Myth and meaning in the Blue Mountains

The "Contents" page of a new book on the Blue Mountains by Dr Martin Thomas has mysterious chapter headings – such as "Into the Blue", "A Labyrinth" and "Reflection and Projection" – yet these enigmatic titles that seem to say so little actually capture and suggest the challenging and poetic character of his topic.

ARC postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr Martin Thomas has drawn on his UTS doctoral thesis to create an impressive blend of imaginative reflection and documentary research, which explores myths and meanings derived mainly from collective cultural memories of the Blue Mountains.

His book, The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains, had its genesis in an image of colonisation, a drawing by surveyor Thomas Mitchell, who in 1828 visited Mount Jellore on the southern fringe of the Blue Mountains. Significantly, his artwork includes the figure of an Aboriginal man, an insertion that Dr Thomas interprets as a symbolic restoration of a displaced person in a colonised landscape.

"The vision of an unclad Aborigine who contemplates a terrain with which he is obviously connected might suggest ambivalence on the part of the artist about a process of dispossession in which he is personally engaged," he says.

"I began researching the Blue Mountains because I felt haunted by that figure in the landscape. It is sobering to think that one could walk through half the territory depicted in Mitchell's view without discerning any trace of Aboriginal occupation."

Dr Thomas asserts that his book is a personal response to the landscape and not an attempt to tell the definitive history of the Blue Mountains. He wanted to record his personal impressions and explorations, conveying these while also speaking about the human experiences uncovered by his historical research.

"When I began researching the Mountains, I discovered competing narratives, so I felt that in writing an historically inspired work, it was my job to suggest, evoke and play with narrative as much as just telling it."

The book's central thesis focuses on the relationship between colonisers and their landscape. The author believes that the disruptive process of uprooting a people and supplanting this with a new civilisation has given an unsettled quality to the settler experience, creating tensions and anxieties that still surface today.

So the book, which deals with the past, also looks to the future, reflecting on these issues of cultural anxiety and in the process it sparks more questions than answers. "We need to think about strategies and ways to engage with the past and think about living more harmoniously as a society and in a way that is more in touch with what happened," he says.

Meaningful engagement requires dialogue between people who differ. Yet Dr Thomas is not especially optimistic about the ultimate outcomes. Not only is suicide an important theme in the book but there is also a chapter that describes the return to the Blue Mountains of archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe, who fell to his death from Govetts Leap in 1957.

Dr Thomas validates the importance of myth in cultural analysis. "Myths pose particular problems for traditional historians, who see their work as being about facts and replacing myths with truth or scientific history," he says. "I don't share that view. Myth permeates society and we should think creatively about myth and engage with it."

Excited by myths that offer prospects of opening rather than closure, he refers to an ancient Blue Mountains myth collected by Robert Hamilton Matthews, who in 1893 started collecting data on Aboriginal societies. He documented an Aboriginal story of creation that effectively maps the local landscape.

"Compare that to the legend of the Three Sisters at Echo Point in Katoomba, published in the 1940s, which doesn't have an Aboriginal provenance," Dr Thomas says.

"The story claims that the sisters are three women who were turned to stone. One can see that as a false myth but, as a myth created by the invading colonial culture, it reveals underlying truths about petrifying the Aboriginal sisters and turning them into things you just look at."

The author argues that it is the hallmark of colonisation, with its deletions, denials, losses and absences, that our sense of the past is perpetually unstable, always liable to crack or shatter; and that the Three Sisters legend should not be dismissed as a bogus myth. Precisely because of its ambiguous meaning and origin, it qualifies as myth in the deepest sense.

The Artificial Horizon, published by Melbourne University Press, is available at all good bookshops.