Saturday, November 10, 2007

Death of New England Writer Eric Rolls (1923-2007)

I was saddened to see that Eric Rolls had died on Wednesday 31 October 2007 after a short illness.

I first read Eric Rolls' A Million Wild Acres many years ago. Published in 1981, the book is the epic story of what is now known as the Pilliga Scrub. This area, once open because of Aboriginal burning, became dense scrub/forest following the arrival of the Europeans and the withdrawal of fire.

I so loved the story that I gave it to my Uncle Ron for his birthday. Ron was no reader, but he too loved it because he loved the land and knew the area. The material that follows is drawn from Tom Burton's obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 2007.

Tome described Eric Charles Rolls as a farmer, poet, cook, fisherman and a supreme writer about the history and nature of his own country. "He lived with vigour and manifest joy and leaves Australians a remarkable legacy of words and insights. His voice has become part of this land and has forever changed the way we live here."

Eric Rolls was born at Grenfell into a western NSW farming family. Apparently his promise as a storyteller emerged earl,y at kindergarten. In Tom's words, he "found a way of telling stories that made listeners feel they were sitting on his knee. He carried a rare combination of authority and intimacy. With short sentences, vivid verbs, sensual imagery and a necessary swagger, this poet-turned-prose writer wove a kind of magic."

From Grenfell, Eric won selection to Fort Street High ( a selective high school), before serving in New Guinea in World War II. From 1946 he farmed his own land in the north-west of New England on the edges of the Pilliga Scrub.

In 1969 he published his first non-fiction book, They All Ran Wild, a history of pests in Australia, especially rabbits. However, of all his 20 books it was A Million Wild Acres that made him famous.

Its central story is the growing of a forest. "Australia was not a timbered land that has been cleared," Rolls argued. In much of Australia, Aborigines kept the forests open with their light, regular burning. The prolific germination that always follows fire was kept in check by the plentiful wallabies, possums, bandicoots and rat kangaroos, which ate the seedlings.

Now this was an argument that struck a real chord with me, for it was one of the lessons I drew from my studies in Australian pre-history. If, as Rolls argued, the Australian environment was human created, what did this say of our desire to "preserve"? Wasn't this just another human modification of the landscape?

Rolls the farmer found "wild" nature to be feral, mongrel and hybrid, nature enlivened by human intervention. He concluded that many of today's forests are different and new - exaggerated communities of plants and animals, volatile and vulnerable.

This view drew him into conflict with some of the "purists" in the environmental movement, yet it is (I think) clearly correct. Without Aboriginal fire management, wildfires do erupt, creating conflict and dispute including around the Pilliga itself, the first European made forest to be declared a national park .

As well as a pioneering environmental history, A Million Wild Acres is (in Tom Burton's words) a regional history like no other, where birds, animals and plants share the stage with humans. One hero is the white cypress pine. Through his democratic recognition of all life, Rolls enchants the forest, presenting a country raucous with sound and nervous with creative energy. Australian poet Les Murray read it "with all the delight of one who knows he has at last got hold of a book that is in no way alien to him".

Rolls was also an outstanding historian of the Chinese in Australia, demonstrated by his two-volume Flowers and the Wide Sea (Sojourners in 1992 and Citizens in 1996). Other books included poetry (Sheaf Tosser, The Green Mosaic, Selected Poems), children's books, memoirs, A Celebration of Food and Wine, and other histories, From Forest to Sea, Visions of Australia, and Australia: A Biography.

At 60, Eric Rolls decided to give away the land and focus just on writing. He and his second wife, Elaine van Kempen, moved to Camden Haven on the New England Mid-North coast.

Eric Rolls had two long and happy marriages, first with Joan (Stephenson), who died in 1985, then with Elaine, who survives him with his children Kim, Kerry and Mitchell, Elaine's children Nick, Sue, Simon and Adam, and his sister Dellas.

Upon his move to Camden Haven he helped found and was patron of the Watermark Literary Society, which organises a biennial "muster" of environmental and natural history writers in Camden Haven.

Vale to Eric Rolls.

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