Book Review: The Winter Road

Author: Kate Holden.

Publisher: Black Inc. 2021

Review by Helen Wilson and NPA Book Group

The focus of this book is the murder of environmental compliance officer Glen Turner by farmer Ian Turnbull at Croppa Creek near Moree in July 2014. Holden’s purpose is not just to relate this horrifying event, its background and aftermath, but to use it to invoke wider questions about European systems of land ownership, valuing and managing the land, Aboriginal massacres, profit-driven agriculture, the effects of increasing extremities of heat and drought on the Australian landscape and our environmental laws.

The question is how successful she is in achieving this enormous ambition. Well, quite. Though the murder story is well known, the role of many players in it isn’t. The Turnbull family dynasty, with aging patriarch Ian, driven to expanding and clearing his holdings for his more or less appreciative sons, can be compared to more familiar family sagas. Holden tries to be sympathetic, to understand that his attitudes come from the history of white settlement, though the actual murder was the work of an unhinged mind. 

There’s also Glen’s story, a different kind of decent Aussie family man, working for the government and regenerating his own land near Tamworth, and the team of officials and ecologists he works with. They’re failed by unclear and changing laws, departmental restructures, staff shortages and no recognition of the security issues their work involves. The National Party is a major force, defending resource extraction and trying to prevent effective environmental protection. The new Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 and especially amendments of the Local Land Services Act 2017 fulfilled their wishes. If it was in place earlier Turnbull’s clearing may have even been legal. 

Many pages are devoted to narrating the court cases relating to the murder and the Turnbull family’s refusal to comply with rehabilitation orders and pay fines. These were long, difficult, costly and involved skilful lawyers. Turnbull died in in custody in hospital but otherwise it’s not clear whether the process delivered justice. We’re left not knowing if any of his properties have been rehabilitated or whether Glen’s widow and many of his traumatised colleagues have received any compensation. The law is hardly fair or effective. 

Holden refers to an enormous number of environmental and historical thinkers and these reflections break up the story. Her intention seems to be to show that this case crystallises the colonial history of all that’s wrong with Australian attitudes to the land. The rhythm of exposition of a story we’re all familiar with, in outline and wider reading, is novel and stimulating, making us appreciate how the players are products of their society at a point of deep challenge to that culture. However, despite her creative literary style she could be accused of overdoing the appeal to sources, for they can’t possibly all be developed.

She could have paid more attention to the need for better environmental laws and institutions. These fail Glen and his colleagues time and again. But will a government committed to defending outmoded destructive industries ever tolerate effective environmental laws? We in NPA have to believe in the possibility of better governance so that tragedies like this can’t happen again. 

Book group members appreciated Holden’s achievement and thought the book was well worth reading. We also pointed out a few shortcomings, most notably the lack of an index. We acknowledged her point that the environmental movement is often by necessity defensive, and yet visionary long term goals to preserve natural heritage by naturalists, landholders, groups, and individuals are under-acknowledged. Some independent, passionate environmental defenders such as retired farmer and ecologist Phil Spark are depicted, as are glimpses of courageous, caring landowners and people quietly willing to speak up, as well as those conscientious in their roles as government employees. One of these, Chris Nadolny, worked on many of the assessments in this case. He is a member of NPA Armidale Branch, and we were pleased to hear his comments as conveyed by Lynne Hosking:

I’d like to congratulate Kate Holden on a brilliant book. Kate dealt with a horrific event sensitively and compassionately. She took care to get the facts right where it counted and never lost sight of either the big picture or the personal nuance. The book is a page turner, always keeping the reader engaged. During my interactions with Kate, while she was writing the book, I watched her transition from a novice with no special knowledge of the issues around tree clearing to an expert with important things to say.

We all endorsed Nadolny’s comments on how little has been learned:

A sad aspect of this saga is that since Glen’s death legislation protecting native vegetation from clearing has been wound back and clearing rates have increased. All this is happening despite all our increased understanding of the plight of our fauna and the value of retaining native vegetation, especially as we face new challenges such as climate change. 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.