Review: The Woman on the Mountain

Sharyn Munro • Exisle Publishing • ISBN 9780908988770-9

sharynbook.jpgIt’s easy just to take this book at face value and see it as the slightly unusual autobiography of a decidedly odd woman who turned her back on civilisation to live alone in a frightening wilderness, battling unruly weather, the vicissitudes of love and family, wildfire, recalcitrant machinery and the aches and pains of advancing age to achieve an ascetic solitude with only quolls and wallabies for company.

Australians display a marked ambivalence about the bush. The huge majority of the people, tightly huddled on the coastal fringes of this empty continent, rarely think about it despite the bush paintings adorning so many loungeroom walls. The bush is a vast and threatening place which only intrudes into the urban consciousness as alarming reports of huge bushfires, droughts, floods and helicopters winching hapless stray walkers to safety. Only a ratbag would want to live there. She wrote this book to tell us why.

Most reviewers so far have looked no deeper, but books like this one are so rare they can hardly be blamed for that.

Its underlying context is a long tradition of radical dissent that extends past Thoreau, Tom Paine and David Hume, all the way back to Diogenes – but we need go no further back than Thoreau to show that this book carries on that tradition and does so magnificently. Sharyn Munro’s life has been one long act of dissent and being a full-time dissenter is far from easy; if you are looking for the path of least resistance, you would be ill-advised to follow her.

Henry David Thoreau spent a couple of pleasantly active years in the woods near the New England town of Concord building a cosy little cabin and dabbling in agriculture and nature studies. Out of this sojourn came Walden, which is partly an account of his charming bucolic activities and partly an effusion of long-headed Yankee cracker-barrel wisdom.

After Walden, by the way, he ignored his own advice about not conforming to the expectations of society and lost all his money in an ill-starred investment in a pencil factory.

Compared with Sharyn Munro, Thoreau did it easy. He was just a short stroll from Concord, where he could easily pick up a bag of nails or borrow an axe. Even the celebrated Walden Pond was artificial — it was dug and dammed as a source of supply for the ice trade.

Walden’s durability rests partly on the difficulty of classifying it. Is it political, philosophical, autobiographical or what? Classification is a form of dismissal and once Americans found out they couldn’t dismiss Thoreau by classifying him, they elevated him to the status of admirable ratbag so they could get on with the serious business of ripping each other off. That’s why today Thoreau’s haunts are a theme park complete with a replica cabin, souvenir shops, fast food outlets and huge areas where you can park your SUV while you and the kids commune with the remaining smidgeons of nature.

Perhaps the closest we can come to a definition of books like Walden and The Woman on the Mountain is didactic pastoral — a version William Empson should have noticed if he hadn’t spent so much time trying to force Alice in Wonderland into the genre.

To Sharyn Munro’s credit, unlike Thoreau, she doesn’t indulge in preaching, prescription or po-faced philosophising. She can’t be dismissed, either; she’s not a time-warped hippie or a New Age airhead. She is a practitioner of a way of life guaranteed to send a thrill of terror surging through advertising agencies, marketing departments, shopping malls and banks – the voluntary austerity advocated by Ivan Illich as the only equitable way to abate society’s ills before this over-exploited planet collides with statistical inevitability.

On the way to achieving that austerity, she’s endured a lot of the involuntary kind. She just didn’t give up, which is a principal mark of the authentic ratbag, a precious species severely threatened by the narrow conformity expected by those we choose to govern us. We used to cherish our ratbags because they provided stimulating bursts of dissent that nourished our almost-vanished national trait of scepticism; we have allowed vacuous celebrities to take their place, and one day we’ll be sorry.

Where Thoreau is pointedly didactic (indeed, even his best friends thought he was a bit of a plonker that way), Sharyn Munro teaches so gently about her environmental and conservation concerns that we hardly realise how much we’re learning from her – although, and this is another signal ratbag trait, she occasionally lets fly with a full-blown rave about the greed and folly that’s damaging everything in the sacred name of profit. Well, rave on, Munro!

The book is blessedly free of the gush, twitter and pseudo-spiritual baggage of a lot of writing about the natural world, despite the deep love for nature that motivates it. The prose is economical and largely unadorned; it doesn’t get in the way of her keen talent for observation, nor does it clog or slow the narrative of a difficult and often turbulent life. As George Orwell said, prose should be like a window pane. Truth and clarity like this is rare these days; aspiring writers could benefit from using her as a model as they work towards discovering their own voice.

But she will sneak up and surprise you with a sudden sparky word or a biting phrase, and then she’s got you. You just have to keep reading — the reason, apart from the plainly told tale of an extraordinary and in many ways exemplary life, why this book will endure. And, come the looming disasters of climate change, wars over water and all the other perils we will bequeath to our children, we’ll be faced with the question of whether she really was a ratbag after all.

Visit her website for regular updates about goings-on at her mountain wildlife refuge.