Phillip Hall reviews Island Home by Tim Winton

Tim Winton. Island Home: a landscape memoir. Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-926428-74-1 (hardback)

 

Phillip Hall

 

Tim Winton’s Island Home: a landscape memoir is a seductively impressionistic series of recounts where personal journeys into (predominately Western Australian) “wildness” are reflected upon and celebrated. Few writers of literary prose have such an ear for the sonic potential of language and for the juxtaposition of frailty and resiliency in so much broken goodness. Winton begins his landscape memoir with the following richly evocative orientation:

Black sky down around our ears, my son and I climb the stile in the frigid, buffeting wind. Hail slants in, pinging and peppering us. Neither the hedge nor the adjoining drystone wall offers much protection so we press on up the long, lumpy field toward the cottage and the waiting fire. (3)

Later in his memoir Winton is walking along a beach at Cape Keraudren, south of Broome, where he recalls:

I walk the flats at low tide. The first rays of sun sting my bare back. The outfalling sea has left a vast, ribbed field of sandy pools and rivulets like an abandoned kingdom. But up close the thin strips of water are busy with crabs and fingerlings, spider stars, bivalves. I stalk from one silvery fractal to the next between the wallows of skippers, the sandballs of ghost crabs and the mud-poots of worms. It’s a long, bare stretch of beach and it looks lifeless but the whole place pops and sighs and rattles. (82-83)

Such descriptive prose records, and praises, the delicate ecology that the writer finds himself in. Without becoming an encyclopaedic catalogue, the prose is a subtle blending of informed close observation and naming that testifies to a mindful respect and love for the natural world. Such celebration of the interconnectedness of all creatures and an approach to the natural world that is life-affirming, almost sacramental, in the way that it cultivates a hymn of communion with nature as a form of communion with God, is a feature of so much of Winton’s prose. As Winton writes:

Through swathes of reeds and sedges the steely surface of the lake appeared like the suddenly opened eye of God. Waterbirds rose from it in clouds. At the peaty shore everything hissed and trembled … We lit fires and fought them, felt the land heat and cool underfoot. Even the meekest of us went a little wild down there and we only came home when darkness fell and mothers began to bellow from every back step on the street. (42-43)

But if Winton praises goodness he is also acutely attuned to that which is broken and damaged. He acknowledges, “This country leans in on you. It weighs down hard. Like family. To my way of thinking, it is family” (23) and he knows that so much of this “Neverland” (14) as “wildness” is gone (43). With much irony Winton writes:

Year after year secret places disappeared. At the time this process felt normal and necessary, like growing up. After all, the bush was a scruffy nothing and we were civilizing it. (43-44)

So Winton describes his own journey to environmentalism, praising the work of mentors like Vincent and Carol Serventy, Judith Wright and Bob Brown. As he writes, “In the end I felt I couldn’t avoid being involved in environmental matters. The natural world has always been my prime inspiration. I felt indebted” (106).

Winton reflects that in Australia there are few “conscientious objectors to the war on nature” (95) as he describes the ambivalence that many Australians feel towards this progress. He writes that “the presence of wildness” is the “gold standard” (25) even as the “gospel of perpetual economic growth” goes unabated: “The land-clearing going on around us … was just a skirmish in a much wider assault that persists to this day” (45).

But Winton also situates his ecocriticism within a broader postcolonial context. Reflecting on this “war on nature” he observes:

All over the continent in the nineteenth century, as colonists began to attain a familiarity that wasn’t quite commensurate with their territorial gains, disdain for the first peoples and a suspicion of the “fickleness” and “treachery” of the new lands created a sort of siege mentality. Relations with indigenes became increasingly high-handed and martial, and even where clans were routed and “dispersed” by massacres, the rather wild-eyed, agro-defensive mindset endured. For the bulk of our history since 1788 Australian’s attitude to the land has been almost exclusively warlike. (91-92)

Reflecting on the origins of these commitments, Winton writes with so much delicacy:

In deep gullies and matted clearings where the shells of a thousand feasts crunched and clattered underfoot, I sensed a profusion of resonances I didn’t understand. It was like stepping into a room vacated only moments before. Everywhere unresolved events and unfinished conversations seemed to waft like the spider webs I could feel but rarely see. There were sorrows I didn’t yet connect with – the absences articulated by so many Noongar names for places, creatures and plants – for the moment I was caught up with trying to find a vocabulary and a diction to match the strangeness of the places I loved and the taciturn people who inhabited them. (130-131)

But his impassioned political stands continue to be the foundation underpinning so much lyricism: “I feel ancestral shame for the dispossession of this country’s first peoples [and] shame for the despoliation of their lands” (222).

Winton knows that “perhaps the simplest and most profound lesson to be learnt from Aboriginal lawmen and women is that the relationship to country is corporeal and familial” (229). And despite all the progress of recent years towards somewhat improving environmental management and limited recognition of Native Title reaffirming that “this earth is our home, our only home” (233) there is an urgency to properly acknowledge the custodianship of First Nations. This is because “the cultural expertise of traditional owners continues to be scandalously undervalued” (149) while the socio-economic crisis and “sorry business” within First Nations goes unabated.

Towards the end of his landscape memoir Winton writes that he hears of the passing of a close Aboriginal friend and mentor from the north Kimberley, Paul Chapman. Winton “remembers him asleep in the soft sand of a creekbed, shaved and handsome in the dappled shade, a man restored” (217). And this commemoration highlights for Winton the hymn of David Banggal Mowaljarlai: “When I’m on a high mountain looking out over country my Unggurr [life force] flows out from inside my body and I fall open with happiness” (217).

 

Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine (western suburbs) where he works as a poet and reviewer for such publications as Cordite and Plumwood Mountain. He is a very passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. He also continues, through his writing, to honour First Nations in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria where he has family and friends.

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