Stories build a relationship between subject and audience that is deeply emotional and personal. Art can enhance the audience’s nature connection, and stories about natural systems and wildlife can determine how the reader connects with those systems. This is particularly true for children.
Australia has a wonderful heritage of nature writers, many working before nature writing was ‘a thing’. The national collection of Australian children’s books about native wildlife is inspiring. Even more inspiring, many of Australia’s best nature stories were written in the early-mid 19th century, and mostly by women.
As a child, one of my most treasured storybooks was Amy Eleanor Mack’s Bushland Stories. Last week, I discovered an original of one of her other works in a second hand bookstore. The Wilderness was a story in three parts originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald in June 1922 (read the original Parts I, II, III here). The complete bound copy I scored was printed in December 1922 – I suspect many young children received this special souvenir book as a Christmas present.
Mack was born in Adelaide in 1876 and educated in Sydney before commencing a career as a journalist and editor. After some time spent working in London and on wartime travel, she returned to Australia and worked at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was known as the editor of the women’s section, and also published a collection of wonderfully descriptive ‘nature study’ books set in the Australian bush, many of which were for younger readers. Mack published under her maiden name; her husband Launcelot Harrison was a respected zoologist.
The Wilderness tells the story of an unnamed patch of wild vegetation in Sydney (Mack never names the city, but given the original publisher and the wildlife she describes, it seems pretty obvious). Mack describes the plot so vividly and intimately that you imagine yourself there. You can visualise Nature reclaiming this plot of land, left untended after the keen gardener who owned it passed away.
As a pleasant nature study for wide readership, The Wilderness hits the mark. I wonder if Mack purposefully didn’t name the city location – the story could be set in most Australian towns of south-east, potentially connecting with a wider audience beyond the SMH readership.
Mack describes with intricate details the insects, birds, frogs and mammals that call this little urban remnant home. She describes the insect life cycles that most of us overlook, like these ant blue butterflies (Lycaenidae), with admiration.
Her fond relationship with the long-nosed bandicoot, now threatened in the Sydney region, is a nice reminder of how humans impact wildlife populations over time.
Reading this over 90 years after it was published, it is surprising (but also weirdly comforting) to find the embedded conservation messages that are just as relevant today as they were in the early 1900s.
How do common names affect people’s relationship with a species? (this comment on the beautiful butcher-bird, Cracticus spp.)
Is segregating ‘wild and tame’ (or native and introduced) always the optimal choice?
Nature study is enlightening, fulfilling and can take you places you may never imagine. All it takes is a wild patch of bush near your home.
© Manu Saunders 2017 (with excerpts © Amy Eleanor Mack 1992)