Review: Blue Mountains Dreaming - Deepening Histories of Place Project - ANU
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Review: Blue Mountains Dreaming

Shannyn_PalmerBlue Mountains Dreaming:
The Aboriginal Heritage
(Second Edition)
Edited by Eugene Stockton and John Merriman
255 pp, Blue Mountain Educational and Research Trust, Lawson, 2009
ISBN 9780646503868

I (RP) recall the first edition of Blue Mountains Dreaming published in 1993.   It was a delight then to see the disparate knowledge of Aboriginal heritage for the mountains west of Sydney brought together in such a fine volume.  It still sits on my bookshelf in Blackheath alongside ragged maps and bushwalking guides that I constantly thumb through before heading out to explore the country that has so many layers of meaning.  So I have been keenly awaiting this second edition of the book edited by Eugene Stockton and John Merriman, hoping it would live up to the benchmark set by its predecessor.  I was not disappointed.

The second edition of Blue Mountains Dreaming has been refreshed with new information as well as including a wider range of authors, all accomplished experts in their own fields.  While the book disappointingly lacks direct contemporary Indigenous input, there is still scope for this to feature in future editions. The dynamic character of research in the mountains certainly calls on the editors to update the volume more regularly.

Edition two of the book is divided into ten chapters, one appendix and a detailed and well-considered index. Chapter 1 “New Discoveries”, by one of the editors Eugene Stockton, clearly and concisely sets out the general scene for the remainder of the book.  One could easily be critical of the quality and consistency of the drawings and maps in this short introductory chapter and in other parts of the book.  But in a sense this handcrafted character adds to the charm of the volume and speaks to the deep feelings Stockton has for the Blue Mountains.  He has lived there for much of his life and it is his passion for the country that holds the volume together as much as the intellectual rigor of the contributors.

The remaining nine chapters generally cover the range of topics typically associated with edited books that have a regional focus, with the order of the chapters being structured to take the reader seamlessly through the material. First we have a well-written discussion about the past and present climates by Mooney and Martin (Chapter 2). These two climate scientists have managed this complex discussion without falling into the trap of environmental determinism, or bombarding the reader with too much climatic jargon.  The following chapter by Stockton tackles the archaeology of the Blue Mountains.  Stockton has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the archaeological work undertaken over many decades and he is to be commended for summarising all of this work in 31 pages. A trained archaeologist would probably find reason to critique Stockton’s use of concepts such as “tool” types and the various technological phases he describes. But one assumes most people who will read this book are not trained archaeologists and, to be fair, the bibliography at the end of the chapter gives readers suitable references to follow for alternative lines of enquiry and analysis. Matthew Kelleher’s chapter on Aboriginal art is beautifully illustrated and has a clear discussion of the various art forms and the theories about their meanings. The next three chapters deal with the Darug people (Val Attenbrow), Gundungurra country (Jim Smith) and traditional subsistence patterns (John Merriman).  All three of these chapters are readable, finely researched pieces written by knowledgeable, experienced authors.  Chapter 8, authored by Dianne Johnson, deals with The Gully Aboriginal Place at Katoomba, probably the best known contemporary Aboriginal site in the Upper Blue Mountains.  Not surprisingly, considering Johnson’s previous publications on The Gully, this is an outstanding and thoroughly engaging chapter and is recommended as a standalone read for people who only browse the entire book.  The final two chapters on the Dharug and Gundungurra languages by Kohen and Steele and Steele are relatively short linked pieces, with a clear structure allowing even a non-linguist to easily understand something of the character of these two languages.

The book has bibliographic references at the end of each chapter that are comprehensive and well laid out.  But in edited volumes this can be a bit frustrating for researchers who have to troll back through the volume to chase up poorly remembered points.  Fortunately for this book there is an index by Jeanne Rudd that directs the reader rather elegantly through the diverse literature.  It is pleasing to see that Rudd is suitably acknowledged for her work in the list of contributors.

Appendix 1 by Stockton entitled “Baiame” seems oddly placed as an appendix rather than as a chapter.  The piece is presented as a treatment about the notion of there being a High God, known by various names including Baiame, which was recognised by many Aboriginal groups. The appendix is in fact much more than this.  It also includes an interesting discussion about the incorporation of Christian ideas into traditional Aboriginal spiritual beliefs.  Stockton’s deep understanding of Christianity through his life in the ministry makes this a worthy discussion, particularly as it includes a geographically wide-ranging survey of relevant ethnographic literature and rock art analyses.  It would have been good to expand on this theme and perhaps to have had a secular view included from a co-author (perhaps in Edition 3 of the book?).

For a researcher working in the Blue Mountains (JT), this volume provides a good solid secondary source account of present knowledge. What it lacks, however, is a summary discussion about what is missing and what future research questions might be profitable to pursue. In this regard the volume would have benefited from a more substantial foreword that reflected on the themes that have developed since the first edition was published. Inspiring other researchers, students and the public with unanswered questions is after all the hallmark of a good general history.

The real failure in this volume is the absence of local Indigenous authorship. There are many and diverse views among local Indigenous people about the deep history of the Blue Mountains. My (JT) own current research is addressing this topic through archival research as well as oral and visual recordings. Without an analysis of the contemporary attachment of Indigenous people to place, it is not possible to really appreciate much of the history of the area. Capturing the imagination of readers through these accounts would have lifted this volume well above its place as a traditional well written regional history. While the editors may argue that the diversity of Indigenous views means that a single account would not be inclusive, there are research methods and sources (such as oral transcripts) that can overcome such issues. Hopefully this crucial research can be part of any third edition.

Like many “regional” books that draw together specialist authors it is sometimes hard to tell who the book is aimed at, as we have alluded to above.   The beautiful front cover and A4 format suggests a coffee table market. Many of the chapters are, on the other hand, well-constructed academic pieces that could easily be part of a tertiary reading list.  At once this makes the book a little confused and at the same time all the more appealing.  Perhaps it is the bespoke character of this book that gives it this dual personality, trading on both academic rigor and handcrafted charm. We both look forward to a third edition of Blue Mountains Dreaming that builds on the present edition and includes further new and innovative interpretations.

Rob Paton and Julia Torpey
Deepening Histories Project
School of History
Australian National University

filed under: Julia Torpey, Review, Rob Paton

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