I first read Lawrence’s debut novel The White Peacock (1911) about five years ago. I remember being struck by the vivid descriptions of landscape and what felt like a reference to a flower, plant or tree on every page. Flowers will feature in some capacity as an artefact in the Memory Theatre and so I recently reread the book, but this time with a highlighter. As Cyril Beardsall drags you across the fields of Nethermere, you’re presented with a sensory overload that at times felt like it may induce hay fever. Here’s one such example:
“The evening scents began to awake, and wander unseen through the still air. An occasional yellow sunbeam would slant through the thick roof of leaves and cling passionately to the orange clusters of mountain-ash berries. The trees were silent, drawing together to sleep. Only a few pink orchids stood palely by the path, looking wistfully out at the ranks of red-purple bugle, whose last flowers, glowing from the top of the bronze column, yearned darkly for the sun.”
My intention is to create a YouTube video to capture the breadth of such references but given that there are so many, they need to be categorised and ordered first. This is going to take a while and so it’s another project on the backburner. In the meantime, I came across this description of September in the novel which was begging to be made into a short video:
“I was born in September, and love it best of all the months. There is no heat, no hurry, no thirst and weariness in corn harvest as there is in the hay. If the season is late, as is usual with us, then mid-September sees the corn still standing in stook. The mornings come slowly. The earth is like a woman married and fading; she does not leap up with a laugh for the first fresh kiss of dawn, but slowly, quietly, unexpectantly lies watching the waking of each new day. The blue mist, like memory in the eyes of a neglected wife, never goes from the wooded hill, and only at noon creeps from the near hedges.”
John McCarthy, who previously created our Suez Canal video, was up for making another and so eagerly got to work on it, spending a day in a forest to capture the necessary shots. My brief was to create slow lingering shots so that Lawrence’s evocative descriptions took precedence; to not be on the nail when matching images to text but rather to capture the mood and feeling of the season. I find myself swaying as I type this. Once more he’s done a smashing job.
Lawrence was born on 11 September 1885 and each September sees a variety of events hosted as part of the D.H. Lawrence Festival – of which I am a council member. This year this includes a Lawrence/Leavis Day of talks followed by a birthday lecture by Keith Cushman entitled: ‘Affirmation and Anxiety in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. As with any work you produce, being time specific is one way of generating interest.
The quote also means a lot to me because of the references to ‘the corn still standing in stook’. I grew up in a mining village south east of Nottingham and our street backed right out onto corn fields. My childhood was spent getting scratches from corn and dodging Combine Harvesters whereas my fiancé would help her father erect stooks when he worked seasonally as a farm labourer.
One of our favourite activities in summer is to laze about in fields listening to birdsong and watching the farmers cut the hay when they know there’s a few days of sunshine and it can be safely left out to dry. On such occasions we’ve witnessed an owl meandering low through the fields on the hunt for field mice and counted the vast array of plants and flowers growing in the hedgerow. All of which helps transport us momentarily from the 24/7 thrust of technocratic culture into a simpler and calmer world where it’s ok to pause and observe. And because of Lawrence, I now want to know the name of every plant and flower I’m looking at. This is what good literature does. It broadens your horizons, it makes you restless and inquisitive, it helps you see the world in a different light.
If you want to know why you shouldn’t mess about with Combine Harvesters read Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa
In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Christopher Pollnitz of University of Newcastleexplores 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.
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?
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.
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.
In 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