Murky water

The word estuary may arouse similar associations as the word nest – a comforting, nurturing place, cozy, gentle, a cradle for bird life, a safe mooring place, a place of richness. Estuaries are wetlands, are fringed by wetlands, share the ecological abundance encompassed by the word wetlands, a now largely positive word, eclipsing the word swamp, with its formerly negative associations. But despite newfound understanding of the importance of such places, estuaries still suffer. The Thames estuary is typical in this regard, a gateway to the city but also a dumping ground – for old boats, toxic waste, sewerage – and while the water quality is being improved, this is still an area in which to hide away the more unsightly elements of modern industry. The Thames estuary has container ports; it was also deemed a possible location for another London airport. Locating these large pieces of infrastructure here is possible because it is usually thought that there is not much scenic landscape for such things to be a blight on.

We are still captured somewhat by the Romantic imagination that seeks the sublime rather than the subtle in landscape. Or we value small ‘r’ romantic notions of rolling, lush farmland. In estuaries, with their mudflats, tidal lagoons, salt flats, marshes, the fecund lushness can turn simply fetid and rank in the imagination. And the flatness can numb the senses. In the Thames, there is also the exposure to the extremes of weather – wind, fog. Country Life magazine apparently rated the estuarine area of Essex a zero out of ten on their scenic scale. This dismissal of the natural value of such places lends itself to the proliferation of utilitarian development – ports, power stations, military bases, rubbish dumps – which in turn contributes to the lack of traditionally scenic beauty. (The Yarra River’s estuary has almost been obliterated by a container port, a process David Sornig narrates in his great book Blue Lake.) The location of container ports on the estuary has meant the necessity of dredging to allow massive container ships, a practice that has resulted in declining cockle beds and fish stocks, as well as, possibly, other issues such as foreshore erosion (something which happened also in Port Philip Bay).

It’s not an excusing factor, but the dredging was a boon for archaeology. (Just as the big mining companies pay for archaeological work on indigenous sites in Australia as some sort of penance, the container port people are paying for dives on historic wrecks.) And the Thames estuary is a place of wrecks, more so than any other piece of UK coastline. It is not necessarily a gentle place. Some are accidental, some deliberate – the estuary is something of an expired boat dumping ground. One of the most significant is a warship called, appropriately enough, the London, whose sinking was described by Samuel Pepys, but whose wreck has only been recently discovered (the very murky water of the estuary hinders discoveries). As well as the estuary regularly turning up stray bombs, there is a ship full of (probably live) explosives sunk there in WWII, masts sticking out above the water serving as some sort of warning to commercial shipping and the unwary tourist.

There are wrecks above water too, including the eerie WWII forts at the easterly end of the estuary, structures that may recall the aliens of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds, now-rusting double-storey bunkers resting on tripod legs. They were used primarily as anti-aircraft installations. The danger and monotony of the surroundings were not conducive to remaining sane. Later the structures were a magnet for pirate radio operators in the 60s, and now for artists and documentary film crews (as well as pestilent developers who haven’t had any luck so far). Artist Stephen Turner had a residency for weeks, embracing rather than being driven bonkers by the isolation (though his project of cataloguing the detritus there might suggest otherwise). Elsewhere in the estuary, artists accept and embrace the fragility and ephemerality, the nature of things in these zones, much as artists have been traditionally the first to spy the appeal of the ephemeral space elsewhere – the ruin, the thunderstorm, the fog.

The appeal of the estuary is getting more local recognition. In her book on the estuary, Rachel Lichtenstein quotes a rower, a frequenter of the waters, commenting that the unobstructed mirroring of sea and sky, and the minimum of distractions, allows the mind to wander. More widely, Robert Macfarlane has documented the abundance and adaptability of wildlife on the estuary’s coastline. There are plenty of books on the Thames – by Belloc and Ackroyd, and about walking it or houseboating on it. Interest in the further reaches of the Thames is not new – Joseph Conrad wrote extensively on it, but more recently there has been a focus again – Iain Sinclair’s novel Downriver, Rachel Lichtenstein’s 2017 book Estuary (from which most of the above information is taken), and just recently, Caroline Crampton’s personal exploration, The Way to the Sea.

If Jesus was married

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, Ariel Sabar, Scribe

The Book of Longings, Sue Monk Kidd, Tinder Press

It may be surprising, but we don’t really know if Jesus was married. Like many other things, it’s simply not mentioned in the gospels. It would be unusual for a man of his age, and a rabbi, not to be. Then again, Israel’s prophets often gave up a ‘normal’ lifestyle, including marriage, as part of their calling. But the idea of Jesus having a wife appeals to some – novelists, those who think women were written out of the church’s story and those who think, like Dan Brown, the church is in the habit of keeping secrets.

In the Gnostic gospels women often have a more privileged place, with status equal to the male disciples. Gnostic scholar Karen King was head of Harvard’s divinity school, and a member of the Jesus Seminar, whose stated mission was to shake Christians’ picture of Jesus. In 2012 she announced she had discovered (or was given) a fragment of ancient papyrus that held text from a Gnostic gospel in which Jesus was quoted as saying ‘my wife’, an obviously provocative discovery, if the papyrus was authentic. (Scholars, though, pointed out that, since the text immediately after these words was missing, it could have read, ‘my wife…? I don’t need one’ or ‘my wife the church…’) (Yet another possibility, unstated in the book, is that even if the papyrus was real, it might have just been a story without much basis in reality, like those Gnostic stories about the child Jesus raising dead birds to life.)

‘Veritas’ (truth) is Harvard’s motto, and Ariel Sabar tells of the hunt to find out if the papyrus was a fake, if Jesus having a wife might be the truth. The fact that we know now that the papyrus was fake doesn’t lessen the gripping nature of the story. It’s like a true-crime thriller, and Sabar is a canny and dogged detective.

King acquired the fragment from a German residing in Florida, Walter Fritz, a dodgy if intriguing character – a possible victim of clergy abuse, a failed and disgruntled Egyptology scholar, painter, amateur pornographer and art dealer. Sabar, who played a part in originally revealing the fragment to be a forgery, retells how he tracked down Fritz, who proves to be slippery but also like those murderers on TV shows who just can’t help but tell the detectives how clever they are.

Sabar is attuned to the wider issues of power, prestige and personality that make someone like King susceptible to a con like this. King, for her part, in an irony, hoped scripture would confirm her assumptions (as I suppose we all do). Although she eventually acknowledged the forgery, Sabar suggests she ignored evidence and testimony from experts to the contrary because she seems to have wished very much for the fragment to be real, due to her belief that the Gnostic gospels tell us something more real about early Christianity, that the church’s later imposition of uniform belief is far from the ‘wilderness’ of the early church, and that the Gnostic gospels are indicative of the challenging, radical nature of early Christianity, that the early church followed Jesus in his egalitarian radicalism.

In Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, Jesus is radical in the sense of wanting to bring in a new kingdom by love and selflessness, very much like the canonical gospels’ picture. Ana, the central character and Jesus’ wife, is attracted to Jesus because of his forthright kindness in a world ‘orphaned and broken’. The longing in the book’s title refers to the longing for Jesus, but it also covers other things – motherhood, the desire to rid Israel of the brutal Romans, the desire to be heard.

Ana is a daughter of an advisor to Herod, betrothed to her father’s business associate. She has been taught to read and write (on papyrus) (in which we might see a parallel to the privileged knowledge to which Gnosticism refers), and has a longing for using her voice, rather than simply falling into the role of (silent) wife. Contrary to the expectations of her time, she believes a woman who writes is ‘blessed’, and through all the twists and turns of the novel she holds onto her passion and right. Interestingly, Kidd makes her character the author of an actual Gnostic text that is one of Karen King’s favourites.

Though Ana is her focus, Kidd has a deep understanding of Jesus’ mission – how he is not a rebel like the Zealots, but interprets the law ‘liberally’ to allow for connection and giving, not to undermine Jewish law but to broaden it – God dwells not just in the Temple, but within the low and despised and largely voiceless, who in that time included women. Giving voice to someone like Ana while being sympathetic to the gospels’ portrayal of Jesus makes the book a feat, beyond its literary sophistication, the care she has taken to render the times historically convincing, and the way her plot bounces off the New Testament accounts in pleasantly surprising ways. (She also, by the way, comes up with a plot that might explain why Jesus’ wife is not mentioned in the New Testament.)

The Byzantine church rejected the Gnostic gospels for a number of reasons – because they were elitist in the sense of portraying a closed group with special knowledge, and that that knowledge was what ensured salvation, and because they were less reliable in their veracity. Anyway, we don’t need them to show that Jesus treated women better than his contemporaries, or that the early church was remarkably egalitarian. Unfortunately, it’s true that the church subsequently has distorted that and hasn’t always treated women well. Quite aside from the issue of how seriously Gnostic texts should be taken, the church has silenced women, particularly when it comes to leadership. But Jesus was a champion of the marginalised, and whether he was married or not doesn’t make much of a difference to that.

Feelings toward artworks

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, Olivia Laing, Picador.

Bezalel’s Body: The Death of God and the Birth of Art, Katie Kresser, Cascade.

‘We don’t have to live like this,’ says Olivia Laing in the introduction to her collection of writings on art and artists. She makes a case for art helping us to respond to the madness of the present. In these pieces, which are like 10-minute joy flights, she writes about artists marginalised by society, often because of their sexuality, but also simply through misfortune – homelessness, mental illness – and suggests that art can offer ‘resistance and repair’. Art can, according to Laing, help us see differently, opening up the possibility of changing the world for the better. It prompts openness, a resistance to categories and labels.

Similar claims are made in Katie Kresser’s remarkable and equally provocative book. She argues that with the advent of Christianity came a new kind of art, one that moved beyond the self-centred monolithic art that came before, an art that was all about power. (Think about those statues of ancient rulers.) She suggests that this new Christian art was like a window, focussing attention on what was beyond, rather than something that boxed people in. (Think of Orthodox icons.) This new art, like Christianity itself, helped people to be sympathetic to others and to the transcendent (which in Christianity are inextricably linked). Building on the work of art critics Michael Fried and Thomas Crow, she suggests that art should help us see beyond the surface, beyond rigidity and judgements. It should have what critic John Berger called hospitality (which is a central calling of Christianity).

Like Laing, Kresser argues that art should leave space for the development of understanding and connection. Like Laing, Kresser notes that some artists who are gay tend to be boxed in as ‘gay artists’, as if one dimensional. Laing notes the multidimensionality of an artist such as Derek Jarman, who wrote a book on gardening and lamented the loss of traditional ways just as he made provocative art and rebelled against the categorisation of gay people, especially in the era of vilification of people with AIDS.

But, Kresser thinks, modern (or postmodern) art is in danger of collapsing back into (very) old ways that are local and subjective. (It’s all about me and my feelings toward an artwork). And, I might add, tribalist. Her arguments make us think differently about much art (and she covers a wide range of art). She moves beyond simplistic arguments about modern and traditional art, or Christian and secular art. (Laing, by the way, often offhandedly rejects Christianity as rigidity, but sometimes she is responding not to Christianity, but a perversion of it. While rigidity can be a fault of Christians at times, a rejection of misfits is not Christ-like.) She looks for art that entails a Christian understanding, a Christ-like capacity to step into others’ shoes, irrespective of whether the content is overtly Christian, and criticises art that doesn’t, such as the minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd, which threatens to, or actually intends to, simply reflect the viewer’s feelings. Some installation art is just ‘sensory button-pushing’.

And of course, boundary-pushing can also become self-indulgence, which is the danger in some of the art Laing writes about. It can cross the border into simple shock-value art. Art is not good just because it pushes a boundary, just as art is not lacking in power simply because it falls into the mainstream. It may be up to the reader or viewer to decide – as Laing says, art is not ‘magic’, it takes work in its contemplation. And intimacy and vulnerability can be confrontational. Laing says she holds on to the idea from her Catholic upbringing of the body being fragile. This is part, perhaps, of empathy. If we are obsessed with power, we focus on our strength as measured against others’ strength. If we are empathetic, we see the fragility in others as if it is our own.

Some modern art expresses a more implicitly Christian view. In ‘The Artist is Present’, Marina Abramovic sat passively and silently on a chair in a gallery and stared at gallery-goers who queued to sit and stare at her. Many were moved, even to uncontrollable tears, by Abramovic’s seemingly non-judgemental, undivided attention. (This was a counterpoint to a much earlier and disturbing work where gallery-goers were invited to ‘assault’ the passive Abramovic, a work that graphically symbolised the powerlessness of women in the face of violence.) I am often wary of this type of art as somewhat gimmicky, but there is something profound here – evidence of art’s potential to, as Kresser says, prompt us, without using words, to respond to the other.  

Driving without a vehicle

In Search of the Soul, John Cottingham, Princeton.

Are We Bodies or Souls? Richard Swinburne, Oxford.

Churches are supposedly in the business of saving souls, but do we mean this metaphorically or literally? And do we mean in this world or the next? In the Judaism of Jesus’ time there were competing views of whether our souls live on. Some believed a person is not a person without a body. Other views were closer to Homer’s picture of a shadowy soul, but certainly not a complete person, lingering on. By the time of Plato, it is the soul that is the person, and the body is just a container, a view that heavily influenced Christianity, and remains. But Plato’s view was closer to the idea of reincarnation, which, as Tom Wright points out in his monumental The Resurrection of the Son of God, made some think the early Christians believed in reincarnation. Of course, some Jews, and the early Christians, proclaimed a resurrection of some sort of body, not just a soul floating off to heaven.

John Cottingham points out that talk of souls is necessarily vague because it is disconnected to the physical. And the term can be like water – slippery and spreading. As he notes, it can have varying meanings. It can stand in for ‘self’ and ‘mind’ and ‘psyche’. The origin of the word is in the notion of breath – what animates us. It can be linked to the notion of life, but also, in a more metaphorical sense, to what our ‘true’ self is, what gives us meaning. For Kierkegaard, it is our moral core. Cottingham notes that we often talk of the soul when we are talking about holistic care. If there is some vagueness about what exactly the word ‘soul’ refers to, Cottingham’s book is about how soul relates to coping with human existence.

Obviously, soul-talk is talk of transcendence, but Cottingham suggests that this doesn’t have to be transcendence in the sense of supernatural. Rather, it can refer to emotion, creativity, consciousness and the like – what differentiates us from dead bodies or robots. For Carl Jung, the soul stands for the part of us that yearns for God, and operates by intuition. It is, by its very nature, outside of scientific analysis.

The philosopher Richard Swinburne takes a different tack. He also sees the soul as the essence of being human, but he is interested in precise definition. As with his other books, which concerned proving God’s existence and that Jesus is God, he is out to prove by philosophical logic that the soul exists. He also, by the way, thinks science can go some way in predicting the soul’s existence, and whether other creatures have souls. (He notes that in the Middles Ages there was thought to be a hierarchy of souls.) But not all the way – science can’t ultimately get inside subjectivity – what it feels like to be me.

He uses precise, mathematical language (If A plus B then C, etc.) that may convince some of the soundness of his argument for dualism. (Others may find it headache-inducing.) Writing about souls can sound like writing on philosophy of mind (which Swinburne is well-familiar with), with its emphasis on consciousness, and its arguments about brain transplants, identity, subjectivity, sensations, substances, properties and persons, and how the physical can somehow give rise to the non-physical.

Swinburne’s answer to the last issue is that it can’t, and that it works the other way. The soul is the true animating part of us. He has sympathy with Descartes (who, Cottingham points out, can be mixed in his writing about the soul/self, and who saw the body and soul as ‘intermingled’ somehow.) It is a purely mental ‘me’ that drives the physical ‘me’. There is someone who does the thinking. I wonder, though, can we imagine thinking without a brain? Just as I find it hard to imagine how I could ‘drive’ without a vehicle to drive. Maybe that’s what the writers of the creeds had in mind when they envisaged resurrection of the body.

Diverting water


The Fens, Francis Pryor, Head of Zeus.

Seen from an archaeological perspective, what is usually thought of as permanent – human habitation, farmland – is in flux. As Francis Pryor notes in his The Making of the British Landscape, the landscape is more dynamic than we used to think.  And it may be a banality to note that geology and geography affect humans, and that human endeavours – agriculture, national boundaries, commerce – affect the landscape, but this can happen quickly or make more profound changes than we assume. In Australia it may seem like much of the country is still wilderness, but of course much was also changed irrevocably after colonisation, and prior to this, as has become more widely understood, Indigenous people had changed the landscape in their process of managing it.

The manipulation of the landscape is fairly obvious in the fenland of East Anglia in the UK, an area of interest for me, I suppose, because of the writing of Ronald Blythe, the paintings of Constable and John Nash, and the area’s status as off the beaten tourist track. In some areas, it seems remote, and a haven for wildlife, but it is an area that has been much altered, including in its elevation. The draining of the fens – a process longer and more patchwork than is sometimes assumed, says Pryor in his new book The Fens – resulted in a drying out and a subsidence that has left the land in many places many metres lower than it was, and below sea-level. And the land has been parcelled, partitioned, levelled, built up, cleared, planted, ploughed.

Pryor lives in the region, so this is more personal than some of his other work (though he says in Making that he focuses on landscapes that mean something to him, otherwise understanding landscape can be too broad a brief). And the book may be better suited to British readers more familiar with the area, or with potential access to the area. But this deep history of the area does speak broadly too, as much because it is an example of landscapes sometimes thought of as lacking appeal. Pryor quotes a botanist suggesting that anyone can appreciate a sublime mountainous region, but it takes discernment to appreciate the fens. This goes for other landscapes – especially those almost wholly devoted to human endeavours, and blessed by a mundane flatness, such as the Wimmera, or the American midwest. These areas may not be touristy, but they are something of an acquired taste, areas that require a more devoted attention to pick up their charms. Pryor notes that a flat landscape, amongst other things, increases focus on the sky, highlighting storms, cloud formations, sunsets and the like, and makes buildings such as churches seem more dominating. And, of course, fens are wetland areas, and globally, wetlands have turned from being derided as useless swamps to being recognised for their ecological richness and vitality. Beyond that, from a human aesthetic perspective, they have a gently alluring stillness.

The fens have been neglected in terms of historical analysis, though that has been addressed in recent decades, partially by Pryor. He led digs in the 70s and 80s, uncovering a rich archaeological heritage, including the extent of the layers of human alteration of the landscape, with its ditches and fields, and general infrastructure of diverting water, some of them quite ingenious. One of the discoveries was just how populated the region, otherwise assumed isolated, was.

The drainage of the fens was a slow process, notes Pryor, and not all catastrophe, but this drainage now poses a problem, as the peatland has sunk, and this, combined with tilting of the UK (dipping into the English Channel) and sea level rise, threatens flooding. Pryor suggests that general, slow flooding or inundation is inevitable, but the odd flood ‘events’ (as bureaucratic-speak would have it) will be worse. This same process (minus the peat shrinkage) threatens London and is why the Thames Barrier will need to be re-thought at some stage.

Tying worlds together

The Stranger Artist, Quentin Sprague, Hardie Grant

On Being Blackfella’s Young Fella, Glenn Loughrey, Coventry Press

Jirrawun Arts in the East Kimberley was established in the 1990s by Tony Oliver and brought to the world art by the likes of Freddie Timms (arcing lines dividing fields of intense colour), Rusty Peters (grand, abstract storyboards) and Paddy Bedford (assured loops and lines recalling Rover Thomas). The Stranger Artist is the story of how over a decade Oliver, a white, Melbourne gallery owner, conjured the painting collective from the red dust of the Kimberley and the old men’s memories, and was the link between black and white worlds – between Gija and gardiya (kartiya) – encouraging painters, mediating between them and urban galleries and collectors, weighted by the responsibility of tying the two worlds together. Quentin Sprague has done a remarkable job ordering reminiscences and history into this novelistic, sometimes dreamlike, epic and evocative book.

Collectors and critics, as Sprague notes, saw Australian Indigenous art as a bridge between the Indigenous world and late abstract Western art in their similarities of style, even if the ‘core’ was different. Rover Thomas, Bedford’s predecessor and the most famous of Kimberley artists, when he first saw Mark Rothko’s work, commented on the similarities to his own art. Bedford’s more lurid work recalled Spaniard Joan Miro, and Timms liked Philip Guston. Oliver had exhibited Guston in the 1980s in Melbourne.

But there is more to the work than visual correspondences. In On Being Blackfella’s Young Fella, Aboriginal Anglican priest Glenn Loughrey cautions that seeing Indigenous art as another version of abstract painting is just another colonial imposition – that seeing this art, especially in urban galleries, simply for its ‘beauty’ robs it of significance. Art is part of Aboriginal life and ceremony, a means of telling stories to the community. Indeed, Sprague notes how Rover Thomas was originally recognised when he used painting as part of ceremony. He never intended to become an artist in the Western sense of the word.

As close as Oliver got to the artists – they became friends – he remained ill at ease with his role as conduit and transformer of Aboriginal cultural practice into its Westernised version. The idea of selling paintings for profit was a foreign concept, and there was, and is, a disconnect between the creation of the art and where it ends up hanging. Sprague writes how Oliver sometimes felt like yet another white ‘interloper’.

As an artist himself, Loughrey has trouble with the fact that whites generally have an idea of what Indigenous art should look like – dots and ochre – and get fidgety around Indigenous art from urban areas that doesn’t fit the mould. Oliver had the same misgivings and faced the same prejudice. He was criticised for encouraging a group of teenage girls in the Kimberley to paint (and they turned out paintings somewhat like the graffiti-ridden density of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work) but found that gallery owners and collectors wanted paintings of the Dreaming and the red centre. Oliver wondered (as does Loughrey), what voices are urbanised, Indigenous young people, sometimes disconnected from Country, allowed to speak with?

The other, positive side of all this, though, is that beyond the obvious fact of the joy of finding great art, Oliver saw that painting could be a way to tell often-ignored Indigenous history widely (beyond the preservation of stories for Aboriginal people), as well as a means to make money and rejuvenate communities, a way of Indigenous people holding continuity in a changing world. Loughrey himself notes that there is no going back to purely traditional ways – Indigenous culture is somewhat hybridised – and the need is to find a way of continuing Indigenous culture in a new environment.

Loughrey’s book deals with the unresolved conflict of being Anglican Christian and Aboriginal, a tension he says he is learning to live with. He writes that he joined the priesthood as a way to feel more ‘white’ and notes that Christians talk of Jesus washing us ‘white’ and clean, and says, drolly, that ‘white’ is ‘normative’ for Christians. He is often asked about ‘Aboriginal spirituality’ but insists there is no such thing, and that thinking we can abstract spirituality from Aboriginal life is a Western idea, more colonialism. Much of the book is about how Aboriginality is holistic, patterned, cyclic harmonic, in contrast to more linear and dualistic Western thinking, and cannot be compartmentalised, and as such, offers us an example of how to deal with the problems we face, especially environmental ones (even if he also cautions that non-Indigenous people can’t just replicate some Indigenous practices without doing more compartmentalisation).

One might be sceptical of his assertion that rocks have spirits while still agreeing that Indigenous practice may be a positive alternative to Western (post-Enlightenment, I would say) philosophies of the sanctity of private property, endless growth, relentless technological advancement and replacement. While I wouldn’t want to discount his argument that Christianity brings to Aboriginality some problematic Western-centric concepts, there are resonances – the idea of the whole of Creation as under God’s care (and not just for human profit), and the idea of humbly accepting the mysterious, for example.

And we might also be reminded that it is only the non-religious (or lukewarm religious) West that thinks of spirituality as an added extra – originally, churches and synagogues were not an optional Sabbath activity, but a way to reinforce the entwinement and inseparability of the spiritual and the everyday. Loughrey writes about the need to think about Aboriginality on its own terms, and this is provocation enough, but if he also helps us to reconsider Western concepts of spirituality, well and good.


Steal and destroy

All Our Relations: Indigenous Trauma in the Shadow of Colonialism, Tanya Talaga, Scribe.

The Road: Uprising in West Papua, John Martinkus, Black Inc.

Tanya Talaga writes about the experience of Native Americans after European colonialism, describing being pushed off lands, cultural and spiritual impoverishment, removal from families, inadequate services, talk from governments – even liberal governments – but little action, unusually high rates of suicide. Sound familiar? In her book, which covers a number of Indigenous peoples around the world (including Australian Aborigines, Sami from the Arctic regions of Europe, Inuit, Amazonian Indigenous people), she notes that the experiences of Indigenous peoples in post-colonial settings is remarkably similar, driven, above all, by loss of identity.

She says, essentially, that identity comes from knowing and participating in history and culture, feeling part of a family and being able to envisage a positive future. Many Indigenous people are stripped of these, leading to high suicide rates (five times the national average in Australia, she notes). This is not just the legacy of past colonialism but is a consequence of current injustices, such as in Brazil, where she describes the genocide of Indigenous rainforest people (genocide being not just murder, but the deliberate destruction of a people’s culture), mostly to take away traditional (rainforest) lands for cropping or mineral extraction. The destruction of the rainforest is a tragedy in itself, but it is also destroying the sustenance and culture of Indigenous Brazilians. In North America, fossil fuel companies continue to intrude into native land.

It is difficult to face the fact that churches have often been complicit in cultural destruction by European powers, though Talaga notes, rightly, that the situation is ‘complex’. (In North America and Australia, Christianity is often stronger in Indigenous communities than in the general population and missionaries have often been instrumental in preserving culture, as well as lives, though missions were also instrumental in suppressing Indigenous culture.) Talaga describes the Anglican Church in one Northern Ontario community as both ‘saviour’ and a source of destruction – as in Australia, devastatingly, sexual abuse by priests (and the slowness of churches to respond) has exacerbated a sense of hopelessness and rates of suicide.

But one doesn’t need to be a European colonial power to steal land and destroy Indigenous culture, as, in our region, China and Indonesia demonstrate. In The Road, journalist John Martinkus, a veteran of war reporting, says that in the West Papuans he has ‘never’ seen ‘a people more systematically oppressed’. Unfortunately, even though this is occurring on our doorstep (a short boat trip away, as he says), the Australian government ‘does not care’. And the West Papuan people have been ‘abandoned by the international community’.

The road of the book’s title is a trans-Papuan highway in the midst of construction, much celebrated by the Indonesian government as a linking of Indonesian people, but which has been something of an excuse for pushing Indigenous Papuans off their land, along with other human rights abuses. Unsurprisingly, mining and logging companies are involved in the sorry mess and in league with the Indonesian military. (In at least one case, a mining company made a deal with the Indonesian government that allowed them to displace Papuans with no compensation.)

In the 1960s the retreating Dutch wanted West Papua to be independent. The US got involved because it wanted to keep Indonesia on-side against the Soviets by giving Indonesia West Papua. Since then, an emboldened Indonesia has not only systematically harassed the Indigenous population, but has also tried to stop journalists, NGOs, churches and brave Indonesians unhappy with their country’s aggressive nationalism from telling the truth. Lately, the military has taken to hijacking social media and labelling, Trump-style, the reportage of human rights abuses fake news. Journalists have been scared to report from the ground, after seeing what happened in East Timor. The Australian government is scared of offending Indonesia.

One Papuan taxi driver Martinkus meets refuses payment and says to Martinkus, ‘just do your job’. This firecracker of a book is part of a push to get the truth out to a deplorably indifferent international community, to speak for Indigenous people not only suffering human rights abuses, but also with no international voice.

A vocabulary for nature

Diary of a Young Naturalist, Dara McAnulty, Text.

Wild Nature, John Blay, Newsouth.

More time spent in the natural world is good for all of us, and it is good to get children’s senses attuned to the natural, especially when nature is increasingly seen as something exotic and apart from everyday life. Robert Macfarlane wrote a book recently as a response to many words relating to the natural world being dropped from Oxford’s Junior Dictionary in favour of words relating to e-media, which were deemed more relevant. Teenager Dara McAnulty describes in Diary of a Young Naturalist his dismay at seeing a six-year-old being enraptured by a chestnut picked up at a park but then being told by his mother to throw the ‘dirty’ thing away.

McAnulty just won the UK’s Wainwright Prize (for nature writing) and shows just how engaged with nature a young person can be. He has the enthusiasm of a teenager, as well as the swings of emotion (he wonders, probably fairly, when others praise his activism, why others aren’t as passionate.). It would be easy to fall into praising him for the maturity of his writing beyond his youthfulness, but he is simply a fine observer of nature generally. There are patches here about his family’s ramblings in wild nature, but his book is also a lesson in observing on a small scale. He checks for caterpillars on leaves and beetles under bushes; he notices a butterfly’s legs on his skin, he looks for fledgling birds in his backyard, he knows the names of wildflowers, in his garden as well as in the wild. He notes the struggles of wildlife against urban odds, and writes about it all evocatively.

He is also autistic. His book shouldn’t be read just through this lens either, although there’s a lot here – about overstimulation leading to mental freeze or burn, about bullying and paralysing worry that seems so at odds with his poetic, confident writing. He knows and sees so much yet misses clues in the human world. He describes himself as at sea with people and their unwritten rules of communication. Nature becomes a haven and a way to navigate the world – not an obsession, as some label the behaviour of those with autism, he cautions, but simply enthusiasm that focuses and orders life.

He describes himself as impatient for the turning of the seasons, ‘morose’ when he has to wait. His writing is full of extremes – jumping, dizziness, raptures. Nature is like medicine, oxygen. But then, he notes, it should be for all of us. We are ultimately inseparable from nature.

While McAnulty might alert us to nature around us, John Blay extols the rejuvenating properties of walking in wilderness. He disappears into the bush for weeks at a time, soaking up the environment, cataloguing, observing. Here he tells of the beauty and history of the significant wilderness areas of Nadgee, Ben Boyd and Croajingolong (areas affected by fire last summer, as he notes in his opening and closing chapters), and tramps through forest, heath and coast. He revels in the ‘ecstasies of the wild’, seeing exquisite connections, such as how the blue and red of rosellas matches the tree waratahs they hide amongst. (The combination of intense observation born of extended walking and recalling of the history of a region approaches the writing of Tim Robinson, the author of some amazing books about the landscapes of Ireland.)

There two sides to the book. He describes both the landscape and the battle in the 1970s and 80s to save it – the ‘forest wars’ – the dawning of a national consciousness of preservation, both of our unique forests and Indigenous sites, the realisation that clearfelling for timber not only made for immediate destruction, but affected weather and water supply, and worked against diversity and the health and sustainability of forests. The preservation of these wilderness areas was a victory, but they remain threatened, not just by overzealous logging, and recently by a warming climate, but also by encroachment of the urban, the desire to ‘develop’ parks and the sense that the privileged are especially entitled to remote, pristine environments.

At one point Blay notes that we have a ‘limited vocabulary’ for nature (similar, one might note, to how we have a limited vocabulary for describing art or the spiritual). And the point of books like these, as pleasurable as they are to read, is that they are a jumping-off point; they encourage the putting on of hiking boots, for the health of body, mind and spirit. ‘Who knows what drives people toward wild nature?’ Blay asks. He conjectures a variety of reasons – scientific and artistic interest, feelings of interconnection and continuity. (For eighteenth-century naturalists, all of these things were of a like.) But he also notes that the fact that wilderness is not owned by humans, that it doesn’t have an easily identifiable commercial value, is value in itself. The value of wild places for us is that they help us look beyond ourselves.

Feeling landscape

Unquiet Landscape, Christopher Neve, Thames and Hudson.

Sydney, Ken Done, Thames and Hudson.

Twentieth century art is dominated by a turn to abstraction, but there is a whole other, less publicised current of art in figurative and landscape painting. Landscape was, pardon the pun, fertile ground where artists worked through issues of representation and a loosening of technique without turning entirely inwards. Indeed, the chase for the goal of pure abstraction was something of a chimera because we can’t get away from landscape – we operate as humans in the context of our surroundings, both near and far, wild and tamed.

Unquiet Landscape, a re-issued classic, explores a number of mid-twentieth century British landscape painters, from Paul and John Nash to Ben Nicholson to Stanley Spencer to Sheila Fell. In this extraordinary book Christopher Neve is cautious in his approach, saying that it is difficult to write about painting properly, as its form is a way to communicate without words. At the very least we need to come at it sideways, which Neve does, but he succeeds enormously, his caution meaning that when he progresses, he is unusually penetrating. Neve writes that painting is a means of inquiry, a ‘thesis’, and of course people have individual ways of working these things through, something Neve is focussed on.

It is interesting how much the spiritual breaks in when talking about these artists’ work. Some artists, such as Spencer, painted explicitly religious themes. David Jones, though painting landscapes, saw his work as praising God. The individuality of artists, says Neve, brings new perspectives and originality, an opening up, giving a ‘glimpse of eternity’. Think about Spencer for a moment.  He painted religious subjects, having been enthralled by the biblical stories as a child, and he thought his religious works were his most important. But he set most of his paintings in Cookham, his hometown, suggesting that miracles can happen anywhere. He thought of the town as a ‘suburb of heaven’, and Neve thinks Spencer’s paintings didn’t need the biblical content to be powerful spiritually. They have a quietness and authenticity, and convey the ‘sanctity of ordinary things’, a profound comment. Great artists such as Van Gogh make the everyday a revelation. Winifred Nicholson thought the religious and the artistic are similar – they are about seeing something more in the everyday. David Jones thought of his landscape paintings as pure symbolism (though we don’t have to go that far). Spencer painted biblical miracles, but he also painted the miracle of blossom in Spring. Like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, this is to see the sparkle of the divine in every leaf, to see the wonder and surprise in a world as joyous Creation.

Spencer not only painted the picturesque. He could see the marvellous in wasteland (check out his painting of piles of rusting iron). We can see, here, Lucian Freud’s art – particularly pictures of piles of rags or tangled weeds – as a descendant of Spencer’s. I don’t think Freud is just being a smartypants – ‘look what I can do’ – he has that sensibility of great artists who see the richness, the blessing, in what others might see as monotonous.

For artists such as Spencer and John and Paul Nash, war affected their view of the land. Part of John Nash’s reaction to being back in the English countryside was being ‘amazed’ to be alive, and it threw the landscape into starker relief. In contrast, it takes a surety of vision to see the blessing of landscape during war. In Eric Ravilious’s paintings war machines simply replaced farm machinery and they could not banish what Neve calls his ‘lightheartedness’, by which he means positivity of vision rather than flippancy. After the war, David Bomberg spoke about feeling more than seeing the landscape, evoking again the idea of the artist’s individuality of response over photorealist capture. Incidentally, or perhaps significantly, his sweeps of bold colour remind me of recent Australian Indigenous art, which of course ‘feels’ landscape differently than a European single-point perspective.

This feeling, not to mention lightheartedness, is present in the paintings of Ken Done. Thames and Hudson have brought out a series of small but good-value themed books on Done’s art, including one on his Sydney paintings. Although entitled Sydney, the book is all about Sydney Harbour – don’t expect paintings of Cabramatta or Bankstown. It seems that for Done, Sydney simply is the harbour, that great negative space that bisects the city (or divides it into more numerous vistas and hideaways, coves and points). Even so, grouped together like this, the paintings show Done’s capacity for variety.

Done’s art was synonymous with the optimistic, celebratory Sydney of the 1980s. Vibrant colour was the most obvious aspect of this, but he is just as likely to talk about shape (form) and describes himself as ‘playing’ with shapes, particularly, in this context, the forms of the Bridge and Opera House. Flattened planes and a childlike simplicity abound, but he has the eye – boat sheds and yacht clubs are rendered more realistically, though with Fauvish colours. Paintings of Chinamans Beach have more depth, but with a Chagall-like pastel fuzziness. While Brett Whiteley blues feature, he also plays with colour – on a hot day the harbour is orange and unrelenting, and there are plenty of harbour-at-night paintings.

The harbour is quintessentially Australian, so it makes some sense to find affinities with central Australia, equally iconic. He sees similarities in the shapes of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and the Bridge and Opera House and renders the latter two in browns and reds and dots. His parrot-bright paintings too are similar to the palettes of the recent, almost psychedelic Indigenous art, conveying the uncontrollable joy and light spilling from the Australian landscape.

One painting is particularly interesting for its unusual injection of the biblical. Entitled ‘Easter Sunday Morning’, it shows a still dark sea and a pale dawn, with not a clear sun but gentle smudges of yellow as if through haze or fog. There are a few boats, the three most prominent sporting masts like crosses, evoking classic pictures of Easter sunrise with empty crosses. Night always precedes the bright dawn. Here there is a hint of the darkness of Good Friday being banished by the light of Easter. Done could be accused of naivety in his Ravilious-like sunniness (and I confess this sunniness is not always to my taste), but he is not blind to the darker side (he picks up rubbish on the beaches every day on his morning walk). But his vision seems to be a focus on the beauty and light – the spirit-filled – as a kind of thankfulness for the blessing of the sun-filled landscape.

Happiness in being a misfit

On the Road with Saint Augustine, James K. A. Smith, Brazos.

In his book Confessions, Saint Augustine is writing not so much to convince through abstract argument, but rather to prompt identification in the reader, to prompt the feeling of ‘that’s me’, says James Smith. Augustine is often said to be a particularly modern figure because of his honesty about his pre-conversion life of pride, selfishness and recklessness, not to mention his putting a finger on what makes us restless, as he put it, in this life. The Confessions is not an intimate autobiography. It is a form of prayer, as biographer Robin Lane Fox says, yes, but it is something more general, and profoundly so – a guide, a road map, for travellers who find themselves at a certain place and want to get somewhere – specifically, home.

Smith’s book is like a motorbike ride on mountain roads – both grand and zippy. He references indie-pop and movies, and the novels of Jonathan Franzen (you can decide how much is hipster name-dropping and how much it moves his story along). Some figures loom large. You can’t write a book called On the Road with Saint Augustine without discussing Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In this classic American Beats novel, the road is the point of the journey, and it has had a large influence on contemporary culture because movement is central; its theme is the restlessness of life. Indeed, it is a kind of road map for modernity, except that there is no destination except the road itself. A key feature of modernity is that we keep searching for the next thing (though Augustine would say that this is a feature of humanity, not just modernity). What satisfies is only a pit stop until the next one. Madonna had a song on the Dick Tracy soundtrack entitled ‘More’, which summed this up. (‘Any number is fine with me. As long as it’s more!’)

There is some honesty in On the Road. But at one stage the main character, Sal Paradise, is asked if he is heading somewhere. (‘Damned good question,’ he says.) Smith says that the kind of On the Road attitude is somewhat self-indulgent. He compares the characters in Kerouac’s book to refugees, who by no means enjoy being on the road, and yearn for finding a home. Augustine understands the hunger that might take us on the road, but he also identifies what we might hunger for. And it’s not travelling for its own sake.

Also looming large in Smith’s book are the existentialists – Heidegger and his disciples: Sartre, Camus, Derrida. There was honesty in their writings too. They identified the feeling of travelling in a world in which we don’t belong. ‘The alienation is real,’ writes Smith. He is, as I am, taken with Camus’s forthrightness. Camus couldn’t accept evil – not feeling at home means not being comfortable with the presence of evil. (Smith, though, points out that one can’t call something evil if one can explain it. Evil is by its nature inexplicable. One of the problems Augustine found with the Manichaeism he was once caught up in was its attempt to neatly explain good and evil.) Camus couldn’t quite see Christianity as the answer, though unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t just dismiss it. His answer, alternatively, (in The Myth of Sisyphus in particular) was to make some sort of peace with the restlessness, even to perversely find happiness in being a misfit. For Augustine, the restlessness points to the fact that we belong somewhere else. Not heaven first-of-all (lest we fall into the heresy of thinking that the world is simply corrupt), but God, and a God who runs down the road to meet you, as in the Prodigal Son parable, says Smith.

The existentialists privileged authenticity – going one’s own way, being an individual, against the flow. This, says Smith, is to be somewhat blind to how much we owe our individuality to others (something affirmed by psychoanalytic movements of the twentieth century). Being honest about our dependence on others is part of being in community. And in a church, while we are honest about how hard it is to feel at home, rather than accepting the absurdity of life, we confront it. Augustine, as bishop, may have written a lot, but he was also on the road a lot, visiting, freeing slaves, lobbying for compassion in the justice system, offering sanctuary. (This looks a lot different to Kerouac’s vision of the road.)

Augustine is sometimes criticised for doctrine, such as his idea of original sin. And Smith is not admiring without exception. But what Smith is writing about is Augustine’s practical application of philosophy and theology. He’s not just talking about abstract ideology, but historically-based events – rescue, in particular, not abstract concepts of properties of God and the like. This provides a contrast to Platonic ideals, of which Smith is somewhat critical. And I think just maybe when Saint Paul says that Christianity is ‘foolishness’ to philosophers, he means that Christianity doesn’t just involve nice Platonic concepts of God and the world but speaks of contingent events in history that have significant implications, and radically subversive ones at that. Subsequently, there’s the working against evil in the world, rather than just safe, ivory tower discussions of the nature of evil.