The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: Repatriation Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In 2008, Winton drives north from Perth to Mt Gibson Station through what used to be extremely biodiverse eucalypt woodlands. Over many decades, wheat farms, which had a prosperous two generations before succumbing to a devastating drought, destroyed the woodlands. Now, the current generation of farmers out here are being paid to replant the same trees their ancestors tore down.
The sparse land, and the fact that the current farmers are replanting the trees that existed in the first place, suggests that decisions based on human greed lack the long-term strength and stability that is demonstrated by untampered nature.  
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Though some still consider the northern wheatbelt Winton is driving through a heroic piece of history, to Tim, the land is desolate and grim. As he drives toward the desert, the landscape seems to dwindle into utter lifelessness before, surprisingly, bursting into life again, revealing roadkill and flora and gnarled trees. As he gets farther from cultivated land, the wilderness’s fulness reveals itself.
Winton is at odds with much of the Australian public in his attitude towards the wheatbelt. Where others see the efforts of human progress, he sees only destruction. Even the desert holds more life and richness than this destroyed patch of land, implying that as Winton sees it, nature has the right idea.
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Winton feels out of place this far inland, identifying strongly as a coastal person and feeling at home in “the littoral” (near the shore). Out here, the littoral is at the edge of the desert where life still flourishes. And he feels that something is changing out here—private citizens are taking it upon themselves to protect biodiversity. Australia’s record of mammal extinction is the worst in the world, mostly due to land clearing, which left native animals vulnerable to introduced predators’ attacks.
Winton is comfortable at the edges of things, the places where one landscape changes into another, whether that be at the seaside (where land becomes sea) or in in-between spaces, like at the edge of the desert. This comfort is reflected in his attitudes to tribalism: where one group of people agree on something in a close-minded way, he’ll find himself at the edge of the debate, pushing the bounds of the rigid debate. He prefers to be in an environment of change and discovery than to be firmly rooted at the center of any community.
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Over the past decade, non-government organizations have been purchasing land in Australia to preserve and protect it, including the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which runs Mt Gibson Sanctuary. Winton is returning to the sanctuary for the first time in several years. He pulls in and drives along a road shadowed by small trees interspersed with abandoned mining materials. He reaches the gate at the State Barrier Fence and spots an emu carcass that has been caught in the gate’s wires.
The scene along the side of the road Winton drives demonstrates the changing landscape of this nature sanctuary—it’s in the process of abandoning its status as mining land and transforming back to the natural habitat it once was. The emu carcass in the fence hints at the brutality of the Australian wilderness and the futility of manmade structures there. Even when a fence is intended to protect nature, it could end up destroying it.
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Winton touches the earth and notices how fragile it is. The soil erosion and habitat loss caused by the introduction of hoofed grazing animals like sheep and cows is still evident. As a child, Winton never saw any of the marsupials he learned about at school—not because they were shy or nocturnal, but because they’d mostly died out. He reaches the homestead alone.
The fact that the grazing animals destroyed much of Australia’s natural habitat is another suggestion that, in their desire to make the land produce value for them, humans have instead contributed to that land’s destruction.
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In the spring of 2001, the homestead and surrounding buildings were full of life, a hub of scientists and their vehicles and equipment. Winton arrived then for the first time, knowing only that the project was run by a wealthy philanthropist—and skeptical of his intentions. Accustomed to the general Australian attitude that, once you’d wrestled some kind of success from the cruel, inhospitable wilderness, you had no generosity for charity, Winton doubted that someone would set up a sanctuary like this with truly good intentions. But when he met Martin Copley, the philanthropist running the sanctuary, in 2001, he realized that this project was built on science and a true desire for conservation, and that it respected its scientists and their findings.
Winton’s trepidation in meeting Copley reflects his understanding that Australia, being so brutal and difficult to survive in, doesn’t leave much room for community, kindness, or care for the natural environment. Copley’s respect for scientists suggests that, instead of trying to gain something from the land around him, he wants to work with and for it—to truly conserve, instead of tokenizing or disregarding the land.
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Back in 2008, Winton leaves the homestead and drives on to reach Lake Moore before the sun sets. He stops when he sees a mound that looks like a malleefowl’s nest, but when he gets closer, he realizes it’s been empty for a long time. He drives on and stops at the clearing where, seven years ago, he was shown some boodie warrens. Boodies are small kangaroo-like creatures which have been extinct on mainland Australia since the 1960s. The scientists that showed Winton the warrens were hopeful that one day the boodie would return to Mt Gibson.
Winton’s careful regard for the landscape around him, and his ability to identify the malleefowl’s nest, suggest that he feels indebted to the natural environment of his own country. Though he identifies as more of a coastal person, his care for the natural world extends to the inland wilderness too, which implies he's aware of the interacting ecologies of this landscape.
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Quotes
Indeed, in 2004, Winton travelled to an offshore island to release boodies into the wild. He held one against his chest in its sack before releasing it and felt a sense of great attachment watching it scamper off. Since then, those 17 boodies have grown to a population of over 100. There are still none living on the mainland, but it’s a goal that seems within reach.
Winton’s behavior when releasing the boodie, and the attention he’s been paying to the rise of the boodie population on the island, suggest that he’s invested a significant amount of hope in the return of the boodie to mainland Australia.
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Winton notices how much more vegetation covers the sanctuary compared to his last visit. The flora and fauna spring up around him as he drives. He reaches the shore of Lake Moore, a lesser camping spot but one that attracts him with its ghostliness. He wanders up a slope to a quandong tree, from which he stares across the lake before heading back to his car. He cooks a meal on his stove before falling asleep for a few hours, and when he wakes up, he feels oppressed by the moonlight and can’t get back to sleep.
Winton’s attraction to a lesser-known, more haunted-feeling campsite is another reminder of his comfort in the outskirts (either of a landscape or of a community). He’s attracted not by what’s popular but something more spiritual—a holy calling that’s echoed in his later discussions on faith.
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Winton reflects on the lives of three girls who trekked across this wilderness in 1931: Molly Craig, Gracie Fields, and Daisy Kadibill, whose escape from colonial cruelty was made famous by the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. Winton feels uneasy in his relative comfort, being a white man with a big car in the middle of the same place.
Winton’s ability to reflect on his status and presence in a storied, fraught landscape suggests that he’s spent a good deal of time learning and thinking about the racial interactions in Australia and his status as a white person with relative comfort and agency.
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In the morning, Winton wakes to the sounds of pigeons and cockatoos. He walks along the shore until he sees a dark mass—a winding group of schist stones that looks like a fish trap, though it seems there were never any fish in Lake Moore. Though the groups of indigenous people once local to this area have long been scattered by colonialist policies, it’s generally agreed that this was an important meeting point for those different groups.
The ghostly feel of Winton’s campsite combined with the purpose of the schist stones as a place of indigenous gathering implies the deeply felt absence of those scattered indigenous peoples. Where once this was a meeting place, it now symbolizes the communities’ absence.
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This gathering point is a protected place, but that protection is fragile, its custodian an old man living hundreds of kilometers away. Winton suggests it’s less of a powerful ancient presence and more a reminder of all that has been lost by the Aboriginal people—songs, stories, traditions, and the ability for self-determination. Now, Aboriginal Australians are disproportionately ill, unemployed, and illiterate; their most common gathering is at a funeral.
The fragility of the protections over this gathering place is echoed later in the book. In general, Winton makes the case that Australia lacks official, solid protections over its most vulnerable, and arguably most beautiful, places. And this mirrors how Aboriginal Australians are similarly unprotected.
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However, Winton notes that more and more frequently, Aboriginal people have been returning to this place, and in recent years they’ve been using the internet as a way to connect with each other and encrypt their shared knowledge. He finds it easier to be optimistic about the idea of return and growth now that the landscape itself is healing.
Though the proof that the landscape is healing is concretely evident to Winton, the idea that indigenous communities are strengthening and regrowing is more nebulous and uncertain. This suggests that while humans’ destruction to the natural world can likely be healed, it's harder to heal the consequences of human conflicts and cruelty.
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Winton sees hope growing in other areas. A nearby sheep station was also recently destocked and turned into a nature reserve, while land to the north has become an Indigenous Protected Area. Private groups, rather than the government, whose progress is infuriatingly slow, has done most of this work. Though fierce public protest is still deeply important to the protection of Australia’s wilderness, philanthropy is making large strides in this part of the world. In the beauty of this place, Winton finds it difficult to rein in his hopes for a flourishing future.
The essay ends on a positive note that champions positive progress and hope for a thriving natural world. Winton's frustrations with his country’s government are evident here. But Winton’s frustration is outweighed here by the beauty of the natural world which declares its own, inarguable healing. 
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