Putting a value on what lies beneath
at his detractors. In Island Home the author directly addresses his early critics both overseas and over east: editors, publishers and reviewers who took umbrage at the “provincialism” of his prose and the colloquial dialogue of his characters. Places are made of time, he contends, and the lexicon we use to bring those places to life also divulges the “presence of the past”, its shared drag on our descriptive capacities: Every extruded stone we brush by, every flattened vowel and awkwardly idiomatic expression we use as we stumble past it betrays the weight of time. For someone brought up with a modernist outlook, it’s hard to swallow the idea that we belong to nature, tougher still to be owned by time.
Winton moves between a few different polarities of language in Island Home: lyric language, scientific nomenclature and vernacular lingo. He is lyrical when he describes his immersions and attachments to place as they play out in memory. He is scientific in the naming of specific plants and animal species. (A tree is never simply a tree — it’s a karri, a tinglewood, a peppermint, and sometimes he uses their Latinate binomial names too).
Winton is vernacular throughout. Of the bush along the southwest coast he writes, characteristically: “the understorey stank like cat piss. The hakeas reeked of human poop and everything else smelt like some maiden aunt’s tea-tree oil furniture polish.”
His switching between these registers is important precisely because it is self-conscious. Environmental conservation, Winton suggests, is as much concerned with how we speak of nature as with what kind of nature we have left to speak of. We must know how to identify nature, how to bring it into our everyday argot, to really know what we stand to lose.
It is useful to consider this multi-track use of language in tandem with a reading of that other recent landscape memoir by a late blooming ‘‘ecowarrior’’, Germaine Greer’s White Beech: The Rainforest Years (2014). In that book Greer painstakingly unpacks the heritage of biological naming in Australia — botany mostly — as a trace of imperial and historically masculine power. She, too, struggles to find the right idiom to write about loss and presence, and encoun- ters with other species, in the bush. But Greer was never invested in vernacular language (or rather, her investment inheres largely in the subversive potential of street talk). Winton thenature-writer faces a different challenge
Increasingly the lingo of the kitchen table, the diction of the pub, does not marry with the attentiveness to place and language instigated by green conscience in a time of environmental degradation. Earlier this year writers including Margaret Atwood, Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald were in uproar over the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision to remove words including “blackberry”, “dandelion”, “heron”, “otter”, “magpie” and “willow”, on the basis that British children didn’t encounter these life forms anywhere near as frequently as their forebears. How many Australian children today first picture a plant when they hear the word “blackberry”? We are owned by time, as it turns out — and in the modern moment there is a risk that a word such as “tor” feels anachronistic (or worse, fantastical).
Ultimately nature is wordless; an obdurate churn of organisms who all refuse to say their names aloud. The next generation of nature writers relies on educators like the naturalist Eric McCrum, who has taught what now must be many thousands of WA schoolchildren how to tell a dugite from a tiger snake, a banksia from a sheoak. Literature, too, is guiding. In Island Home Winton traces back the authors who have shaped his land ethic. Judith Wright and Patrick White are cited, John Olsen and the photographer Richard Woldendorp offered direction through other art-forms, but most pivotal for Winton was Randolph Stow. Stow, who once wrote in Westerly that “the environment of a writer is as much inside him as in what he observes”. It could be the strapline for the book.
Which brings us back to the importance of a community, of teachers, mentors and of readers, in shoring up sensitivities to place. Being a memoir, Island Home remains inescapably egocentric, tethered to its author-protagonist. For Winton, landscape is first a matter of personal and writerly identity. It’s a powerful message, but one that relies on others to see that potential mirrored in their own lives, in their own proximate lands, and in their communities.
is a writer and academic.