I GREW up on the world’s largest island. This bald fact slips from consciousness so easily I’m obliged to remind myself now and again.

“Humans are a brilliant species, an exception, a privileged minority. And few humans are luckier than Australians. Generations of experience have transformed us. Those who arrived here in antiquity were changed and changed and changed by the continent; the land made them anew. Those of us whose roots are not as deep are startled to learn how different we are from our immigrant forebears, for our island is a place that soon renders people strangers to their own ancestors. It has real, ongoing power to shape people. It influences our thoughts and habits, our language, our sensory register. However stubbornly we resist, it knocks us about, bends us out of shape and moves us on somehow. In my own lifetime Australians have come to use the Aboriginal-English word “country” to describe what my great-grandparents might have called territory. Slowly, fitfully, geographic ambivalence and diffidence have given way to a new respect. Patriotism has evolved to include a reverence for the land itself, and the passion to defend the natural world as if it were family. This is why we write about the island, the place, the natural physical world. This is why we paint it. From love and wonder, irritation and fear, hope and despair, because like family, it’s an enduring puzzle and it refuses to be incidental.”

Extract from an edited transcript of The Island Seen and Felt: Some Thoughts About Landscape, Tim Winton’s speech to the Royal Academy, London, on November 14 2013.

I GREW up on the world’s largest island. This bald fact slips from consciousness so easily I’m obliged to remind myself now and again.

But in an age when a culture looks first to politics and ideology to examine itself, perhaps my forgetting something so basic should come as no surprise. After all, our minds are often elsewhere. The material facts of life, the organic and concrete forces that shape us, are overlooked as if they’re irrelevant or even mildly embarrassing. Our creaturely existence is registered, measured, discussed and represented in increasingly abstract terms. Perhaps this helps explain how someone like me, who should know better, can forget he’s an islander. Australia the place is constantly overshadowed by Australia the national idea, Australia the economic enterprise. Undoubtedly the nation and its projects have shaped my education and my prospects, but the degree to which geography, distance and weather have moulded my sensory palate, my imagination and expectations is substantial and the evidence of this continues to surprise me, even in middle age. The island continent has not simply been background to my life and work. To my life it’s been pivotal. To my work it’s been a central, vital concern, a source of agitation and inspiration. Landscape has exerted a kind of force upon me that is every bit as geological as family. Like many Australians I feel this tectonic grind most keenly when abroad.

The first time I left the island I was 28. I say left the island because “going” abroad doesn’t really cut it. Here you can jump in a cab and get a train from King’s Cross station and in the time it takes to see a Terrence Malick movie you’re abroad. But you may not be quite as overseas as I was. Living in Europe in the 1980s I made the mistake of thinking that what separated me from the natives of this exotic hemisphere was just a matter of language and history, as if I really was the mongrel European transplant of my formal education. Such was the blinkered narrative of my schooling. By the 70s Australians had moved on from being children of empire. We were now, more or less, our own show out there in the Asia-Pacific. And we’d long ago rejected the notion of being branch office Brits. In fact we were militantly un-British. And yet I was still taught by bourgeois Marxists in university English Departments that I was, essentially, whether I liked it or not, a European. Which strikes me as a very sloppy way of reminding a native that he’s not an Aborigine. Anyway, the moment I stepped off a plane at Charles de Gaulle I knew I was no European. I was just pink-skinned. Worse, I was of fragmentary pigmentation. The austral sun has, as you can see, confused even my whiteness. Yes, I did happen to speak English. My own brand of English, apparently. And no brand of French anyone had heard in history before or since. But I was not English and I was not a European.

Until that first mortifying day in Paris, I’d never given my own geography sufficient credit. And neither, of course, had those good folk who taught me. They were educated in the narrow trenches of their own disciplines; they taught only what they knew. Being indoor folk of the inner city enclave they knew very little about the natural sciences, about ecology, about geography. Theirs was an abstract world before it was a physical, spatial reality. The physical, sensual world was as much a mystery to them as it is to the evangelical fundamentalist.

So there I was in France at 28. Trying desperately to fit in. Unsettled by gaps of language and history, of course. But even more rattled by my responses to the physical world in this new hemisphere. The cities and villages of the so-called Old World were enchanting. But outside them I felt that all my sensory wiring was scrambled. When I had expected to “appreciate” the monuments of Europe and “love” its natural environment, the reality was entirely the reverse. The immense beauty of ancient European buildings and streetscapes had an immediate and visceral impact – I was swooning. And yet in the natural world, where I am generally most comfortable, I was hesitant, diffident, even sniffy. For while I was duly impressed by what I saw of the natural environment, I could never quite connect emotionally. Being from a flat, dry continent I had actually looked forward to the prospect of soaring Alps and thundering rivers, lush valleys and fertile plains, and yet when I actually beheld them I was puzzled by how muted my responses were. A Eurocentric education had prepared me for a sense of recognition that I simply did not feel, and this was bewildering. The paintings and poems about these epic and apparently sublime landscapes still moved me, so I couldn’t understand the queer feeling of impatience that crept up when I saw them in real time and space. To someone from an austere, sunbleached landscape they often looked – how can I say this? – cute. Yes, they were pretty, even saccharine. Like something off a biscuit tin.

In the first instance I struggled with scale. In Europe the dimensions of physical space seemed compressed. The looming vertical presence of mountains cut me off from the distant horizon. This was a kind of spatial curtailment I hadn’t lived with before. Think about it, even a city of skyscrapers is more porous than a snowcapped mountain range. You can see through London, even Sao Paulo; they’re visually ventilated. But Alps form a solid, visual and conceptual barrier. For a western Australian, whose default setting is in diametric opposition, and for whom open space is the impinging force, the effect is claustrophobic.

The second form of enclosure that weighed upon me was more obvious. European landscapes were humanised. Even the wildest-looking places were modified, including many of those seemingly implacable mountains, because around every second bend was a tunnel, a funicular, a chairlift or a resort. Above the snowline there was usually a circling helicopter. Down in the valleys and along the impossibly fertile plains, nature was only visible through the overlaid embroidery of the people who’d brought it to heel. In Ireland, France and England it seemed to me that every field and hedge was named, apportioned, owned, subsidised, accounted for. It was a landscape of almost unrelieved captivity and domestication. If they weren’t fully inhabited or exploited, most open spaces were modified, so there were no real forests, only woods. Even conservation reserves were more akin to sculpted parks than wilderness. In fact there were few truly wild places left. Even the northern sky felt inhabited. At my lowest moments the European sky looked occluded, like the surface of a ruined eye.

On a bright day in Wales or the Netherlands, the light struck me as blue or slatey. As if someone in the heavens had stopped pedalling. I’d never experienced light deprivation before. I couldn’t understand the gruesome moods I was subject to. (But it was a late insight into Ibsen and Kierkegaard. Those grim buggers. You can blame some of it on bad light, the rest on a diet of pork and cabbage.) I woke up one June morning in the Irish Midlands thinking I’d left the bedside light on and realised, after a few seconds’ confusion that the sun was tilting in through the narrow stone window, lukewarm and unannounced like an in-law. And it wasn’t only light deprivation that left me feeling sapped. I think I was instinctively, unconsciously searching for distances that were unavailable. I was calibrated differently to a European. This difference was not really linguistic or historical. The distinction was geographical; that is, corporeal.

In a seedy cinema on the rue du Temple, watching Disney’s Peter Pan with my three-year-old son, I found that although we were all gazing at the same screen in the flickering dark, he and I were seeing a different film to the rest of the audience. What seemed fantastical and exotic to those bourgeois Parisian kids and their nannies just looked like home to me. I knew secret coves and hidey-holes like those of the Lost Boys. The world of rocky islands, boats and obscuring bush was very much like my own. Only the cold, lonely nursery up in the Darling attic was exotic or fantastical. The wild opportunity of Neverland with its physical openness, lack of enclosure and freedom from adult surveillance was not so far from the ecosystem of my own boyhood. Watching it for perhaps the thirtieth time and seeing it anew, forsaking story altogether and just focusing impulsively, hungrily on the backdrop, I understood what a complete stranger I was in this hemisphere. And yet acknowledging my strangeness made those years abroad easier to digest and enjoy.

When I was born there was about a square kilometre for every person on the island continent. In global terms that’s an immense amount of space. In the UK 256 people share that space. In London, 5200. In the half century since I was born Australia’s population has doubled, but density is still exceptionally low. Despite a human history of perhaps 60,000 years, Australia is a place with more geography than architecture, where openness trumps enclosure. The continent has not been a lost and silent rock floating in austral seas all that time. It has not been and is not empty. For most of human history it has been walked and sung. It is hatched and laced with story, and yet there has always been more space between these cultural lines than settled perennial inhabitation. Occupation in many regions was either seasonal or notional, held in cultural skeins and webs of ritual. Because of vast distances and scarcity of permanent water, the non-human was always in the ascendant. Country may have been intimately known but culture rarely dominated physically, even where land was modified by fire. Culture proceeded from and deferred to country. From sheer necessity. Two centuries after European settlement and its rapid transformations, this is still a place where there is more landscape than culture.

I don’t mean to imply that Australia has no culture or that its cultural life is inconsiderable. I seek only to acknowledge the fact that the continent’s natural forms remain its most distinguishing features. Most Asian and European countries can be more easily defined in human terms. Mention of India, China, Italy, France or Germany will quickly bring to mind human acts and artefacts, but at first blush Australia connotes something non-human, because no post-invasion achievement, no city, nor towering monument can hold a candle to the grandeur of the land. This is not a romantic notion. Unless you think of mining as a romantic activity. And we have a few prominent citizens who do. Everything we do in our country is still overshadowed and underwritten by the seething tumult of nature. An opera house, an iron bridge, a tinsel-topped tower – these are creative marvels – but as structures they look pretty feeble against the landscape in which they stand. Think of the brooding mass and ever-changing face of Uluru. Will architects ever make stone live like this? I doubt it. Consider the bewildering scale and complexity of Purnululu, like a sculpted secret megacity. Australians are unlikely to ever build anything as beautiful and intricate. Few visitors to our shores arrive seeking the built glories of our culture. Generally they come for wildness, to experience space in a way that’s unavailable, and, sadly, sometimes unimaginable in their homelands. I’m not much of a Romantic. Neither, am I a self-hating utopian. I am in awe of the genius in humanity, and I love being in the great cities of the world. Some buildings feel like gifts, not impositions, but I am antipodean enough to wonder now and then whether architecture is, in the end, what you console yourself with once wild landscape has been subsumed.

I say this because space was my primary inheritance. I was formed by gaps, nurtured in the long pauses between people, part of a thin and porous human culture through which the land slanted in, seen or felt, at every angle: so, for each mechanical noise, five natural sounds; for every built structure a landform twice as large and twenty times as complex. And over it all, an impossibly open sky, dwarfing everything, imposing a pitiless correction of human perspective.

On my island the heavens draw you out like a multidimensional horizon. In the south, which boils with gothic clouds, the sky’s commotion can render you so feverish your thoughts are closer to music than language. At night in the desert the sky sucks at you, star-by-star, galaxy-by-galaxy. You feel as if you could fall out into it at any moment. It’s terrifying, vertiginous. I have literally woken in a panic, digging my hands into the dirt either side of the swag to keep from pitching out into space. In Australia the sky is not the safe enclosing canopy it appears to be elsewhere. Standing alone on the Nullarbor or out on a saltpan the size of a small country, you feel a twinge of terror, even in daylight, because the sky seems to go on forever. It has dramatic depth and oceanic movement. So often the southern sky stops you in your tracks, derails your thoughts, unmoors you from what you were doing before it got you by the collar. No wonder Australian painters still insist on treating it as a worthy subject, despite the pressures to move on to something a little more “sophisticated”.

Sometimes it feels as if our continent is more about air than matter, more pause than movement, more space than time. The landscape is not yet humanised and this is what distinguishes it. For the moment Australia is still itself. It imprints itself upon the body, and the mind constantly struggles to catch up and make sense of it. This is why, despite the postmodern and nearly post-physical age we live and work in, Australian writers and painters continue to obsess about landscape. It’s not simply that we are laggards. We are in a place where the material facts of life must still be contended with. There is more of it than us. This disparity and the physical details and peculiarities of the continent are strong and distinct enough to continue to amaze, trouble and inspire us. And we’re still learning. The meeting of the human and non-human across our thin and ancient topsoil is a drama still in its early and vital stages. Elsewhere in the world this story is very often done and dusted already, with nature in stumbling retreat, but in Australia, where a small population negotiates with a larger, extant and dynamic natural environment, this drama is unresolved. Artists can no more ignore this drama than politicians.

To be a writer or an artist preoccupied with landscape is to accept a weird and constant tension between the indoors and the outdoors, the abstract and the sensual. You work from both mind and body. You need to be thin-skinned. But this has its challenges. I’m particularly thin-skinned about weather. I have a craving for physical sensation, to be in a dynamic, living system. So I seem to spend half my working life fretting and plotting escape like a schoolboy. Sat near a window as a pupil, I was a dead loss. I remain so to this day. Which is why I make myself write indoors. I can’t even hang a painting in my workroom, for what else is a painting but a window? My thoughts are sucked outward; I am entranced. So a lot of the time I work in a blank cubicle, my back to the view. Which means I spend quite a bit of the day restless. I’m forever getting up to leave the room, to stand outside in the sunlight for a minute, sniffing the wind, looking at the sky, the birds, listening to the state of the ocean.

Now and then, of course, I just bolt. I pile a few chattels into the LandCruiser and put my foot down. I know many Australian men and women possessed by the same impulse. The wide open road. To drive all day until sunset and then pull over in a different state of mind. There’s often no purpose to these excursions beyond the immediate sensation of being in the open, the pleasure of rolling a swag out in a creekbed or in a hollow between dunes, to sit by a fire, to feel the stars come out like gooseflesh in the heavens. I don’t think of it as escape. To me it’s a homing impulse. Lying under the night sky I feel a sense of return. This feeling of homecoming is not unlike the way I felt as a kid coming in the back door at dusk when the homely smell of the laundry and the slap of the screen door restored me to myself in moments.

These homecomings can be harsh and bewildering. The places dearest to me can be hard to reach. Hence the LandCruiser. They are remote, austere, savage, unpredictable. And like taciturn cousins and leery in-laws they’re not very forthcoming. They give you the stink-eye at breakfast, do what they can to make your stay uncomfortable. But homecomings are about submitting to the uncomfortably familiar, aren’t they? Like a hapless adult child, you go back for more, despite yourself, eternally trying to figure out the puzzle of relationships with parents and siblings, perplexities of heritage, dependency, belonging. But you get sustenance from this, from the actual trying, by remaining open to mystery. For if you give up on home, you suspect you’ll be left with nothing.

My country leans in on you. It weighs down hard. Like family.

I have spent a lot of time watching Australians do this family dance with the outdoors. Urban and prosperous as they are, living beyond the constraints of weather and nature in a way their forebears could never have foreseen, many seek to engage in an almost ritual courtship with the outdoors. We spend billions spent each year on off-road vehicles, caravans, campers and outdoor recreational equipment. This cultural impulse isn’t just a matter of escaping the indoor servitude of working life. There is a palpable communal outward urge, a searching impulse, something embedded in our physical culture, our sensory make-up. To my mind it speaks of an implicit collective understanding that the land is still present at the corner of our eye, still out there, awaiting us, but also carried within, like some sense memory. There’s such restlessness, such yearning. It’s down hard and deep like the tap-root of a half-forgotten tree, and it shows no sign of withering away. For despite how ordered and franchised and air-conditioned contemporary life has become, the land remains a louring presence at the edge of people’s minds. We’ve imbibed it despite ourselves; it’s in our bones like a sacramental ache. Waiting for us. If not a felt presence, then a looming absence. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been standing in a supermarket queue when a complete stranger blurts out, apropos of nothing that I can make out, that one day they’re gonna chuck everything, the house, the job, and just go, pack up the Tojo, pull the kids out of school and “just see what’s out there”. If this yearning wasn’t real advertisers wouldn’t spend their billions exploiting it. Here you can cue the music, open the lens to the rosy light of late afternoon and dub in the breathy voiceover. “Behold, the glory of Kakadu, the endless beaches of Fraser Island, the blood-red breakaways of Karijini, the dark and primordial mysteries of the Tarkine, the miracle of Lake Eyre in flood.” To sell something disposable and ephemeral you need to set it against something truly substantial, something remarkable and enduring. And in Australia what’s more impressive than the land?

Landscape continues to press in, leaning through our windows and insect screens, creeping at the edges of consciousness. No matter how we live, and what we tell ourselves, the sublimated facts of our physical situation constantly resurface; the land continues to make its presence felt. Until climate change began to erode the modern sense of immunity in the northern hemisphere, this felt pressure of nature was almost unique to Australia amongst developed nations. Feeling subject to nature is supposedly the province of the poor in undeveloped places. The recent vulnerability of first-world countries is a sudden reversal in Europe, but in Australia it’s been our vivid, steady state. If anything, climate change has only intensified what Australians have always felt – which is, at best, mildly besieged. Nowadays bushfires don’t merely threaten the timbered outskirts of small Australian towns; they have infiltrated and ravaged the inner suburbs of capital cities, panicking and paralysing major populations. Similarly, major flood events are no longer just the nightmare of rural riverside communities; in recent years coastal capitals like Brisbane have been calamitously inundated. Others of course, like Perth, are so drought-weakened that without desalination plants they would no longer be viable settlements at all. Clearly, geography and weather have never been less incidental, less likely to remain mere backdrop. You only need to stand on a street corner in the central business district of Perth and watch the desert dust fall like red rain upon the gridlocked traffic to know that. Whatever else we have told ourselves, we are not yet out of nature and nature is not done with us.

Ours has always been a conditional, permeable settlement and it remains so. The land continues to confound, enchant, appal and inspire. It fizzes, groans, creaks and roars at the edge of consciousness. But I think a geographically thin skin is a boon to our culture. We need to guard against growing too thick a hide, in this sense at least. Isn’t it good for the spirit, being reminded that there is something bigger to consider than ourselves, something, older, richer and more complex and mysterious than humankind? Despite our immense success, our mobility and adaptability there is still an organic, material reality over which we have little control and for which we can claim no credit.

Humans are a brilliant species, an exception, a privileged minority. And few humans are luckier than Australians. Generations of experience have transformed us. Those who arrived here in antiquity were changed and changed and changed by the continent; the land made them anew. Those of us whose roots are not as deep are startled to learn how different we are from our immigrant forebears, for our island is a place that soon renders people strangers to their own ancestors. It has real, ongoing power to shape people. It influences our thoughts and habits, our language, our sensory register. However stubbornly we resist, it knocks us about, bends us out of shape and moves us on somehow. In my own lifetime Australians have come to use the Aboriginal-English word “country” to describe what my great-grandparents might have called territory. Slowly, fitfully, geographic ambivalence and diffidence have given way to a new respect. Patriotism has evolved to include a reverence for the land itself, and the passion to defend the natural world as if it were family. This is why we write about the island, the place, the natural physical world. This is why we paint it. From love and wonder, irritation and fear, hope and despair, because like family, it’s an enduring puzzle and it refuses to be incidental.

Edited transcript of The Island Seen and Felt: Some Thoughts About Landscape, Tim Winton’s speech to the Royal Academy, London, on November 14.

By Brenton Caffin