Book review – Words Are Eagles, by Gregory Day

Title: Words Are Eagles: Selected Writings on the Nature and Language of Place

Author: Gregory Day

Publisher: Upswell Publishing, July 2022; RRP: $29.99

As we slide deeper into the Anthropocene, our relationship with the non-human world becomes ever more critical. Nowhere more so than in Australia, a land particularly vulnerable to climate change, and where that relationship between human and non-human is exacerbated for a nation of migrants that carries the baggage of generations rooted elsewhere, still struggling to come to terms with the Antipodean environment and the legacy of brutal colonisation.

Helping us navigate this terrain are the likes of Gregory Day, an accomplished nature writer, poet and musician who lives in the Otways region on Wadawurrung country. Day’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Eels, came out in 2005, and alongside a string of publications since he has produced essays and a strong body of reviews.

It is the latter non-fiction that is the focus of Words Are Eagles, a recent addition to the list at boutique WA-based publisher Upswell.

Words Are Eagles is broken into three sections, the most clearly divergent being the third, a collection of 14 reviews published by the likes of the Weekend Australian and Australian Book Review. These range from a few pages dealing with the publication at hand to longer works with greater scope for contextualisation and commentary. These longer works feel a more suitable fit here, tapping the themes raised in the proceeding sections, which largely focus on Day’s attempts to come to terms with his, and our, place in the land. A notable example is a review of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (2015).

Macfarlane is a clear influence on Day’s works, one of many noted in the author’s introduction, for both share a focus on the ability of words to forge a relationship with the natural world. Part of Macfarlane’s practice is the collection of local descriptors for natural phenomena; Day has spent decades embracing Wadawurrung terminology, trying to adapt his European frame of reference to the indigenous.

Gregory Day talks writing with Jennifer Kloester

@ in the book cave

Day deftly uses the natural world as a mirror for aspects of the human condition. For instance, he draws parallels in ‘Whoo-hoo Thinking’ between the tree hollows of powerful owls and the hollow of grief, and how those voids are part of the respective life cycle.

The owl is a motif that recurs, alongside the ocean, the river and others, reflecting the landscape where Day has made his home.

Day’s family history features in several essays as he digs down into the how and why of the ocean’s importance to him. He tells a moth about his beachside experience with his sons, even as the moth is also an indicator for the change of seasons; he swims with a friend from childhood through a familiar stretch of river, noting the elements changed and unchanged and how the simple, quiet interaction with the natural world, sans Instagram, can bond and enrich.

Another theme running through the essays is Day’s creative process – he notes that the imaginative world is reliant on our senses, mood and feeling; he exhorts writers to ‘stay put’ rather than feel compelled to travel to distant shores to tap not only inspiration but a legacy of inspiration; and he tells of his struggle to find an access point as an artist of European heritage in this Australian landscape affected by colonisation. That friction of colonisation is illustrated by the experience of William Buckley, the escapee’s life with the Wadawurrung being a repeated reference point.

Production wise, I had some niggles. The original publication details for each piece appear at the bottom of the first page of each, not only jarring the reader but making it difficult to get a simple feel of Day’s bibliography. The essays are presented in web format – this works for some, where the composition includes discrete concepts, but overall encourages a stop-start-skip reading process. And I would have liked the title of each essay to appear in the header or footer, to allow easier navigation, especially with the longer pieces.

Such personal preferences should not detract from the sense of worth of Words Are Eagles. It’s a credit to Upswell to have gathered these evocative, effective works in the one volume to highlight Day’s contribution to the cannon.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

ARC provided by the publisher

1 Comment

  1. Heather Whitford Roche

    A fine review, Jason.

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