ASBS Newsletter – Book Review
Botany in the Backblocks, from 1939
written by Noel C.W. Beadle (ed. Gordon J. White).
(From ASBS Newsletter Number 96, June 1998)
Department of Botany
Not exactly an autobiography, but more an account of travels during 1939-46 while gathering data which came together as "The Vegetation and Pastures of Western New South Wales" (1948). This is one of the most important ecology studies ever made in Australia. I know, for I used it frequently while working in Central Australia after 1954. Noel's work at the University of Sydney and University of New England are but briefly and sketchily mentioned. There are many photos, black and white at the time of the work, and some colour in later years, sometimes during student expeditions. There are 121 pages in about A4 size, and it is a Limited Edition with each copy numbered. It is notable that Noel continued to interest his students in the dry country throughout his career. I even remember him in Alice Springs with students at the Arid Zone Conference in 1965 (not mentioned in his book!). I was of course a student at Sydney when Noel was lecturer there.
The account is liberally sprinkled with places most people have never seen even on maps ... Lake Bancannia, Wanaaring, Louth, Paradise Creek, Yancannia Creek, Youldoo, Youtoo, Narran River, Garnpung, Panban, as well as perhaps well known Cobar, Condobolin, Wilcannia, Balranald, Hay, Hillston and Broken Hill. Interspersed frequently are historical notes about explorers and various properties, plus anecdotes of individuals. On page 40 I found Marjorie Shiels, nee Collins, whose signed copy of Noel's book (l.c.) I bought from a second-hand shop in 1961!
Stories of travels or poor dusty roads, and seeking directions at homesteads were familiar to me, as were tales of sand bogs, wet bogs, and the time taken to dig out of these. Noel had to buy a car to carry out his studies in the back-blocks of N.S.W. and he used it as a home much of the time. He includes tales of food carried on bush trips, times in hotels and boarding houses and some "characters" met on the track, including a particular dog.
I admired Noel's conversion of familiar names to the latest nomenclature e.g. Bassia / Schlerolaena, Kochia / Maireana, but was glad to see familiar persistent names Sarcostemma, Atriplex, Eragrostis, Swainsona, and Enchylaena. Overall, I enjoyed reading the unpretentious, warmly human aspects of a botanist in the outback and the dedication to a task which must have seemed most daunting in 1939, or perhaps even today.
Reviewer: George Chippendale