"The Red Centre: Man and Beast in the Heart of Australia" by H.H. Finlayson - a reflection and review

A Reflection and Review

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Prof Chris Dickman, who was visiting my university, and I secured about 30 minutes of his time to have a one-on-one chat. He also gave a seminar later that day, which I attended, and a group of us took him out for dinner that night.

The first time I came across his work was in a publication released by the Royal Zoological Society of NSW called Science Under Siege: Zoology Under Threat, which Chris co-edited and co-authored a few chapters for, including "Scientists facing a SLAPP: frivolous litigation stifles public comment" and the final chapter "Zoology under threat: a distressing case of science under siege."

The publication was released online (via open access) in November 2012, and I've read its 180+ from cover to cover, and re-read a few of the chapters that interest me most. As Graham R. Fulton put it is his review:

The authors and editors of this book are scientists - disgruntled ones. They are dismayed at attacks on their science and science in general; attacks that come from outside scientific circles and from outside evidence and reason. The critics are widespread and include: those attending rallies where books are burnt, shock jocks who vilify the science of climate change, politicians who ignore the conclusions and recommendations of good science to see their name against another headline, and anonymous others who make death threats against climate researchers. The scientists involved in the production of this book are drawn predominately from zoological backgrounds - writing and communicating are not skills new to them. The book presents the ideas expressed in talks and posters put forward at a forum in 2008. These talks were subsequently written up, polished and peer-reviewed before being published in November 2012.

I was half expecting Chris to be a grumpy old man, but the reality couldn't have been a stronger contrast. He was approachable and engaging and my nervousness upon meeting him immediately melted away. During our conversation, he talked about the first time him met Charles Krebs, who he somewhat idolised, and I had to stop myself from gushing that to me he was a zoological celebrity.

While we chatted, Chris also mentioned The Red Centre by H.H. Finlayson, and I tracked down and bought a second-hand copy online that very same day. It's a fantastic read and contains such gems as:

The traveller from Adelaide, for example, having cleared the Flinders Range, gazes out from the carriage window on the goat-made desolations which follow. He consults his time table, and, fining that this change from the parklands has been wrought in four hundred miles, and that the Alice is still six hundred miles away, does some mental arithmetic, and concludes that Hades itself awaits him.

Finlayson's prose is engaging and easy to read. It's not a very long book, but its 14 chapters manage to capture and do justice to the Luritja Country, the Ranges, the "Desert", the Tors, Animal Life (two chapters), the Black Man (three chapters), Caloprymnus, the Camel (two chapters), the Car, and the White Man.

The photographs are black and white and numerous and really add something to the experience of reading this book. You have to remember that when The Red Centre was first published in 1935, these photographs were the first (and possibly only) time many people both in Australia and overseas had ever seem ghost gums, giant spinifex, Ayers Rock, Mount Olga, a sand goanna, a bilby, a dunnart, a desert rat-kangaroo (Caloprymnus campestris, which is now extinct), or a potoroo.

A description of a 12-mile, three-horse desert rat-kangaroo chase.

A description of a 12-mile, three-horse desert rat-kangaroo chase.

The edition I have (1952) also includes a detailed map in the back of the book of the south western portion of Central Australia, which was complied by Finlayson himself using existing maps of the early explorers, official surveys, and Chewings, Madigan, Terry and Mackay. It also includes additional data along his own travelling routes.

Finlayson also writes about Australian Aborigines with a respect that was probably unusual for the era, and devotes three chapters to them. At his first reference to the "blackfellow", he includes a footnote disclaimer:

The absence from the literature of the subject and from general usage, of any name to comprehend the whole of the indigenous Australian people, is an embarrassment which leads to the adoption of such terms as this, which, however uncouth, are generally understood without ambiguity. A simple name, preferable derived from their own tongues, is much needed however. Over large portions of the interior the aboriginal distinguishes himself from the white man by the term "waddi" and this might perhaps serve as a name for the race.

All in all, if you can track down a copy of this now out of print book, I highly recommend that you read this masterpiece.


Inside the Dust Cover

This is a new edition (1952) of The Red Centre which, at its first publication (1935), proved to be one of the most interesting and informative books ever written about Australia, and which takes its place as an authoritative work on the geographical features, native inhabitants, and animals of the particular region with which it is concerned - south-western Central Australia.

The striking photographs which previously aroused so much interest are again reproduced. One reviewer wrote: "A feature of the book is its magnificent and educational series of full-page photographs that admirably reinforce the narrative." These photographs, selected with scientific and artistic care, are the work of the artist.

The chapters dealing with the animal life of the region provide some of the most interesting reading in the book. As Honorary Curator of Mammals in the South Australian Museum Mr Finlayson is an authority on the fauna of the Centre. His scientific knowledge and his observations are imparted with a clarity which satisfies the reader with a specialised interest. For a general reader the book is both entertaining and informative.


Hedley Herbert Finlayson (1985-1991)

Hedley Herbert Finlayson (1895-1991), mammalogist, was born on 19 March 1895 in Adelaide, South Australia, sixth of seven children of Ebenezer Finlayson, sharebroker, and his wife Finnetta, née Champion. Hedley attended Kyre (later Scotch) College, Unley, prior to enrolling in science at the University of Adelaide. An explosives accident in 1910 while he was a cadet in the chemical faculty injured his left hand and a more serious explosion in 1913 resulted in the loss of his left hand and right eye. Though he did not graduate, he was sufficiently well regarded to be appointed to the teaching staff of the university in 1914, working largely as a chemistry demonstrator until his retirement in 1958.

From as early as the 1920s Finlayson’s primary academic interest had shifted to Australian mammalogy. He was appointed honorary associate in Mammalia at the South Australian Museum in 1927 and its honorary curator of mammals in 1930, a post he held until 1965.

Finlayson travelled widely collecting Australian mammals, most notably in outback South Australia and the Northern Territory. In the period 1931-35 he privately financed four collecting expeditions to these regions during the height of summer over the long university break. Determined and capable, he also had the good fortune to be working at a time when many small- to medium-sized ground-dwelling desert mammals were still to be found, though much of his early success came from working with local pastoralists and Aboriginal people. When he returned to central Australia in the 1950s he found that many of the species he had collected in the 1930s had either declined or disappeared completely, including the desert rat kangaroo and lesser bilby. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Finlayson was one of the earliest advocates of the need for large conservation reserves in outback Australia.

The author of sixty-three scientific papers, the best known of which deal with the taxonomy and ecology of Australian mammals, Finlayson published his first paper in 1920 and the last in 1963; five appeared in Nature. An accomplished landscape and natural history photographer, Finlayson amassed approximately five thousand carefully annotated negatives, now housed in the Northern Territory Archives. His 1935 book, The Red Centre, a popular account of his work in Central Australia, has been reprinted eight times. Reflecting his great love of the inland deserts, it is a compelling evocation of inland Australia and its title has entered the lexicon of literature and the Australian travel industry.

For his scientific work Finlayson was awarded the Royal Society of South Australia’s Verco Medal in 1960 and, for his geographical research and writing, the John Lewis Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch) in 1962.

Finlayson was a relatively tall man, strong and resourceful in the field, but he was always conscious of both his lack of formal qualifications and his physical disabilities. His private collecting, although self-funded and legitimate at the time for honorary associates and curators, led to some strains in his relationship with the South Australian Museum. Shortly before his death he arranged for much of his private mammal collection to be transferred to Alice Springs, where it is now housed in the Museum of Central Australia. His collection of meticulously registered specimens and his many published papers remain highly regarded by scientists.

Finlayson led a very private life and little is known of his close personal beliefs and values. A bachelor, he died on 29 July 1991 at North Adelaide and was cremated. His ashes were buried at the Mitcham General Cemetery in Adelaide.

Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography