Finding Peace in Turbulent Waters

I've always loved the beach in winter. Fierce, rolling surf; stark winds that knock the breath out of you and shower a veil of saltwater over your face; a sense that these ocean waters have been there forever, oblivious to human life and death, yet existing to invigorate our sense of self and also to dispel it. Whether or not we feel a connection to the ocean, it remains.

But this is not unusual. Nature often complements the way we humans think and feel. Although still existing on its own, the natural world can mirror both the best and worst parts of ourselves, whether we want it to or not.

Karen Viggers’ The Stranding aptly demonstrates how fiction plays a part in revealing the intricate and sometimes fragile bond that we share with nature. Set on the coast of New South Wales in the small rural community of Merrigan, this novel is, at its heart, a love story, although not your typical one. Washed up and soon-to-be divorcee Lex Henderson arrives here from Sydney, having purchased a secluded old coastal house that looks out onto the tumbling ocean. A quiet new start is what Lex is hoping for, but it’s far from what he gets. Meeting the locals, he realises that his purchase of the house has sparked some unwanted interest in him, as it previously belonged to a long-standing local family. But Lex has a secret, and he revels in the seclusion of his new home as he attempts to come to terms with a past tragedy.

Image: Allen & Unwin

Image: Allen & Unwin

He unknowingly befriends a descendant of the family, Callista Bennett: an artist who resides deep in the nearby forest where she takes inspiration from local nature to create beautiful, thought-provoking paintings. From the beginning, Lex and Callista’s relationship is an explosive one, going from friends, to hesitant lovers, to something else much more complicated. It's not difficult to be frustrated by the lack of awareness between them, and the decisions they make to the detriment of their deeper connection. The story follows their experiences over the time Lex stays in Merrigan. From demonstrating the intricacies of rural town life, to depicting the very real struggles of love, marriage, family, and being human in a changing world, this book definitely covers a lot of bases.

Lex becomes increasingly obsessed with the whales seen migrating along the coast, from both an emotional and historical perspective. Poring over the dusty books left by the previous owners of his beachside home, Lex is angry to learn of the family’s past connection with whaling, and is confused by their current involvement in the local whale-watching industry. Simultaneously, Callista is battling her own inner demons. A family that she lacks a connection to, a past that she'd rather forget, and the struggles of a, well, struggling artist all make for the never-ending chaos that is her life.

Whilst raising issues of whaling and environmental protection, the novel is by no means didactic. It instead explores both the restorative and thought-provoking power of nature; how it brings people together, but also pushes them apart. Lex’s choice to come to Merrigan and experience the surrounding natural wonders speaks volumes about the emotional impact of the environment. His escape from the city, whilst also an escape from his job, ex-partner, and secret tragedy, represents his willingness and need to be immersed in nature in order to heal. Not a new idea by any means, but one beautifully depicted through Viggers’ writing. Nevertheless, she doesn't paint eastern Australia’s unforgiving coastline as a perfect world. Rather, natural landscapes are portrayed as rugged, complex, frightening, and at times very dangerous. If anything, though, this enhances their power to restore the emotional wellbeing of Lex and Callista as individuals, whilst complicating their already fraught relationship.

As the two are still attempting to navigate the troubled waters of each other's lives, a whale is beached in Merrigan, sparking the most climactic chapters of the novel. The panic that ensues raises some surprising ethical questions. Should we rescue or euthanise stranded whales? Is whaling ever an acceptable practice to participate in? What part does the media play in animal rescues? The event also introduces the very clear message that both Lex and Callista are also stranded, each experiencing intense feelings of isolation, even in the company of those who love them. The book is just as much about Lex and Callista's emotional stranding as it is about the beaching of the whale.

Viggers' work suggests that ocean waters can be both restorative and destructive.  Image:  Iqbal Muakhid  /  Unsplash

Viggers' work suggests that ocean waters can be both restorative and destructive. Image: Iqbal Muakhid / Unsplash

But it's the way Viggers describes the natural surroundings of Merrigan that made this book a memorable read for me. There are passages that explore the fierceness of the sea ('The sea battered at the sand like a great foaming beast and hunks of seaweed were strewn thickly all the way from the water's edge to the high tide mark.') and passages that reveal the calming qualities of ocean waters, and the overwhelming sense of both belonging and loneliness that they instill ('Looking out across the flickering sea he watched the swell rolling in... He felt his breathing slowing, deepening. The rhythm calmed him. The rhythmic emptiness of the endless sea.').

Perhaps what I liked best was how casually Viggers treats issues of nature and environmentalism within the wider fictional story. Not in a callous sense, no, but rather in a way that highlights the presence of nature without over-emphasising it. Otherwise, I feel, the work would have read more didactically. This strategy, whether intentional or not, also zeroes in on a question close to my heart - how do we bring nature to the fore of fiction without it seeming obvious, or overly purposeful?

Many readers read for enjoyment, and not for education, so including themes such as climate change and the human-animal relationship in a subtle, albeit significant way is an important technique that I believe more authors should employ. Human relationships equal human interest; finding a way to demonstrate the importance of nature whilst exploring what it means to be human could potentially encourage readers to come away from a book with more than just a good story. Can fiction result in deeper connections to nature? We can't definitively say just yet. What can be said, though, is that nature itself, both its restorative and its terrifying side, provides a means for some of us to look deeper into ourselves, understanding identity, relationships, and ecology just that little bit better.

You can purchase your copy of The Stranding from Readings. For more information on Karen Viggers' work, visit her website.

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Sho Hatakeyama / Unsplash

Cetacean sensation: killer whales in Port Phillip Bay

Yesterday Melbourne was set abuzz with the news of some rather exciting guests in Port Phillip Bay. A pod of Killer Whales (also known as orcas) was spotted travelling up the bay as far as Mornington & Mount Martha with several lucky Melbournians catching sight of the pod as it traveled by. Although their visit sparked a flurry of surprise and excitement from locals, orcas are not as uncommon to our waters as many might think.

Wild Melbourne spoke briefly with David Donnelly of the Australian Orca Database to find out more about these mysterious visitors. Dave tells us that while it is somewhat of a rarity for orcas to venture as far north in the bay as witnessed yesterday, orcas have been recorded on several occasions in the southern areas of the bay and areas just outside of Port Phillip Heads. Data compiled from the Australian Orca Database over the years suggests that orcas are not uncommon to areas such as Queenscliff, Phillip Island, and Wilsons Promontory. The latter two sites seem to be particularly popular, as they host large seal colonies for orcas to predate on.

Interestingly, the collected data suggests that around the Port Phillip area,  May to June and December to February are the peak periods for orca sightings. The reasons for these trends are largely unclear, although the movement between May to June seems to be at least in part due to prey activity, as the timing loosely correlates with the humpback whale migration and when young and naïve seal pups become independent from their mothers, thus making them easy prey. The December to February spike is again unclear, though many of the individuals sighted in Victorian waters at this time have been found to travel on to Tasmania or the Bonney Upwelling off Portland.

Killer whales frolicking in Port Phillip Bay off Sorrento Pier on Friday 4th December (Photo: Karl Bromelow)

Killer whales frolicking in Port Phillip Bay off Sorrento Pier on Friday 4th December (Photo: Karl Bromelow)

Finding the answers to these questions will not be easy. Orcas are renowned among marine biologists for being notoriously difficult to research. However, it is undeniable that understanding the migratory patterns of the world’s largest dolphins is an extremely exciting venture both here and abroad. What makes it even more exciting is that you and I can help with this research!

The difficult nature of orca research means that much of the data compiled by the Australian Orca Database comes from reported sightings and photos taken by everyday citizens that were lucky enough to encounter orcas by chance, much like those lucky few at Mount Martha yesterday. We strongly encourage you to send any photos or information you have from recent or future encounters with orcas to the Australian Orca Database using the links below.

Australian Orca Database Facebook Page

Oz Orcas

Fur seals like these ones are prime prey items for killer whales (Photo: Chris McCormack)

Fur seals like these ones are prime prey items for killer whales (Photo: Chris McCormack)

Of course, while we understand that an encounter with a pod of orcas can be an overwhelming experience, it is vital for the safety of these animals and the public that we follow the regulations set by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning of a minimum approach distance of 200 metres for boats and 300 metres for jetskis. For the most part, yesterday’s encounter was one of respect; unfortunately, however, there were a few boats seen harassing the pod.

Yesterday was another example of Melbourne’s marine marvels that exist right on our doorstep. Although finding orcas can be a tad tricky, with the water warming up for summer it is a great time to get out and explore the various underwater wonders of the bay that we’re lucky enough to call home.

Evatt Chirgwin

Evatt is an evolutionary ecologist whose research focuses on how natural populations can adapt to environmental change. He is currently undertaking his PhD at Monash University.

You can find him on Twitter @EvattChirgwin