The Island Seen and Felt

Australia is a place with more land than people, more geography than architecture. But it is not and never has been empty. Few landscapes have been so deeply known.

Kimberley, Western Australia, aerial view
Kimberley, Western Australia. [Eugene Kaspersky]

I grew up on the world’s largest island. The bald fact slips from consciousness so easily I’m obliged to remind myself now and again. But in an age when a culture examines itself primarily through politics and ideology, perhaps my forgetting something so basic should come as no surprise. Our minds are often elsewhere. The material facts of life, the organic and concrete forces that fashion us, are overlooked as if they’re irrelevant or even mildly embarrassing. Our creaturely existence is registered, measured, discussed, and represented in increasingly abstract terms. Maybe this helps explain how someone like me, who should know better, can forget he’s an islander. Australia the place is constantly overshadowed by Australia the national idea, Australia the economic enterprise. There’s no denying the power of these conceits. I’ve been shaped by them. But they are hardly the only forces at work. I’m increasingly mindful of the degree to which geography, distance and weather have molded my sensory palate, my imagination and expectations. The island continent has not been mere background. Landscape has exerted a kind of force upon me that is every bit as geological as family. Like many Australians, I feel this tectonic grind — call it a familial ache — most keenly when abroad.

Landscape has exerted a kind of force upon me that is every bit as geological as family. Like many Australians, I feel this tectonic grind — call it a familial ache — most keenly when abroad.

Living in Europe in the 1980s I made the mistake of assuming that what separated me from citizens of the Old World was only language and history, as if I really was the mongrel European transplant of my formal education. But I hadn’t given my own geography sufficient credit. Neither, of course, had those who taught me. It wasn’t simply about what I’d read or not read — my physical response to new places unsettled me. It was as if my body were in rebellion. Outside the great cities and the charming villages of the Old World, I felt that all my wiring was scrambled. Where I had expected to appreciate the monuments and love the natural environment, the reality was entirely the reverse. The immense beauty of many buildings and streetscapes had an immediate and visceral impact, and yet in the natural world, where I am generally most comfortable, I was hesitant. While I was duly impressed by what I saw, I could never connect bodily and emotionally. Being from a flat, dry continent I looked forward to the prospect of soaring alps and thundering rivers, lush valleys and fertile plains, and yet when I actually beheld them I was puzzled by how muted my responses were. My largely Eurocentric education had prepared me for a sense of recognition I did not feel, and this was confounding. The paintings and poems about all these places still moved me, so I couldn’t understand the queer impatience that crept up when I saw them in real time and space. Weren’t these landforms and panoramas beautiful? Well, yes, of course they were, although a little bit of them seemed to go a long way. To someone from an austere landscape they often looked too cute; they were pretty, even saccharine. I had a nagging sensation that I wasn’t “getting it.”

Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Australia
Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. [Russell Charters]

In the first instance I struggled with scale. In Europe the dimensions of physical space seemed compressed. The looming vertical presence of mountains cut me off from the horizon. I’d not lived with that kind of spatial curtailment before. Even a city of skyscrapers is more porous than a snowcapped range. Alps form a solid barrier, an obstacle every bit as conceptual as visual and physical. Alpine bluffs and crags don’t just rear up, they lean outward, projecting their mass, and their solidity does not relent. For a West Australian like me, whose default setting is in diametric opposition, and for whom space is the impinging force, the effect is claustrophobic. I think I was constantly and instinctively searching for distances that were unavailable, measuring space and coming up short.

Many Aboriginal adjustments are so discreet they hardly register as impositions; in fact to the unschooled eye they are invisible.

The second and more significant thing to unsettle me was that every landform bore the inescapable mark of culture and technology. Of course even remotest Australia shows the signature of human activity — ancient fire regimes have shaped habitats and there are paintings and petroglyphs in places that seem at a glance to have been forever unpeopled — but many Aboriginal adjustments, amendments, and embellishments are so discreet they hardly register as impositions; in fact to the unschooled eye they are invisible. In Europe, however, the most dramatic and apparently solitary landscapes are unmistakably modified. Around every mountain pass and bend it seems there is another tunnel, a funicular, a fashionable resort or a rash of reflective signage.

It took a while to understand that the source of my mounting dismay was a simple lack of relief from my own kind. I had never encountered places so relentlessly denatured. Above the snowline there was always a circling helicopter, and beyond that a tracery of jet contrails attesting to the thousands travelling the skies at every moment of the day and night. Down in the valleys and along the impossibly fertile plains, nature was only visible through the overlaid embroidery of the people who’d brought it to heel. Whether I was in France, Ireland, Holland or the more rugged Greece, it seemed that every field, hedge and well was named, apportioned and accounted for. It was a vista of almost unrelieved enclosure and domestication. Those rare spaces not fully inhabited or exploited were unambiguously altered. Where once there’d been forests there were now only woods. Conservation reserves were more like sculpted parks than remnant, self-generated ecosystems. Even the northern sky looked colonized, its curdled atmosphere a constant and depressing reminder of human dominion. As a boy I’d viewed the sky as a clear and overwatching lens, but at my lowest homesick moments in Europe that same eye looked sick and occluded.

On bright days the light was slate-blue, pretty in a painterly sort of way, and heartening after such long periods of gloom, but it lacked the white-hot charge my body and spirit yearned for. I was calibrated differently to a European.

Halls Creek, Western Australia. [Michael Theis]

In a seedy cinema on the rue du Temple, watching Disney’s Peter Pan with my son, I found that although we were all gazing at the same screen in the flickering dark, I was seeing a different film to the rest of the audience. What seemed fantastical and exotic to the Parisian kids looked like home to me. I knew secret coves and hideyholes like those of the Lost Boys. I’d grown up in a world of rocky islands, boats, and obscuring bush. To my mind the only setting that was alien — even whimsical — was the cold, lonely nursery in the Darling family attic. The wild opportunity of Neverland with its freedom from adult surveillance was deeply, warmly familiar. Watching the movie for the umpteenth time and seeing it anew, forsaking story and focusing greedily on the backdrop, I understood what a complete stranger I was in that hemisphere. But acknowledging my strangeness made those years abroad easier to digest and enjoy.

When I was born in 1960 there was about a square kilometer for every person on the island continent. Fifty-five years later the population has doubled, but density is still exceptionally low. Despite a peopled history of sixty thousand years, Australia remains a place with more land than people, more geography than architecture. But it is not and never has been empty. Since people first walked out of Africa and made their way down to this old chunk of Gondwana when it was not yet so distant from Asia and the rest of the world, it has been explored and inhabited, modified and mythologized, walked and sung. People were chanting and dancing and painting here tens and tens of thousand of years before the advent of the toga and the sandal. This is true antiquity. Few landscapes have been so deeply known. And fewer still have been so lightly inhabited.

Western Australia, aerial landscape
Western Australia. [Pete Hill]

People learnt to live differently here because circumstances were unique. Instead of four seasons there were five, sometimes six. Water was scarce. The soils were thin and infertile and the plants and animals were like nothing else on earth. Living here was a specialized affair. Australia is hatched and laced with ancient story and human experience, and yet there has always been a lot of space between these gossamer threads of culture. They are strong but so unifyingly taut as to be hard to distinguish, especially by those who go looking for signs of building or evidence of perennial habitation.

Distant but precious country was held by skeins of song and webs of ritual, so even country that was not physically occupied was never empty.

Those who became the Aboriginal peoples of this continent were almost always required to live nomadically. Their occupation of many regions was seasonal, even notional. Distant but precious country was held by skeins of song and webs of ritual, so even country that was not physically occupied was never empty. Places were intimately known and culturally vital but culture rarely imposed itself in concrete terms. Artifacts and constructions were largely ephemeral and icons required seasonal refreshment. Just as a child was “conceived” by appearing as an image in a waterhole before a woman became pregnant, culture originated in and deferred to country.

Two centuries after this way of living was disrupted forever, Australia is still a place where there is more landscape than culture. Our island resists the levels of containment and permanent physical presence that prevail on most other continents. It probably always will.

I’m not saying Australia has no culture or that its cultural life is inconsiderable. But most Asian and European countries can be defined in human terms. Mention of India, China, Italy, France, or Germany will quickly bring to mind human actions and artifacts, but at first blush Australia connotes something non-human. Of course the genius of indigenous culture is unquestionable, but even this is overshadowed by the scale and insistence of the land that inspired it. Geography trumps all. Its logic underpins everything. And after centuries of European settlement it persists, for no post-invasion achievement, no city nor soaring monument can compete with the grandeur of the land. Don’t think this is a romantic notion. Everything we do in this country is still overborne and underwritten by the seething tumult of nature. An opera house, an iron bridge, a tinsel-topped tower — these are creative marvels, but as structures they look pretty feeble against the landscape in which they stand. Think of the brooding mass and everchanging face of Uluru. Will architects ever make stone live like this? Consider the bewildering scale and complexity of Purnululu, otherwise known as the Bungle Bungles. It’s like a cryptic megacity wrought by engineers on peyote. Humans are unlikely to ever manufacture anything as beautiful and intricate.

Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia
Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. [CameliaTWU]

Bungle Bungle Range, Purnululu National Park, Australia
Bungle Bungle Range, Purnululu National Park, Western Australia. [David]

Few visitors to these shores arrive seeking the built glories of our culture. Generally they’re here for wildness, to experience space in a way that’s unavailable, and sometimes unimaginable, in countries where there is more culture than landscape. I’m no self-hating utopian. And giving the natural world its due does not make you a misanthrope. I’ve spent my life in the pursuit and maintenance of culture. I’m in awe of the uncanny brilliance of humans. I love being in the great cities of the world. And it’s true — some buildings are gifts rather than impositions. But I am antipodean enough, and perhaps of sufficient age, to wonder now and then whether architecture is, in the end, what you console yourself with once wild landscape has been subsumed.

Space was my primary inheritance. I was formed by gaps, nurtured in the long pauses between people. I’m part of a thin and porous human culture through which the land slants in, seen or felt, at every angle: for each mechanical noise, five natural sounds; for every built structure a landform twice as large and twenty times as complex. And over it all, an impossibly open sky, dwarfing everything.

Space was my primary inheritance. I was formed by gaps, nurtured in the long pauses between people. I’m part of a thin and porous human culture through which the land slants in, seen or felt, at every angle.

In the semi-arid range country where I live these days the heavens draw you out, like a multidimensional horizon. For most of the year the arrival of a cloud is something of an event. Along the south coast where I spent my adolescence, the air boils with gothic clouds. There the sky’s commotion renders you so feverish your thoughts are closer to music than language. In the desert the night sky sucks at you, star by star, galaxy by galaxy, until you begin to feel you could fall out into it at any moment. In Australia the sky is not the safe enclosing canopy it appears to be elsewhere. It’s the scantiest membrane imaginable, barely sufficient as a barrier between earthbound creatures and eternity. Standing alone at dawn on the Nullarbor, or out on a saltpan the size of a small country, you feel a twinge of terror because the sky seems to go on forever. It has perilous depths and oceanic movements. In our hemisphere the sky stops you in your tracks, derails your thoughts, unmoors you from what you were doing before it got you by the collar. No wonder Australian painters, from the Kimberley’s Jarinyanu David Downs to Tasmania’s Philip Wolfhagen, continue to treat it as a worthy subject, despite the frustrations of some critics who expect them to move on to something a little more “sophisticated,” by which they mean untainted by the specifics of place. For some islanders the weight of particularity is too great to bear. They spurn the bounded isolation of Tasmania, Lord Howe, the Torres Strait or the so-called mainland and seek refuge in cosmopolitanism, and who could blame them? Australians have long felt this push and pull. Moated in by oceans, sharing no borders, they become curious, restless, oppressed by the relentless familiarity of their surroundings. When you’re on an island the grass will always be greener elsewhere because it can’t be glimpsed across the frontier. You’re mentally greening places that are oceans away. Islanders can’t help but conjure distant paradises for themselves. Australians are great travellers. You meet them as expatriates all over the world. Now and then you still encounter those of the old school who are touchy about self-exile, as if their countrymen disapprove of them the way they might have in the 1950s. The most defensive among them despise those who stayed home, and it’s instructive and quite moving to watch some return in late life to mend bridges, uncertain if it’s home that’s become more congenial or something in themselves that’s deepened with time.

Cape Range National Park, Western Australia. [node worx]

Karri trees in the Boranup Forest, Australia
Karri trees in the Boranup Forest, Western Australia. [node worx]

There is no denying the fact that there’s something physically relentless about Australia, but there’s also something hauntingly paradoxical, for to even the most reverent observer it sometimes feels as if this continent is more air than matter, more pause than movement, more space than time. The place is still itself. It continues to impose. It imprints itself upon the body, and in order to make sense of it the mind is constantly struggling to catch up. This is why, despite the postmodern and nearly post-physical age we live and work in, Australian writers and painters continue to obsess about landscape. It’s not that we are laggards. We are in a place where the material facts of life must still be contended with. There is so much more of it than us. We are forever battling to come to terms. The encounter between ourselves and the land is a live concern. Elsewhere this story is largely done and dusted, with nature in stumbling retreat, but here our life in nature remains an open question and how we answer it will define not just our culture and politics but our very survival.

To be a writer preoccupied with landscape is to accept a weird and constant tension between the indoors and the outdoors. I am so thin-skinned about weather and so eager for physical sensation I seem to spend a shameful amount of energy fretting and plotting escape, like a schoolboy. Sat near a window as a pupil, I was a dead loss. And I’m not much different now. I can’t even hang a painting in my workroom, for what else is a painting but a window? My thoughts are drawn outward; I’m entranced. Which is a romantic way of saying I’m mentally bogged to the boards. So a lot of the time I write in a blank cubicle, my back to the view. Which means I spend quite a bit of the day getting up to leave the room, to stand outside in the sunlight for a minute, sniffing the wind, looking at the sky. It’s like the compulsive adjusting of a valve. On occasion I feel better for having done so. The rest of the time I regret it. The grown-up in me concedes that at least I’ve had a taste of the day. But the kid within can only feel more keenly what he’s missed.

Despite the postmodern and nearly post-physical age we live and work in, Australian writers and painters continue to obsess about landscape. We are in a place where the material facts of life must still be contended with.

Now and then, of course, I just bolt. I pile a few chattels into the Land Cruiser and hit the road. I drive until sunset and then pull over in a different state of mind, or even another state of the Federation altogether. There’s often no purpose to these trips beyond the joy of being in the open, unrolling a swag in a creekbed or in a hollow between dunes, sitting by a fire and watching the stars come out like gooseflesh in the heavens. These headlong excursions begin as flights from enclosure and I know they sound like escapes, but to me they’re more like calls answered. Within moments of leaving, once I’ve achieved some momentum, it’s as if I’m subject to a homing impulse I barely understand. Lying under the night sky I feel a curious sense of return and restoration, not unlike the way I felt as a kid coming in the back door to the sudsy smell of the laundry and the parental mutter of the tub filling down the hall.

Still, going home is not always a cozy business. It can be harsh and bewildering. The places dearest to me can be really hard to reach. They’re austere, savage, unpredictable. And like taciturn cousins and leery in-laws they don’t always come out and say what they mean. They give you the stink-eye at breakfast and do what they can to make your stay uncomfortable. You arrive moody and distracted, unprepared for the complexity of the family dynamics, wrongfooted from the get-go. Not much of our country is lush or instantly congenial. The regions I know best are particularly challenging and my home range in the west can be hard work — it’s spiky, dry, irritating, even humiliating, and after some visits I often feel as spent and dismayed as any guest at a Christmas lunch, wondering why the hell I bothered. But homecomings are partly about submitting to the uncomfortably familiar, aren’t they? Like a hapless adult child, you go back for more, despite yourself, eternally trying to figure out the family puzzle. Even so you get sustenance, just from trying, by remaining open to the mystery, suspecting that if you give up on it you’ll be left with nothing.

This country leans in on you. It weighs down hard. Like family. To my way of thinking, it is family.

Windjana Gorge, Western Australia
Windjana Gorge, Western Australia. [sunphlo]

I have spent a lot of time watching Australians do this filial dance with landscape. Urban and prosperous as they are, living beyond the constraints of weather and nature in a way their forebears could never have imagined, many seek to engage in an almost ritual, if contradictory, preoccupation with the outdoors, spending a fortune each year on off-road vehicles, caravans, campers, and adventure equipment. Some of this is mere fetish, some is purely aspirational, but millions of people are still eager to be out hiking, climbing, camping, kayaking, fishing, surfing, sailing, or exploring the first chance they get. It’s not simply a matter of escaping the indoor servitude of working life. There is a palpable outward urge, a searching impulse, something embedded in our physical culture, our sensory make-up. It speaks of an implicit collective understanding that the land is still present at the corner of our eye, still out there, but also carried within, as a genetic connection. You don’t need to lurk in a camping store to pick up on this vernacular assumption. Half an hour at a suburban barbecue will suffice. You see it in people’s behavior as much as in what they utter. It’s down hard and deep like the taproot of a half-forgotten tree, and it shows no sign of withering away. For despite how cossetted and manicured and air-conditioned contemporary life has become, the land remains a tantalizing and watchful presence over our shoulder. We’ve imbibed it unwittingly; it’s in our bones like a sacramental ache. Waiting for us. Even if only as an impending absence. If such a yearning wasn’t real advertisers wouldn’t spend billions of dollars taunting us with it. Behold the glory of Kakadu, they tell us, the endless beaches of Fraser Island, the blood-red breakaways of Karijini, the darkling mysteries of the Tarkine, the miracle of Lake Eyre in flood. And here, of course, is the vehicle to get you there, the shoes to wear when you arrive, the drink you need to celebrate having made the effort. To sell something disposable they need to set it against something truly substantial and enduring. And in Australia what is more impressive than the land? Culturally, psychologically, it’s still the gold standard.

This is a place that eventually renders people strangers to their origins. It retains a real, ongoing power to bend people out of shape, to transform them.

No matter how we live, and what we think of ourselves, the sublimated facts of our physical situation are everpresent, and as moving water grinds stones into fresh and often unlikely shapes, the land presses in, forever wearing, pushing, honing. Most of the time we barely register the attrition. In a disembodied era of digital technology and franchise culture there are periods when even an Australian at home can feel he or she might be anyplace, or perhaps no place at all. But wildness soon intervenes to disabuse us. The pressure of geography reasserts itself palpably and unmistakably to remind us that, of course, we could only be here. On the island continent the specifics are weighty and implacable. For most of the twentieth century you could have argued that amongst peoples of developed nations this felt pressure — the presence of wildness — was a default experience unique to Australians. In the richer countries the elements became inconsequential. Feeling susceptible to the vagaries of weather was largely the lot of the poor in undeveloped places. But that was before climate change. Unpredictable and unseasonal weather has begun to erode that settled sense of immunity and now even the wealthier nations find themselves at the mercy of nature. In Europe and North America this recent vulnerability is a sudden reversal, but here it’s our vivid, steady state. Climate change has intensified what we’ve always felt. For generations at school we sang the praises of Australia’s beauty but also “her terror.” We always knew we were subject to the whims of the wide brown land, and as extremes of weather become more commonplace this underlying perception of exposure is unlikely to fade. Nowadays bushfires don’t just threaten the outskirts of timber towns, they infiltrate and ravage the suburbs of capital cities, panicking and paralyzing metropolitan populations. Flood events are no longer only the nightmare of rural riverside communities; in recent years Brisbane has been calamitously inundated. Other coastal capitals, like Perth, are so permanently drought-affected that without desalination plants they would no longer be viable settlements at all. Geography and weather have never been mere backdrop in this country, and given the obvious trends they won’t be slipping from consciousness any time soon. You only need stand on a mainland street corner in the business district and watch the desert dust fall like rain upon the gridlocked traffic to know it. Whatever else we’ve told ourselves, we are not yet out of nature and nature is not done with us.

William Bay National Park, Western Australia. [nodeworx]

Modern Australia has always been a permeable, contingent settlement and it remains so, for wherever Australians live, whether they’re regional or urban, indigenous or not, there it is, pulsing and looming at any moment, like a family memory. Even out in the shimmering distance where the horizon slips and crawls implausibly in the heat, the land twitches and ticks, forever threatening to foreground itself and take over the show. The island insists, it continues to confound, enchant and appal. It fizzes, groans, creaks and roars at the perpetual edge of consciousness. For indigenous Australians this apprehension is as deep and intimate as it is ancient. It’s the fruit of countless generations of experiences. For newer arrivals the feeling is fainter, inchoate, intermittent, even confused, but however tentative and vulnerable this sense of relatedness might be, it’s a sign of hope. In all its range of sensitivities and perceptions, our geographically thin skin is a boon to this culture. It’s good for the spirit, to be reminded as an individual or a community that there will always be something bigger, older, richer and more complex than ourselves to consider. Despite our shared successes, our mobility and adaptability, there remains an organic, material reality over which we have little control and for which we can claim no credit. To be mindful of that is to be properly awake and aware of our place.

Over great passages of time the land has always made people anew. Many of us are startled to learn how different we are from our immigrant and convict forebears, for this is a place that eventually renders people strangers to their origins. It retains a real, ongoing power to bend people out of shape, to transform them. It influences our habits and thoughts, our language, our sensory register. However stubbornly many of us might resist its influence, it moves us on somehow. In my own lifetime Australians have come to use the word “country” as Aborigines use it, to describe what my great-great-grandparents would surely have called territory. A familial, relational term has supplanted one more objectifying and acquisitive. Over generations colonial contempt slowly and fitfully made way for diffidence. This was supplanted by an affection tempered by ambivalence and uncertainty, and in recent decades there has been an emergent admiration and respect for the land we find ourselves in. Concepts of patriotism have also evolved. A patriot need no longer devote himself to an abstraction like the state. Now a patriot will be as likely to revere the web of ecosystems that make a society possible, and a true patriot is passionate about defending this — from threats within as much as without — as if the land were kith and kin. This is why we write about it. This is why we paint it. From love and wonder, irritation and fear, hope and despair; because, like family, it refuses to be incidental.

Editors’ Note

“The Island Seen and Felt” is excerpted from Tim Winton’s memoir, Island Home: A Landscape Memoirwhich will be published in the United States next month by Milkweed Editions. It appears here with the permission of the publisher.

Cite
Tim Winton, “The Island Seen and Felt,” Places Journal, March 2017. Accessed 22 Jun 2017. <>

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