Books

John Kinsella
Displaced

Philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls it farmosophy – thinking philosophically and creatively in relation to the practice of farming. It’s a new name for an old undertaking – Hesiod’s agricultural poem “Works and Days” is one of the earliest works of literature in Western culture, after all, contemporary with the epics of Homer. In recent decades, those writers seeking to renew this genre have included some of the most essential and far-seeing in contemporary literature, from Wendell Berry in Port Royal, Kentucky, to Les Murray in Bunyah, New South Wales.

Few today are better equipped to explore their relation to place and hymn, while also critiquing the practice of agriculture, than John Kinsella – a poet, essayist, activist and creative writer of considerable range and talent. He is cosmopolitan in outlook, having been a scholar and writer-in-residence in Ireland, England and the United States over decades of creative practice. But he is also a country boy, raised and educated in the bush and regional towns, and he has tended his patch of country in rural Western Australia, a property named Jam Tree Gully, for years. In Displaced, we learn that his forebears worked for generations in agriculture and those extractive industries that shaped the economics, politics and culture of the nation’s largest and most remote state.

But there are layers of complication to writing about one’s connection to these traditions, as well as relationship to place, in the Australian context. Kinsella does not farm in the manner of his predecessors, or even his current neighbours. His is a project of rewilding – of undoing what he regards as the environmental destruction and societal violence that rode shotgun with the whole colonial project.

Nor does he wholly accept the concepts of boundedness and ownership upon which the European model of farming is based. He doesn’t see the land he farms as belonging to him. Rather, it is held in unofficial trust for the Ballardong Noongar people, who were evicted by European arrivals to the region in the 19th century.

Displacement, then, is the theme of Kinsella’s rural memoir – a wound of dispossession that stubbornly refuses to heal. His gaze may be framed by the attentiveness to place of an ecologically literate thinker – its language may be shaped, elegantly, by a poet’s eye and ear – but the argument he mounts is momentous in implication. The question it raises, over and over, is one applicable to every non-Indigenous Australian: How does one properly inhabit a place to which one does not properly belong?

Kinsella chooses to fold his responses to this question into his personal story. The boy known as “Dictionary” at school, who suffered psychological, sexual and physical abuse by his peers – the “big words” were beaten out of him with awful regularity when he was growing up – found himself displaced by the broader society of the day. He lived in a 1970s and ’80s rural milieu characterised by overt racism and political conservatism: a politics that sometimes shaded, in Kinsella’s view, into fascism. It was a culture in thrall to guns and machines, deeply fearful of difference.

Kinsella describes the lost decade of addiction and wandering that followed this childhood and youth; he worked odd jobs on the Western Australian wheatbelt, earning enough money to fund the next bender. It was poetry – the saving seriousness of literature, music and art – that furnished him with a means of resistance and, ultimately, repair.

For all the damage he witnessed during that difficult upbringing – the toxic pesticides and herbicides that permitted wheat’s vast monoculture; the earthmoving machinery used to build roads, fell trees and reshape entire landscapes; the salinity drawn to the soil surface by depleted aquifers – the beauty of Western Australian space remained a balm for him: a picture of health and wholeness that, simply by existing, suggested the possibility of a better world. Country stood as a mute rebuke to the mining and industrial agriculture that sought to degrade it for profit.

What Displaced describes is the slow welding of art, ecology and politics that formed Kinsella’s mature worldview: a personal ecosystem in which ethics, aesthetics, justice, beauty and truth are interconnected – just as plant, animal, sun, soil and water are in the small sovereign province of Jam Tree Gully.

And since the narrative form of Displaced attempts to replicate this various yet organically complete conception of self, place and art, there is a shapeshifting quality to the work. Memoir bumps up against cultural criticism; nature writing merges into political analysis; practical agricultural advice grows mystical. Only Jam Tree Gully – its fragile, halting return to equilibrium – ties the threads together.

For those with experience of farming life, there is also the shock of difference. Kinsella and his family are vegans. They carry no livestock on their property, and do not even kill pests that threaten their vegetable plantings. There is an ascetic, almost Jainist delicacy and tact to their agricultural undertaking – so much so, it sometimes threatens to trip over into hippie absurdism.

We should be wary of laughing too hard, however; that response threatens to land us with those whom Kinsella has argued against all these years. What the poet and his family venture in these pages is an alternative to the attitudes and approaches that have brought us to the brink of disaster. We could do worse than consider the radical transformations – whether in agricultural practice, land use or social relations – Kinsella outlines.

“Whether we and our politicians know it or not,” writes Wendell Berry, “Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” The austere delight of Displaced comes from this knowledge: that by working in concert with those natural systems that sustain us, not only do we increase our chances for survival, but we also begin to furnish some recompense for the damage we’ve done, ecological or otherwise. It isn’t much, but it’s a start.

Geordie Williamson

Transit Lounge, 336pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2020 as "John Kinsella, Displaced".

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Reviewer: Geordie Williamson

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