Review: Jessica Whiteon Kate Holden

Threatened Ecological Community

Reading Kate Holden’s The Winter Road is like grappling with the book’s protagonist: a threatened ecological community of brigalow at Croppa Creek, near Moree. Acacia harpophylla is the last remaining fragment of an ancient ecosystem, known to the Gamilaraay peoples as Barranbaa or Burrii (Atlas of Living Australia). When disturbed, brigalow responds with thousands of suckers which grow into a mass of saplings that can live for more than half a century. ‘At the surface’, Holden observes, ‘the roots are braided and sit, firm as ship’s cables, and five metres higher the canopy meshes and tangles’. So, too, does Holden’s heavily-researched text, which knits together Australian history, environmental legislation and legal reportage, seem tangled and brooding. 

Brigalow shelters other vegetation, and its roots carry bacteria which fix nitrogen into the soil, encouraging, Holden writes, ‘a collegiality of other virtuous growth’. The brigalow’s interaction with soil yields a fertility that makes it attractive to farmers for growing crops. The brigalow in this area is now a threatened ecological community – an assemblage of species occupying a particular area which is categorised according to its level of endangerment. Despite the threats to its survival, ‘[t]he brigalow is not loved. It stands a dark, muscled fortress on the good soil it has nurtured; it impedes view and passage and progress. The dominant mentality is to reap its gains, and then curse and destroy it.’ The Winter Road traces a history of relationships to the Australian soil to explore how in 2014, Ian Turnbull, an 80-year old farmer with several properties to his name, came to murder Glen Turner, an environmental officer trying to protect the brigalow.

Holden opens The Winter Road with a short prologue that recounts, from ecologist Robert Strange’s point of view, the immediate aftermath of the murder. Holden recreates gunshots, a dimming sky, Strange cradling his colleague, who was leaking litres of blood. The opening is dramatic, paring the events back to sound, shadow and sensation, as they might have appeared to Strange, trying to get help as his colleague’s life drained onto the soil. 

Holden then focalises her third-person narrative to introduce Turnbull as ‘a classic man of the district: iron grey hair, barrel chest with great gripping arms, creaky legs from years on a tractor. A check shirt under a woollen jumper. Big tough hands of a farmer, the skin on the back of his neck creased by weather.’ It is a technique that she draws on a few more times throughout the text, although not as forcefully as she does here:

He’s patriarch of the clan, with four sons and fifteen grandchildren. Been married to Robeena, Rob, for fifty-five years. He’s a big man of the little town, given money when locals need a hand, but kept out of the papers – nothing exceptional, nothing showy. Mates with everyone impartial, and the best lawyers. Began with one farm, and now look at him. Not afraid to think big, to think of his family to come.

The narrative technique shifts again as Holden introduces Glen Turner, a compliance officer for the then Environmental Protection Agency, listening to an anonymous phone call in 2012: ‘“If you pull up on County Boundary Road to the southern side of the property, you’ll hear the dozer,” a man’s voice told him’. This introduction to Turner is through sound: a disembodied voice on the telephone. It echoes the prologue a few pages earlier, in which the lack of light on Talga Lane – the road of Holden’s title – means that much of the description is rendered aurally: ‘the crunch of the ute’s tyre’s down the road. The sound of his breathing’; ‘the fear in Glen Turner’s voice’; ‘the quiet, urgent voices. The shots. The pleas’; Turnbull’s ‘rasping voice’ and Turner’s ‘panicked breath’. It creates an immediacy and fixes the reader in the present, perhaps a necessary technique to persuade them to navigate the dense text that follows, as Holden delves into ecosystems of knowledge: the thorny, environmental history of British colonisers’ relationships to the land; the imposition of fines for failing to clear; as well as the complex overlay of state and federal laws relating to ecology. 

This thicket of research provides a background to and context for Turnbull’s actions. Holden describes the influence of Enlightenment ideas of property ownership, linking the wealth of the Moree plains to the ‘musings of white-wigged political philosophers’. She also observes how, at the point of invasion, John Locke’s ideas on land – that when a man applied labour to the soil, it became his – were prominent. For those who had lost their means of subsistence due to Scotland’s clearances or England’s enclosures, the conception of ‘boundless land for the taking … must have seemed breathtaking. Families could feed themselves. Clans would restore, dynasties be nourished. A man might make a name for himself. He could pass something on to his children, and he could mind his own affairs’. 

Holden also observes that the colonisation of Australia coincided with a point in European history that favoured progress through the enclosure and ‘improvement’ of land. The British gave no thought to approaches to cultivation used by First Nations peoples, developed over thousands of years. Holden refers to farmer Eric Rolls’ celebrated environmental history of the Pillaga scrub, A Million Wild Acres, to describe the quality of the soil their tending yielded: ‘The surface was so loose you could rake it through your fingers. No wheel had marked it, no leather heel, no cloven hoof … No other land had been treated so gently.’ Rolls estimates that it took only a decade of European agricultural methods for it to begin to compact.

When, in 1835, John Batman negotiated a treaty with Wurundjeri elders, attempting to take land in exchange for goods, the British authorities were so alarmed that Governor Burke ‘proclaimed the momentous assertion of terra nullius’. In the nineteenth century, laws were introduced to compel clearing and cultivation. A century later, the Brigalow Belt ‘was still the largest undeveloped moderate-rainfall country in Australia’ and clearing was incentivised by state governments. The notion that one had to cultivate the land gripped the minds of men like Turnbull who, resistant to change, could not – or would not – comprehend why the laws began to alter. Such men, Holden explains, believe that they have rights over the soil, and that ‘anything that reduces that ownership is an affront’.

When conservationists realised the damage wrought by European farming methods – erosion, loss of topsoils, and rising salinity – they agitated governments for greater land protection. The change from two centuries of ‘bush bashing’ to protecting the soil and scrub took a matter of decades. Chris Nadolny, the ecologist who accompanied Turner on his investigations, admits that ‘we haven’t really done what we should have done to explain to farmers the value of native vegetation’. Phil Spark, a local farmer-turned-ecologist who documented the Turnbulls’ clearing, reflected that the government hasn’t ‘seriously put up the science and seriously explain[ed] to people why we need to be managing land in a particular way.’ Furthermore, the ‘mesh of state and federal legislation’, Holden writes, ‘is a tangle, overlapping a network of state-level regulations with further weavings of national laws, different supervising ministerial departments and various authorities’. She suggests it is not entirely surprising that Turnbull ‘pleaded ignorance of some of it’.

By the time of the anonymous phone call, Turner had amassed a huge volume of files on the Turnbulls’ activities over six months. Between them, Ian, his sons, and grandson Cory, owned nearly 9000 acres ‘of the best agricultural soil in the country’. Ian Turnbull had recently acquired ‘Strathdoon’ and ‘Lochiel’, but needed to submit a vegetation plan to the Catchment Management Authority before the sale of the properties was finalised. His grandson Cory prepared the paperwork, unaware that he first needed permission to clear, although the Environmental Protection Agency had written Ian Turnbull a letter advising this.

Based on the evidence he had gathered, Turner submitted a stop work order. The Turnbulls challenged it. Later, when they were charged for clearing, they challenged that ruling as well. One of the justifications that Turnbull continually used was that they were clearing regrowth. Under the Native Vegetation Act 2003, native vegetation clearing was forbidden unless approval was received from a committee. Under the law, Holden explains, regrowth ‘technically means only what’s regrown since 1990 – earlier than that and they call it “remnant”’. But Turnbull maintained that regrowth was what had grown since the blocks were occupied in 1857. He argued that the native grass had been eaten out a long time ago. Despite the court rulings, agitation from the Turnbulls’ neighbour Alaine Anderson, who cared for koalas and their habitat on her property, and Phil Spark’s petitioning of environmental organisations and state and federal MPs, the Turnbulls ‘cleared protected land at various periods from 2011 to 2014’. 

One of the effective techniques in this book is Holden’s use of refrain: ‘He’d bought the block for the black soil there, the last of it. It needed to have a crop on it, and that’s what he was going to do.’ It reinforces Turnbull’s dogged disregard for the law and his unwavering intention to remove Turner, whom he saw the obstacle to his crop. Even in the witness stand, Turner talked of clearing because it was, Holden quotes, ‘a chance of growing some crops and being able to get some sensibility into the system.’ ‘Sensibility’ seems an odd choice of word given that, as Holden remarks, ‘A man had been killed. It seemed Turnbull could think only of his resentment, the clearing, the land. It was the last of the black soil and it had to have a crop on it.’

Twinned with this refrain is Turnbull’s threat to kill Glen Turner. His son Roger said Turnbull began talking of killing Turner sometime during 2012. In April 2014, Holden writes, Turnbull told his son Roger that he’d ‘dug two graves, one for Turner and one for a colleague, somewhere on the Turnbull farms’. Roger did not think that his father would act on the threat, but notified the police regardless. They did not follow up. 

The repetition of Turnbull’s desires – for the crop and the removal of a perceived impediment to that crop – mirror what must have been constant rumination in Turnbull’s mind. 

In June 2014, Turnbull was sent a summons for a second lot of clearing he had done. Turner’s name was on an affidavit accompanying the summons. His son Grant described Turnbull as ‘at a point of despair.’ He was by this stage $2 million in debt. Family friends visiting at the time were ‘struck by his gloom. There had been a change in the man. He seemed vexed, rubbing his aching legs, his mind alight.’ His family had a history of depression, and by 2014 the district had experienced three years of drought, another major stressor for rural populations, particularly for men who do not have a vocabulary of emotion. A psychiatrist who met Turnbull in remand explained that farmers have to be self-sufficient, resilient and stoic ‘because they’ve got to do everything for themselves. They’ve got to be plumbers, electricians, mechanics.’ 

A month later, Turner drove from Tamworth to Moree for an inspection trip with his colleague Robert Strange. One of the properties on their list was near the Turnbull’s ‘Colorado’. As they approached the property via Talga Lane, the sun was setting and they smelled smoke. The source was ‘a great raft of timber set alight in the middle of a cleared field, like a funeral pyre. Others, too: there might have been thirty beacons of fire in the middle of the newly cleared ground. The open grassy woodlands was gone.’ After Turnbull’s first conviction, this area had been marked on the remediation map as vegetation to be retained.

A white ute passed the men on the road. As Turner and Strange headed back to Moree, they drove by the ute, now parked on the side of the road. They recognised the driver as a man who worked for Turnbull. He was on the phone.

I grew up on a farm outside Boggabri, some two hours’ drive from Moree. My grandparents played tennis with Eric Rolls’ brother and his wife. My father, a farmer and an artist, exhibited regularly in Tamworth, Gunnedah, Narrabri, Barraba, Currabubula and Moree. As a girl on the cusp of adolescence, I ran with my brother along the empty main street of Narrabri after dinner with family friends, buoyed by our father’s happiness after an exhibition, the mild summer night and, in my case, a black polka dot skirt of my sister’s that I had long coveted.

My father’s watercolours reflected the country life around him: old pubs, elderly men and women enjoying cups of tea in the sun, flower arrangements with scones and jam, the soft purple and pink hues of sunset, the contours of red hills, reflections in rivers, rain rippling down windows. When I asked him if he would read The Winter Road, he replied, ‘No, I can’t bear it.’

I don’t blame him. On Talga Lane, Turnbull approached and shot Turner without warning. He was indifferent to Strange’s pleas for mercy. When Turner realised Strange could not help without being shot himself, he ran, defenceless and bleeding, for the cover of the bush. Turner shot him again.

We always had guns on the farm. The first rule was to never point them at anyone else.

In Holden’s description of the aftermath, she recounts how individuals in the district responded. The structure she employs – detailing what each person was doing at the time, then drawing them to the scene at Talga Lane – reveals the tight, brigalow-like interlacing of rural communities. The Turnbull family had a shortwave radio, and Turnbull used it to call his farm manager: ‘I just pumped a couple of shots at Turner. I think he’s dead.’ Turnbull added, ‘I’m going home to wait for the police.’ The farmhand’s wife heard the message on the radio. Other messages spread by text message and phone. 

Strange hailed a worker on his way home at 6pm, Andrew Uebergang, and used his phone to call for help. Andrew started shaking. He collected a neighbour, Felicity Whibley, who had first aid training, but Turner was beyond help. Fear percolated among the group gathered around Turner. When they ambulance arrived, staff told everyone to get in their cars in case the shooter was still present in the dark. Felicity, too, started shaking.

At 8.30pm near Tamworth, after phoning for news and being put on hold, Turner’s wife Alison was told her husband was dead.

Turner’s body was left in the dark, gathering dew, for eighteen hours. Holden recounts Alison’s trauma through her words to the court: ‘I cannot bear the thought of him being out there in the cold by himself. I should have been there to hold him.’

The family offered $5 million for Turnbull’s bail, the same amount, Holden points out, ‘Grant Turnbull had said in the Land and Environment Court would bankrupt the family.’ Bail was denied. And yet, ‘within days of raising his gun, Turnbull was a martyr. Suffering rose around his reputation like vapour. He was harried, persecuted; an elderly man relentless pursued, prosecuted and broken by government authorities.’ While Turner’s name was added to the International Ranger Federation Roll of those killed for protecting the environment, ‘the victimhood narrative endowed on Turnbull was stronger. The image of the man holding the gun, defending his right to be heard, is a composition we have been encouraged to honour.’

After an eight-week trial, during which time Turnbull’s mental health was assessed and a diagnosis of depression or major disorder was not substantiated, Turnbull was convicted of murder and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Turner’s sister, Fran Pearce, read in her statement to supporters: ‘The murderer was portrayed as the victim, a poor, depressed, respectable farmer driven to despair by the Office of Environment and Heritage. In reality, he is a wealthy property developer who simply refused to accept that the law applied to him.’

Turnbull died in 2017, three years into his prison sentence.

We moved from the farm when I was fifteen, when my father accepted a job in Armidale as an art teacher. I left for university a few years later. Once I discovered the bright city lights, I never looked back, relieved to escape.

Reading this book, for me, has been an exercise in claustrophobia, as I was thrust back into the world of conservative, rootbound communities. The sense of enclosure was reinforced by the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, nearly all of which are by men, and by the absence of interviews with First Nations communities. Moree, after all, has a strong First Nations presence, and I kept wondering what the Gamilaraay people thought of the mess that had erupted on their country. Holden by no means ignores a First Nations presence, describing their laws (‘a fine lace of iron-hard filaments that lay over every community, every relationship’) and their careful husbandry of land, and recounting the circumstances and belated acknowledgement by settlers of the Myall Creek massacre, some 100 kilometres from Croppa Creek. She also acknowledges the growing advocacy of First Nations methods of caring for country, particularly in the context of regenerative agriculture. However, her description of colonisers’ encroachment into the interior – ‘After brimming at the edges of the Port Jackson settlement on Sydney Cove for twenty-five years, the colony exploded over the barrier of the Blue Mountains and spilled into the plains beyond’ – fails to register the fierce responses of First Nations peoples in the area. For example, Callum Clayton-Dixon in Surviving New England describes the Anaiwan people’s continuing resistance to invasion in the Northern Tablelands. 

At the same time, Holden’s rendition of the history of enclosures, of traumatised peoples starting anew in Australia, and their sense of entitlement and longing for freedom, opened a window into a people that have, despite my upbringing, long baffled me. 

Amidst the male-dominated world that Holden evokes, her accounts of Alaine Anderson, the Turnbulls’ neighbour who was invested in caring for koalas and their habitats, are refreshing. In her acknowledgements, Holden thanks ‘JD, BO and JM, women of the northwest who spoke of life on the land and offered a female perspective on a very male narrative’. I wondered why, although the story was driven by men, the narrative could not have opened itself to a stronger female presence. Many country women, after all, are tough and strong; my mother looked after the pigs when my father travelled, and my aunts helped with docking and castrating lambs, as well as navigating complex family finances. 

This world is a stark contrast to that of Holden’s memoirs, In My Skin and The Romantic, both of which I adored. I opened the pages of this new book with eagerness, expecting to find a similar style of writing, but her subject matter demands a different focus to her candid accounts of women’s desires and dreams. Amidst her detailed and dedicated research into legislation, history, and court and newspaper reports, I located pockets of Holden’s sensuality, mostly in her descriptions of the nonhuman world: ‘The nutrients that were stored in the soil had accreted for thousands and thousands of years, through floods and droughts in cycles as regular as breathing, as once the land itself rose and feel in the breath of the Earth. What comes up through the skin of the soil takes aeons. What wounds it may take an instant.’ These sections of the book, and particularly her references to the country as a body, rang far more clearly for me than the clumps of text recording history and legislation. They remind me of one of my favourite essays, Muninjali author Ellen van Neerven’s ‘The Country is Like a Body’

In a piece published in Griffith Review in 2011, Holden wonders if ‘the addiction to memoir is a failure of imagination, of the ability to move beyond my own solipsism’. But how, she asks herself, ‘could I be authorised to write from the perspective of anyone other than myself?’ The Winter Road, in charting a long and complex case that extends over years, with numerous participants with conflicting agendas and personalities, signals her development as a writer. 

The work closes with a vignette of Holden walking with her young son down the street, where they encounter some newly planted Japanese elms along the nature strip. The saplings replaced a series of callistemons which had been savagely attacked by a human for months, until the council gave up and replaced them with the non-native species. I read it as a sad reinforcement of all that had gone before, and wondered just how much difference Glen Turner’s death has made.

Australia has lost 40 per cent of its forests since 1788, and approximately 50 per cent of natural forests remaining are severely degraded (Bradshaw). Holden reports that in Queensland, following the loosening of land-clearing laws under premier Campbell Newman, land clearing tripled to 300,000 hectares, and an estimated 90 million native animals were killed. Meanwhile, in New South Wales, from 2013 – 2016, she notes that rates of clearing rose by 800 per cent. Adding to this, the 2019-2020 bushfires affected 8.3 million hectares of native forest. No wonder Australia has the worst rate of mammalian extinctions in the world. No wonder our ecosystems are heading for disaster.

Recently, my father lost his brother. The three boys grew into men on the farm, went away and married, and returned to the farm to raise their families. We were a thicket of seventeen, with my grandparents and three families of five. I was unprepared for the sorrow that spooled through my body when I heard of my uncle’s death. Our paths had crossed only briefly when I left the farm, but he had watched over a third of my life, and it was a shock that he, the loudest of a bunch of energetic extroverts, was no longer there. As I listened to my father recounting to my mother the people he had caught up with at the wake, I felt for him and my mother, for my aunt, for his other brother and sister-in-law, and my cousins. I realised that we were still knitted into the community that had crafted a life from the soil, with all the complicated, inherited histories that wrought.

The brigalow is not separate to us. In destroying it, we — and countless nonhumans — lose something that nourishes and sustains us. While Alison McKenzie, Fran Pearce and Robert Strange read out statements detailing the impact of Turnbull’s crime on their wellbeing, Holden notes that ‘there are no impact statements made by microbes, by koalas or flowering groundcover for the harm done to them’. I wonder what the brigalow would say, as witness: would it laugh at the way so many humans are befouling their own nests? Or would it be breathless, wheezing so close to extinction?

Works Cited

Atlas of Living Australia.

Bradshaw, C. (2012). Little left to lose: Deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonization. Journal of Plant Ecology, 5(1), 109–120.

Holden, Kate. ‘After the Words.’ Griffith Review, 2011.

– In My Skin. Text Publishing, 2007.

– The Romantic. Text Publishing, 2010.

Published November 14, 2022
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Jessica White

Jessica White is an author and academic living on Kaurna country. She has published...

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