Here comes Tim Winton over the Mitchell Plateau. He’s been driving for hours with the windows wound down. It’s 1993. Spiders and mantises snarl in his hair. See Winton spitting green ants, picking his teeth with a feather. Dragonflies slap the dash, he’s knuckling the wheel. Midway through Island Home and he’s going too fast, he’s angry. The LandCruiser ripples with shredding insects, plants ribboned. Winton in full swing now — gutsy, grit-lined and glistering. It’s a thrill! Here he comes, down from the rangeland, barrelling in from the edge, swiped through country.
So when the author swerves, as he does recurrently in this book, into the shaded past tense of memoir and the elevated outlook of social commentary, the torsion is not just startling — it’s strangely devitalising.
Island Home intersperses episodes from Winton’s life with passages in which the author reflects on how the Australian polity, our cultural and economic history, and our varied literatures have triangulated the nation’s imaginative connection to land. There is a journaling style to many of the chapters. Sections in which Winton describes his own rich encounters with place are told in present tense and headlined with locations and dates (“Fremantle 1999”, “Waychinicup 1987”), as though he had recorded his experiences in a notebook at the time. Perhaps he did. But it gives the book a sort of Doppler effect that reverberates throughout — things are loudest when they’re withdrawing.
Part-way into an account of threats facing the Ningaloo Reef, the dangerous immediacy of a blue-ringed octopus, coiled in a tidal pool, jangles the nerves. In Island Home what is most interesting is often taking place in the rear-view mirror; significances expand in retreat. If this persistence of vivid detail is a flaw, it’s a testament to Winton’s craft that the dryer material is only occasionally overstretched. For West Australians in particular, Winton’s personal recollections will prove deeply evocative.
I’d forgotten about those trees with their foreheads pressed to the ground by the wind ( Eucalyptus camaldulensis). They came back like the sting of sunburn at midnight. But I hadn’t forgotten about the socketed limestone of Trigg Island, the snap and smell of the sea there. Finches that “spritz in saltbush”. Goannas “inert as bush junk … flash their gums like drunks, eager to brawl”. Albany: the slaughtering forecourts of the flensing factory, the bow of certain surf-breaks in the south. If Island Home is, at heart, a work of nature writing, then Winton’s attentiveness to geology most notably puts him in a class with that still under-appreciated rockhound and essayist, Montana’s Rick Bass. Words such as “karst”, “gnamma”, “marl” and particularly “tor” recur in Island Home. No accident, it seems, that this sedimentary aesthetic counters the mining state’s ‘‘read’’ of landscape as mineralogy, where such features mainly betray opportunities for plunder.
Winton is angry in this book. You could feel that bubbling along much earlier, underneath his 2013 novel Eyrie, and especially in how it ends. The destruction of the natural world, the parochialism both of old-style activism and corporate expediency; the sense of finally being above it all in middle age, but gaining from that perspective only a better grip on the strictures of our moment’s crisis.
Suburban and urban nature is, in Winton’s view, corrupted and corrupting however frenetically we plaster over the cracks. He accounts for a state government that populates the Swan River with aquarium-reared prawns to quell the outrage of recreational fishermen (that same river, so polluted as to kill off a quarter of all its dolphins in 2009). Moments of threnody for the many vanished waterways of Perth, driven under by development and overuse, are poignant. Doubly so when you connect these lost swamps to the topography of some of Winton’s most loved short fictions, as in Aquifer from his 2005 collection The Turning, a story of secrets subsumed in a marshland developed for housing. All this makes clear Winton’s greatest talent: his keen vision for what lies underneath the land’s surface, the storied history a layer below.
The crowning moment of Island Home comes in the Cape Range, a sonorous place inhabited by plants crunched down to bonsai by Island Home: A Landscape Memoir By Tim Winton Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, $39.99 (HB) the wind. Climbing amid the crags, Winton stumbles into a cave “the size of a child’s bedroom”. A mob of kangaroos lies there, neck to knee and motionless. Dead, but perfectly preserved by the still, high air: a marsupial graveyard. This discovery comes as a kind of opening into the gothic, a mode that has lent its atmospherics to contemporary Australian film perhaps even more so than recent literature.
The uncanniness of those desiccated kangaroos speaks also to Winton’s “liminal apprehensions” of a palpable but unintelligible sacredness, extant in certain pockets of country. Much of Island Home is given over to asserting the dynamism and subtlety of indigenous galaxies of meaning, threaded through Australian ecologies. At times such assertions veer into a troubling mysticism, though Winton’s insistence on resisting European literary optics for Australian landscape is laudable. Inspirations taken from (and reverence paid to) west Kimberley lawman David Banggal Mowaljarlai are apposite, and give these claims in the book more spine.
But we must talk about language, as this is Winton. Winton whose passion for the vernacular, the ‘‘word on the street’’, was always delivered with a bit of spit, a bit of venom aimed
Tim Winton’s personal recollections will prove deeply evocative for West Australians in particular