“Tragic ring-barked forests” and the “Wicked Wood”: Haunting Environmental Anxiety in Late Nineteenth-Century Australian Literature

  • Susan K. MartinEmail author


In Catherine Martin’s novel An Australian Girl (1890), some of the most important action takes place in and around a Victorian forest of dead trees known as the “Wicked Wood.” The image is most famously immortalized in Australian literature in Dorothea Mackellar’s turn-of-the-twentieth-century poem “My Country” in the lines, “The tragic ring-barked forests / Stark white beneath the moon.” This chapter explores the figure of the ringbarked forest, the dying tree, and the “absent” Indigenous population, as the beginning of the end of the environmental imperial fantasy in Australian fiction. Ringbarking, a common practice for clearing forests used by British settlers instead of the more environmentally conscious methods employed by Aboriginal peoples, produced masses of dead trees in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In late twentieth- and twenty-first-century terms, the role of the Aboriginal population in the shaping, care, and curation of the existing landscape has become clear. However, this connection between First Nation people and care for country was seldom perceived or acknowledged in the nineteenth century. More often, fiction of the period reveals a more dubious metaphorical connection between Indigenous people and Indigenous plants and fauna. Over the course of the nineteenth century, these ringbarked forests became tropes for expressing the troubling effects of settlement, which favored transformation of land for uses considered more suitable by colonists. This narrative arc begins with the sort of infinitely available space which appears in Henry Kingsley’s Geoffry Hamlyn and begins to falter in the anxiety of the “nervous” 1890s which is rife with anxious hauntings like Martin’s novel and stories of drought, flood, failed farming, and environmental pests.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Arts, Social Sciences and HumanitiesLa Trobe UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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