Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged anthropology

  • The Land of Sweet Forget

    The Land of Sweet Forget

    “In the west beyond the sunset lay the fabled Noia Poeena, which meant Land of Sweet Forget. No wars or troubles – a land of complete rest. It was said that a warrior could pick up his spear [there] and, as likely as not, immediately lay it down again, having forgotten why he had picked it up.”

    So it says in 'the Cotton Papers', an enigmatic collection of stories of a family of free settlers on the east coast of Tasmania, and their interactions with Aboriginals from the area. These stories were handed down through the generations of an east coast family, and published only a few years ago.

    The Cottons were sympathetic with the first Tasmanians. And although their biases on ideas of property, work and religion were a part of the system of supplanting the indigenous population, there is something quite heroic about these pacifists, and something pioneering about their way of recognising the Aboriginal as a fellow-traveller.

    But how well
    they came to understand Aboriginal languages remains uncertain – and it’s extremely unlikely they were able to accurately interpret Aboriginal spirituality.

    The Cottons were not the first whitefellas to take a stab at wrapping his head around a unique and complex worldview, which was doubtless disrupted when European boats came from afar to Tasmania.

    Harry Govier Seeley would have us believe that Aboriginals were looking towards the source of their ancestral home when they stood on the western shoreline and gazed upon the thumping of the Southern Ocean. He argued that Tasmanians had originally hailed from Madagascar, and travelled to Borneo on a land-bridge that is now covered by ocean, before heading south. (Another anthropologist, Hyde Clarke, claimed that the language of the Nyam-Nyam in the Congo was “remarkably similar” to Tasmanian languages.)

    Human communities have been shifting and migrating for a long time. The latest whitefella narrative about the arrival of people in Tasmania is that crossed a land-bridge over Bass Strait during the late Pleistocene – around 35,000 years ago – and ventured along the west coast of the Tasmanian peninsula, up its river systems and into caves.

    Who knows what these families remembered of their previous homelands.
    What stories were passed down about what became mainland Australia, or their lives through the Ice Age? When the British and French foisted themselves onto the island in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they made amateurish efforts to comprehend the Tasmanians’ lives – but of what was doubtlessly rich a body of stories and cultural practices, little was known by the European interpreter.

    This through naivete,
    prejudice and incompetence, as well as reluctance on the behalf of the Aboriginal storytellers to pass on everything.

    At the end of the last century, J.A. Taylor worked on a Tasmanian Aboriginal etymology, particularly surrounding place-names. This is an astounding document, an
    other one born from a respect for Aboriginal lives and regret at what is not known about this island. Yet again, while there is no doubt Taylor was a knowledgeable linguist, the text smacks of guess-work.

    Taylor tells us that an Aboriginal name for Woolnorth Point, in the far north-west of the island, was MA-AN-DAI. “The meaning is obscure, but speculatively the name may have been derived from a cognate of manuta meaning a long way (time) away,” his entry reads.

    There, up on Cape Grim, occurred one of the cruellest massacres the British colonists ever perpetrated against the original Tasmanians.

    Beyond that site lies Noia Poeena: a white Quaker’s dream of peace, over the slate-grey Southern Ocean, vicious and seemingly endless, stretching all the way to South America.

  • Winter Customs

    Winter Customs

    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.