Writing the Australian bush: DH Lawrence’s wildflowers

David Herbert Lawrence dived deep into the psychology of the Australian landscape in Kangaroo.
Flickr/Duncan~

 

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Christopher Pollnitz of University of Newcastle explores how the Australian landscape has been described and used in Lawrence’s 1923 novel, Kangaroo. If nothing else, argues Pollnoitz, Lawrence makes “us look, and look again, at the environment. For that, he is worth a medal”.


The indifference — the fern-dark indifference of this remote golden Australia. Not to care — from the bottom of one’s soul, not to care. Overpowered in the twilight of fern-odour. Just to keep enough grip to run the machinery of the day: and beyond that, to let yourself drift, not to think or strain or make any effort to consciousness whatsoever.

D. H. Lawrence, from Kangaroo (1923)

As D. H. Lawrence circled the globe, he made a point of going to the barber’s – this despite his trademark beard – and of buying a pot of honey. The barber in Thirroul, he noted, was an unusually intelligent young man, au fait with political trends in the 1920s and able to put an English visitor in touch with social life in the NSW South Coast village. The honey he would taste to commune with the vegetative spirit of place.

Lawrence tried defining the “spirit of place” in his Studies in Classic American Literature. It was, he contended, a “great reality,” albeit one that operated via emanations or effluences. It produced a race or a nation as much as it was produced by a people seeking to establish themselves in terms of their homeland. Tied up with Lawrence’s thinking about spirit of the place was a melange of ideas about indigenousness, race theory, and occult universal wisdom. Such ideas all speak at once, and are questioned, discarded, and reformulated, in Lawrence’s Kangaroo, a novel he wrote in ten weeks – all but the last chapter – while living under the Illawarra Escarpment in Thirroul.

Morning light on the Illawarra Escarpment, which runs behind Thirroul.
Flickr/Kaptain Kobold

He sailed into Circular Quay and disembarked on 27 May 1922, close to the spot where his medallion used to be on the Writers’ Walk. It is unclear when the medallion was deleted from the Walk, but its disappearance probably had more to do with the perceived sexual politics of Lawrence’s other fiction than with any concern about the writing of place in Kangaroo.

A Scottish writer and influential academic in Australia, J.I.M. Stewart, wrote in early praise of the novel’s descriptions of nature. Poet Judith Wright took it further; comparing Kangaroo with Patrick White’s Voss, Wright commended Lawrence’s insight into what she too thought was missing from the psychology of twentieth-century white-colonial Australians – any appreciation of how the continent itself, its flora and fauna, might provide the platform for a grounded sense of national identity.

Strange, then, that in the twenty-first century some have found it desirable to expunge from Australian literary history a writer who, as well as setting a novel on the east coast, has had an impact on the finest Australian-born poets and novelists. Strange and futile. Attempts to censor Lawrence out of consciousness are counter-productive, as the Lady Chatterley trial proved fifty years ago. A better plan of action is to engage with his ideas.

Kangaroo includes a succession of quirky bush vignettes, starting with one in the Perth Hills. Lawrence stayed there a fortnight, and met and talked with Mollie Skinner. He later co-wrote The Boy in the Bush with Skinner, or rather rewrote her first draft. In the first chapter of Kangaroo the Lawrentian character, Richard Lovatt Somers, recalls night-walking in the West Australian bush, and romanticises –that’s to say, lets himself be frightened by – the “huge electric moon” and the bush “hoarily waiting.” He senses the bush “might have reached a long black arm and gripped him.” Fortunately, as this colonial fear fantasy never eventuates, Somers’s feeling for the landscape grows progressively more nuanced.

Somers-Lawrence also observes tree trunks charred by bush fires and a burn-off as he returns from his night-walk, the red sparks glowing under the southern stars.

Once Somers reaches Thirroul, renamed Mullumbimby in Kangaroo, the novel develops a plot and complication. Will Somers let himself be recruited to the Diggers, a right-wing paramilitary organisation?

Thirroul glimpsed from the Illawarra Escarpment.
Flickr/davidlkel

By now a reader, curious whether the “long black arm” of Chapter I was an over-extended Aboriginal limb, will be noticing that indigenous characters are conspicuous by their absence, while white characters are indifferent to any activism not directly reflecting northern-hemisphere political contests and wars.

In Chapter X, after a “ferocious battle” with his wife Harriett, Somers climbs the Escarpment and looks back down over a dark mass of “tree-ferns and bunchy cabbage-palms and mosses like bushes” to the narrow coastal strip. A relic of the coal age, the vegetation tempts Somers to enter into a “saurian torpor,” to succumb to “the old, old influence of the fern-world,” under which one “breathes the fern-seed and drifts back, becomes darkly half-vegetable, devoid of pre-occupations.” What would now be called the New Age rhetoric of this passage conflates geological periods with the millennia in which human societies began developing cosmogonic myths. The dodgy subtext might be that, to attune itself to the Escarpment’s spirit of place, colonial Australia needs to dumb down its Western consciousness – dumb it down until it can vibrate in indigenous accord with the spirit of place.

While the botanically trained Lawrence knew perfectly well that ferns reproduce from spores, he also knew, from J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, that he who takes the mythical fern-seed between his lips has the power to become invisible and see into what is hidden in the earth. Giving Lawrence the benefit of the doubt, another subtext is that European Australians need to develop new ways of apprehending an ancient environment.

As for tree-ferns being survivors of the dinosaur age, Lawrence might have also noticed that the Escarpment was, and remains, a lively skink habitat.

Lawrence’s knowledge of the initiation rituals which showed Aranda men their spiritual identities in the Central Australian desert came from another of Frazer’s anthropological works, Totemism and Exogamy. The climax of Kangaroo, a blood-letting in the streets of Sydney, is a hideous parody of such rituals. This clash between Diggers and unionists brings neither victors nor victims a jot closer to belonging to the continent.

Disillusioned by the riot, Somers and Harriet make a last springtime excursion, to the Loddon Falls. The Loddon rises above the Escarpment and flows inland, disappearing underground into a “gruesome dark cup in the bush.” That alien spirit of place to which European consciousness must learn to accommodate is still being registered. But the passage joins others, in Twilight in Italy and “Flowery Tuscany,” as an ecstatic hymn to floral abundance and variety. It’s great fun for local readers, who have to guess at misnamed flowers (the “bottle-brushes” are banksias) or unnamed flowers from their descriptions. My guess is that the “beautiful blue flowers, with gold grains, three petalled … and blue, blue with a touch of Australian darkness,” are Commelina – common name, scurvy grass, probably because it is useless for fodder.

“ Blue, blue, with a touch of Australian darkness.‘
Flickr/Kate’s Photo Diary

Admittedly, Lawrence described the stems of this blue-flowering creeper as “thin stalks like hairs almost,” making it sound more like the Austral bluebell or even Dianella. Possibly he was conflating more than one flower in memory, for the whole wildflower paean in the last chapter was written from recollection, after he arrived in New Mexico.

There is nothing utilitarian, then, about the descriptions of the Australian bush in Kangaroo. Or perhaps there is, marginally. At least one council has begun to use Commelina as an ornamental ground cover, so helping distinguish it in the public mind from bush-suffocating infestations of the South American Tradescantia. What can be claimed for Lawrence’s brilliant botanical shorthand – “blue flowers … gold grains, three petalled” – is that even now he has the power make us look, and look again, at the environment. For that, he is worth a medal.

Christopher Pollnitz is preparing a critical edition of Lawrence’s Poems and is a member of a bush care group.The Conversation He is Conjoint Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk GREENIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we his time in Australia? Do we have space for some prehistoric ferns? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here

‘Upside Down at the Bottom of the World’ with David Faulkner

Upside Down at bottom of world.

Upside Down at the Bottom of the World was originally performed in 1980 and won David Allen the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Play. Set in 1922, the play explores Lawrence’s brief time in Australia where he wrote Kangaroo. The controversial novel includes ‘The Nightmare’ chapter that details Lawrence’s experiences of living in Cornwall during World War One. The play has particular resonance for David Faulkner as he has played the part of Lawrence and is now directing the latest production at Lane Theatre, Newquay.  

Tell us a little bit about yourself…
When I was a kid my father introduced me to the world of theatre and film. Acting from the age of twelve the smell of the greasepaint has never left me. But like so many other aspiring actors I was persuaded to get ‘a proper job’ with greater security than treating the professional boards. Even so, I continued my theatrical course as an actor and later as a director in both amateur and semi-professional theatre.

Chichester Festival Theatre played an important role in helping develop your career, as did a relationship breakup…  
In Chichester I became involved with the Festival and made many helpful contacts that opened for me a number of otherwise closed doors, most importantly an agent. When my first wife and I parted company, I decided to fulfil my dream and ran away to the metaphorical circus so to speak.

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David Faulkner. Photograph Carolyn Oakley

Frieda once said that what she loved most about Lawrence was his saying ‘yes’ to life, known as ‘Bejahung’ in German. You’ve taken some risks that have helped share your career…
One day, while on the London tube, I happened to see an advert in Time Out which read, ‘English Speaking Actors wanted for the Cafe Theatre Frankfurt’. Rather than send my CV, photograph and covering letter, I bought a £17.50 Magic Bus Ticket, packed an overnight bag and the next thing I knew I was in Frankfurt looking for The Cafe Theatre. Probably due to bare faced cheek rather than my chosen audition pieces I was offered the job. Eighteen months later I was still working at the Cafe theatre as both an actor and director, doing three monthly rep.

It was here that you first encountered Davis Allen’s play… 
Whilst there I saw Upside Down at the Bottom of the World performed by ESTA (English Speaking Theatre of Amsterdam) and when they needed a replacement for the role of Lawrence, due to illness of the previous actor playing the role, I was fortunately their first choice. As director, I had just previewed Samuel Becket’s Happy Days, and was happy to leave the run in the capable hands of the stage manager, and made the trip to Amsterdam to take over the role of Lawrence. No time for research as I had just ten days to learn the lines and replicate the role in preparation for a continued three-month tour of Holland and Germany. I remember so little of that production but often returned to the script with the thought that one day I would revive it.

And now you’re directing the play at Lane Theatre… 
Now retired and living in Cornwall I run a small touring company as well as guest directing for several local community groups. In this role I have met many talented actors and when I discovered that two of these talented actors bore more than a passing resemblance to Lawrence and Frieda I decided the time was right to revive the play, this time with sufficient time to research the characters in depth and put my own spin on the text.

Lighting is very important in the play… 
The text specifies that there should be no elaborate sets and that the actors create the character roles with minimal costume changes and in full view of the audience. Flash back scenes to – Cornwall – Eastwood – Bavaria etc – are marked by lighting effects and projected images and pre-recorded voices. As a director this approach to staging a play has always fascinated me and the creativity of the acting/technical team allow us to take what is, after all, no more than words on a page to an exciting and thought- provoking piece of pure theatre.

You’ve introduced some fascinating extra detail, such as Lawrence knitting bloomers…
Both Stuart Ellison and Jean Lenton who play Lawrence and Frieda respectively have done a great deal of homework in preparation for their roles and their research have identified aspects of the Lawrence’s relationship which is not found in the play yet together we have given a gentle nod in that direction. For example, Frieda liked wearing French knickers yet Lawrence preferred her to wear bloomers, which he often made for her. Therefore, at the beginning of the play we see Lawrence sewing a pair of bloomers which Frieda puts on in front of him. We see this sexual game playing is indeed a significant part of their relationship.

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Photograph Carolyn Oakley

They had quite a turbulent relationship. Is this addressed in the play? 
The turbulence and violence between the Lawrence’s is a known fact, therefore, it forms an important aspect of the play. My attitude is that as it is historically true is must be approached as real as possible. Unfortunately, as we live in a nanny state, with so many subjects that are deemed too sensitive to explore, there will always be some audience members who will feel uncomfortable with certain subjects. Theatre has always been there to challenge the status quo and I like to challenge.  I can’t be side tracked by what someone else might think. My job is to present the play as honestly and as truthfully as I can and if it upsets those with a sensitive bent then so be it.

Presumably your audience will be aware of Lawrence’s reputation… 
I am sure that the majority of people who come to see the play will be aware of Lawrence, whether in book or film, and will understand that it would be impossible to present a play about Lawrence without it dealing with sex, love and turbulent relationships.

Who else features in the play? 
Gary Smith plays not only Jack Calcott but also the Doctor who rejected Lawrence from active service, the Cornish policeman who gave them the order to leave the county and a German Policeman who caught Lawrence and Frieda bonking in the Bavarian woods and arrests Lawrence for spying. Rachel Bailey plays Victoria Calcott and Jessie Chambers. Rachel bears a striking resemblance to Jessie.

Do you address Lawrence’s sexual ambiguity in the play? 
There is no mention in the text to indicate Lawrence’s sexual ambiguity yet I have explored this aspect of Lawrence’s life in the scenes between Lawrence and Jack, during their political discussions. A look – A hand on a shoulder or knee – A long pause as they stare into each other’s eyes – directorial licence perhaps but I think it worth referencing in the play.

Cornwall had a profound effect on Lawrence, in particular the granite coastline which he wrote ‘had its own life force’. Was he on to something?
There is indeed a something about Cornwall that seeps from rocks and very much felt by the blood-conscious and not necessarily by the mind-conscious. Whether Lawrence was ‘on to something’ I don’t know but Cornwall has in my experience always attracted free thinkers and aging hippies and those creative types are not necessarily adverse to expanding their minds in whatever forms take their fancy.

How important is Lawrence’s literary legacy to the South West?  
There is a DH Lawrence society in St Ives and Zennor and when we approached Zennor Hall with the idea of performing the play there they were very interested in everything connected with Lawrence in Cornwall and were able to give us lots of information about the couple when they lived there, and what they might have got up to. Sadly, Zennor Hall is too small for our production.

Why have you decided to stage the play now? 
Sometimes a play comes along that has particular relevance at a certain time. Upside Down at the Bottom of the World is one of those plays. The political turmoil of the Diggers, the right/left struggle, the influence of the Unions in conflict with the capitalists is almost a mirror to what we are experiencing here and now.

Would Lawrence have voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’?   
Which way would Lawrence have voted in the referendum? Now that’s a hard one. Married to a German, he may have voted Remain. Then again having no truck with a capitalist world order, and being the son of a miner, perhaps, Leave.  Now that would make a great play, haha.

Lane Theatre

Upside Down at the Bottom of the World is at Lane Theatre, Newquay, Cornwall, TR8 4PX from 14-16 March and 21 – 23 March 2019. Tickets £11 (£10 concessions)

dhl-trunk vibration noiseIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we get across Lawrence’s time spect in Cornwall and Australia? Is there room to show various plays that explore his life? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here

Lorenzo in Taos: 1 – Come on Over to my Place

 

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In 1932 Mabel Dodge Luhan published a memoir of her life with the Lawrence’s in Taos, New Mexico. Published two years after his death, it offered a vital insight into the controversial author who had rubbed everyone up the wrong way and consequently caused great intrigue. The opening chapter includes lots of letters from the Lawrence’s and commentary from Luhan. By all accounts Lawrence comes across as a right pain in the arse – indecisive, guttural, and highly sceptical of the community Luhan had built for herself.      

In the preface to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir, Lorenzo in Taos, she warns ‘that I could only tell in these pages how we all were then’. It’s an apology of sorts, recognition that her invitation to Lawrence and Frieda to come experience life in New Mexico ‘does not end happily.’

Luhan invited Lawrence because she wanted him to experience the country before the ugly face of modernity came along and ‘exploited’ and ‘spoiled’ it. She hoped he would be able to record New Mexico ‘in that queer way of his,’ as he had done in Sea and Sardinia. In explaining his vivid skill of capturing ‘the feel and touch and smell of places,’ Luhan observes, ‘perhaps it is because, when he is writing, the experience is more actual to him than when it occurred. He is in the place again, reliving in retrospect more vividly than he was able to do at the time it happened.’ Ouch.

Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, was used to getting what she wanted. But just to make sure she sent an Indian necklace to Frieda that carried ‘some Indian magic’ and some Desachey and Osha leaves for Lawrence to lure him over.

Lawrence replied on 5 November 1921, proudly reporting ‘we are very practical, do all our own work, even the washing, cooking, floor-cleaning.’ But this is because he loathes ‘servants creeping around’. Rather than thank Luhan for her kind offer of putting them up, he takes an early prod, enquiring whether he’ll encounter ‘a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people’.

On reading Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Luhan had detected ‘capabilities in him that would enable him to understand the invisible but powerful spirit that hovered over the Taos Valley.’ But getting him over was turning out to be more difficult than she had imagined. Despite accepting her invitation, they were in no hurry. On the 22 January 1922, Frieda wrote to Luhan explaining Lawrence ‘doesn’t feel strong enough’ to face America yet but they had a cunning plan. They would take a detour to Ceylon on their travels as ‘strengthened with Buddha, noisy, rampageous America might be easier to tackle.’ Why not join them?

mabel dodge luhan
Mabel Dodge Luhan

Luhan knew what they really meant. ‘They were scared. They wanted to see me, take a look,’ effectively try before you buy. ‘People were always warning other people about me,’ she confides, suggesting either her fears were justified or that she had an inflated sense of her own self-importance. But it’s not about her. It’s all about him. And the one thing Lawrence can’t stand is the arty literary crowds whom he describes as ‘smoking, steaming shits.’ So he advises Luhan to ‘spit on every neurotic, and wipe your feet on his face if he tries to drag you down.’ Then he calms down a bit and sends a postcard as he sets sail from Naples, thanking Luhan for being ‘so kind’ but that it is his destiny to venture elsewhere for a bit.

On 10 April, 1922, Luhan receives a letter from Kandy, Ceylon. Needless to say Lawrence is not happy. He complains of ‘the scents that make me feel sick…the nauseous tropical fruits…the little vulgar dens of the temples.’ Charming. And if she thought for one moment the experience had increased his urge to head to Taos, she was wrong. He was now heading to Australia. But he was still excited at the thought of coming to America, expressing these sentiments in his unique fashion. ‘I wish I could come to America without meeting the awful ‘cultured’ Americans with their limited self-righteous ideals and their mechanical love-motion and their bullying, detestable negative creed of liberty and democracy.’ Luhan is clearly a bit frustrated at these ‘silly detours’ and believes that the delay ‘strengthened something in me that he hated’, that being, a strong feminist principle.

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“Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe” Garry Shead, oil on board.

When Lawrence writes from Australia on 9 June he’s keen to emphasise that his visit has been as an anonymous traveller and that when he does finally make it to Taos he doesn’t want her to inform ‘anybody we are coming.’ On the 18 July he is finally ready to come to Taos, not because he wants to but because Australia has nothing left to offer him – ‘Have done my novel and have nothing further to do.’ Frieda, on the other hand, has more pragmatic demands, requesting ‘don’t give us too little a place to live in, we are much too quarrelsome…we mustn’t be too much on top of each other or we get on each other’s nerves.’

At this point, Mabel Dodge Luhan must have regretted invited them over. They’ve delayed their arrival date, disclosed they bicker, and Lawrence has been highly critical of the arty community that Luhan has strived to develop, at her own cost, over the years. But there you have it. One year of fannying around and Lawrence is finally ready to fulfil his ‘real desire to approach America from the West.’ Or is he? ‘I thought of stopping off at Yosemite Valley but feel – Oh Damn scenery…’

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent his indecision or his rudeness to Luhan? How could we represent his time in Taos? If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.

 

Further Reading