by Robbie Arnott
Published October 2022
In the shadow of the climate crisis, I tend to ascribe a certain significance to works of eco-fiction, foregrounding the socio-political importance of novels concerning the more-than-human world such that the act of reading them begins to feel like a form of activism in and of itself. But fifteen-year-old Ned West is simply waiting out the summer, and the Second World War, in Limberlost, the family apple orchard just outside Beaconsfield. Almost entirely free of the inane guilt that overcomes me every time I buy mince instead of lentils or tear one too many squares off the toilet roll, Ned picks off rabbits by the dozen, plucks abalone from the reef, and gathers duck eggs from a land whose teeming abundance makes me ache for the unknowingness of my own childhood.
Limberlost by Robbie Arnott traces the life of Ned West from childhood into adulthood and back again. Although the events of the novel are loosely based on the stories Arnott’s grandfather told and retold of growing up in the Tamar Valley, Arnott is less interested in biographical accuracy than he is in the stuff of time. Through the character of Ned, Arnott explores how the texture of our lives and our relationship with the natural world has changed over time, as well as the grain of temporality itself. Limberlost moves back and forth in time as easily as the mind slips into the past then resurfaces in the present. The effect is a swirl of memories that reflects the way the past isn’t really, or isn’t only, behind us, the way what has happened continues happening in the confluence of time we call the present.
The present to which the narrative consciousness continually returns is the summer Ned spends waiting for news of his elder brothers, Toby and Bill, who have been away fighting a war that is now drawing to a close. In striking contrast to the hardship and scarcity that characterise the many works of climate fiction that reach for the future – Arnott’s last novel, The Rain Heron, included – Ned passes the summer in a kind of mid-century utopia of abundance. All the same, the irrepressible presence of the more-than-human world – impressing itself upon the Ned in the form of river, wildlife and the heady scent of timber – as well as the sense of loss that pervades the greater narrative, makes Limberlost as much a work of eco-fiction as The Rain Heron.
Ned is a curious choice of protagonist for a work of eco-fiction. It is not so much the crippling inadequacy he experiences as the youngest of four with two older brothers off at war. Notions of ‘duty’ and ‘honour’ send his whole being surging and flapping, rendering him indecisive and inarticulate in a way that captures some essential quality of early adolescence. It is more the cast of his preoccupations. His love of the land rises up out of the rich humus of Arnott’s descriptions of ‘the glowing trees’ and ‘wakening river’ that surround Limberlost, yet Ned is also willing to take from the land whatever it takes to buy himself a boat:
Nothing fancy, just a small, single-sailed dinghy he could run into the river. Out on the water he could sail wherever he liked, from downstream where the current ran fresh to the broad estuary in the north. Squid-filled reefs, forested coves, schools of flashing salmon, trenches of snapper, lonely jetties, private beaches on whose cold sands he could burn hidden fires – all would be open to him if he had a boat. If he killed enough rabbits.
While the fantastic creatures that roost at the core of Arnott’s first two novels, Flames and The Rain Heron, embody the power of the land to instil wonder, and to destroy, Ned’s boat is a deeply human object: a vessel for his dreams of adventure, then later his nostalgia; an emblem of freedom; and a means of escape. The mere idea of the boat provides Ned with a measure of escape by distracting him from his brothers’ absence and the possibility that they might never return. Ned himself figuratively acknowledges the impetus behind his boat-dream through visions in which he imagines sailing away from Toby and Bill, ‘not looking back to acknowledge their presence on the shore until he felt ready’. Yet the detail that makes me most uncomfortable as I read his flights of fancy is the absolute vacancy of the land that will be ‘open to him’ should he manage to acquire a boat. Ned’s dreams of plenty stumble through a child’s roleplay of the lie of terra nullius; this calls attention to the parallels between Ned’s constant scavenging and the colonialist extraction of resources that underlies and sustains his, and our, way of life.
I find myself waiting for an awakening that never quite eventuates. Arnott gives readers the rare satisfaction of a life written to completion, and the long timescale invites us to draw lines of cause and effect between Ned’s actions and the various presents in which we encounter him. Though ‘action’ might not be the right word for Ned’s approach to life. For all the time that passes over the course of the novel, Ned remains strangely static, carried forward by rather than carrying the narrative. At 25, he joins a logging crew tasked with felling a large copse of manna gums, assuming the position of foreman despite the fact that the work leaves a ‘reddish wound in his soul’. Getting married doesn’t feel like ‘a decision he made consciously. It just came up to him, palmed his shoulder, pulled his wrist’. Despite priding himself on learning about the Letteremairrener and Panninher people in his youth, despite knowing ‘what had happened to them…what had been done’, he treats it as history, and ‘In the course of his own life, he had done nothing about it.’ And in one of his most telling moments of passivity, tasked with watching the back of a herd for stragglers, Ned looks forward to sitting on his horse and taking in
the newness of the country they moved through. As long as the cows did not wander he could gaze instead at the shifting sands, the sucking tide and the long stretch of sea-bashed coast, stunning in its rough suit of driftwood, its lonesome shoulders of wind-combed dune grass.
By this point in the book, I am entirely unsurprised when Ned, who has ‘loosed his mind on his family’, fails to notice a cow turning off course. Although he works hard to save the cow, she is wounded in the struggle to save her and dies in the night.
Ned’s sensitivity to and hunger for the beauty of the land is suggestive of a special relationship with the natural environment that bestows upon him the vital role of witness to the truths of the more-than-human world. Yet the violence of his encounter with the cow elicits a different reading of his reverie. The anthropomorphic attribution of ‘suit’ and ‘shoulders’ to the landscape, and the satisfaction afforded him by the opportunity to ‘touch its contours’ connotes an objectification of the natural world that echoes the exploitative fantasies of his youth. In adulthood, Ned’s proclivity for daydreaming, as well as his desire for the cleansing isolation of nature, acquires an aspect of escapism that similarly recalls his juvenile dreams of sailing away from his greatest fears. From the vantage point of middle-age, what is by then a pattern of retreating into nature seems less a practice of witnessing and more a habit of looking away. In this way, Limberlost is a tender study of the dangers of averting our gaze, and of how we might go through life with very little involvement.
What is the role of the artist in the climate crisis? Coming at literature with this kind of instrumentalism is one way to curtail the natural variation that is crucial to a robust and thriving ecosystem, yet as I write, as you read, the sea is rising, fires are raging and people are being forced to leave their lives behind, which is all to say it doesn’t seem like too much to ask how artists might help. One of the more obvious contributions that authors can make is to bring the reality of those whose lives have already been transformed by ecological catastrophe to their readers. Unlike these dystopian novels, literary utopias often do the critical work of imagining other, more sustainable ways of doing and being, thereby fostering if not hope, then at least a necessary resilience in the face of everything we stand to lose.
Limberlost, however, is a portrait of a lost utopia. As Ned remembers the summer of the boat, I feel in his longing the loss of his youth and the loss of the intervening years. Gazing on the ‘dry paddocks, bare trees and a bristling army of gorse’, Ned mourns the manna gums ‘felled on his watch’. As the losses crowd the narrative, I am increasingly troubled by Ned’s failure to act, the choice he makes, again and again, to look away. Or is it that I’m frustrated by the escapism inherent to fiction? For ensconced in the vibrancy of Ned’s childhood and Arnott’s vivid writing of the more-than-human world, I feel soothed and safe, and so I can’t help but understand that reading is actually, for me, a means of looking away from the horrorshow of ecological collapse that will make bystanders of all of us.