December 2023 – January 2024

Essays

Writing in nature

By Tim Winton
Ningaloo, Western Australia

Ningaloo, Western Australia. © Mary Evans / Ardea / Steffen & Alexandra Sailer / AAP Images

The laureate of the Western Australian surf break sees a task ahead for our essayists, our novelists and our poets alike in the fight against climate catastrophe

In his recent book, Eating the Earth, Justyn Walsh, a former investment banker, has said that in economics, as in other human affairs, “pretty much everything is story”. But, he says, “our storytellers-in-chief” are entirely self-serving. Why? Because there’s a fundamental silence at the centre of the yarn they spin, “… a nature-sized hole at the heart of mainstream economic theory … that fails to properly value the natural world”. The consequences of this studied evasion, tantamount to a lie, are as evident as they are grave. While the storytellers Walsh refers to are our policymakers and plutocrats, he could just as well be describing our writers. Because for the best part of two decades our literary culture has been complicit in the maintenance of that silence. Perhaps it stings a little to hear this from a money wonk, but Walsh is seeking to remind us that it’s “from the natural world that we draw our prosperity, and it is from the natural world that we must find a new story”.

Les Murray once said, “religions are big, slow poems”. The universal and dominant religion of our time has been Fossil Capitalism. We need to break free of that cult. To find the courage to write a new poem.

Early in my career, someone took the great trouble to declare me a provincial writer. By then I’d written about 10 books. And there was, I must confess, a bit of geography in them. Apparently, geography was uncool. And unfamiliar geography – well, that was almost a microaggression.

The further you got from inner Melbourne’s Carlton, the more mystifying and triggering geography seemed to become. So, I was trafficking in problematic terrain. One critic said Australian writers’ preoccupation with landscape had become “debilitating and destructive”. Apparently, writing too much or too directly about the natural world made us rustic, reckless and reactionary.

In those days I was insulated from static and chatter. This was before the internet, when a “hot take” was something you got from Eileen’s Eats after the Sunday session at the White Sands. And like the hot takes of today, it was often a source of regret. In the days before instant communication, time and space had more heft. I lived a long way from the wellsprings of cultural commentary. I was separated from all that noise by a lot of… geography. Several deserts and river systems, some cities, many rural communities, numerous woodlands, forests, and savannas. And, of course, the biggest limestone karst formation in the world. Which, according to some, should be a matter of no account to a contemporary novelist, but – just between us – it kind of was. So, from that great distance, by the time praise or insults arrived, they were already old news. The sugars had washed off. The acids had evaporated.

And look, I didn’t mind being called a provincial. I knew it wasn’t a compliment, but I figured it wasn’t personal. I saw myself as a tradesman. By that stage, I’d been making a freelance living for a decade. I was widely translated. My books had long been published in New York and London. But I’d had to fight hard to ensure the work originated here, that it was edited by Australians. And that came at some cost, so I was very conscious of the many layers of resistance and incomprehension that lay between my work and a broad readership. Barriers of culture, language and, yes, geography. Because as the environmental historian Jason W. Moore says: “Geography. Really. Matters.”

Crossing those barriers was thrilling. But I was conscious that others had gone before me, that I was the beneficiary of other people’s labour: Stow, Stead, White, Herbert, Wright, Keneally, to name just a few. In my teens, when I was reading these giants, I was convinced I belonged to a generation that might outlive the cultural cringe. Because by the mid ’70s, it felt that Australian writers had given themselves permission to dream big, go hard and tug no forelock. They spoke in their own accent, without apology, focusing unflinchingly on their own place and its people, no matter how weird those people and places were. Peter Carey comes along with The Fat Man in History. Blam! Helen Garner shoves Monkey Grip in our faces. Pow!

I can’t tell you how liberating this felt. I wasn’t interested in nationalism. But as a child of the working class writing across the continent into a middle-class publishing establishment, I was determined to give no quarter. That’s why I so admire what Melissa Lucashenko’s done recently, from much larger points of cultural separation than I ever had to contend with. Like it or lump it, folks, she’s saying. Fuck yez, this is me!

But there was a period when the cringe was supplanted by a peculiarly vexed form of cosmopolitanism, which turned out to be more of a rebranding than a progression. Because at its root was the old anxiety: what will the proper folks think of us? Funny how the people we mustn’t shame ourselves in front of always seemed to be from another hemisphere. For a while the message Australian writers were getting from the cultural race-callers was: no more gum trees, kids. No kangaroos. No awkward place names. As if what they were hoping we might produce was something unburdened by the embarrassing specificities of geography and vernacular. A friction-free experience. A cosmopolitanism of smooth surfaces. Best you don’t sound too local, too regional. Good if your little town sounds like it could be some placeless sort of burg. With maybe a whiff of Eastern Europe? You know, somewhere east of Kafkamatta? A bloke could be called K. But please, no girls called Kay. And pile on the irony, bub, lest you come over all earnest. This was the quest for the universal reached by the straightened road of uniformity, at the cost of a bulldozed landscape. Your story or poem could be set anywhere, because place was now beside the point. Like nature, it was a fabrication anyway, right?

This was all so long ago. In a galaxy far away. When geography was being erased by acts of corporate bastardry and by academic abstractions. Back then, disciplines in the academy had become so siloed and specialised, it was perfectly acceptable for a scholar to be illiterate in any other field of inquiry outside her own. So, while it was disappointing to hear cultural commentators recoiling from the natural world, it was hardly surprising. Because they knew bugger-all about it. Some of them struggled to believe it even existed, such was the power of their ideology. And within such a dispensation, I felt about as welcome as a palaeontologist smuggling fossils into a creationist theme park in Kentucky.

But bear in mind, by this point in history we were all already freckle-deep in trouble. Planetary trouble. Peril that was both material and measurable. Because in the world beyond the silos, we’d only just survived a global energy crisis. We had a huge hole in the ozone layer. Consumption of fossil energy was exploding. Our local whale populations had been hunted to the very threshold of extinction. Our fish stocks were tanking. Our old-growth forests were being logged to smoking remnants. All over the continent, citizens were fighting to save species, landforms and ecosystems. And yet attempts by our literary writers to set the drama and jeopardy of the natural world anywhere near the foreground of a story were being met with distaste and disapproval.

I was raised on modernism. In that dispensation, the artist was a high priest of culture but a pastor of no parish, absolved of any obligation to the civilian population – the “boobs” as Mencken called them with unbridled contempt. As a student of the arts, I was raised on that contempt. Eliot reeked of it. Patrick White, to his great credit, tried hard to leave it behind, but it was baked in. So often in modernism, writerly courage was restricted to experiments in form. With some notable exceptions, writers quarantined themselves from politics, but also, too often, from those outside the cognoscenti. And of course, bad behaviour was rewarded. Even lionised. All those mid-century man-children.

And then along came the various sects that got lumped together as the amorphous church of postmodernism, which was supposed to be a corrective, a progression. It made a lot of noise about its transgressive potential, but produced a politics that shrank ever inward. Think of the sea anemone: a festival of dancing segments and tentacles, advertising its complex glories to the ecosystem. But at the first approach of a stranger, it withdraws all appendages and retreats behind its own sphincter. For all its talk of intersectionality, postmodernist theory didn’t often intersect with the great unwashed. It loved the people but just couldn’t trust itself to say the words. It was so suspicious of language it had to settle for gibberish, a fresh level of obscurity the uninitiated could only experience as contempt. Pomo priests had a more developed conscience than their forebears – something to acknowledge and celebrate – but while they conferenced and theorised, verbing every noun in sight, the world they might have ministered to was disappearing in a gnostic mist of their own making. Language, truth and matter were not to be trusted. In the seminar, the ideas being generated seemed so potent and empowering. But outside, in the world of blood and tears? Not so much. I mean, let a thousand flowers bloom – if you can afford the water. But in a baking world, when folks are hungry, wouldn’t it be wise to grow vegies?

And I guess this is the nub. Of how we’ve spent our last safe years on the planet. Where our efforts have gone. In the humanities and in particular, our literature. As things got dry, where did we expend the water?

Climate scholars such as Andreas Malm are scathing on this subject. Malm says that by reducing nature to a construct, postmodernists essentially collaborated in its eradication. “Just as the biosphere began to catch fire,” he says, “social theory retreated ever further from sooty matter, into the pure air of text.” But as the British philosopher Kate Soper points out, it’s not language that has a hole in its ozone layer. Go ahead and call nature a trope, a social construction that doesn’t exist until we bring it into the world by our own conception. Try telling that to a villager knee deep in her market square in Kiribati, or the masked Australian kid fleeing the fiery apocalypse in a dinghy. As Malm says: “If scientists had never discovered global warming, it would still be happening.”

Anyway, those dogs have barked; the caravan has rolled on. And here we are, picking up the pieces. This decades-long cultural refusal to look at what’s in front of us, even as the world burns, is part of what Amitav Ghosh calls our “patterns of evasion”. He says that for too long “most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight”. He points to the way so many of us have been able to block out what he calls “the urgent proximity of non-human presences”.

I’ve been reflecting on this puzzling resistance here in our literary ecosystem. And, you know, I think it was about cheapness. Capitalism has always depended on the exploitation of cheap labour. Its most ruthless refinement, Fossil Capital, requires cheap nature above all else. When cheap nature is exhausted, it moves on. Just as it moves on to fresh meat when labour ceases to be tractable and inexpensive. And during the apogee of Fossil Capitalism, our literature played nature cheap. Treated it as rustic, backward, inconsequential, as if matter did not matter. I think on this front, Malm is right. This was as a period when many critics and writers collaborated with the enemy, mostly without even knowing. Whether we were still possessed by the old mechanistic dualism that made us masters of nature, or befuddled by social theory that ghosted nature entirely, we colluded with the forces enjoined to set our house on fire. We fell for a story that wasn’t true. In economic terms, nature became an externality. And culture followed like a useful idiot.

Now we understand that what was truly debilitating was this critical impatience with landscape. What was really destructive was that urge to turn our gaze away from the metabolic imperatives of ecology, and the rift between us and it. Writing about nature was niche at best. Regressive at worst. But history has taught writers and readers that foregrounding the role of the non-human elements of our world is not reactionary business after all. It’s urgent, radical and necessary.

Amitav Ghosh calls the era of Fossil Capitalism “The Great Derangement”. He points out how hapless the literary imagination has been in coming to terms with this long period of magical thinking, an era in which we convinced ourselves we could burn the past cheaply, indefinitely and without consequence. The result of which is an existential emergency without parallel in human history. Ghosh says: “The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination”, and who, apart from the most dedicated denialists and profiteers, could disagree? Delia Falconer, who probably feels very differently about postmodernism, and yet writes beautifully about the natural world, has suggested that all of us – writers or not – now “find ourselves authors of a story we may not be able to escape”.

Those of us who are writers, though, have difficult work to do. And we’re late to the bushfire. Ghosh says that “if the urgency of a subject were … a criterion of its seriousness … it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over”, which of course it is not. I’m beginning to wonder if it might be the only legitimate subject to write about. I guess we could just get on the beers and watch RuPaul’s Drag Race while the power stays on. Sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard might call that “implicatory denial”, another form of collaboration.

But I don’t want to collaborate with our enemies. I don’t want to run; I want to stay and fight. And like a lot of folks, I’m doing what I can to arm myself for the struggle. But the work of not averting your gaze is hard, and it’s psychologically perilous. The data sets gathered by the world’s best climate scientists are viscerally confronting. The deliberate and successful campaign by the oil and gas industry to hide climate science from the public, and sow doubt and confusion to this day, is a crime against humanity on a scale I can barely process, let alone forgive. And the inertia of our politics on the biggest moral and material issue of our time is heartbreaking. So, yes, I feel scorched. And I’m angry. But I am still hopeful. Not just because despair is the unforgivable sin, but because I have so many reasons to hope. Some of them are people I love. Many of them I find in the work and ideas of strangers. People who are gently or militantly spinning a fresh web of stories to live within. Some of them are writers. And many are Australian. And I want to acknowledge the courage and doggedness of those who’ve fed my mind and nurtured my spirit in the last few years, who’ve held me in their web. Kept me from falling.

I’ve cried with Joëlle Gergis. Raged with Paddy Manning, Jeremy Moss, Marian Wilkinson, Anna Krien, Steve Coll and Bill Hare. I’ve quaked with James Bradley, David Wallace-Wells and Kate Mildenhall. Hoped with Michael Mann, Charlie Massy, Kim Stanley Robinson and (to my great surprise) Pope Francis. I’ve dreamt with Freya Mathews. Refreshed my wonder with Julia Baird. Felt the precious solidarity of Richard Flanagan.

And I won’t pretend I’ve come to terms. On this matter, I am not sanguine. But I am, to some degree, resolved.

For a while, you know, I thought, I’m just a writer. Seriously, what can I do? But I came to see the evasion in those words. The cowardice, even. As if my craft were nothing. The mystery and power of words were nothing. A readership spanning generations and time zones was nothing. If that were the case, what’s my life’s work been for? Yes, I’m only a tradesman. But is my labour worth nothing more than a pay cheque and a pat on the back from Yarralumla in my dotage?

Artists. We love to say we serve the work. We honour the craft. We do it for love. And because we feel we must. Knowing it’s both a privilege and a shitshow. But I’ve had to ask myself all these years, and in recent years more urgently than ever: what about readers, those strangers to whom my work offers pleasure, consolation, soul food, courage – don’t I work for them? And am I not a part of a cohort of workers who offer their labour to the same end? Not priests of culture absolved of responsibility, but a guild of strangers and comrades trying to bring meaning and beauty into a world where every decent thing is in danger of being commodified and all human potential is in jeopardy.

I sound terribly earnest. Believe me, I hear it. Just don’t expect me to apologise for it.

Our current predicament infects my every waking thought. It colours my view of my friends, neighbours and colleagues. It’s led to the awful realisation that I have enemies, by which I mean powers and principalities that pose a threat to my grandchildren and their children. And yours. Forces that must be defeated.

The science says the very best we can hope for now is a world that’s harsher and more chaotic than the one we grew up in. Whether you’re in South Melbourne or South Sudan, 1.5 degrees of warming by the end of this century will change human prospects. We’re currently tracking for 2.7 degrees, which is catastrophic. Business as usual means the obliteration of myriad species, and the immiseration of billions of humans. Business as usual needs to be stopped. It must be reimagined and retooled. And writers will not be exempt from participating in this transformation. No cultural sea change will be possible without us.

What will it take? I’m not sure, but I have some suspicions. And I think, every day, of those lines from my late friend, the poet Liam Rector: “Change is slow, and hope is violent.” The turning required will be tough. And, yes, violence will be done, at the very least to the ideas we have of ourselves. Will it be chaotic? Hell, yes. Writers will have to embrace new levels and new kinds of risk. We may need to set aside some of our precious irony. Because, in a burning world, irony will be as useful as a one-legged bikie in an arse-kicking contest. We may need to risk sounding earnest. We’ll need to shed some nihilistic tropes about the natural world to live and write as if matter matters. That means thinking more organically, becoming more literate about the material lives of ecosystems and creatures. Accepting that higher consciousness does not make us angels by dint of religion, ideology or technology. For we too are creatures. And this world is not our social artefact, or our plaything. It’s not our setting, or our backdrop. It’s not a waystation on the journey to Heaven or to Mars. It’s our home. Our only home. And in the streets and at the polls and on the page, we’ll need to fight to save it with language that reflects this organic reality with clarity, urgency and humility.

That doesn’t mean recoiling from what’s comical or absurd. And rest assured, there’ll always be adultery, sad girls, lost boys and folks who are trying to find their spot somewhere on that spectrum. There’ll be stories of the past and future, tales of identity and exile and war, of course. But to mean anything, to avoid falling into the category of opiates, these works will need to have context. On the page, we can’t keep pretending there’s nothing beyond the scene at hand. Whether your character is in a bedroom, a classroom, a space station or a bomb shelter, there’s more at play in their lives than ideology and personal feelings. Novelists and storytellers are not beautiful liars. Nor are we thieves. We shouldn’t be bilking readers, soaking them of their time by knowingly deceiving them about the world they live in, or the one their children will inherit. For these are our neighbours. They’re not boobs or rubes. They deserve more than our cynicism, our irony, our cowardice, our contempt.

 Our agency may be modest, but it’s real. Like everyone else, we’ll need to be bold. Brave enough to make mistakes, make fools of ourselves. And, yes, we’ll need to break some shit. Including a few conventions and niceties, certainly some “patterns of desire” as Amitav Ghosh says, but also, very probably, some of those powers and principalities – the politicians, technocrats, corporations and media empires that threaten the lives and prospects of our descendants.

This turning of which I speak – it’s not a daydream. Change is not just possible, it’s already afoot. In the streets and on the page.

A couple of years ago, Delia Falconer published a haunting book of essays called Signs and Wonders. It’s full of insights and provocations, with a singular image of writerly labour that’s shot through with both modesty and agency. She sees writers as “lyrebirds turning over the leaf litter on the forest floor”. I love the organic aptness here. For when creatures and organisms are allowed to be themselves, to function unimpeded, they do work for the world. To their own ends, of course, but also for their ecosystem. They consume energy, but also contribute to the production of energy. Just by being themselves. Whether it’s a lyrebird turning over leaf litter, a slimy mat of blue-green algae in a saltmarsh fixing nitrogen at the very bottom of the food chain, or a stingray ploughing up the sediments of a coral lagoon in the process we call bioturbation, these animals are participating in the labour that sustains the web of life, upon which we all depend.

The future of our world and our species is fraught. It will be distinguished by diminution and contingency. Many organisms will have to work harder for less. Including writers. But Falconer suggests “it may be that Australia is the best place for writing about uncertainty and loss” thanks to a geographical imagination “more tuned to damage and survival” and a history of colonisation that’s left us “already less comfortable with the land and its creatures” than our counterparts in the other hemisphere. I also suspect the sheer difference in scale between geography and humanity here will continue to be a distinguishing feature. Sixty-five thousand years of human habitation notwithstanding, there’s still much more nature than culture. The scale of overmatch is impossible to ignore. And while humans in developed countries now live a more physically denatured existence than at any time in human history, on a globe that now supports more captive animals than wild creatures, Australia is one continent on which you can’t claim to have seen the end of nature.

Bill McKibben’s masterwork, The End of Nature, was published in 1989. Its prophetic power stands undiminished. And the last line of that book has been a personal byword for me: “The comfort we need is inhuman.” But it pains me to see how in the years since, so many writers have used McKibben’s cautionary title as a springboard to claim that we now inhabit a post-natural world. Jedediah Purdy, another writer I admire, says, “It makes no sense now to honor and preserve a nature that is defined by not being human”. He believes the natural world is so altered by human activity that it’s time “to add nature itself to the list of things that are not natural. In every respect, the world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made.” And while I understand his reasoning, I believe Purdy and others like him are both mistaken and defeatist. Perhaps if I’d been raised in West Virginia and lived to see the strip mining, fracking, opioid dumping and crony capitalism that’s poisoned that region so egregiously, I might think differently. But I note that Barbara Kingsolver is from those parts – I don’t see her raising the white flag just yet. You might say it’s just the leftie in her, but I suspect it’s the evolutionary biologist.

I too am from a region that’s suffered grievously during our Great Derangement. Western Australia is the only state in our Commonwealth where CO2 emissions are rising. And we’re no strangers to crony capitalism: we call it state capture. Our most protected species are oil and gas corporations. Even so, we’re custodians of enormous tranches of country in which natural processes – by which I mean non-human processes – are still the primary forces at work. Places such as Ningaloo, for instance, have experienced several forms of colonisation, pastoralism, the oil and gas industry, “Van Life”, Instagram, and survived them all. Despite every human imposition since settlement, its interconnected ecosystems remain functional, intact and independent. Which is to say, wild. Yes, that’s a function of their geographical isolation, and the might of their inbuilt resilience, which is exceptional. But it’s also the result of conscious human efforts to defend and maintain their integrity. Those efforts include millions of words – of science, polemic, diplomacy, insurgency – delivered as inspiration and exhortation. Without all that writing, Ningaloo would be another wounded remnant, a shadow place lost to business as usual.

I’m responsible for some of that labour. I’ve written in nearly every mode: op-eds; stump speeches; funding applications; ministerial briefing notes; letters of entreaty to movie stars, musos, premiers and prime ministers; postcards to children; long, grinding technical submissions to the Environmental Protection Authority; social media posts; stickers; banners; and stuff in several respectable registers of what some of us call literary writing. So, I think I can honestly say I’ve road-tested the utility of language in defence of nature. Everything I’ve written on this matter has been founded on scientific data. But now and then you’re forced to park the facts for a moment and resort to awe and wonder. Sometimes that’s the only way to break through the indifference, which is not just political but cultural. You’re contending with a barrier between humans and nature, a carapace that most of us grow and many of us mistake for evidence of adulthood that must be broached. Whether you’re writing for a cabinet minister or a reader of fiction, you need to soften the calluses of a lifetime and appeal to the open-hearted child in that person. And in writing in defence of an ecosystem, you need to do this on a mass scale. Because cabinet ministers don’t always fear their consciences as much as the numbers. That’s what they call you and me, the people: we’re the numbers.

I know Delia Falconer has her doubts about awe. “Wonder,” she says, “rarely translates into action.” And she asks: “Is wonder itself a kind of self-administered anaesthetic …?” Fair cop. I’ve been chewing on that bit of gristle for decades, because I’ve often trafficked in wonder. I just spent three years of good novel-writing time arranging a shotgun marriage between natural history and awe for television. And every waking minute of those years, I was haunted by the horrible prospect of producing little more than nature porn, an opiate I despise.

But I have to say that, on balance, while the dynamic Falconer points to is real and frustrating, her word rarely might be carrying too much water. Novelists rarely write a great book. Even their best work rarely gets the audience it deserves if it finds any readership at all. Medical researchers rarely make breakthroughs. Stump speeches rarely change government policy. Firebrands rarely spark revolutions. And yet, all these unlikely things do happen. Often enough to keep us at it.

The lyrebird cannot comprehend the full fruit of its labour. Oftentimes, neither does the writer. You rarely live long enough to witness the change you’ve helped create. You do the work in good faith, acknowledging both the smallness and the necessity of it. And you plug on.

I don’t have an instrumental view of art. Which is to say, I don’t hang the meaning of my labour on the blunt peg of utility. Believe it or not, I’m still reconciled to the business of useless beauty. Because it feeds the spirit, the way wild places feed our spirit. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never yearned to feel the great wheel move, or that I’ve never felt it turn. Everyone will have their own metrics for what constitutes change. Some of us discover we’ve changed a reader’s day. More rarely, a reader’s life. A few of us will shift the cultural conversation. Some will change public policy, bring corporations to account, or even topple governments. Some of us have helped console prisoners, free captives, save lives, species, ecosystems. So, I don’t think it’s folly to hope the combined labours of writers and activists can contribute to saving the biosphere. The three best ways to ensure the failure of such a project is to declare that words are powerless, the world is dead already, and that nature was something that never existed in the first place.

But the challenges we face are not simply matters of physics. Before the turn of the millennium, Jedediah Purdy wrote that Americans had fallen “into a hopelessness that is inattentive to and mistrustful of reality”. This was almost 20 years before QAnon, “Pizzagate” and the moronic gangster presidency of Donald Trump. It was a stark forewarning of the “patterns of evasion” Amitav Ghosh and others have since written about. And a big part of that hopelessness, born out of such mistrust and inattention, is evident in the way we’ve turned our backs on the material and urgent fact of nature. To our great cost.

Justyn Walsh says that capitalism is our “dominant faith”. It elevates individual sovereignty and sanctifies selfishness at the cost of collective concern and the common good. You’d expect our writing to have been resistant to such orthodoxy. But when I go back through my library, I’m not so sure.

I’ll start with the fiction shelf because that’s my biome, really. I see so many stories from the ’90s and noughties with an unrelenting emphasis on interiority, narratives that focus on a single atomised individual. First person, present tense. There’s little or no reference to collective endeavour. If the natural world appears, it smells of turps, like a theatrical flat quickly dolloped in. As filler. It’s way behind the action, never the point of it. Always object, never subject. And the engine of the story is situational – situations that are personal. Social, at a pinch, but never geographical or ecological. Without trouble, no story, right? But hardly any trouble that includes the non-human world. With some notable exceptions – say Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide – our stories were struggles of alienation. Of every possible stripe – except for our huge and hugely consequential alienation from nature.

Our poets were ahead of the game, of course. Way ahead. Think of Judith Wright, Les Murray, John Kinsella, Mark Tredinnick and many others. And we’ve had essayists who are exemplars. Those who’ve gone before, such as Eric Rolls, Barbara York Main and Vincent Serventy, and contemporaries such as John Blay, Pete Hay and the two Tims, Low and Flannery. Historians such as Tom Griffiths, Mary White. Memoirists such as Kim Mahood. Visionaries such as Big Bill Neidjie and David Mowaljarlai. These writers helped us see the material world in which we live. Where, as Mowaljarlai says, “everything is standing up alive”.

More recently, what once felt like a maverick vein in our contemporary literature has begun to work its way into the mainstream. Perhaps history, which of course includes natural history, has educated our writers in ways the academy did not. Even in novels, there’s an organic literacy that was harder to detect in the work of previous generations. As if we’re finally beginning to understand, as Jason W. Moore says, that “Everything humans do, in our everyday lives, and in the major political, economic, and cultural events of our times, is bound up with the earth.” An assertion like that is self-evident today, but even 15 years ago, outside activist circles, it was a tough case to make in this country. So, I can’t tell you how heartening and exciting it’s been to watch writers such as Robbie Arnott, Alexis Wright, Laura Jean McKay, James Bradley, Kate Mildenhall, Greg Day, Jock Serong and so many others at work changing the cultural geography.

My hope is that this work feeds our culture and sparks up our politics. Maybe I’m dreaming. But something’s definitely happening. Whether they’re writing poetry, memoir, contemplative observation, naturalism with a bit of elegance, science with aesthetic chops, history with an environmental palette or fiction that refuses to obscure geography, writers in so many veins and genres are honouring the mystery and risk inherent in the organic facts of life. And that’s a signal of progress.

Not all of my colleagues will agree with me, but I think many of us share the sentiment in something Amitav Ghosh scratched into his diary in 2002. He said: “I do believe it to be true that the land here is demonstrably alive; that it does not exist solely, or even incidentally, as a stage for the enactment of human history; that it is (itself) a protagonist.”

What was once an object, a chattel to exploit and dismiss, has become our most pressing and intimate subject.

Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a writer. His most recent novel is The Shepherd’s Hut.

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Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

In This Issue

Black and white close-up photo of Sigrid Nunez

Animal form: Sigrid Nunez

The celebrated American author’s latest book, ‘The Vulnerables’, completes a loose trilogy of hybrid autobiographical and fictional novels

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Way out Southwest

The local debut of the SXSW film, TV, music and tech fair is a sign the road to Hollywood now runs in both directions

Emma Stone in ‘Poor Things’

Modern Prometheans: ‘Poor Things’ and ‘All of Us Strangers’

Emma Stone seeks a moral conscience in Yorgos Lanthimos’s upended Frankenstein grotesque, while Andrew Haigh delivers a metaphysical coming-out story

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course


More in The Monthly Essays

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Close-up of smiling Kathleen Folbigg after being acquitted at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, December 14, 2023

By her own words

How systemic misconceptions around women’s guilt led to a 20-year miscarriage of justice for Kathleen Folbigg


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality