I’m glad for books like Michael Cathcart’s The Water Dreamers. In recent years, history has been reinvigorated by taking new slants on old narratives. Here, Cathcart traces the familiar narrative of Australian history by concentrating on water, namely a lack of it, in a dry ‘silent’ continent. What this approach allows is a kind of environmental, as well as economic, history to unfold as the new colony rapaciously moves outward, subsuming indigenous communities in search of scarce water resources. This is contrasted with the indigenous husbanding of the land and its water, and the deep knowledge and often ingenious systems devised to use water in concert with the land, rather than against it. Overlaying this is the larger cultural picture of Australia as a hostile place, with an enormous silence at its heart. In the European mind, the land is under-utilised, waiting for the civilising touch of resource exploitation and development. The question that constantly came to mind while reading was ‘How far have we come?’. As recent history has shown and Cathcart suggests, the answer is not far. This is a fascinating history that fits nicely into the larger picture of Australia, while exploring some of the things we take for granted in our national psyche.
Was heightened awareness of water issues in Australia the spark for this book?
I starting thinking about this book in the early 1990s, long before the water crisis. I wanted to write a national history that focussed on a challenge which was common to all Australians. At the same time, I was preoccupied with two brilliant but very different books. The first was The Tyranny of the Distance in which Geoffrey Blainey showed how distance was the great challenge which had shaped both the pattern of Australian settlement and key Australian attitudes. I have tried to treat water in much the same way. The second book was Paul Carter’s elusive The Road to Botany Bay, which redefined the way historians think about exploration. In the 1990s, few people understood what I meant by ‘a history of water’. The subject sounded esoteric–as if I was writing a history of dirt. But today, water is the number-one challenge to our future–and everyone gets why it’s vital that we understand its history.
Is Australia still the ‘silent’ continent?
Colonial Australia was ‘the silent continent’ just as colonial Africa was ‘the dark continent’. The first colonists imagined that Australia was a brooding silent place covered by a vast and gloomy wood. Many of them thought of the Aborigines as a sort of shadow people who were living in a timeless limbo. These colonists believed that they were destined to bring Australia to life with the sounds of industry. They would sweep across the continent, cutting down trees and firing guns–shattering the silence and startling the continent into life. They would fill it with ‘the hum of industry’. But the continent had other plans. At its heart it remained stubbornly silent. The 19th-century explorers referred to this lethargy of the inland as a ‘death-like silence’. It was filled with foreboding. They experienced the inland as silent because it was dry. Today, I suspect that many of us experience the ‘silence’ of the outback as a spiritual experience. We think, not of death, but of eternity.
Do you think Australian history can be characterised as one of anxiety towards and alienation from the landscape?
By 1900, Australians were gripped by a fear that they have failed to occupy inland Australia.The symbol of this failure and disappointment was the vast salt lake, Lake Eyre. It was the withered remnant of the inland sea which ought to occupy the centre of Australia, but didn’t. Just as the whites had robbed the Aborigines, on the grounds that they never properly occupied the country, so the white feared that Asian hordes would descend and claim this still unoccupied land for themselves. Many whites believed that their sole hope of truly possessing this land lay in hydro-engineering. Through their own ingenuity, they would make the deserts bloom.
What can Australia learn from our history of mismanagement of scarce water resources?
For too long, white Australians thought of the bush and the outback as places where nature was absent or weird. They regarded engineering, not as a way of enhancing nature, but of compensating for the great void at the heart of Australia. The challenge today is to understand how nature and engineering can work together to produce a water system that is productive, sustainable and which nourishes the soul. But we should also celebrate the water systems which we have managed well. The most outstanding of these is the water supply for Melbourne. The vast closed catchments in the ranges northeast of the city have been managed by government authorities for over 100 years. The result is an affordable and reliable supply of the best urban water in the world.
What are your broader hopes for The Water Dreamers?
I have writtenThe Water Dreamers as book which speaks to all Australians. I hope that it challenges and changes the way we think about our past, and about who we are.
What are you working on next?
I have recently finished a TV documentary about the runaway convict William Buckley who lived with an Aboriginal tribe called the Wathaurong for over 30 years. I am now writing a book about him.