Farewell Eric Rolls

Published : Monday, November 19, 2007

The writer Eric Rolls, author of A Million Wild Acres, died after a short illness on 31 October. Eric Rolls was a pioneering Australian nature writer; he was a poet, farmer, essayist, lover of life, advocate of the wild. I got to know him well only five or six years ago when he and his second wife Elaine van Kempen involved me in setting up the Watermark Nature Writing Festival, which runs every other year (the next in 2009) at Camden Haven on the New South Wales north coast—and with the associated Watermark Literary Foundation. Eric wrote and talked pretty much to the end. I spoke to him days before he died, and then I sat and wrote him a note. (Eric had the good fortune to hear what many of us—his family and the community of writers inspired by him—felt about him. Often those testaments come too late.) Here’s what I felt:

Dear Eric,

Lyndal wrote to tell me you were very sick and not likely to get much better. The news saddens me to my bones, and has quite taken the spirit from me. But I was glad to talk with you just now and hear you say “marvellous” as only you can say it, and to talk with you about your work and the world. It is heartening to know that the storyteller is writing all the way to the end of his story.

Make sure you stay with us long enough to vote this bastard out of office, won’t you. Not that the new boy is any kind of messiah, particularly for the land. But he’s an improvement; with him there is some hope, at least. But we must all, as you’ve done with such love and discipline all your long life, keep at our work, whatever that work is, in the one true voice (if we can find it) each of us has been given. To divine the world, and to make us take responsibility for it—and for ourselves within it—and to rage against the stupidities we have wrought upon it and each other, and never to stop—this is our work; this has been your work. You’ve been an elder and a teacher to us all.

I was glad to be able to send Barry Lopez, another great teacher and writer, a copy of your great book (one of them), They All Ran Wild. It is right, and for me personally very pleasing, to know that he has that book of yours in his house and has had it these past months in his hands—that you two have been thus in conversation.

Please know that I hold you, more than ever, in my heart these days. Know that you have been to me, as to many others, a father and a grandfather and a brother. An inspiration, for your courage and your originality of mind and sharpness of eye, and for the things you said so early and so often and the tenderness and ferocity with which you said them, and kept on saying them.

With love and thanks, Mark

Elaine held a funeral service on Saturday 10 November in the Kendall School of Arts (site of Watermark) to celebrate Eric’s long, blessed, productive life, and to mourn his death. Along with Tom Griffiths and nine others, I read a little from Eric’s work and spoke a few words of thanks and farewell.

Farewell Eric. We miss you, but you changed us, and your work surrounds us.