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  • Tim Winton, Island Home: a landscape memoir, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, Docklands 2015, 10 chapters, 235 pages, references, acknowledgements, no index, Dewey A823.3, RRP $A39.99
  • Victoria Laurie, The Southwest: Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspot, UWA Publishing, Crawley 2015, 10 chapters, 229 pages, illustrated, foreword, map, select bibliography, index, Dewey 333.9510994, RRP $A45.00
  • Alex George and Charmaine Cave, Swanning Around Perth: An exploration of the Black Swan in our City, Four Gables Press, Kardinya 2014, three sections, 104 pages, illustrated, preface, acknowledgements, bibliography, index, Dewey 70.946, RRP $A20.00.

I recently read three books, all of which might be classed as ‘Westraliana’. This review is primarily of Tim Winton’s Island Home, but is informed by and reflects upon the other two books, Victoria Laurie’s The Southwest and Alex George and Charmaine Cave’s Swanning Around Perth.

By way of disclaimer, I was born and grew up on the Batavia coast of Western Australia. My boyhood was spent on that windblown coastscape of endless sandplains and vast skies, and just over the horizon on the Abrolhos Islands. My father was a crayfisherman, and I knew most of the Batavia coast hamlets before they were swept away in the 1990s, all sandy tracks, tin shacks, eccentric residents, sighing tamarisks and incessant southerly winds. I later lived for 3½ years on Norfolk Island in the Pacific, managing a historic site. Winton’s title, Island Home, naturally attracts me. I am only two years older than Winton.  His 2001 novel Dirt Music spoke to much of my adolescence and young adult life; chapter two of his 1993 memoir Land’s Edge to much of my earliest childhood. Perhaps we even crossed tracks at some time, I don’t know. Ironically, I currently work as a historian in The Rocks, the very spot where the invasion literally and figuratively commenced in 1788. Of course, in Western Australia the symbollic year zero is 1829, but histories have their convergences, and The Rocks and the Batavia Coast sort-of bookend my reading of these books.

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Black swans at sunset on Thungarra Estuary

Mouth of the Irwin River | Batavia Coast 

The books, as books

These are three books that would appeal to the historian and the heraldist, but were written by neither. Instead, they are the work of a novelist, a journalist and a botanist and a graphic designer. The bibliographic classifications of each are fiction, biodiversity and media, not library shelves usually scoured by the historian. In their own way, each explore Western Australian histories with insights and from points of view that seem, at least at first glance, to be a long way from the current work of academic historians in Perth as represented in, for example, Western Australia in the Indian Ocean World.[1]

Winton’s Island Home is subtitled a landscape memoir, and he explores a number of inter-related themes that reveal his central thesis: the spirit of country makes us who we are, and that country is an island. The book consists of nine chapters, each composed of an introductory reminiscence and a longer exploration of a theme. Chapter one’s thematic essay begins with the sentence “I grew up on the world’s largest island”. It recalled for me one of those hoary old school questions for which there was never a satisfactory answer: was Australia the world’s largest island or its smallest continent? But that question is not the nub of Winton’s statement. What is the nub is rather more nebulous to discern.

Victoria Laurie’s The Southwest explores a somewhat similar terrain to Winton but by a very different method. She begins by defining the Southwest (one word), always a nebulous place, as the south-western corner of the continent bounded by west and south coasts and a meandering line from Kalbarri to Esperance. It is a great botanical, geological and cultural province composed of nine extensive districts, for each of which Laurie creates a distinctive biography in her nine chapters. My own origins lie in her prosaically named Northern Sandplains, distinguished by its sandy heaths known as kwongans or, as I knew them by an older, gentler spelling, quongan. Laurie charts the relationships between cultures and nature that have created each of these district landscapes, relationships that have been fraught but which also now offer some cause for hope.

George & Cave’s paean to the black swan, or rather to crafted representations of the heraldic emblem of Western Australia, provides another route to the heart of the island. It is densely illustrated with photographs of black swans in architecture, public works, military badges, trophies, statuary, fountains, school emblems, hospital and emergency services badges, commercial branding, works of art, religious buildings, and civil society symbols and emblems, as well as official State and municipal heraldry. It briefly refers to Nyoongar Dreaming and symbolic associations with the black swan, and concludes with a brief overview of ‘expatriate’ black swans in Britain and France.

Island Home is really a book that raises questions rather then provides answers, which should satisfy the historian or historically-minded reader. The question at the heart of this island book may be one of identity, or how personal and communal identities evolve over time and place. But perhaps the question that Winton tackles in chapter six, ‘The Power of Place’, the questionable legitimacy of non-Aboriginal colonisation and subsequent ‘development’ of the land by an enduring settler society goes to the real, aching heart of this island?

Islands within Islands: Westralian exceptionalism

The ‘island’ is, at first glance, the Australian continent, but in chapter six Winton identifies an ‘island within an island’, referring to North Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania as an Other, separated from the ‘real’ island of southeastern Australia by “every cultural and geographic current” inherent in a Sydney-Melbourne based perspective (pp 135-136). Most Westralians who have travelled to the Eastern States (or Over East, or The Otherside, in Westralian vernacular) will be familiar with this sense of displacement and outsiderness. Winton ascribes this to an imperial exclusiveness by a Sydney-Melbourne corporate world still in the thrall of London, but is that attribution sustainable? Having lived on the Otherside for nearly 25 years (only sojourning, not exiled, you understand), I think some consciousness of Westralian insularity and looking westward is also needed to understand that the divide is not all one-way.

Laurie also posits an island, geological but also imagined, in the south west of the continent, the Yilgarn Craton, a block of the earth’s crust that is as least half the age of the planet and upon whose flat archaic surface fossil soils support the unique biodiversity of southwestern Western Australia. George & Cave’s island is rather more ephemeral, with their example of the Vlamingh swan sculpture in Burswood Park, once an island in the Swan River but now reclaimed and fixed to the riverbank (pp 62-63). The bronze swan rears up defensively as a surprised Dutch mariner approaches, his surprise frozen in bronze. That historical moment in 1697 is redolent with meanings, at one level heralding the colonising encounter, at another a historic episode that no eastern state can emulate. Islands within islands within islands abound in these books.

img-160228111449-0003 On the Sandplain Littoral | Purple Moon Peak (above)

On the verges of the Yilgarn Craton | Adam’s Breakaways (below)

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Progress or regress: seeing through green-tinted glasses

Winton and Laurie both articulate an understanding of ‘seeing’, that what the settlers gaze upon and consciously ‘see’, is a culturally shaped or determined gaze, it is not neutral or universal. Learning new ways of ‘seeing’ is one of the modes of change that each detects in contemporary settler society, and although Laurie explores why this change is occurring to some degree, it is something that could be further researched and historicised.

Each of the writers reflects, in their own ways, upon the impacts of colonisation as they are writ-large in the landscapes of Western Australia. Winton and Laurie both reflect a spirit of optimism that, despite 185 years of settler destruction and greed, a sense that change is not only possible but is actually happening. This not to deny the continuing impacts of Big Mining and Big Property, but these are no longer uncritically accepted as absolutes, necessary to the pursuit of either Mammon or Progress. Winton says he is not an optimist, and appears uncritical of the ‘rapacious settler’ construct in William Lines’ environmental histories (pp 47, 91-92), but nevertheless finds cause for optimism in youth. Seeking a vicarious affirmation in youthful vigour and hope is itself an old trope. Back in the 1980s (before organised Green politics), when I was involved in a local conservation movement on the Batavian sandplains, accusations of youthful impatience, outsider thinking and insensitivity to the economic needs of others were not uncommon. Winton professes to have been uninterested in environmental issues then. Laurie touches upon what Winton would term ‘colonial thinking’ in her reference to an episode of pigs being released in the forest for sport, oblivious to environmental impacts, perhaps even to antagonise the environmentally sensitive. My introduction to the natural landscapes came through grandmothers and old aunties who watched birds and travelled for wildflowers, and implored their farmer-husbands not to clear all their land. Youth is not always the harbinger of hope, and age can provide insight and wisdom.

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Quongan wildflowers in spring, when the air smells of honey

Arrowsmith Moors | Batavia Coast

The beauty in place: common ground between art and science

All three writers use aesthetic values to explore their theses, whether literature, photography, art or other sensory media. Laurie and George & Cave are more descriptive than Winton, and rely upon extensive visual documentation in their books, but Winton’s use of sensory description to invoke a transcendent receptivity to the spirituality of country or place is no less reliant on the aesthetic.

Winton refers to the affect of pre-modern imaginaries (eg p132), although in a rather off-hand or casual way, and in a similar manner is aware of the costly, not always beneficial, effects of Enlightenment thinking on Australian landscapes, but does not bring a lot of focus to either; Laurie by contrast relies upon the work of scientists, patiently observing phenomena over years and decades, to propose and explore new hypotheses to explain the changing landscapes of the Southwest. Australian nationalist historians of the twentieth century have consistently, persistently, positioned their ‘Australia’ as a product of Enlightenment rationalism. They have allowed no space for the emigration or naturalising of pre-modern institutions or thinking in colonial Australia. This is a shibboleth in Australian historiography that is ripe for challenging. Alan Atkinson and Grace Karskens are historians who have made tentative steps in that direction.[2] Winton and Laurie can be cast as illustrations of another hoary old question: is history an art or a science, although it seems unlikely either would consciously reduce their work to such an antagonistic positioning. Winton hints at the alternative histories flagged by Atkinson and Karskens, and the origins of Laurie’s local nature lovers may reside in such spaces, but neither pursues the question. Perhaps they prefer to let their descriptive words and evocative images to do that work?

Laurie credits community or popular environmental conservation thinking for at least some of the change – sensitive farmers, local eco-tourism operators, local nature lovers championing particular wildflowers or wild animals. Winton explicitly states his aversion to engaging with conservation politics until recently, but post-Ningaloo finds inspiration in the activism of young people confronting Big Mining and Big Corp more generally. But the bifurcation is probably false, both may be heirs to settlers such as the amateur lady-botanist Georgiana Molloy, and common ground might be found in recognising shared intellectual and emotional ancestries, and in looking for continuities in thinking and feeling about local landscapes. It may be, when looked at in a longer trajectory, that the dominance of Big Mining and Big Farming in Western Australia since the 1890s is actually the deviation from an older, more country, more conservative ‘norm’, rather than landscape conservation being a recent response to colonial thinking. Not everything in the settler’s baggage was destructive.

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Mudelka or Mottlecah (Eucalyptus rhodantha)

on the slopes of Mount Adams, ‘twixt craton and quongan

Corralling the settlers: who decides who is in, who is out?

Winton uses the word ‘settler’, if I have understood Island Home properly, to mean the colonists who arrived in Western Australia during the 19th century from south-eastern England, and their descendants. He implicitly excludes other migrant groups, especially ‘non-British’ migrants since World War Two. Apart from a dubious historical lineage for such a definition of ‘settler’, such a quarantining works against Winton’s ideas about the capacity for a spirit of place to affect and shape the inhabitants of that place. It especially restricts a deeper exploration of his ideas in chapter six about the (il)legitimacy of non-Aboriginal habitation on the island.

Such a counter-intuitive reading can be revealed through a syllogism: the Island is inherently spiritual; that spirituality shaped Aboriginal people and their landscapes; settlers and their landscaping is now shaped by the spirituality of topos; therefore the settlers can be as receptive to the spirit of country as Aboriginal people. The paradox in such a construct is that Aboriginality is no longer necessary to access the spirituality of the Island. If indigeneity is not required, but instead the requirement is for receptiveness to that spirit, then the settlers (apparently) newfound openness to the natural beauty of landscapes and ecosystems is explainable, but it also renders Aboriginal cultures secondary. They have been on the Island for multiple generations longer than the settlers, but this has simply made them more accustomed to the spirit of the place, and generation by generation the settlers are also becoming accustomed. Contrarily, Winton seems to argue that post-World War Two non-Anglo Celtic migrants are, in their innocence, as equally receptive to the spirit of the Island as Aboriginal peoples, but somehow the ‘British’ settlers of 1829-1945 remain uniquely immune.

I do not think this is the actual argument intended by Winton, but in seeking to respect a paradigm of an Aboriginal ‘timeless present’, the centrality of a 60,000 year patrimony is rendered irrelevant (page 149). The spirit of country can become a rhetorical device for legitimising the claims and actions of settler society, and rendering it as timeless and ahistorical as any other society settled on the land. The invasions and frontiers become simply ‘events’, equivalent to any other event, with their brutality and illegitimacy washed away. Just as it can be argued that environmental conservation is as much an agent of settler colonialism as Big Mining or Big Farming, so Island Home could be read as another such agent. I am not suggesting that a quest for a spiritual connection between settlers and landscapes is wrong. Indeed it must be attended to, and the quatrefoiled entanglement of history, Aboriginality, settlerism and place must be at the heart of such a quest. Perhaps I am reading a memoir too critically?

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Moolymoonga (Black Man’s Tor), a powerful place

Dindiloa | Batavia Coast

I think this is the fundamental issue at the core of any polity in the island(s) now named Australia. All of my ancestors arrived here during the 19th century, in chains or free. They came from England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and India. There is nowhere that I can ‘go back to’ (unless anatomically dissected). Some of them were active participants on the frontiers as Aboriginal realms were invaded, occupied, depopulated, re-landscaped and named anew. I am, genealogically at least, a product of the Empire, as are many other contemporary Australians. That cannot be avoided.

The specious claim “but I didn’t do it” may comfort those Winton calls colonial minded, but the way I comprehend my relationship to that ancestral ‘settling’ is to accept, no matter how unsettlingly, that I am a beneficiary of their actions. I live in a house on stolen land, eat food produced on stolen land, have been educated and kept healthy by public money and institutions that exist on stolen resources. I cannot escape that. That is the ‘original sin’ at the heart of any Australian polity, and it cannot be obliterated or negated by conjuring up ‘settlers’ who only exist in the past or who only derive from a certain place. I think that every non-Aboriginal person who is a resident in or citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia today is a settler, from First Fleet descendant to the most recent citizenship ceremony graduand. They each benefit from the original sin, no matter their ethnicity or birthplace or other communal identity. And, as beneficiaries, they also have the responsibilities of facing and confronting that original sin. Retreating into either nationalist or identity politics or will not change that.

Crown and state, or me and us: a false binary?

Winton rhetorically asks what is so precious that he would give his life for it, and chooses the bond between parent and child rather that any relationship with the “Crown or state” (p221), which he equates to a mytholigising of origins and minimizing of outrages by invaders. But, as he argues, we are all at the mercy of what others did before us. As others have observed, myths are no less powerful for being rationally unverifiable. The invasion was a catastrophe for Aboriginal people and for the land, but Winton somehow can argue that the latest migrant is free of any responsibility for now participating in that continuing catastrophe. But, I would contend, the ‘Crown or state’ that Winton denies is now, like us, the creation of our own making. It is no longer some invisible baggage that fell on the beach in 1829, forever foreign. It cannot be quarantined. We are it, it is us. This is our shared communal form, with all its flaws and multiple ancestries.

Winton says he may feel shame for what his settler-ancestors did, but not guilt as none of us are responsible for the culture we are born into (p222). The attitudes of his ancestors are alien and archaic to him, he says. But is it really that easy to foreignise and banish ancestors, or crowns and states, and by such rhetorical tricks, evade responsibility for the material benefits they bequested us, and with which we continue to live? I don’t think so. Like Winton, I may not feel guilt for ancestral actions, but I certainly feel melancholy, a deep unavoidable melancholy that can sometimes be emotionally crippling and even overwhelming. That is a price that has to be paid, over and over. I have come to accept that the paying will never stop. The ghosts haunting the gaunt stone ruins on the Greenough Flats and the coastal shacks and fishing hamlets are always nearby, just in the corner of my eye, like the blinding white sands whirling in the never ending winds of that place, wherever I am in the world. The past can’t be changed, and neither can an equitable future be imagined and created by denying that past. If settler and Indigene, ancestor and descendant are to map a new island, the forgetting, the denialism and the avoidance that continues to shape the twentieth century nationalist histories we still live with have to be confronted. Crown, state, ancestor, Indigeneity and place give us a framework within which to meet and talk and design the new islands and make new landscapes. They are not things to run away from, as Randolph Stow eventually discovered (the only writer, I think, who really gives an adequate voice to the melancholy inherent in the settler shaped-and-shaping landscapes of the Batavia Coast).

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Ruins of Clinch’s Mill, built 1859

Greenough Flats | Batavia Coast

Genius loci in the islands of the black swan

I think that Laurie’s scientists and local nature lovers, George & Cave’s black swan aficionados, and Winton’s young activists are all, in their own ways, trying to face that truth, and in doing so seeking a transcendence through the grace of a spirit of place, a genius loci. They all perform various rituals and ceremonies such as regenerating bushland, engaging in scientific surveys, swimming with whale sharks, or documenting the locations and forms of monumental black swans, engaging in an emotive search for connection to country, for atoning for the original sin, even if they may not consciously articulate that searching. Perhaps most significantly, this is a spiritual search beyond the frameworks of organised religions, a search for a sort of communal civic sacredness.[3] I think Winton, while articulating such an idea, strays into a cul-de-sac when he ascribes a false consciousness to people who participate in and are moved by Anzac commemorations. The idea of self-sacrifice for a greater good is at the core of Anzac, not imperial glorification, and however commercial and partisan interests seek to shape or hijack particular events to their purposes, participants are actually smart enough to see through such interests. It is unfortunate, at this point, that Winton uncritically accepts the ‘donkey’ explanation for the Great War. A wider reading of alternate histories might help him move beyond that now discredited nationalistic polemic.

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A regenerating stand of York Gums | Irwin Hamlet

Parti-coloured bark imitating sunsets over the Indian ocean

Perhaps the Anzac memorialists too, in ways they have yet to articulate, are searching for a nobility that provides a way to transcend the original sin of invasion. I think that attributions of false consciousness, like those of colonial mindedness, have the effect of excluding people from a new imaginary of the past-present-future of this island. Even the greediest magnate has a capacity to be moved by the beauty of an Indian Ocean sunset seen from the tallest of the gleaming glass towers in Perth’s high street and, therefore, to be receptive to the genius loci of Westralia’s Swanland. Labelling simply closes, not opens, doors that need to be thrown open to the raging, cathartic southerly winds of the west coast (they aren’t called ‘the doctor’ for nothing).

I have for some time taken as my motto “Our time is not now, it is eternity”. It’s a line from Stow (The Girl Green as Elderflower, pp xiv, 166). Time and place, past and present, they cannot be separated. Here, in our islands real and imaginary, we are all settlers, and all of the costs will endure beyond out lifetimes. Our stewardship will be both momentary and continuing. We can’t escape by alienating ancestors, lineages and elders. All three books exude some sense of hope, and with that the potential for some sort of pathways to a common future. “Forever to remain” Stow once wrote, and later “The loved land will not pass away”[4]

Back to the books as books

There are some relatively minor irritations with all three works that probably reflect upon editorial and design fashions rather than the writers. Laurie’s colophon is inside the back cover and printed over a full page illustration, making it tricky to find and read. Winton’s title page neglects to include the city in which it was published, a widespread practice now but nevertheless annoying, and somewhat ironic in a work devoted to the idea of ‘place’. Island Home is also devoid of a table of contents or index, acceptable perhaps in a work of fiction that, despite the publisher’s classification of the book, this is not. Swanning around Perth lacks footnotes or direct citations, and although a limited bibliography is provided, the lack of referencing makes it difficult to follow these sources and create more histories of black swan places.

All three books can, of course, be read alone. That I read them together is really just the temporal coincidence of summer holidays. Literary critics have reviewed Island Home in gentle, almost mystical terms. Perhaps my historians’ eye has been too harsh and windblasted, but on this Australia Day in 2016 when, as usual, a surfeit of nationalistic windbaggery, historical confusions and denials, and drinkin’ barbequin’ sunburnin’ ‘fun’ mingle absurdly, Winton, Laurie and George & Cave speak to each other, and to their readers, in ways that might just be able to penetrate our casual denialism. Reading three books at once can be revealing. They are all worth reading, sometimes more than once, especially if you add anything by Randolph Stowe and a dash of John Clare to your book list.

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A big sky reflected in the Thungarra Estuary

Mouth of the Irwin River | Batavia Coast

Acknowledgement: this review is partly informed by the research and analysis undertaken for my Honours Dissertation at the University of Western Australia in 1992, Creating Arcadia?: A History of Nature Conservation in Colonial Western Australia, 1870-1914.

Note: A stand-alone review of Swanning Around Perth will be published in a future issue of Heraldry News, and subsequently here on SepiaGreen.

[1] Ruth Morgan, Cecelia Leong-Salobir and Jeremy Martens (eds), Western Australia in the Indian Ocean World, Studies in Western Australian History, No 28, Centre for Western Australian History, University of Western Australia, Crawley 2013

[2] Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia, Volume Three, Nation, UNSW Press, University of New South Wales 2014, Chapter 2 Australia’s Rural Code passim; Grace Karskens, The Colony: A history of early Sydney, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest 2009, Chapter 4 ‘Food From a Common Industry’: Public Farms and Common Lands, passim.

[3] An early influence on my thinking in this regards was Basil Shur, Creating a Space for Philosophy: A West Australian Perspective on Science, the Environment and Philosophy, WA Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, UWA Nedlands 1985

[4] see his poems ‘Stations’, and ‘The Testament of Tourmaline’, in John Kinsella, ed, The Land’s Meaning, Fremantle Press, Fremantle 2012, pp 128-129, 145

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