Review: In Search of Space
In Search of Space, Journeys In Wild Places (2017)
In the introduction to In Search of Space, Ross Brownscombe points out that ‘nature writing’ which ‘explores the poetry and magic of wild places’ has not developed into a strong tradition in Australia. Compared to North America and the UK this is certainly correct, and true writers in this genre are few and far between. Some of the finest in the tradition here are probably authors of fiction rather than more conventional non-fiction ‘nature’ writers, people like Richard Flannigan and Tim Winton, who develop landscape as characters in the way they develop the humans in their stories.
There are, of course, a growing number of authors from indigenous traditions who speak about and for Country. I love the quote from David Mowaljarlai, repeated by Tim Winton in Island Home, who sees the world as ‘everything standing up alive. When I’m high on a mountain looking out over country, my life force (Unggurr) flows out from inside my body and I fall open with happiness’. Despite our shared love for land, their perspective is going to be different to an Anglo author. Whereas Country is peopled and storied for many Aboriginal and Islander people, us Australians of European linage often seek refuge in the ‘blank space’ that wild spaces represent. We go into them to find adventure and challenge, solitude, recreation, perspective, spiritual guidance and, sometimes all these things. Our relationship is profoundly different because we must create ‘something’ from what is essentially a blank canvas when it comes to culture. Trying to compare a book on nature writing by an Anglo man with an indigenous author in any meaningful way is beyond me in a short review so I won’t try, beyond noting that all Australia is indigenous land, even those places that we have declared ‘wild’ or ‘wilderness’, with the few exceptions of ‘orphan country’, land with no people left with connection to or responsibility for that place.
In this book, Ross seeks to add a stone to the small cairn of volumes that are truly based on exploring, understanding and celebrating this continent’s wild landscapes. In this he does a great job. His writing is very descriptive of specific landscape and terrain, which is a form of beauty to me. There is nothing generic about this book – each section steps straight from the landscape that inspired it. I felt like I was paddling rivers on the northern slopes of Alaska and sliding from tree to tree down the muddy slopes of the Ironbound Range in south west Tasmania. Ross has a great eye for detail without the need to embellish or draw comparisons. Just be present. Breathe. Look around and move through the land. Pay attention.
The book is a series of essays about different concepts or trips, and there are some great stories – multiple visits to the south west coast of TAS, thinking about how granite allows us to consider deep time, snow in places where it is an infrequent visitor. One of my favourites was the essay on rafting the Franklin River while reading Edward Abbey. Although I’m a mountain enthusiast and prefer my water frozen, both my trips down that river have been profound and wonderful experiences. Ross’ description of each day rekindled memories of the different stages of the river journey, going through the Great Ravine and out into the great lowland forests beyond. I first met Edward Abbey via his book Desert Solitaire, in a youth hostel in Anchorage, Alaska, on my first adventure to the great north when I was 20. Soon after, I headed north and west into the foothills of the Wrangell Mountains to work in a small town. Abbey’s pithy, beautiful and angry book about the arrival of industrial tourism to a wild high desert landscape that he loved deeply expanded my mind and perspectives. At that time I also discovered another huge influence on my life – the work of poet, writer, climber and Buddhist Gary Snyder. And later, when I was active with Earth First!, I shied away from his anthropomorphic tendencies and aligned more with the deep ecologist faction. But I kept sneaking back to his work, and especially to that first crystal-clear piece of literature, Solitaire, and its call for deep immersion in wild nature, matched with an equally strident call for action to defend these places. In the introduction, Edward said: ‘this is not a travel guide, but an elegy. A bloody rock. Throw it at something big and glassy’.
Abbey was first and foremost a ‘desert rat’ and yet his work still resonates in the narrow confines of a rainforest dominated landscape on the other side of the planet. The essay on Abbey in In Search of Space, plays in turn on Abbey’s book Down the River (with Henry Thoreau and other Friends). He learnt from his elders and, in turn, we learn from ours.
Abbey saw beauty in the land, even hostile, dry, temperamental high desert. SEEING the land was enough. He did not need deeper meaning or spiritual messages in nature. The surface of things was sufficient. In many ways he displayed a remarkable sense of enoughness in his life: this place, this desert, this world is sufficient. Abbey found his home: the high deserts of the South West of the USA and Ross has found his: the wilds of Tasmania, the sandstone country of the Blue Mountains, and his ‘spiritual home’ of northern Alaska.
His various trips down big rivers in Alaska evoke a world that is, in equal measures, powerful and on the cusp of disappearing. His ‘gift’, of taking his children on one of these journeys, is one of the greatest things a parent can offer.
Like Abbey, Ross’ work holds that deep sadness that everyone senses who lives in the 21st century and is paying attention to what is going on. Climate change, species and ecosystems in free fall, giant rubbish patches circling in the remotest oceans, miners digging the heart out of the Amazon and the Andes, and drilling the heart out of the Niger Delta, Siberia, the northern slopes. He quotes Peter Matthiessen, who says ‘it’s too late for nature writing’ and suggests that ‘place writing’ has now supplanted ‘nature writing’ partly because we are so urbanised. I don’t quite agree with this, and my bioregionalist tendencies tend to see any nature literacy as being inherently good and, potentially, a pathway that leads from urban wastelands into wilder and bigger places. But he is correct to say we are living in a time where wild nature is in rapid retreat before humanity. His musings on our collective guilt for this loss as he walks the south west coast of Tasmania and thinks about the Thylacine is a significant and poignant centre point of the book. He feels that the spirit of the land is missing because this key species is gone.
There is also a short essay about a trip to inland Australia called The Heart of the Country. Ross seems open to what the land might offer but comes away with the clear message that ‘It is not for me. A sandy wasteland where the heat comes down like iron.’ I almost feel I need to defend the desert, despite being an altitudinal bigot. While my spirit recoils from the initial idea of the arid country, there is no doubt that if you wait and look, the dry country has presence and a beauty of its own and hence provides a ‘handhold’ to grab onto to find your way into it. All land speaks and has its own mystique. He catches a glimpse of this, and wonders if the secrets of the desert are only revealed over years or generations. This is an intriguing idea. For me its easy to fall in love with high mountains, rock and ice, snow and the elemental life you find above treeline. But does the land fall in love with us? If so, maybe – sometimes – it takes time. Maybe different places move to different rhythms and react to us in different ways. I remember coming home from my first trip to Alaska. It was summer and there had been big fires. I drove east from Melbourne towards Baw Baw and in the foothills passed through mile after mile of burnt out forest. The land seemed naked, rocks and features showing that had always been hidden. Even without rain there was the first rush of green life – budding shoots from the eucalypts, bracken and tree ferns bursting in an almost insane blaze of vibrant colour against charred trunks and granitic soil. For the first time I felt the dizzy oldness of Australia/ Gondwana and glimpsed and felt something I had never experienced before. After being in the ‘fast’, big landscapes of the north, with their striking mountains, wide rivers, new soils and frantic growth in the short growing seasons, I realised that Australia spoke, but much more slowly than the great north. And for the first time I really felt like I was Home in this ancient landscape and that somehow, deep deep inside, the land acknowledged and greeted me.
As a middle aged, middle class white guy, I recognise that a lot of current and historical nature writing comes from people like me. Ross also fits this demographic. We need to encourage and support other voices. But this need does not take away from celebrating works like this.
People take culture with them wherever they move, be it diaspora living in distant cities or communities who live in still wild landscapes, like a herding community on the Mongolian steppe. Those of us who don’t have a landscape ethic in our dominant culture – like us Anglo Australians – need to try and create it in a way that is mindful and respectful of indigenous culture. That is a big part of our work here on this continent in the 21st century. Re-inhibitory lifestyles must understand Where they live, not just How they live. On a political level we must find a way to co-exist with wild nature, rather than endlessly encroaching on it.
But beyond the need to leave space for other species, there is the need to experience the wild on a personal level. I realise it’s a choice for us all, but I cannot comprehend a life without regular immersion in big landscapes. I agree with Abbey, who said ‘wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread’. I like the Buddhist tradition of ‘retreat and return’, of going out into the big wild, away from our devices and day to day distractions and into the real world where natural forces still define landscapes and we might catch a glimpse of the long cycles of nature, deep time and the co-creation between indigenous peoples and the land itself that helped craft the places we have come to love.
In this sense, people who write books after journeying to the Big Outside can become our elders who join us on the journey. As singer Timothy Hull puts it:
‘Let’s go walk out beyond the walls
across the land in the bright Fall
with the leaves fiery jewels
with Uncle Walt on the open road
Mary Oliver, dreaming soul
wonderful companions, bright and clear.’
In Search of Space is a worthy elder to join us on these journeys.
In Search of Space, Journeys in Wild Places (2017). Ross Brownscombe, Forever Wild Press. The book is available for $45 from the F WP website.