fiction

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

'The land is a book, waiting to be read.'

Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland gives readers something that many novels don’t: a glimpse at the enormity of time, and the vast capacity for change across centuries of social and environmental disruption. It's a novel that has skyrocketed its way to the top of my 2017 favourites list, and is one that I will no doubt re-read in the near future. For it deserves re-reading – there is so much to miss on the first read, but one is invited into the story with such ease that I found it difficult to slow my pace.

Image: HarperCollins Australia

Image: HarperCollins Australia

Spanning hundreds of years, Storyland is a novel of time and environmental change. Set on the banks of Lake Illawarra in New South Wales under the eternal shadow of an immense and ancient fig tree, each chapter, or short story almost, explores the lives of a variety of characters and how each plays out in the presence of these surroundings. Some chapters depict epic adventure, others extreme violence, and one an innocent understanding of the world from the perspective of a child.

The ability of McKinnon to portray deep and relatable character development is a major highlight of this book. From Will Martin, the cabin boy accompanying George Bass and Matthew Flinders upon the Tom Thumb sailing boat in 1796, to Nada, the bodiless mind of a woman from 2033 being interrogated by future authorities for the Storyland project in 2717– there is a wide breadth of characters, each of whom interacts with the surrounding natural world in diverse ways. Despite the dystopian twist of the novel, the events of Storyland never appear far-fetched. In fact, they are savagely real. McKinnon's writing reveals bit by bit the diverse realities of each character, none of which seem too unbelievable, despite the often unusual circumstances. 

Although the book skips over many years from chapter to chapter, the rate of environmental change due to human overdevelopment and climate change is still frightening. An incredibly short period of time in the wider scheme of things, a lapse of 100 years sees European settlers move in and violently take advantage of the local Indigenous peoples, with one ex-convict resorting to an act of extreme violence. Later, the gruesome murder of a teenager in 1900, her body shockingly discovered in the local creek. Then, the lively adventures of three young children on Lake Illawara in 1998, told through the honest and naive perspective of Bel. And finally, the chaos of a civilisation on the verge of breakdown, as rising sea waters decimate the homes of those living near the coast.

To the east, Port Kembla - that in my childhood had been a place of fire-blowing smokestacks - Port Kembla is gone and between where it once was and where I now stand there is only water.

The novel’s structure of multiple stories taking place generations apart is definitely not a new concept. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas springs to mind, and the similarities between that epic cross-country, cross-century novel and McKinnon’s work are obvious. However, McKinnon makes the format her own in Storyland and it’s refreshing to read such a novel written in an Australian context, with strong environmental themes. I was not surprised to learn of McKinnon's background as a playwright, as each chapter of the novel seems to function as a different 'act', with haunting scenery and reflective monologues throughout.

The stunning Lake Illawarra in New South Wales is the setting for each chapter of the novel.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

The stunning Lake Illawarra in New South Wales is the setting for each chapter of the novel. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Storyland vividly portrays the relationships between Indigenous Australians, European Australians, and the landscapes that they inhabit. The title itself implies the importance of promoting the stories of Australian landscapes and people – how do we connect to the land, why should we care about it, and how does it change around us and, in many cases, because of us? McKinnon seems to consistently implore the reader to connect with the natural world and their fellow human: a suggestion that who we are is so strongly linked to where we come from and where we grow up. The intense storylines throughout the novel are more than just great fiction – they are raw, real and confronting in their exploration of humankind's inescapable connection to the natural landscapes we call home.

One group names the town for the land that is strong and solid behind it, the other names it for the water that lies before it or above it. As if one looks at how boundaries are marked, and the other at how they might merge.

The richness of the characters and the thrill of finding that their story isn’t over when their initial chapters end (for fans of Cloud Atlas, you’ll know what I mean) make Storyland an unusual, vibrant Australian novel that I believe deserves much more praise, from both critics and readers. If you want, or need, a push in the right direction when it comes to appreciating just how dire the effects of climate change could be, or you simply want to comprehend the often inexplicable sublimity of Australia’s natural landscapes, then this novel is a must-read. It is a piece of fiction that has made me realise just how much of Australia I have left to see. There are so many lives being lived, and that have been lived, across so many different landscapes, giving each area its own unique history within a longer history of Indigenous habitation, and an even longer history still of evolutionary and geological time. It gives me hope that as Australians, we can learn from the past, prepare for the future, and set aside time to reach out to nature in the process. 

Storyland is published by HarperCollins Australia and can be purchased at Readings.


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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 Liam Pozz on Unsplash

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

Let The Concert Begin

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa.

Clive and Joan prepare for an evening under the stars in Kings Domain. Racing along the freeway towards the city at peak hour, they gradually approach their destination: the first of a series of summer concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. On the opposite side of the median strip, queues of cars crawl out of the city at a snail’s pace. Clive and Joan share feelings of empathy for commuters trying to make their way home.

The couple reaches their destination and Clive is relieved to find a parking space beside the Royal Botanic Gardens. From there, it’s a short walk to the Bowl. He and Joan empty the boot of their paraphernalia. Joan carries a bag with the thermos, two cups and some nibbles. Clive carries the small esky filled with cold drinks and tucks the picnic rug under his arm. They wear their rain jackets. After all, this is Melbourne and threatening clouds hang in the sky – best to be safe on an evening like this.

Joggers on the Tan.  Image: Bruna Costa

Joggers on the Tan. Image: Bruna Costa

Clive and Joan hurry towards the Yarra River and turn left into the Tan along Alexandra Avenue. Small groups of two or three people, also carrying their picnic bits and pieces, stroll along in the same direction.

Joggers, wired up and clad in lycra shorts, race along the Tan going the opposite way to the couple. With brows covered in beads of sweat, the fitness fanatics pant in rhythm to their running feet in pursuit of an entirely different agenda for their evening.

Clive walks briskly. He wants to claim a spot on the hilltop, directly in front of centre stage. But Joan lags behind. She dallies, blissfully embracing the richness of the ambiance surrounding her. Like the Yarra. She likens it to a moat framing the south side of the city. It not only reflects the skyscrapers on its rippling water, but also the tranquility that comes at the end of a hectic day.

Oaks, elms and plane trees - their branches intertwine to form an archway over the road and the path on which drivers and pedestrians commute, offering dappling shade and oxygenated air throughout the day.

A sequence of succulents in shades of bottle green, light green, grey-green and silvery green, with a smattering of deep burgundy, line this section of the Tan. Joan marvels at their glossy colours and contrasting shapes. Round leaves, narrow leaves, and some thorny leaves, all line up in front of the wrought iron fence. The plants reach out, trying to connect with the passing parade.

In her absent-mindedness, Joan extends the gap between her and Clive. She needs to catch up to him and alternates her jogging with brisk walking until she’s by his side. Gasping for breath, she questions why he has to walk so fast.                       

‘We’re almost there! Can’t we slow down now?’  

Overflowing succulents on the path to the Music Bowl.  Image: Bruna Costa

Overflowing succulents on the path to the Music Bowl. Image: Bruna Costa

But Clive is on a mission, visualising his preferred spot on the lawn at the venue. They turn off the Tan onto the pathway into Kings Domain and cut across the grass to save time.

‘We have to reach the gates of the Music Bowl before the queues get too long,’ says Clive, dashing ahead as he speaks. 

But once again, Joan is mesmerised by the flowering shrubs that border the lawns, their lush foliage, wet and shiny from an earlier rainfall. After enduring weeks of hot, dry weather, the revived garden emanates a rich, earthy aroma. It rouses childhood memories of mushroom-picking days on foggy mornings in Werribee, where mushrooms that sprouted beside cow pats on fertile fields emitted that scent of fresh fungi. She glances down at the damp lawn, not looking for mushrooms, but instead noticing that the wet blades of grass have left dark smudges on her leather shoes.

Unperturbed, Joan walks on beneath tall trees, some hundreds of years old. She marvels at the array of trunks in various girths and contrasting textures. She gazes in wonder at the mighty magnolia, at its trunk and exposed roots. She slows, and admires their snake-like forms, curving and slithering beneath the grassy surface, anchoring the towering trunk to the ground.

She recalls the words of the famous artist, Sir Hans Heysen, who once said that trees were much like humans, each one bearing its own uniqueness. Joan had never looked at trees with such fascination before reading the artist’s sentiment. She thought Heysen an admirable artist who recognised the beauty and individualism of these stately natural monuments. She had read how he spent hours observing the trunks of eucalyptus trees at various stages of the day; how he recorded the hues and shifting shadows that played on a tree trunk as the sun altered its position in the sky; how he captured those colour variances in his artwork. Joan pictures the artist, seated away from his chosen tree, applying bold strokes to his canvas to create his masterpiece.

Impressive eucalypts dominate the lawns of Kings Domain.  Image: Bruna Costa

Impressive eucalypts dominate the lawns of Kings Domain. Image: Bruna Costa

Again, she hurries through the park to catch up to Clive who has arrived at the gates of the Bowl’s entrance. She lines up beside him. They wait to be counted and for their bags to be checked, a necessary routine.

Already, the crowd is larger than they expected. Although rain threatens to spoil the evening, free concerts are becoming more popular. The couple makes their way through the crowd, reaching the top of the hill to find a patch of grass big enough for their rug. Making themselves comfortable, Clive adjusts his hat. Joan checks her watch. There’s plenty of time before the concert begins so she takes her binoculars and casually spies on the multitude to see if anyone she knows is out there. The nibbles, the dip, the water bottles can wait.

The sun slowly drifts towards the west, smudging the amassing clouds with shades of purple and orange. One by one, the musicians clad in black cross the stage and take their seat. They tinker with their instruments. A cacophony of discord arises from beneath the canopy of the Bowl as the fine tuning begins. Spectators continue to file in, meeting and greeting friends, squeezing into dwindling spaces on the lawn. 

People continue their friendly chatter while the presenter thanks the sponsors for making these concerts possible. Joan mumbles to Clive about how rude some people can be. Then the presenter proudly introduces the conductor who is of international calibre. He marches onto the stage. The spectators applaud. He bows to the audience, turns to face the orchestra and raises his baton. A hushed silence descends over the crowd. The musicians are poised, ready to strike, strum, or blow their instruments.

In the distance, lightning slashes across the sky. Thunder rumbles through a dark grey cloud mass. The audience gasps - but the clouds are too distant to dampen the enthusiasm of spectators and conductor. He turns to face the crowd and their applause is encouraging. Like Clive and Joan, most have come prepared with umbrellas and rain jackets. A spot of Melbourne rain won’t last and definitely will not deter the audience. They sit back and wait for the conductor to lead the orchestra into the first piece of the evening.

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl is a spectacular location to spend a Melbourne evening.  Image: Tirin / Wikimedia Commons

The Sidney Myer Music Bowl is a spectacular location to spend a Melbourne evening. Image: Tirin / Wikimedia Commons

And so the concert begins.

By interval, lights from tall city buildings speckle the darkening sky. Clouds drifting overhead have dispersed, leaving a semblance of tatty cotton balls that temporarily conceal the stars. One by one, flying foxes take to the air and fly east, away from the setting sun.  

After the finale, the orchestra is rewarded with loud applause, cheers and whistles until they submit to an encore. Joan applauds enthusiastically after the finale. Clive collects their paraphernalia. The audience leaves satisfied, relaxed and reinvigorated with the fresh night air. The couple strolls back along the Tan, grateful to have been able to attend a pleasant evening in their beautiful city.


Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group. She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.