How and why did you become interested in Alec Chisholm (1890-1977) as a biographical and historical subject?
The simple answer is that Alec Chisholm was a birder and so am I.
But, as always, there’s a more complicated answer too, involving my move into environmental history and increasing interest in the history of conservation as a social and cultural phenomenon. So, an individual whose conservationist advocacy spanned most of the first seven decades of the twentieth century offered an inviting entry point for an exploration of conservation’s shifting strategies and aspirations.
Besides, I’d never written a biography before and it seemed an interesting challenge. It was, and led off in all sorts of unanticipated directions. Serendipity is one of the joys of historical research – and of biographical research, as I discovered.
Despite humble beginnings and limited formal education, by the 1940s, Chisholm was a nationally famous journalist, a naturalist with a special interest in birdwatching, an historian and an author. Why did his writing become so popular with the general public?
I think his popularity as a writer was not so much despite his humble background and limited formal education, and more because of those qualities. Alec’s forte was in communicating with a wide audience, and the Australian public of his day – at least of his younger days – seems to have related readily to a writer of vernacular leanings. It’s true that his early nature writings were lushly Romantic in style, but this was the norm among nature writers in early twentieth-century Australia and the emotive style was keenly appreciated by his contemporaries.
However, what was a strength in earlier times proved an impediment in old age. He changed his style of writing to some degree: it became more spare and less lush but he didn’t adjust to the modes of thinking and writing that came to the fore in the 1960s and 1970s. Alec became old-fashioned and his popularity waned – much to his dismay.
A key focus of Chisholm’s writing was his attempt to create a bond between Australians and the natural world. What did he hope to achieve by this?
He had two main objectives here. One was to promote the conservation of nature. The other was to cultivate a stronger sense of nationhood. Bonding nature with nation was not unusual among early twentieth-century Australian nature writers but Alec was exceptionally adept at it, as flagged in the title of his first book, Mateship with Birds,published in 1922. He believed that a nature-centred nationalism would benefit both the Australian people and their non-human compatriots, and at the same time kindle a commitment to conservation.
Chisholm’s writing on birds tended towards romanticism and attaching human characteristics and motivations to their daily activities. By the 1970s, such attitudes seemed old-fashioned to the new generation of environmental activists, who became more focused on scientific arguments for nature preservation. Has something valuable been lost in this paradigm shift?
Yes. The science-based environmentalism of today gives too little weight to the emotional dimensions of nature appreciation and the need for people to have tangible connections with the natural world. Those dimensions are not absent from conservationist advocacy today, but they tend to be downplayed. Insofar as emotion is promoted by today’s environmentalists, it is primarily the emotion of fear: fear of climate catastrophe, mass extinctions and so forth. I’m not suggesting those fears are misplaced or that we should jettison them. But they need complementing with more positive emotions, like love of nature and joy in immersing ourselves within it. Older-style conservationists such as Alec had a clear understanding of the need to foster positive feelings; and for that, among other reasons, their writings are worth revisiting today.
During the 1960s, Chisholm was one of the voices calling for caution in the development of the urban landscape so that residents and others could continue to appreciate the natural environment and a sense of place in the heart of the city. His views reflected growing intellectual and popular interest in preserving environmental and built heritage during these years. Popular support for maintaining heritage remains strong, but the political and intellectual interest in retaining environmental values in cities has declined since then. Why do you think this might be?
In part, I think it is because the environmentalism that emerged in the 1960s became fixated on what was called ‘wilderness’ and on preserving what its proponents believed to be tracts of primeval nature. There has been some reaction against this in recent years and a questioning, led by environmental historians, of the concept of ‘wilderness’ but there is still a tendency to prioritise the supposedly pristine places. Earlier conservationists, who were more prepared to blur nature and culture, put more emphasis on the everyday nature around us.
I might add that birding has always been an activity that values urban and near-urban nature because a lot of it is done in those environments. As the American historian of birding, Thomas Dunlap, put it, birding is an activity that puts people in touch with ‘the wild near home’. Alec didn’t use that phrase, but his writings resonate with its sentiment.
For someone who was clearly a ‘difficult’ man to get along with, Chisholm developed a strong network of friends and colleagues that was beneficial to him personally and professionally over several decades. Can you tell us more about this network, and how, for example, it earned him a cameo appearance in the landmark censorship case involving the Australian publication of the US novel Portnoy’s Complaint?
Alec had four overlapping networks. One comprised the birders, whose institutional base was the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union. Surprising as it might seem to outsiders, the world of birders was riven with faction and dispute, in which Alec was often a keen participant.
Another network linked him into the literary world. Alec’s entrée came in 1908 when, at the age of 18, he struck up a friendship with Mary Gilmore that endured until the poet’s death in 1962. Other literary friends included Dymphna Cusack, CJ Dennis and Roderic Quinn. Connected with this network was the world of publishing, Alec having his strongest connections with the firm of Angus and Robertson.
It was through the intersection of his literary and publishing networks that he appeared for Angus and Robertson in the Portnoy’s Complaint trial of 1971, alongside Patrick White, Barbara Jefferis, Nancy Keesing and Cyril Pearl. Alec believed that writers should be as untrammelled by legal restrictions as possible. But I think the real reason the defence lawyers selected him was that, as a rather proper gentleman of advanced years (he was then aged 81), he would make a favourable impression on the jury.
Alec’s fourth network comprised the historians who clustered around the Royal Australian Historical Society. He served several terms as President, Vice-President and General Secretary of the RAHS in the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1961 was elected a Fellow. Alec won some fame (and notoriety) as an historian, though this network seems to have been less extensive than the other three.
What was Alec Chisholm’s legacy?
I think the best way to sum it up is in the words of the book’s back-cover blurb: ‘Alec Chisholm inspired Australians to see nature anew’. He didn’t do so single-handedly, of course, but he was, for some decades in the middle of the twentieth century, the most prominent and most popular of a cluster of nature writers who urged Australians to love and cherish the natural world around them.
Could an Alec Chisholm emerge in today’s intellectual and cultural environment?
I consider that unlikely. Alec was a self-educated polymath of a kind that has almost disappeared in an age of credentialism. Of course, these things are not set in concrete, but I think any Alec Chisholm of the future would come from a different background to his.
Finally, authors are often frustrated that an aspect of their work is not mentioned in interviews or reviews of their books. Is there an aspect of your biography you would like to emphasise that has not been covered in these questions?
One matter that has received only passing notice in reviews so far (with one notable exception) is Alec’s editorship of the 1958 Australian Encyclopaedia. The task took him ten years and earned him a multitude of public accolades as well as an Order of the British Empire. Perhaps in the age of the Internet and Wikipedia, such an encyclopaedia seems too old-fashioned to warrant special notice. But in 1958 it was hailed as a marker of Australia’s national maturity and its editor feted as a man who managed to distil something of the essence of Australia onto the pages of a work of reference.
The 1958 Australian Encyclopaedia was one of Alec’s great achievements, yet it is fitting that he is remembered not so much for that as for his lyrical meditations on nature.