Her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me

I’ve grabbed a line out of one of Australia’s most popular poems. My Country by Dorothea Mackellar, and here’s the context:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

I’ll post the complete poem at the end of this blog if you’re interested to read it, but the gist is that young Dorothea is being dragged around Europe by her father and is desperately homesick for Australia. Her English friends don’t understand, so she writes the poem as a form of explanation. I’ve always adored it, and it’s no coincidence that I’ve ended up living near one of our ‘jewel seas’, the Coral Sea. But it’s the beauty and the terror of our country that’s always inspired me as a writer, and when I met an agent in New York years ago who said, “I love Australian authors, their writing has such zest” I understood why. When the snake in your backyard or the spider in your boot might kill you, your life – and your writing – take on a different quality.

Earlier this year bushfires raged across the southern states of Australia, destroying property, taking lives, and decimating wildlife populations.

Only a few months ago, so much of our country was scorched. Where I live has seen two devastating floods in the past five years, and today Cyclone Ita, a Category Five cyclone (the highest rating) is crossing the Coral Sea, driving a wall of water in front of its 80km core. It will ride roughshod over the Great Barrier Reef and cross the coast at beautiful Cooktown, 1600 kilometers (approx 1000 miles) north of where I live. It’s estimated to reach landfall at 5pm local time. That’s 5 hours from now.


Great Barrier Reef

Cyclone Ita will undoubtedly create irreparable damage to land, property, wildlife and possibly human life, although authorities are taking every precaution, evacuating residents into reinforced shelters before the winds reach 100km an hour. At its height, winds are predicted to be over 300km an hour. Even for someone who’s grown up in Queensland with the expectation of at least one good cyclone a year, this is beyond my imagination.

Cyclone Ita 11 April 2014

And yet, I know it’s happened before and will happen again. Living in Australia is a lottery. Every region has its unique dangers and its incomparable beauties, and if you grow up here you learn to appreciate one and have respect for the other. Is it any wonder that Australian authors bring some of that “edge” to their writing? I look back now at my fantasy series Shadow Through Time and the maelstrom I envisaged raging across four worlds, and can easily see where I’d found my inspiration!

That thought got me wondering about other parts of the world, and how those landscapes and climates affected the writing done there? I’d love to hear about how your environment affects your writing in the comments below. And simply because I adore this poem, here is My Country in its entirety (first published in 1908):

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

A stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
Green tangle of the brushes,
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die –
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold –
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

Dorothea Mackellar