Four Authors from Southern Australia, New Zealand, Colorado and New Mexico/ Texas on the Great Outdoors and their work
by Garry Disher
I still call it home, even though I haven’t lived there since I was seventeen. ‘I’m going home for Christmas,’ I tell my friends every year.
Perhaps home is where the heart is. In this case it’s the mid-north of South Australia, wheat and wool country three hours north of Adelaide and three hours south of the Flinders Ranges. Beautiful undulating farmland—if starkly beautiful under drought conditions. I grew up on a farm an hour’s school-bus ride from Burra, a pretty town that still shows the influence of the Cornish miners who worked the copper mines in the 1850s. Breaker Morant was partly filmed there, one of my cousins playing a Boer War cavalry extra; a cottage row bears my mother’s surname; I call the town ‘Redruth’ in the Hirsch novels, Bitter Wash Road and Peace (the latter to be published in Germany in 2020).
The region has always exerted a pull on my imagination. No research is needed: I can smell the wheat dust, hear the galahs, feel the stab of the star thistles, taste the minerally canvas flavour of waterbag water, see my father reaping the last row of wheat before we set out for our holiday fortnight beside the sea. Every few years I work it into another book. It’s in the children’s novel, The Bamboo Flute, Wyatt crops up there to steal a gas pipeline payroll in Paydirt; Inspector Challis visits when his father falls ill in Chain of Evidence.
I come home again in the recent Hirsch novels, Bitter Wash Road and Peace. Asking ‘What if…?’ is how many stories get written. What if I were to see the place through the eyes of an outsider who is obliged to live and work there? Hirsch is a city boy, busted down to uniform and banished to a small-town, one-officer police station in the outback. He needs to be as much social worker and community member as law-enforcer. And home, for Hirsch, is a circumscribed notion: the police station is the front room of a small house, his dwelling three cramped rooms at the back—when he’s not spending all day in his police Toyota. As he moves from ‘home’ to a crime scene or a witness’s kitchen, he’s trying to make sense of his surroundings along with the crimes he’s investigating. He’s no Inspector Rebus, intimately acquainted with Edinburgh, or V. I. Warshawski, at home in Chicago.
You need a character, a situation and a promise before you can write a work of fiction, said the Irish writer, Sean O’Faolain. You also need a place. Here is Hirsch, setting out on patrol in the novel, Peace:
Hirsch headed south south along the Barrier Highway. Window down, Emmylou Harris in the CD slot, a hard country lament that suited his mood—the isolation, the bushwhackery he sometimes encountered. Down the shallow valley, low dry hills on either side, greyish brown with the darker speckles of shadows or trees clinging to the stony soil. Stone ruins close to the road, distant farmhouse rooftops, a line of windfarm turbines along a nearby ridge—the settler years, the struggling present and the future, all in one. Halfway up a sloping hillside a motionless dust cloud. A vehicle on a dirt road? A wind eddy? It all seemed unknowable, a world poised for action but unable to proceed. Hirsch had been the Tiverton cop for one year now and was waiting for a mutual embrace, but the place kept him at arm’s length. If life was the search for a true home—a welcoming place, a constant lover or a mind at peace—then he was still looking.
East Texas coastal wetlands, USA
Modified excerpt from “The Bird Boys” by Lisa Sandlin
They wove around through a patch of slash pine that looked like a pencil plantation and on into the tangled piney woods. House tucked here, one there, back seats and flower pots on the porches, girl in one yard lolling in a tire swing. Round and round to a sharp right turn onto a gravel road the car crunched down. After a while screens sprang up both sides of the road: six-foot reeds bearing white flowers. Phelan rolled his window all the way down. The tall reeds blowing and brushing in the wet wind made the sound of cloth ripping. Moist wind again as they drove down this green, swaying tunnel to a ranger hut. No ranger. The wooden booth was empty but had a rack with saggy pamphlets you could take.
“Shows how the road goes,“ Delpha sai, her finger tracing, „this line. Lookit all the birds. They got a list of ones stop here.“ She ran her finger the length of the pamphlet. „Look at all the kinds of egrets. Great egrets, little egrets, middle-size egrets. Like Goldilocks in the bears‘ house, There’s even red one. And a Chinese one.“
They rolled on down the narrow, shell road, leaving behind, after a while, the reed walls. Grasses green and dried-tan, grasses with bayonet edges faced the full ditches that ran each side of the road. When the road rose, they could see past this dense border to curly green islands dotted throughout brownish water. Then the road descended again, even with the ditches. Birds were calling. Phelan slowed further.
“Turtle.” Delpha twisted to peer out her window. “Swimming over here. Dragonflies. Big brass ones.” She turned back to him, hair flying, her face alight.
His breath skipped. Hadn’t seen that expression since … when? Back in May, the evening he handed over the duplicate key to the offeice of Phelan Investigation. Or August, at the wake of an old woman she’d been hired to care for, when she’d helped load the Rosemont table wie pies, pralines, ham and barbecue, and lilies.
Up ahead a great egret coasted down to the ditchwater, back-flapping so he could land. „Wingspread of a B-52,“ Phelan said.
He turned from watching the huge white bird plunge its stick legs into the water to see that farther down the road seven or eight smaller egrets had self-assembled. Every one stared seriously into the wind, intent as remnants of a squad, scanning the field after the fight is over. Their staggered line, produced when each landed separately to join its fellows, their still attention, gave him this image. The egrets didn’t stir until the car came within ten feet of them, and then only reluctantly, a little one hopping into the air, the others flapping a short distance to the ditch, reclaiming their road after the car had passed.
Delpha whispered, “Lookathere.”
Visible, through the wild greenery, a long flat head and jaws, part of a mud-colored barrel on the mud bank. Ridged tail, short fat clawed legs camouflaged by ferns and reeds. Maybe hunting, maybe just hunkered there soothed in his mud-water world as the poor, unbounded air creatures cried above him.
„Ok,“ Phelan said quietly becaus ethis place made him quiet, „let’s have it.“
She turned away from the gator, back to Phelan. (…)
They looked at each other, the warm wind running through the car windows, bending and rustling the reeds. “Doesn’t matter if you don’t belong in this place,” Delpha said. “Nobody does. It belongs to them.“
She spread her arms wide, the left one grazing Phelan’s shoulder. The right one arced out the window, taking in the uneven line of egrets reading the wind behind them, the gator bellied in the reeds.
“Them They’d bite you if they had to. But not for fun.“
by Alan Carter
It’s the prologue from Doom Creek – the sequel to Marlborough Man, due out in Australia in 2020. Sneak preview.
A predator-free New Zealand? What a great idea. A Utopian vision requiring the kind of focus and resources you’d need to put a man back on the moon. Where there’s a will there’s a way – but is there the will? How many rats, stoats, weasels, possums, feral cats would need to die? How many stars are there in the sky? Still, all he can do is his little bit here in this slice of Eden once a week, regular as clockwork. Tramping deep into the native bush around Pelorus Bridge to check and reset the traps, do a body count, and try against the odds to save a tiny native long-tailed bat from extinction – even if it is the ugliest little bastard you ever saw.
Bob checks his map. Follow the pink ribbons and there should be a set of possum, rat, and stoat traps over to the right. He’s done this countless times but sometimes his old eyes and mind deceive him; Alzheimer’s or just a trick of the ever-changing light? God it’s beautiful in here. Yes, there’s the constant throb of tourist and other traffic across the bridge along with the more distant roar of chainsaws on the adjoining pine plantation over the hill. But close your ears, open your eyes and it’s a dappled Rivendell of vivid mosses and ancient rimu; another world. And it gets him out of the house, breathing some fresh air, staving off his dotage and the old worries that sometimes slink in under his defences.
Except the air isn’t so fresh. You can smell a garroted possum, a crushed rat or stoat from metres away. Something stinks today for sure. Ripe as. He can hear flies buzzing too. It must be a relatively fresh feast. Up ahead he sees a clearing, the tell-tale yellow of the wasp bait box on a black beech tree, the blue funnel of a possum trap. Nothing hanging from it. The smell must be in one of the wooden boxes, the rat and stoat traps maybe.
Bob stumbles. Foot caught in a gnarly vine, aggravating the tendons from that snap when he fell downstairs last year. Old bones refusing to fully heal, muscles and sinew stubbornly resisting the mend. His nostrils flare. Stoat or rat? That’s a big smell for such a wee creature. The wind rustles the leaves and ferns and a black humming cloud lifts and settles again on the far side of a totara tree. He realises he’s been holding his breath, not from the smell but from something more primal. Fear has crept under the skin and taken hold like the delicate fungi on dead bark. The emerald shimmer dims as cumulus covers the sun. Bob reaches the clearing, moss spongeing and twigs cracking under his hiking boots. He edges around the totara to get a better look.
The body is sitting propped against the tree as if just taking a rest; held in place by a rope around the neck and around the tree trunk. A deer. Female, he’s guessing, blanketed by flies and maggots. Liquids, dark and viscous have seeped out – the face and front are open to the world. Bob fights the urge to spew but it’s not like he hasn’t come across such a scene before.
A rustle and crunch behind him. Ferns lift and a figure steps through in backwoods gear. ‘You?’ Where there’s a will there really is a way. Of course there is. There always was and would be. Bob waves his hand sadly at the deer corpse. ‘Poor bugger’s come a cropper.’
‘Shame,’ says the visitor, nodding.
Count the seconds. A sob of anguish. ‘Oh, God.’ Then a sound somewhere between a thump and a cough. Barely enough to disturb the blowflies.
It’s all out there
by Benjamin Whitmer
I write about the American West, because I’m in love with the American West. The good and the bad, outlaw stories and genocide, regeneration through violence, the whole bag. And I love the mythology of the West well enough to know the ways it reaches out from the past to cripple us. And how much of it is counterfeit, deliberately created to justify the atrocities and confidence games on which the modern West was founded.
It’s something I find endlessly interesting, and it’s at the heart of my current project, which is a trilogy of Western company town novels. But the reality is that I’m writing these books because I want more time in the West. Up in the mountains, or on the high desert plains. I have this corny little used car that gets great gas mileage, and where I live I can drive three hours and be in some of the most beautiful country in the world. I can’t imagine setting a novel anywhere else. The act of driving, of walking, of poking around, it’s a huge part of my process of writing. For that matter, it’s a huge part of my process of being. When I can lose myself a little in driving or walking in the mountains, I do my best thinking. And I get a little weird if I go too long with getting away.
But, you know, you can’t get too far away. That’s part of the melancholy of the West. You can still get a little lost in Colorado in a way you can’t in Ohio, maybe, but it’s fading fast. It seems like for all we talk about freedom in this country, we don’t have much real interest in it. We’ll trade it away for the tiniest convenience. There’s a Walmart or a cell tower around every corner. And I’m as guilty as anybody. I get real nervous if I’m not connected, worried about what’ll happen if my kids need me.
Freedom’s a question in the West. I believe in it, I do, but the thing is that I’ve read enough about the history of the West to know the hell that people possessing unfettered freedom can inflict on others. The gold rushes and the massacres and the land grabs. Either way, it’s always on my mind, I guess. Just like the ways that our mythologies of violence impinge on our present. It’s all out there in the landscape, just like the landscape itself is a kind of question.