As I returned home from a short trip to the mainland, the major river systems of northern Tasmania were in flood.
After heavy rainfall a few days earlier, rising waters destroyed homes and property, swept away livestock, and brought about the end of at least one life, with several more people missing.
Latrobe, on the Mersey River, looked almost entirely submerged in aerial photos; 19 houses have been rendered ‘uninhabitable’. I am about to move into the suburb of Invermay: it was evacuated as I returned to it. I tried not take this personally.
Flying across Bass Strait, the aftermath of flooding in the Emu, Forth, Mersey, Meander, Macquarie, North Esk and South Esk Rivers was evident. I couldn’t see much from the aisle seat, of course, but I joined the neck-stretching gawkers trying to see what had occurred while we were north, on the big island.
I went straight from the airport to the Cataract Gorge. Dozens of people were there, watching huge quantities of water barrel down beneath the suspension bridge, a turbulent, seething, brown-and-white mass. The flooding of the Gorge has long had this effect; it brings a crowd, at all hours, and suddenly we have something to talk about with our neighbours.
It also reminds us that this town at a confluence of three rivers; the water in the Cataract Gorge, spilling over the blunt concrete of its dam walls, is identifiable as a genuine river, the longest one in Tasmania no less, whose headwaters at the base of Ben Lomond require several days to journey to the second-most populous town on the island. As our lives move away from practical geographical knowledge, the Gorge is treated like an island, as if it is its own ecosystem, isolated: many Launcestonians I know could not tell you which river runs between those dolerite cliffs, and I suspect many do not even recognise it as part of a river system.
But we can understand it better, even if the way we talk about it is unscientific. “I’ve never seen it this high,” says everybody. “Do you reckon it’ll go over?” the residents of Invermay asked each other by the flood levy on Tuesday night, before the evacuation. “Nah, don’t reckon...”
On the aeroplane, a husband is pointing out what he thinks are various roads, submerged farms, bridges that must be washed away. She looks up from her electronic book, and spits, “Oh, what would you know!”
This flood follows a summer in which a lack of rainfall threatened us. Hydroelectric dams ran close to empty. Dry lightning struck dry vegetation, creating bushfires in the rainforest.
Gaston Bachelard has written a Psychoanalysis of Fire; who will treat a psychoanalysis of floods? We so blithely use the river as a metaphor for steady movement, progress, providence, time. A flood ignores these interpretations. The river is usually an uninterrupted flow of hours; the flood interrupts, makes time’s rhythm seem less benign. It reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have an allotted amount of days, or that the hours will trundle by coolly and calmly. Years may pass in peace, but the arrival of a single violent moment can end it all. We are alerted to the fact that the same hand which feeds us might yet throttle us.
And yet for modern witnesses, the spectacle of the sublime draws us to itself. Even as elsewhere lives and livelihoods are being washed away, we stand by the seething rivers, waves lifting out from the depths and pushing forcefully out to the mouth, into the sea, suddenly unnoticeable.
My new housemate takes the record player off the top shelf; we were not flooded out. The levy held the waters back. They say this was a more severe flood than the one in 1929, which was a genuine disaster. But our infrastructure has reprieved us of much worse. In a poorer country, the death toll would stand at thousands. In rural Tasmania, the consequences are devastating: socially, economically, emotionally. But for those in town, we once again allow ourselves to believe we have mastered the ancient processes of our ecosystems.
Two years ago I wrote 'A Short History of Shitty Weather', about the 1929 floods.
More recent is this piece on pirates in southern Tasmania.