This is a Book That piece by Hannah Donnelly, on decolonising country in Australian literature. 

Driving out of town to go wood chopping in dad’s old beat up Ford XC, I remember learning about trees as we sped past ascending branches and spreading crowns. Dad would point to a trunk and I would yell ‘ironbark’ or ‘yellowbox’ or whatever species of tree he was imploring me to identify. I didn’t understand at the time what he was teaching me, but I loved that granite country and every living native species on it.

It was native species that led me to reading The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood last year. I read some reviews about this dystopian story set in the Australian outback. I was interested. I went to Readings and held the pretty book in my hands, smiling.  For me, the cover bears an uncanny resemblance to Cronins Key Guide to Australian Trees but with a feral rabbit chucked in for good measure. I was so keen. 

The first line in this book had me at kookaburra and I rushed through each word with anticipation. But with each page turned I became more conflicted.

Whatever gubbah said that thing about not judging a book by its cover is so true.

I was consumed by this story of abducted women held captive by gender. I was conflicted because I thought this was an important book about the culture of slut shaming and misogyny in Australia, but I was frustrated by the misunderstood country. Woods writes of a romanticised harsh country as ‘scrappy brown land’ and each page slowly revealed that a callous colonial lens was being applied to the landscape.

I read and reread and came up with ‘slender trees’, ‘trickle of bush’, ‘grass’ and a variety of mushrooms. There was only one mention of a native species that gave me an idea of the habitat, a Grass Tree. Grass Trees can grow in woodlands or healthy forest areas near watercourses or coastal plains. However, this book was apparently set in a desert.

Today when I read Australian literature I am perplexed as to how writers continue to colonise country through their writing. It is not just The Natural Way of Things, but Australian literature that perpetuates a white central narrative rooted in a colonial ignorance of country so deep and untrue. My favourite colonial angle is the old trope: ‘My personal narrative of connecting with the alien landscape’.

I could tell you that since settlement, hundreds of our native species have become extinct. That your narrative of connection felled ancient trees for farming, killed our totems, degraded our topsoil and polluted our water systems. It is not the landscape that is alien; it is you who is alien to our landscape.

Our species are far more than a casual backdrop. The story within our native species cannot be separated from the narrative. Species signify whose country you might be imagining. At the mention of a particular tree you could be identifying that the location is a sacred space protected by spirits. Species can signal the season and where the dhinawan is sitting in the stars on the horizon. They are creation.

The first thing a writer should discern is whether they are talking about an introduced invasive species or a native species. An introduced species is not talking to the intricate stories of connection to land. For example the deep purple carpet of fallen Jacaranda flowers is about as useful as an English botanist in Australia. I much prefer to think about the peak flowering time for the Mulga wattle and the many uses for the potent bark, sap, seeds and leaves. Be careful when using reference guides to Australian species. Sometimes those English botanists got things mixed up or were misled by us to protect our intellectual property and stories of country.

I saw an older Aunty tell a researcher the wrong properties for a plant and turn around winking cause she was having them on, rather than give up Traditional Knowledge with no payments, rights or acknowledgment. There’s also a history of it just being funny to tell gubs the wrong thing, telling them a place name means ‘penis’ or ‘boobs’ when they think it means ‘waves crashing over rocks’. The Victorian Moomba festival literally means the –‘up your arse’ festival. Know that ignorance runs deeper than you might think.

Why is there such ignorance of native species and denial of our traditional knowledge of country?

Is it the result of bad writing and research or because colonial genesis breeds myths and ignorance? One of the most powerful books I read around the same time as The Natural Way of Things was Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. Dark Emu flips the script of colonial narratives and uses primary evidence of ‘explorers’ to destabilise these myths. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle choice was a colonial fairy tale and still is. From the horses’ mouth, Bruce Pascoe presents the case for agriculture, architecture and permanent dwellings, aquiculture and much more sophisticated manipulation of the landscape than is ever acknowledged by the whitewashed orthodoxy.

Dark Emu was so powerful it decentralised my own personal narrative of colonisation. Assimilation means that colonial myths have been bred in my blood too. I wanted to cry when I realised my own understanding of our towns and villages pre-colonisation was wrong. I knew of wooden huts like gunyas growing up and thought, as the colonial narrative taught me, that these basic humpy structures might have been the extent to which our communities built homes. Yet through the eyes of the coloniser, Bruce Pascoe writes how explorers came upon organised towns with populations of up to a thousand people. That some of the houses were built large enough to fit thirty to forty people with separate rooms and porticos. But he points out that in describing these large buildings the explorers choose to call them humpies.

In choosing to write wrong ways about country you are no different to the ‘explorers’. In choosing to remain ignorant of the diverse and beautiful species of this nation and in choosing to romanticise the harshness of our land, you are rewriting those same colonial myths. There are so many ways to learn about country while respecting our intellectual property and traditional cultural expressions. You could start with talking to the traditional owners where you write. Or find out who they are. The best book I ever read wasn’t on paper, but a bushwalk with elders; they unfold the story of the country right before your eyes. Or you could read more Blak Books.

Colonial violence is poisoning our literature because the true history of this country was unwritten by the same hands. The second stanza of one of Australia’s famous poems can attest to these colonial narratives that haunt me:


I love a sunburnt country

A Land of Sweeping Plains

Of ragged mountain ranges

Of droughts and flooding rains

I love her far horizons

I love her jewel sea

Her beauty and her terror

The wide brown land for me


For me the terror is the thought of the colonisation, clearing, mining and fracking of our lands, resources and territories.

You are the terror, not our country. 

This is a The Book That piece, part of a series where writers reflect on books that have been particularly meaningul, profound, or plain-old angry-making. To read more in this series, click here.

You can read some of Hannah's fiction by clicking here. 

To have the latest from Writers Bloc delivered straight to you, click here to sign up to our newsletter. We will literally deliver our website's best content, giveaways and opportunities to your figurative door. 

HannahDonnelly's picture


Hannah Donnelly is a Wiradjuri woman from New South Wales who grew up on Gamilaroi country. Creator of Sovereign Trax Indigenous music website and co-editor of the Sovereign Apocalypse zine, Hannah’s personal work experiments with cli-fi and future imaginings of Indigenous responses to climate change.