Wednesday, 24 December 2008

A review of Murray Walkabout by Archer Russell (1953) must include, at some point, an expression of wonder at the complete invisibility of this writer in our standard Australian pantheon. Part Steve Irwin, part Xavier Herbert, this non-fiction writer and serial wanderer perches mid century like the girl who foung the bear's house, and discovered it was difficult to choose the right seat for her diminutive frame.

Russell would always come down right in the middle just as did Goldilocks. But about one thing he was not backward in emphasis: his love of wild places, the thrill of sleeping under the dome of the night sky, the sense of peace available only to a man alone on a hot, burning plain.

As a young man, Russell was early conscripted into such a kind of life. He had worked on sheep stations in the lower Murray region, in South Australia. The best sections of the book, which rather unstylishly ends in a slow paddle from the river's headwaters in the high country, treat the lower reaches of a usually slow-moving river.

It was for many years one of the prime joys of my life that no place was ever my anchorage, and that I was usually free to drift out over the great countryside wherever the spirit moved me or wherever I should wish to extend the range of my studies. And how I revelled in that!

High adventure, for Russell, somehow began to include a stint at the writing desk. There's not much available online about this curious, but no doubt typical mid-century, man. One NLA entry uncovers a few facts of his life, which began to be published in 1936 and also included a rare biography of the horticulturalist William Farrer.

Ask anyone if they know the name Archer Russell, apart from a no-doubt knowledgeable second-hand bookseller, and you'll definitely draw a blank. "Archer who?" will be your most likely response to the question. "Archer? Surely that's just a pen name?" But it's not, and the lack of awareness of this pre-TV David Attenborough is a striking feature of my reading and subsequent investigation.

There's basically nothing about the man online.

He dedicates this book to his late wife 'Miranda' - a name of affection deriving from her real name. By the time the book was published the lady was gone and we learn that he began wandering along the lower reaches of the Murray before WWI, which means he had around thirty years' experience of the region before he got in his canoe with 'The Captain' to shoot rapids up- and downstream of Albury.

Russell knows his stuff, that's for sure. His short chapters are themed and just right for about fifteen minutes' reading. One chapter will be about willy wagtails, another about reptiles. Sometimes his wife camps with him - notably at one time during the Depression - sometimes he is alone and footloose.

The best bits chronicle areas made familiar in his youth, not the later digression on the upper Murray, by which time he was a mature man with a rather more conservative outlook on life.

His affection for wildlife and his deep knowledge of it marry with an abiding interest in the poetic. The language is used inventively and poetic tropes familiar to many appear regularly as well as linguistic forms such as alliteration.

Russell's dismay at the treatment of aborigines is, like his love of wildlife over mere commercial gain, ahead of its time. But there's an inherent contradiction between approving of the early explorers, say, or the woodsmen who came in their wake, and lamenting the passing of the native tribes. You can't have both, you'd want to mutter.

But Russell the rationalist is undaunted. His use of the exclamation point mirrors a sincere love of wandering. So everything seems fun, from camping by the billabongs of the lower Murray to admiring the vastness of the submerged valleys upstream of the Hume Dam. Russell's energy is infectious and his opinions somehow feel 'clean' and unadorned with false sentiment.

This sensation in the reader may stem from his belonging to my grandfather's generation. It is difficult to criticise the sensibilities of someone you didn't play cricket with, or accompany to Luna Park on a summer Saturday afternoon with its reek of hot chips and with the screams of girls spinning in the air on some monstrous ride echoing in your ears. We are most critical of our familiars.

One thing's for sure: Russell deserves greater notoriety. He's now out of print, and possibly has been for half a century. Maybe a series on Australian nature writing could help to reverse this total eclipse by more recent naturalists such as Irwin and Attenborough, with whom he deserves a closer affiliation.

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