Chapter 1 [Conditional Culture, by Rex Ingamells, 1938]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Conditional Culture (1938) by Rex Ingamells.]

Conditional Culture

I. From generation to generation.


The affinities of the early settlers with Australia were peculiarly trammelled by uncongenialities. They easily appreciated the blue, sunny days of the Australian spring; the yellow flame of the wattle and the clear torrent of a magpie’s song stirred their potentialities for reacting favourably to what was exotic yet conformist to their ideas of beauty in nature. On the other hand, blankness greeted their yearnings for snow-covered landscapes and the call of the skylark. What their feelings must have been during December of blazing heat, pestering flies and clogging dust can only be imagined. Most of them would have preferred the bitterest weather in England, just as most Australians to-day would prefer excessive heat to that bleakness.

The convict system, a condition of early colonial development, so adulterated the aesthetic outlook of all colonists as to render more distasteful than they would otherwise have been many unorthodox manifestations of the environment. While such unobtrusive discoveries as duckbill platypuses and quongdong trees could be tolerated as novelties under any circumstances, the unavoidable gum tree and mallee, constituent of endless areas of bush and scrub, received, besides the stigmas of monotony, inhospitality and treachery, a darker spiritual aura, a resonant pathetic fallacy.

The affinities of the pioneers with the bush were exceedingly limited in any case, and, for the greater part, conditional on their hopes of material success. Very many early pastoralists went outback to make their fortunes as quickly as possible and forsook the scenes of their labours as soon as they considered themselves sufficiently rewarded. Numbers of them returned “home,” while others, pending further pastoral pursuits conducted by overseers, lived as cocks of colonial dunghills and with lavish resplendence on the best sites in the suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne, and Hobart. They had been opportunists in their attitude to the bush; they had proved themselves practical men: in the active tasks they had set themselves there was no room for the growth of any but superficial affinities saturated with their practical egoism.

Even when, as after the enforcement of pastoral boundaries, pioneers spent lifetimes in struggles and ruminations, the urgencies of colonization and difficult living conditions prevented fully sympathetic awareness of environment arising.

Although, with the passage of two and three generations, Australia came to produce white men who loved the life of the bush; and although some of these, well-educated and travelled, might perhaps live more happily nowhere else, new circumstances arose to choke, at that stage, any speculative tendencies which might have defined to some extent the path for a fresh culture.

By trebling, and doubling again, the population of the Australian colonies; by introducing thousands of individuals from overseas, being overseas conditioned, and by stimulating another more feverish phase of practical activity: the goldrushes made the formulation of new cultural standards impossible for another generation or so.

Next, the speeding up of communication; the enormous growth of commerce and industry; the stupendous strides of science in its application to everyday life: in short, all the complexity of influences which have taken control of group and individual life has opposed the flowering of a culture which must in many ways be primaeval. The first law of security in modern life is synchronization with world-forces, whether in the matter of balancing the budget and ordering the affairs of families or nations.

Most Australians live in cities which have much in common with European cities. Owing to the routine of life and the dissemination of overseas ideas and habits, it is sometimes difficult for Australians to think of themselves as such. Nevertheless, the British stock which settled here, no matter whether in country or town, has undergone profound changes. Acclimatization has been going on in subtle ways for several generations until Australians are now a people with distinctive physical and temperamental characteristics.

Pre-war national self-consciousness led to the expression of superficial, larrikin sentiments, best summed up — in spite of certain redeeming features in the writings of Lawson and Paterson — by the term jingoism, and hardly intelligent rallying cries for a culture. Such a phenomenon was comfortably directed during the war, in alliance with the jingoism of Empire, and, for the most part, expired with face to the foe. That which remains has no longer the centre of the stage.


Whether convicts or freemen, most of our early settlers were misfits here. Whether they arrived by choice or force of circumstance, they were pioneers, and, as such, were at continual grips with unfamiliar circumstances. They could feel at home only in so far as the new environment harmonized with their heredity and traditions. British stock could find much less in common with Australia than with America, where nature is much more in keeping with European preconceptions as to what it should be. Such was the environment in Australia that spiritual affinity with it could grow only after generations of radical adjustment — of mutations in habits of thought, feeling, behaviour, and custom — and the shedding of habits which were excrescences in this country. For, just as the country, in producing life, must now do so to a large extent in accordance with the design of man, so man, to live at all, must do so to a large extent in accord with the laws of natural environment.

This is no less true of man’s aesthetic than of his practical life; and of basic importance to aesthetic life is the appreciation of natural beauty at first hand.

Men, even if they wished to kill all the native flora and fauna of this country and to substitute those of the Old World, could not do so. In so far as Australians have changed natural conditions, the result, for the greater part, even where most aesthetic, bears the stamp of human volition. This means that if Australians are really to appreciate natural beauty at first hand, they must seek to do so by turning to indigenous nature. If they do not, or if there is little beauty there to appreciate, their aesthetic life must be impoverished.

There has, indeed, been enough sincere appreciation of distinctive beauty in Australian nature to suggest that those who see little are prejudiced. The mental and emotional training of such people is invariably patterned on Old World cultural conventions. These conventions are not necessarily standards of values from which there is no appeal or to which there are no corollaries.

Norman Douglas, who has spent most of a long life in clarifying for mankind a standard of values derived from the Mediterranean, and who has never been to Australia, has written about gum trees from a rigidly circumscribed Old World point of view.

“You walk to this building along an avenue of eucalypti planted some forty years ago. Detesting as I do the whole tribe of gum trees, I never lose an opportunity of saying exactly what I think about this particularly odious representative of the brood, this eyesore, this grey-haired scarecrow, this reptile of a growth with which a pack of misguided enthusiasts has disfigured the whole Mediterranean basin. They have now realized that it is useless as a protection against malaria. Soon enough they will learn that, instead of preventing the disease, it actually fosters it, by harbouring clouds of mosquitoes in its scraggy so-called foliage. These abominations may look better on their native heath: I sincerely hope they do. Judging by the ‘Dead Heart of Australia’ — a book which gave me a nightmare from which I shall never recover — I should say that a varnished hot-pole would be a god-send out there. But from here the intruder should be expelled without mercy. No plant on earth rustles in such a horribly metallic fashion when the wind blows through the everlasting withered branches; the noise chills one to the marrow; it is like the sibilant chatterings of ghosts. Its oil is called ‘medicinal’ only because it happens to smell rather nasty; it is worthless as timber, objectionable in form and hue — objectionable above all things in its perverse, anti-human habits. What other tree would have the effrontery to turn the sharp edges of its leaves — as if these were not narrow enough already! — towards the sun, so as to be sure of giving at all hours of the day the minimum of shade to mankind?

“But I confess that this avenue of Policoro almost reconciled me to the existence of the anaemic Antipodeans. Almost; since for some reason or other (perhaps on account of the insufferably foul nature of the soil) their foliage is here thickly tufted, it glows like burnished gold in the sunshine, like enamelled scales of green and gold. These eucalypti are unique in Italy. Gazing upon them my heart softened, and I almost forgave them their manifold iniquities, their diabolical thirst, their demoralizing aspect, precocious senility and vice, their peeling bark suggestive of unmentionable skin diseases, and that system of radication which is nothing but a scandal on this side of the globe.”

This piece of natural description is very stimulating. While there are certain misstatements due to ignorance, there is sincerity in the whole: it is the outcry of a civilized European who feels his sense of values to be outraged. Mr. Douglas would be outraged at the thought of himself taking an attitude of orthodox respectability; yet he does so here. There is, indeed, truth in the passage, but not — as Mr. Douglas has said in parallel circumstances — the whole truth. It would be as easy to caricature an oak and a weeping willow as loathsome examples of senility and obeseness: it is a matter of point of view. Mr. Douglas’s caricature is, indeed, so excellent that one recognizes the gum and could recognize no other tree in it. I am a devout reader of his prolific writings, have enjoyed “South Wind,” “Siren Land,” “Old Calabria” (whence this quotation comes), “Alone,” “Looking Back,” and several other of his books; and cannot gainsay the author’s fundamental sanity and genius, yet there is one thing I know well which Mr. Douglas does not. I mean the gum tree in its infinite variety of species and individuality. I have yet to witness a single withered, fire-scarred, flood-marked example which does not look beautiful drenched in sun-glamour at the end of day or sparkling with dew in the early morning. And there are massive and magnificent trees which look beautiful at any time of the day or night. Mr. Douglas has not seen any, as I have done, grotesque and ugly, ghastly in glare and mirage, insanely clutching and huddling under the stars, and horribly tortured under the glimmer of a red moon; yet I am not alone in seeing a stark and vivid beauty about them even then.

In spite of sternness, Mr. Douglas does relent for an instant, and catches a fleeting glimpse of beauty in the gum trees: “. . . their foliage is here thickly tufted, it glows like burnished gold in the sunshine, like enamelled scales of green and gold.” Thank you, Mr. Douglas, for the mite! It symbolizes a first step. Before long, the strange, unorthodox beauty of the Australian gum tree, and many other manifestations of beauty peculiar to this country, will find a sure place in the standards of general culture, which will be one stage nearer universality and so much the richer.


“Jindyworobak” is an Aboriginal word meaning “to annex, to join,” and I propose to coin it for a particular use. The Jindyworobaks, I say, are those individuals who are endeavouring to free Australian art from whatever alien influences trammel it, that is, to bring it into proper contact with its material. They are the few who seriously realize that an Australian culture depends on the fulfilment and sublimation of certain definite conditions, namely:

1. A clear recognition of environmental values.

2. The debunking of much nonsense.

3. An understanding of Australia’s history and traditions, primaeval, colonial, and modern.

The most important of these is the first. Pseudo-Europeanism clogs the minds of most Australians, preventing a free appreciation of nature. Their speech and thought idioms are European; they have little direct thought-contact with nature. Although emotionally and spiritually they should be, and, I believe, are more attuned to the distinctive bush, hill and coastal places they visit than to the European parks and gardens around the cities, their thought-idiom belongs to the latter not the former. Give them a suitable thought-idiom for the former and they will be grateful. Their more important emotional and spiritual potentialities will be given the conditions for growth. The inhibited individuality of the race will be released. Australian culture will exist.

Rex Ingamells, Conditional Culture, F. W. Preece, Adelaide, 1938, pages 1-5

Editor’s notes:
Dead Heart of Australia = a book by John Walter Gregory: The Dead Heart of Australia: A Journey Around Lake Eyre in the Summer of 1901-1902, with Some Account of the Lake Eyre Basin and the Flowing Wells Of Central Australia (1906)

Policoro = a town in Italy; the quoted passages from Norman Douglas are from chapter 13 of his book Old Calabria (1915)

radication = taking root, or the condition or process thereof

[Editor: Corrected “Patterson” to “Paterson” (re. the author “Banjo” Paterson); “mistatements” to “misstatements”.]

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