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Landscape and Politics from Reef to Desert

Benjamin Pope

Winton [1]

Island Home: A Landscape Memoir
Tim Winton
Picador, 2016
ISBN 978-1509816910
£12.08 (hardback)


Tim Winton’s “landscape memoir”, Island Home, begins with his sense of dislocation as an Australian expatriate in Europe, takes us back to his formative years in Western Australia, and to his eventual return. Winton is known in Australia not only for the Booker-nominated Dirt Music and The Riders, but also for his environmental activism, being especially famous for leading the campaign to preserve the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. In his breakthrough novel Cloudstreet, I found it difficult as a schoolboy reader to disentangle my distaste for its cloying sentimentality from my anxiety about its excessive revelry in the cultural cringe. In Island Home, Winton reflects, “what troubled many critics was a potential loss of face in front of our ‘betters.'” When he recounts how he was asked, regarding Cloudstreet, about “what were they supposed to make of it in New York”, I felt a painful recognition of the anxiety I think all Australians have felt at explaining our culture to others – especially in a place like Oxford.

In this memoir, Winton takes on an altogether different tone from Cloudstreet, alternating academic discourse on Australian history, geology, politics and environmentalism, with gorgeous personal commentary on his experiences growing up, moving away, and coming home. He uses it as a frame for an erudite and passionate discussion of the importance of landscape and the natural world; it is perhaps one of the only failings of the book, that Australia is very much the protagonist and Winton, as always, the narrator, and I was left wishing, unreasonably, he had offered more of himself. The land’s starring role is, at least, executed admirably, and is the thread that ties together his politics, his life and his intellectual interests:

In my own lifetime Australians have come to use the word ‘country’ as Aborigines use it, to describe what my great-great-grandparents would surely have called territory. A familial, relational term has supplanted one more objectifying and acquisitive.

The erasure of place from politics is not simply an erasure of identity – it is an expropriation of it, of all the pasts to one present. Paul Kingsnorth has sparked controversy with a recent essay in the Guardian, `England’s uncertain future’. [2]He baits controversy, blaming left-wing internationalism and immigration for at least some of the problems of England. On the face of it, this is a thesis that is hard to like, and I have no intention of trying. I nevertheless find it interesting that Winton and Kingsnorth, with quite different ostensible political orientations, are both reclaiming the value of place and the parochial: Kingsnorth asks

Is there a future, I wonder, in a kind of ecological Englishness – an identity that sees everyone in England as part of its landscapes and thus its history, and that has us all paying closer attention to them: nurturing them instead of concreting them over in the name of the future, or driving past on the way to somewhere else? Could this help build an identity to compete with, and perhaps replace, both the tired pomp of establishment Britain and the deconstructed coldness of the internationalist left? Could that old, smaller England come out from behind the shadow of Britain once more?

This is a stirring statement of an idea creeping now into mainstream discourse in Britain: George Monbiot’s calls for rewilding Britain, and Robert Macfarlane’s lyrical adventures through place names and old ways command the bestseller lists across the country. But while English landscape and native-Englishness are objects for the Right, as in the case of Kingsnorth, as a colonial state the Australian equivalent is tied intimately and exclusively, so far, to traditionally left-wing issues. This movement must necessarily take a different form: as a land traditionally known not by the Bronze Age ancestors of Macfarlane’s Old Ways [3], but stolen within living memory from the stewardship of Australia’s Aboriginal people; and as a country whose vast, largely-intact wilds are under attack and conservation is a mainstream political issue. Winton moves freely between these two themes and builds a careful study of his relationship as a white Australian to both issues.

Before colonization, before the dispossession and the genocide, Australia was a quilt of songlines shared by or differing between three hundred thousand or so people in three hundred or so broad nations. Winton notes how

People were chanting and dancing and painting here tens and tens of thousand [sic] of years before the advent of the toga and the sandal. This is true antiquity. Few landscapes have been so deeply known. And fewer still have been so lightly inhabited.

Across language families more diverse than English and Turkish, Banumbirr the Morning Star’s journey was told across the hot north, taking in rivers, forests, coasts, plains, the wet and the dry and the cycles of time. Cultures of disparate customs were and still are tied not only by threads of myth and legend, kinship and exchange, but also by the commonality of the land’s conditions and the particularities of their manifestations. On the 23rd anniversary of his famous Redfern Speech on Aboriginal land rights, former Prime Minister Paul Keating spoke again about Aboriginal Australia:

Aboriginal art and culture draws from the land, for Aboriginality and the land are essential to each other and are inseparable… Whatever our identity today is or has become, it is an identity that cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia. For their fifty thousand years here has slaked the land with their resonances, their presence and their spirit. Our opportunity is to rejoice in their identity, and without attempting to appropriate or diminish it, fuse it with our own, making the whole richer.

Winton is careful to neither appropriate nor diminish: he refers extensively to Aboriginal philosophers and activists David Mowaljarlai and Bill Neidjie, ‘Songlines’ author Bruce Chatwin, conservationist and documentary presenter Vin Serventy, and poet Judith Wright, and indeed takes his title from Warumpi Band song ‘Island Home’. I admire his attempts to understand and learn from the Aboriginal relationship to country, which he writes about sensitively and with caution, but I worry that as a cultural movement there is a fine line to tread between respect and appropriation and erasure. Winton treads the line well, but I nevertheless feel uncertain in the broader cultural context.

Winton is on firmer footing discussing environmental issues. While his folksy style occasionally leads him on tangents, for example in a rather trite chapter on our relationship with cars, ‘The Steel Coccoon’, more often, his writing soars with a love of the strange beauty of the landscape, as when he climbs the Cape Range, the shore of the Ningaloo Reef, finding a pair of mummified kangaroos in a cave “like an ancient priestly caste keeping vigil” while “zebra finches animate the middle distance like midges.” His enthusiasm for the Ningaloo is infectious and his activism inspiring, and despite the dire condition of the Great Barrier Reef on the other side of the island continent, Winton reminds us that hundreds of thousands of activists were able to conserve the Ningaloo and there is hope that the same may yet be done further east.

Any account of politics which purports to be universal must also be particular. It must be rooted in the places and experiences which are shared by a community, and also alive to the personal and the private. An Australian identity and an authentic Australian politics must be of this sort: a bond of solidarity based on diversity but also commonality, a fostering of love and respect not for a flag or the pervasive military mythos of the ANZAC Diggers, but for summers at the shining beach and miserable sweaty offices. For old trees cracking pavement and jasmine on railings in spring and jacarandas blooming for every child of the Baby Boom and heralding the crisis of exams. I am drawn to Kingsnorth’s phrase: “A nation is a process, not a fixed thing, but it has continuities nonetheless. It may be a story, but it is not fiction.”

Tim Winton is an ambassador for this Australia. I was particularly struck by one passage, where he describes his reaction as a 14-year-old to protests against whaling in his native Albany, WA:

I was troubled by the high-handedness of some protesters. There was a contempt for working people in general, and country folk in particular, that disgusted me. The inclusive, democratic impulses of visionaries like Judith Wright and Vin Serventy were too often subsumed by something cultic and exclusionary, and the memory of these excesses helped temper my work as an activist later in life.

Given the tortured relationship between the Labor Party and the Greens in the recent and present Federal election campaigns, seeing the common ground between red and green will be crucial in finding any coalition capable of overcoming the nation’s relentless destruction of the natural environment and its heartless persecution of refugees and Aborigines.

Australia is not, though its leaders might be, a “country of second rate people.” Nowhere is. But it is a country of second rate history: it has tried to impose one vision on a continent, a one-size-fits-all just-so story of blokey Diggers and battlers. The history wars are a chronicle of exhausting, slow, bitterly opposed attempts to open things out a little. I am delighted that this book exists, as it gives me hope that a synthesis can be made between the sides of our polarised national identity.

Benjamin Pope [4] is studying for a DPhil in Astrophysics at Balliol College, Oxford.