Source: Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 15, 2013, pp. 230-231.
Peter Macinnis, Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2012, pbk, ISBN 978 806422 754 1, 213 pp, $39.99. With Curious Minds by Peter Macinnis, the National Library of Australia has produced yet another masterpiece of colour illustration, as if to demonstrate by example that the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated. The book is beautiful to the feel: its 213 pages in soft but durable covers can be bent and flicked through like a good field naturalist's guide, revealing startling illustrations from the best nature artists of each era, and also striking portraits of some of the main characters discussed. A solemn elderly Joseph Banks stares out of one page, followed by pages of the equally knobbly Banksia plants named after him, and after these, some of the many eager but often unworldly botanists that he sent out to carry on his work.The main text is made up of thirty seven biographical sketches of the men and women whose minds engaged with the strange nature of Australia, who then went on to describe and illustrate its flora and fauna and present their discoveries to the world. These bio-sketches in turn are inserted between several hundred reproductions of species and landscape paintings, floral and beastly drawings, human portraits, and maps, averaging two to a double page, itself a history of illustrative art over 300 years. The account is arranged more or less consecutively, which is to say historically, beginning in the late seventeenth century with Willem de Vlamingh and William Dampier, Dutch and English respectively, but both presenting a very negative initial view of the Great Southland. Vlamingh comes across as an unimaginative and bored bureaucrat-seaman, forced against his will to inspect and survey a long coastline of tedium. With Dampier, the Johnny Depp-style pirate who gave occasional papers to the newly formed Royal Society, the new geekish sensibility can almost be seen struggling out of the monotonous shipboard log entries. To cut open a shark at Shark Bay and find a newly devoured 'hippo' inside (in fact it was a dugong) and think it worth reporting, heralds the re-emergence of tabloid science from the good start made by Herodotus thousands of years previously. For if there was one attribute that all this 300 year long cavalcade of nature reporters had in common, it was an eye to publication. This reached its peak, in the mid-nineteenth century with the Goulds (of Bird League fame), husband and wife, making a commercial success of bird painting and, incidentally, helping Charles Darwin's big ideas on matters of detail. The appetite for publication often involved some interesting skulduggery as to whose work it really was being published, and who could get their work to the publishers first across perilous seas in faraway London or Europe (for the Germans and French were active in the game of pursuit of curiosities). Macinnis makes some interesting points about the nation-building influence of the wide publication of Australian naturalist accounts, and how these in turn morphed into the Blinky Bills and Snugglepots of children's literature, which created a virtuous circle of national pride and environmental awareness. Beginning with the versatile Mrs Meredith, many of the compilers did not hesitate to join the fight to stop the senseless destruction of many of the wonders that they described, though it was obviously a lonely battle at times. One objection I would make to the text is that the author seemed to be a little dismissive of Ludwig Leichhardt and his bush skills. Leichhardt was willing to learn from and greatly appreciated the Aborigines, unlike most of his men, always excepting the gentle John Gilbert. It was unfortunate that these two were probably killed as a result of actions of members of their parties, actions of which they almost certainly had no part. I had to read the translated diaries (edited and translated by Arousseau) of poor old Ludwig at one stage of my career, and came to appreciate how the man was almost the type of the neglected and misunderstood nerd — totally brilliant in all things of the mind, but pretty hopeless at the lesser social skills such as leadership of an exploring party. Probably not uncoincidentally, Dampier had the same character failing, as did the brilliant but unstable Polish-German William Blandowski, and probably many others discussed in Curious Minds. It is not unreasonable to think that many of these investigators turned to nature because many of its prospects were more pleasing to them than human company.
The more successful built enduring careers out of their passions. The celebrated Ferdinand von Mueller laid the foundations of Australian bioscience: as with his compatriot Leichhardt, he championed the local over the imperial. Prolific writers such as Louisa Ann Meredith also encouraged the transformation that many settlers underwent, 'from a dislike of the Australian bush to an appreciation of its wonders'. Full references are given at the back of the book so that all the art reproductions presented can be followed to their source, a very welcome service to the reader. The author is a former science teacher, whose students were very fortunate to be taught by someone with the obvious knack of bringing complicated ideas, events and people to life. Robert Haworth