Reviews

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.

Finding the little things that make our city special

…the true treasure of the City of Melbourne, metropolitan Melbourne, and any other city across Australia and the world is its nature.

A good children’s book is often seen as one that can either inspire or educate. A better one will do both. Such is the case with The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!. Co-authored by Kate Cranney, Sarah Bekessy and Luis Mata, and published in partnership with the City of Melbourne, this exceptional book provides children with the opportunity to discover some of Melbourne’s most wonderful insects – some well-known and others less so – and will also inspire them to seek out the world of ‘little things’ that goes largely unnoticed.

Image: City of Melbourne

Image: City of Melbourne

Luis Mata describes how the inspiration to write the book came while conducting fieldwork with co-author, Kate Cranney, for the original The Little Things that Run the City project. While outside observing some of the incredible insects of Melbourne, both Kate and Luis were questioned by children and their parents passing by about what they were up to. He explains that ‘Kate and I really enjoyed the opportunity to take a break and explain to both the kids and their parents some of the fascinating things we we’re learning by observing the amazing insects that call the City of Melbourne home.’ It was these ‘…enthusiastic children and their supportive parents [who] were a true inspiration to develop the ideas that led to The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne!’.

Kate describes how '...kids love insects: spotting butterflies in the park, the sideways sway of a praying mantis, or a huddle of sawfly larvae, all rearing their heads. It’s no accident that Bugs Alive! is one of Museum Victoria's most popular exhibitions.' This is indeed something that can be easily forgotten by us adults - kids love discovering these little things in the garden or the local park, and are invigorated by the opportunity to learn more about them in an outdoor setting. 

In this special publication, Luis’ up-close photographs and Kate’s stunning illustrations provide a rare opportunity for readers to learn about and admire some of Melbourne’s wonderful insect life through both a photographer’s and illustrator’s lens. Moving from page to page, children will find themselves learning fantastic facts about the little things of our city. From the mesmerising hunting techniques of the Garden Praying Mantis and the ability of Long-tailed Sawfly larvae to turn leaves into skeletons, to the unassuming beauty of the Bush Cockroach and, my personal favourite, the sneaky breeding tactics of the alluring Checkered Cuckoo Bee, this book is packed with information that’s presented in an incredibly digestible format.

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey.  Image: Luis Mata

The Garden Praying Mantis is often a difficult species to spot, as they're generally camouflaged within their surroundings so as not to be seen by predators. This also enables them to sneak up on their own prey. Image: Luis Mata

The book has already been used by schools and children’s outdoor education groups like Leap into Nature, as detailed in a recent Wild Melbourne article by founder Christina Renowden. Kate tells me that ‘...kids are taking the book outdoors, into parks and gardens, and using it as a mini-field guide. We think that’s wonderful! Kids are using the book as part of ‘bug detective’ games – running about, trying to find the 30 insects in the book, and drawing other insects that they find. For Sarah, Luis and I, getting more kids into nature is a fantastic outcome!’

When I asked Luis if the book could also be enjoyed by adults, he assured me that they had ‘…planned the longer stories that go alongside Kate’s illustrations with both children and adults in mind.’ All three authors ‘…are thoroughly convinced that the amazing insects that live in Melbourne have something to say to everyone regardless of their age.’

But appreciating Melbourne’s insect biodiversity isn’t just about admiring their looks and behaviour. Luis explains how ‘insects are a fundamental component of nature in our cities’, especially when it comes to ecosystem services such as pollinating flowers and keeping plant pests at bay. Arguably, these insects are part of what makes Melbourne such an impressive city and allow both visitors and those that live here the chance to appreciate life on a smaller level.

I think Melburnians and Australians should consider themselves incredibly lucky to live amongst such a beautiful variety of amazing, unique insects. I’m particularly captivated by the rich connections that Indigenous people in Melbourne and Australia have with insects and other non-human animals – I treasure every Boon wurrung insect word that the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages provided for the book.

We often hear of children already being fascinated by the little things from a young age, such as the insects in their own backyards. This is an interest that sometimes seems to dissipate with age, and so a book like this will hopefully do wonders for those kids who want to retain that interest, or motivate those who are yet to develop it. Luis believes that as parents, it’s important to ‘keep providing… opportunities to remain in contact with nature and to keep highlighting the positive aspects of insects…’ throughout children’s lives. Adults are often guilty of dismissing native insects as nuisances, but it’s important to remember that for children, these animals can be the most fascinating part of enjoying the outdoors and that what we may see as pests are actually vital role-players in our local ecosystems.

This book is really the first of its kind and will hopefully result in other, similar children’s books with a focus not just on Australian wildlife in general, but local wildlife. As co-author Sarah Bekessy explains, we need to do more to make our Australian cities ‘unique’. Cities around the world are becoming more and more alike, and embracing local biodiversity ensures that we don’t lose what is special about Australian places.

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities.  Image: City of Melbourne

The book is already being used by children in school or during outdoor education activities. Image: City of Melbourne

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch.  Image: Sarah Bekessy

This unique book will hopefully allow both children and adults to engage with the insects around our city, enhancing the public's appreciation of the biodiversity that makes Melbourne special. Co-author Sarah Bekessy's son is pictured here dressed as a 'fluffy bum' (the nymph stage of the Passionvine Planthopper) at the book launch. Image: Sarah Bekessy

As demonstrated by the minuscule Melburnians described in this book, there is much to love about our insect biodiversity alone. Imagine the possibilities if we extended this to all groups of animals, plants, fungi and made it clear to both residents and visitors that these are what make our home extraordinary. Sarah hopes that readers see the book as ‘a beautiful, compelling piece of work’ and describes the feeling of readers declaring their excitement when spotting the illustrated insects with their own eyes. As she tells me, ‘it’s all stuff that you can actually see yourself’ – again, the idea of what’s local is ever-important.

Finally, I asked Luis whether he had a favourite insect featured in the book. For him, it was the Blue-banded Bee. The photograph used to illustrate this species in fact marks the moment when Luis first saw this unusual bee during the Melbourne Bioblitz in 2016. He tells me that he will ‘…never forget how exciting that moment was, seeing those extraordinary, beautiful blue bands contrasting sharply with the alternate black ones. And the agile, graceful way the bee flew from one flax-lily to the other – a truly amazing experience!’ This is hopefully a joy that more Melburnians will share after learning to recognise our city’s distinctive insects using this remarkable book.

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'.  Image: Luis Mata

Luis admits that his favourite insect featured in the book is the Blue-banded Bee, this photo marking the moment when he first saw the species in the wild. The book explains how this beautiful insect uses a head-banging technique called 'buzz pollination' to collect pollen, and that the Boon wurrung word for bees is 'murnalong'. Image: Luis Mata

You can download the eBook edition of The Little Things that Run the City - 30 amazing insects that live in Melbourne! at this link, or purchase a hard copy edition at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens gift shop or the Melbourne Museum gift shop


Rachel Fetherston - headshot.png

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 of a Brown Darkling Beetle courtesy of Luis Mata. 

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52468532

A small penguin in a big pond

Imagine you’re sitting on the beach, contemplating the sun merging with the horizon before disappearing with lingering traces of orange and pink in surrounding clouds. You can feel the light wind on your face, enjoy the smell of the ocean and the sound of the waves relentlessly crashing against the shore. While you’re lost in your thoughts, little creatures close to shore are focussed on getting ready for the challenge they face every night: making it back to their burrow in one piece. Snapping out of your contemplation, you notice the groups of penguins - called rafts - that are forming in the water in front of you to benefit from safety in numbers. As they get closer, you hear their squawking calls, which will get louder and louder as the penguins come back ashore. Finally, darkness is upon them and they are one step closer to being home, safe and sound in their burrows. One brave penguin decides it’s time to go, carefully navigates a wave, gets carried back to shore and lands there. Others soon follow and form small groups that will start their nightly procession and march – or rather waddle – back to their homes. This is the universe Ken Stepnell’s book will immerse you in, the universe of the world’s smallest penguin, without the need to get wet.

Image: New Holland Publishers

Image: New Holland Publishers

Stepnell uses simple language and well-chosen illustrations to depict the life of these ‘perfect swimming machines’ in his book entitled Little Penguins: Exploring the Life of the World’s Smallest Penguin. Little Penguins are the only penguin species that lives and breeds on the southern coast of Australia, and they are also found across New Zealand. In fact, in both of these places, they attract quite a lot of tourists, as these are the only locations in the world where Little Penguins can be observed on their way back to their burrow after an active day at sea. They display remarkable adaptations to exploit the marine environment, but also to get by on land. The book is packed with interesting facts about their lives, and will satisfy the curiosity of anyone who wants to know more about these ‘good little divers’ – literally the meaning of Eudyptula, the genus in which Little Penguins are classified.

Stepnell starts by introducing the penguin family, which comprises 17 to 20 species of sea-going birds, depending on the classification used. These birds live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere and have evolved to live in very harsh environments, such as Antarctica. In his first chapter, Stepnell describes general features shared by these atypical creatures – birds that do not fly! – before introducing Little Penguins. Ever wondered if penguins have knees? Read this book to find out! 

The African Penguin - one of the other 17 to 20 penguin species.  Image: Elodie Camprasse

The African Penguin - one of the other 17 to 20 penguin species. Image: Elodie Camprasse

In the second chapter ‘Vital statistics’, Stepnell elaborates on the unique adaptations Little Penguins have developed to cope with their environment. In this part, the reader learns that Little Penguins have glands above their eyes to concentrate the ingested salt that will then be excreted through the nostrils; that they have a third eyelid to keep their eyes clean; and that their very rigid and streamlined flippers are the reasons why they can ‘fly underwater’ so gracefully. On land, however, they use their sturdy feet and sharp claws to walk and climb.

The third chapter, ‘The lives of little penguins’, describes crucial activities for Little Penguins such as feeding, travelling and moulting. Ever wondered how and when Little Penguins catch their dinner? While you have it easy and can simply drive to the supermarket and pick up whatever you fancy, Little Penguins face the challenge of finding mobile food in the immensity of the ocean. Relying on results from scientific studies, Stepnell tells the reader how they go about doing just that.

The fourth chapter, ‘The mating game’, is dedicated to the way Little Penguins do what is one of the most important things animals are programmed to do: pass on their genes to the next generation. Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Here, the reader learns about how male penguins build burrows and stand outside them, calling in the hope of impressing the ladies; how many eggs a pair can lay and when; how penguins manage to keep their eggs warm; and how the chicks are fed. Want to know how often penguins divorce? You’ll find the answer in this chapter. 

Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young.  Image: New Holland Publishers

Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Image: New Holland Publishers

If you want to know how often penguins divorce, then this book is for you.  Image: New Holland Publishers

If you want to know how often penguins divorce, then this book is for you. Image: New Holland Publishers

‘Threats and conservation’ focuses on the causes of population declines, which include natural and introduced predators, disturbances by humans, climate change, and pollution, to name but a few. Even though Little Penguins are not globally threatened, some populations have clearly been declining.

If Little Penguins has made you want to experience the life of these creatures for yourself and observe them in their natural environment, then read the last chapter of the book to find out where to go. Although giving an exhaustive list of suitable locations would be rather lengthy and was not the purpose of the book, the reader will find out about the most significant viewing opportunities throughout Australia and New Zealand.

There are various locations in Australia and New Zealand where people can admire these fascinating birds in their natural habitat.  Image: New Holland Publishers

There are various locations in Australia and New Zealand where people can admire these fascinating birds in their natural habitat. Image: New Holland Publishers

As a researcher studying penguins, I was excited to review this book and learn new facts. I would have liked to read more details on some of the adaptations described, as well as more results from the scientific literature with more up-to-date information. Nevertheless, Stepnell’s succinct style makes this book suitable for both adults and kids who want to find out more about the world’s smallest penguin.     

Purchase your copy of Little Penguins from New Holland Publishers.


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Elodie Camprasse

Elodie came to Australia where she recently completed a PhD in seabird ecology at Deakin University, after studying marine biology in Europe. She is passionate about the natural world and its protection. She is also a dive instructor and Emergency Response Operator at Wildlife Victoria.

You can find her on Twitter at @ECamprasse.


Banner image courtesy of JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.