Ah, Xmas, mistletoe, Xmas trees, snow, hot roast dinners with Yorkshire pud, plum puddings with threepences in. Could be at Manor Farm with the Pickwick Club could we not? Except we’re not. We’re in Western Australia in the 1950s. The temperature outside is 40 degrees C, inside hotter as the wood-fired oven cooks the roast chicken and potatoes. The “snow” is artificial, powder sprinkled on a northern hemisphere pine. The assembled family are sweating with the heat. The children are demanding to go to the beach but being told to shoosh because it was Xmas. Ah yes, the Dickens Xmas, the Prince Albert Xmas, just one of the many inappropriate things exported from Britain to its former colony in the south seas.
It would have been better for the Australian environment if, on 26 January 1788, the ships rounding the Heads into Sydney Harbour, had contained not English, Irish, Scots and Welsh soldiers and convicts, but settlers from southern Africa, Middle East, western China, or Chile.
Thing is the British soldiers, convicts, and later free settlers all brought with them a great deal of cultural baggage. It wasn’t just that the seasonal greetings and celebrations of Xmas were taking part in a totally inappropriate environmental setting, so was everything else. The heavy clothing that was worn, the inappropriate housing that was built, also would have been better discarded on the London or Liverpool docks. Those things, like Xmas celebrations, didn’t matter much, apart from generations to come feeling discomfort, especially in Summer. They were retained, like the monarchy, long past their rational use-by dates as a way for strangers in a strange land to cling to their heritage.
But there was other cultural baggage, unrecognised for many years, which was much more important and damaging. They were coming from a small island country which had, in no particular order: plenty of water; managed forests of deciduous trees; deep soils; island climate with the added impact of the Gulf Stream; no catastrophic events, notably drought or fire; a fear of “wilderness”; the removal of any animals perceived as a threat; the presence of a number of species which had, it would turn out, enormous potential to become pests in a new environment.
People were coming to a country where those things were not true, the reverse in fact, but they would perceive it through eyes conditioned to the natural world of Britain. Just as they brought hot Xmas dinners and three-piece woollen suits, they also began stocking the country with British animals so they would feel at home, could continue hunting. In came (almost unbelievably) foxes, rabbits, hares, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, most of which would go on to become pests that would damage the environment on a catastrophic scale. In came willows, poplars, pines, oaks, elms, to replace the despised native trees cut down and burnt. Anything un-Australian was prized.
They would clear land whose thin top soil was only being held there by vegetation; pump water from streams that were only seasonal, from rivers whose flow was very irregular; stock land at high rates according to what a really good season could support, as if the good times would never end; plant monoculture crops over huge areas; pretend that eucalypt forests could be “managed”, initially by cutting down trees, later by use of fire; hunt and wipe out thylacines, and so on. [Oddly perhaps, they didn't bring with them the one practice, hedgerows, which would have been a plus in Australia]. Farming practices that had evolved over thousands of years to suit British conditions, were applied indiscriminately to a continent that hadn’t evolved to cope with them. But people were comfortable with retained Britishness in land management as in everything else, and so forests were cleared, land was overgrazed, rivers and irrigation basins were drained, topsoil blew away, species became extinct.
Things have gradually changed. Hot roast dinners have mostly given way to backyard barbecues, or salads and seafood at the beach. Houses are better designed for climate extremes (and are beginning to incorporate energy-saving and solar panels to make use of the Australian sunshine). Still have suits and ties of course (in spite of the efforts of one state premier in the 70s to popularise light “safari suits” for business wear), and still have the monarchy, but hey, some things take time.
Land management change takes time too. Oh a lot has been learnt about dry land farming, preparing for droughts, stocking rates, crop and stock varieties, working thin soils, being more efficient with water and chemical use, and so on. There has been a big development of wind breaks, equivalent in a sense to the British hedgerow. On the other hand forests and woodlands are still being woodchipped or cleared at high rates, with massive outcries at any attempt to slow down let alone stop it; irrigation, including, astonishingly, for crops like cotton and rice, is still full steam ahead, again with massive reaction whenever there is a suggestion it might be reduced; killing of native species goes on as frequently as it ever did; people are still talking nonsense about using fire and “thinning” to “manage” forests; and many farmer’s organisations are still hotbeds of climate change denial (change that will decisively demonstrate that we are not living in Britain). A long way to go, and no time.
Time we became un-British (well, except for cricket of course).