Slow Catastrophes: Living with drought in Australia
Monash University Publishing, $34.95 pb, 357 pp, 9781925495430
How do people cope with drought, not as an abstraction or singular event but as a lifelong trial? In a bid to answer this question, historian Rebecca Jones elevates an understated, if underrated, historical source for understanding human responses to drought: the humble farm diary. Publishers’ enthusiasm for diaries as authentic historical documents and works of fiction seems as strong as the scholarship about diaries is vast. Yet amid the groundswell of interest in recent decades among humanities scholars in addressing ecological issues and crises, Jones’s attention to this particular genre of diary writing is unique. Through diaries, by default, Slow Catastrophes relates the passage of time and the dynamics of lived experience. The longer-term view it offers is critical to understanding the real paradoxes of Australian rural landholding, much like those of drought.
Strikingly, for a country where the effects of landscape have been invoked repeatedly as explanations of character, there was little published on drought as a cultural concept in Australia as recently as the millennium drought. Environmental historians noted in the anthology A Change in the Weather: Climate and culture in Australia (2005) that, in Australian historiography, climate has often been imagined as the ‘backdrop’ against which history played out or culture defined itself. Jones’s major study of Australian experiences of drought is a necessary extension of the field, delving deep into the cultural and historical dimensions of environmental concern.