You read the headline. It speaks of the death of someone about your age, from a neighbourhood you know well. Your heart sinks. There’s a good chance it’s one of your extended mob. Someone you used to run into at the pub or at a gig every now and again – if not someone you know even more closely. This is the reality of growing up in a place like Launceston.
I’m still 4000 kilometres from home, and to find out that Theressa Roberts died on a back road in Longford, on a Monday night, in the dark, her body struck by a big machine...it brings a grim type of grief, one that is cold and empty and aloof. I am almost without feelings.
It’s like this. Today I am in a tropical place, warm and bright green and noisy with birds; I cannot conceive of the Tasmanian winter, I cannot picture damp and foggy Longford. There is a thick curtain between the season I’m in, and the one passing in Tasmania right now. Likewise, I am alive, and I can’t imagine any of my friends no longer in this same arena. But it is so: Theressa Roberts has died, and the barrier that is cast between the seasons of life and of death is a heavy one indeed. Theressa is irretrievable.
I went to high-school with Tress. When, as a teenager, I was taking unimaginative portraits of friends for my photography class, I asked her to lie down on a grassy knoll in South Launnie and scattered my mum’s cassette tapes around her head like a wonky halo.
I am embarrassed by how juvenile and unoriginal an artist I was, but perhaps it’s for the best. As C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay on grief, “A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and an obstacle.” Photographs can serve as markers for our memories, but too many of them, or the act of making an icon of one image, can cause us to forget the intricate presence beyond the frame. A death reminds us that a photograph is awfully insufficient.
I knew a young woman who was bursting with music, and earnest spirituality. She was also a bit loopy, and I think she’d grin at the thought of me saying this. Her speech was quick and went in directions I did not expect. She was very candid with me, more so than I ever am with anyone. She was warmer than me. She worried about her body’s form, but I believe that she had a keener sense of the innate strength and beauty of women, including herself. She was proud to be Filipina.
I know that in many traditions, the names of the dead are ritually unspoken. In the anglo-antipodean culture, we grow to speak of those who’ve died in a mumble, a whisper, apologetically stammered. Follow whichever tradition you like, but for me, it is useful to speak about those who’ve wandered off beyond our reach. This way, their complex personalities continue to exist, and are kneaded into our lives.
The site of her death, the verge of that narrow country road, is probably already marked with bouquets of flowers. We can count this as traditional practice – it is recent, but nevertheless it is now a tradition and an event in the ritual of road deaths. But bouquets wither, and those who feel immediate searing pain of loss will notice it lengthen and change texture as the years go by. How do we absorb this grief? It is mysterious, but it is so, and it must be.
My bias is place, and my memory is geographical. In years from now, I will recall the points in which Theressa’s life intersected with my own: the canteen porch at Kings Meadows High School, a scratched table in the Gunners Arms, her home in Evandale, that lawn in South Launceston.
The tragic patch of Woolmers Lane in Longford will also become a point of reference for me too. I will drive through it from time to time, the smell of hay and animals on the air, clouds bunching up in the western mountains. It will remind me to sing, to invent, to consider the existence of the spirit, to be a bit loopy, to be proud, to be warm, to love. To use my car with caution. To be aware of the brevity of our days in these beautiful landscapes, to cherish every human body as awfully beautiful and vulnerable.
Currently showing posts tagged Launceston
You read the headline. It speaks of the death of someone about your age, from a neighbourhood you know well. Your heart sinks. There’s a good chance it’s one of your extended mob. Someone you used to run into at the pub or at a gig every now and again – if not someone you know even more closely. This is the reality of growing up in a place like Launceston.
The day I was supposed to shuffle into Invermay, back in June, the rivers were in flood. Invermay was evacuated and it seemed likely that the suburb would be swept away.
We were lucky: despite the huge volumes of water in the rivers, they didn’t exceed the newly-built flood levees. I moved in along with my scarce few possessions. William, my housemate, had put the record player on the mantelpiece: the only concession he’d made to possibility of disaster.
Invermay remembers floods: in 1929, around 2000 of its homes were washed away and 22 lives were lost. But this has always been an area that is susceptible to the rivers’ influence. The suburb is built on reclaimed land, and an early colonial name was ‘Swampton’. It was not seen as attractive land, and settlements didn’t spread much in this direction until the first systematic draining works occurring after fifty years of Launceston’s settlement. The area had serious hygiene concerns for decades, with scarlet fever, typhoid, and respiratory illnesses all worryingly prevalent.
It quickly built itself into an industrious area – a lively neighbourhood, replete with buskers and brothels. It retains an eclectic local population. It also has eclectic architecture: cottages line narrow alleys between the main drags, and a number of beautiful art-deco buildings stand, including our lovely Post Office. We also have a high concentration of mechanics, and more takeaway stores than you can poke a stick at.
History persists and pervades, but changes are always wrought, and more are on their way. Our footy ground, York Park, is branded as the University of Tasmania Stadium; a plethora of government dollars have been pledged to transfer the entire uni to its Invermay campus. It will change everything here. Sorting out the traffic will be challenging; house prices will surge; businesses will open; demographics will change. The bain marie may be replaced by taps of craft beer.
I spent the winter here, my first Tasmanian winter in some years. Afternoons were crushed by darkness quickly, old boats’ silhouettes disappearing as river and darkness merged. The sirens at the nearby football stadium yowled, corresponding with the anguished mewing of our local cats. The Boags brewery gave up its malty belch. Smoke, fog and mist lowered themselves into the river valley. Pedestrians battled robust winds that are driven down the Tamar. The hostelries seem quiet, but there is always life at the hearths in the corners of the public bars.
Summer fled by, with its usual flurry of visitors and excursions. Bright red baubles appeared on the tomato vines in the backyard. Housemates passed like ships in the night.
Now evening darkness comes early again, and I'm off. Mick, my neighbour, caught me putting boxes of books in my car the other day. “You’re not moving out are ya?” he bellowed. I felt guilty telling him that I was.
I was never going to be here for long enough to become a true swampie: not like the bloke I met at the Bizzy Bee, on an electric skateboard, wearing the t-shirt of a local contemporary dance show. He had Invermay’s postcode, 7248, tattooed on his neck. We were both buying hot chips.
Mick and I kept talking. He’s a good neighbour: he’s a gruff character, but always happy to stop and chat when we run into him walking his two dogs, Bear and Nightmare, down the street. Somehow our rambling chat came to a familiar old topic. Mick threw his arms up to express its mystery: “Love.”
This is a place that invites the curious to keep paying attention. My notebooks are replete with Invermay observations. As I write this, Mick stops to chat with another neighbour and his pram-bound baby. Black swans and purple swamp-hens stomp the rushes along the North Esk: they are the true swampies, I suspect. The marsh beneath asphalted streets shakes beneath the tyres of trucks.
I am moving out of this ecosystem, Mick, and wandering off into another one. I may or may not be back in Swampton. You never really know.
James Smith was known for his stolid, austere way of life, which in Tasmania was enough to earn him the splendid nickname ‘Philosopher’. “I cannot remember ever hearing him laugh,” his son recalled, “but occasionally he would smile at something amusing or pleasing.”
Spartan and Stoic in style, Philosopher Smith was actually a teetotalling Christian, with a strong faith that matched his sagacious beard. The son of convicts, Smith was an early settler in the lower reaches of the beautiful Forth River in north-western Tasmania, in the middle decades of the 1800s. After a stint on the Victorian gold fields as a younger man, he began prospecting in Tasmania.
This was no insignificant endeavour, as Tasmanians were desperately keen to uncover the colour of mineral wealth. With convict transportation recently halted, the island needed new economic stimuli; colonies elsewhere were gaining riches from gold, and the Tasmanian workforce was depleted by emigration to these fields. A forced amalgamation with the state of Victoria was not out of the question.
Philosopher Smith found small patches of minerals in the north-west, such as rutile, copper, iron and silver. But when he came upon a sample of tin-bearing cassiterite on the slopes of Mount Bischoff in 1871, the Tasmanian economy was to enter a period of optimism for the first time in many years. The following year, the prospecting Philosopher found a massive body of tin ore on the mountain: underground workings would go on to extract more than five million tonnes from Bischoff, and at a time it was the richest tin mine on the planet.
The man himself was hardy and undemanding, but some credit needs to be given to Philosopher Smith’s dog. On a previous venture, Smith had nearly been killed by a dog who, scrambling up the bank of a creek, dislodged a large stone which went “whizzing close past” his head. But the Philosopher continued to take dogs on his prospecting journey, and in 1871, he was with his “sort of Collie-Spaniel”, named Bravo.
It was towards the end of the expedition and Philosopher had run out of almost all of his supplies, when Bravo killed an echidna – provisions enough to keep the prospector out for another day to revisit the potential lode. The last of his tea-leaves went into the billy, and a morsel of bread (half-eaten by a native animal) went with the echidna meat. Philosopher Smith returned to the complex geological structure of Mount Bischoff and confirmed that there was tin in that hill.
“Good many blokes got their pockets well lined at that show,” says one character in a 1920s novel set in the area, as he nods back to Mount Bischoff. And so it was, but one man who did not make much from the mining of Bischoff was Philosopher Smith himself, who parted ways with the Mount Bischoff before the first dividend was paid. You get the feeling it didn’t bother him so much. He was still prospecting in the difficult country of north-western Tasmania a dozen years later.
He would eventually return to Launceston, where he had passed some time in his youth. Launceston was economically buoyant, largely thanks to Mount Bischoff – the wealth from its tin was being gleaned by Tasmania’s northern settlement as it was smelted and exported. Philosopher Smith found fortune of another kind: there, he married a widow named Mary Jane Love - “by all accounts a caring loving wife and quite attractive to boot,” according to folklore. He was approaching fifty years of age at this time.
Philosopher Smith would pass away two decades, and is buried in a cemetery in the township of Forth. Bravo’s fate, and the whereabouts of his remains, are unknown.
Every day on the calendar has its host of holidays and observances, and February 2 is no different. The fortieth day after Christmas, it holds a special place in the religious calendar – the Candlemas feast. This holiday has its roots in northern hemisphere agricultural rites, and is a happy occasion for believers in different countries, who eat pancakes or other sweets in celebration.
In addition, biologists and ecologists around the world mark the 2nd of February as World Wetlands Day. And while there’s every reason why this might be a fun day out, it has an element of concern attached to it.
Wetlands are important but fragile ecosystems. Lately, when I am in my hometown of Launceston, I have lately been enjoying walks along the rivers that define my town. These fringe places have been alive with birdsong and frogcalls, and the hum and buzz of cicadas and other insects.
But the reality is that as important as wetlands are, they are often unattractive to an eye trained by a tradition of aesthetic romanticism. Nor do they offer obvious practical advantages to human societies, and so we have, throughout the ages, drained and cleared wetlands, oblivious or careless about the disturbance it creates upon the habitat of so many of the creatures that pass in close proximity to us.
Take the hyperactive birdlife of Tamar Island, the location of my nearest World Wetlands Day celebrations. Here, in the middle of the eccentric tidal estuary of the Tamar, black swans teem and teeter; egrets and pelicans hover over the island; varieties of ducks or dotterels with quirky hairstyles bob along the gentle ripples of the water; grassbirds and fairy-wrens flit about the branches. Two of my favourite birds stomp around: the almost-but-not-quite elegant purple swamphen, and the utterly loveable ‘narky’ – the Tasmanian native hen – making its unmistakeable racket.
They are attracted to the rich resources of the river, as have all sorts of humans for millennia. Aboriginal societies, for thousands of years, recognised the busy estuary as significant and passed much time along its banks. Among other names, they knew at is as Ponrabbel or kanamaluka.
From the beginning of European settlement – from the first northern Tasmania colony in 1804 – sites along the Tamar were seen as important too. The earliest maps have Tamar Island charted upon them, although not by that name. Col. William Paterson made landfall on Tamar Island, in somewhat brief and unglorious circumstances, when his vessel got stuck in the mud around it – and Mud Island was thus its name for some time. So too was Pig Island.
The island was also used a base for the project of dredging the river and redirecting its flow in the 1890s; scuttled vessels from this era, such as the Platypus, are visible from the boardwalks.
Later used for agriculture, and the long-standing ecology of the place was jeopardised. But today the wetlands are open to visitors, with simple boardwalks connecting the mud flats and the island; the removal of a short-horned bull named Bruno was one of the last vestiges of introduced fauna, although there still remain scores of exotic trees. The wetlands continue to morph, adapting to the pressures of humans and climate.
World Wetlands Day is my kind of occasion. It is a moment to celebrate a complicated landscape, which is often very accessible and has a tangled history. It is an excuse to wonder, and to learn. By looking closer at an ordinary scene, by putting our hands in the mud or pushing through the reeds, we uncover more about the world we live in, and consequently find ourselves fixed more firmly in our place.
Go on: have a World Wetlands Day party. I’ll come dressed as a purple swamphen.
Earlier this month, folk musicians John Flanagan and Daniel Townsend came to Launceston to listen to local stories and convert them into song. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I listened to them perform, and was most delighted to hear their ditty in praise of these small cottages, long abandoned to weeds and graffiti on the North Esk River.
Wedged between Launceston’s Centrelink offices and the newly-reopened strip club, the Boland Street cottages were built in 1876 to the designs of prominent local architect Peter Mills. Twice during the 1990s they were gutted by fires, and so have sat for nearly two decades in a quiet state of disuse.
Yet ‘Centrelink Cottage’ (as the musicians called it) has been the centre of plenty of debate, even as it remains unused. Like the former C.H. Smith building on the intersection of Charles and Canal streets, the Boland Street cottages are heritage-listed, and therefore potential developers of these sites have been subject to great obstacles.
Tasmania has a very proactive Heritage Council, and with good reason: the island’s colonial architecture is preserved better than anywhere else in Australia, with a number of sites declared to be of high value when it comes to expressing vernacular styles and the community’s sense of place.
Both the cottages and the C.H. Smith buildings represent an important part of Launceston’s waterfront industrial tapestry. But as was argued by Michael Newton, who battled for two decades to have the Boland Street cottages released from heritage listing, “How do you maintain a burnt-out and derelict property?”
Ruined buildings like these are consistently dismissed as ‘eyesore’. But others argue that such sites have an alternative value. As British nature writer Roger Deakin wrote in his journals, “We need more ruins...more evidence of a past, a living past. Ruins have a special life of their own.”
The Boland Street cottages have been sold and a significant development is mooted for the site; work is being undertaken to allow the C.H. Smith to house 20 retailers and a carpark.
“Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” writes literary critic Gillian Beer. Urban landmarks are always under more pressure to change, to be adapted. Our commercial tastes dictate this. If you were to read this town’s architectural history, you would be able to interpret what has been driving us. Today, our built spaces are being converted to whisky bars, tourism ventures, tattoo parlours – but each of these, in time, will be out of fashion and replaced by other interests, all of which will be explainable through the myriad economic and social forces around us and within us.
There are countless changes that have occurred in my two decades living in this town. Walk around Launceston and look up: you’ll find more, from the last two centuries. “Cities here are communicative: present and past coexist in a conversation that composes layers and striations of reference.”
As a budding adolescent photographer, oblivious to the existence of the romantic aesthetic but drawn to it nevertheless, I entered the ruins mentioned above. My eye was attracted to the exposed skeleton of the cottages and the wiry branches of buddleja; inside the C.H. Smith building, I found a shelter that seemed to have belonged to some homeless people, with cushions and stuffed toys. “The bosses here are fascists,” a note from some unknown time read. The images I took (and photoshopped to death) are of places that will belong only to the long distant past soon enough.
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.
This is the slender-spined porcupine fish, or southern porcupine fish, or the globefish, Diodon nicthemerus, first described to European science by Cuvier in 1818. You’ll find it in the southern waters of Australia, from Geraldton to Port Jackson, but it’s most common in Port Phillip Bay or the coastal waters of Tasmania. (This specimen was found near Beaumaris, on the east coast.)
This is one of a number of fish illustrations done by William Buelow Gould during the Vandemonian convict era. The artist would later gain international fame after being fictionalised by Richard Flanagan in the well-reviewed Gould’s Book of Fish. His fish are made handsome in watercolour; the porcupine fish looks lonely and unloved, and it’s easy to sympathise with it. Perhaps Gould identified with it himself.
William Buelow Gould was a chosen name. It seems he was born as William Holland on November 8, 1803; his father was a boatman on the Thames. He was literate and as a young man moved to London where he took up an apprenticeship with lithographer Rudolph Ackermann. His artistic skills were being developed and he married.
But William fell in with a crowd of boozers and gamblers – always easy to stumble upon in London. In his twentieth year, one of his drinking mates was murdered, perhaps in shady circumstances; William fled to Staffordshire with his wife and their new child.
But before too long he departed from there too, this time abandoning wife and child. And he ditched the name with which he was born as well.
The name ‘Gould’ was a good association to make – John and Elizabeth Gould were gaining esteem as artists of natural history. So the runaway artist declared himself William Buelow Gould, “Portrait Painter and Drawing Master”, when he arrived in Northampton.
But although he had left so many things in his wake, William Buelow Gould was not prepared to dispose of his bad habits. Drinking, gambling, and stealing marred his new career with a painter and glazier by the name of Thomas Smith. Within weeks he was charged with stealing his employer’s materials and suffered three months in prison, as well as a public flogging. And in November 1826, he stole someone’s coat, hankie and gloves; he was found guilty, and sentenced to seven years’ transportation in Van Diemen’s Land.
On the Asia, the vessel that brought him to Van Diemen’s Land, he painted his first portrait of a ship’s officer. It was pretty ordinary, but Gould seemed to have been able to talk himself up. He was given convict employment as a potter – but was transferred to the chain gang for drunkenness. Then, he put his artistic ability to use in attempted to forge a banknote. He was to be sent to Macquarie Harbour, but after a storm forced the ship to pause en route, many of the convict passengers mutinied; Gould didn’t, and was rewarded for his good behaviour with an assignment to Dr James Scott. Here, he was put to work drawing specimens.
Coincidentally, the inspirations for his pseudonym arrived in Tasmania during this convict apprenticeship: John and Elizabeth Gould were friends of the Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin and his wife. One wonders whether they were shown the work of the convict Gould, and what they made of his impressive images, which would later be credited by UNESCO as valuable enough to enter their historical registers.
Gould’s work throughout the rest of his convict career would include still-life images of fruit, flowers, game and fish. Finally a free man, he was given a job painting coaches in Launceston, although he almost sabotaged that immediately; given tools and material to do his work, Gould absconded, only to return shortly enough afterwards to not lose his job.
“His last years were spent in some comfort,” writes a biographer, but no doubt his life was shortened by the years of hard living. He died in his home in December 1853, joining the great ocean of dead things that surrounds us all.
Yet he was later resurrected, and reimagined, by Flanagan; in it, he belongs to “a colony of fish masquerading as men”; and the surgeon to whom Gould is assigned turns into Diodon nicthemerus.
Previously on Field Guide, a German baron goes into the Tasmanian mountains.
On another east coast beach, a French captain takes a convict lover.
There were many afternoons during my teenage years in which I came upon this view. Not always were the mountains set against a blue sky; in winter, the grass and trees were greener, the yellow blossoms absent. In those days, there were fewer houses wedged into the landscape.
Usually I had taken the bus from school, although sometimes I was just returning from a mate’s house. Often I had a skateboard under my arm and I was ready to hurl myself down the hill. (Once or twice I toppled off.) Just where the slope levelled off, on the left, after the roundabout, I would tumble into my home.
After some time away, I return to this hill. These are quiet streets – the edges of an urban space, where a regional city meets its bucolic background – but for me the neighbourhood is pullulating, populous with ghosts. It is a cluttered scene, years layered on top of each other. I see the Vollmers’ and Masters’ houses. I wonder if Ben’s grandmother is still alive, where Matt has moved on to by now. The austere brick house that the Lucases lived in for a while reminds of the tethers of their stories, which we have heard mostly through the avenues of gossip. There is a certain house to which I snuck on cold nights, in my pyjamas, to rendezvous with Miss A., also in her pyjamas.
Where the road has its elbow at the bottom of the hill, my brother once threw off his left shoe in a fit, and appeared to be dancing. He ran back to the house cursing the wasp that had crawled into his Vans and stung him.
Coming back to my mother’s house (once, both parents shared it), I feel as though I’m making a similarly ludicrous return.
There are all sorts of relics here too. As I write this, I look up at a photograph of two young Spinkses with the larrikin footballer Billy Brownless. There are other images: the grandfather who died before I was born, my old dog who is buried in the yard, clippings from my occasional appearances in the local newspaper. In the bathroom: the pot plant a girlfriend gifted to Mum more than half a decade ago.
Venturing away from the house, I am equally ensnared. Somehow I can’t help but hear of the corruptions and collusions of local politics, business, and media. The local Member for Parliament refuses to address his constituents. A hideous giant supermarket is being erected near the centre of town. The flags of another town’s football team flap all around Launceston in the early afternoon winds. The letters to the newspaper make me cringe, wince, want to cry.
I fear that the people who live in my town secretly hate it. That beneath the odd gesture of civic pride there is a deep concave of shame in our guts. That we wish we were something else, somewhere else, with more cheap shopping and football games.
Perhaps this has something to do with our origins, with the way some of our ancestors stole the landscape from the first Tasmanians. These rolling hills I have come upon so many afternoons of my life were once the hunting grounds of the largely-forgotten tribes of the north of the island. Beneath that banner of blue sky (or silvery-black, on the gloomier days), there were spirits and stories in amongst the black wattles and bluegums, in with the echidnas and snakes and wallabies.
If there is a horror at this, I do not discourage it. But there is a sense in which this is simply an era, a landscape, an urban arrangement, an historical moment which we have inherited. Which I have inherited. And if I wander through the streets of this town and feel grumpy for knowing it is lined by the houses of too many greedy or ignorant or complacent fellow-citizens, and then trudge down this hill into a home where all the change across two decades of my life manifests itself, without trying to resist a sense of hopelessness or sentimentality, without putting a hard shoulder against it, then I have lost home altogether. And there can be nothing worse than that sort of exile.
There are those who hate winter in Tasmania. It is, they say, too cold, or too wet, or too windy, or too dark. It is as bleak as Siberia. It is the most depressing place on Earth.
But there are others who cherish these days when the sky hangs low like a big-bellied whale over the towns, and some days the mountains rise like white-capped waves. It is good, they contend, to see the grass turn bright green, to don the thick woollen socks and down jackets, to feel frost crunch beneath your feet, to smell the spice of woodsmoke in the air and to sit by the fire yourself with a cosy over the teapot.
The change in weather is a chance to cultivate new habits. Some of them are idiosyncratic: one gentleman I know takes to boiling eggs on winter mornings and putting them in his pockets as he walks to his place of vocation so they warm his hands.
Other customs may seem familiar. For instance, one winter when I was short of money, I spent my spare hours scrounging around for good firewood. And on those crisp, starry nights when the weather has cleared but the air is still cold, I would feed sticks and logs into my pot-bellied stove and sit around it with an Irish coffee, sometimes with friends, watching the embers pulsate like melting caramel and tinkling like thin glass cracking in the changing temperature.
And we should not forget that for thousands of years, this is what people have done in Tasmania during the months of June, July and August, these lunar cycles when the night seems to have more strength than day, when it is cold and wet and windy and dark, and Rowra hovers in the silhouettes of the eucalypts just beyond the room of firelight.
Yes, for millennia, Tasmanians have had their rituals, their customs, their diets, their ideas, their politics and their dreams flex and change with the weather.
So as you wipe the hoar off your car window, get a soup going in the slow-cooker, pull out your stripy longjohns, or invite the girl you flirted with all summer over to watch a movie on your laptop beneath a patchy quilt, remember that these details are part of what it is to be a human being in your time and your place. And that though customs have changed dramatically, at times with violence and force, the little behaviours that you share with your contemporaries are significant, full of memory and therefore full of meaning.
Even the boiled egg hand-warmers. (They will end up in an Ethnographic Museum sometime, somewhere.)
Perhaps in these months you will look out your window and see the European trees that have dropped all their leaves, and it will makes you feel something of a sense of loss.
Perhaps you will stand over the Liffey or the Clyde in full flow, and know the trout are spawning, and feel hopeful for what is next, maybe even to the point of impatience.
Perhaps you will see snow on Mount Wellington or Ben Lomond and long to feel the mist clinging to your hair and your shoes fill up with slush.
Whatever it is you do and feel from now until the wattles are in blossom, this is the Tasmanian winter to which you belong.
“Memory takes me back to the scene of the Tamar in the hop grounds of Mr. Barnes of Trevallyn where on a moonlight night in 1829…”
Upon arrival to Van Diemen’s Land, William Barnes was given a 30-acre block of land at the confluence of the Tamar and South Esk Rivers. It was the summer of 1824, and Barnes was 33 years old, unattached, and ambitious.
On the Triton, which had brought him from his native Cheshire to Hobart Town, he had befriended a Scottish brewer who was also migrating to the colonies. Making his way overland to the north of Van Diemen’s Land, it suddenly dawned on Barnes that although the town had grown to a population of more than a thousand people, it had no brewery.
Described as ‘a young man in a hurry’, it is little surprise that Barnes used another allotment of land to build his own brewery. It was not the first on the island – a Mr. Gatehouse had begun brewing in Hobart in 1823 – but it was certainly the original brewery in the north. He called it the Port Dalrymple Brewery.
The allotment of land was on the corner of Margaret and Paterson Streets, between the barracks and the windmill. Today, a bottle shop stands there.
Using water from the Tamar, and barley at four shillings a bushel, Barnes’ beer was well received. Convict labour helped with the brewer’s investment.
For three years he was without a competitor. By the time John Fawns began the rival Cornwall Brewery – collecting water from the Cataract Gorge by punt – William Barnes was an exceedingly wealthy man.
So much so that he managed to acquire further land along the Tamar and South Esk Rivers. What is now the Cataract Gorge, as well as the entire suburbs of Trevallyn and Riverside, belonged to William Barnes. With his passing in 1848, it became the property of his and his wife’s only child together, William Barnes jnr.
Barnes jnr. and his wife donated the Cataract Gorge grounds to the city of Launceston.
But what was it that the letter-writer to the newspaper remembered from that moonlit night in 1829? (Actually, it was 1830.) It was a scene where the author saw missionary George Robinson and his assembly of ‘sable friends’ camping out on Barnes’ land. While the correspondent spoke with Barnes, Trugernanna was cooking a possum over the coals.
“I observed the conversation and saw the flashing eye of the black girl, then a few years older than myself,” he wrote to the newspaper, on the occasion of Trugernanna’s death, nearly five decades later.
Memory takes us back to the scene indeed.
What does it mean to propose to make changes to the Cataract Gorge?
Summer is suddenly over.
Yet rock climbers still scramble up the basalt cliff walls, above the South Esk River as it veers out of town. Picnickers adopt the Fairy Dell; there is the occasional gentlemen in very small togs who looks as if he’s been tanned with wattle bark. This summer, a family of seals took up residence. A chairlift ferries tourists from one side to the other – Alphonse Bugler, German circus performer, balanced his way across it in 1987. Some choose the pool, others the deep blue, which we grew up believing had no measurable bottom. (It is 19 metres in depth.)
Meanwhile, there are murmurs from the local council about making changes to the Gorge. There are “developments” in the works – a word that inspires tremulous fear in some Tasmanians, and unbounded optimism in others. Commerce has a troubled history on this island. Commercial interests can butt heads against community concerns; the present and the future can have differing needs. Business and government have had pockets close to one another.
Why not change the Gorge? It has changed before, after all. It is not identical to the place that Aboriginal Tasmanians knew, nor that which surveyor William Collins thought bore a beauty that was ‘probably not surpass’d in the world’… In the early days of the colony, it was one family’s land. Once upon a time you had to pay a toll to enter. There are non-native plants there – the dark green of firs and redwoods, the pretty pastels of rhododendrons and hydrangeas – not to mention peacocks. In a rotunda, funded by some of Launceston's fin-de-siècle ladies, you could hear string quartets play. There’s a chairlift, a pool, two cafés, a suspension bridge, walking tracks, mountain bike trails, a hill covered in daffodils. So what would be wrong with some more change, to make it more accessible, more marketable, more commercially viable?
In the end, the ratepayers of Launceston will be responsible for what happens to the Cataract Gorge. It is they who the council must listen to, above and beyond any developer. These constituents know which places hold the impressions of their memories, and whether those memories are more or less valuable than what might be gained in being disconnected from something that makes them tangible. It is their money being spent, and their place being tampered with.
Summer is over, but there are still a few swims left; a couple of midnight skinny-dips; a bomb or two off Hogs Rock. And then, autumn kicks in, and the strange maples will rot like old mansions and collapse in shades of purple, chocolate, orange. The she-oaks will barely shake. Mist will gather on the surface of the water. Perhaps this year it will flood; perhaps not. The pool will be emptied, refilled. And before too long, it’ll be time again to dust off the togs and stand nervously on the precipice of that tenebrous basin, before bending the knees and leaping off, plunging into the cold depths.
Beneath its surface, there’s more than algae and eels.
Hundreds of Tasmanians up and left when gold was first struck in the Victorian goldfields in 1851 – men of every stripe and occupation, suddenly making an exodus from the island, crossing the strait to try their luck in looking for colour.
It was yet another economic setback for Tassie, although some on the north-west coast made good selling shingles and laths for the booming populations to shelter themselves in ramshackle accommodations all across the goldfields.
In February 1852 a pioneer farmer from the north-west named James Fenton left his family and took off for Melbourne on the Sea Witch. Some of his fellow-passengers, he noted, were successful diggers who had come back to Tasmania in order to make purchases or retrieve possessions, such as horses, to bring back to the goldfields. Fenton, a Congregationalist and teetotaller, frowned upon their roughness and the lack of class with which they were employing their newfound wealth. Their conversations were lubricated with rum, and they argued the merits or otherwise of prospective gold sites in Victoria. Tempers flared without warning. One ruffian started a fistfight with another fellow after taking offence to the style of his hat.
Some had come back to Tasmania to reunite with lovers and bring them to the diggings. Fenton recorded one such mistress, “one of the most hideous-looking women that ever escaped strangulation in those days of the hempen noose”. She had been draped in expensive fabrics and laden with jewellery. Her cheeks, too, glowed red with the influence of an intoxicant.
Good luck to that blessèd couple, perhaps. A more miserable story of ill-fated romance emerged from the Sea Witch, however. One digger had secreted his paramour in the hold of the ship; she was a convict, and not able to freely transport herself off the island, so her plucky lover was smuggling her in a crate. It was nailed shut, but the fellow had left enough holes in the box for her to breathe, as well as a supply of food and water to last the journey’s duration. Sadly, as further cargo was thrown onto the ship, the case that carried this young prisoner of the Crown was covered with a large quantity of hay. She suffocated, and her body was discovered dead when the ship arrived at Melbourne.
Of course, for every bastard that got lucky and was able to doll up their women and use £5 notes to light those biddies’ cigarettes, there were dozens that stood around up their ’nads in freezing water, sluicing and panning to no avail. A better career path was selling booze to the hordes, or exporting shingles across Bass Strait. James Fenton himself returned after a short while, and went back to the farm.
The story of how a Hawaiian woman ended up living on King Island, in Bass Strait.
“It’s the people’s park,” my friend Tim fairly shouted at me one afternoon in Prince’s Square, where a large crowd had gathered for the wake of Launceston’s Deputy Mayor. It was a lovely spring evening, and dusk fell on an eclectic group of local characters. Towns like ours produce strange stories, wonderful connections. “People sleep here,” Tim went on, “they make love here, they get arrested here…”
Tim had done some research on the park, and in particular, on its fountain. An ornate construction of mythical figures (including Neptune and his bare-breasted missus), the fountain was produced by art foundry Val d’Osne, of Haute-Marne, France. A local myth has persisted that Launceston, Tasmania mistakenly received it as a gift meant for the homonymous town in England, but this is unlikely; the Cornwall Chronicle of 1859 does, however, cast doubt on Mayor Henry Dowling’s book-keeping with regards to the cost of the fountain. Mayor Dowling’s claim that it cost only £50 seemed doubtful to the wry editor of the paper at the time.
In the 1850s, the place was designated a public park, with Prince Alfred planting two oaks that are still growing. The fountain was the pièce de résistance. But even before it was made a park, the site was used to crowds. First, it was a convict brickfields. Then, Launcestonians started to use it to host their public events: the area drew military drills and political gatherings. There was also a hanging. John Conway and Riley Jeffs had become a bushranging duo, and on May 4, 1843, they put a gun to the head of a landowner along the South Esk River, who was sitting on his verandah at the time.
“Stand,” said Conway, breathing heavily through his prominent proboscis.
“No,” said the landowner. “I’m comfortable sitting down. What do you want?”
The landowner and his servant were detained, and the bushrangers set about pilfering the usual – firearms, tea, sugar, flour, and rum. Soon after they left, Constable Thomas Connell was in hot pursuit, supported by a group of local vigilantes. Unfortunately, poor Jeffs had been wounded the previous day, and was easily caught; nor was Conway a great athlete, and he too was captured.
It turned out they had also murdered a constable, and for this, they were sentenced to be hanged. In July of that year, a crowd of 1000 – near a quarter of Launceston’s population of the day – slept out for a midwinter’s night in order to see the dawn hanging. The mob gathered were unruly, singing and making a scene, throughout the night. A disgraceful scene, said the Cornwall Chronicle.
Some weeks after the wake, I was part of a small impromptu gathering of people, which also included Tim, a Frenchman, and a musician. We stood next to the fountain, with plastic cups of sangria, talking about these layers of history - the ghosts of the area. The Presbyterian church has just been renovated by a design firm; behind the Anglican church, there were once Chinese market gardens, and probably opium dens too. A statue of a local doctor stands where Riley and Jeffs were hanged. Across the road from the park is the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre: before any of us were here, there was an indigenous population, for millennia.
The wind was cold. Cigarettes were lit by a few. No-one else was around; it surely was not a night for sleeping out in the park. The talk was serious for a moment, but then, someone started talking about ‘continental breakfasts’, about the pineapple-looking thing on top of the fountain, about the French, and finally about how it was probably time to go home. The scene was “not a disgraceful one”, despite the personalities involved.
There are more stories from the area. In 1811, Jonothan Burke McHugo sailed into the young colony of Launceston and claimed himself its Maharajah.
Ten million years ago, this valley was formed by volcanic and glacial forces.
A long time after that, humans came to the island. They were largely nomadic societies, and certainly passed through the Tamar Valley, although the evidence of what they did for their thousands of years here – what they witnessed of climatic change, how their beliefs adapted to the world changing around them – is sadly missing.
English explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders came through the Bass Strait in 1798, and in 1805, the recently-created British settlements of George Town and York Town were moved down the river to Launceston. One of the island’s chief surveyors, George Prideaux Harris, reckoned it was “the finest country in the world, as beautiful a country in appearance as I ever saw.”
Two hundred years later, there are plenty of people in the town of Launceston who would agree. Like every settlement in Tasmania, it hasn’t had an easy run. After a boom in 1850, the economy here has endured prolonged depressions. And with that comes crime, or lack of educational opportunities, or political corruption. Not a few people who live in Launceston today think it’s buggered, as if the emptying of shopfronts is a new thing for us.
But you don’t have to look very far to find reasons to feel lucky. Many of us do.
Some of our community go further. There are a rare few who put in hard yards to make this place even better, to fill our town with energy and optimism, to wake us up to the beauty around us.
Summer’s coming, and I’ll be spending much of it in a house at the end of a street next to the bushland around the Cataract Gorge, where black cockatoos revel in the clear light, above the milky gums and blossoming wattles; at a lower level, fairy-wrens and bandicoots and snakes sneak between twigs and bushes.
There was a bloke who used to live in the same neighbourhood who won’t be any more. The whole town will miss him dearly. One of our historians writes that here on the island we are “part of dense networks of kinship and friendship” and that means you sorely notice when someone disappears. Things are deeply connected here, from the forces of 10 million years ago to the miserable news of Monday night.
It could be that the bloke we lost understood this better than most of us.
It might take a while, but I hope one day a local play or a bike ride or a walk in the bush will remind us each that we are nearer to the things we miss than we often realise, that all the memories of all the losses in all our lives are still with us, and they are in the cockatoos’ screeching and the snake’s quick shadow and the dark water in the river basin and the laughter at the end of a shaggy-dog story told by an old mate. It’s not the same. But it’s something.
Yes, these are dense networks indeed; yes, this place is as beautiful as I ever saw.
Another memoriam, on a cliff looking over the Cataract Gorge.
In 1811, Major George Gordon was in charge of the fledgling colony at the mouth of Tamar River. When summer came at the end of the year, Major Gordon suffered from sunstroke so badly, it is said, that he went a little bit out of his mind. At about the same time, a curious character named Jonothan Burke McHugo sailed down the river and stepped into Launceston.
Calling himself a Maharajah and declaring himself of noble descent, McHugo stated that he had been ordered to Launceston by the British Government of India to investigate the numerous grievances of the colony. Major Gordon felt he had little choice but to hand over the reins of the colony to this visitor of great esteem.
For a week, McHugo was the boss. The military gave their allegiance entirely to him. He gave out tea, rice, sugar and spirits, lending them at long credit, and set up a court of enquiry to hear the concerns of the settlers. At the conclusion of his inquiry, he declared that Major Gordon ought to be hanged.
So poor George Gordon (still suffering from sunstroke, I suppose) was set to be strung up, and no doubt he would have been, if not for the timely return of a young lieutenant named Lyttleton, who was surprised to find that while on his short holiday, Launceston had regressed to a state of anarchy. He quickly exercised his authority to put a pause on the execution, and then did some investigations of him own regarding the identity of the Maharajah, General Count Jonothan Burke McHugo.
Who, it turned out, to be of no noble standing at all, but instead the son of an Irish tobacco seller.
McHugo was sent back to his ship, and told to bugger off. Not much is known about the rest of his life. Major Gordon was returned to his health, but not to his post; he fired as a punishment for his gullibility. Lyttleton, on the other hand, got a promotion.
Another ship, and another enigmatic visitor: Roald Amundsen arrives on the Fram.
I heard folks say that the weather in the north of Tasmania last week was worst in living memory. Is there no-one left to remember the 1929 floods?
The rain started on Wednesday, and went on for three days. In that time, Burnie and Ulverstone recorded 500mm of rainfall; in one day, Mathinna copped 337mm.
On Friday, April 5, 1929, Launceston was abuzz. The Examiner’s printing presses were employed in publishing single-page evacuation instructions. Both ends of the Esk River were rushing at an alarming speed. Chooks, horses, and even pianos were seen floating around the city’s streets and parks. And then, as evening fell, the power station at Duck Reach was washed out, plunging the city into darkness.
The evacuations began at 2a.m. The working-class suburb of Invermay was on the way to becoming an island; thousands of residents there had to be taken to higher grounds, sleeping in churches and schools in other parts of Launceston.
Most of the casualties happened outside of Launceston, the biggest town in the north. A truck carrying eight passengers was swept off a bridge in Ulverstone. Fourteen people died when a newly-built dam in the north-east of the island collapsed.
When they woke up, the people of northern Tasmania woke up to scenes of destruction. In every town, road and rail bridges had been knocked down thousands of tonnes of moving water. 5000 people were left homeless; the Launceston Bowls Club had lost their building; the Tamar Rowing Club lost most of its boats.
It was the middle of a global recession; between 1928 and 1933, Launceston’s total trade decreased by 29%. Banks wouldn’t loan money to restore lost savings; it took more than a decade for the town to fully recover, and by that point, World War II had begun.
But that morning, as the rain stopped, and the river-water lazily sat above the levels of its banks, slowly subsiding in the streets, there was – I suspect – an eerie sensation of peace.
Down in St. Mary’s, a baby was crying. He’d been born overnight, in a truck. His parents would later tell him that he wasn’t born, but rather, he’d been swept in by the rushing rivers.
Sometimes, towards the end, he would look back on it all and laugh. As the years had gone by, Henry Reading had accumulated an immense wealth; he owned over 120 properties in the north of the island, and it was said that there wasn’t a street in Launceston that you couldn’t find a house of Henry’s.
He was the equivalent of a millionaire, but that hadn’t seemed like Henry Reading’s destiny from the beginning. Born to a young mother in one or another of London’s gin-soaked hovels, Reading was imprisoned for stealing beeswax, and sentenced to Van Diemen’s Land on the Claudine. When he arrived in 1821, he had just turned thirteen years old, and stood at a a miniscule 137 centimetres tall.
Henry was a well-behaved convict and earned his ticket-of-leave in due course. The urge to have a fresh start stirred within the young man. He decided to leave Hobart, and head for the northern settlement of Launceston. For a poor convict lad, there was no transportation available – other than his two feet. Henry Reading put his few possessions on a handcart and began lugging it the 190 kilometres from Hobart to Launceston.
It was April when he set out. Cold winds blew, rain came and went, and the odd storm assailed him. The transplanted trees on the homesteads were beginning to litter their leaves. Occasionally a servant, a cook, or even a master would take pity on the little man hiking across the island and give him soup, grog, or a bed to sleep in.
Oddly, when he was older and reminiscing on his walk, Henry Reading could remember little of the aching muscles, the wet clothes, the cold rivers he had to wade, the blisters, the nights of bad sleep, or the hunger. He knew that’s how it had been – a tough slog – but instead, he remembered the good moments: these instances of hospitality, or the sight of a blue sky over the Midlands plains. Or best of all, that final day of walking.
It had nearly been a month since he crossed the Derwent River coming out of Hobart Town. Now, departing Breadalbane on May 12th, Henry felt the load lighten a little, knowing he would soon be arriving to a new life, a clean slate, a blank page. And as he approached Launceston, he noted in his diary the immense heads of cattle that he was passing through. “Prosperity bodes well here,” he scrawled.
Yes, when Henry Reading thought about the naïve young man he had been when he wrote that prognostication, he had to laugh.
There is a small hut on the other side of the Basin, where the tourists disembark from the chairlift; whoever operates the chairlift on that side has a small hut, in which he keeps a collection of feathers and a few smutty pictures of girls cut out from a magazine. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him. It was about 7:30p.m., a summer evening, when I last went by that way. Of course, the chairlift was finished for the day: so many empty seats stranded above the rocks and the lawn and the water, hanging from a thick wire.
I tramped up by the rhododendrons and the manferns, past the empty porch in front of the little café-restaurant where they sell Devonshire tea at a hefty price, and up the steps that lead towards what they call the Eagle Eyrie. I often regret that the nomenclature on this island is more or less complete – how much I would like to have been given some say into the place-names of Tasmania. Eagle Eyrie is fine: but I could do better. So I thought on this evening, anyway.
Sometimes you see wallabies on that pathway. Occasionally, you even come upon an echidna rooting around in the dirt. Tonight, though, there seemed to be no life in the bushes, not even fairy-wrens or silvereyes in the trees. Tangles of wildflowers grew but everything else might as well have been dead, or dying.
Or perhaps that was just the way I was seeing the world. I was in mourning. My aunt – a woman beloved to me – had just passed. Cancer. The funeral had been a few days before. It was lovely, as lovely as a funeral can be, but I still didn’t feel as though I had come upon any type of closure. I didn’t really know what that was supposed to look like, however. I had heard things about the grieving process, or whatever, but this was my first brush with mortality, and more than anything, it was confusing. The days before the funeral had been a busy time of organising and I wondered if there was some kind of design to that.
At the top of the gravel path is a look-out point. Clambering up towards it, I was surprised to find a peacock there. It was probably surprised to see me too. It seemed like a solitary place for a peacock to be, especially during the mating season. What business did it have at the Eagle Eyrie? It was a male, glittering with bright hues (unlike the dowdy brown females), but there wasn’t a potential mate in sight. It had come a long way for no evident purpose.
As I slowly stepped towards the peacock, it shuffled towards the edge of the look-out, squeezing under a small, scrappy fence – erected, I suppose, to stop tourists tumbling off. I worried briefly for the peacock as it gauged the distance to a nearby rock, and then launched towards it. But the peacock landed fine. It was quite a curious sight: this gaudy peacock perched on a rock above the entire Cataract Gorge, with the dark green northern-hemisphere pines clashing against the grey palette of native bush, and the shimmering electric-blue of the pool and an equally brilliant grass of the lawn. The basin itself had turned silver in the gathering twilight. The peacock gave out a few shrill calls, bending its ropy neck beneath the weight of each shout, as if it was buckling beneath the pressure. I continued watching it, sitting down slowly. Now the peacock gave a honk, like a grandmother at a family reunion letting out a surprised belch. The calls – ree-yor, ree-yor – set off a chain reaction. After each call, a kookaburra would be stirred into its laugh. Then, a dog, cooped up in the yard of one of those houses along the northern rim of the Gorge, would begin to bark. And down on the lawn, by the pool, it seemed that the playful screaming of some girls was a response to the dog’s noises too.
I had a thermos of peppermint tea with me. Not taking my eyes of the peacock, I unscrewed the lid and began to let it cool down. I was trying to remember my auntie. But the bird in front of me was a distraction, and I studied its strange fashion, the clashing colours, the shapes of its tail feathers (eyes and fish-tails), the brown-and-cream design of its flanks, its ugly legs and feet, the blue brainy mess on its scalp.