Western Australia is a vast region within a vast country, comprising one-third of the continent – 2.5 million square kilometres populated by 2.3 million people, most of whom live in the capital Perth.
Stretched over a portion of this immensity is the wheatbelt, more than 150,000 square kilometres of farmland, an area just less than twice the size of the UAE. Flung about this vast expanse are countless sheep, farms and oft-abandoned mines that sustained families for generations, dotting the land like points in a constellation that shifts over time with people’s fortunes.
John Kinsella is Australia’s foremost poet and he has deep roots in Western Australia. He’s a prolific writer, with plays, novels, an autobiography and several books of non-fiction to his credit. In his latest book he says that many farmers in his home region, including his ancestors, saw themselves as caretakers of the global region’s “food bowl” and took pride in the idea that they were “feeding the world.” Many still do.
But in his heartfelt introduction to his latest collection of short fiction, In the Shade of the Shady Tree: Stories of Wheatbelt Australia, Kinsella is quick to point out hard facts that undercut the fantasy of this region’s pleasant history. “On lands that are traditionally Ballardong Nyungar (the aboriginal people of the Avon River Basin), clearing and poisoning and other abuses of place have taken their toll, and continue to do so,” along with the “devastation caused by monoculture farming” that Kinsella blames for “every-increasing land salinity” and “changing weather patterns”. He takes the duty of conservationist seriously.
Kinsella has written much about his complicated relationship with Western Australia. His grandparents owned a farm there called Wheatlands, where he spent many summers as a child and in his youth he says he was “traumatised” after seeing how “the Yamatji people of the region were cut off from their traditional lands”. He’s published 20 books of poetry thus far, of which his most celebrated is Peripheral Light, a masterful volume of tender and often abstract work about Australian history, its lands, and aspects of the national character.
A more recent book, another homage to the land – and to Dante – is a thick, 400-page book of poems called Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography, and in its way, In the Shade of the Shady Tree, is a companion volume of prose about a similar journey.
“My poetics and sensibilities formed not only in the paddocks and remnant bushland, but also on the vast salt scalds where very little grew or even lived.” About his various approaches to writing about the place, he says, “The poetry has been about place in a very empirical way, concerned with damage and its implications. But in my stories I am more concerned with glimpses of the people who live in the wheatbelt. Whether I approve of their activities or not is irrelevant.
“What is at issue is how they interact with the place, and how they make that place what it is.”
The chief strength of this large group of 33 “glimpses” in Shady Tree is the direct writing style, a frankness driven by Kinsella’s complicated sense of purpose. “Underlying all these glimpses is the knowledge and acknowledgement that I am writing about a land stolen from indigenous people; that in truth it is still their land, if it’s anyone’s.” The tension in the stories is hinged around three points then: the beauty and harshness of the land, the people’s struggles on it, and Kinsella’s sense of injustice as part of the region’s history.