Tim Winton’s superb memoir is about how deeply Australia’s landscape shaped him and his writing.
Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton. Picador, 200 pages, $24.
By Jon Bishop
Tim Winton, arguably Australia’s greatest living writer, still seems to be largely unknown here, a sad state of affairs that was reinforced when I went to purchase his latest book, Island Home, on Amazon and saw it had to be shipped from the United Kingdom. The appearance of new book by Tim Winton should be a worldwide event. It’s a shame it isn’t yet, because he’s a master.
I’m not sneering at our countrymen here. Until 2014, I hadn’t heard of him, either. But in July of that year I was heading off to Australia for a conference, and I realized I’d never read any writers from Australia. The gathering was on the celebrated Cormac McCarthy, and I saw in the program one of the presenters would be doing a comparison of him and Winton. Ah, I figured. A good place to start.
So I picked up the novel Cloudstreet, which brought me to Breath, which led me to The Turning, a collection of short stories. I gobbled up his essays in The Guardian and Australia’s The Saturday Paper. Though I’m still making my way through his prolific career — twenty-six books for adults and children (four time Miles Franklin Award winner and two time Man Booker Prize finalist) — I realized that Winton had become one of my favorite authors.
Winton is one of the few first-rate writers who believes that superior fiction must be grounded in geography. His characters are beautiful and real because they are rooted in place. You read his reflections on youth and family life — first loves, experiences with death and tragedy, the inevitable limits of our aspirations for autonomy and self-understanding — and smile knowingly at their truth.
What is so impressive is that Winton explores the complexity of human experience without wallowing in predictable sentiment or supplying easy answers. His characters are often deeply traumatized, hampered by psychological/spiritual weaknesses, hamstrung by economic and social boundaries. He is receptive to the tragedy of modern life, its embrace of consumerism, atomization, and fragmentation. What was once innocent and whole cannot be recovered — we punish ourselves when we try. But he values survival skills, which often means reaching out to others or valuing something larger than ourselves, such as the natural world.
Given Winton’s love of Western Australia, particularly its coast line, it should not be surprising that over the years he has grown to become an environmental activist. For him, the landscape is a vital part of his homeland’s national identity: its rough waters, gorgeous beaches, and deserts shape who Australians are — and can be. On one level, his memoir Island Home is a love letter to the natural world, dramatizing how it has made him who he is. (“The wheatland looked like a hard-worn shirt rimed with fractals of dried sweat.”) It also registers the damage done by global warming and profit-driven development. The volume’s interconnected autobiographical vignettes and essays intertwine lyrical self-reflections and incisive meditations on the preciousness of an environment that is being lost.
Winton tells us he came to environmentalism reluctantly. He never saw himself as an “ecowarrior,” though he was “always passionate about nature.” But he knew he had to take action when he became “conscious of a diminution of the ecosystems [he]knew best.” The environment he loved had started to fade and was on the verge of disappearing.
He had to become a activist because of the debt he owned, as a man and an artist, to Australia. The stories in Island Home are moving testaments to his awe — whether on a road trip with his family or surfing or accompanying a photographer on an aerial shoot. For Winton and millions of others, Australia is a mighty and transcendent land that offers an indispensable version of “true antiquity.” It takes ownership of you because it “weighs down hard,” combating what Milan Kundera called the “lightness of being.” By fighting for the environment Winton is protecting the source of his creativity, for himself and for others to come.
Winton is taking a polemical stance here, and it isn’t merely to encourage Australians and others to be more conscious of the environment around us, although that’s a major component of Island Home. His aim is to challenge and hopefully change our thinking about our stewardship of the natural world. For generations, Winton argues, we’ve have done our best to control nature, rather than see ourselves as its partners. Our supposed “technological mastery,” for Winton, is “delusional.” For the sake of profit and comfort we “bulldoze beauty and replace it with crap.” Cellphones, computers, and cars dictate the way we increasingly perceive the world. We zip by astounding sights, sampling the environment. We’ve become numb to the natural world around us, drunk on a toxic version of humanism über alles that makes us the “center of the universe and masters of all we survey.” The neglect of the “ancient and hardwon knowledge at once philosophically sophisticated and practical” of the indigenous people has been a calamity:
Largely spurned by settlers, ignored by consolidating colonial successors, and either patronized, romanticized, or politicized by every generation thereafter, Aboriginal wisdom is the most under-utilized intellectual and emotional resource this country has.
Even though he is not “an optimist by nature,” Winton writes that he has been moved by what he has heard talking to young Australians he has met in public meetings or out on the tracks. He suspects that many other people feel the same. They desire to be “overwhelmed by beauty,” yearn to be connected with nature in a way that preserves its treasures for the future.
These are the people that Winton pays homage to, because they understand the fragility both of the natural world and of life itself. They recognize the claims for stewardship made by society and the environment, and they “understand they live in a country where there are still things to be saved and treasured.” They, like Winton, realize the natural world is part of our story, and it is to be found equally in the “woman consoled and stirred by strange flowers” and in the “shining face of an old man” looking upon the landscape of his “ancestral country with a heart full to bursting.” There are signs of change: “By the 1990s the erudition, discipline, and strategic patience of advocacy groups meant that ideas once thought to be harmlessly eccentric were shaping the vernacular mood and framing public policy. And by the turn of the millennium the status of a river, reef or forest could determine the outcome of an election.”
Winton has written a brief (around 200 pages) yet stunning book, one that should be read as a powerful argument for taking on — with more aggression — the challenges posed by climate change. The Earth is “our home” — “our only home.” If we don’t do anything to save it, he insists, the fruits of our indifference will be tragically bitter. Island Home reminds us of a sobering fact: the natural environments that have shaped us are as fragile (and fleeting) as our memories of them. When we lose contact with nature’s elemental wonder (“the nub of things”) we will lose an essential part of ourselves.
Jon Bishop is a writer based in Wilmington, Massachusetts. His essays, fiction, poetry, and reviews have appeared in such publications as Boston Literary Magazine, Crux, and Ethika Politika.