Book Review: “The Winter Road” by Kate Holden (@BlackIncBooks @EasternRegional)

The Winter Road: A story of legacy, land and a killing at Croppa Creek (Black Inc., May 2021) by Kate Holden

Authored by journalist Kate Holden, The Winter Road is the winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award. It also won the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards – Douglas Stewart Nonfiction Prize, 2022 NSW Premier’s History Awards – Community and Regional History Prize, and 2022 Sisters in Crime Davitt Award for Nonfiction Crime.

The book has a chilling subtitle: “A story of legacy, land and a killing at Croppa Creek.” Specifically, the cold-blooded murder took place on a dirt road in the farming country near Moree in northwest New South Wales.

On July 29, 2014, 80-year-old farmer Ian Turnbull shot environmental compliance officer Glen Turner in the back. The old man clearly knew what he was doing. He was a good shooter, too, the four bullets from his .22 targeting the officer’s neck. Afterwards, he dropped the gun and went home to wait for the police.

Turnbull was sentenced to 35 years in jail and a non-parole period of 22 years, but the case is much, much more about the killing. It is about a farmer’s desire to secure his family’s legacy on the richest agricultural soil in Australia. It is about his sense of entitlement over the land that he lived and worked on.

That sense of entitlement is perhaps best conveyed through the following words from English philosopher John Locke in 1860, which were quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1839 to justify European possession of the Australian continent:

“Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”

But there is an important distinguishment to make between “land” and “property”. As Holden explains, our ownership of a property does not and should not mean we have every right to destroy the plants and animals living on the land. Even more fundamentally flawed is our taking for granted of the land as properties that can be owned and “improved”.

The author’s argument is compelling: At the heart of European colonisation is violence against the land. By claiming this continent as “terra nullius”, land is seen as an opportunity for seizure and personal advantage. “The strongest, the first, the most vigorous or powerful take the spoils. Once seized, it is theirs. Anyone who wants something of it will have to pay.”

The Winter Road is an intense and confronting read, as it draws on multiple philosophical, cultural and environmental sources to illustrate the history of our nation’s violence against native ecologies. There is much to digest, but the overwhelming impression is haunting.

Sadly, in the same way that Turnbull said he was sorry to kill Turner but it did not amount to remorse, such haunting impression is perhaps mixed with a sense of powerlessness in the face of an agricultural tradition that we have long been told inspires a sense of achievement and pride. This is indeed a quintessential Australian story.

Note: This book review was originally titled “An intense, confronting read” and published under the title “Intense and confronting” by Ranges Traders Star Mail, October 25, 2022, P.16.

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