Gaia 2022: The Yield by Tara June Winch

Yield itself is a funny word – yield in English is the reaping, the things that man can take from the land, the thing he’s waited for and gets to claim. A wheat yield. In my language it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things. (The Yield – Tara June Winch)

Profoundly moving and exquisitely written, The Yield is the story of a people and a culture dispossessed. But it is as much a celebration of what was and what endures, and a powerful reclaiming of Indigenous language, storytelling and identity.

 The Yield by Tara June Winch, winner of the Miles Franklin prize in 2020, is an outstanding read that calls us to reflect on our history and respect the stories, culture and strengths of our First Peoples. There are three narrative strands that alternate throughout the book: August, who has returned to Australia from England for her grandfather’s funeral; Albert, August’s grandfather, who was constructing a dictionary of his native language; and Reverend Greenleaf, a Lutheran pastor and missionary, whose letters reveal a shocking story of racism and violence.

There is so much that could be drawn out of this book. The letters of Reverend Greenleaf make for shocking reading.  Facing internment for his German ancestry and suspected disloyalty, Reverend Greenleaf’s letter to Dr George Cross, of the British Society of Ethnography, is a testimony of the violence and mistreatment of the Aboriginal people that he witnessed during his missionary work from the mid nineteenth century up to the beginning of World War One.  In the author notes, Winch explains that Reverend Greenleaf is based on the writings of Reverend J.B. Gribble, who spent much of his life working amongst and advocating for Aboriginal people during the nineteenth century. It can be quite easy for us to look back on the actions of the various churches and missions during this time with a critical eye and there was, no doubt, many cases of harsh and cruel treatment. However, there were also those who did genuinely care about the welfare of the Aboriginal people, and although their actions might be seen as misguided today, they were motivated by Christian love and compassion. We cannot go back and insert twenty-first century thinking and attitudes into the minds of people who lived almost 200 years ago, but it is clear through reverend Greenleaf’s letters that he felt true compassion for the Aboriginal people, and he is absolutely horrified and outraged by the violence of the white colonists. Some of the incidents he witnesses are truly sickening.

I have witnessed the cruellest acts that man can inflict upon his fellow man…I continued to come face to face with brutality

Rife here are the darkest deeds ever performed by man upon his fellow man, which makes countless thousands mourn. That vile inhumanity practised by the white-skinned Christian on his dark-skinned brother in order to obtain land and residence, for “peaceful acquisition” – that includes capture, chains, long marches, whipping, death on the roadside, or, if surviving all these – the far more terrible fate – being sold like brutes of the field as unpaid labour to the highest bidder.

How could it be that Australia, professedly the new home of liberty and light, had become a theatre of oppression and cruelty?…that a land so circumstanced and blessed by Divine Providence, had become the nursing mother of injustice. That deeds of infamy should be encouraged.

And for those who think Australia never had slavery…

The Natives – mere children! – who have been forced into servitude because the Government wishes them to fill the gulf in the industrial labour force.

And the Aborigines Protection Board’s eventual reaction was swift and unyielding. Seven boys…and three girls…that on this date range between two years of age and seven years of age – were forcibly taken…to be trained for work, trained to be pliant…I say in sober truth, that a species of slavery does exist in this part of the King’s dominions.

The frontier war is pretty heavy reading, especially if you are a sensitive and tender-hearted reader. It is difficult to comprehend such hatred and brutality, but truthfulness is important if we are to come to terms with our past so that we can build a future together and create a home for all. Togetherness requires equality, respect and a whole lot of listening. Listening to the stories of our First People is a good place to start and Albert’s dictionary entries set down in black and white the Indigenous way of thinking and being and contain a lot of wisdom that is sorely needed in our own time. 

Respect – yindyamarra …with some things, you cannot receive them unless you give them too. Unless you’ve even got the opportunity to give and receive. Only equals can share respect, otherwise it’s a game of masters and slaves – someone always has the upper hand when they are demanding respect. But yindyamarra is another thing too, it’s a way of life – a life of kindness, gentleness and respect at once. That seems like a good thing to share, our yindyamarra

Respect goes two ways but it is hampered by absence. When only one side of the story is told, how can there be a meeting of equals. When so much has been lost, how do we fill in the gaps. August’s life is one of absence and loss. Raised by her grandparents after her mother is imprisoned, she experiences a further devastating loss when her sister mysteriously disappears. Death is painful, but at least it brings a sense of finality. When somebody is missing, there are just unanswered questions. Hope lingers, but for how long? August tries to cope with her loss by being constantly on the move, both fleeing and seeking, unmoored in life. 

Life or death have finality, limbo doesn’t; no-one wants to hear about someone lost. Someone that just went and disappeared altogether.

I feel as if I’m just floating through life or something. Like my whole life I haven’t really been me.” (August)

When August was overseas she visited ancient historical sites, as do many tourists, but it left her wondering why one definition of civilisation was prioritised over any others. Why is ancient Roman civilisation valued and not that of Australia’s Indigenous people? People travel far and wide to see ancient ruins and historical sites, and yet know very little about the history of their own country. Back home, August’s encounter with a protestor provides some very thought provoking questions.  Why is it when people travel overseas they try to learn a bit about the culture and a few phrases of the language as a sign of respect, yet in Australia forget that…

we’re all migrants here, even those first-fleet descendants, we forget we’re all in someone else’s country. And too often we don’t have the vision, the respect, to bother learning the native language! To even learn to respect the culture where we live?

Our relationship with our natural environment is a strong theme interwoven through the book. Through his dictionary, Albert explains about the indigenous connection with land and their way of living with the land. Throughout the narrative there are liberal descriptions and mentions of nature in great detail. Indigenous people have such an intimate knowledge of the land: every tree, every plant, every species, the changes in every season. It draws a stark contrast to the way many non-indigenous experience the bush. We wander through, stomping over the ground, oblivious to the changes, incapable of recognising the species or of knowing the difference in the bird songs – it’s kind of embarrassing really. We should make a much better effort to get to learn our land beyond a vague notion of “native plants.”

The Yield depicts a reciprocal relationship between a people and their land. Here, the land is a living thing and the people have learned to recognise and yield to the way it ebbs and flows, to its natural rhythm and cycles. It is a gentle, respectful, giving and receiving way of life which stands in great contrast to the European way of exerting dominance over everything and everyone from above.  Albert’s call to tread lightly is a timely message for us all…

Marks or tracks – murru: This is the tracks the snakes, the goanna, the birds and us make as we crisscross the world. We all leave murru behind, so leave a gentle one.

 Gaia 2022 is a nature reading challenge that encourages us to read and learn more about nature, our environment and the impact of climate change, and is hosted by Sharon from Gum Trees and Galaxies. You are free to join in at anytime and can read more about it here.


10 thoughts on “Gaia 2022: The Yield by Tara June Winch

  1. I still have this one sitting at home waiting for me to read, to be honest I have been holding off because the history is so confronting but then everything seems a bit bleak these days, our past and our future. Must read this one soon. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

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