When I was first setting out on planning my dissertation topic, I wanted to do historic shipwrecks. I’d just finished A Heritage law subject and the underwater cultural heritage part really grabbed me. I couldn’t stop talking to people about the amazing shipwrecks and unscrupulous salvagers and everything was so interesting. But I couldn’t settle on a research question because all I really thought about it all was that it was cool. It was all cool. But there wasn’t really my burning question to motivate me.
I had an epiphany when I was talking to a friend about an interesting article I had been reading about how Australia and America had very different ideas about ghost towns because they were wrapped in different kinds of mythologies. In America, ghost towns are tied to dreams about the Wild West and cowboys and grizzled old miners, but ultimately about progress and people scraping a living by on the very edges of civilisation.
But in Australia, ghost towns are much more closely tied to anxiety, about disappearing into the bush, about a hostile landscape that does not want us here. They represent the failure of progress, towns that were started in booms and then quickly spluttered out as the industry collapsed or there was more work elsewhere. Most intimidating is the speed with which these abandoned towns were swallowed by the desert and forests, it is almost as if we just turned our backs for a moment and when we turned back the whole town was gone.
So, I thought, why is it that, for all our talk of loving a sunburnt country, we seem to fear it so much? Why do we still imagine immense monsters just beyond the horizon, in the dark? I decided I had to go back to what I was passionate about, and work with what I knew. I wanted to look at the different ways Australian authors, Anglo and Indigenous, described and constructed the landscape and what that said about their relationship to their pasts. To do that, however, I’m looking at how they write about are we’re headed, how the writers I am going to look at take their thoughts and fears about the past and project them onto the Australia of the future.
I’ll give you a clue- there’s the same problems and none of them have been fixed.