Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 256 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
In the UK, nature writing is experiencing a renaissance. Walk into any bookshop and you’ll find a table adorned with attractive non-fiction books (like this one, for instance). You almost can’t move without running into a book about the seasons, or the landscape, or a particular species of plant or animal, or how someone has re-found themselves after spending some time alone in the natural world.
Last year I asked a judge on the Wainwright Prize, which was created in the wake of this new enthusiasm for nature writing, why this was the case. Why were people writing books about nature, and why were people choosing to read them? Her theory went something like this: modern life is so busy and everyone is so plugged in — to computers, to social media, to the digital world in general — that they’ve lost touch with nature and this was one way of rediscovering it.
In Australia, I suspect it’s a bit different. Sure, Australians are just as “plugged in” as the Brits, but I’ve always felt that there was something about the larger-than-life landscapes (and the too-weird-to-be-true wildlife) that infiltrates the Australian psyche, almost as if natural history was in our DNA. Of course, I grew up in the countryside, so I would say that, but I do think Australians are aware of the natural environment and the impacts that humans have on it more so than their British counterparts.
Australian writer Tim Winton puts it more eloquently than me in his new book Island Home: A Landscape Memoir:
We are in a place where the material facts of life must still be contended with. There is so much more of it than us. We are forever battling to come to terms. The encounter between ourselves and the land is a live concern. Elsewhere this story is largely done and dusted, with nature in stumbling retreat, but here our life in nature remains an open question and how we answer it will define not just our culture and politics but our very survival.
10 deeply personal essays
The book, which is made up of 10 essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (“The Island Seen and Felt” was first given as a talk at London’s Royal Academy in 2013, for instance), highlights Winton’s relationship to the land but also gives us a potted history of the environmental movement in Australia. Each deeply personal (and full of vivid imagery) essay is prefaced by a diary-like back story to explain how what follows came to be.
Perhaps my favourite essay (admittedly it’s hard to choose just one) is “The power of place” in which Winton explains his evolution as a writer (primarily of quintessential Australian novels, some of which are reviewed here).
From the get-go he says he always wanted to write about the landscape and the “music of the vernacular” around him, an idea that wasn’t always welcomed by city-based publishers who felt this would not go down well in places like Sydney or London. It seems so ludicrous now, given that it is these twin pillars that make Winton’s writing so unique, well-loved and, dare I say it, award-winning.
Times are a’changing
From this collection of essays it is clear that a lot of things have changed over the course of the past 30 or 40 years. Landscapes have been damaged and species lost as the march of suburbia has continued unabated; large areas of pristine wilderness have been ruined, or are under threat, thanks to mining, the construction of hydro-electric power schemes, and gas and oil exploration. Intensive agriculture has caused erosion, water pollution and soil salinity. I could go on, but I won’t.
It’s not all bad news though. As Winton points out, this ongoing destruction has also created a new awareness and a more positive attitude towards the environment. “Greenies”, once regarded as foolhardy lefties with nothing better to do with their time, have slowly become normalised — or at least the values they espouse have become “mainstreamed”. Winton explains this incredibly well in the essay entitled “The corner of his eye”:
In the 1980s “greenie” subculture began to broaden and become a social movement, though it was still fractious and hectic. With its unlikely national reach and surprising political consequences, Tasmania’s Franklin Dam blockade was evidence of how widely the thinking of those earlier prophetic figures had spread, and how potent it was when amplified by a new and more diverse generation of activists like Bob Brown. By the 1990s the erudition, discipline and strategic patience of advocacy groups meant that ideas once thought to be harmlessly eccentric were shaping the vernacular mood and framing public policy. And by the turn of the millennium, the status of a river, reef or forest could determine the outcome of an election.
He goes on to say that though the battle is not yet won, “few on the right are completely unchanged by this development in thinking”.
An impassioned plea for the future
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this kind of thing (I have a degree in environmental planning and spent my early 20s full of youthful idealism trying to save the planet), so there was never any doubt that I was not going to love this book. But what I found most surprising was how much resonated even though the author lives on the west coast, which is vastly different to the kind of Australian landscape with which I’m familiar. But I rather suspect that Winton, who is about a decade older than me, has noticed more environmental change in his lifetime than most people on the more populous east coast have seen. That’s why everything he says here should make people sit up and take notice.
If nothing else, Island Home is an impassioned and eloquent plea to save what’s left before it’s gone forever. And yet, for a collection of essays that could be so potentially negative and downhearted, it brims with a kind of hopefulness and optimism for the future. I really loved it.
If there’s a failing of the book it is not the author’s but his publishers, who have not provided a table of contents or an index. Something to bear in mind for a reprint, perhaps?
For another take on this book, please see Susan’s review at A Life in Books.
This is my 38th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.