Westerly annually awards the Patricia Hackett Prize to the strongest work published within the volumes of the preceding year.
Westerly is thrilled to announce the winner of the 2021 Patricia Hackett Prize, Australian writer Stephen Orr. His prize-winning piece of experimental creative non-fiction, ‘The Boy in Time’, appeared in our first print issue for 2021, Westerly 66.1.
Since the publication of his first novel Attempts to Draw Jesus, in 2002, Stephen Orr has written several novels portraying Australian life, landscapes and concerns. As well as his collection of fourteen short stories Datsunland, published in 2017, Stephen has had stories published by Burning House Press, Southerly, and Island, among others. ‘The Boy in Time’ continues his interest in longform, experimental non-fiction, with a broad range of pieces published by the likes of Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Minor Literatures, 3:AM, The Guardian and many others. Stephen currently resides in regional New South Wales where he teaches and writes.
The Patricia Hackett Prize remembers the contributions of Patricia Hackett to theatre and poetry, and her family’s connection to the University of Western Australia. The Prize was first awarded in 1965, and Stephen joins a prestigious list of past recipients including Kim Scott, Grace Yee, Marcella Polain, David Whish-Wilson, Donna Mazza, Siobhan Hodge, Timmah Ball, Caitlin Maling, David Carlin and Cassie Lynch. A feature written in remembrance of Patricia Hackett was published in Westerly 10.1 in 1965. It is now available as a free download from our digital archive here.
In selecting the winner for 2021, the editors recognised the compelling fluidity of ‘The Boy in Time’ as a work which pushed at the boundaries of written expression. Stephen Orr has accepted the Prize, formally announced at the launch of issue 67.1 on the 14th of July, recognising it as a high honour, ‘especially since I was trying to do something new’.
Congratulations Stephen! Westerly thanks you for your outstanding creative non-fiction piece.
To support Stephen and enjoy more of his writing head to his website here.
Stephen Orr, Westerly 66.1 (2021).
The author realises there’s little point in telling stories. In contriving fanciful plots, inventing three-dimensional characters, irony, pathos, all of this. No point. As the English-German writer W. G. (Max) Sebald explained: ‘The further you tell, the further you travel from truth, which means, of course, that literature is a lie’ (Reynolds np). So the author decides to observe. To see things as they are. To call on his years of science education and teaching experience, to form a different view of the world. Sebald again: ‘There is a beauty in nature and culture we no longer have access to’ (Reynolds np). This view will not only be characterised by facts, observations and measurements, but by the relationships between things. Because the longer he lives, the more he sees and thinks, the more he’s convinced the world is a web of connections, of thoughts, suspicions, hunches, hopes, dreams that are all, in the end, a manifestation of nature. And if this is the case, what’s the point of a story about a girl who builds a career in law, or a man who cheats his wife? He thinks he can come to some understanding of nature by mentally squinting, blurring the world, viewing nature (in a Ganzfeld effect) as an ‘unstructured, uniform stimulation field’ (Metzger).
For example, he’s recently seen a young boy, perhaps seven or eight, trailing behind his family in a shopping centre, a book in his hand. He’s tried to see what this boy is reading, but can tell it’s no picture book— instead, pages of densely packed words. He finds this fascinating. Is this boy succumbing to his dreams? It’s likely, the author thinks, that he’s thirsty for something beyond his own experience. Perhaps it’s a story about a lost dog, or maybe he’s interested to know how wedge-tailed eagles (Aquila audax) incubate eggs. Either way, the author suspects this boy is thirsty. He sees him, later, in a bookshop, kneeling on the carpet reading another book, and this time he checks and sees it’s an adventure story.
The author was a boy with a thirst for books, for stories. This is why he relates to this curiosity. When he was studying he was told that river reds (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) grow beside rivers, creeks, lakes, feet half-in half-out, sinking roots in search of water. He learnt these eucalypts thrived on short rations. Dry summers, stressed lignin and xylem and phloem and leaves. But they didn’t mind. They adapted. In fact, they insisted on these conditions. They were happy to wait for winter, for suburban creeks flooded with nutrient-rich water, low-lying lagoons wetting ancient soils. They were happy to drink themselves silly, then wait through another summer. Patiently. They were, in a sense, happy with this less-than-ideal situation. They’d found, and perfected, a niche. And they’d tried other strategies, too. Dropping low-hanging limbs in favour of (five-storey high) sun-struck leaves gathered in praise of another Australian summer. They’d got so used to this situation that even if you did provide year-round water, they drowned, like fish on a jetty, too much of a good thing. Sometimes, giving a child a library full of books serves no purpose. He or she only needs two, three, sitting on his or her knees, taking it all in. But river reds go further. They shed bark, their leaves close stomata, hang low, turn their backs to the sun. They grow thick skins, and sometimes, with the arrival of winter, throw off their flaky clothes. Almost like someone has planned it. Some sort of nature god. Some higher sensibility, neither Christian nor Darwinian. No-one in the boy’s family had an interest in books. No-one took him to a library (of course, I don’t know these things).
This is what interests the author. How nothing living is any different to anything else living. Now, he’s had the idea of the boy in time, but that’s irrelevant, it could be any person or plant or fish or bird or leaf. Because the way one thing adapts is the way another adapts. And this all goes back (he realises, millions of years too late) to the Great Oxidation Event. Here, perhaps three billion years ago, simple organisms started absorbing oxygen. Microbes became prokaryotes, prokaryotes got jiggy with nuclei and Golgi bodies and made aerobes, and it all kicked off. Soon, people (Homo sapiens) were painting chapel ceilings. Which means, in a sense, we are the most recent cyanobacteria, floating in 3.5-billion-year-old swamps, still absorbing oxygen, the same gas the boy in the bookshop is breathing.
Another boy in time. The author is at a shopping warehouse. Food is sold by the box, the case, the slab, almost as though people shopping here are giant elephants, hominid-dinosaurs eating themselves towards extinction. The author stands and squints and eventually observes a pattern. That is, that these people are a product of their environment. Of the great deals, the posters and billboards, the two-for-ones, the purposely-kept-cheap food, the culture of as-much-as-you-can-get for as-little-as-you-can-get-it-for. They (and he tries to avoid judging) wear trackpants and sandals and T-shirts that extend out over their bellies. He notices many are unkempt, dark eyes, waddling instead of walking. And here, a case study, another boy eating a slice of pizza the size of an encyclopedia. The boy, in a sense, has become what’s around him, who’s around him. He’s adapted by doing nothing, knowing no better, accompanying his family to the warehouse.
The swamp gum (Eucalyptus ovata) is the Costco of gum trees. It doesn’t mind permanently wet feet, poor soils, a bog. It sucks up water, the sun, and reaches for the heavens, attempting to escape overcrowded understoreys. It stumbles through a warehouse of native vegetation in search of bargains. In a world of unsurvivable bushfires, regrowth such as lignotubers and epicormic buds are a waste of evolutionary effort, so our post-apocalyptic gum showers seed into the fertile ash, and they sink, sprout, and reach for another opening day special. A world of excess that never fails, 24-packs of Uncle Moo-Moo’s Chunky Bits. These trees shed bark in long, languid ribbons, teasingly hanging from the lower trunk, or cast off, to burn hot and fast, like sacrifices to some unforgiving fire-god. White-capped fruit, glossy leaves, avoiding the usual profusion of oil glands. And proud, too. Exposing smooth, yellow-brown bark to the cool mornings of the Otway Range, or the summer-dry Torrens. The keys make it clear: ‘Tolerates inundation… poor moist soils in a range of habitats… riparian environments, swampy ground…’ (Swamp Gum np). And the adaptations, the choices it, we all make. It’s no mystery. No story. It can be easily understood.
1a) buds to 1.5 cm long, 0.9 cm diameter, fruit to 1 cm long, 1.3 cm diameter, leaves with prominent oil glands (E. ovata subsp. grandiflora)
1b) buds to 0.9cm long, 0.6cm diameter, fruit to 0.8cm long, 0.8cm diameter, leaves without or with few oil glands (E. ovata subsp. ovata)
The author can see change everywhere, every day, as he walks beside the river. Not really a river, but a creek that dries and wets in a seasonal churn—that supplied and denied the original Kaurna people, the early settlers with their fruit orchards, putting down aquifers to circumvent nature. And, most recently, a retirement village casting shadows across the creek-scape. Now all that remains are a few skeletal citrus trees, crumbled cottages beside sheer quarry walls. The author sees wormwood growing from a backyard, down a hill, into a tepid pool of water. He thinks of absinthe. He thinks of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the green monster. He wonders why anyone planted it (although he picks a sprig, crushes it, inhales). As he continues, the river clogged with reeds and blackberry, and he wonders if someone should clear it. Another river red. Someone’s cut quartz from the ground beneath it, the remaining soil has washed away and the tree hangs like a sad turpentine ghost, waiting for its final indignity. But it persists. Like all of these plants and people, it persists. He sees a willow, half-in half-out of a spot the council have dammed, leaning over the water (and the rope-swing some kid’s added), its limbs dragging arthritic branches through the muck. The author’s concerned that things are changing too fast, and dangerously, like boys with pizza, like people with pig ears. Variation should take thousands, hundreds of thousands of years. No stories, no thinking, no squinting to see the differences between the bleached-bone, mallee-warmed inflorescences of a Hakea actites and ambigua. Or the cleave between a night parrot’s (Pezoporus occidentalis) or king parrot’s (Alisterus scapularis) claw. Between a bookish boy, and a pizza-eater. But back, back, focusing, this sunstruck world of shared DNA. Inasmuch as everything is everything else. According to Sarah Williams in 2015: ‘You—and everyone else—may harbour as many as 145 genes that have jumped from bacteria, other single-celled organisms, and viruses that made themselves at home in the human genome.’
Back to the science, he thinks (as he realises he’s telling stories again). Nature chooses her time and place. And here, upstream from the willow, there’s a dozen, fifteen southern cypress pines (Callitris gracilis) growing on twenty or so square metres. He wonders why here. Maybe the aspect, the soil, some long-ago Arbor Day excursion? He picks up an opened cone, scrapes away the dead seeds, admires its clawed shape, like it’s threatening the world, like someone sometime has sat down and designed it. He admires its complexity, its simplicity, its fitness for purpose, its castoff ovules on the ground (like hotdog foil blowing across a car park). He tries to imagine a human equivalent to the native pine, looks up, sees a slippery dip, says (inadvertently), ‘Of course!’ But we’re getting there, we’re getting there. Firstly, we need to think, he thinks, about the sandy soils along the creek, the quartz outcrops, leading up to the summer-proof bark, the blackened branches with their needle-like leaves, their deep-green attempts at Sicilian living. A tree adapted to its world. Long, hot summers. Low rainfall. Standing back from the water to make room for the gum trees, the castor oil plants, the feral bamboo.
He hears voices. Looks up and sees a boy. A boy in time. He and his sister are climbing the slippery dip, sliding down, running back—up, down, endlessly, for no discernible reason, just doing it. He thinks maybe they’re the native pines. The bronzed-legged boy who persists. Then he notices (god, the author, so aware he’s telling stories) they sit on the end of the slippery dip and talk, like whatever fun, whatever joy there was has gone. The author crushes the cone and scatters it. He’s willing the children to start again, but they don’t, they just return to their mother, drink, sit, look across the empty playground.
So back to the science. The author looks up, and sees these native pines haven’t grown more than six or seven metres tall. Like they know their limitations. And old, gnarled. Like they’ve been here forever. And he thinks, What are you not telling me? He realises he’s party to very little, to almost nothing. He thinks he could study another hundred years of ecology, and still misread the genetics, the biochemistry, the evolutionary strategies of these plants. So when he gets home he reads all he can find about native pines, about the oleoresin that’s synthesised to repel (among other things) insects, the mono-, sequi- and diterpenoids that can be isolated from this unique compound, the a-pinene and β-pinene can be… etc. All of which, somehow, explains the millions of years of chemical synthesis that brought him, the pine, and the children here. But he realises, in the end, this information is at least as unhelpful as a convoluted plot.
The author suspects everything is a story. There’s no getting around it, no matter how careful he is. For example, in 1985 he sets out for university. He attends an agricultural college, studies ecology, is deposited in a small room far from home and wonders what the hell he’s doing. But, by turns, he adapts. He shoots kangaroos, studies their stomach contents. He breeds fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) as a way of learning about inheritance. He raises families of mice (Mus musculus) for research. He’s sent on field trips and forced to camp in the desert, collect rare plant specimens. He makes a Myrtaceae herbarium, and years later, can still tell one of a dozen eucalypts from another. And all this time, he wonders what he’s doing with his hands in nature. He’s a city boy. He’s the small child he sees (a week ago, two, three, it doesn’t matter) in Foodland. A small boy (again) carrying a book (again) standing in the freezer aisle, pointing to the banana custard, saying please, please, and his father storming off, and he, the boy, looking at himself (years later, as an older man) and smiling apologetically, like he’s kept himself waiting, like he’s sorry, like he’s perpetually, eternally sorry for something. This is the story. The story he keeps trying to shake, but can’t.
Maybe this is the closest he can get. Andrew Darling Orr (1829–1902) meets Catherine Bradbury (1838–1910) and they make John Miller Orr (1867–1942). John meets Anne Gross (1862–1937) and they make William Henry Orr (1905–1957). William meets Maude Adelaide Lyons (?) and it continues for another three generations until there’s him. That’s all he knows. No further back, no names, no genetics, and hardly any photos. He knows his maternal great-grandfather, Arthur, embezzled the Broken Hill Council of £16, and he knows he was caught and sent before a judge and the judge said, ‘I am always in doubt which is the more lenient of the two courses to adopt. Sometimes it is found more lenient to impose a fine, and in other cases to inflict a term of imprisonment and suspend it. I will leave it to you to say which is preferable.’ He thinks this is lucky, and wonders what might’ve happened if Arthur had been imprisoned. Maybe he wouldn’t have met Rosetta May Rowett and they wouldn’t have made his grandmother, Clyda, or his mother, Judy. Which means he wouldn’t have happened. Random. That’s the other thing, he thinks: we’re all the product of accidents, misfortunes, hardly-ever-thought-out decisions. We are all of the boys and girls in time, and before time and after time and within and without time. We are one of the 300 species of paperbarks (Melaleuca spp.), and I am biconvexa and you are halmaturorum. We have all been cooking for three billion years, but none of us can remember a thing. Therefore, where memory fails, we invent stories. We were once (some believe) members of one of five races (African, Asian, European, Native American, Oceania), although a 2002 Stanford University study found it’s not that simple. Scientists studied 4,000 alleles (‘coding spots’ on chromosomes) across seven geographical regions and found that 92 per cent were present in two or more regions, and half were found in all seven regions (Chou). Mongrel genes. Mongrel species. Leaving the Rift Valley 60,000 years ago, Europe, Australia, Asia 45,000 years ago, a 15,000-year-old jump across the Bering Strait to the Americas. But it all pales. A hundred and forty million years since plants first flowered, since the seeds of some early ancestor of Melaleuca halmaturorum blew across Australia’s pre-Costco plains.
Ferdinand von Mueller was a German botanist, born in Rostock in 1825, moved to Adelaide, then Melbourne, appointed government botanist in 1853. Scientist, plant-collector, member of the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, author of the eleven-volume Fragmenta phytographica Australiae (1862–1881) and the first to describe Melaleuca halmaturorum. Next, Dutch botanist Friedrich Miquel, describing the holotype specimen in Nederlandsch Kruidkundig Archief in 1856: ‘Ad flumen three-Wells-river insulae harmaturorum’ (‘near the Three Wells river on Kangaroo Island’). The naming, the disagreements, the arguments continuing well into the 20th century before the genus Melaleuca was agreed upon. And then, it was like the plant, the person, the fish, the virus officially existed. Like, at last, we understood how the salt paperbark had come into being. Again, the hand of God, or gods, or the ideas first outlined in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). ‘Let it also be borne in my mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life’ (Chap 4). As it occurs to the author that this is what he’s writing about. Not a boy in time, but all boys, all girls, all humans, all apes and cottonwoods and eagles.
So who is the boy in time? Perhaps he’s a blind mole (Spalax spp.), earless, teeth 1/1, 0/0, 0/0, 3/3 = 16, skin-covered eyes, backing up his tunnel with his reversible fur, until the Black Sea floods his burrow. Or the thorny devil (Moloch horridus), with his rhino-hard hide, a single drop of water draining into his mouth. Or maybe a seven-year-old Parisian? Maybe the boy the author sees on the Metro after he gets on at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Squeezing into a small gap, noticing the child holding an old woman’s hand. The author wonders who he is, where he’s from, invents scenarios about his life, his school, aurally imagines the sound of his voice. Absurd, because there are hundreds of people on the train, but for some reason he’s curious. The boy is (the author thinks, now) a desert eremophila (Myoporaceae) growing in the middle of a parched field, dead grass and burrs, dust blowing up in chaotic tornadoes that barely touch, but shake, the earth. A small shrub that manages a few milky bellflowers, and deep green vegetation. And even now, he stops, he looks at this shrub and wonders how it got here. Did someone plant it? Who would plant it here? Was there a forest, did it die, is this all that remains? And the soil must be chalk, lacking anything organic, anything nourishing.
As the author watches the boy and thinks how lucky he is to live in Paris. To be among the history, the culture, the art, everything he, the author, longs for. To be small and cared for and fed baguettes, down the road from the Opera, across from the Louvre. Where does he live (as they pull in to St Michel and more people get on than off)? But then, as if the boy senses, he turns, and the author notices the strawberry birthmark across his face. This, the author realises, years later, is the key. To persist. The two or three tall casuarinas (Allocasuarina pusilla) growing close to the steps that lead to his house. The war-scorched bark, the drooping branches, the whorls of scale-leaves on grey branchlets. Well adapted, well suited, deciding early on (in the mind of God) to make male and female trees, to produce crypto-cones, and seeds (one per carpel) with wings so they might escape their parents’ fate. Then the boy gets off the train at Châtelet, walks along the platform, looks back at the author, meets his stare for a moment, and continues.
As here, years later, the author’s thoughts persist. That he was, he is, the boy in Paris. The kid on the slippery dip. The nervous boy in the frozen food aisle. The child in the bookshop. He summons facts, he weighs the mice, he counts his drosophila, he cuts the red kangaroo down the middle. But he wonders if any of these tools, these approaches work anymore. The world is going on around him every minute, every second, buzzing past, blaring, his mother and father and sister and wife and children and neighbours and strange people he’s never seen before and will never see again. In a blur, as he squints to make sense of it all. Escherichia coli growing exponentially, viruses colonising lungs, up and down, up and down the slippery dip, life never ceasing, pushing forward, every moment. Nature persisting. Adapting. Now, he understands why Darwin finally said, ‘I am not the least afraid to die’ (Cohen np). The whole experience is so fast, so fantastic, he feels the need to hold on, and claim his place as the boy in time.
Chou, Vivian. ‘How Science and Genetics Are Reshaping the Race Debate of the 21st Century’. Harvard University Blog, 2017. Sourced at: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/ flash/2017/science-genetics-reshaping-race-debate-21st-century/.
Cohen, Jennie. ‘What Killed Charles Darwin?’ Inside History, 2011. Sourced at: https://www.history.com/news/what-killed-charles-darwin.
Darwin, Charles. ‘ Chapter IV: Natural Selection; or the Survival of the Fittest’ in On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 6th edition, 1892.
Metzger, Wolfgang. ‘Optische Untersuchungen am Ganzfeld. II: Zur Phänomenologie des homogenen Ganzfelds’, Psychologische Forschung 13 (1930): 6–29.
Miquel, Friedrich. Nederlandsch Kruidkundig Archief 4 (1856).
Reynolds, Susan Salter. ‘The literary journey of a wandering soul’, LA Times, December 18 (2001).
‘Swamp Gum’. Grasslands: biodiversity of south-eastern Australia. Sourced at: https://grasslands.ecolinc.vic.edu.au/fieldguide/flora/swamp-gum#details.
Williams, Sarah C. P. ‘Humans may harbor more than 100 genes from other organisms’, Sciencemag.org (2015). Sourced at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/03/ humans-may-harbor-more-100-genes-other-organisms.