I found the goat one lazy Sunday afternoon, uploading old copies of newspapers to see what the English thought about James Cook after the Endeavour got home. And there she was, hailed as a heroine: the goat who saved the ship. Cook even took her home with him. Three years away in the South Seas, and what does he take his family? One smelly, stroppy old nanny goat. The British government granted her a pension. The August Royal Society made her a member: the only goat (and at that time the only female) ever admitted to its ranks.
The goat gave milk for the whole three years of the voyage. When the Endeavour was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, the goat’s dry dung was spread on an old sail then wrapped around the shattered hull. The dung drew up water, and the sail clung to the ship, making an almost watertight seal. Without those goat droppings, the ship would have been lost. Without the report from the Endeavour, the English would never have sent a colony to ‘New South Wales’.
Sometimes a bit of information goes ‘ping!’ and you see the world in a different way. I’d imagined the Endeavour, and other sailing ships of the time, to be the clean-decked vessels you see in movies. Instead they were floating arks, with live sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, and chickens. They had to make frequent stops to cut grass and pick up water for the animals so necessary for food in the days before refrigeration.
That ‘ping’ was the beginning of this book. But for years I’d also been researching historical novels, working from the documents at the time, not history books. History looks very different in diaries and letters and old newspapers.
Australians these days rarely know their land intimately – even the simplest knowledge like digging a 30cm hole to look for flood debris, or learning that turtles will plod uphill ten days before the river rises, or understanding which wattles set most seed before a bushfire summer. Every year the fires or floods seem to take the authorities by surprise.
My family are storytellers too. I grew up with Dad’s stories of World War Two and Jannie’s (my paternal grandmother) battles of the Women’s Temperance Movement to help Federate Australia and end the horrors of child labour. I collect stories. History is best learned from those who were there, either in long yarns over a cup of tea, or in their diaries. ‘Pa Jack’, my father-in-law, fought at Gallipoli. Dad’s friends died at Kokoda. (Dad’s appendix burst during embarkation. He probably survived because of it, and felt the guilt all his life.)
To understand the battles you need to understand the men who fought them. To understand those men, you need to know the land and how they lived with it.
We need to study how the land itself has shaped our nation- and will keep doing so. Desperate people on boats will continue head for our shores, as they have for 60,000 years. Other nations will keep looking covetously at our resources. Expect new plagues from migrating animals and humans, occasional tsunamis, and increasing damage to low lying parts of our coast. If the native bush in your area needs fire to germinate or regenerate, then it will burn again.
We need to listen to our land. If we fail, we will stumble into a future we can neither predict nor understand.
Jackie French’s Let the Land Speak is a Booktoberfest title. Buy it now to go in the draw to win Booktopia’s weekly giveaway – a $250 Booktopia voucher – AND order by 31st October 2013 to go in the draw to win the fantastic publisher prize.
By Jackie French
To understand the present, you need to understand the past. To understand Australia’s history, you need to look at how the land has shaped not just our past, but will continue to shape our future.
From highly respected, award-winning author Jackie French comes a new and fascinating interpretation of Australian history, focusing on how the land itself, rather than social forces, shaped the major events that led to modern Australia.
Our history is mostly written by those who live, work and research in cities, but it’s the land itself which has shaped our history far more powerfully and significantly than we realise. Reinterpreting the history we think we all know – from the indigenous women who shaped the land, from Terra Incognita to Eureka, from Federation to Gallipoli and beyond, Jackie French shows us that to understand our history, we need to understand our land.
Taking us behind history and the accepted version of events, she also shows us that there’s so much we don’t understand about our history because we simply don’t understand the way life was lived at the time.
Eye-opening, refreshing, completely fascinating and unforgettable, Let the Land Speak will transform the way we understand the role and influence of the land and how it has shaped our nation.