From time to time I return to the writing and work of Australians who have inspired me. One such person is the highly acclaimed poet, Judith Wright (1915-2000). Born into a privileged pastoral family of the New England region, she soon distanced herself from the conservative values of her family to help drive the “conservation” movement in Australia in its battle with the forces of “progress”. In the words of historian Ian McCalman: “Judith was a romantic in the profoundest sense: someone who strove through the power of language, myth and symbol to absorb the harsh beauty of the Australian continent and the environmental ethos of its Aboriginal peoples” (I. McCalman, 2013, The Reef: A Passionate History, Penguin Viking, Melbourne, p.283).
Much has been written about her achievements. McCalman’s grand history brings together much of what she and her colleagues accomplished as advocates to “Save the Reef”. Judith herself chronicled those endeavours in “The Coral Battleground” (1977, Angus and Robertson, Sydney; see also 20th commemorative edition 1996). This book is one I frequently suggest to students as it provides a very powerful personal account of sustained environmental advocacy. But in recent weeks I have dived into a biography of her by Veronica Brady that has sat on our shelves for some years (V. Brady, 1998, South of My Days, HarperCollins, Sydney). It is this book that has prompted this blog.
Judith Wright’s love of the natural landscape and her disgust at the way it was being transformed by colonisers driven by greed, drove her to fight for values at odds with political and commercial views of the 60s and 70s. Two poems speak to her love of and connection with the land and what is happening to it:
“Rose-red a thousand miles
my country passed beneath.
Curved symmetry of dunes
echo my ribs and hands.
I am those worn red lands”. (Brady p.255)
Here she was inspired by a flight over the desert. This next poem came about as a result of seeing the brigalow country being bulldozed.
“Die, wild country, like the eaglehawk,
Dangerous till the last breath’s gone,
Clawing and striking. Die
Cursing your captor through a raging eye”. (Brady, p.258).
And words written to the tune of “The Church is One Foundation”:
“…You Beaut Country
So quality controlled,
With not a dune or forest
That can’t be bought or sold” (Brady, p.264)
There was little room for compromise in her battles to protect environmental values. This included her distain for scientists who looked at alternative solutions for what she was up against “The Buck’s the True Religion” (Brady, p.265; see also McCalman, p.291).
“I cross this ravelled shore
And sigh: there’s man no more.
Only rage, a fear,
Smokes up to darken air.
“Destroy the earth! Destroy.
There shall be no more joy”. (Brady, p. 271)
These are just a few poems that capture her philosophy. She captured the spirit of Dylan’s “Times are a changing”, and connected with like-minded people, many of whom had political influence. Judith related well to sympathetic land and marine ecologists (an emerging science of the time). She energetically lobbied politicians, lectured widely, and provided local communities with a famous pillar of the arts who could communicate their passion against powerful intransient forces. Her position was clear as she told the Australian newspaper “they’ll have to shoot me to stop me” (Brady, p. 265).
Nothing would stop her. There were many environmental crises that attracted her involvement. She spoke on the adverse impacts of the Concorde flying across the continent, on proposed development around Westernport Bay, on plans to mine the dunes at Cooloola and Fraser Island, and of course the desire of the then Queensland Government to exploit the Great Barrier Reef for limestone and oil. Her book Coral Battleground is in her words a “political story” with implications that stretch far beyond Australia because the Reef and similar valued natural environments have enemies. Cook’s voyage “exposed it to all the dangers of a civilisation that lives by exploiting everything in land and sea”; she speaks of the battle to save the Reef “from the real destroyers--who are ourselves” (Wright, 1996, p.xiv). Frequently she was lambasted by those with vested interests as a purveyor of “emotional arguments” to which she responded with “I will go in and try to arouse public feeling, and have done, and on this my conscience is more than clear” (McCalman, p. 301). But by 1996 she was pleased with what had been achieved in providing protection for the Reef. However, still “pressures on its future remain heavy” including climate change (Wright, 1996, p.x). She was also hopeful of increasing recognition of claims of original inhabitants seeing their potential role in decision-making. This respect for Aboriginal peoples flowed from years of close association with fellow poet Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal) as discussed by Veronica Brady (1998, p.307).
Of course 25 years on we see more and more what those heavy pressures are doing to the Great Barrier Reef. Charlie Veron and many others continue to document adverse impacts of climate change and land-based pollution on reef ecosystems. Writers such as Tim Winton have followed the footsteps of Judith Wright and offered compelling stories of degradation and threats to valued marine life. Yet I find it compelling to go back to her writings and see how much of what is old is new again! Her activism was incredible as she strode the corridors of power, wrote letters and submissions, put her imaginative thinking into wonderful poems as well as inspired scientists, bureaucrats, conservationists and even some in the commercial world to respect nature.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email firstname.lastname@example.org