At the time I was quite sure it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. Most of us were housemates, and we'd left our Launceston rental home on a January morning to go and set ourselves up at a scrubby, sandy retreat for a few days. To get to the beach we had to walk less than one minute, upon a soft pad through flowering pigface. We were at the coast.
When we first arrived there was a reddish tinge to the shore. It was like algae, only it disappeared as we approached it. It was a plethora of soldier crabs, an absolute throng of them, corkscrewing away into the sand as we came towards them. We watched them closely, then caught them in our hands, and finally, after being out in the open sun for so long, we parted this red sea of crabs and dove into the blue sea of Great Oyster Bay.
I also declared it the finest swim of my life. We threw a tennis ball, rough-housed each other and dived into wads of seaweed to catch it. The water was an electric blue, a blue I usually only find in my dreams. Something slashed my foot; the blood was bright red, another dream-like colour; the scar remains. In the evening I remember laughing into the closing sky. I remember the sun full on the horizon, the tide out. Someone was reading Thoreau by the fire. For dinner, sausages. Then hot chocolates. Stars multiplied into the southern constellations. We were full of sticky sugar, and well-rested, and somehow felt watched over.
I remember saying: "I think I'm learning to see emptiness as space."
In my dreams I saw swarms of crabs covering everything with hard scales of red, beaches and mountains and planets, rheumy images in my tired mind. When we awoke the tide was up and they were gone. We yanked up cockles for breakfast. Pelicans lounged on the sandbar. An adjacent range of mountains loomed silvery in the early light. A gannet went plummeting madly into the sea to catch its own brekky.
Somehow in my memory it seems like the first time I'd ever looked into a rockpool and seen the vibrant colours of limpets and sea-snails and seaweed, the tiny glossy mussels and sea slugs, the wraisse or yellow-tail or whatever that fish was that I saw, I realised, simply by waiting, adjusting my focus, honing my attention. "It is a slow process, this learning to be patient," I wrote in my journal after that trip, "but I am being patient with it. I am going to see."
This wasn't my first fish, my first rockpool, my first swim, or my first beach. But there hadn't been many. To go to the coast - and it is always 'the coast', by which we mean the east coast, although there a thousand different spots you might go: we were at Dolphin Sands, on a shack block that my housemate's parents were about to sell - is a typical rite of passage for any young Tasmanian. But there were a number of rites of passage that I missed somehow.
For a long time I had a very small world. We didn't go on family holidays much. There was a patch of bush behind our house, and I am not being fatuous when I say that this was truly enough. Even this I don't think I knew very well - I had no names for anything in it except 'gum tree' - but I understood myself in that landscape at least. I learned my body, if nothing else: a thousand lacerations on a prickly currant bush will do that to you. Breaking off the branches of a black peppermint, running down a steep slope of she-oak needles because you think a ghost's chasing you: that's an education.
These days the shadows on my maps are being peeled back. There are still a fair few roads left for me to go down in Tasmania, but probably more that I've visited. I look back on the notes from those days, the tatty journal I kept for that summer: we tore a tree down in the backyard that January, and I remarked on its pink, minty smell. In a grumpy mood I went erratically off into the bush, not very far, but into the realm of "wallabies and tangled plants", into "a damp, mossy part of the world". I watched some ants assault a caterpillar at Lilydale Falls; they shoved it right off a wooden handrail into the creek. On my balcony there was "a beautiful possum", nervously tightroping the powerline towards me. Were these my first nights under the stars?
This was about a decade ago now and I do not often recognise myself in those old notebooks. I sleep so often under the stars, and see so many beautiful possums, that some of the events of those younger years strike me as utterly bizarre. What makes more sense is that exactly at the time of this trip to Dolphin Sands, I started reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by the American nature writer Annie Dillard. In it she was coaxing me "to explore the neighbourhood, view the landscape, to discover where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why."
Why - I had spent a lot of time, dwelling in a moody adolescent way, on why. At some point around that trip to the coast, I began to explore the neighbourhood instead, and found that I very much liked where I so inexplicably was.
Later I would find things like this dead porcupine fish, prompting me to write of convict artist William Gould.
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