Few people come to Australia looking for “the built glories of our culture”, he observes. “Space was my primary inheritance. I was formed by gaps, nurtured in the long pauses between people… For each mechanical noise, five natural sounds; for every built structure a landform twice as large and 20 times as complex. And over it all, an impossibly open sky, dwarfing everything.” And yet Australia is vulnerable, despite its size, and Winton’s central message is tub-thumpingly political.
When Winton grew up in the 1970s, “Australians were devoted uncritically to the conquest and mastery of nature”. He traces this legacy from the attitudes of the earliest settlers who left their “revulsion and dismay” preserved in place names (Useless Loop, Lake Disappointment) through to the fortunes quickly made through gold, wool, wheat and iron ore. By the 1940s non-indigenous Australians were impassioned enough to go off to war and fight for their home. But the plundering of natural resources was having a discernible effect on the land. Winton recalls swimming as a boy in “a shoal of salmon beneath a halo of diving birds”, noting that it was “hard for even the most dull-witted boy to ignore the inkling that you’re a small part of a larger process”. But by the 1990s, “wherever I swam in a mask and snorkel, I was seeing more and more of less and less”.
Recognition that the natural world has intrinsic value was learned in part from indigenous Australians, “whose pride in the wisdom of their own cultures and whose reverence for the country endured”, and in part from the “poets, songsters and nature mystics, bushwalkers, birdwatchers and enlightened farmers” for whom the land is primarily a source of wonder. Winton attributes his own awakening to the writer and documentary-maker Vincent Serventy. Today, it is Winton himself who is one of Australia’s strongest advocates for the environment.