by Whispering Gums
An article on the early Australian writer and botanist, Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872), complementing our previous posts on her, Bill Holloway’s review of her novel Gertrude the emigrant, and an extract from that novel.
Our first two posts about Louisa Atkinson, identified above, relate to her work as a novelist. However, Atkinson – daughter of Charlotte Barton, who is credited as the author of Australia’s first children’s book – had other strings to her bow. She was a significant botanist, sending specimens to scientists like Ferdinand von Mueller, which resulted in several plant species being named for her. She was also an illustrator, which is the focus of Elizabeth Lawson’s The art of Louisa Atkinson. And, she was the first Australian woman to have a long-running column in a major newspaper. It’s her journalism work that is the focus of this post.
Chisholm writes in Australian dictionary of biography that
The most notable of her writings … are those dealing with natural history, which were contributed to various journals in Sydney, and which, together with her drawings, were acclaimed by Dr Woolls.
Atkinson’s column, then, was a natural history series titled A Voice from the Country, and it ran in The Sydney Morning Herald for 10 years from 1 March 1860 to 16 June 1870. However, her first appearance in a newspaper were illustrations in the Illustrated Sydney News, in 1853. Unfortunately, this paper does not seem to have been digitised by Trove. Lawson writes that it also published, around this time, two articles by her, titled “The Native Arts”. The first “is illustrated by her historically important drawing of the Aboriginal grave-mound with carved funeral trees on Gingenbullen mountain above Oldbury”, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. The main point of this article, says Lawson, was “the desolation of a site lost in all senses to its people”. The second describes the making of possum skin cloaks, and other apparel. She was, in other words, aware of, interested in and sympathetic to local Indigenous culture. Atkinson continued to contribute “Notes of the Month” for the News through 1854, but this ended, probably due to a family tragedy, before the News folded in 1855.
A few years later, Atkinson’s column started in The Sydney Morning Herald. Lawson writes that the column “gave Sydney its first extended, readable information about local flora and fauna”. It was not illustrated, but Atkinson continued to sketch, sometimes mentioning in her column that she’d noticed ‘objects ripe for the pencil’, or lamenting the lack of time to sketch.
Lawson explains that she continued to do
much original botanical work, and ‘A Voice from the Country’ interweaves botanical notes with a myriad of observations on animals, insects, reptiles and geology, not to mention people along the way, the weather and her travelling mishaps and adventures (a fall here, a lost dog mocked by lyrebirds there).
The first “voice from the country” was titled “January”.
“January”, and other work
“January” was published on 1 March 1860. Atkinson was living, at the time, in Kurrajong, on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains, and the piece is about the birds and plants that could be seen in January in her region. She opens with:
A WARM drowsy month, without the opening promise of Spring or maturing riches of Autumn.
It beautifully captures the middle of the Australian summer, particularly when combined with the next couple of sentences:
In dry seasons the grass is scorched and white, the dust flies along the road before the least puff of wind, much to the annoyance of the traveller. The observer of nature finds his field of observation limited, yet not altogether barren.
In other words, it is dry, and there’s nothing much happening, nature-wise. “Much” though is the operative word, because it’s “not altogether barren”, as she goes on to show by describing, for example, the activity of various birds such as the “waterwagtail or dishwasher”, laughing jackasses, lowries. This introduces one of the joys of reading these old pieces – the language. Besides Atkinson’s engaging way of writing about nature, there are also the unfamiliar expressions and names. Sometimes the language quite erudite compared with that found in modern newspapers. The vocabulary can be unfamiliar, or word usage has changed.
But it is the naming of things that can be the most challenging. Laughing jackasses and lowries – kookaburras and crimson rosellas*, respectively – are still known, though these names aren’t commonly used now. However, other names, like “waterwagtail or dishwasher”, are less familiar. However, further research, plus the help of blogger Pam (Travellin’ Penguin), uncovered a book, Austral English, which says that it’s “an old English bird-name for the Water-wagtail; applied in Australia to the Seisura inquieta … the Restless Flycatcher”. It quotes from the 1827 Transactions of the Linnæan Society, that the bird “is very curious in its actions. In alighting on the stump of a tree, it makes several semi-circular motions, spreading out its tail …”.
Is it the Restless Flycatcher that Atkinson writes about? Reading past writing can be challenging when writers describe plants, animals or objects using terms or names that have been lost. Anyhow, here is Atkinson’s beautiful description of the lowries:
A flock of lowries, young and old, frequent the fields, whence the oaten hay was gathered, nor confine their depredations there, assisting themselves liberally to the ripening peas and beans, which the gardener intended for seed, and even pursuing these favourite morsels into a verandah where they are spread to dry. The flock presents a brilliant appearance ; the full plumaged birds are vivid crimson, blue, partially pied with black, whilst the nestlings are variegated with green.
And so her columns continued…
Atkinson was fully engaged in the natural science community and in learning and sharing knowledge about local plant and animal species. There’s an account in the The Sydney Morning Herald in January 1865 of a meeting of the Horticultural Society of Sydney. It reports on attendees bringing all sorts of plant specimens to the meeting, most of them exotic. Then, towards the end, there’s this:
Miss Atkinson, of the Kurrajong, sent a jar of jam, of the Lisanthe sapida, with the following remarks –
“LISANTHE SAPIDA – A small shrub of the Epacris family, bearing a crimson fruit, enveloping a single stone; good bearer, crop lasts about two months or more, coming in in November. To make jelly—boil the drupes, adding a few spoonfuls of water; when soft strain the juice off, add one pound white sugar to a pint, and boil to jelly. The fruit makes a pleasant tart—the Lisanthe Sapida grows in poor sandstone ranges. If any member of the societv would like to cultivate the shrub, and cannot procure the fruits in their locality, it is to be met with in the Kurrajong.”
A vote of thanks was given to the exhibitors, and more especially to Miss Atkinson, who it was remarked had made herself most remarkable for her endeavours to bring colonial productions into notice.
The lisanthe (or lissanthe) sapida, aka native cranberry, is a plant native to Australia. From the special mention, it seems that it was unusual, but much appreciated, for local plants to be brought to these meetings.
Towards the end of her column’s life, in May 1870, Atkinson wrote a piece titled “After shells in the limestone”. By then, she had married James Calvert of Cavan Station near Yass, also in New South Wales. In this region, which of course she explored, she found deposits of shell fossils. She wrote, for example:
The shells only occurred occasionally and in less pure limestone, of softer material. What a field it would make for a geologist! The limestones apart from the fossils were interesting-largely ripple marked. The edges in many places white as burnt lime, yet hard. The detached corals particularly attracted my attention-they were not generally distributed, but characterised certain localities, to which they imparted a rusty tint. I extremely regretted that it was only as a collector of curiosities, not as one acquainted with geology, that these strange remains were examined.
That remark – that she “regretted” only being “a collector of curiosities” rather than one knowledgeable about geology – demonstrates, as Lawson points out, her readiness to expand her knowledge and understanding “of the intricate synthesis of local life and local forms”.
Louisa Atkinson, always of frail health, died young, eighteen days after the birth of her first child. In 1878, six years later, an article appeared in Australian Town and Country Journal titled The late Mrs. J.S. Calvert. Written in the manner of an obituary, it summarises her life and achievements, and observes “that in all Miss Atkinson’s writings, there is a manifest desire to disseminate useful knowledge and generous sentiments”. Lawson, looking at her life from modern times, writes that she “took part in the great scientific enterprise of her imperial-colonial world without criticism, with what we might call an arrogant lack of reflection”. However, she did also sometimes find and record Aboriginal names for flora and fauna, recognising, argues Lawson, that those names could be “an obvious solution to colonial naming difficulties”. A woman of her time, in many ways, but ahead of them too. Her journalism is well worth reading.
* Mountain lowry is an alternative name for the Crimson rosella but is not the most common one, particularly in New South Wales.
Louisa Atkinson, “A voice in the country: January“.The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1860
Louisa Atkinson, “After shells in the limestone“.The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1870
A. H. Chisholm, “Atkinson, Caroline Louisa (1834–1872)”. Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 1969.
Elizabeth Lawson, The natural art of Louisa Atkinson. State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1995
Whispering Gums, aka Sue T, majored in English Literature, before completing her Graduate Diploma in Librarianship, but she spent the majority of her career as an audio-visual archivist. Taking early retirement, she engaged actively in Wikipedia, writing and editing articles about Australian women writers, before turning to litblogging in 2009. Australian women writers have been her main reading interest since the 1980s.