Travelling to the Edge of Oneself (2009)

Jen Crawford, ed.: brief 38 (September 2009)

Travelling to the Edge of Oneself

Martin Edmond. The Supply Party: Ludwig Becker on the Burke and Wills Expedition. Adelaide, SA: East Street Publications, 2009. ISBN 978-1-921037-26-9. 209 pp.

Martin Edmond: The Supply Party (2009)

Outside in the rookery, an extraordinary cacophony and excitement of birds, mostly … ibis, was going on. … Ibis are elegant birds and they inevitably remind me of ancient Egypt, where the ibis-headed Thoth, inventor of writing, scribe of the gods, fount of all knowledge, recorded the confessions and affirmations of the dead on his scrolls, along with the list of who went to paradise and who was to be eaten by the gods of judgement. On the other hand, in a rookery they are scrappy, quarrelsome, raucous and somehow lacking the elegance, and often even the whiteness that they possess in their ideal form. On the wing they immediately recover their grace and splendour and then it is easy to see that they are an archaic bird, thought to have descended from that flying dinosaur, the pterodactyl. [63-64]

All that from a flock of birds!

I guess the reason this passage struck me so forcibly as I was making my way through Martin Edmond’s latest, The Supply Party, a combination travel-book, biographical-exploration of Ludwig Becker, official artist and naturalist on the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, was because it seems to encapsulate his method in a nutshell.

On the one hand there’s the close observation: Martin notes carefully and accurately the behaviour of the actual flock of ibis he’s observing from a nearby hide. On the other hand there’s the ever-present association of ideas: Ibis recall Thoth, the ibis-headed god, and thus we go down and interesting byway into Egyptian mythology for a short while. Finally there’s the assiduous research: Ibis, archaic birds, “thought to have descended from that flying dinosaur, the pterodactyl.”

I guess there are dangers to this approach. If you like constant mythological and historical parallels to the business in hand, this is the book for you. Martin is an elegant anecdotalist and a supremely well-informed guide. His contacts with the actual people he meets along the way tend to be significantly more truncated, though.

There’s the “sullen red-headed teenage girl” serving behind the counter of a Queensland roadhouse, who looks so incredulous at the idea of anyone wanting salad with their burger [160-61]; more poignantly, there’s the bewildered young ex-veteran in the souvenir shop who says, “with feeling, as if it were a line from a song: I’ll never wear green again” [130]; then there’s the woman in the hotel in Menindee, Noeline, who replies to his request for a room, “Sure you don’t mean the motel across the road?” [94]; there’s even that crooked-toothed drinker in the bar who dials a wrong number “very slowly, looking at his bit of paper, looking at the numbers on the phone, punching a button, looking back at his bit of paper,” as if he couldn’t read, only to hang his head in shame and shamble away when he realised “re-dialling was beyond him” [98]. Most striking of all, perhaps, there’s the well-dressed Aboriginal woman in Cunnamulla to whom Martin never succeeds in speaking at all: “We were only a metre or two apart but the space between us was vast and unknown, perhaps unknowable. I couldn’t catch her eye” [183].

Again and again Martin reveals that he’s happier sitting on the porch with a book than chatting inconsequentially with the locals: “Next door was a low, old dining room with spider-haunted mud-brick walls. I peered briefly in but it seemed better to eat outside.” [161] He even jokes about it once or twice:
It never stops, he said, humorously. It just never bloody stops, does it?
No, I agreed, without the slightest idea of what he was talking about. Walking back into the hotel compound, I realised I must have entered the Laconic Zone. [69]

His true feelings seem to me to come out more straightforwardly (laconically?) later on: “It’s a peculiarity of outback towns, that, as soon as you leave them, it is as if they have never been.” [105]

So why go there at all? What is there in this curious car-journey approximately in his tracks that succeeds in bringing Martin closer to his elusive subject, Ludwig Becker?

Again and again Martin stresses the accuracy of Becker’s observations, the fact that one can identify places, flora and fauna, people even, from his precise and elegant sketches and finished watercolours (the one exception, the tick he discovered in the arm-pit of a gecko at Minindie, remains unknown to science because, although he used a magnifying glass “to make the enlarged version .. the magnification was not sufficient to allow him to detail those features that would allow a specific identification to be made. He was working … at the limits of vision.” [177]).

And yet, there something more to Becker’s art – something hard to put one’s finger on, but nevertheless palpably there behind his apparently so-dispassionate technique: “ a vastness that is beyond mere possession by the eye” [179]. Thus his painting of a comet is hard to see except as a nativity scene, the crouching camels in the immeasurable night; his views of distant plains, too, have a tendency to play strange tricks with perception and scale. An air of the Romantic movement, of Coleridge’s “habituation to the VAST,” of the visionary landscapes of Kasper David Friedrich (his Art teacher’s teacher), seems inextricably bound up with Becker’s concept of himself as a man of science.

Might the same be said of Martin Edmond, his biographer, his shadow? Certainly. Unquestionably. There’s the lovely passage where Martin speculates that the creatures in the Australian bush, “from their long association with humans, somehow miss us when we’re not around and celebrate if we return, even if only for a night or two:”
I know this is an impossibly romantic position to take and probably untenable. I only mention it because I’ve never quite been able to shake the feeling that it is so. [134].

Novalis could hardly have expressed more succinctly his own sense of the living, breathing cosmos that we all inhabit – in mutual brotherhood or enmity.

Martin’s is a strangely melancholy book. But then, perhaps that’s not so strange. It is, after all, a funeral elegy for a man who died on a futile, mismanaged quest for something that hardly mattered in itself – Victoria’s attempt to claim as much northern territory as possible before the pushy young State of South Australia could do the same. And the gloom associated with this waste of men and materials hangs over the story more and more:
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stand before another grave. I though perhaps I’d had enough of mortuary emotions. [148]

In the end, in fact, Martin fails even to find his ostensible subject’s final resting-place:
Having come so far, with the goal in sight, why would I turn away now? Did I not want to stand at the grave site after all? Perhaps, although I didn’t think this at the time, I was trying to align myself with all the other non-events: Burke and Wills never saw the sea at Carpentaria .. Wright never reached Cooper’s Creek with the supply party, Brahe wasn’t there when those he’d waited four months for finally came back …. Even Becker was absent from his own death. [167]

A rationalisation? Or the simple truth? Standing by Becker’s grave was never going to bring Martin the closure that he needed, the definition and the distance to evaluate his own quest. On the one hand, clearly, it was an attempt to understand Becker by emulating him. The Supply Party, then, becomes the rhetorical equivalent of Becker’s own sketchbook of the expedition: partial, unfinished, ostensibly compiled for the purposes of advancing knowledge, but actually full of mystical insights and visionary depth.

Martin’s, too, is a vision-quest, conducted under the aegis of totem animals: ibis, snakes, eagles – even the ubiquitous, omnipresent flies – and it seems designed more to tell him about himself than to provide us with a biography of Ludwig Becker. His account of Becker’s last days casts, significantly, the artist as Don Quixote, his exasperated doppelgänger Beckler as a kind of Sancho Panza, reluctantly tending to his companion’s needs whilst backbiting him under his breath:
Propping up his bloated body on some old camel bags, he [Becker] sought to make himself independent of all external influences by studying, writing and sketching [175].

Beckler’s bluntly-expressed scorn for his older countryman Becker’s scholarly preoccupations in the midst of such extreme adversity and want prompts Martin to dissent – to see, on the contrary, in this mantra, studying, writing and sketching, a kind of panacea for the woes of the world.

Which of them was right? Who can say, even at this distance in time? It would be naïve to claim that Martin doesn’t see the justice in Beckler’s workaday view of the world. He did, after all, survive to tell the tale, unlike his more spiritual companion. The Supply Party, then, might be seen as Martin’s own personal Pilgrim’s Progress – equivocal where Bunyan is most direct, but every bit as serious in the final analysis. Or, if you prefer, it might be possible to see in that splendid, luminous apotheosis of the dying Becker succeeding in making himself “independent of all external influences by studying, writing and sketching” something of the luminous yet simple practicality of Voltaire’s advice (in Candide) to “cultivate your garden.”

Either way this is an intensely thought-provoking book, one which doesn’t reveal all it’s got to say on the surface, but one which richly repays perseverance. A simple travel narrative it’s not – but then, which of the great travel books can claim to be simple?

On one level, then, it’s a kind of love-letter to the Australian landscape to match Martin’s earlier evocations of New Zealand’s central plateau in Waimarino County & Other Excursions (2007); on another, it’s a splendid addition to Burke-&-Willsiana along the lines of his contribution to the Ern Malley mythos in White City and its associated works. Finally, though, it’s its own book: an account of travelling to the edge of oneself, and a partial inventory of what can be brought back from the journey.


brief 38 (2009): 89-93.

[1711 wds]

brief 38 (2009)

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