Into the Wider World: A Back Country Miscellany
Near the beginning of the seventh of the 34 essays in this book, the 16-year-old Brian Turner, full of teenage angst and contemplating suicide, is sitting in a parked car overlooking Dunedin’s St. Kilda beach. He’s gazing out at the fuming ocean and rehearsing in his head stanzas from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s 1960. “Solipsism thrived in me like gorse or broom,” he writes. “I was skinny, pimply. My hormones were feckless … .” At this moment, rather than ending it all, he turns on the car radio and instead listens to a review of Barry Crump’s just published A Good Keen Man. It might be stretching a point to say that the book saved his life, and Turner probably wouldn’t even if it were the case. What he did do was go out and buy a copy for his father’s birthday and then, a week or so later, borrow it back and read it for himself. Crump’s comic tour de force gave the troubled teenager a focus, a clue to identity, a voice with which to speak both troubles and joys. It gave him direction.
The essay, called “When men were good, at times”, begins with Crump but by its end, half a dozen pages later, is quoting William Gass from On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry – blue as “the most suitable colour for interior life”. If that seems a long reach, it is. Turner’s persona in these essays is laconic, self-deprecating, wry, and sometimes – he uses the word – curmudgeonly. But he is also capable of rhapsodic flights, usually with respect to the beauties of landscape and wildlife, the pleasures of being out amongst it and the affection he feels for the mates he goes fishing with. This persona, this voice, is intimately related to that of the Crump of A Good Keen Man and Hang on a Minute, Mate and the rest, but that doesn’t prevent Turner from exploring his sensitive side. It’s there anyway, on the page, in the 24 poems interspersed among the prose pieces. If Crump is the tutelary spirit that presides over the prose, Denis Glover is one of the inspirations behind the poetry: the Glover of Sings Harry and Arawata Bill. This cult of masculinity is not without its contradictions: brute sensitivity, sensitive brutes. There’s hardly a woman character in the book and those that do appear – mothers, wives, girlfriends – are almost always at home. (The one exception is the mysterious woman with whom Turner, on a visit to Florence, picnics beside the Arno; this is also the sole excursion outside of southern New Zealand.) But, as the Gass reference shows, Turner is widely read and refreshingly candid about his influences even when they are, as is perhaps the case with Glover and Crump, distinctly unfashionable.
Fashion, or not, is very much to the point. Turner aspires to, and articulates, a mode of living that he believes is under threat. The specific focus of his concern is the wild rivers of the country south from Timaru, which he has fished for trout since a young age and which were fished before him by others in his family and of his ilk. The threats to these rivers are manifold: run-off, particularly from dairy farms; the use of their waters for irrigation; their damming for the production of hydroelectricity; over-fishing, especially by outsiders (tourists from the northern hemisphere as much as corporates from North Island cities); and other human depredations that result in environmental degradation. Many of these pieces lament the loss of places that were functioning environments in Turner’s youth and are now ruined. He has seen enough destruction over the last 30 or 40 years to be seriously worried about the prospects for the next few decades and, beyond that, for all future generations.
Of particular concern, and the subject of the longest and one of the best essays in the book, “Wind wantons in the south”, is Meridian Energy’s plan to build a wind farm on the Lammermoor Range in Central Otago. Turner is one of those who have campaigned long and hard against this project and reading his essay clarified matters for me: I’ve always liked the look of wind farms and have often felt perplexed by vociferous opposition to them by people who you might expect to support renewable forms of energy generation. But I hadn’t really considered what kind of engineering and associated land disturbance it takes to build those graceful, sci-fi, white wind turbines, nor did I know of their alarmingly short life as generators, their intermittent utility and premature obsolescence. Beyond that, Meridian’s scheme, like so many these days, seems conceived not as the contribution to the public good it pretends to be but as a money-making venture for its investors. Turner hammers away at this point relentlessly in essay after essay: What is the public good? How do we define it? Who defines it? And, most of all, how can it be good to destroy a river or a mountain range or any stretch of country, for any reason whatsoever?
There’s some repetition in these arguments but maybe that’s necessary to get the point across. It is anyway a fairly repetitious collection: partly because it is made up of articles written over a period of 30 years and partly because, in a collection heavy on anecdotage, a certain amount of repetition is to be expected. Turner is amusing, and clearly amuses himself, with the familiar foibles of fisherman’s stories: their deliberate exaggeration, their reliance upon an audience of liars for their lies to work (or not), their willing embrace of a grandiosity of ambition and failure.
There are accounts of disastrous expeditions into remote places where filthy weather and the character flaws of blokes battling nature combine to make memoirs of exquisite misery. There’s boozing and yarning, à la Crumpie, but you also learn a fair bit about trout fishing. Some of the pieces were originally written for a specialist audience of anglers but are still intrinsically interesting enough to be read by anyone who enjoys good writing. Otherwise, there are entertaining essays on duck calling, bridges, dogs, a motorcycle convention and, among other things, his own feet. Turner has a fine ear for language, especially for verbs as craggy and obdurate as the landscapes he loves, and some of his innovations are superb: prebbling, for example. Or hercusing.
Yet the undersong of the book remains dark. Turner writes at one point:
If I have a preference it is for writing about fishing that is lyrical, reflective, ruminative, philosophical. Writing that’s insightful, and political, too, where it points to and discusses ways and means of repelling attacks on the health of the outdoor … .
He believes there is an ethical dimension to wilderness, that in the outdoors we can find, or restore, a balance between inner and outer worlds, between the soul’s needs and the body’s, between spirit and flesh, humans and nature; and he sees that wilderness in the process of being eaten up by greed. This is not the rhetoric you hear about New Zealand from a position outside of it, say on the east coast of the West Island. But Turner persuasively dismantles this rhetoric too and, because he lives in the landscape he is writing about, is better believed than the tourist posters and the ad talk. This incipient despair for the earth is not confined to the south of the South Island – it is pervasive and overwhelming and often feels irremediable.
The landscape Turner defends is not primordial – it was profoundly altered by its first human occupants, who burned the vegetation and ate the megafauna in a remarkably short period of time. It’s also the case that the fish he catches are introduced species, although he promotes the conservation activities of Fish and Game, which is what the Acclimatisation Society that made so many equivocal introductions has become. The impact of early Polynesians and 19th century improvers is the context in which the activities of Meridian Energy and the like must be seen, and the effects can seem as inexorable.
Or maybe not. While I was reading Into the Wider World I also had going another collection of essays, The Atlantic Ocean (2008), by Glaswegian Andrew O’Hagan. He shares the common anxiety about consumption and waste, and has explored its ramifications in various ways. In one of the essays, The Garbage of England, he advances a concept originated by Japanese giant Toshiba – “total quality management, zero manufacturing defects” – as adapted to rubbish production and disposal. O’Hagan writes:
Zero waste may turn out to be one of the key concepts of the post-industrial era: it will change everything. It will change what you are doing now and will do in five minutes … if the notion … wasn’t so life-altering and revolutionary it would appear simply sensible. It relies on absolutely no discharge of toxic waste and no atmospheric damage, but it also means a new intolerance of material rubbish.
There may be a change of consciousness going on in our world, a paradigm shift; let’s hope so. If there is, Brian Turner is part of it, and his book is a valuable contribution to the debate upon futures and how to make them. On the vexed question of global warming, for example, he offers the wise advice that even if, as the sceptics say, it isn’t happening, we still need to curb our waste-making and energy-consuming activities. If it is happening, and we don’t, we’re history.
The book qua book struck me at first as over-designed. With its variously coloured papers and its consciously gorgeous landscape photographs bled across the borders of the pages, it looked a bit like a de luxe travel guide. It’s big, too, nearly 500 pages long. Quite a few textual ornaments as well. Now that I’ve read it, I don’t mind that travel guide ambience: there are, surely deliberately, no maps included, unless you allow this is a map of Turner’s consciousness or a part of it. And I can imagine the book, which is durable enough, stacked up or fallen over on a rough shelf in some back country hut somewhere. Dog-eared, smoky, tea-stained, it’ll resemble the Playboy magazine Turner found under a mattress in a hut on the Thomas River near Haast when he and his mates were rained in on the wrong side of the river for a few days. They all read an article therein about CIA man C Gordon Liddy, who used to shove “pencils up people’s noses and into their brains”. Turner, despite his insistences, doesn’t go that far, and his book will surely prove a boon to other stranded, or just curious, travellers out there in the wider world.
Martin Edmond is a Sydney reviewer.