People Are the Landscape

I recently spent ten weeks undertaking back-to-back writing residencies across New South Wales and Tasmania, and while away I spent a lot of time thinking about landscape. This was inevitable, really, and was such for a key reason: given that a writer’s residency consists more or less of sitting at a desk and working, just as writing in one’s home or nearest public library consists of sitting at a desk and working, then the key experiential difference must be in the desk itself, and the context surrounding that desk.

As such, thinking about landscape becomes unavoidable. If you are engaging with the residency, then you are engaging with the landscape. I’m going to tell you the way I went about that.

The centrepiece of my residencies was a month spent in Haefligers Cottage, Hill End—a miner’s cottage in the lonely centre of an almost–ghost town out in the western New South Wales highlands, just over an hour north-west of Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, who facilitate the Artist-In-Residence program. Out there, and in much of New South Wales right now, everything is the one faded colour. More than once I’d glance over a sunburned field from the car window while driving and notice neither the flock of sheep nor the farmer tending them till I looked a second or third time. The homogeneity of it all, visually, the rolling hills of beige—there was initially something deeply depressing about it, if I’m honest. As a city-dweller, I’m used to overstimulation: flashing electronic billboards and the whirr of trainlines, the rhythmic morning-evening traffic cycles and road rage. Out in the country, if you don’t engage closely then you’ll notice only two things: the colour brown, and silence.

I found my way toward engaging closely after thinking about how landscape was treated in things I’d read recently: specifically, the somewhat-cliché pairing of Tim Winton and Cormac McCarthy, both of whom write about similar landscapes on separate continents. Both writers also forego dialogue quotes. Aesthetically, this leaves their works characterised by a more barren page—one that is clear and arid, much like the landscapes in which both writers tend to set their works. More importantly in terms of the reading experience, their writing strips away the obvious delineation between dialogue and description, between character and environment.

This is significant: it allows these writers to at wish blur the lines between the way a character speaks and the way he or she interacts with their environment. When utilised effectively, this technique allows as seamless a transition between these two elements of the text as the writer wishes.

This technique, I figured, could be reverse-engineered into providing a nice doorway into understanding the landscape—to seeing more than brown, and hearing more than silence. And so I began speaking to the people who inhabited the land of Hill End, the ones who blurred in and out of my vision from the car window.

I established contact in simplest way I knew how: by walking into the pub and ordering a glass of souring house red. On my first trip there, I spoke to a man named Pete who introduced himself as The Most Painted Man in Town, and to an older guy who went by Ando and was the local handyman before the heritage legislation that ensnared the town became constricting of his livelihood, and before his back went out.

By the end of our conversations that night around the pub fire, The Most Painted Man in Town had become an emblem of the town: his lined face, his slur, his penchant for drinking twelve hours in the day; and Ando’s stories of his work and of the town’s changing, fading nature punctuated this emblem, bringing a contextual depth to my new understanding of Hill End. The brown hills and courts of kangaroos and rusted rooves of half-collapsed cottages became more vivid, more delineated from their shared colour wash, and they became parts of a place lived in by real people, rather than a historical site on a map.

If good writing is, as I believe to be the case, predicated on empathy, then this people-based process seems to me as good a way as any of navigating and understanding any given landscape. Even if one isn’t a writer, or has no plans to write about a given environment, then this approach still seems like a good way to go about understanding the physical world through which one moves. Throughout history, stories have functioned as a way of understanding both known and unknown environments—the seeking of this understanding comprises a large part of why we write. And a large part of why, when we travel, we listen.