Emerging Voices

The Looking Glass, Volume 11, Issue 3, 2007

The Influence of the Bush on European-Australian Identity in Australian children's literature

Sandie Penn

Sandie Penn is an Honours student in the Faculty of Education, La Trobe University's Bendigo campus, Victoria, Australia. Her major study in her Honours program has been in the effect of a sense of place and landscape on identity in Australian children's literature.

She argues that the Australian Bush - the native landscape - is still considered as an opponent to European-Australian characters in literature, despite its central place in identifying Australia. Indeed, that opposition becomes the key aspect of the portrayal of an Australian identity. In particular, she examines how European-Australians narratives, not yet comfortable with the challenges of the Australian Bush, therefore present this tense relationship as character-forming and identity-defining.

On the crimson breast of the sunset
The Gray Selections lie,
And their lonely, grief-stained faces
Are turned to a pitiless sky;
They are wrinkled and seamed with drought-fire
And wound at the throat with weeds,
They sob in the aching loneness
But never a passer heeds.   

                                    Will H. Ogilvie (1898)

Australia as a country, as distinct from its landscape, is a recent creation, settled by Europeans merely 220 years ago, but the Australian land, this physical place – the Australian Bush – is infinitely older.  The Bush is a term culturally understood in Australia to be any environment that is sparsely populated or uninhabited (and that usage will be assumed in this study).  The Bush encompasses barren regions, forested areas and farming landscapes and is also known as the Outback.  The indigenous peoples of Australia, the Aborigines, traditionally have had a spiritual and nurturing relationship with the Bush, seeing themselves as belonging to the landscape, intrinsically woven into its every fibre (Head 2000; Pascoe 2007; Read 2000).  But, while the national identity that European Australians would claim has also been forged through their relationship with the Bush, this relation has been much more problematic and even antagonistic.  This tension, between the Bush and the people, is clearly evident in how narratives, particularly in children’s adventure stories, present the forming of character and identity.

To talk of an Australian identity is to enter into a fiercely debated topic.  Is there a “nationally authentic”, or a “culturally dominant”, a “socially inclusive” or a “politically authoritative” Australian identity?  If so, what is it?  If not, do we want one or need one?  Or as Richard White (1981: viii) so aptly asserts, what function and whose interests does a national identity serve?  The objective of this paper is not to promote or reject a specific Australian identity but simply to highlight the Bush as a major component in many interpretations of the European Australian national character.  This popularly accepted Australian identity is largely defined through the “Bush Legends”: the bushman, the pioneer, the bushranger and the wartime Anzac legends (Gammage 1992; Hirst 1992; McIntyre 1992; Ward 1958).  These legends are stereotypically male; tough and rugged, hardworking outdoors types, independent and adventurous, capable and strong, but most of all they persevere against all odds. These men are symbolised in the more recent images of Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin.  During the period of the creation of the “Bush Legends”, 1788 to 1945, it was not merely the men who settled in the Bush, women too endured this environment.  However, women who did inhabit the Bush were considered to have similar traits to that of the men.  As this was ‘no place for a woman’ (Schaffer 1988: 52), women had to adopt a certain maleness to survive.  The Bush shaped women too, as they were regarded as tough, hardworking and capable in this environment.  In both cases a masculine identity was forged and shaped from the trials experienced in the Bush. 

These male Bush Legends are essentially a derivative of the European culture; however, association with the Australian Bush has clearly shaped them.  These Australian legends find value in mateship, are physically tough and resourceful in their surrounds (Gammage 1992; Hirst 1992; McIntyre 1992; Ward 1958).  The Bush promotes these characteristics.  Being loyal to one’s mates was integral to survival in an isolated landscape, many miles from other settlers or the more populated cities.  Mates could always be relied upon in tough times and tough places; there was no one else.  Additionally, in order to subsist in the natural elements of the Australian Bush, with the regular occurrences of flood, drought and fire (Dinning 1939: 7), men needed to be physically tough and resourceful (Hirst 1992; Ward 1958).  The unique dryness of the land intensifies through drought times.  Adding this to features such as the high oil content in the leaves of the Eucalypt trees, the potential for extreme heat in rapidly burning fires is increased.  Also, with the great wide-open spaces of the Bush, fires and floods further isolate inhabitants.  Men without the qualities of resourcefulness and physical fortitude could not endure the threatening conditions that the Australian Bush innately held for its European occupants.  The identifying characteristics of these Bush Legends were drawn out by the unique Bush landscape.  Australian narratives have highlighted these Bush qualities of isolation and danger in story and utilised them to facilitate growth and change in a character’s identity.  In postcolonial terms, it could be interpreted that, while Aboriginal Australians live with and in the Bush, European Australians remain settlers, facing its exotic dangers and striving to conquer it.

As the Australian Bush is an important, even key, feature of these national identities, it is not surprising to find the Bush becomes an influencing force in narratives set in it.  Just as the Bush is a creative force behind these Australian identities, it is also powerful in shaping a character’s identity in story, moulding individual identity through physical encounters affecting intellectual and maturational development.  'Trials in the Bush' stories, a staple of both adult and children’s literature in Australia for generations, encapsulate these aspects; the Bush and identity formation or change.  James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout (1959) typifies so many stories of the Australian Bush, stories in which the young are lost or left to fend for themselves in the exotic landscape of the Bush.  However, with physical toughness, ingenuity, perseverance and, in this case, help from an Aboriginal Australian, the Bush is endured.  Such an encounter leaves the children more mature, capable and independent individuals who, of course, find their way back to 'civilisation'.  From classics like Nan Chauncy’s Tiger in the Bush  (1957) and Devil’s Hill (1958) or Colin Thiele’s February Dragon (1965) and Blue Fin (1969) to modern stories like David Metzethen’s Johnny Hart’s Heroes (1996), Elaine Forrestal’s Deep Water (2003) or Sonya Hartnett’s Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf (1999) and Forest (2001), young protagonists are depicted finding themselves confronted and changed by what the Bush presents them.

In Australian narrative, contact with the Bush frequently results in characters contending with insurmountable difficulties: flood, fire, drought, isolation.  Similar to that of the Bush Legends, a character’s identity is shaped by the Bush in the process of enduring and sometimes conquering the harshness of that Bush.  It is through these trials that a character’s true identity, or the reforming and transforming of a character, can be recognized.  In these struggles a reflection of the Bush Legends’ values - friendship, possession of both inner and outer strength, and ability to be creative in the presence of danger - can be noted in characters as they endure, reveal and transform.  Intellectual change may be facilitated in the character’s identity, such as the feeling of regaining one’s memory, or a maturational change like discovering the opposite sex, or simply growing into adulthood.   

Characters’ interactions with the Australian Bush in children’s literature can be seen in the physical encounters within its expanses.  Many narratives include physical conflicts with the Bush, similar to those imagined of the Australian Bush legends.  These include a protagonist who endures trials such as …

struggles with huge pythons. Battles with war-like Aborigines, flights from uncontrollable fires or floods, lucky escapes from gigantic crocodiles or any number of other possible but unlikely events. (Finnis et al. 1995: 71)  

One such conflict occurs in Ivan Southall’s classic Ash Road (1965).  Changes in characters begin to materialise as a physical confrontation with an uncontrollable bushfire looms.  Southall initially describes the Bush’s great force as '…like an endless chain with a will of its own, encircling and entangling them' (Southall 1965: 23).  With the fire reaching fever pitch the Bush’s power is fully realised:

…flames to the right, flames at tree-top height exploding like surf on rocks: waves of flame, torrents of flame, flames spraying in fragment, in thousands of pieces, in flaring leaves and twigs that rained on the road in a storm of fire. (Southall 1965: 131-132).

As the fire rages, the close-knit farming community of Ash Road becomes completely isolated from outside assistance with the fire 'too big … leaping miles ahead of itself'. Fire-fighters had 'pulled back … letting most of the hills go' (Southall 1965: 153-154).

Young characters Pippa, Stevie, Lorna and Graham are cut off and separated from the safety that adults symbolise, left to battle with the Bush alone.  Lorna’s situation highlights this as she tries desperately to find assistance for her dying father amongst the confusion of the encroaching fire:

"But I live on a farm", cried Lorna. "I’m way near the end of a road. I’m three miles from the township. It’s a quarter of a mile to the nearest neighbours, and even they’re on holidays. I’m all alone. There isn’t anybody, anywhere." (Southall 1965: 74)  

Here the Bush is seen as a life force, another character in the story with an ability to 'absorb its inhabitants' (Schaffer 1988: 52; Saxby 2002: 145).  Psychological changes occur in the human characters, as interaction with the landscape intensifies (Finnis et al. 2005: 53).  The manifestation of a character’s altered mind signifies a transformation in identity, best demonstrated through Graham’s individual growth.  Before the intense contact with the land Graham was unsure of himself, he felt 'he was nobody' (Southall 1965: 12).  In his initial interaction with the bushfire, great guilt erupts over his part in its beginnings, changing a young man’s uncertainty of himself into self-hatred (Southall 1965: 84).  He takes flight from all that he has done and all that could bind him to it (Southall 1965: 90-92), only to have the Bush bring him Lorna (Southall 1965: 146-149).  Lorna completes the transformation, shaking him from his self loathing and awakens him into love, making 'him feel complete as he had never felt before' (Southall 1965: 179, 185-186). Indeed, contact with the land, this 'supreme authority on earth…. changes lives and alters destines' (Zipes 2002: 65).

Other characters such as Harry, Wallace, Peter and Julie, although in the company of adults, no longer feel protected by this as the force of the Bush overwhelms them (Southall 1965).  In many cases, characters are influenced by the Bush into becoming more capable and mature individuals.  The psychological changes resulting from interactions with the landscape can be described as an emergence of a 'more highly developed humanity' (Bettelhiem 1977: 94).  This is especially evident in Southall’s Peter Fairhalls as he undergoes a transformation to become a more mature, capable, caring and thoughtful individual after contact with the Bush and its forces.  Peter, prior to contact with the bushfire, was an extremely protected adolescent, not permitted or able to make decisions for himself; he was a child (Southall 1965: 31).  However, through the Bush’s fire Peter’s thinking changed:

… he was running into manhood and leaving childhood behind… He was ready to prove himself a man; ready to be baptized a man with fire, whether he survived the ordeal or died from it. He didn’t care about the cost… (Southall 1965: 178).

Contact with the exotic Bush fire had altered Peter’s whole being, changed his identity.  From boy to man, indecisive to independent, from frightened child to brave young man; Peter had grown up.  Importantly, from the perspective of the reader, when characters endure a force of nature such as this, a hero of sorts is born in which strength can be drawn to 'establish his own identity' (Saxby 1969: 189).

However, this leaves questions as to what identity is being sold here?  An identity that glorifies European triumph over the native Bush and its power? The Aboriginal Bush as enemy and the European adventurer as hero?  Or, as Nodelman (1992: 30) may describe it, the female Aboriginal Bush as the other and the male European adventurer as superior?  Such a postcolonial interpretation of European dominance over the Aboriginal Bush makes these statements conceivable.  European narratives have been describing the Australian Bush and its qualities in terms of its otherness for over a century, never totally comfortable in its expanses; fighting it, subduing it, conquering it and moulding it to their own means, but not working with, or feeling a part of, this Australian land.  Many early texts about Australia demonstrated the enormous difference between the homeland of the author and that of the Bush  (Stephens 2006: 94); an 'unpredictable and fearsome environment, one best avoided or at least tamed' (Finnis et al. 2005: 52).  Describing Australia in European terms continues today, reflecting the approaches found in these early colonial texts of Australia.

Hunt (2001: 8) states that children’s literature mirrors ' … what society wishes itself to be seen as, and … subconsciously and retrospectively, what it is actually like…'.  If this is the case, what do these texts indicate of European and Aboriginal relations?  If we entertain the idea of the Bush representing the Indigenous population and a protagonist’s triumph over the landscape a European one, there has been little change since the colonisation of Australia.  Texts are still reflective of the coloniser’s dominance over the colonised.  Indeed this is an echo of what is happening in this country today.  Australian political powers (the colonisers) are still asserting control over Aboriginal land under the rationale that the Indigenous peoples cannot help themselves and must be shown or told how.  In essence, these actions proclaim that the original landholders of this country should be, and need to be, more like the European colonisers (Nodelman 1992: 31) and that the colonising Europeans have the knowledge to solve indigenous issues, therefore justifying actions taken to dominate the inferior peoples.  Australian narrative has mirrored (often symbolically) these societal issues, maintaining, as Said (1994: xiii) suggests, that stories are, in fact, images of a nation.

The Bush has also been depicted in Australian children’s literature as an active spiritual force where its influence on characters can be easily observed. The Bush, as a spiritual force, infuses fantasy elements within narratives and explores what Tolkien (1964: 15) defines as the realm of Faërie:

… not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.

Faërie is a place of foreboding, a place in which dangers lurk amongst the woods (Thomas 1986: 128).  Perhaps the most prominent of all threatening landscapes of Faërie is that of the Grimm’s Black Forest (Thomas 1986: 127).  When crossing the threshold into its boundaries a character transcends from the known to unknown (Thomas 1986: 127).  The wild and untamed awaits too, in such places as the Australian Bush.  In Wrightson’s A Little Fear (1983) the realm of Faërie is explored as the Bush is portrayed as a spiritual force.  The Njimbin, Wrightson’s spiritual force of nature, embodies the same physical power of the Bush that has been battled against by the Bush Legends.  In the style of flood, drought or fire, the Njimbin is an unpredictable force of nature belonging to the land. 
Mrs Tucker, a former resident of Sunset House for Elderly Citizens, comes into contact with the Njimbin after inheriting the farm on which the Njimbin resides (Wrightson 1983: 8-13).  Almost immediately the Njimbin takes a dislike to the intruder and her dog, Hector (Wrightson 1983: 20-31).  Comparable to the Bush Legends, a battle of wills erupts over the rights to the land (Wrightson 1983: 65-106).  Mrs Tucker’s stoic fight finally peaks when she realises that 'the old thing was part of the land itself and she could not fight a war against the land' (Wrightson 1985: 105).  However, Mrs Tucker does not leave it there.  She could not 'leave the land’s old thing victorious in her fowlhouse'; a bonfire was planned for the day of her departure in which the 'old thing’s' beloved fowlhouse would be the vital element (Wrightson 1983: 109-111).  This is a common trait in Australian narrative; although understanding the power this great force holds, protagonists continue to pit themselves and measure themselves against its strength (Schaffer 1988: 22).  Obviously, the relationship between the land and the human subject is, thus, of primary importance in Australian children’s literature (Saxby 1993: 19).

With this grand fight Mrs Tucker, too, psychologically transforms.  Before she had ventured away from Sunset House she was at risk of losing her own identity, being treated as, 'a sort of a child'  (Wrightson 1983: 5-6).  Mrs Tucker was determined to break away from these feelings of loss, of growing slower in mind and body (Wrightson 1983: 6).  By taking flight to the newly inherited country home, Mrs Tucker begins a search of the self that had been missing (Wrightson 1983: 14-21).  However, upon contact with the spirit of the land, the Njimbin forces Mrs Tucker to think that her family may have been right in forcing her to live just like all the other elderly residents; was she losing her mind? (Wrightson 1983: 62-64).  A shift in identity is seen as Mrs Tucker suspects senility.  She believes she is 'forgetting to do things she thought she had done and doing things, crazy things, that she forgot she had done' (Wrightson 1983: 64).  These feelings are short lived as Mrs Tucker discovers the Njimbin and his games, gaining back her sense of identity (Wrightson 1983: 70-73).  This discovery gives her the strength to combat the Njimbin’s follies (Wrightson 1983: 70-73).  As the battle comes to an end Mrs Tucker realises that the experience had given her:

… a great deal: the dignity of independence in her own home; the right to risk breaking her leg in a fall from a stepladder; the freedom to choose her own vests and her own company. (Wrightson 1983: 109).

The Bush had given her back the identity she was losing in that small room, 'just like all the others' in Sunset House (Wrightson 1983: 5).   

The Australian Bush is an important feature of the national psyche noted through links made in many interpretations of Australian identity.  Its importance is reflected in representations of the Bush in narratives: as a powerful force with the ability to influence one’s identity.  The Bush’s impact on identity in story can be seen through its effect on characters’ intellect and maturation.  The Bush’s ability to shape individuals in this way can be observed as characters encounter many dangers and isolation within its expanses.  This influence is also distinguishable in interactions with the symbolic, spiritual forces of the landscape.  It is through these encounters that key aspects of a character’s identity: valuing mateship, being resourceful and physically tough, are divulged.  In doing so the Bush’s impact on the human mind is established as psychological changes in the individual take place.  In some it could be towards maturation, while in others away from intellectual deterioration. The Australian Bush has been as unique, powerful and defining force in the creation of Australian Identity.  Both in and out of the realm of story it has, and continues to, provide a convenient mechanism for growth and transformation of individuals by continuing the legend of the European’s confrontation with the land.


Reference List

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy talesNew York: Vintage Books, 1977

Chauncy, Nan. Tiger in the Bush. London: Oxford University Press, 1957

Chauncy, Nan. Devil’s Hill. London: Oxford University Press, 1958

Dinning, Hector. W. Australian Scene. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1939

Finnis, Ern; Foster, John and Nimon, Maureen. Australian Children’s Literature: an exploration of genre and theme. Wagga Wagga: Centre for Information Studies, 1995

Finnis, Ern; Foster, John and Nimon, Maureen. Bush, City, Cyberspace: the development of Australian children’s literature into the twenty-first century.Wagga Wagga: Centre for Information Studies, 2005

Forrestal, Elaine. Deep Water. Ringwood: Puffin Books, 2003

Gammage, Bill. “Anzac” in Intruders in the Bush: the Australian quest for identity, ed. John Carroll. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992

Hartnett, Sonya. Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf. Ringwood: Viking, 1999

Hartnett, Sonya. Forest. Ringwood: Penguin, 2001

Head, Lesley. Second Nature: The History and Implications of Australia as Aboriginal Landscape. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Hirst, J.B. “The pioneer legend” in Intruders in the Bush: the Australian quest for identity, ed. John Carroll. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992
Hunt, Peter. Children’s Literature. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001

Kahn, Peter and Kellert, Stephen. Children and Nature. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002

Marshall, James Vance. Walkabout. England: Michael Joseph, 1959

Metzethen, David. Johnny Hart’s Heroes. Ringwood: Puffin Books, 1996

McIntyre, Angus. “Ned Kelly, a folk hero” in Intruders in the Bush: the Australian quest for identity, ed. John Carroll. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992

Nodelman, Perry. "The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature." Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 17.1 (1992): 29-35.

Pascoe, Bruce. Convincing Ground: Learning to Fall in Love with Your Country. Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007.

Read, Peter. Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership. Oakleigh, Vic.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Said, E. “Introduction”. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994

Saxby, Maurice. A history of Australian Children’s Literature. Sydney: Wentworth Books, 1969

Saxby, Maurice. The Proof of the Puddin’: Australian children’s literature 1970-1990. Sydney: Ashton Scholastic, 1993

Saxby, Maurice. Images of Australia: a history of Australian children’s literature 1941-1970. Sydney: Scholastic Australia, 2002

Schaffer, Kay. Women and the Bush: forces of desire in the Australian cultural tradition. Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1988

Southall, Ivan. Ash Road. Ringwood: Penguin, 1965

Stephens, John. “Australia”. in The world encyclopaedia of children’s literature. Vol 1, ed. Jack Zipes. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

Thiele, Colin. February Dragon. Adelaide, South Australia: Rigby, 1965

Thiele, Colin. Blue Fin. Adelaide, South Australia: Rigby, 1969

Thomas, Joyce. “Woods and castles, towers and huts: aspects of setting in the fairy tale”. Children’s Literature in Education. 172 (1986): 123-134.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Tales” in Tree and leaf. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964

Ward, Russell. The Australian Legend. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958

White, Richard. Inventing Australia: images and identity 1688-1980. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981

Wrightson, Patricia. A Little Fear. Ringwood: Puffin Books, 1985

Zipes, Jack. The Brothers Grimm: from enchanted forests to the modern world. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002


"The influence of the Bush on European/Australian identity in Australian children's literature" © Sandie Penn, 2007.