Monday musings on Australian literature: Nature Writing Prize

You know what they say, too much of a good thing is bad for you, so, to save you dear readers from bad things, I thought we’d take a break this week from my historical survey of Australian literature. And, since I received this morning an email containing a call for submissions for Nature Conservancy Australia’s Nature Writing Prize, I thought it would provide the perfect interlude.

Back in May I wrote a post about non-fiction literary awards and listed a few of them, mostly already well-known. Nature Conservancy Australia’s Nature Writing Prize is not well-known. It’s a biennial prize and the 2014/15 prize will be the third one awarded. The prize, which offers $5000 and publication in the Australian Book Review, is for an essay of 3,000-5,000 words “in the genre of ‘Writing of Place'”. According to the press release, the award will go to:

an Australian writer whose entry is judged to be of the highest literary merit and which best explores his or her relationship and interaction with some aspect of the Australian landscape.

The award was created, the press release also says

to promote and celebrate the art of nature writing in Australia as well as to encourage a greater appreciation of Australia’s magnificent landscapes.

I’m intrigued by the language: it’s called the “Nature Writing Prize” but it’s for the genre “Writing of Place”. The two do overlap but, in my head anyhow, they also differ. However, this statement just quoted above mentions nature and landscape, so it seems that by “place” they essentially mean “landscape”. But then, isn’t landscape part of nature? I suppose I’m being a pedant … I expect that it’s quite likely that writing about nature/landscape will often end up addressing notions of “place”.

The inaugural prize was won by Annamaria Weldon for “Threshold Country” and the second prize, for 2012/2013, was won by Stephen Wright for his essay “Bunyip“. In evocative language, drawing on the mythical bunyip, the native eucalypts and, pointedly, the introduced lantana “which replicates itself industriously, efficiently and will cover everything except shadow”, he explores the impact of the early European settlers on indigenous communities in South East Queensland and its legacy today. He makes the disconcerting point that:

We do not understand where we are, or what we have done. A landscape is not a sense of place for the non-Indigenous inhabitants of the continent. It is just somewhere we happen to be.

Note the distinction he makes between “landscape”, something physical, and “place”, which is something far more abstract. Anyhow, towards the end of the essay, he suggests that

It is as if, beneath the ordinary miseries of life, there is a current of displacement that allows us no rest. Our thought is always dislocated and perhaps this is the inevitable outcome of our attempts to consider ourselves at home in a landscape we have so spectacularly devastated.

While this is rather negative for optimist me, it does capture the uneasiness I, and I think many of us, feel about our relationship to the land of our birth that we know has an ugly history. We have a long way to go …

In a sad little postscript, the The Nature Conservancy commemorates Liam Davison and his wife Frankie who died in Malaysian Airline MH17 disaster in the Ukraine. Davison was one of the five writers shortlisted for the 2012/2013 Nature Writing Prize for an essay titled “Map for a Vanished Landscape”. Lisa at ANZLitLovers wrote a tribute to him soon after his death, and is now reading and reviewing his novels.


12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Nature Writing Prize

  1. I think I recall seeing this has a $40 entry fee. Seems a pity that this type of fee is necessary. With the number of entries they receive, it is not like it needs to be that high in order to fund the prize but I suppose it separates the chaff from the wheat a little? I wonder what other writers think about the fees required for many of these competitions.

    • Yes, you’re right Karen Lee. I wondered about that. How often are entry fees charged? I notice them occasionally but have no idea what the percentage is. I wonder how many entrants they get. I agree that it’s a shame. Writers aren’t exactly flush.

  2. I am entire agreement with your pedantry, Sue. You’d think that an organization offering a large-ish financial incentive would take more care.
    Well, this grumpy old fart would. 🙂

  3. I love good nature writing. I managed to squeeze in the opening of Bunyip between work tasks and I love the lantana descriptions. Will have to read the rest at home so I can pay attention. In the US there is a sort of feeling of displacement too and people are so very restless. So I find his suggestion at a lack of feeling at home an interesting idea especially since the US hasn’t treated the indigenous peoples here very well either.

    • Oh good, Stefanie. I thought the opening lantana descriptions were great too. I enjoyed the essay though felt the descriptive language was a little heavy-handed in places. I loved the idea behind the story.

  4. I came across this post while trying to work out if there are any literary journals in Australia that focus on writing of place or landscape (or nature writing, for that matter). Do you know of any, Sue?

    • Oh dear, equineocean, I don’t think I do. Sorry. My knowledge of literary journals is very hit and miss. Wish I could help – if you find any let me know as I’d be interested too.

      • That’s ok – just wondered if you had stumbled across any! I think there are some (like Southerly and the Griffith Review) who publish a great deal about place and landscape, but I am yet to find any journals that focus solely on this kind of writing.

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