Academic journal article Antipodes

The Two Threads of a Life: Judith Wright, the Environment and Aboriginality

Academic journal article Antipodes

The Two Threads of a Life: Judith Wright, the Environment and Aboriginality

Article excerpt


AT THE CLOSE OF HER AUTOBIOGRAPHY HALF A Lifetime, Judith Wright offers an apology to indigenous Australians for the inequities and bloodshed of colonization: "To all of the peoples of the old and true Australia on whose land I have trespassed and whom, by being part of my own people, I have wronged, I plead for forgiveness" (296). Such an ethical position was born of extensive reflection and historical research on the nature and complexity of contact, specifically as it occurred in her region. Yet, the seeds of such thinking seem to have been lodged in the mind of the young Judith Wright much earlier, when walking her family's property as a child, she would often see or imagine "old men, dark-skinned and shadowy, standing with spears in their hands among the few trees left standing on our sheep-ridden land, and it may be that I did-it was a feeling rather than an encounter" (296). The spectral presence of real or imagined Aboriginal people that Wright recounts was to haunt her throughout her life and led to the publication of a great deal of poetry and prose on the issues of dispossession and indigenous politics.

Wright also mentions how, while pregnant in 1955, the "feeling" and spectral presence that had haunted her as a child returned, this time in the context of broader social and environmental concerns. When her husband returned from a holiday on Palm Island, his reflections on the state of the Aboriginal population there reawakened her awareness of Aboriginal issues. Such concerns merged with those that informed her writings on the ecology and which led to her involvement with the biologist Francis Ratcliffe, one of Australia's pioneer environmental writers, Vincent Serventy, the author of Australia: A Continent in Danger (1970), and the Australian Conservation Foundation (Brady 233-4). As she states of that crucial period in her life when her husband returned from Palm Island:

He returned rested but distressed by the state of the Aborigines on that miserable island. This aroused my own deep uneasiness about the situation of Aborigines and our own part in what I was beginning to see as a country despoiled. The two threads of my life, the love of the land itself and the deep unease over the fate of its original people, were beginning to twine together and the rest of my life would be influenced by that connection. (Half 284)

The image of dark-skinned men standing with spears in their hands among denuded and sheep-ridden land, seems to have again come to life in Wright's consciousness. In this essay I suggest that such concern with the environment and social issues is amenable to a reading inspired by Murray Bookchin's social ecology. As I have suggested elsewhere, debates in literary ecology since the early 1990s have drawn significantly from deep ecology, have given no consideration to the debate between deep and social ecology that occurred during the 1980s, and have neglected any intervention inspired by Bookchin's revisionist critique of Marxism (see Clark, "History and Ecology").

There is significant scope for literary ecologists to apply Bookchin's social ecological framework to an analysis of writers whose social and environmental concerns intersect. For example, a critique of the impact of economic centralization on Earth's human and non-human populations is evident in the work of Les Murray and Gary Snyder (Clark, "History and Ecology"). The case of Snyder is significant, for readings of his work have often focused on interests that he shares with deep ecologists, namely Zen Buddhism and Indigenous American traditions. The emphasis on this aspect of Snyder's poetry led Max Oelschlaeger, on the advice of George Sessions, co-author of Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered, to give Snyder the epithet "poet laureate of deep ecology" (437-8). Such an approach overlooks the importance of Snyder's critique of economic centralization and the intersection of environmental, economic, political, and social issues central to a number of his poems and essays (Clark, "History and Ecology" 35-41). …

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