John Dargavel reviews Borschmann's The People's Forest

Borschmann, Gregg. The People’s Forest: A Living History of the Australian Bush. Blackheath, NSW: The People’s Forest Press. ISBN 0-646-36939-3 viii+pp.279.$39.95

The lively sub-field of Australian forest history is replete with policy, heritage, technological, silvicultural and ecological themes. Cultural themes are less common and works in the oral history genre rare. The oral histories presented in The People’s Forest are not only a welcome addition to the literature but part of an ambitious extension of the genre further into the multi-media world. Borschmann collected 88 interviews—with botanists, bushwalkers, environmentalists, farmers, foresters, loggers and many others—for the National Library of Australia’s oral history programme. Like oral histories generally, they were collected from older people. The oldest was born in 1899, the youngest in 1958 and most in the 1920s and 1930s. From the interviews, he prepared both this book and an attractive touring exhibition that is on its way round regional centres and folk festivals during 1999 and 2000. CDs of folk music about the forest, a video and radio programmes are to follow. The book was launched with extensive media coverage ranging from and interview with John Laws to a review in the Weekend Australian.

The book contains 49 of the interviews metamorphosed from their spoken words to grammatical sentences and proper paragraphs, yet seeming to retain their personal voices—no mean editorial feat this—each reinforced by an attractive full-page photograph. Eight short essays provide varied contexts from environmental history (Geoffrey Bolton) to environmental philosophy (Val Plumwood) and forest economics (Neil Byron). Most of these also carry a personal voice. With historic photographs, artwork and an interesting design it all makes an attractive volume to dip into. A bedside or casual book one might think but Borschmann has a more serious purpose.

Borschmann sees the book as capturing the beginnings of a ‘white fella dreaming’, of a profound identification with ‘the bush’, a ‘birthright’ which he asserts is ‘firmly rooted in our hearts and imaginings’. The essays and interviews bear him out. Two themes run through them. One is childhood memory of the bush. ‘I spent many happy hours … ’ writes Val Plumwood, although Henry Steers found his father ‘… didn’t care much whether I got killed or not’ when felling trees with him as a 12 year old. Happy or hard-working, however, the recollections of youth, family and times past are imbued with that certain aura—wistful or accepting—with which mercifully we cast our memories as we age. The second and angrier theme concerns how the bush is used. It takes two forms. Some of the people interviewed decry how the forests are being used now and look to a less pressured past. Their stories have a nostalgic feel for the time before heavy machinery, woodchipping or environmental conflicts. Others see the past as having degraded farms and forests and needing remedial action. Some of these people are collecting seed, planting trees on denuded farms, regenerating patches of urban bush and trying to make a better future. Their stories have an inspirational feel.

With so many voices from people of different walks of life, places and ages, there is much to muse over in The People’s Forest beyond these themes. It enables us to glimpse the complexity of social history associated with Australia’s forests. It provides an antidote to the media depictions of the environmental controversies of recent decades as being battles between the ‘greenies’ and the ‘greedies’.

All this leaves us with two questions. Is The People’s Forest the very pattern of a postmodern forest history which Stephen Legg in a recent paper suggests may be the way of the future? 1. And does it, as Borschmann intends, contain the seeds of a ‘white fella dreaming’ of our environmental future. Both questions revolve around the relationship between the oral historian and those interviewed, how interviews are selected, conducted, recorded, presented and how they can be read. The same questions arise in three earlier forest histories based on similar collections. Ian Watson’s Fighting over the forests, published in 1990, draws on detailed interviews with timber workers and environmentalists involved in forest disputes in the NSW north coast forests. 2. His analysis is conducted inside a strong Marxist theoretical framework so that he sees the values held by these two groups as being imbued with, if not fully determined by the way that individuals obtain their means of subsistence. Simon Cubit’s Recollections from the forest: 75 years of forest service in Tasmania, published by Forestry Tasmania in 1996 draws on interviews with older and former employees to build a picture of hard work and loyalty in the government’s forest service. 3. Roger Underwood’s earlier Leaves from the forest: stories from the lives of West Australian foresters collected a series of short written, not oral, anecdotes which builds a similar picture. 4. In each case, the reader is told or infers the purpose of the author—an exposition by Watson, an institutional record by Cubit and the presentation of a professional group by Underwood—which is brought out by the material. In these works, the single voice of the interviewer carries further than the many voices of those interviewed.

The People’s Forest is no exception, although its many voices are more varied than the earlier studies. In my reading, Borschmann expresses his yearning for the Australian bush eloquently through other voices. He indirectly asserts ‘the bush’ as the basis of national identity, as a folkloric theme, full of poetry and beauty, a spiritual centre even; something to be nurtured, loved, cherished. To my mind, yearning alone will not make it so. Power, politics and money are what shakes the world. Be as postmodern as you like, late capitalism is here. But it is an attractive and engaging book full of insights, feelings, impressions and sensibilities which can be read in many different ways. As he says, it is ‘a dreaming’.