Australian Bush and Its Dual Presentation by the Two Sexes

20/01/2011 19:01

 Zuzana Butková (Australian and New Zealand Studies, Winter 2010)

Kangaroos on the road /

The Australian bush has always been a great source of inspiration for many literary works. There are hundreds[i] of poems and stories depicting life in the outback and its inhabitants - men and women of different characters, personalities and vocations. These literary works have been written both by men and women. The men usually view the bush as a place where heroism, men’s tough nature and individual strength can truly manifest themselves[ii], while women seem to look at the outback as a dangerous and lonely place where their lives gradually come to a sad end. Therefore, there is room for certain stereotypes in presenting the image of the bush by the two sexes and where men might associate it with positive attributes, women would probably regard it negatively.

The objective of this paper is to determine whether this bipolar and contradicting perception of the bush truly exists and if its presentation really depends on the sex of the author. The choice of literary authors used in this work is hardly sufficient and therefore it must be understood that this essay does not attempt to explore the topic thoroughly. However, it is the intention of its author that the work be an inviting introduction to a possible further study in dual perception and presentation of the bush by the two sexes. 

First, let us mention the literary representations that we find typical in showing both men’s and women’s different views of life in the outback. These are Banjo Paterson’s poem The Man from Snowy River and Barbara Baynton’s short story The Chosen Vessel. In Banjo Paterson’s poem, a positive attitude is very easily recognizable. The whole poem is a celebration of bravery, strong spirit and individuality and the country is seen as a land which gives rise to these character traits. The rider, who is the main subject of the poem, is closely connected with the land around the Snowy River and he is special thanks to the land where he grew up. When this horseman succeeds in his task, it is by his individual strength and vigour (“And he ran them single-handed…”[iii]; “He followed like a bloodhound on their track…”[iv]; “ alone and unassisted brought them back”[v]). In this classic poem of the genre, the Australian country is therefore regarded as a place which encourages personal determination and willingness to go against the odds[vi].

Now, let us focus on a woman’s perception of the bush as represented in Baynton’s short story. The Chosen Vessel depicts the life of a woman and her child in the solitude of the bush. More precisely, it concentrates on the dangers that surround them and here, the evil is represented by the lone swagmen who often wander through the wilderness: “She was not afraid of horsemen: but swagmen, (...), terrified her.”[vii] Through her point of view, we can clearly feel the danger, as she is left alone to encounter one of these men. From the bush, which is a deserted place, she cannot expect any help. Remembering her life, she realizes that the bush made her husband insensitive and hard, as “when she had dared to speak of the dangers to which her loneliness exposed her, he had taunted and sneered at her”[viii]. Baynton offers a realistic and typical perception of the outback and the way it was sensed by many women left there on their own. And the image of the bush is not at all welcoming, but rather evil, dangerous and hostile.

These were some representations of the bush, one positive and one negative, made by a man and a woman respectively. But we are going to mention also some views which do not fit this pattern and we will attempt to find a woman’s work which comments on the positive qualities of the wild country and also a man’s work which sees the negative aspects of life in the bush.

Dorothea Mackellar’s poem My Country is certainly one of these positive works praising the beauties and purity of Australia. It is an ode to the land; in fact, it could be called a love poem. The author declares her strongest affection when she claims she “loves a sunburnt country”[ix]. She realizes the hard living conditions it offers, she is aware of the “flood and fire and famine”[x] and she mentions the hostile environment when “we see the cattle die”[xi]. However, she never gives up on the land and despite all the severity of the country, she “knows to what brown country her homing thoughts will fly”[xii].

An example of a literary work written by a man and depicting the outback not as a place for heroes but rather a place for losers is The Shepherd by A.J.Boyd. It is an account of the life story of an old shepherd and all his misfortunes and hardships, all of which are at least to a certain degree connected with the country. Whether it is the problems with receiving his salary or the loneliness of his profession, the vastness and emptiness of the bush have always something to do with the bad things that happen to him. He can’t get his cheque cashed as it is necessary to go to Sydney and it is a question of “perhaps a four or five hundred mile tramp”[xiii]. The shepherd describes how hard and lonely his life is when “he never sees anyone but the ration-carrier once a week”[xiv].

Another work written by a man and not showing praise but rather disappointment with the land is A.D. Hope’s poem Australia. He expresses disillusion and reveals its inner contradictions. He questions its beauty; he calls everything by its proper name. The people “inhabiting the dying earth do not live but only survive“[xv]. He doesn’t indulge in romantic idealization of the land: he compares the bush to a “woman beyond her change of life”[xvi] whose “breast is still tender but within the womb is dry”[xvii]. The man’s view of the country is not at all similar to its representation by Paterson and his positive and idyllic rendering of the bush.

So far, we have taken into consideration different presentations of the Australian outback, but we only managed to do this with works which presented men and their male viewpoints on the one hand and on the other hand, women and their female perception. However, it is necessary to try and look for authors who write about the other sex’s feelings in relation to the bush. And this motif can be found in Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife and George Essex Evans’s poem The Women of the West.

Although written by a man, the story of The Drover’s Wife focuses on a woman and her perception of bush life. Lawson has an impressive ability to depict in detail all the problems this woman has to face every day. And not only this particular woman. It must be understood that her life is similar to the life of a large number of other women like her who lived their lives in the bush. Once again, it is a very lonely life. In her case, there is a distance of “nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilization”[xviii] and she lives in this loneliness only with her children. The bush has changed her, its sameness and dullness render the survival of her dreams about the future impossible: “As a girl she built the usual castles in the air; but all her girlish hopes and aspirations have long been dead”[xix]. Bad things that might be prevented suppose they had happened elsewhere happen in the bush: “One of her children died while she was here alone”[xx]. Lawson describes her daily fights with bush fires, floods, diseases and animals. In general, we might say that this story sums up all the problems that these special women had to face and all the hardships they had to endure. It gives the reader the ultimate opportunity to see the bush for what it meant and what it represented to them.

The last image of the bush we shall discuss in this essay is that of Evans’s The Women of the West. This poem is dedicated to the pioneering women of the outback who left “the pleasures of the city and faced the wilderness”[xxi]. It was written to ensure that their sacrifice would not be forgotten. And what was this sacrifice? Not only did the “red sun rob their beauty”[xxii] and “the slow years steal the nameless grace”[xxiii], these women “faced and fought the wilderness”[xxiv] and the man should be thankful. Evans realizes this and sees all the hard things that life in the bush brought to these women.

The objective of this work was to find out whether there exists a bipolar presentation of the bush in literary works and therefore, if the bush is perceived differently by men and women. Despite the small number of poems and short stories used for this analysis, we were able to find sufficient examples to prove that although the perception of the bush might slightly differs between the two sexes, the way in which the authors write about it is not sex-dependent.

Each and every encounter with the outback is special and although a lot can be learned from these valuable literary works, the source which gives the best idea about what the bush means to any of us is personal experience. Hence, the best advice for all who want to find out what their perception of the bush would be (no mater what sex they are) is simply this: Go to the bush, make your observations and find out how you feel about it by yourselves.



 [S.n.] 2006, Australian Bush Poetry, Verse&Music, viewed 16 December 2010,          <>

Baskerville, 2009, Poems of the Australian Bush, viewed 16 December 2010,              <>

Baynton, The Chosen Vessel, provided literature

Boyd, The Shepherd, provided literature

Evans, G.E. The Women of the West, poem, available on the Internet, viewed 16 December 2010, <>

Hope, A.D. Australia, from COLLECTED POEMS 1930-1970, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1972, available on the Internet, viewed 16 December 2010,                              <>

Lawson, The Drover’s Wife, provided literature

Mackellar, D. My Country, poem, available on the Internet, viewed 16 December 2010, <>

Paterson, The Man from Snowy River, provided literature


[i] Baskerville 2009 

[ii] Baskerville 2009

[iii] Paterson, p. 249, provided literature

[iv] Paterson, p. 249, provided literature

[v] Paterson, p. 249, provided literature

[vi] Baskerville 2009

[vii] Baynton, p. 236, provided literature

[viii] Baynton, p. 236, provided literature

[ix] Mackellar, My Country

[x] Mackellar, My Country

[xi] Mackellar, My Country

[xii] Mackellar, My Country

[xiii] Boyd, p. 154, provided literature

[xiv] Boyd, p. 154, provided literature

[xv] Hope, Australia

[xvi] Hope, Australia

[xvii] Hope, Australia

[xviii] Lawson, p. 266, provided literature

[xix] Lawson, p. 268, provided literature

[xx] Lawson, p. 268, provided literature

[xxi] Evans, The Women of the West

[xxii] Evans, The Women of the West

[xxiii] Evans, The Women of the West

[xxiv] Evans, The Women of the West