1998, 326 p.
I’m not sure about Tim Flannery’s writing, or Tim Flannery himself for that matter. I was astounded when he was proclaimed Australian of the Year under the Howard government. Although I don’t know how much influence a government has over the Australian Day board, it seemed to me during the Howard years that the government’s conservative influence was pervasive across all institutions. Tim Flannery with his 2006 book The Weather Makers certainly seemed at odds with the Howard government stance on climate change at the time . But there seem to be many contradictions – or more charitably, nuances- in Flannery’s views on a whole range of topics: whaling, nuclear energy, restoration of ecosystems. Is he a brilliant, wide-ranging thinker? Or does he not think widely and carefully enough?
It’s hard to classify Throwim Way Leg. It’s organized geographically around different locations in New Guinea and Irian Jaya where Flannery had worked over an extended period of time, going back to the 1980s. At times it reads like an extended set of case notes, at other times it is more autobiographical and even political in places.
There is a rather juvenile and somewhat disconcerting fascination with penises- although the sight of the penis gourd does tend to attract one’s attention somewhat. There is a whiff of self-absorption in his cataloguing of his illnesses and discomforts, and I don’t know whether I’d find him a particularly amiable travelling companion. In fact, he comes over rather as he does in “Two Men in a Tinnie” with John Doyle- full of information and lessons to be conveyed, but a bit wooden.
His work is steeped in blood. He no sooner arrived in a location than he had dispatched his hunters off into the jungle to bring back bodies for him which he skinned, boiled down for their bones, and bundled up to send to an Australian museum back home. I felt uncomfortable at the undercurrent of colonialist appropriation- all in the name of science, of course- and the sheer profligacy of killing even rare animals for specimens. It did not seem too far removed from the Hunters and Collectors of the nineteenth century so well captured in Tom Griffiths’ book.
At the same time, there is a naiveté about his work as well. He admits, to his credit, the assistance he received from the Ok Tedi mine but one wonders whether the company has bought his silence about their environmental and commercial practices. Not so for the Freeport mine, however, which he speaks out strongly against. In this regard, I can forgive him many of his other shortcomings. I look at a map of West Papua (he calls it Irian Jaya) and I shake my head at how Indonesia could make any claim to it on either geographic or ethnic grounds, and even the historical argument based on earlier Dutch colonialism seems rather dubious to me. I think that Australia, along with the Western world generally , is spineless in its acquiescence to strident Indonesian rhetoric over their claims to West Papua. At least Flannery calls it as he sees it.
I read this book with the Ladies Who Say Oooh, several of whom really enjoyed it for its depiction of adventure and discovery occurring within the last thirty years in a world that we think of as fully mapped and known. I, on the other hand, was frustrated by the plodding prose and the “well done those men”- type of masculine back-slapping often found in military histories. I note that Flannery’s first degree was in English literature before embarking on a more science-based academic journey. There’s not much of the poet here.