Change and Damage Beyond Belief: Judith Wright’s The Coral Battleground

Review by Tristan Foster

Let’s talk, briefly, about fights. Humans love a fight – fighting is among the first things we do: the fight for breath, for attention, the fight to be heard so that we can be fed. And it doesn’t stop in childhood – we continue fighting for things we don’t have or for things we no longer have and want back until we can’t anymore. We fight on public transport and we fight in sporting matches, sometimes in our offices, in our homes. We fight disease; those suffering from cancer speak about the sickness as if it’s a contest. We fight to live and we fight not to die.

Despite this, we are supposed to think of fighting as barbaric, an act that epitomises the absence of civilisation; surely, we mutter to ourselves, there are other ways to work this out. Fighting is seen as primitive because it is. What happens, then, when civilisation and everything that comes with it – development, progress – is itself the problem?

The Coral Battleground by Australian poet Judith Wright is about a fight for preservation. It tells the story of the campaign by small but determined conservation groups to save the Great Barrier Reef in the 1960s and ’70s. That you know what the Great Barrier Reef is and have a fixed picture of it in your mind when you see its name, that you have maybe visited it or have vague plans to visit it or have received a postcard with a picture of its sapphire waters on the front is evidence that they won this particular fight.

Wright famously said of the Reef that it is ‘the closest most people will come to Eden’. Her paean to it is an insightful, sometimes compelling, at other times tedious discussion of bureaucracy which ranges from the Queensland Government’s refusal to act on the outbreak of a then-small plague of Crown of Thorns starfish, to oil-drilling and limestone mining, to the fight to have the Reef – as a whole – protected. Because of the efforts of the conservationists, the entirety of the Reef, stretching from Cape York to Fraser Island, became a marine park where oil exploration continues to be illegal.

That the small conservation groups faced considerable challenges is an understatement; at the time, the Reef was not even considered a single entity, nor was it clear under whose authority the Reef was.

The campaigning of the conservation groups helped to solve these problems, which in-turn helped to clarify the issues that they were facing, but there was also a continuing, and shocking, lack of biological knowledge about the Reef, not to mention a pathetic tug of war between the Queensland and Federal Governments over it. The cause of the conservationists is helped along at various points by sympathetic Prime Ministers, benevolent legal firms, and the fortune of the misfortune of damaging natural disasters and oil rigs and tankers blooming around the world like springtime cherry blossoms to catastrophic effect. Also helpful in putting the issue at the front of the public’s minds was an attentive media, especially The Australian which was pro-conversation during the period. Funny, hey?

The Coral BattlegroundThere can be poetry in the idea of time taking things for itself, leaving us to wonder what could have been – in literature, the permanent loss of Homer’s Margites, for example. Too, there is something poetic about things being saved from the proverbial, and literal, fire – think of Max Brod’s refusal to put a lighter to Kafka’s work. Wright, one of Australia’s pre-eminent poets, sees no poetry here. The Great Barrier Reef isn’t something that time can swallow, it’s something that, save for apocalyptic calamity, humans can choose to either preserve or to kill. The style Wright employs is reportorial – very little of her own insights or experiences beyond the Reef are part of the story, and much of the time she is speaking in the first person plural – this is the conservationists’ story: ‘Rather than dramatising our encounters, I have chosen to give the facts and little more.’ Aiding in its readability is the fact that the founding members of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland were not trained biologists or lawyers and so they were all forced to break complex legal and biological information down into terms they could understand themselves.

Wright’s story of the Reef doesn’t so much as end as it does simply stop. There was no clear victory, and Wright and the other conservationists were under no illusions that the Reef would be safe forever after. ‘To me,’ Wright wrote in her Foreword to the 1996 edition, ‘it’s a kind of miracle that things have gone so well for the Great Barrier Reef.’

Let’s talk about fights again. Fights are at their dumbest when it’s a repeat of a previous fight, something that’s already been had out. The only party that likes the idea of a rematch is the loser. The Coral Battleground was first published in 1977; that it has been reissued this year by Spinifex Press is not a coincidence – things have stopped going well for the Great Barrier Reef. With plans to dump millions of tons of dredged sand inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Federal and Queensland Governments don’t see a 2000km-long reef anymore, they see something resembling a rubbish tip.

Wright was writing at a time when there was little knowledge of reefs not only locally but also globally. It could be argued that it doesn’t take reams of ecological studies to know that the Great Barrier Reef is special, but it shows a particular kind of foresight on the part of the various conservation committees to believe that it was indeed worth protecting.

Now, we know so much more – and, yet, in an astounding and special display of fuckwittery, the ecological knowledge we do have doesn’t seem to matter. In a recent article on the Reef for New Scientist, chief research scientist at the Centre for Tropical Water & Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University Jon Brodie wrote: ‘Of the three big threats to the Great Barrier Reef – climate change, coastal development and agricultural pollution – only the latter is being managed on the basis of good science, and then only to some extent.’

‘Australia has something that exists nowhere else on the face of the earth,’ wrote Wright. ‘The idea that anyone would take the remotest chance of damaging the Reef is beyond belief.’ The Coral Battleground is a statement of property, a loving statement, but with the clear message that the Reef belongs to the people. People working together saved it, and people working together can save it again. But – and you know what’s coming next – in the same way that we have the power to save it, we have the power to both kill it or idly allow it to be killed. Wright, in closing, points out that the fate of the Reef is symbolic of the fate of the planet – when it’s doing okay, the rest of the place is doing okay. The Reef is about to be tested again.

The Coral Battleground
Judith Wright
Spinifex Press, 2014
206pp, $29.95

Judith Wright was a prolific Australian poet, critic, and short-story writer, who published more than 50 books. Wright was also an uncompromising environmentalist and social activist campaigning for Aboriginal land rights. She believed that the poet should be concerned with national and social problems. At the age of 85, just before her death, she attended in Canberra at a march for reconciliation with Aboriginal people.

Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney Australia. Most recently, his work has appeared in Berfrois, Black Sun Lit, gorse, and Music & Literature. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.