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Eric Charles Rolls (1923–2007)

by Tom Griffiths

from Sydney Morning Herald

Eric Rolls was a farmer, poet, cook, fisherman and a supreme writer about the history and nature of his own country. He lived with vigour and manifest joy and leaves Australians a remarkable legacy of words and insights. His voice has become part of this land and has forever changed the way we live here.

Eric Charles Rolls, who has died at 84, was born into a western NSW farming family and educated at home by correspondence. His promise as a storyteller emerged early. Every Friday afternoon his kindergarten teacher in Grenfell, Miss Postlethwaite, told stories to the class. Finding her rather dull, Eric put up his hand one day and said: "Miss Postlethwaite, I'd like to tell a story." He told about a grain of wheat, from sowing to harvesting, miming the process as he talked. When he started telling stories every Friday, adults came to listen.

Rolls found a way of telling stories that made listeners feel they were sitting on his knee. He carried a rare combination of authority and intimacy. With short sentences, vivid verbs, sensual imagery and a necessary swagger, this poet-turned-prose writer wove a kind of magic.

From Grenfell, Eric won selection to Fort Street High, before serving in New Guinea in World War II. For 45 years from 1946 he farmed his own land in the north-west of NSW on the edges of the "Pilliga Scrub", a forest he made famous in his book A Million Wild Acres.

Of more than 20 books, this was his masterpiece. Its central story is the growing of a forest. "Australia was not a timbered land that has been cleared," Rolls argued. In much of Australia, Aborigines kept the forests open with their light, regular burning. The prolific germination that always follows fire was kept in check by the plentiful wallabies, possums, bandicoots and rat kangaroos, which ate the seedlings. Without Aboriginal fire management, occasional wildfires erupted under European occupation. Many of today's forests are different and new – exaggerated communities of plants and animals, volatile and vulnerable. Rolls the farmer found "wild" nature to be feral, mongrel and hybrid, nature enlivened by human intervention.

As well as a pioneering environmental history – still the best-written in this country – A Million Wild Acres is a regional history like no other, where birds, animals and plants share the stage with humans. One hero is the white cypress pine. Through his democratic recognition of all life, Rolls enchants the forest, presenting a country raucous with sound and nervous with creative energy. Reviewers compared it to a campfire yarn, the Book of Genesis and Icelandic sagas. Les Murray read it "with all the delight of one who knows he has at last got hold of a book that is in no way alien to him".

Rolls challenged the assumption that disturbed nature is always lesser nature. Such views sometimes brought this ardent environmentalist into conflict with the green movement. He had strong, original opinions and was as ready to challenge conservationists as developers or bureaucrats.

His first non-fiction book, They All Ran Wild (1969), was a history of "pests" in Australia, especially rabbits. His relish for the fecundity of life and an irrepressible optimism also underpinned his attitude to human immigration. This writer of the land was an outstanding historian of the Chinese in Australia, demonstrated by his two-volume Flowers and the Wide Sea (Sojourners in 1992 and Citizens in 1996).

His books included poetry (Sheaf Tosser, The Green Mosaic, Selected Poems), children's books, memoirs, A Celebration of Food and Wine, and other remarkably original histories, From Forest to Sea, Visions of Australia, and Australia: A Biography. Two more books will be published posthumously.

Alongside his extraordinary literary productivity, Rolls worked the soil. As a farmer-poet his struggle between acres and words was a source of creativity but, on his 60th birthday, he noted all the books he still wanted to write and decided "to work words a day, every day, instead of acres". He and his second wife, Elaine van Kempen, moved to Camden Haven on the NSW mid-North coast, where fishing became his reward for a good day's writing.

His honours include a Member of the Order of Australia, fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and an array of literary awards, the Captain Cook Bicentenary Award for Non-Fiction, the C. J. Dennis Prize, The Age Book of the Year, the John Franklin Award for children's books, the Greening Australia Journalism Award, the Landcare Media Award, the Braille Book of the Year and the Talking Book of the Year.

Rolls deserves to be remembered for the originality of his scholarship, the quality of his writing, and the vigour of his living. He had a great capacity for wonder, and for expressing and sharing it. He had a rare combination of courage, earthiness, delicacy and sweetness. In 1984 he published Celebration of the Senses, a frank, funny and moving memoir of his zest for life which some readers found confronting.

Eric Rolls had two long and happy marriages, first with Joan (Stephenson), who died in 1985, then with Elaine, who survives him with his children Kim, Kerry and Mitchell, Elaine's children Nick, Sue, Simon and Adam, and his sister Dellas.

As the doyen of Australian nature writers, he was patron of the Watermark Literary Society, which organises a biennial "muster" of environmental and natural history writers in Camden Haven. His life and work will be celebrated there at noon on Saturday, in the Kendall village hall. His simple coffin will be of white cypress pine from the Pilliga.

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Citation details

Tom Griffiths, 'Rolls, Eric Charles (1923–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

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