Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

  • Mountain Spirits

    Mountain Spirits

    Here in my book-lined shack, I have been reading of Tibet.

    In the evenings, before me, there is a swelling moon – its colour is electrum or copper, but unmistakeably it turns the woodlands around me blue. And there is always the mountain behind me: a bold rock cap built upon the foundations of forest. In the mornings it is often clad in light, but the other morning, its presence was an absorbing and overpowering silence. There was no doubt about it. The mountain was covered in snow.

    In other seasons I have run up onto this mountain range at the merest rumour of snow. Whenever the meteorologists prognosticate snowfall at the relevant altitude, I like to pack my rucksack and ascend to meet it. But now tracks into reserved land like this are closed in Tasmania. From my place it takes me only an hour or so to reach the summit, to dance across a stretch of staggered scree. Yet it is not to be, for the time being.

    I have lived these past years in a manner that exploits nothing so much as utmost freedom of movement. It is interesting to find myself suddenly rammed against its prohibition. I had just walked five days across an unpopulated plateau when I learned that these tracks were now shut. There is nothing left to do but to wonder what I can learn from this.

    The mountain at my back has a most unusual name: it is Mother Cummings, and for many of us around here she does have a maternal ambience. An Aboriginal name for the whole range offers its mystique too – it is kooparoona niara, ‘home of the mountain spirits’. I think these allude to a useful view: this is not country that exists merely for recreation. There is possibly something more significant at stake when we enter this mountainous domain.

    In some parts of the world, certain mountains are deemed unapproachable; some, it is thought, we should only relate to from afar. Mount Kailash is the holy mountain of multiple Asian religions. From all accounts it is a mighty pyramid, the mountain form par excellence, rising like a crystal palace over the plateaux and ravines of western Tibet. As far as I understand it has never been climbed, although it has been circled by thousands of pilgrims over the course of many centuries. In some cosmographies, it is the central tent-pole that holds up the shelter of the sky. Tibetans say that it migrated magically from some ethereal elsewhere. And to climb it would mean death and may bring an evil fate on the whole world.

    In one ancient language the word for death was a euphemism about grasping a mountain. Tasmanian mountains do not have such a reputation. Our mountains are not high. They attract some fierce weather, yes, and many require a great deal of bush-bashing to reach them. But few people die in them. We don’t consider mountains with any peculiar reverence; they are there, and we may or may not notice them, go to them, climb them, take photographs of ourselves from their peaks.

    I have had concerns for how we treat mountains and other rare or special ecosystems. The fact that I can’t climb onto the range or linger upon its slopes also means that no-one else is there. Wearied by over-visitation, the reserved hectares of Tasmanian landscape are getting a rest. It is refreshing to think of such an allotment of land as empty. Frankly, I feel relieved to look upon the sharp edge of the escarpment, covered in the fuzz of a snowy squall, and know that it is peopleless.

    In these conditions, it is not hard to imagine chthonic spirits in the changing light, as the pilgrims of Tibet perceive expressions of the gods in the clefts and outcrops of their own sacred mountain. I simply count myself lucky to look upon the form from afar and appreciate its feminine power. It may be an imaginary and unscientific way of seeing things – but this is a season in which we might allow for the disruption our normal systems of thought.

    Today, Mother Cummings is Mount Kailash.