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Jim Gasteen, Under the Mulga: A Bush Memoir (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2005, AUD$27.18, 318 pages, ISBN 0-7022-3445-1-1)—Susan Ballyn, Universitat de Barcelona


It is not very often that one finds oneself gurgling with laughter when reading, but there are many moments in Jim Gasteen's Under the Mulga: A Bush Memoir that inevitably provoke a certain hilarity in the reader. I am not, however, suggesting that this work is a light witty read, far from it. There are moments of despair and sadness that move through the work, indeed, Gasteen has cut a neat balance between the use of humour and his descriptions of the harsh and almost cruel moments of bush life. Under the Mulga has come to join the ever increasing list of "bush memoirs" published since the very early decades after European invasion and subsequent colonisation of Australia. One might well ask oneself: is there anything different, with regard to all its predecessors, that makes Gasteen's work a valuable addition to the growing corpus of "bush memoirs"? In many respects it resembles a number of such works: life in the bush, depictions of the tough European men and women eeking out a frugal existence from a harsh and unyielding land, stories of success and failure shot through with a good dose of stoicism. While Gasteen's work shares most of these topics, there is a lot that recommends the book to the reader; among others the extraordinary range of oral registers that he is able to capture, his ability to render Australian bush life in all its splendour and harshness, and his political commitment as an environmentalist to the bush that he loves so dearly.

Jim Gasteen never actually wanted to write his memoirs because he was "Always too busy, and doubtful that anyone would want to read it all anyway, I purposely put it out of my mind and tried to forget about it" [xiii]. However in 1990 while with Pacific-Asia Travel Association Task Force "investigating Cape York" and regions in the area, the question came up again. Gasteen's reply was "Never, I couldn't bear to see I,I,I on every page" [xiii]. He received a reply which finally stirred him into action, "you'd better start thinking about it because someone else is going to do it for you" [xiii]. And so Gasteen was spurred loathly into writing what has turned out to be an excellent bush memoir. Under the Mulga: A Bush Memoir actually begins with a brief biography of his parents and on his father's return from serving his country in the First World War the acquisition of the first family property, Thrushton, "on a block of waterless virgin mulga country in South West Queensland" [xiv], which he started to develop after marrying Gasteen's mother. The family was to live through the terrible prolonged drought periods and the depression. They would survive by dint of hard work and frugal living. The book thus covers a critical period in outback station life from the turn of the twentieth century, through two World Wars, the depression and technological progress which inevitably affected life in the outback.

The first chapter is most aptly titled "Starting from Scratch", which is exactly what Gasteen's parents did. Arriving on their property with all their goods and chattels on land that was harsh and difficult to clear and make fit for pasture. All throughout the years the young Gasteens were growing up they learnt the lore of bush life, the building of a family home, how to work the land, fence huge areas of land, build drains, muster and douse the sheep and the list grows longer. Gasteen and his siblings grew up in a loving, hardworking no-nonsense family. While life was often extremely tough, the children led a carefree life and became what Gasteen terms "Wild Bush Kids" [26]. This is perhaps an exaggeration as their parents ensured they had an education which eventually led Gasteen's two brothers to leave the land for life in the city. Almost as importantly as a good regular education Gasteen gradually absorbed the land into his veins and became deeply rooted and committed to both Thrushton and later the family's second property; Clonard. In this process of what I would call osmosis, Gasteen became an expert in all aspects of bush wildlife. Scattered through the book are the common names of plants, bracketed with their Latin name, his knowledge of everything that moves and grows in the bush is encyclopaedic to say the least. Now this might make for a rather pedantic and boring read, but not at all. The backbone to the book, if I may use such a term, is humour, and the author's profound political commitment to the ecological stability of the fragile bush environment and the need to use it wisely as its traditional owners did. How can one not laugh at the author's recounting the entertainment that emus provided. At one stage the Gasteen boys were after quandong seeds. What better place to get them from than an emu!

When we knew where they were, all we had to do to attract them was lie down on the open ground and wave a bag or shiny powdered milk tin or condensed milk tin about on the end of a long stick for a while. They'd come right up with the old throaty grunt and slowly saunter round, getting closer all the time until they were almost on top of us. With much gaping with those enormous bulging eyes sticking out of a little dishmop head that was all beak and feathers, and nothing much inside, they'd goggle down at us with much curiosity. We'd wait until they were peering down at us from a few feet away, then suddenly fly in the air waving a bag. Look out! Feathers flying and legs pedalling in mid-air while a shower of shit and quandong seeds sprayed the ground from the exhaust end. They cannoned into one another as they bolted, leaving that ridiculous little head behind at the end of a long skinny neck to catch up later like a yoyo on a piece of string. [90]

Gasteen's childhood was peopled by itinerant rural workers, shearers, bullock drivers, travelling salesman and the like, all of them depicted with great affection. As a child and later throughout his life his preoccupation with the Aboriginal people is patent. His respect for them and their ancient understanding of the land and how to nurture it is evident, as is his concern at the way they had been treated from the time of European invasion.

For thousands of years, Aboriginal tribes has worked the country hunting and gathering while surface water remained, but as the country dried out, they shifted their main camps to more permanent holes. They generously passed on information about water, its location and the type of surrounding country in a friendly fashion and child-like trust. This was their custom. Many a sick or lost white man had been led to the safety of a shady waterhole, given food and treated with kindness. [64]

However, these same tribal people watched with alarm how their land was taken from them and their traditional hunting grounds destroyed.

Most of the scattered small groups of Aborigines gradually moved in to the fringes of western towns where they built a collection of rough bush shanties out of flattened petrol tins and old bags on the banks of permanent holes bordering the towns. [63]

They had in fact become fringe dwellers, closely resembling the characters in Nene Gare's book of the same name and the later film version. Gasteen points out that a few white people did care about their plight but most did not even question how this formerly proud race had reached such levels of depravity [63].

Not only are the Aboriginal people and the huge suffering wrought upon them Gasteen's only concern. His work reveals the devastating effects of the introduction of cloven hoofed animals into a fragile grassland environment, the rise in the kangaroo population until it reached pest level, the gradual desertification of many of the pastoral areas through over grazing and ignorance of the reliability of regrowth and rainfall patterns. New technology also leads to rapid and not necessarily controlled change in the way the land is treated and Gasteen is often critical of it given its impact on the environment. Brought up on the land and later working on it led Gasteen to become a powerful advocate for environmental conservation and the implementation of adequate controls.

While Gasteen does not spare the reader the details of how hard life was and still can be "Under the Mulga," the work sparkles with humour and the most amazing range of linguistic registers. At times Gasteen's descriptions of the bush are lyrical if not down right poetical in their rendering while at the other extreme we have conversations replicated in the tightest and most closed registers of Australian bush English. During the Second World War much of the talk was what one might do to Hitler if one got him. One drover knows exactly what he would do:

"I jist want arf an hour with th' bastard with a butcher's knife an' a bag of coarse salt, that's all I'm askin'. Just wanter here th' mongrel beller while I hack little bits of hide orf 'im an' rub in another 'andful of coarse salt. Pickle th' bloody mongrel, that's what I'm gunner do if ever I git me 'ands on 'im." [131]

Humour also lies behind Gasteen's courtship of, and later marriage to, Marj "Moodgie" Pearce, a doctor's daughter with a university degree. The contrast between the two young people could not be more startling, but the marriage worked and "Moodgie" settled into rural life and all its ups and downs. Finally however, the time came for Jim and Moodgie Gasteen to move off the land to Brisbane where the children would have access to a good secondary/tertiary education.

Leaving the land winds up the story of what Dad and Doolie [Gasteen's mother] started so long ago [and] I've tried to illustrate the hardship faced by those older settlers with nothing but their determination to leave a mark for others to follow [and] Few have left any written words behind for they saw nothing worth writing about in the perpetual drudgery and boredom of hard sweaty work that changed little from day to day or from season to season. [318]

Jim Gasteen and "Moodgie" became partners in his brothers' dry-cleaning business in Brisbane but:

Leaving the land put a great hole in our lives that nothing seemed to fill. As one of our Stony Chite neighbours said to his mate when he heard I was going into dry cleaning in the city: "Jesus Christ, Jimmy Gasteen ironing bloody pants. Be like tryin' ter carve a silk stockin' outer a sow's ear' 'e'd be like a fish outer water, wouldn't 'e'? 'E was too—we all were." [318]

Gasteen has produced a work of great historical interest, one which will be relevant not only to the general reader but also to students of Australian "Bush literature." Beautifully written, it holds a wealth of information of life "Under the Mulga" as it was and as it has become in the late twentieth century. Given its immediacy and freshness of style this work makes an ideal gift and a sound reference which should find its way onto many reader's shelves.

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