A Landscape Memoir is the sub-title of Mark Tredinnick’s marvellous work of creative non-fiction. And in a little under 300 pages, he shows us that this is more than a vague poetic notion; it is an expression of the wisdom held in landscapes, and how our stories are woven into and by them.
A landscape in the sky
The landscape story he tells is that of the Blue Mountains and their valleys. It is a wild place barely tamed after centuries of hard toil. It is part of an epic plateau that stretches from the interior of Australia to Sydney on the coast.
Tredinnick tells us the Blue Mountains are “not far west but far enough”. This was true first for fugitives wanting “to get lost”, then for farmers searching their own new eden and eventually for Sydney tourists arriving for a weekend away from the city.
It is a place of sheer cliffs, waterfalls, rivers and eucalypt forests. The aboriginal name for this place was Katoomba which means ‘the place of falling water’. And it is a landscape born and shaped by water.
“The plateau came in the river. It fell; it rose; it falls again.”
And running through the plateau’s heart like a single, fragile artery, is an escarpment reaching a thousand metres into the air.
Today, this escarpment is where almost every Blue Mountain inhabitant lives. Down in the valleys, Kedumba and Kanimbla, life is considered too hostile, too barren. But it wasn’t always this way.
A history of a place
Tredinnick takes us back to the beginning, acknowledging that this really is only a very recent beginning. White history of this area dates back to the early 19th Century by which time aboriginal history in the area was already hundreds of generations old.
It was the fire farming of the first peoples who first drew the white men to the Kedumba and the Burragorang grasslands. Or rather, it drew cattle who wandered here from those first settler boats. The first white farmers only followed 20 years later and discovered fat, healthy cattle grazing in shoulder high grass.
“And by then…there were already cattle in the first people’s dreaming; there were bulls on the walls of the caves where the old people lived.”
What followed was the classic tragedy of unrepentant empires that was repeating across this land and the wider world: “it’s the same old settlement story – just add water.” But within this story were the discrete stories of the few families who came to claim this place, tame this place and make this place home.
The stories of a place
These are stories of hardship, endurance and simplicity. They are stories of endeavour and failure, extraordinary effort for merger reward, and a stoicism that seems to belong to a much older time.
Most of the memoir centres around the story of Les Maxwell, a man who was never on top or in charge but did more to shape the modern valley than any other white man in its history. His grandfather was one of the first to work the plateau and he was one of the last to believe in it.
Les and his wife May are portrayed as a combined personification of this place, or perhaps the human drive to make this place ‘ours’. May keeps a simple diary, noting in the most succinct way the facts of each day.
“Sunday, 31 December 1972. Cloudy and cool. Les worked. I had lonely day as usual.”
In its simplicity, her diary reflects the essentialism of this place, a story stripped back to skeletal function, much like the endured days it depicts. And through the sheer volume of entries (a total of 20 pocket diaries), something of real value emerged.
“The lines became volumes, and the volumes became years, and the years became a poem in which the valley was spoken.”
The lessons of a place
Through Les, May and others, Tredinnick weaves a fine and delicate narrative of this place. Ultimately he shows us that, try as we might, a landscape like this is not for dominating or conquering.
“The place doesn’t mean you to stay.”
En route, he makes reflections about home, purpose and place that resonate far beyond these high-walled valleys.
“I wonder if this place or any place need us all to stay and stay. Maybe it’s how one stays that matters, not how long.”
“Home is where you know that where you are is enough, and always will have been, no matter where you go from here. That having been here, you have really lived.”
There is no derision of the people or place in Tredinnick’s writing; no patronising of those who made their lives tougher than they needed to be by staying and trying to make this hostile landscape a home. Instead, he tells universal stories of effort, failure, endeavour and belief that will find their place in all our lives, however distant we are from the high cliffs and long rivers of the Blue Mountains.
This is a beautiful book. It shows us a harsh landscape and still manages to paint it as an unlikely form of paradise. It tells stories of repetition and hard-fought progress and wins our respect for those who tried and tried again for whole lifetimes.
The design is also a reason to pick the book up. From the typeface and lines of poetry that organise the patchwork narrative to the watercolour image that greets each new section and adorns the cover, it is a work of delicate beauty.
As a writer, reading this book felt like staring into my own ambition. Not to specifically write about a place such as the Blue Mountains or explore these particular stories, but to aspire to create a book about facts and truths but delivered in poetry. Tredinnick calls it a “literature of fact” which suggests a place in a longer and more worthwhile canon than ‘creative non-fiction’ does.
Tredinnick’s prose is a study of care and precision, slowly formed and lovingly constructed to tell the stories of people who probably wouldn’t have considered their lives worthy of telling.
In the end, it leaves you wrapped in this landscape, both shivering and warmed in the knowledge that you only possess the smallest fragment of an epic story.
“Something’s going on here, and it never will be finished.”