Wilderness was paradox enow?
An analysis of perception and response to the Australian environment from the first settlement to the National Park, 1788-1879

  • Valma Rae Hawkes

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis explores the significance of the concept of wilderness as a dominant ideography for Europeans describing Australian landscapes in the period 1788-1879. "Wilderness" provided a comprehensive framework of language and imagery for writers of different status, role and professional training. A term of great complexity, it embraces inherent paradoxes which have long been sanctioned by religious and literary tradition. Part of the vocabulary of description of humankind's relationships with the natural world, "wilderness" enjoys a rich texture of allegorical, metaphorical and literal meanings. Linked semantically with a constellation of terms such as "paradise" and "garden", "heaven" and "hell", a wilderness may be a place, a psychic or spiritual condition or set of conditions. A threatening wilderness is an inhospitable place savagely opposed to civilized conduct, fit only for Wild Men and social outcasts. Paradoxically, its very "Otherness" may invoke the intervention of divine Providence, resulting in the wilderness "blossoming" and land and outcasts being redeemed. The wilderness may then "beckon". Providence notwithstanding, a wilderness demands concerted human efforts to civilize it, usually by agriculture or pastoral activities. The "contrary" and inhospitable nature of the Australian continent rendered traditional but inappropriate Utopian and Edenic fantasies obsolete. Long dominant in European imaginings of the Great South Land, they offered only disappointment and disillusionment to those facing environmental realities. They became a symbolic cul de sac for many writers needing to convey descriptions of strange environments and their own activities within them. The paradoxical nature of "wilderness" allowed a more diverse set of responses and description to flourish within a coherent framework, understood by both writers and their audiences. Either beckoning or threatening, predator or prey, land of the scapegoat or the chosen people, the wilderness could offer the shame of exile or the hope of redemption. An analysis of many "non-literary" documents written by a variety of specialist observers, officers, convicts, explorers, scientists and settlers supports the assumption that the Australian continent fulfilled all the many conflicting specifications of classical wilderness. The documents demonstrate an intimate connection between cultural constructions and environmental perception. They offer evidence of the initial perception of a hostile wilderness, considered only in terms of its capacity to meet the cultural and resource demands of the transplanted British. They also trace the diversification of responses from this exclusively utilitarian base to the dawning of a new aesthetic which could foster expressions of topophilic attachment to the landscape. The constant tension between the threatening and the beckoning nature of wilderness allowed the inversion of images of predator and prey in the erratic process of re-defining relationships between humankind and the natural world. For almost a century, the use of the term "wilderness" more often implied the threatening rather than the beckoning aspect, which militated against a realistic appraisal of many antipodean landscapes and retarded the development of emotional attachment to the land. The thesis illustrates the crucial role of a traditional ideography to filter and channel sensory perceptions and evaluations of physical phenomena.
    Date of Award1992
    Original languageEnglish

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