art

Landscape of conflict

I knew every nook and cranny of the tea trees along the dunes and every trail and bike track through the bush. I understood the weather patterns like they were part of me. The big westerlies that pushed up the swell, the southerlies that brought the chill up from Antarctica and, in summer, the northerlies that blew heat down off the inland.
— The Road to Winter, Mark Smith

It’s been years since a virus wiped out the majority of Australia’s population. In Angowrie, a fictional town on Victoria’s Surf Coast, teenager Finn has survived almost entirely alone, save for the company of his dog, Rowdy. With a hidden stash of supplies stockpiled from ‘before’ and a thorough knowledge of hunting and fishing, Finn has made it through two years of isolation. After the catastrophe of the loss of everyone he knows, he has finally got into the rhythm of survival.

But when a girl shows up on the beach one day, his world shifts again. Rose is a ‘Siley’ – an asylum seeker – on the run from the gang of Wilder men who’ve held her captive. She’s one of the few women untouched by the virus, along with her sister, but the two of them have become separated in the course of their escape. When Rose is incapacitated by an infected wound, Finn sets out to find her sister, Kas, and bring her back to Angowrie.

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

As for the wider situation, the reader knows only what Finn knows. On the cusp of adolescence at the time the virus strikes, Finn is aware only of the quarantine, the resulting chaos, and the personal tragedies that ultimately leave him alone in a ghost town. It’s hinted that the virus was somehow linked to global warming, which manifested in extreme weather and tidal changes, but the focus of the story is on the here and now: Finn’s struggle to navigate a once-familiar, sparsely populated landscape where some are simply trying to survive and others to take control.

The author’s love for his environment clings to every word of Mark Smith’s description. Though his prose is sparse, the details he calls attention to paint a vivid picture. Finn, his protagonist, is intimately familiar with the flora and weather patterns of the coastal town he has always called home. He notes the ways that the tides and seasons have changed in preceding years; he uses them to his advantage, and prepares meticulously for what’s coming, in order to keep going.

Yet what grounds Finn most of all is surfing. The passages in which Finn takes to the water have an almost meditative feel. This pastime, totally unrelated to survival, reminds Finn that he is human; and as a character, it is a powerful means of connection with the reader. A typical Aussie even in the face of adversity, Finn is called to return home throughout the series by the promise of good surf.

Every ten metres or so there is debris blocking our way. The bush is eerily quiet – the wind hardly stirs the leaves, as though everything is finding its breath again after the storms.

 

In the second book of the series Finn must travel away from home again, into the eponymous Wilder Country, where a gang of men holds sway over a rural inland region. In a world where fuel has become scarce to the point of nonexistence, all ground must be covered on foot, on horseback, or by bicycle – if you can find a horse or a bike. No journey feels insignificant when the cracked remains of main roads must be avoided and trails must be carved out through bushland. We see the changing landscape through Finn’s eyes as he moves away from the coast and up into the hills.

Both landscapes and seascapes play important roles in Finn's journey.  Image:    Jeremy Bishop  on  Unsplash

Both landscapes and seascapes play important roles in Finn's journey. Image: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The story moves so quickly it’s worth pausing for breath once in a while to soak up the imagery. In an author event at the Kyneton children’s bookstore Squishy Minnie, Smith mentioned that he’d cut much of the description down to the bare bones to suit a younger audience and quicken the pace, but in several places I found myself wishing I could read those unedited passages and see more of this world through Smith’s eyes.

It’s a vision of the near future that’s made all the more frightening by the ring of truth that all good dystopias hold: a tinge of familiarity and possibility, even when the story itself pushes those possibilities to the extreme. At this point in time the publication of the third book in the Winter trilogy is yet to be announced. It’s safe to say, however, that following the pattern of the series so far, we can expect this cast of tough young characters to face their greatest challenges yet in this feral Victorian landscape – and perhaps get a glimpse into the state of the wider world.

Purchase your copies of The Road to Winter and Wilder Country from Text Publishing.


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Alex Mullarky

Alex is a writer and National Geographic Explorer who combines her love of the environment, adventure and animals in her work. She has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Arts and is training as a veterinary nurse. She is Publications Sub-editor for Wild Melbourne and Remember the Wild.

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra


Banner image courtesy of Amy Mackay on Unsplash

Digger Country

the scars cannot be covered

eucalypts attempt their interment

through the years

their roots shifting soil – reclaiming broken bush

 

this was digger country

mostly Irish and Italians

come for gold

and punted to scrape

at these low-yielding hills

 

the ground reeks with memory

corpse-chimneys loom between the gums

and mumble about miners' rights

while myna birds nest within

 

tourist boards ascribe each dip in the landscape a name

Fight Gully, Italian Hill, Tubal Cain

Wilder than the wild west, one proclaims

with no recompense for times before

 

Be careful not to stray from the path

The area contains open shafts  

 

 

Enjoyed this poem? Read Lachlan's article on the GoldfieldsTrack here.


Lachlan Robertson is a writer living in Trentham, Victoria, with interests in ecocriticism, fantasy fiction, and poetry. Lachlan is a keen beekeeper, hiker, and horse rider.


Banner image courtesy of S.T. Gill, sourced from the State Library of Victoria.

Bewilderment

Grass stained knees and palms of dusty dirt,

Old brown boots and a tattered, torn shirt,

Over and under the rusted, barbed wire.

Young hoping heart would – nay, could – not tire

To go and see the wild.

 

Science, then, was opaque - strange. unknown;

Featherless, furless and dry as old bone.

“Biologist?” They said, “I was to be?”

“Not I”, I said. Lab coats wouldn’t help me,

To go and see the wild.

 

I’d rather tell stories of beak and claw,

Embody their merits and relate the awe 

Than reduce nature to a simple equation.

Such was my naïve, shrugging evasion,

To go and see the wild. 

 

My degree? It’s just a means to an end

I thought, yet my ignorance it did amend.

This thing – Science – was not callous or cold,

It would not stop me, as clichés had told,

To go and see the wild.

 

Feathers and fur, and yes – even dry bone,

Take on new life when new facts become known.

You can imagine my young mind’s surprise

When Science came knocking and opened my eyes.

And now - I see the wild.


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Chris McCormack
Chris graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master of Science in Zoology and has spent the past two years working for the Victorian government delivering citizen science projects. He is the Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication. 


Banner image courtesy of Robert Geary.

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