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Book review: A Single Tree

A Single Tree – voices from the bush
Compiled by Don Watson
Penguin Random House, Australia 2016, 416pp

Reviewed by Jenny Goldie

a-single-tree-coverBrandishing a $50 Christmas gift voucher from my son, I raced into the bookstore, meaning to buy the much acclaimed 2014 book by Don Watson, called “The Bush”. In my haste I grabbed “A Single Tree” by mistake, but a mistake I was not to regret.

These are the stories and poems on which The Bush compilation is based – a vast array of experiences from Abel Tasman, through the early European discoverers and explorers like Joseph Banks and Thomas Mitchell, to 19th century settlers and up until the present day, including the likes of Tim Winton.

The early settler stories are what hold the attention most. Included are some beloved poems of Henry Lawson (‘Outback’) and Banjo Patterson (‘Clancy of the Overflow’). And the story from Steele Rudd (‘Cranky Jack’) is downright hilarious.

Many stories, however, from the diaries and letters of ordinary settlers, are quite shocking. Most of us today are aware of one or two massacres of Aborigines and of poisoned flour and waterholes. But the extent of the mistreatment was much worse

In 1846, for instance, when Henry Meyrick drove his flock of sheep to Gippsland he found the natives in a state of terror of the white man. He wrote:

The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with.

And the slaughter was not confined to Aborigines. As Murray Johnson wrote:
Notwithstanding that a four week open season on koalas in August 1927 had seriously damaged the government’s credibility in the eyes of the general electorate, the trapping of possums continued intermittently.

This book ranges widely. Some stories are sad, such as a letter by Georgiana Molloy in 1837 describing how her beloved 19-month old beloved son had drowned in a well.

There are environmental stories, such as Stephen Pyne looking at the role of fire in the landscape, and a fine essay by Tim Flannery on the red kangaroo.

Don Watson did not write any stories in this book; he compiled those of others. It is nevertheless the work of a master craftsman and scholar. For those of us who live in ‘the bush’, it is essential reading.

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