It was such a treat to read a book that lovingly describes Tim Winton’s unique home, “the world’s largest island,” as he has it. For me the best part is being reminded of the sense memories of my own childhood, though my Virginia countryside couldn’t be more different from Australia.
One topic he wrote about that resonates with me begins this way: “Like most kids, I didn’t imagine places had pasts. Even when I saw land forms and habitats gradually scraped away, I didn’t register the change for what it was. I didn’t understand how permanent the forfeits would be. Humans break in order to build. And of course loss is an inevitable part of making, creating, and surviving….” I grew up in rural Northern Virginia when the county seat had a courthouse and several feed stores. My family lived out in the county near a neighbor who spread chicken manure on the field each spring and where many houses were impossibly small. After I left for college in 1963 it began to change and over the decades the small houses disappeared or grew and roads acquired stripes down the middle. I was unaware when I was a teenager driving those roads how much I loved those contours of the hillsides off in the distance, the creek crossings, the wooded passages. It’s disconcerting to know that some of those roads are so changed as to be gone.
Another passage I especially liked is titled “Barefoot and Unhurried. When it comes to apprehending nature, kids have a significant advantage. I didn’t appreciate that until I could observe my own. Now I have grandkids to reinforce the lesson as they potter about barefoot and unhurried. You can see them taking the world in through their skin.” This one made me remember a moment I consider from time to time: my memory of being so young that I was rolling around in our yard under a hickory tree. It was the scent of the grass and dirt that was powerful enough to stay with me all these years and take me back to that happy moment.
He speaks about the open sky that dwarfs everything in his world.
In the semi-arid range country where I live these days the heavens draw you out like a multi-dimensional horizon. For most of the year the arrival of a cloud is something of an event. Along the south coast where I spent my adolescence the air boils with gothic clouds. There, the sky’s commotion renders you so feverish, your thoughts are closer to music than language. In the desert the night sky sucks at you, star by star, galaxy by galaxy, until you begin to feel you could fall out into it at any moment. In Australia the sky is not a safe enclosing canopy it appears to be elsewhere. It’s the scantiest membrane imaginable, barely sufficient as a barrier between earth-bound creatures and eternity. Standing alone at dawn on the Nullarbor [Plain] or out on a salt pan the size of a small country, you feel a twinge of terror because the sky seems to go on forever. It has perilous depths and oceanic movements.
Tim Winton, Island Home: A Landscape Memoir, Milkweed Editions, 2017 (first US edition), 241 pages. Available at the UVa library and from Amazon (I listened to the audiobook).