THE ACTUAL landscape of Mark Tredinnick’s The Blue Plateau is a relatively small area of dry highlands and deep river gorges, of catchments and escarpments, just west and across the Great Dividing Range from Sydney, Australia. But the author celebrates and laments the place and the lives within it, human and beyond human, so beautifully and intimately that this place also rises to the mythologic. To rework a line from a Ferron song: I’ve never been to Australia, but now — after this book — it comes up in my dreams. The landscape in the language of this work is alive and conscious, and Tredinnick channels it in prose both wild and inspired.
To characterize that prose for American readers, I might begin by suggesting a cross between Mary Austin in Land of Little Rain and Gretel Ehrlich in Solace of Open Spaces. Listen to Tredinnick on rivers: “The river is the plateau’s reptilian mind. Its limbic system. It is where the plateau’s instincts dwell — its grief, its deep but uneasy serenity, its gift for violence, its self-possession. The river is the plateau’s unregenerate self.” Yet the book’s larger form seems all its own: seven chapters with classic landscape terms as titles, yes, but as preface, a cast list of nonfiction characters, as coda, an intertwined epilogue and afterword, and page by page throughout, a series of short sections that feather together in time and place, accreting gradually, like sand and silt into stone. In that metaphor, Tredinnick’s vision and voice become the forces of wind and water. His words lap and flood, howl and whisper, addressing and giving voice to trees, rocks, and rivers, and leaving behind the haunt and trace of several multigenerational families of settlers and ranchers: their stories, strengths, tragedies, and losses.
For this book is about loss. And big change. Sydney’s municipal water needs created dams and reservoirs in the 1950s, flooding the heart of the territory Tredinnick’s hardscrabble characters inhabit. And the bake of wildfire, historically a feature in this arid, sclerophyllous land, rages ever more frequently and widely in a new century of accelerated climate change. Tredinnick lived on the plateau from 1998 to 2005 — walking, riding, talking, reading — drinking deep from the country’s true wellsprings — and writing what would be this book. Part nonfiction novel, part classic pastoral, part nature elegy, part natural history, the whole of The Blue Plateau conveys a deep sense, rooted in the very syntax of a lush prose about an austere land, that there can be no meaningful division between nature and culture, between humans and all the other life that interdepends with us, not in the backcountry of southeastern Australia, nor anywhere else.