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The Australian Bush

The Kelly Gang
The Kelly gang - from an original photograph, Steve Hart, Dan Kelly, Ned Kelly
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

What is it about ‘the bush’ that is so special to Australians?

For the best part of two centuries the bush has been analysed, criticised and romanticised. It has inspired poets, painters, filmmakers and television producers; preoccupied the nation’s politicians; and fixated our social commentators. It has evoked both love and terror, and fascinated generations of Australians.

There is no doubt that the bush has an iconic status in Australian life and has featured strongly in any debate about national identity. Indeed, it has been revered as a source of national ideals by the likes of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson.

Despite the differing views and varying interpretations, the legend of the bush will not go away.

The search for identity

By the late nineteenth century, nationalism in Australia was on the rise.

Three-quarters of the population had been born in Australia and the camaraderie and defiance of the diggers on the goldfields became a huge source of national pride, just as it did with their namesakes in World War I. Their egalitarianism, mateship, and disdain for authority were to become central to the national character.

The 1890s saw a continued increase in nationalism and with it the creation of the Australian bush legend - an extension of the goldfield legend. The characters of the bush were imbued with the same qualities that the diggers on the goldfields possessed. The ‘bushman’ was seen as a resourceful, independent man who trusted only his mates.

Now whether these qualities were as real as they are in legend is debatable.

How real is the bush myth?

Tom Roberts
Tom Roberts
Elizabeth Mahoney
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Those who saw the bush as integral to Australian identity were very much urban-based. Lawson and Paterson were city dwellers, and so were the painters of the Heidelberg School – the likes of Tom Roberts and Fredrick McCubbin.

They defined the Australian landscape from afar and imposed meaning on it.

A homespun mythology

Lawson believed that an Australian identity must emanate from its own soil, not from the safe green fields of the mother country, Britain. He was not alone in this view.

Poets and novelists such as Banjo Paterson, Miles Franklin, EJ Brady and Barbara Baynton, among others, were inspired by the experiences of Australians living and working in the bush. Australian artists such as Tom Roberts, Charles Condor, Hans Heysen and Arthur Streeton began to paint Australian images and helped create the Australian bush legend.

Both Lawson and Paterson saw the bush as central to ‘identity’, but in very different ways. While Paterson was much more at ease with its wildness, Lawson saw the ‘struggle’ with the bush as central to our identity. His vision was, to quote Paterson, 'gloomy':

Henry Lawson
Henry Lawson
Sir Lionel Lindsay 1874-1961
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet. You might walk for twenty miles along this track without being able to fix a point in your mind, unless you are a bushman. This is because of the everlasting, maddening sameness of the stunted trees.
The Drover's Wife by Henry Lawson

Marcus Clarke was almost scathing in his observations of the bush, seeing no merit in it at all:

That wild dreamland termed the ‘bush’ was an accumulation of absences – songless birds, flowers with no perfume, and forests where no leaves fell. 

The Weekly Bulletin

The Weekly Bulletin was the chief medium and proponent of this national self image and did much to perpetuate the bush legend. It was an influential publication which promoted a particular set of views - egalitarianism, unionism, and ‘Australianism’.

Famously, the 1892-93 ‘Bulletin Debate' between the Bulletin writers about the real nature of Australian life, saw Lawson and Paterson write about their different perspectives on the Australian bush. Lawson claimed Paterson was a ‘City Bushman’ who romanticised the bush in poems such as The Man From Snowy River. Paterson countered by claiming that Lawson’s view of the landscape was full of doom and gloom.

The argument was followed closely by the Bulletin’s significant readership, reinforcing the bush as central to any discussion about national identity.

The Bushranger

Bushrangers were usually escapees or criminals, and the bush was the perfect place for these outlaws to remain anonymous. It was a place where, in most cases, they could be free from the eyes of the law. It can therefore be said that from early on in our history the bush became associated with wildness and lawlessness.

Portrait of Ned Kelly
Portrait of Ned Kelly
Patrick William Marony
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

From around the mid 1800s onwards, the bushrangers were admired, principally because they defied the authorities. They were symbols of resistance against Britain and the colonial authorities and were perceived as courageous and patriotic. They embodied the spirit of the diggers at the Eureka Stockade and some even became national heroes such as Ned Kelly.

They were men of the land, self-reliant, independent and symbols of defiance. They were the embodiment of the bush.

The bush today

The idea of the bush as integral to Australian identity was reinforced in 1958 when Russel Ward published The Australian Legend. While some critics criticised his interpretation of what comprises a ‘typical Australian’, he argues that traits such as mateship, anti-authoritarianism, swearing and hard drinking came from the frontier experiences of real bush workers.

While bush ideals have been revered in recent years with television programs like Bush Tucker Man and films like Crocodile Dundee, the 1980s and 1990s have seen the bush become synonymous with drought, debt, depopulation and unemployment. 

In his Australia Day address in 2002, author and ecologist Tim Flannery said Australians could only become a 'true people' by developing 'deep, sustaining roots in the land'. He said the land was 'the only thing that we all, uniquely, share in common. It is at once our inheritance, our sustenance, and the only force ubiquitous and powerful enough to craft a truly Australian people.'

As the Sydney Morning Herald’s Tony Stephens points out (24/1/02):

Flannery’s view of the land is a practical and urgent one … we had squandered this inheritance by adopting European agricultural practices, planting plane trees, growing roses, and embracing development, multiculturalism and population growth.

'Our best hope for the future,' says Flannery 'was that this wide, brown land might claim us as its own'.

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