Talmalmo Landscapes

Talmalmo began as a place of dispossession and massacre, but with the passing of a century it regained innocence and beauty in the eyes of children.  There are a remarkable number of archived letters written by children describing the landscapes of their home.  Children were asked by the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express newspapers to write letters for a Children’s Corner column.  Many of the letters are little nature articles written by Talmalmo teenagers.  These letters take pleasure in describing wildflowers and wild raspberries, emus and their eggs, the snow-covered hills, the change of seasons, the snakes seen in the paddocks, the vegetables growing in the gardens, the curing of tobacco, the rains flooding the river and washing away the footbridge, birds building their nests in the roof of the school, a plague of grasshoppers, and so on. 

You sometimes get the impression, however, that some of these letters might have been written (or helped along) by the parents wanting to put the astounding country in which they lived into words, to have it documented.  One letter from 1922, written by George Le Guier, delves into local history by stating that the name Talmalmo derives from ‘an aborigine word meaning “tall man”,’ and that the road which passes the public school (no longer there) ‘has a cutting named Abraham’s Bosom,’ which was named after Abraham Miller, an emancipist.  

But mostly these letters are written through the eyes of children, revealing pastoral landscapes of enchantment and adventure.  As such, these letters are the ‘Songs of Innocence’ as opposed to the ‘Songs of Experience’, to use the poet William Blake’s contrary states of being.  The ‘Songs of Experience’ are of course the documented historical truths of dispossession of First Peoples from their homelands by white settlers (though they are hardly songs).  And so perhaps we could say that these letters document a different kind of discovery.  The first, more than a century earlier, was violent and horrific.  It was discovery seen through an imperial, conquistadorial eye.  The other, the one we see through children’s eyes, naively, is not a discovery by conquest but one which makes room for the astonishment of nature and the free-play of imagination.

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There is also the romantic Talmalmo landscape.  These accounts were written between the wars and often appeared in The Farmer and the Settler.  They described the valley as delightful, and provided a narrative of gorges, spur crests and alluvial flats, where mile upon mile travellers could encounter a fresh picture of beauty.  Such descriptions were a romance of the settler past, with an eye for spotting, for example, a long-gone cottage’s crumbling chimney, or old charred posts and traces of stockyards. The writers of this romance had set out with an English kind of fantasy in mind.  In Talmalmo and Upper Murray landscapes they sought out the picturesque beauty of the moment, yet also wanting to romanticise a pastoral ruin and the sentimental achievements of the past.     

Then there’s the landscape seen through the painter’s eye. Few artists have painted the region.  One of them was William Piguenit (1836-1914).  His most renowned works are those of the Darling River floods (see below). 

Flood in the Darling, 1890 (1895), by WC Piguenit. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au

Piguenit’s only work of our Talmalmo region is called Mount Kosciusko and the Valley of the Upper Murray (c1883).  It depicts impressive skies, wide landscapes and low horizons.  The ranges are soft, the land meadow-like.  But unfortunately, Piguenit’s painting of the Upper Murray is very hard to come by.  No image of it was available to display.

Arthur Streeton’s Storm over Corryong (1910) shows pastures and a darkening sky. The hills are low and blue, a cosy strip of settlement can be seen, and in the foreground sheep are grazing.

Arthur Streeton, Storm over Corryong (1910).

Though there is in the painting a sense of protection from the harsh Australian sun, this is not a bright, ‘sun-drenched’ land.  The landscape here is rich and green.  Moody, too. But the mood, or storm, is passing.  

With both Piguenit and Streeton, the point is always the appearance of something glorious. There’s nothing ‘close-up’.  There’s not much in the way of farm buildings and habitation.  In Streeton these are dwarfed by the land and sky. The point is invariably one of an indelible impression of grandeur, and of wide panoramas. This kind of landscape has nothing to do with the past because it’s supposed to be a timeless one, glimpsed and brought to life by the painter’s visionary eye.  Yet this kind of landscape still exists today.  You can see it for yourself.

On a Sunday drive from Albury to Tindaldra or Corryong, through the mountains and down into the valley following the course of the river, you will see it, eyeing vistas as you go.  But this kind of landscape doesn’t capture what no longer exists. It is a landscape of familiarity; it is a recognisable one; it is an easy pleasure and comfort.  For the romance writers and painters of the Upper Murray, to look at the land and see countryside was not to see the past.  Or if there was a past to be seen it was the Settler’s and not the First People’s. This past was never readable in the landscape, as it was for Indigenous Australians.  The settler past, the past of the pioneers, merely floated on the surface; it was never embedded in the land.  And it was always at threat of vanishing (nature intervening in human history).  The old crumbling chimney, the charred posts and the traces of stockyard that were written about between the wars — they’re all gone.  They were fugitive scraps.

ash heddle