Cover of book: The Winter Road

Kate Holden
The Winter Road

As dusk closed in on isolated Talga Lane on a cold winter’s night in 2014, Glen Turner, a compliance officer with the Office of Environment and Heritage, crouched behind his vehicle in terror. He was bleeding from bullet wounds and pleading for his life with Ian Turnbull, the barrel-chested wheat farmer who had already shot him five times with a .22 rifle. As Turner’s terrified colleague, Robert Strange, begged Turnbull to stop, the farmer threatened he’d kill him, too, if he tried to intervene. When the wounded Turner tried to make a break for it, Turnbull fired a last, fatal shot at his back. Turnbull then calmly returned to his ute and drove home to wait for the police to arrest him. He would eventually go down for murder. But he and his supporters – including a number of fellow farmers – insisted that Turnbull was the real victim, not the man he killed. Overzealous enforcing of environmental laws against land clearing, they claimed, had driven Turnbull to the brink – and they muttered darkly that he wasn’t the only one.

The murder shattered two families, traumatised witnesses and sent a chill down the spines of all those on the front line of environmental protection. As Kate Holden observes, it also marked the latest chapter in non-Indigenous Australia’s inglorious history of frontier violence. The infamous Myall Creek massacre of at least 28 unarmed Aboriginal men, women and children in 1838 occurred not all that far from Croppa Creek in north-western New South Wales, where Turner was killed. Assaults on the Indigenous peoples of Australia went hand in hand with violence against the land they had looked after for many tens of thousands of years; both people and trees were “cleared” to make way for white settlement and European-style agriculture. Ironically, and horribly, following Turner’s murder, Liberal NSW governments have progressively diluted the laws designed to protect endangered ecological communities on farmland, including a dangerously shrinking koala habitat.

In The Winter Road, Holden, who writes regularly for The Saturday Paper, relates with empathy and intelligence a dramatic and complex story, which has deep links to the past and profound implications for the future. This is a tale of brigalow and big personalities, fence lines and bottom lines, carbon and kangaroos, to which the author applies both microscope and telescope. With one hand, she guides us expertly through the thick tangle of contentious legislation, inconsistent enforcement, confusing administrative restructures, and long-running legal cases – the bureaucratic scrub that is an inescapable part of this narrative landscape. With the other, she applies the filters of philosophy, history and aesthetics to tease out larger lessons. The genius of the book, which, as a model of reconstructive journalism places Holden alongside Chloe Hooper and Anna Krien, lies in Holden’s ability to apply her intense intellectuality to a topic that, in the most literal of senses, is so down to earth.

She directs us to consider the influence on settler culture of the views on property of Western philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau and Paine, and demonstrates how these views affect both attitudes and laws around land ownership and use to the present day. For this reason, the notion of attachment to place among non-Indigenous people is inextricably associated with the idea of private property. American traditional and contemporary right-wing rhetoric further associates private property with the ideal of “liberty”. Such rhetoric pits the rugged individual against the nanny state in a fight for selfish advantage that comes cloaked in a belligerent righteousness. It is a view that has so flourished in Australian political discourse in recent years that some Australians even confuse American laws with our own. Applied to agricultural practice, Holden observes, neoliberalism denies the “ethics of care, community [and] responsibility. There is no room in a broadacre field for contamination: paddock trees are obstacles, native animals are pests, indigenous plants are weeds.”

Neoliberalism may be a more recent import, but the land was well primed for it. Holden writes that the planting of long straight rows of golden wheat, commonly regarded by critics today as an issue of monocultural planting and land conservation, “fitted wonderfully into the racist, nationalist, agrarian culture of white Australia”. She quotes an influential speech made by the prominent British scientist William Crookes in 1898 that credits wheat with creating “the white race”, shaping “white civilization” and giving white people “their intelligence and biological characteristics”. She doesn’t imply that planting wheat makes anyone a bigot; it’s just that the history of agriculture in this country is not value neutral. Such matters are best faced head-on. This goes, too, for the mythologies of bushman masculinity that have discouraged tough men such as Ian Turnbull from seeking help when they are stressed or depressed.

Holden is scrupulously fair. While there is no question that this book honours the memory of Turner and his work preserving the land, she resists the temptation to paint Turnbull as a simple villain. Urbanites, she contends, rarely value or even understand the “complex histories of agricultural landscapes” in which Australian agriculturalists operate. Farmers “complain rightly that they are maligned by people who have no clue. The ones who gobble the grain, munch the cereal, pour the oils, spill the milk.”

Nor are conservationists simple heroes here. The notion of “virgin wilderness”, beloved of environmental activists, is a “potent and enduring fallacy” in the context of a continent that had been “shaped, maintained, curated” by its Indigenous peoples. The landscape encountered by the first settlers was “not wild, but … not domesticated either”.

Each chapter begins with an epigraph. One that sums up much about this story comes from William Blake: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is, in the eyes of others, only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

Black Inc, 336pp, $32.99

Black Inc is a Schwartz company.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "The Winter Road, Kate Holden".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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