Barry Lopez was a wonderful author who focused on exploring the relationship between human cultures and nature. He passed away in 2020. His famous work Arctic Dreams was the first of his books that I discovered, and I have enjoyed his essays for many years. I am currently working through Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, which was published shortly after he died. It is a luminescent collection of essays and one really stood out for me: Out West. He embarks on a long road trip to try and connect with the western plains of the USA. As he leaves, he loads up the many books that reflect on, or are based in, the areas he would be visiting. There are many famous names and books on the list, from Wallace Stegner, Ansel Adams to Cormac McCartney. He reflects on how history is recorded, how land and place is captured in literature and art, and how our understanding of the past shifts according to the dominant narratives of our time.
That, of course, got me thinking about the books I would have with me as I started a long road trip of our mountains. This is the start of a fairly Victorian-centric list.
First Nations and early days
Of course, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, by L Fison and A Howitt, first published in 1880, is the go to book to try and understand something of pre invasion culture in the Victorian mountains.
NJ Caire – landscape photographer, by Anne and Don Pitkethly. Nicholas was an early photographer, who took incredible images across Victoria, including parts of the high country between 1875 and 1905.
The Alps at the Crossroads – the iconic introduction to the Alps, written by Dick Johnson and first published in 1974 as a campaign tool to see the Victorian Alps protected in national parks.
Story of the Snowy Mountains. This brief book covers everything from the 430 million year history of the Alps through to the development of the Snowy hydro scheme. Written by John Larkins and published in 1980.
Alpine Australia, a celebration of the Australian Alps. With 150 images, the publishers describe it as a ‘coffee table pictorial (which aims to) bring this magnificent region to a wider audience.’
From Ash to Snow, Anthony Sharwood’s story of attempting to walk the Australian Alps Walking Track during the terrible summer of 2019/20.
The Comfort of Water. A lovely bioregional book from Maya Ward, about her walk to the headwaters of the Yarra River, on the flanks of the Baw Baw plateau.
The walking guides. Many of the track guides contain wonderful information about the land itself. Especially the works by John Siseman (eg the Wonnangatta Moroka National Park book published by Pindari).
Skiing the Western Faces of Kosciusko by Alan Andrews, and originally published in 1933, is the most wonderful love story about the western slopes of the Main Range. Review here.
Skiing the High Plains. Self published by Harry Stephenson in 1982, this compilation of essays about the development of skiing in Victoria is exhaustive. Coming in at almost 500 pages, it must have been a massive effort. It is an incredible cultural history of skiing.
In Search of Space. In the introduction to In Search of Space, Journeys in Wild Places, Ross Brownscombe points out that ‘nature writing’ which ‘explores the poetry and magic of wild places’ has not developed into a strong tradition in Australia. Compared to North America and the UK this is certainly correct, and true writers in this genre are few and far between. While it doesn’t focus on the Alps, this book is a great addition to the library of nature writing that Australia has produced.
Peter Gardner, through his efforts at Ngarak Press, produced some wonderful books on the VIC Alps, including various histories on the early days of invasion and place names of the Alps.
Australian environmental poet, Mark O’Connor, has written many poems about the region, including a collection devoted to it, Tilting at Snowgums: Australia’s High Country in Poetry and Photos.
A book for Maisie – a wonderful book that celebrates the life and work of ‘Maisie’ Fawcett, a pioneer in alpine ecology whose plots on the Bogong High Plains are still being studied.
The King of Hotham – a lovely tribute by Gillian Salmon to her father, Lindsay, who was a pivotal force in the early development of the Mt Hotham resort.
Local historian Klaus Hueneke has written several books about the Alps, with a strong focus on European culture and history, including Huts of the High Country and Huts of the Victorian Alps. Check Tabletop Press for lots of great books on the Australian Alps.
The Brumby Wars, by Anthony Sharwood, covers the fine print details and motivations of those engaged in the debate about wild horses in the Australian mountains.
This is, of course, the big gap. Landscape and nature writing enthusiasts will know the huge body of literature which celebrates the specific landscapes of specific places around the world – like Edward Abbey’s classic book Desert Solitaire. This genre flows over into art and poetry – for instance, the life and work of poet, activist and Buddhist Gary Synder has influenced many books that deeply reflect on particular landscapes – like Poets on Peaks, which looks at the traditions of fire tower watchers, Opening the Mountain, about Snyder’s involvement in ritual walks on Mt Tamalpais in California, and the beautiful woodcuts by Tom Killon that appear in the book The High Sierra of California.
As yet, our literature has not so deep or so wide. Thankfully we now have a strong tradition of Australian writing that is deeply invested in place – for instance there are more than 359 books set in Melbourne. But so far the high country is mostly missing from our literary traditions. I would love to hear what books and other works I have missed.
Tomorrow, When the War Began, by John Marsden, published in 1993 is about a foreign invasion of Australia. The early scenes are based in the Howqua Valley and surrounding areas.
The Silver Brumby series is a collection of fiction children’s books by author Elyne Mitchell. They recount the life and adventures of Thowra, a brumby, and his descendants, and are set in the Snowy Mountains.
There are various romance type novels set in the Alps, many of which have a ‘horse’ focus, including:
Where Fortune Lies (Mary Anne O’Connor) is from the early days of occupation and includes a story that goes from Ireland to the Victorian Alps.
The Cattleman’s Daughter (Rachael Treasure) is a romance and political saga which covers the issue of cattle grazing as a backdrop, set partly on the Dargo High Plains.
Climbing Fear by Leisl Leighton is another ‘rural romance’ and partly set in the Victorian Alps.
The Mallee Girl, by Jennifer Scoullar.
Richard Flanagan has written several great books centred on wild places in lutruwita/ Tasmania, including Death of a River Guide, and Sound of One Hand Clapping.
Many of these books are now out of print but most can be found with a bit of digging. I haven’t included any of the many magazines (including Wild, Lamont, SnowAction, etc) that focus on the high country, films, music or resources that are only available on line.