An unseen distance

One of Tim Winton’s most recent works, The Boy Behind the Curtain is an absolute gem that delves deep into the author’s past and reflects on his inner musings of life and the world around him. The collection of 22 stories, 16 of which have been previously published, is intimately woven together and draws upon the past to delightfully expose Winton’s innermost mind and the heartbeat of his childhood.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Winton’s past is filled with simple yet dynamic day-to-day events. Winton describes his experience of being the son of a policeman, what it was like growing up in the church, and an ever-growing passion for and relationship with the environment. The poignancy of the novel is not just in the description of his stories, but his ability to express how these events shaped the man he is today. The plethora of his unique life experiences takes us directly into the shoes of a schoolboy on a farm, a university undergraduate enrolled in the only creative writing school in Australia, a surfer, and an environmental activist. No matter the outcome of each story, Winton’s reflections focus on how his underlying views and beliefs shape his response to the situation. More often than not, Winton’s inextricable connection to the marine environment provides the lens through which he views the world - that is, a world that is so precious, so unique and yet delicate; that is worth all that we have to protect it from human exploitation. Given our strong marine connections at Wild Melbourne, it’s also where I spend most of my time exploring.

For any reader of Winton’s novels, his strong connection with and passion for the marine ecosystem is well known. Nothing is lost in this novel, either, when Winton ingeniously recreates feelings of life in between the land and the shore; the shoreline, the waves and what lies beneath. This is where Winton thrives.

The chapter titled ‘The Wait and Flow’ is just one example where the author delves into his love for surfing. To Winton’s surprise, he was asked one day why he surfed when most of the time it’s just bobbing in the cold ocean waiting for waves. Even as a surfer myself, I concede that’s a valid point! Winton responds, ‘And I didn’t know how to answer. Almost everyday of my life is shaped according to the weather, most acutely to swell, tide and wind direction. After surfing for over fifty years, you would expect I’d be able to give a better account of myself.’

Of course on later reflection, surfing for Winton is so much more than that and I certainly agree. The wave turns up ‘from the unseen distance’. If you manage to meet it, ‘you live for a short while in the eternal tense. The feeling is divine.’

Winton also explores the seemingly simple yet methodical sway of the tides. At first glance, there appears to be nothing particularly special about the incoming and subsequent outgoing tides that occur four times a day. Merely an empty beach with little signs of life present one day, then a beach full of life the next.

And yet it holds me captive, has me returning morning and evening, high tide and low, because it’s never the same place. It holds its secrets close.

He then challenges the idea of not ‘objectifying’ whatever is washed up on the beach. Instead of seeing the piece of bleached coral or the ragged seaweed holdfasts as objects just washed up on the shore, they are subjects each with a story to tell: ‘For the moment, the bleached head of coral that lies face-down in the rockpool is shelter to the deadly blue-ringed octopus, but before this it was home to half a million lives… a minuscule part of what it takes to keep the deeps alive and therefore all life on earth’. Furthermore, ‘To tread here and never pay tribute, to glance and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished.’ A subtle yet powerfully different way to view the world around us.

In  The Boy Behind the Curtain , Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches.  Image:  James Donaldson  on  Unsplash

In The Boy Behind the Curtain, Winton celebrates the life found in rockpools and the objects - or subjects - washed up in the often unappreciated intertidal zones of Australia's beaches. Image: James Donaldson on Unsplash

Finally, Winton explores and challenges the peculiar demonisation of sharks in Australia in the chapter ‘Demon Shark’. In general, Winton describes how it’s true that Australians tend to have a very positive and sympathetic attitude to the treatment of animals, ‘whether it’s a dog being beaten or a bear tortured for its bile, cruelty and thoughtless slaughter offend us.’ When it comes to sharks, however, it’s a different matter: ‘Other cultures have their wolves and bears… our demon is silent and it swims.’ Winton candidly explores the way that governments have managed the perception of sharks and openly criticises parts of the media for fear-mongering in order to sway public opinion; as Winton argues, ‘fear sells’.

This novel has it all, with a particular focus on the way life takes you in all directions, eventually shaping the person you are today. Readers will reach the end of the novel with a sense of how this particular man experiences life — metaphorically, philosophically. How he carries things; feels and makes sense of the world around him. This selection of short essays beautifully captures life in Australia and provokes a sense of inner searching that can only be done in the quietness of one’s room or reflecting in nature itself. It is a must-read for any Winton admirer or lover of the Australian environment.

The Boy Behind the Curtain is the third title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

You can also read our reviews of Winton's Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir and Island Home: A Landscape Memoir

Stephen McGain studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope of further contributing his knowledge and skills to the local community.

Banner image courtesy of Josh Withers on Unsplash.

Home is where the land is

When does a house become a home and when is a home more than just a place to live?

The feeling of home is an often intangible concept of where one feels inexplicably and intrinsically connected. We often refer to home as the house in which we live, where we grew up, or an area of attachment. While these are common associations, the sense of home means something different to everyone. In Island Home: A Landscape Memoir, Tim Winton explores how home is not just a house, the people or a city where one lives, but is rather developed through a deeper connection to the land itself.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Before delving any further though, I couldn’t help but ask myself, 'What does home actually mean to me?' Surprisingly, the first image that sprung to mind was a childhood memory of crawling around the backyard on all fours looking for bugs under rocks, climbing old, weathered trees and the scent of freshly cut grass eclipsing a twilight game of backyard cricket with the neighbours. To me, the immediate image of home was a mixture of both the people I lived with and the environment in which I grew up. Furthermore, home was an overwhelming sense of peace and contentment where I felt so assured of myself, that the outside world mattered very little. Even as you read this, the sense of what home means to you might become apparent.

Winton’s landscape memoir wondrously draws upon a host of different experiences and contemplations of how home is influenced firstly by childhood memories, but also formed and changed over time. Like many of us, the concept of home for Tim Winton has changed with age. Winton explores how he relished the idea of living overseas to work, yet when he finally arrived and lived there, it never felt like home: 'While I was duly impressed by what I saw, I could never connect bodily or emotionally.’

Interestingly, the feeling of home is most strongly experienced with an emotional attachment to a place of residence, even if we no longer live there. For example, Winton aptly summarises this by saying,

The ground feels firm beneath my feet. I don’t live there anymore, but it still feels like home.

For others, the connection of home may be something else entirely, such as the morning chorus of birds, endless days playing in the garden, family trips to the beach, a certain type of food cooked by parents, the pattering of little feet echoing through the corridors of the house, or falling asleep in front of a crackling fire.  For Winton, the feeling of home is felt through his inexplicable connection to the Australian landscape - the toing and froing of the tides, the Fremantle Doctor in the late afternoons, and the soil beneath his feet.

In the end, though, home is where the heart is and as Marcus Tullius Cicero said, ‘A home without books is like a body without a soul.’ Winton’s Island Home is a highly recommended read that not only the explores the concept of belonging, but allows us to gain an appreciation of the simple things that make up our everyday lives and the value of land in creating a sense of home.

Island Home: A Landscape Memoir is the second title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

To read our review of Tim Winton's Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir, see here.

Banner image of The Gap in Albany, WA is courtesy of Jan Hazevoet, CC BY 3.0,

The Spider

This is a guest article by Lindy Price.

Towards the end of spring a young spider built a web close to my back door. She had striking colours and two pairs of exceptionally long front legs, perhaps twice as long as her back ones. She hung in her web upside down with her legs divided into four pairs, the front ones stretching out and down from either side of her abdomen. These long forelegs were strong and agile, quite different from the others, and were clearly relied upon to perform most functions, including keeping herself firmly attached to her web.

She was of course an orb web spider, but not like any I had ever seen before. This one had a preference for being permanently on display in the centre of her web; never moving, day or night, rain, hail or shine; totally exposed, and much larger than the common orb web spiders that frequented my garden. Research identified her as a golden orb weaver, (Nephila spp.) characterised by its impressive size, a habit of pairing the legs two by two, and the golden thread of its web. A special spider, so the Australian Museum website informed me, and one that I was apparently very lucky to have. Luck was not my first feeling, but I was awestruck and fascinated, if only morbidly, and due to a serious case of arachnophobia, I was way too frightened to do anything other than hope she would go away.

She grew and grew over the spring and summer and by the time we were getting into early autumn she was enormous - perhaps fifteen or sixteen centimetres across. She visibly expanded with each meal, of which there were many in any given day. There was a steady supply of honey bees and the occasional pair of much treasured blue-banded bees, much to my alarm, given my perpetual efforts to encourage them to my garden. Pleading with her to give them up in favour of flies got me nowhere. Such an attitude I recognised as discriminatory - speciesism even, no better than any other form of discrimination - but with no influence to change the status quo, I had no choice but to accept it. Bees were a favourite staple of her diet - but she didn’t discriminate.

She became so big that I was sure I would easily have had a heart attack if she had ever fallen on me. I quickly learnt to check, to assure myself that she was firmly fixed in the middle of her web before stepping outside; and never, ever, to disturb the branches of the bushes to which her web was tethered as she was prone to violently shaking her web in protest - and, eek, threatening to drop.

By late summer she had matured and changed her appearance, growing a becoming high-rise, silver back like an over-cooked muffin, and a matching pillbox hat on her head. The underneath of her abdomen, by contrast, had some fine stripes in shades of yellow and black tastefully set off with a touch of maroon, although this was very hard to see unless getting uncomfortably close. I was sure that she had had a little of that same maroon detailing on her knees at one stage, but some of these early subtleties seemed to have been replaced with a more elegant palette of black and white, like the elongated figurine of an Edwardian lady; although it must be said that by then, any pretence at camouflage was completely gone. She stood out, stark against a cloudless blue sky. 

The golden orb weaver,  Nephila edulis .  Image: John Tann, Wikimedia Commons

The golden orb weaver, Nephila edulis. Image: John Tann, Wikimedia Commons

Her paired front legs were impressive; legs of which any spider, I imagined, would be rightfully proud. As long as my fingers and strikingly marked, they were hairless, shiny and narrow, with two large, knobby knees per leg, and long, black, pointed feet. With astounding agility she wound up the flies and bees into neat little packages, and ate them just as quickly as she could drag them back to her dining area in the centre of her web—and she moved across that web with lightning speed. Fastidiously tidy, she constantly mended any holes in her web, quickly removing the continual build-up of unwanted leaves and small twigs left by the wind; dexterously unhooking them with her narrow feet, then dropping them to the ground.

The web itself was a regal affair: the central disk was meticulously built with a formulaic precision in gossamer thin, parallel gold threads - visible only when glinting at an angle to the sun. The outer area of her web, in contrast, was an untidy mess of long silver threads. Hung higgledy-piggledy in every direction, this arrangement seemed to provide a safety net for the protection of the inner sanctum. At the outer corners it was anchored with thick ropes attached to the climbing rose on one side and the Manchurian pear on the other - strong enough to tether a cruise liner.

Maintaining her position, she hung in her web. Regardless of the heat and blazing sun, pouring rain or howling winds, she never left her post, mending any holes as needed each morning. In the centre of the web, the golden orb, she assembled a longish line of seed-like bits, reserves of small packaged insects for overcast and low food days, and a partial cross of zigzagged heavy gauge silk over which she positioned herself in a cross formation. It seemed to disguise her in some way, perhaps making her spider-ish shape less recognisable to potential predators, or, as another theory, reflecting ultraviolet light to attract insects and deter and confuse the birds. Whatever it was, it worked.

Living so close to my back door, we watched each other’s every move, coming and going, inside and outside the kitchen. We came to know each other quite well, or at least, it seemed, as far as the familiarity of our respective movements went. Each morning, first thing, I would go out to check if she was still there, say good morning and give her a wave. She watched, only her eyes moving.

As the summer passed and I could see just how big and scary she was becoming, I was astonished at myself, at my changing attitude. Spiders have long been the bane of my life; a life-long, fully fledged, hysterical phobia. However I would not by then, any more than in the past, have wanted her to come near me - or, perish the thought, to touch me. But her predictable habits made things easier and less threatening, and hence I felt no need to have her removed or rendered homeless. Certainly any potential guilt was assuaged, along with the avoidance of any need for considering cold-blooded murder. I was well known for my fear of spiders with family and friends and they would no doubt have been astounded.

The spider Lindy fell in love with.  Image: Lindy Price

The spider Lindy fell in love with. Image: Lindy Price

One morning I went out to say good morning to find she was in the process of shedding her skin. She had managed to remove most overnight (while the birds were asleep), but her long front legs were awkward and slow to peel. Vulnerable now in broad daylight, she kept a low profile by moving little and not drawing attention to herself; waiting for the cover of darkness to try again. Unfortunately, when I went out the following morning she had completed the task, but two of her legs were missing on one side. It may have been some sort of projection on my part but I swear she was suffering from shock and was in pain from what had happened. She did not move for several days and her high-rise abdomen visibly shrank from lack of food. I worried how, now severely disabled, she would survive. How could she catch her food, how could she wind the flies and bees up and drag them back to the centre of her web? She was lopsided and having difficulty even staying in the web. Every puff of wind threatened to dislodge her.

It seemed to take her about a week to recover enough to try to catch prey again, but indeed she did. Her efforts, from there, to my mind, were nothing short of miraculous - a marvel of ingenuity and will. Again I am reminded in no uncertain terms of how in our human arrogance we underestimate every other living thing. And from that time on, I fell in love. My heart was captured, spun in silver thread.

Her ragged discarded skin hung from the bottom of her web for a about week; her first priority with her limited agility: food. I watched. Slowly, lopsided, she limped across the web to a fly caught and struggling. She held it with one front leg, and wound it in web by enlisting one of her short back ones, her grasp of the web, all the time, precarious. Struggling, she then very slowly began to drag it back across the web, pulling herself along by her only other front leg in a crooked, lopsided movement, dragging the fly with an unaccustomed and newly enlisted middle one.

She never re-grew her legs or regained her prior mobility but she did not starve. She simply did her best with what she had. She continued to mend the large rents in her web caused by the wind, remove unwanted leaves, restore the line of seeds in her camouflage system and see off the occasional attacking wasp.

Golden orb weaver.  Image: Caitlin Selleck

Golden orb weaver. Image: Caitlin Selleck

I was aware that her lifespan would not extend beyond the last of the warm weather. That past autumn had been unusually long and hot but several recent very cold nights had taken their toll and soon after she went missing from her web. She never hid and I knew her absence was final. It was a sad morning and I would miss her.

Over the next week or so the empty web grew ragged and then disintegrated, finally disappearing; the tree turned red and gold and lost its leaves - the very leaves that she had chosen to support her beautiful web. And with a sense of the inevitability of life’s losses, but sustained by the gifts we had shared, I got on with planning my upcoming trip - and hoped upon hope that she had seen fit to deposit some eggs somewhere safe for the next generation.

Lindy Price is a Melbourne based botanical artist, portrait painter and writer with a life-long interest in fauna (although not especially spiders), flora and conservation.

Banner image courtesy of Michael Podger from Unsplash.

Living life in between

The veranda is an interval, a space, where life is improvised. The beach, in Australia, is the landscape equivalent of the veranda, a veranda at the edge of the continent.

This quote from Phillip Drew in Tim Winton’s book, Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir, accurately describes a life experienced by many who live near the coast.

Image: Penguin Random House

Image: Penguin Random House

Australians are inextricably linked to the coast. Over three quarters of our population live within 50km of the coastline and, considering the magnitude of our country, that says a lot about our lifestyle and desire to connect to the ocean.

When many Australians think of the coast, it is not unusual for multi-award winning author and environmentalist Tim Winton to come to mind. For anyone who has read his books, Winton draws upon and paints vivid pictures of Australian life in dynamic landscapes. His strong ties to the coastal landscape are particularly prominent, and in Land’s Edge, this is no exception.

Winton’s main focus is exploring life on the edge - that is, a life caught between the coast, the city, the Fremantle Doctor, and the ebbing and flowing of the tide. He explores how he has constantly been drawn towards the ocean, while also being torn away from it simultaneously. His reflections of childhood holidays at the beach, beachcombing, the sun, and the surf reveal an adult life, like so many of ours, that was immediately and so uniquely shaped by infanthood along the seashore.

During the early years, his appreciation of the ocean was innocent, as he explored rock pools and the initial wonders of the life-giving ocean. Later, it became a mature respect as he grasped with the raw power and authority the ocean commands. Through all of this, the longing for the coast became irreversible.

Winton also beautifully captures nature in its simplicity and how it influences a person. In Winton’s case, it was ‘outside in the mornings, in the water; the wind would drive him indoors in the afternoons, to books and reading. This ebb and flow became a way of life.'

From page one, I was so completely and utterly captivated that I couldn’t put the book down - so much so that I read the book in a day. This may have been because I feel equally connected to the ocean and its calming yet often raw and wild appeal. It may also have been because Winton so beautifully captures the wonder and awe one feels when experiencing a raging storm or the peacefulness of a calm body of water with the fresh smell of salt bouncing around in your nostrils. More likely than not, it is a combination of the two.

Ultimately, Winton's book is a must-read memoir in which an exploration of the Australian connection with the coast demonstrates the intensely shaping influence of an ‘in-between’ life.

Land's Edge: A Coastal Memoir is the first title in Winton's autobiographical trilogy. All three books in the series are available to purchase from Penguin Random House.

Stephen McGain

Stephen studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope to further contribute his knowledge and skills to the local community.

Banner image courtesy of Photo by Matthew Kane on Unsplash