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Book Review

The Old Country: Australian Landscapes, Plants and People - George Seddon

Reviewed by Diana Snape

Book cover

The title of this book refers to the actual age of this continent in geological terms and also to a phrase many Australians once used for England.

Thus it links our natural environment and the cultural history of the majority of us in earlier years. Both of these influence how we live today and more specifically how we garden. Resolution of this dichotomy is a principal theme of the book. The geology of Australia, its ancient rocks and lack of recent glaciation or significant volcanic activity, has led to the dearth of topsoil which baffled our ancestors and which we are still coming to terms with today.

In this and many other ways George Seddon says "We have been slow learners". He demonstrates how the failure to learn started early, comparing the behaviour of explorers such as Grey (who learnt) and Warburton (who didn't). The book has wide scope, skillfully weaving together history, botany, language, culture, environmental science and garden design. The author could well be called a Renaissance man, wearing his scholarship lightly and showing wisdom, clarity and humour in his writing. (I liked his quote from Oscar Wilde that England was "too green and badly lit".)

Among the sections based on groups of plants is one on the fascinating boab, its relations, distribution and cultivation. This section includes Seddon's list of four main constraints and responsibilities for gardeners, which I would support, plus mention of other more subtle ones. Another section discusses the families of conifers present in Australia, their Gondwanan links and roles in gardens. In the Proteaceae family, he concentrates on the iconic banksias, particularly their taxonomists and their artists from Ferdinand Bauer to Celia Rosser. His approach to all these families of plants is broad, informed and stimulating. "On being deciduous" looks at the different nature of this process in Australia. Here we can appreciate the wonderful variety of types of deciduous bark of eucalypts. There are a number of deciduous and semi-deciduous trees and shrubs in northern Queensland, the Northern Territory and the Kimberley. There, eucalypts and bloodwoods tend to be deciduous in the winter dry (rather than the winter cold). In other parts of Australia, patterns of seasonal change are more subtle.

Reflecting one of his professorial roles, he shows a preoccupation with names and language - what is "Australian", a "weed", a "garden"? - challenging the reader to be conscious of their own choice of words. In the section on weeds he explores this complex topic under headings such as agricultural weeds, environmental weeds and garden weeds, commenting on those we have both imported and exported.

One of the sections that most interested me was titled "Mediterraneity". In this, Seddon does what few authors are brave enough to do in writing - he says "For thirty years or more, I have been wrong". This is in regard to his advocating the use in gardens of plants from comparable soils and climate, those he now says are "most likely to leap the garden wall". (His statistics for the spread of weeds in Australia are devastating.) Two aspects of a "Mediterranean garden", plant selection and style, should be separated. The image of such a garden in Australia, based on climate and latitude, is suspect (backed by tables of comparative measurements). Seddon now recommends forgetting the term and using indigenous plant material but with awareness of Mediterranean style. My favourite section, "By design", I shall say least about here but I'll write in some detail for the Garden Design Study Group newsletter. It is an excellent analysis of such concepts as "hybrid design", "responding to local context", "the vocabularies of design" and "edge phenomena". It also looks at the work of three pioneer designers. I think all gardeners would enjoy and benefit from reading this section.

The illustrations throughout this book are varied and beautiful. George Seddon has written other memorable books, from his early "Sense of Place" to the recent "Landprints: Reflections on Place and Landscape", but for me this book speaks most clearly, eloquently and persuasively.

Highly recommended.

The Old Country: Australian Landscapes, Plants and People

George Seddon, Cambridge University Press, 2005
RRP $49.95
270 pages, hard cover, colour illustrations

From Growing Australian, the newsletter of the Victorian Region of the Australian Plants Society, March 2006.

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