When Peter Conrad was twenty years old, in 1986, he put his belongings in a burning incinerator in the backyard of his family home in the northern suburbs of Hobart. He had a Rhodes scholarship, and went off to Oxford. To all appearances he had grown out of the mould cast for him, against his will, by the island of his birth.
Conrad became a noted scholar. He didn't return to Tasmania for a decade. In 1987, he had Down Home published, a memoir of his later Tasmanian experiences. After a childhood in which he barely left Hobart's north, Conrad travelled widely around the island: to Queenstown, to Melaleuca, to Wineglass Bay, to Tiagarra, to the Pedder dam.
The book is not widely cherished here, mostly because the author refuses to bang on about how uniquely beautiful it is and we are. That is essentially what we want to read more than any real critique; we dearly crave outside acceptance. But frankly, Conrad didn't love Tasmania, although a creeping appreciation for his island of origin appears throughout the book.
Like any memoir, though, the book is more about Conrad than it is about its purported subject.
Re-reading Down Home recently, I began worrying that my work is uncomfortably analogous to that book, which precedes my writing by three decades. Like Conrad, I am writing a travel memoir about my own island. There are some differences, of course. I still live in Tasmania, for example, and I am at times rapturous about how thoroughly I love walking and working here. I also know the island more intimately than Conrad ever did (I admit that I relish finding those handful of mistakes in Down Home). But there is a similarity in form, in themes. It is a conundrum, or perhaps it is merely interesting.
I have chosen to live without a home for the summer. When asked, I explain that is a matter of practicality - I work away often, renting a room would be a waste of money - but implicit in the decision is the effort I am making to expand my home territory to the entire island. Home is here thanks to my childhood, and over the past years many aspects of Tasmania have become very familiar to me (dolerite, myrtle, wedge-tailed eagles), but I still feel like a foreigner in certain corners, certain conditions. I am only now starting to learn the winds and swells of the east coast. I must better understand kelp, abalone, orchids, chert. There is a fairly unattractive beach in the north-west, with an astounding geological diversity that I am can barely begin to pull apart.
It's a dangerous decision though. Whenever I finish up with one or another season of my life, I wonder if it's time to settle down, to roam less, to cultivate a patch for myself. I now see that I am getting further from that ideal. It seems that I will never own land. I came to an intersection of my life: whether to be less or more of a dirtbag, in the parlance of my bushwalking colleagues. I am more of a dirtbag than ever. I have a pile of books and a 1992 Ford Laser to my name.
That car recently broke down. It's fixed again, but now, more recently, my laptop has carked it. It suddenly blacked out and went quiet, never to make its breathy hum again. Someone is currently trying to pry the data out of its now-useless case. But I may have lost much work.
It has so happened that most of my identity has been derived from growing up here. That's what Peter Conrad was writing about too. I have perhaps accepted that more readily, and devoted myself to the task of understanding what it means to be Tasmanian: to live amongst these materials, in this climate. I am a state of constant travel - by vehicle and by foot - roaming around trying to sus out what it is that I belong to. But the thought has lately struck me: what if it doesn't turn out? What if being post-modern, middle-class, and non-Aboriginal are conditions that preclude me from truly connecting to country?
Peter Conrad wrote of being afraid when he was alone in Tasmania. For me, it's what I like best. The other night I was driving on the highway as a sunset sent all sorts of colours sprawling over the Western Tiers and Ben Lomond. I don't need to share that with a mob; it seems enough to share it with the land, with its ecosystems, with history. While Tasmania - as a concept - becomes popular in a way that poor Peter Conrad could never have guessed, I am more inclined to find areas that haven't yet been touched by branding or signage. I recognise that I am pushing myself out further into a sea of solitude. As the years progress, I suspect that this will become an estrangement, from which it will be harder to return.
I also think I will find it worthwhile, so long as the land doesn't turn against me. But it might. Recently I returned to a spot, a pile of rocks at the end of an east coast beach, where I once discussed how I might retreat from the world, distant, if it all got too ugly. The problem is that Tasmania is not in fact remote enough to be immune from the intense changes to the natural order of the world. Just out from those same rocks, oceanic surface temperatures have risen dramatically. What if, just as I started to feel like I had gotten in step with the swirling vortices of our ecosystems, they spun out of control?
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