In his own lifetime, Chisholm was best known for his writings on nature, especially birds, and it’s on those I shall focus here. His nature writings were breezy and exuberant, conveying an emotional response to the natural world while at the same time minutely documenting it. His enthusiasm seems to have been infectious since he had a large and eager readership among Australians from all walks of life. Sometimes bluntly, sometimes subtlety, Chisholm wove a conservation message through his nature writings. He also yoked an appreciation of Australian nature to the cause of Australian nationalism.
Chisholm advertised the nature–nation link in the title of his first book: Mateship with Birds (1922). In his many subsequent books on natural history, too, he sought to arouse in readers both affection for nature and attachment to their native land. Readers and critics were attuned to the message, one of his many correspondents praising Mateship with Birds because
‘it creates and nourishes in a most winsome way a young Australian’s love for Australia.’
Reviewing another of Chisholm’s books, Birds and Green Places, Donald Macdonald commended it for helping young readers ‘to become good Australians.’
Chisholm himself acknowledged – or rather, celebrated – the nationalist strand in his nature writings. In response to a request from Rex Ingamells, he wrote a piece for the 1948 Jindyworobak Review in which he explained that naturalists like himself were ‘comrades-in-arms’ with the Jindyworobak poets, each in his own way seeking to build up a nationhood anchored to ‘appreciation of one’s own country.’ Australians should also cultivate ‘an international outlook’, he warned, but the pressing need was ‘to build our country to mellow nationhood’ whereby Australians could appreciate other lands but be intimately bonded to their own.
Chisholm’s entire output of natural history writings can be seen as an attempt to foster intimacy with nature among the Australian public. Through such intimacy, the Australian people would come to value the plants, animals and landscapes of this country, seek to conserve them and make them intrinsic to their national identity. As the Australian environmental scientist George Seddon has observed, ‘intimacy, knowledge, love, the attributing of care are the foundation of all real conservation.’ Chisholm, a self-described ‘bush naturalist,’ understood this decades before Seddon said it.