it finally crashed in great lazy tsunami as silent as velvet, across the dark landscape beyond.
The valley is a woman who likes a bath, and she likes to smoke while she lies there. She breathes down the sky, and she lets it travel through her body, and she holds it a long time, and then she breathes it out again, heavy with desire and complaint.