A brief break in travel posts with a catch up on book posts, one book, in particular, I want to highlight and highly recommend, will get to that in a moment. I have not been doing regular updates on the nature reading challenge so thought it was high time I did something of an update on that as well. How has everyone’s reading been going?
In terms of nature-themed reading, I have read some pretty fantastic and diverse titles over the last few months including Olivia Laing’s To the River, Laing’s account of walking the entire length of the river Ouse, a river famous for it’s association with Virginia Woolf. Remember how Woolf died: She filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse. On the subject of walking, I also read Australian journalist Anthony Sharwood’s account of walking the Australian Alpine trail in From Snow to Ash where Sharwood captures the fragile alpine environment on a walk that was interrupted by our recent summer of fire, hence the title and the fires add a frisson to Sharwood’s account. I also read Katherine May’s Wintering, a meditation on the need to just retreat and re-charge and another collection of Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful essays, Sightlines.
A few books really stand out as exceptional so I will try and post on them in a bit more detail eventually, but for now, just list them off. Firstly I read David Quammen’s absolutely stellar account of zoonosis, Spillover, a really fantastic read, that looks at disease emerging from the animal world and infecting humans. Quammen looks critically at the ecology issues that have contributed to the rise of zoonosis and his book is an informative warning in a world where pandemics are an increasingly likely occurrence, to a large extent we only have ourselves to blame and our own poor environmental management. If you think covid is bad, read Spillover and be really afraid. The other really exceptional read was Fathoms: the world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs. Intellectual, philosophical, lyrical this is a stunning read reflecting on our engagement with the natural world in general and the whale in particular.
Now to the book I really want to talk about right now. Australian readers might remember the shocking shooting in 2014 of an environmental protection officer investigating illegal land clearing. I certainly remembered the incident as if it was yesterday, a disturbing and tragic incident that left a young family without a father and the whole country debating the rights and wrongs of land clearing and ownership rights. Kate Holden has bought out a gripping analysis of that event in The Winter Road. This is much more than a true-crime story, it is a detailed examination of the cultural roots of white Australia’s relationship with the land; our dark history, our philosophical/ideological attitudes to land, our unique ecosystem, and our complex issues with environmental protection laws. In a country with the highest mammal extinction rate in the world, a susceptibility to destructive drought and the eternal drive to empire building and profit at all cost with industrial farming, this is very much a book for our times. The Winter Road is compelling reading.
The Winter Road is a story about greed and ambition, it pits the greed of one man, Ian Turnbull against the need to protect endangered ecosystems, the very soil itself and iconic endangered species. There are few species more charismatic than koalas and the koala is probably the species most visibly impacted by land clearing. Koalas feature in this story. Turnbull and his sons, in the name of securing the family dynasty, had purchased several black soil, brigalow blocks around Moree with the intention of converting them into more profitable broad acre cropping, in order to do that those blocks had to be cleared. The problem was at the time it was illegal to clear threatened ecosystems supporting endangered species and these blocks contained some of the last tracts of ancient brigalow which supported rare plant and threatened animal species, including koalas. Essentially the Turnbull family would start clearing blocks without the necessary approvals, even before their purchase of the block had cleared. Turnbull was determined to make the family fortune on farming these potentially rich blocks and his attitude was to go ahead and clear and pay any fine incurred after the event. Profit and empire building at any cost seems to be what was driving Turnbull.
There has long been a dichotomy between the concept that the land is there to be exploited and the idea that we have a duty to protect the land for future generations. That division comes into stark contrast in The Winter Road. Sustainability versus profitability, the anthropocentric versus eco-centric (or ecological), the book exposes more than just those divisions, it exposes the inadequate enforcement of protections that leave those involved in compliance exposed to lethal risk, no less so than the koalas that inhabit some of the country in question. That is one of the key attitudes that Holden highlights, the idea that pests of all kinds are there to be removed; kill the pests and fertilise the land with their corpses is the age-old attitude in Australian rural development and anything that interferes with profitability is a pest. So when compliance officer Glen Turner starts investigating the Turnbull’s illegal land clearing he is rapidly elevated to the level of expendable pest in the mind of Ian Turnbull and that is what is at the heart of this epic tragedy that left two families devastated and a whole community traumatised.
The issue is an undeniably complicated one, and one that cuts to the very heart of our national identity. Many farmers operate from an ecological position, in fact, I would like to think most landholders operate in a responsible fashion, the Ian Turnbulls of this world are a minority and the whole farming community does not deserve to be tarred with the same brush so to speak. Holden treats the issue with compassion and desire for understanding for all sides of the argument, something I think as politically, socially and environmentally aware and responsible citizens we should all do. Currently, our federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act is under review and one of the issues that have been highlighted is the desperate need for independent oversight to identify environmental issues and oversee compliance whenever action needs to be taken. The lack of effective oversight and enforced compliance was undeniably a factor that lead to the execution of Glen Turner.
In the aftermath of the shooting, a culture war erupted in the Australian media with the conservative press taking the side of the disgruntled and entitled landowner, whose legal defence were trying to paint Turner as the villain who was harassing an honest and beleaguered farmer trying to do the best for his family. As Holden points out that was an extension of the culture wars that raged in recent history in Australia adding to bitter political and social divisions. I fear that those same issues and polarised divisions are continuing to impact on how Australia as a nation addresses environmental and climate issues which makes this remarkable, sensitive analysis timely and important.
Holden tells a great story, she sensitively captures the personalities involved and even more importantly holds a lens to the ideology and history that lead to that tragic event on an isolated country road. This is a brilliant book, beautifully written and crafted. A book I think every well informed Australian should read. It is not a comfortable story but it is compelling and it is a story that should haunt us.
I rushed out and purchased a copy of the book after hearing the Big Ideas podcast and interview with Kate Holden so I am including the link for anyone who may be interested, it is worth a listen and the book is certainly worth reading. Probably the best Australian book I have read in the last 12 months, much, much more than a true-crime story.