November 2015

Arts & Letters

The power of place

By Tim Flannery
The personal and the political in Tim Winton’s ‘Island Home’

Tim Winton grew up in circumstances that will be instantly recognised by many baby boomers. His childhood home lay on the ragged edge of Perth’s rapidly expanding suburbia. It was the 1960s, and as he recounts in Island Home: A landscape memoir (Hamish Hamilton; $39.99) he had the freedom to roam the swamp at the end of his street, hiding in hollow logs, knocking birds out of trees with slingshots and encountering venomous snakes, until “darkness fell and mothers began to bellow from every back step on the street”. Measured against the straitened and regimented childhoods endured by many today, it was a carefree idyll that both offered a true education about what it was to be a Western Australian and laid the foundations of his brilliant literary career.

My own childhood, on Melbourne’s urban fringe, was an eastern states carbon copy of Winton’s. Interestingly, we both realised early on that our worlds carried within them the seeds of their own destruction. As deeply discomfited ten-year-olds, we watched the encroaching suburbs eat the bush. Soon, our wilderness was all gone, and the gilded cage inhabited by today’s children was fully wrought.

The lost freedoms and opportunities of childhood were only part of the cost of the breakneck pace of “development”. Winton describes how Perth’s suburbs have now surrounded and poisoned the Swan River with fertiliser run-off. Its upper reaches are kept alive with oxygen pumps, and the bream that once swarmed now bob belly up among the reeds. In its lower reaches, dolphins have died of mysterious lesions. Perth’s citizens watch as the city suffocates the river that gave it life.

The culture that could so comprehensively destroy something so precious is a subject of enduring fascination to Winton. He concludes with astonishment that the perpetrators, with rare exceptions, simply did not see it. To them, the bush was a uniformity of subdued green, of no value, beauty or interest. Intriguingly, Winton describes suffering from a similar kind of blindness when he lived in Europe for a time in the 1980s:

Being from a flat, dry continent I looked forward to the prospect of soaring alps and thundering rivers, lush valleys and fertile plains, and yet when I actually beheld them I was puzzled by how muted my responses were … Weren’t these landforms and panoramas beautiful? Well, yes, of course they were, although a little bit of them seemed to go a long way.

The self-portrait of Winton that emerges from Island Home is of a loner, a meticulous and patient observer, and a dedicated writer who is deeply enmeshed in his local environment. The smell of the Perth bush, its specific feel, its colours and seasons are all part of him. And so local is his sense of being that even the move south to Albany in his early teen years, when his policeman father was posted there, is felt as a profound dislocation. The dreary weather, the different rock, and the very distinctive flora and fauna all take a long time to infuse into his being.

Winton learned to express the power of place in words while studying at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University). He chose it over the University of Western Australia because it seemed a better fit for his ambition, which was to learn writing as a trade. He explains that he didn’t want to critique literature, nor teach it, but simply to write. After graduating he got to see a lot of his home state, and alternating chapter titles in Island Home consist of a geographic name and a date. From ‘Northam, 1995’ to ‘Mitchell Plateau, 1993’, Winton takes us on a tour of his beloved west. Perhaps the most striking of the vignettes is ‘Cape Range, 2009’, in which Winton recounts climbing treacherous shale slopes and limestone ridges in search of the endangered black-flanked rock wallaby. Instead of wallabies he finds a cave, high on a ridge, filled with exquisitely mummified kangaroos, their hides translucent, their posture one of repose, as if they’re sleeping. “I can’t help but think of these grand creatures, emblems of our strange land, hauling themselves up here to die … higher than the raptors, above the snakes of the spinifex and the turtles in their rookeries on the beaches far below, like an ancient, priestly caste keeping vigil even in death,” he writes.

When he was younger, Winton thought of himself as having no peers, but he did have local heroes. He revered Vincent Serventy, whose television programs brought the bush to a wide audience. And the Geraldton-born writer Randolph Stow, whose Tourmaline and To the Islands “excited me the way few novels have, before or since”.

Winton’s focus is so relentlessly western, in fact, that the east gets even less coverage than Europe. It is mentioned in any detail in Island Home only once, when he describes a family road trip from Perth to New South Wales in the summer of 1969–70. The highlight is the Nullarbor Plain, then crossed by an unsealed highway: “From inside the car the scale of the landscape didn’t seem so freakishly big, but outside it I felt my mind struggling to keep up with the endless openness … Some evenings as we sat, road-stunned, to eat our baked beans and Rice Cream, a great stillness settled upon us …” Strangely, when Winton arrives at the green eastern fringe, his sense of engagement vanishes. “I was carsick at Glenrowan, hungry and miserable all along the Great Ocean Road, and I bickered incessantly with my brother through the Riverina.” Eastern and western Australia are indeed astonishingly different in terms of their geology and flora and fauna. Different enough, it seems, to prevent Winton from seeing eastern Australia as part of “his” environment.

Environmental activism leaves Winton feeling divided. At university he followed reports of activists disrupting whaling activities off Albany. He saw the need to end whaling, but felt that some protesters were being profoundly disrespectful of the working men and women of the area. Winton is in fact in the vanguard of a new kind of environmentalism – one with its roots in working, regional Australia, and yet passionate about preserving nature. He is active in many environmental issues and is a great supporter of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which originated in Western Australia.

Perhaps Winton’s greatest victory is the preservation of Ningaloo Reef. It’s the kind of place where “in a single morning – sometimes within an hour – you can swim with an eight-metre whale shark, a fleet of manta rays, and more fish than you can name, all within sight of the red desert ranges that rise from behind its beaches”. In 1987 a developer began planning a luxury marina resort on the boundary of the Ningaloo Marine Park, a project that would be endorsed by successive governments and the media. When Winton became the public face of the campaign to fight the development in the early 2000s, he secretly felt that there was no hope that the campaign would succeed. But today a pristine Ningaloo is on the World Heritage List.

Between the likes of Gina Rinehart and the land’s traditional Aboriginal custodians, the culture of Western Australia is deeply divided, and in fact it is a very conflicted place. The “magnates fear for the safety of the ruling class with which they identify and to which they cleave so faithfully”, because what they consider to be “the nonsense of sandal-wearing no-hopers” is now “framed in legislation, it’s infected the language of business, it’s taught to kids in school”.

Island Home’s final chapter, ‘Paying Respect’, has a different tone from the rest of the book – a boiling-over rage at the respect paid to Australia’s deluded sense of history. For Winton, “the confected sanctification of Anzac Day” and “the politics of nostalgic regression” have meant Anzac is close to becoming a sort of “nationalist death cult”. This reference to Tony Abbott’s characterisation of Islamic State and perhaps Winton’s fear of a “khaki election” are clear enough. But also evident is Winton’s disgust at the promotion of a form of nationalism that fails to nourish the individual or the community, much less pay proper respect to those mutilated, driven mad or killed in the “Great War”.

“What’s so precious I’d lay down my life for it?” Winton asks. “Not the Crown or the State, that’s for sure.” He urges us to move on from this fake history and away from the “abusive, one-sided relationship in which the island continent gave and we just took”. As he notes at the start of the book:

A patriot need no longer devote himself to an abstraction like the state. Now a patriot will be as likely to revere the web of ecosystems that make a society possible, and a true patriot is passionate about defending this – from threats within as much as without – as if the land were kith and kin. This is why we write about it.

Island Home is thus part political manifesto that presents a profound challenge to traditional rural conservatism as well as to the right in general. Conservatives say they love their country. Winton lays bare how very destructive of it some of their actions have been.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters and Atmosphere of Hope.

Tim Winton at the old whaling station, Albany, WA, in 2004. © Quentin Jones / Fairfax

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