‘At One with the West—On Tim Winton’s Island Home: a Landscape Memoir’
The Weekend Australian, 2015.
Edited by Stephen Romei
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, barreling 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 devitalizing.
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, triangulate 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 headed up by 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. Partway into an account of threats facing the Ningaloo Reef the dangerous immediacy of a blue-ringed octopus, coiled in a tidal pool, still 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 drier material in this book is only occasionally overstretched. For Western 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 like “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.