Paying Respect / by Richard Lawless

Extract from the chapter 'Paying Respect', from Tim Winton's book 'Island Home'


"As a kid from a devout religious family I was always acutely aware of how skittish people could be about anything to do with the sacred. My neighbours and schoolmates did not exactly welcome expressions of spiritual devotion - that sort of thing made them very uncomfortable, even angry - and in this regard, despite two generations of multiculturalism, Australians haven't changed much. We're pretty good at maintaining a secular public space, and that's worth celebrating, but we're a bit tin eared about matters of religion and anxious about using terms like 'sacred'. This strikes me as a bit ironic, for we live on the most spiritually potent continent imaginable. But apart from family, the only thing sacred to most of us is our much vaunted 'way of life'. And what is that but an unspecified mixture of political, financial and spatial liberties enjoyed in sunshine at the island's margins?" 


"Not even the confected sanctification of of Anzac Day can rival it. But the recent recommissioning and deliberate sacralization of the Gallipoli myth is telling, because it suggests a spiritual vacuum, a palpable absence at our core, as if deep down, ordinary folks want to submit to something grand and sublime. But Anzac has been coarsened by the politics of Nostalgic regression. It's close to becoming the sort of nationalist death cult we revile when it appears in other places or under a different flag, and I fail to see how such a false sense of the sacred nourishes the individual or the community, because the only thing it sustains is the security of those who send our young men and women to new wars, some of which have proven every bit as pointless and wasteful as the bungled adventure in the Dardanelles in 1915. These are not easy things to say. Several members of my family were in the 1st AIF. My grandmother's brother died like a good Lighthorseman, watering the nags, shot dead by a Turkish airman. But I don't feel enlarged or enlightened by his death. When I hold his bloodstained wallet with respect and awe I don't get a sacramental, nationalisitic charge - all I feel is tragedy and blind waste. I think of a boy's life squandered for jingoistic nonsense. I think of his sister who mourned him for more than seventy years."


"While it's true that anything we really value will exact a price, that price has to be worth paying. And what's so precious I'd lay down my life for it? Not the Crown or the state, that's for sure. The first thing I think of as sacred is the bond between parent and child - then spouses and lovers, of course, friends and countrymen, for those are kinships that strengthen our connection to one another and enlarge our lives. To enter wholeheartedly into a relationship is to leave oneself open to being claimed, and held so in perpetuity. That's the power of love. And also its price. No wonder people are sometimes loath to commit. Most of us are better at claiming than being claimed, and when it comes to thinking about the land and home this is a hard lesson Australians have been learning since settlement."


"But after two centuries of demanding and seizing, many non-indigenous Australians have finally begun to commit. Out of reverence, from love, in a spirit of kinship to the place itself. This amounts to a recognition of our settler past and a moving on from what has been an abusive, one-sided relationship in which the island continent gave and we just took. It's a rejection of the retrospective tendency of invaders to mythologize their origins and minimize their outrages. For invasions are what they are and their consequences endure."


"None of us is responsible for the culture and social conditions we're born into. But that doesn't mean we're absolved from reflecting upon our inheritance. Neither does our good fortune give licence to mindlessly replicate the settler ethic of two centuries ago. In so many respects - matters of religion, politics, gender, education - the attitudes of my nineteenth-century forebears are archaic and alien. So much so that I struggle sometimes to feel related - if it were possible for us to meet we'd be utter strangers, mutually incomprehensible - yet by genes, history and collective memory we are related and I feel compelled to honour this. Past or present, family will continue to make claims upon me. What should have no claim on me is the colonial mindset bent toward annexation, enclosure, consolidation and jealous surveillance in defence of territorial gains. It breaks people and ruins places and it shackles the lives and imaginations of those who profit by it."


"For too long it has retarded Australians' social and spiritual progress; to this day many influential people in business and politics are firmly in its thrall. They dissociate our enviable life of casual prosperity from the natural world that sustains it. Despite what half a century of science has taught us, regardless of the kindred reciprocity many Australians now feel with the land of their birth, these decision makers are insufficiently mindful of the organic costs of how we live. And this is no longer a question of ignorance - they know full well what the situation is. Their refusal to change is an idealogical aversion. No matter how pragmatic they sound, in their dogged attachment to a spurious economy where endless growth and consumption have no real consequences, they display a devotion to magical thinking they seem to find contemptible in others. Theirs is a cult that does not encourage reflection, a faith built on looking forward at all times, a belief system unsettled by the backward glance, because to look back is to acknowledge a trail of destruction - to ecosystems, languages, cultures, entire peoples. Moreover a citizen prospering in the present may discover that most of the sacrifices that paid for this prosperity were made by countrymen and women who were never likely to share in the spoils. Looking inward is even more troubling, because lying in wait for the captain of industry and the political insider is the anxious prospect that he, too, might eventually be required to give something up."  


"In an uncompromising landscape like ours, a person suddenly confronted with their essential smallness will often panic, become angry, disoriented, afraid. Out of reflex they'll scramble back into the armoured shell of their pre-eminence: the airconditioned car, the helicopter, the skyscraper, the shopping mall. The quest for an open-minded engagement with nature is as challenging and uncertain for individuals as it is for corporations and communities. Ingrained habits of mind are tenacious and nature is elusive, enigmatic, at times resistant. It's possible some of us will never feel truly at home in Australian landscapes. There are newcomers arriving every day and sadly many of them will only ever know urban Australia, with its undistinguished architecture and its monotonous replication of the same commercial franchises - the Subways and 7-Elevens and H&R Blocks - that render so many cities of the world largely interchangeable, if not entirely placeless. Whether they're migrants or native-born, some Australians will always invest their affections in the state - Australia the Idea - for so much of contemporary life floats on abstractions and virtualities. But I meet young people all over Australia who are passionate and curious about this country and who do not hesitate to have it make claims upon them. They're enchanted by the place but readily concede how often it puzzles them. They're sheepish about how little they know, but then a continent like this is too big and rich and complex to be truly understood."


"No matter who you are it will always slip through your fingers to some extent. Sometimes I think it's sufficient to admit you're mystified, not just because it's an honest response, but because it's a suitably humble one. For all the empirical knowledge we've garnered, and the many generations of lived experience that resonate in our collective memory, this continent remains an enigma. It's been a haven for humans for millennia and yet it is not humanized as other continents are. Submitting to its scale, acknowledging its irrepressible particularities, listening for its cryptic music and seeking to learn its ways enriches us. We are in a relationship with the land and the conditions of any other relationship apply. My settler ancestors who fenced and farmed what appeared to be wilderness would probably have seen themselves as proprietors and guardians of places. Their relationship to the land was sternly parental. Australians of my generation, and those younger than me, might be more likely to consider themselves children of the island and this distinction is significant. If we've learnt anything about living in this country it's that we depend upon its health for our sustenance. But the land, like any parent, is large and strange and hard to read. And as the songman Neil Murray reminds us, it will always be there, awaiting our return. I think people everywhere yearn for connection, to be overwhelmed by beauty. Maybe, deep down, people need to feel proper scale. Perhaps in the face of grandeur we silently acknowledge our smallness, our bit-part in majesty. Our future is organic and material. This earth is our home, our only home. And if home and family aren't sacred, what else can be? The dirt beneath our feet is sacred. Every other consideration springs from this."

- Tim Winton, Island Home