The secrets of the Snowy
Essay by Harry Nankin published in The Age newspaper, September 24, 1994 reviewing book Searching for the Snowy: An Environmental History by George Seddon
Born in the snows of Kosciuszko and emptying into the sea at Marlo, the Snowy is one of Australia’s few celebrated rivers. Famed subject of Banjo Patterson’s ballad, Man From Snowy River, it has also been the site of the nation’s largest single engineering endeavour, major feats of explorations and notorious barbarism.
There have been many publications dealing with aspects of the region’s past, most of them subject-specific, promoting a development agenda or simply partisan. This book is the first attempt to tell a more complete story of human interaction with the whole of this sparsely inhabited, semi-mythical valley.
In unravelling the human and natural secrets of the topographically “baffling” country, Seddon avoids the temptation of a chronological, “source-to-mouth” or subject-divided approach by employing a loose and discursive structure, amply illustrated with maps, diagrams and photographs. What results is an impressive multi-disciplinary amalgam of science, conjecture and anecdote, sifted from a disparate array of published and oral sources and the authors’ own journeys by foot, four-wheel-drive and canoe throughout the region, effectively welded together by a smooth and entertaining prose.
The “search” of the titles is ostensibly for a deep appreciation through objective knowledge, direct experience and creative response, a goal he compared with the English landscape painter John Constable’s notion of “imaginative possession”.
To this end, he explores a wealth of fascinating subjects with fair-minded scholarship. Data is abundant and opinions proffered tentatively, whether the issue is a geographical puzzle (why do the adjacent Snowy and Murrumbidgee rivers share near mirror-image “spiral-loop” coarses?), an environmental debate (what impact has cattle grazing had on mountain ecology?), or a politically loaded ethnographic theory (can Aboriginal technology be said to have been undergoing “degeneration” at the time of first contact with settlers?).
Such thorough erudition bellies the writer’s emotional response to the river. It is only when recounting adventures into little-known, inaccessible corners of the Snowy watershed, such as the beautiful Stone Bridge formation and the still unmapped Snowy Falls, that Seddon’s true feelings emerge unrestrained from beneath the facts. It is literature in the tradition, but without the freewheeling lyricism of Joseph Wood-Krutch, Barry Lopez and Eric Rolls.
Seddon reports the genealogy, struggles and life of local communities with genuine compassion. Their frequent indifference to the natural landscape beyond the farm gate is reported without judgement. Aboriginal dispossession is treated with less restraint: the prejudice and greed prompting the cold-blooded massacre of at least 150 Kurnai tribespeople by Angus McMillan and other early settlers in the Orbost district during the 1840s is traced into recent times in contemporary attitudes and the literature of no lesser local author than the late Hal Porter.
Seddon demonstrates that the enormous scientific constructions of A.W Howitt render him a far more deserving “hero” for East Gippsland than the still much-vaunted McMillan. It could have been added that the dubious heritage claims of pastoralists such as mountain cattlemen continue to reflect an incipient racism that trivialises or denies prior Koori occupancy.
Seddon’s primary perspective is that of an environmental scientist concerned for the long-term wellbeing of the land and its people. Some of his observations confirm common belief: the infamous and frequent Snowy floods predate European settlement. Others challenge popular wisdom: the diversion of Snowy River waters west of the divide known as the Snowy Mountain Scheme was always, and remains, an economic and ecological misadventure of greater psychological than practical value.
It is this project that moves the writer to one of his rare moments of passion: “This is the history of a throwaway river.” The dammed Snowy, reduced in flow by 65 per cent to an ecologically “dying” trickle in its upper reaches between the Jindabyne and the Quandong, has been “beheaded”.
Oddly, although Seddon tells us much about the history of environmental abuse, he deals cursorily with conservation. He fails to mention Myles Dunphy’s pioneering “Snowy-Indi National Park” idea of the 1940s or the impact of the regions’ new “greenie” subculture.
Similarly, it is unfortunate that no mention is made of “integrated catchment management” or “ecologically sustainable development”, two powerful contemporary concepts currently being promoted by environmental organisations and rapidly gaining currency with government agendas. Including these would have provided a philosophical and practical framework for management to complement the eclectic and highly informative empiricism of the book.