Putting a value on what lies be­neath

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Re­becca Giggs

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.

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