Macquarie University
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Beyond Sylvan chaos: cultural identity and the foundations of an Australian environmental sensibility

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posted on 2024-05-16, 05:41 authored by Megan E. Edwards

The author of this thesis has a long standing interest in the significance of the natural environment in cultural identity formation; in the role of nature as transformative of culture. This study aims to enhance awareness of the vital part played by the natural environment in the creation of a hybrid British/ Australian culture during the early years of British settlement. The realisation of a mature and distinctly Australian environmental consciousness has traditionally been interpreted as belonging to the years around Federation at the end of the nineteenth century, when a native-born population came to see and appreciate the land of their birth and were no longer alienated by it. 

However, this thesis argues that this late nineteenth century consciousness was merely the full-flowering of an environmental awareness, the seeds of which can be traced to the early colonial period. By drawing on insights and approaches of recent Australian environmental histories, as well as theoretical approaches to the study of landscapes which highlight the emotional, sensorial and psychological attachments to place, this study locates a much earlier and distinctly Australian environmental sensibility. It does so by focusing on the south-eastern colonies in the early decades of non-indigenous settlement and by taking into account the impacts of both transplantation and hybridisation in cultural identity formation. 

Through detailed examination of a wide-ranging collection of early colonial non­fictional prose, it finds that colonists constructed their narrative interpretations of the natural environment not only through their sense of vision, but also through their more emotive senses such as hearing and smell. Mediated by the lens of their British heritage, this interrelationship between the intellect, the emotions and the natural environment enabled for the early colonist not only a nascent sense of 'emplacement' but proved pivotal in the emergence of a discrete Australian environmentalism. 

The significance of this study is thus twofold. Firstly, it challenges the well­established viewpoint that during the early years of settlement the majority of colonists were both physically and psychologically estranged from the Australian natural environment. Secondly and of equal importance is its conclusion that the fundamental role of the natural environment in the articulation of Australian cultural identity had its underpinning not in the closing years of the nineteenth century, but in the hybridised British/ Australian culture that evolved from the very first decades of settlement. 


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The vicissitudes of Nature: living under uncertain skies -- Chapter 2. The sounds and silences of Nature -- Chapter 3. The sciences of Nature -- Chapter 4. The nature of Aesthetics and the aesthetics of Nature -- Chapter 5. Intangible Nature: the forging of emotional connections -- Chapter 6. The celebration of Nature and the nature of celebration -- Conclusion -- Bibliography

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Department of Modern History, Politics, International Relations and Security

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Alison Holland

Additional Supervisor 1

Mary Spongberg


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:






285 pages

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