I grew up on a property in northwest NSW. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I remember my grandmother, who had raised her sons on that piece of land, saying, ‘We use to have such gentle rain. None of these mad storms that we have now.’ This would have been 1990 or 1991. In primary school my brother and I did projects on the greenhouse effect, and I remember the publication date of the book we pored over: 1982. And yet here we are, 25 years later, still squabbling over climate change in Paris.
We live on one of the driest continents on earth, and climate change is already increasing the intensity of droughts and bushfires. Alice Robinson’s debut novel, Anchor Point, which spans from 1984 to 2018, reflects this.
After negotiating some confusion at the opening, which was crowded with people, I was pulled into the work by Robinson’s characters, particularly the protagonist, Laura. When her mother disappears, Laura and her sister are forced to help their father run the farm, which means permanent exhaustion. Laura’s father is a hard man, probably from necessity. When her sister, debilitated by hayfever, pleads for a break from fencing, his face is ‘horribly devoid of warmth’ and he refers to her as a ‘precious invalid’ (58). Vik escapes when she finishes school, but Laura, without ambition, adjusts to the hard life and works beside her father. I recognised in her the women I’d grown up around, so strong that when her estranged husband Luc returns and tries to hold her, she ‘yanked free. Too strong for a woman, she thought later’ (219). But only if you believe in censoring our lives along the line of gender.
As Laura works, she develops a deep love for the country. At one stage she follows in her sisters footsteps and tries to live in the city, with some access to the natural world through managing her husband’s nursery. However her longing to be back on the land eventually draws her away, even though it breaks her heart and she is later ‘maddened by the brutal sum of what she had lost’ (219).
Different attitudes to land management is one of the core themes of the work. Laura’s father clears all the trees on their property so they can run sheep. Laura, attentive to the changes this creates, ‘sensed the land growing quiet. There were fewer birds’ (52). When out walking with her Aboriginal friend Joseph, they pass a group of Aboriginal women, one of whom is laughing, ‘the mirth on her face … so absolute that Laura came to a stop. How long it had been since she’d seen a smile that big’ (53). After prodding Joseph, however, she finds that they are laughing at her father’s venture.
Soon enough, the country is no joke. After a bushfire comes a drought, one made relentless by climate change. The treeless land creates erosion: ‘Without roots to sew soil, the fabric of the earth had torn’ (180). The house becomes a raft ‘they clung to in the midst of a big, dead sea’ (178).
These threads are tied in a poignant moment in which Luc, Laura’s husband from the city, recognises a canoe tree next to the house on the farm. Earlier in the novel, Laura and Joseph had bonded over this tree, which Aborigines once used to make their canoes.
When Luc recognises the tree, Laura, rattled by its association with Joseph, snaps, “Where on earth would anyone canoe ‘round here?” to which Luc replies, “Didn’t you say something about a lake? … A dam?”
The dam had dried, and so did the river which took Laura’s mother. In the bushfires that razed the country, the tree had survived, but Laura muses, “What else had burned up?” (200).
The unspoken answer is the bond and knowledge Aboriginal people have for the land. At the end of the novel, Joseph asks to buy part of Laura’s land so his people can have access to it. The implication, I thought, was that he could only have the land once it was no longer useful to white people.
Professor Stephen Hopper, a former director of Kew Gardens now at the University of Western Australia, has written about how ‘attempts to shoehorn understanding into mainstream Northern Hemisphere thinking and world view remains the starting point for concepts of environmental management, only reluctantly giving way to a truly antipodean perspective when all else seems to fail.’ This is also apparent in Margaret Merilees’ novel The First Week, which opens with the protagonist contemplating the salt-ridden soil which has been returned to Noongars, the Indigenous people of south west Western Australia. We need, as Ellen van Neerven writes in her fantastic essay on climate change, a ‘multi-nation’ approach to climate, one that uses Indigenous knowledge instead of turning to it as a last resort. After all, as Alexis Wright writes in Carpentaria, ‘Can someone who did not grow up in a place that is sometimes under water, sometimes bone-dry, know when the trade winds blowing off the southern and northern hemispheres will merge in summer? Know the moment of climactic change better than they know themselves? (3).
Australia has been ranked third-last in terms of the climate change performance of 58 countries. With mostly white, male politicians setting the agenda in Paris and Australia, it makes me despair. We need to listen to the voices of Aboriginal people if we are to make any headway in staving off the more catastrophic effects of climate change.
Laura’s mention of what is lost through fire is a segue into the final section of the novel, set in 2018, in which Laura tries to redress her father’s damage to the land by replanting the trees. This was the saddest part of the book for me, probably because Laura, too, was sad. Her mother was a disappointment, and the land, for which Laura had given up her life and her relationship, never flourished with her father’s ill-suited European farming practices. Nor does she find romantic fulfilment with Joseph, who had adored her since they were young. ‘If only they had kept in touch, Laura thought, things might now be different. But what might have been seemed long gone, with the rain’ (247). Is this a metaphor for what’s happening with our environment, and with black and white relations in Australia?
This, and the ending, with bushfire closing in on Melbourne and Vik’s apartment block threatening to overheat like a greenhouse, is a warning that we must redress things now, before it’s too late. Politicians may not listen – Australia’s certainly don’t – but writers do, and they reflect the quiet hum of anxiety among us.
This is my 6th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.