The Nelson Mail: Review of Timeless Land

The Nelson Mail, Ro Cambridge. Review of ‘Timeless Land’ (recently released in its 4th reprint since 1995).  Timeless Land brings together the work of painter Grahame Sydney, poet Brian Turner and writer Owen Marshall, a trio of southern men who share a friendship and a passionate connection to the wide vistas and big skies of Central Otago.

The book’s immediate impact lies in the brooding beauty of Sydney’s paintings. They are full of a sumptuous, elegiac light which pours, in Turner’s words, “like honey” on the plains and “genuflects” upon the hills. But there’s something pitiless in these landscapes, too, something almost post-apocalyptic. Although the land is bereft of people, it is littered with signs of their passing: rusting water tanks, dilapidated sheds and derelict railway stations. Even the road signs wear shrouds.

Sydney has said of his work that “I’m the long stare, not the quick glimpse”, and the paintings here invite the gaze by keeping the landscape perfectly still and silent.
It is left to Turner and Marshall to give us the movement, sounds and smells of the place and the people who inhabit it. Marshall contributes short stories and paragraphs of densely evocative description. Turner roams the landscape in poetry, reporting back in sensuous detail on its “limitless space for the storage of dreams”.

It is only when one shakes off the considerable spell cast by this amalgam of art, prose and poetry that one notices that the sensibility of the book is so masculine. Women are invisible in David Kirk’s preface or Sam Neill’s introduction, which is as much a eulogy for his father as a paean to the Otago landscape.

The men in Marshall’s stories are “long-sighted by nature and inclination”. Uncomfortable in more intimate interpersonal spaces, they disguise their feelings in irony and laconic speech. Sometimes their women display the same manly stoicism, but more often they seem out of place in “the firmament of natural things”.

Ironically, the only human who appears in Sydney’s paintings is Rozzie at Pisa, a head-scarfed woman who gazes through a bunker-like window on to distant blue-gold hills. It is unclear if she is contemplative, relishing solitude, or a desperately lonely woman.

Nonetheless, Timeless Land conveys a profound sense of place which is immensely appealing. Five dollars from the sale of each copy of this edition goes to Save Central, for its campaign to stop Meridian Energy building a wind farm in the Lammerlaw region of Central Otago.