Mark Tredinnick describes his book, The Blue Plateau, as a ‘landscape memoir’. The phrase is borrowed, he acknowledges, from Tim Winton’s introduction to a collection of photographs.* As Tredinnick explains in his Author’s Note, ‘it gets at the porosity between place and person, landscape and language, biology and biography that I explore here’. It’s no understatement; in Tredinnick’s lyrical work, the plateau is a living, breathing entity, as much a character as the people who populate it. Humans, animals, plants, trees, their histories, and their tragedies, are a tangled web.
Tredinnick lived with his wife in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales for seven years, and on the surface, The Blue Plateau is a memoir of his time spent there. But that would be putting it too simply, for in reality, Tredinnick’s personal history of life in the plateau barely features. Mainly, he focuses on the stories of those who came before him, who made this region of the mountains their home. Though he speaks of them with respect, Tredinnick acknowledges within the pages of the book that he spent too little time in the company of the region’s first people, the Gundungurra.
He is, however, preoccupied with the idea of belonging in the plateau; as a human being, as a white person, as an immigrant. At its simplest level, the plateau is not interested in human life as we are interested in it. Tredinnick recounts in vivid detail the stories of the lives that have been lost there, by flood, fire, tree-felling, or pure disappearance. As the descendant of European settlers, the difficulty of belonging is complicated further; as he puts it, ‘All white belonging in Australia must feel subjunctive’.
These are the stories to which Tredinnick devotes the most attention. The histories of two families in particular are woven through the book, exploring generations of negotiations with the land: clearing, building roads, facing off with the elements. Tredinnick uses photographs, diaries, and oral accounts to piece together the lives of these people in a way that reads, at times, like fiction. In his Note, he says, ‘If there is a literature of fact, this is an instance of it’. Building from the information he has, the author imagines moments to fill in the gaps, projecting thoughts and feelings onto his subjects in a way that feels true.
This human history is built into the landscape. Diaries chronicle the daily rainfall, the effects of fire, encounters with snakes and roos. When Tredinnick’s own voice intrudes, it is usually on behalf of the country. One memorable passage, entitled ‘What the plateau belongs to’, catalogues the flora that inhabit the different realms of the plateau, from woodland to heath, escarpment to rainforest. Tredinnick offers his own calendar of the varied seasons of the plateau, which follow no regional patterns. Several pages describe the life of a gum tree species, Bentham’s Gum or Durrum-by-ang. Place and person become indistinguishable for those who live so immersed in the mountains.
The Blue Plateau is in some ways a long prose poem, composed of passages with titles like ‘Refuge’, ‘Inundation’ and ‘The Gully’, each a story in itself which weaves into the overall narrative of settlement, struggle, and belonging. It is unique in the Australian literary landscape as an unmatched ode to the mountains that join with our own Victorian Alps in the Great Diving Range; as a history not only of a place but of the people who have shaped it, and as a personal story of finding ‘home’ and all that that can mean. Australia needs more nature writing in this school, and I only hope to read more of it in years to come.
* Down to Earth, the photographs of Richard Waldendorp (Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 1999).
Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.
You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra.
Banner image of Nellies Glen courtesy of Vmenkov / Wikimedia Commons.