Book Review – A Wide and Open Land: Walking the Last of Western Sydney’s Woodlands

Author: Peter Ridgeway (2022)

Reviewer: Julie Sheppard, Macarthur Branch

The author has, in this book, achieved a long held ambition to document what most Sydney-siders have on their doorstep but barely acknowledge, value or respect. “Cumberland Plain” is a term few recognise or understand (“Cumberland Plain Woodland” even less so). The natural features of the region, its unique geology, flora and fauna are being obliterated at a terrifying pace – The conquest of the Cumberland Plain is the largest construction project ever undertaken in the Southern Hemisphere. Every minute more than 100 tonnes of concrete and aggregate is laid in the rural valley of the Plain, 8 tonnes a year for every man, woman and child. (p.2)

Ridgeway approached the task of walking the Plain from north to south and documenting what he observed, with some trepidation, knowing how distressing it would be, so he kept putting if off – …every part of me recoiled from it. (p.5) Anyone interested could share that feeling and avoid delving into a book that is confronting and depressing. However, the author displays such a skill with language, such deep insights and sensitivities, and such a breadth of knowledge in so many fields, that the reader is amply rewarded for their efforts.

The 179 km walk was undertaken over 9 days in 2 legs during the winter of 2019, injury forcing a break in continuity after 4 days. A route was devised that followed vegetated corridors where possible. The author saw this walk as a last chance to traverse and make intimate contact with the undeveloped Cumberland Plain of his youth, so rapidly disappearing as we look at it.

He starts up at the northern end of Cattai NP where sandstone meets clay. Surprisingly, for a Blue Mountains dweller, Ridgeway is very down on sandstone country, considering it rather barren and  predictable compared to the shale country of the Plain, which he describes as “vivacious and volatile”(p.40) – always changing.

As he pushes on into the shale regions his vast knowledge of geology and history comes to the fore as he considers the reasons for the appearance of features such as The Agnes Banks sand dunes, and the response of the woodlands to changing fire regimes after white settlement.

The narrative is also punctuated by references to Indigenous terminology and culture. Ridgeway is obviously extremely sympathetic to the Indigenous world view, but at the same time saddened (angered?) by current developments which have seen competing aboriginal groups feuding over land rights which cover the Londonderry Forest. A court decision has delivered an outcome which will most likely result in a housing estate.

The book is full of interesting, well-researched historical detail, expanded in footnotes on almost every page and also a wealth of original photos to accompany the text.

One of joys of the book is the author’s command of language. His eloquent and original prose is exemplary-

A pair of Wedge-tailed eagles are described as “volute spirals drifting upward together like a Brancusi sculpture.” (p.248)

The moon becomes “… a sickle moon, honed by the sharpening of a month of harvests into the thinnest crescent of silver”.(p.176)

The author displays deep sensitivities in his close observations of colour and detail in the landscape, from the vibrant colours of insects, leaves, bark, grasses and tiny wildflowers to the ever-changing cloud formations – “… shoals of Cirrocumulus like smelt on their winter migration through the blue waters of the sky.” (p.248)

Camping under the stars leads him to philosophise – “It is only in the infinite skies of the country that we can look and find a true scale against which to measure our own small selves. Future generations can never be great, for without a dark sky there will be no scale against which they can truly measure themselves.” (p.81)

This is a self-published book. The first edition suffered from numerous inaccuracies and typos. This, the second edition sought to correct those mistakes but unfortunately many still remain. It is to be hoped that a thorough proof-reading might result in a final perfect version of this exceptional work.

The book is available (RRP $45) from Megalong Books (Leura) –

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