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The Australian bush

The Wimmera, by Polixeni Papapetrou, 1864.

Polixeni Papapetrou, The Wimmera 1864 #1, from Haunted Country, 2006, pigment print. Polixeni Papapetrou. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia, 2007.

What is it about 'the bush' that is so special to Australians? The bush has an iconic status in Australian life and features strongly in any debate about national identity, especially as expressed in Australian literature, painting, popular music, films and foods.

The bush was something that was uniquely Australian and very different to the European landscapes familiar to many new immigrants. The bush was revered as a source of national ideals by the likes of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. Romanticising the bush in this way was a big step forward for Australians in their steps towards self-identity. The legacy is a folklore rich in the spirit of the bush.

Folklore, 1790s–1890s

Many Australian myths and legends have emanated from the bush. Early bushranging – ranging or living off the land – was sometimes seen as a preferred option to the harsh conditions experienced by convicts in chains. Later bushrangers such as Jack Donohue, Ben Hall and Ned Kelly were seen as rebellious figures associated with bush life. Their bushmanship was legendary as well as necessary.

The bush has evoked themes of struggle and survival epitomised in tales of bushrangers, drovers, outback women and lost children. The bush has also been seen as a source of nourishment and survival. These two opposing elements were often brought together by the activities of the Australian 'black trackers'.

The skills of Indigenous people in 'the bush', especially their tracking abilities, was seen as miraculous and became legendary in the minds of European Australians. Indigenous people's knowledge of the land, at the core of their spiritual beliefs, is expressed in stories, arts and performance - music, songs, dance and ceremony.

Romantic idealism, 1890s – The 'bushman'

Strength Dignity Pride by Kerry Reed-Gilbert.

Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Strength Dignity Pride, from exhibition Sacred Country Unwrapped, 2007. Courtesy of Collector Gallery Artspace and Bookshop.

The 1890s saw a continued increase in nationalism and with it the creation of the Australian bush legend – an extension of the goldfield legend. The characters of the bush were imbued with the same qualities that the diggers on the goldfields possessed.

Around 1900, the bush was seen as the foundation of nation's greatness when the features of bush life - sleeping in the open air, learning to ride and shoot, fighting bushfires – were seen to prepare people for battle. This fused Australia's bush and military traditions when it seemed to prove itself with the Anzacs in World War I. The 'bushman' was seen as a resourceful, independent man who trusted only his mates.

The bush was a symbol for a national life and yet, by 1910, most Australians were urban. The bush myth has endured as novelists, poets, and artists continue to use it for inspiration. Elements of bush culture have been absorbed into mainstream Australian life through music, pop songs, clothing, slang, arts and architecture.

Lost by Frederick McCubbin, 1886.

Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), Lost, 1886, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria: Accession no. 1077-4, Felton Bequest, 1940.


The 'plein air' painters, 1880s–1890s

The painters of the Heidelberg School – the likes of Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin Charles Condor, Hans Heysen and Arthur Streeton - were the first Australian painters to attempt to capture a 'momentary effect' in the Australian landscape with a 'general impression of colour'. They were seen to capture the light, colour and mood of the Australian bush. Along with the bush poets and writers, they formed a clear expression of Australian identity.

The story of children lost in the bush has had a long tradition in written and illustrated form. For example,

McCubbin's painting Lost in 1886 was created after twelve-year-old Clara Crosbie was lost in the bush near Lilydale in 1885, but found alive three weeks later.

The painting shows a radical departure in theme, layout and painting technique from earlier Australian landscape art with its wide heroic panoramas. ... Lost, with its lack of specific detail, forms a soft veil which appears to block any means of escape for the young girl. The foreground is painted in sharp focus, with grass, twigs and thin gum trees forming a barrier, confirming the girl in an almost natural prison.

Modernist painters

Kelly and Horse by Sidney Nolan, 1946.

Sidney Nolan (1917-1992), Kelly and horse, 1946, enamel on composition board. Image courtesy of the Nolan Gallery.

The Angry Penguin Painters of the 1940s, based in Melbourne, modernised the contemporary Australian art scene with a spontaneous and visionary approach. Arthur Boyd's 'spirited imagination infused both the physical and spiritual landscape of Australia with beautiful and haunting insight'. Sidney Nolan became highly regarded for his depictions of the Australian outback and for his historical paintings on the theme of the bushranger Ned Kelly. Albert Tucker believed Nolan's landscapes of Nhill and Dimboola gave Australians 'an authentic national vision'.

In the 1950s, the Hill End painters, Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend, also captured a uniqueness in the Hill End landscape of New South Wales, which informed their distinguished and influential landscape paintings. Other painters followed in their wake, including Margaret Olley, John Olsen and Brett Whitely.

'The bush' in the Hill End landscapes was often represented allegorically as a scarred place (after the gold rushes) with 'scattered houses, silent ruins and leaden skies'. The works often explored the spiritual dimensions of the overwhelming sense of place which defines the figures in the painting.

Poets and writers

Poets and novelists such as Banjo Paterson, Miles Franklin, EJ Brady and Barbara Baynton, among others, were inspired by the experiences of Australians living and working in the bush. Henry Lawson believed that an Australian identity must emanate from its own soil, not from the safe green fields of the mother country, Britain. He was not alone in this view.

Bush poets and bush songs

Henry Lawson and E.J. Body at the camp at Mallacoota, March 1910.

Henry Lawson and E.J. Body at the camp at Mallacoota, March 1910. Image from Henry Lawson by his mates, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1931.

Bush songs devised by ordinary, everyday people are a record of the people's experiences of living, surviving and dying in the bush, as well as the colourful slang of bush life. The most famous of these bush ballads is Waltzing Matilda , Australia's unofficial national song about a swagman shearer. Many songs and lyrics, written down for private use, were later assembled and published by A B (Banjo) Paterson as Old Bush Songs (1905). Bush music was handed down as part of an oral tradition, similar to folk music.

The Weekly Bulletin

Australia's first national literary magazine, The Weekly Bulletin (later The Bulletin), not only described the bush, but also published bush writers. It was an influential publication which promoted a particular set of views – egalitarianism, unionism, and 'Australianism'. Both Lawson and Paterson saw the bush as central to 'identity', but in very different ways.

A debate about the real nature of Australian life, saw Lawson and Paterson write about their different perspectives on the Australian bush. This debate is, famously, known as the 1892-93 'Bulletin Debate'. In his poem Up The Country, Lawson claimed Paterson was a 'City Bushman' who romanticised the bush in poems such as The Man From Snowy River . Paterson countered with In Defense of the Bush by claiming that Lawson's view of the landscape was full of doom and gloom.

The argument was followed closely by the Bulletin's significant readership, reinforcing the bush as central to any discussion about national identity.

While Paterson was much more at ease with its wildness, Lawson saw the 'struggle' with the bush as central to our identity.

There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet. You might walk for twenty miles along this track without being able to fix a point in your mind, unless you are a bushman. This is because of the everlasting, maddening sameness of the stunted trees.
The Drover's Wife by Henry Lawson

The Jindyworobaks and modern poetry

In the 1930s a group of poets led by Rex Ingamells called themselves the Jindyworobaks. The Jindyworobaks wanted to develop a distinctive Australian poetry which described the unique Australian landscape in Australian terms, and which incorporated and appropriated elements of Aboriginal culture and the Aboriginal relationship to the landscape and natural environment.

The Jindyworobak movement continued the spirit of literary nationalism inherited from the early Australian poetry, especially the 1890s. The Jindyworobaks described European culture as a 'Conditional Culture' (1938). The Jindyworobaks maintained that in the oldest of continents, European culture could only be localised with an acceptance of 'place', and then renewed on a higher plane.

Today, modern Australian poets, such as Billy Marshall-Stoneking and Barry Hill, aim to lucidly tell stories and truths about the bush within a literary tradition of modernism and surrealist traditions, the Jindyworobaks and Indigenous expressions.

The bush legacy today

The idea of the bush as integral to Australian identity was reinforced in 1958 when Russel Ward published The Australian Legend. While some critics criticised his interpretation of what comprises a 'typical Australian', he argues that traits such as mateship, anti-authoritarianism, swearing and hard drinking came from the frontier experiences of real bush workers.

Bush ideals have been revered in recent years with television programs like Bush Tucker Man and films like Crocodile Dundee. Many well-known Australian films are built on stories from or concerning the bush. These include Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Eliza Fraser (1976), Breaker Morant (1981), Gallipoli (1981), Man from Snowy River (1982), Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Evil Angels (1988). Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) show how the bush is viewed as a source of nourishment for Indigenous people.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the bush become synonymous with drought, debt, depopulation and unemployment. Natural disasters and the natural cycles in the bush of drought, fire and flood have helped define Australian language, a sense of humour as well as comedy, music, poetry and literature.

Distinctive Australian architecture, with its roots in the bush, is recognisable in the rural icons of 'The Queenslander' house, the wool shed and the beach house. Characteristically, these designs used local materials as well as corrugated iron, and emphasised space and light as well as a connection to the landscape.

Uluru - Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre.

Uluru - Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. Courtesy of the Department of the Environment.

These qualities have been interpreted in modern Australian architecture with the approach of addressing the landscape, the place and the issues. For example, the Uluru Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre incorporates the Indigenous experience of country.

In his Australia Day address in 2002, author and ecologist Tim Flannery said Australians could only become a 'true people' by developing 'deep, sustaining roots in the land'. He said the land was 'the only thing that we all, uniquely, share in common. It is at once our inheritance, our sustenance, and the only force ubiquitous and powerful enough to craft a truly Australian people.'

As the Sydney Morning Herald's Tony Stephens points out (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 January 2002):

Flannery's view of the land is a practical and urgent one ... we had squandered this inheritance by adopting European agricultural practices, planting plane trees, growing roses, and embracing development, multiculturalism and population growth.

'Our best hope for the future',says Flannery 'was that this wide, brown land might claim us as its own'.

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Last updated: 1st March 2011
Creators: Kathryn Wells, et al.

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