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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 235-238

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Book Review

True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930

True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930. By IAN TYRRELL. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xi + 313. $48.00 (cloth).

Following the lead of Samuel P. Hays, American historians typically assign the Gilded Age and Progressive era fathers of modern environmentalism to either one of two competing camps: the wilderness preservationists, led by Sierra Club founder John Muir, or the utilitarian conservationists, represented by early professional resource managers like Theodore Roosevelt's chief forester Gifford Pinchot. This neat dichotomy makes for clear and dramatic narrative that climaxes with the momentous clash over Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, an epic struggle that revealed the initial predominance of the utilitarian school and ended Muir's great career with a tragic defeat.

Now, in a well-researched, engaging comparative study, Australian Ian Tyrrell argues that, like most convenient dualisms, the utilitarian/ preservationist opposition is overly simplistic and therefore misleading. Instead Tyrrell maintains that "[n]either the idea of wilderness nor the modern idea of conservation for rational economic use encompasses the full range of nineteenth-century environmental thought. ..." Between the preservationists and the utilitarians, Tyrrell posits the advocates of a third current of early environmentalism "that has been neglected by historians....I label this movement environmental 'renovation'" (pp. 12-13).

Tyrrell's resurrection of environmental renovation emerges from his fascinating examination of the cultural exchanges that took place between like-minded Australians and Californians between 1860 and 1930. Faced with the challenge of settling and developing arid but potentially rich frontier regions, "environmental reformers" in both nations "tried to remake their environments into what I call garden landscapes. In irrigation, forest management, and biological control, Australians and Californians swapped ideas, plants, insects, personnel, technology, and dreams, and they created in the process an environmental [End Page 235] exchange that transcended national boundaries of American or Australian history" (p. 6).

According to Tyrrell, advocates of this "garden ideal" sought much more than either the preservation of wilderness or sustained commercial yields. Instead, convinced that nature could be improved by human intervention, they ambitiously tried to tie economic development and the pursuit of private profit to the fulfillment of agrarian notions of social equality and Western ideals of natural beauty born in the green and well-watered environments of eastern North America and northern Europe. In their updated visions of Eden, horticulture, irrigation, and afforestation would transform arid desolations into lush settings populated by happy and prosperous farm families, each tending their modest but lovely acreages of fruit and ornamental shade trees.

This triumph over nature would also entail a simultaneous triumph of democracy and free enterprise over monopoly, since vast stretches of both California and Australia would be redeemed from the hands of land barons raising wheat, sheep, and cattle. Irrigation crusaders like California's William Smythe and Australia's Alfred Deakin argued that, with careful private or public sector planning, irrigated horticulture would lead to the breakup of large estates into commercially viable family farms. Prosperity, democracy, and natural beauty would advance hand-in-hand in the renovated environment of the garden.

In the pursuit of this compelling and decidedly middle-class yeoman dream, irrigation enthusiasts on both sides of the Pacific were joined by a host of farmers, scientists, and social reformers. The international scope of their endeavors is perhaps best symbolized by the careers of George Chaffey and Elwood Mead, American engineers who each spent extended periods (1886-97 and 1907-15, respectively) developing irrigation projects and water policies for southeastern Australia. Their efforts were complemented by those of many others, such as Ferdinand von Mueller, the German-born botanist who envisioned his adopted Australia as a "garden continent" and strove to "stock this country with new, useful, and beautiful things..." (pp. 27 and 30). Consequently, Mueller became one of the driving forces behind the successful campaign to transplant California's Monterey pine into the Antipodes. He...