Book Review: Internal landscapes and The Road from Coorain

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So, I exaggerated in my brief description of this memoir by Jill Ker Conway in my top nonfiction books of 2011. It’s only the first seven pages of this book that are description of the Australian landscape. But those seven pages were enough to make me pick up the book and put it down many times before finally moving past those pages recently. And now I’m quite glad that I did.

Coorain is the name of the sheep ranch in Australia where Conway spent her early childhood, and it is this bush landscape which very intentionally shapes the narrative of Conway’s life. Her family is driven off the ranch by a drought and the death of her father, but you know what they say…you can take the girl out of the bush, but you can’t take the bush out of the girl.

There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about Conway’s life. Her father died. She grew up on a sheep ranch. She had a difficult mother. Conway herself faced obstacles to her academic ambitions because she was a woman. There’s no particular suspense in this memoir; just a simply, honestly and beautifully told story of Conway’s early life in Australia.

It is a memoir very much about gender. Conway faces difficulties getting a job after university because she is a woman, but she also suggests that her mother is a difficult woman because of the ways in which the historical time period wasted her energies and her ambition. It is also a memoir about Australia as a nation. Conway becomes a historian, and specifically a social historian at a time when not much social history was being done in Australia. Her memoir becomes a kind of social history of one woman, surrounded by reflections on Australian life in general.

Most interesting to me, it is a memoir of landscape, and therefore, a memoir of place. By the time you finish the memoir, you understand exactly why Conway begins with a seven page description of the landscape of the bush. She cannot tell the story without the landscape.

The first time I became aware that I had grown up in a landscape was when I was in graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana. One of my fellow graduate students had spent most of his life in Arizona, and he was repeatedly exclaiming on the greenness and the lushness of Southern Indiana. For the first time I saw the landscape around me as something different and unique and beautiful, and not simply the way the whole world looked.

An image from the Masterpiece
Theatre film

I’d had hints of this before. Once in college, we drove west from Jackson, Mississippi, into Louisiana. After crossing the river, the great, flat delta of Louisiana stretches out in front of you for miles into the horizon. There were no rises in view, no depressions, nothing at all to disturb the straight line of land that seemed to go on forever. It felt wrong, frightening, and dangerous to look out into that landscape, though I couldn’t exactly articulate why. But of course, it felt wrong because my internal landscape is curved and hilly, riddled with valleys for creeks and rivers, covered with woods or rolling green pastures.

In graduate school, I began thinking for the first time of my landscape as beautiful in its own right and not something to be taken for granted. And I began thinking about it as mine. For Conway, this realization comes when she’s visiting England with her mother and discovers that though her education assumed England as the center of the world, it is not a landscape that is hers:

The Cotswold hills, the deer grazing in the park at Knote, even the great heath that inspired Hardy’s Egdon Heath in Tess of D’Urbervilles seemed on the wrong scale. I had imagined it on a larger scale, and kept wanting to get a longer perspective on things. It took a visit to England for me to understand how Australian landscape actually formed the ground of my consciousness, shaped what I saw, and influenced the way a scene was organized in my mental imagery. I could teach myself through literature and painting to enjoy this landscape in England, but it would be the schooled response of the connoisseur, not the passionate response one has for the earth where one is born. My landscape was sparer, more brilliant in color, stronger in its contrasts, majestic in its scale, and bathed in shimmering light.

What a fascinating thought. How does the landscape in which you grew up shape the very ground of your consciousness? How does it influence what you see or how you imagine a scene inside your head? I could not see the landscape around me at all until I could glimpse it briefly through the eyes of someone whose internal landscape was quite different. But if the ground of my consciousness is hilly and wooded, lush green in the summertime and thin tracings of gray in the winter, what does that mean? Is the territory of my thoughts similar, full of quiet valleys and steep ascents? It is not a landscape that inspires awe in the way of desserts or mountains. It seems to invite us in as humans, rather than making us feel small or inconsequential. It feels at times to me like being cupped in a great and gentle hand. And so is all this part of how I see the world?

At the end of the memoir, Conway leaves Australia for, of all places, the United States. She’s forced to leave her own landscape behind. I’m glad to have settled here, tucked neatly and contentedly in a river valley, surrounded by steep hills covered with trees and running water. It feels right and good. And perhaps when I look out my window, part of what I’m seeing is the landscape of my own mind.

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