Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged art

  • One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    One Sunday Morning in Ranelagh

    I. Riddell, 1819.

    The country along the Huon River had been known to Europeans for a couple of decades. The French had come up the river under Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. He had assigned the river’s name in honour of the commander of one of his vessels, Huon de Kermadec. That was 1792.

    Pre-eminent naturalist Robert Brown led a journey down the Huon in 1804, before declaring it unsuitable for settlement. But there was now knowledge of the country’s geography and the first scattered settlements appeared.

    In 1819, for example, I. Riddell came and scratched his name into a tree.

    In the 1820s, an absconded convict with the surname of Martin was found at a makeshift campsite at what is now the township of Franklin. As was so often the case with the bolters of colonial Van Diemen’s Land, this Martin had escaped into a location with a wealth of resources. The river, the wetlands, and the hinterland of eucalypt forest were full of life; here it was possible for an outcast to find shelter,
    find food, make fire and survive.

    However, as elsewhere in Tasmania, these colonial outposts required ingenuity and bravery. New settlers would live in bark huts and work long hours. Everything was home-made. Conflict with the original Tasmanian population was also prevalent in this period of history, and these remote settlements were exposed.

    After the development of a bridle track the following decade, the Huon Valley became one of the most fecund agricultural areas on the island. Even Lady Jane Franklin acquired a large block of land and put it to use.

    The Huon River came to have over 70 jetties; even with the bridle track, it made more sense to use the water as a road. Vessels without engines were replaced by steamers and soon enough, a Huon resident would be able to take an early-morning boat ride to Hobart.

    Like many others, George Lucas shipped timber upstream. He felled the trees on his property Ranelagh, today the name of a village of about 1000 people.

    It was here I woke up about this time last year. Not quite in the cemetery, amongst the tombstones of my predecessors, but in the adjacent park. Sometimes after midnight, I had arrived from the Huon Valley Midwinter Feast, the local wassailing festival. (It is genuinely one of my favourite festivals and I’m sorry to miss it this year). Giddy with cider and bock, I’d sort-of put up my tent and slept in it. When I woke up, the sun was melting the frost. The resonant voices of the Sunday morning flock rose from the Anglican church-house, joining the mist lifting from the Huon. Some children were hunting for Pokémon – now that’s history.

    What makes a person try and mark their time and place in the world so definitely, to scribble their name on a wall or scratch it into a tree? If ever I needed to fix myself somewhere, it may have been that morning in Ranelagh. I was completely untethered for the day – no car, no mobile phone,
    no plans, no companions. I went and found a wallaby pie for breakfast, and wandered off, unregistered, with the other old souls of the Huon Valley.

  • The Lawless Loveliness of the Landscape

    The Lawless Loveliness of the Landscape

    I recently wrote of Denmark: at last, I hinted, we may have held up our end of the bargain in an intercontinental exchange. In the 1820s a colourful Dansker came to Tasmania; in the year 2000, a love affair between a Tasmanian and the Crown Prince of Denmark began. Where we once received Jørgen Jørgensen, we gave away our Mary Donaldson.

    But actually, Tasmanians are still one-up over the Danes. Because in 1891, another Danish migrant would arrive to Hobart and also make a significant mark on our island’s culture. This was the novelist Marie Bjelke Petersen.

    She had been brought up in the outskirts of Copenhagen, but moved with her whole family when she was a teenager. They arrived in the spring. In her reminiscences at least, the scenery was instantly affecting: it was “a paradise of untouched beauty”, she said. “When I saw all these mountains in Tasmania, I embraced it on the spot.”

    Certainly the mountains would have been impressive. She’d have seen a number of them whilst still at sea, and Mount Wellington must have have struck her as imposing. Denmark, after all, is rather flat; its highest point is 170 metres above sea level.

    At first she tried to transmute her feeling for the Tasmanian landscape into painting, but she soon converted to writing. Her first three publications were religious works, but in 1917 she wrote
    The Captive Singer. The plot featured a guide who took tourists into the caves around Mole Creek, and sang well, and charmed a woman. It sold 150,000 copies in Australia – and 40,000 in a Danish translation.

    It kicked off a steady stream of words, and sales. In
    Dusk she wrote of a love affair in the mining town of Queenstown; in Jewelled Nights she narrated a close friendship (which became a love affair) at a prospectors’ camp on the Savage River. In total Bjelke Petersen sold more than a quarter of a million books in English and many more in the six languages into which they were translated. For an Australian author of her era, this was an enormous success.

    The novels don’t necessarily age well. Their
    plots are sometimes frivolous, and Bjelke Petersen’s religious didactism doesn’t read well today. Today, her prose comes across as overly romantic, breathless and out-of-control. But one thing is certain: Marie Bjelke Petersen’s writing about Tasmania (and mainland Australia, in which she set a couple of novels) showed an original view of the landscape. Where other authors painted Tasmania as “bleak and cheerless”, Bjelke Petersen raved about the “lawless loveliness of the landscape.”

    Perhaps for Bjelke Petersen, excursions into the bush gave her liberty. She travelled far and wide into western Tasmania researching her plots. Her other career was as a teacher of physical education; she strongly believed in its virtues. She went places that few women of European background had been.

    You may be familiar with her nephew, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who would later become a Queensland politician. His aunt was also religiously conservative, but Marie was nevertheless a forward thinker in society. I’m not sure if she ever thought of herself as a feminist, but she certainly wasn’t willing to be constrained by expectations of gender roles. The novelist refused to be married, and instead lived with her close friend Sylvia Mills. (Plenty of tongues have wagged about what their relationship might have been, but I have little gossip to contribute.)

    Marie Bjelke Petersen was also an environmental conservationist. “It is really a matter that brings tears to my eyes to see the way our beautiful forests are being wantonly burnt off,” she declared in one public address. Her enthusiasm for the bush wasn’t confined to her literature. (“The jungle was a riotous confusion of strong growing things, which clung savagely together and almost strangled each other in their fierce passionate embraces!”)

    This is a recurring theme in Tasmania: so many of the activists who have spoken in praise and in defence of our landscapes have originally come from places like Denmark, Austria, Germany, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. Although today I think some Tasmanian-born individuals have at last begun to understand and respect their surrounds, for many years we relied on those who had come from the outside to point out just how special it all was.

    Likewise, Marie Bjelke Petersen was a special character in Tasmanian cultural history – another Dane for whom we can be grateful. She died as an old lady in October 1969.



    Another fascinating literary figure from Tasmania was the Glenorchy-born author Christopher Koch.

  • Figures and Textures: Waves, Fences, Fantails, Skyscrapers

    Figures and Textures: Waves, Fences, Fantails, Skyscrapers

    I find myself a spot on the point and watch. Gravity lifts mounds of water from the seemingly endless expanse. On a shaped plate of fibreglass, a surfer waits. He is in thick foam. He wants the waves to lift in a certain shape: his eyes are trained to see the first hints of this phenomenon. When he does, he’ll lay flat on the board, beleaguered as a turtle, kicking his legs in the surf before hoisting himself to his feet.

    I’ve never surfed. The ocean is not my realm. I swim, of course, and I love swimming. But I don’t feel the confidence that my surfer friend does. Perhaps it’s because I was caught in a rip off King Island when I was a teenager (how to describe the shape of a rip?) and almost found myself wrecked on the rocks like so many ships have on that island’s coastline.

    On land it is a different matter. I have great trust in my feet, my balance, in the strength of my legs. Often enough I possess an awareness of my legs; they seem to inhabit the entirety of my body sometimes. As a child, I had five acres to stretch them out into: no wonder they have grown so long and skinny.

    In cities they feel cramped. I do not like running up against the confines of urban design. One can only imagine how much more this version of claustrophobia affected Aboriginal Tasmanians, who had lived in a semi-nomadic style until Europeans arrived and claimed large areas of land for themselves.

    For the first time, fences came into the landscape. A surreal form, I suppose, to see strung along Tasmanian country, between bulky stringybarks and bendy wattles, with skinks and wrens breaching it. Even today, to see a grey fantail launch off a wire strand and make its circular forays in the air is one of the strangest collision of forms that I can think of.

    Sometimes I find creative inspiration from these weird incoherences. Other times, they are ugly in the broadest sense of the word: not only are the forms themselves aesthetically bothersome, but the ideas behind them are dull-witted, ill-conceived, authoritarian, and motivated by nothing more interesting than shallow greed.

    In this unappealing category I place the high-rise buildings proposed for Hobart’s waterfront. These are the designs of Singapore-based Fragrance Group. Unfortunately, they are awful designs, which fail to correspond to any of the landscape’s native figures. Anything in Hobart must match the beautiful forms and textures of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and kunanyi/Mount Wellington: these do not. As Richard Flanagan has written recently, these forms are not contiguous to Hobart. They have no relevance to this island. “They do not come out of Tasmanian culture,” Flanagan writes. “Their immense height and bulk do not respect or complement a cityscape where the tallest building is 14 storeys.

    Skyscrapers dominate and bully the small island of Singapore; they ought not in Tasmania.
    This is not only a contest between economics and aesthetics: when cities are designed in discord with their use and history, locals are alienated from their own places.

    Aboriginal Tasmanians would have worried more about the frontier conflict than the frontiers themselves, but, perhaps, with their nuanced understanding of the meaning of forms (as evinced by their artwork), they would have recognised that the straight lines of fences represented a barrier and a boundary in time.

    These Tasmanians had their own architecture, from simple east coast shelters to semi-permanent shacks on the west coast. That we have no interest in designing like this shows the perpetuity of a colonial “perceptual faultline” that we need buildings which are tall and straight.

    We turn to such buildings as a reflex, trying to prove to the world that we are relevant to them. Instead, we arbitrarily import irrelevant ugliness, when we could come up with something that imaginatively embraces the history and landscape of an island that is like no other on Earth.



    Last week I looked at other forms, comparing a west coast mountain to a Cretaceous dinosaur.

  • Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    I am increasingly compelled to pay attention to the figures and textures of Tasmania, and to wonder what impression they have made upon my brain and our society as we each pass our time within their midst.

    For example, as the years go on, I become more familiar with such forms in the mountains where I work. It is not only the silhouettes of massifs and gendarmes that affect me. I recall last patches of light on the summits, the rock changing colour as the sun disappears behind a hill or forest. There is the coarseness of dolerite’s crystals against the soft pads of my hands, or the sharp contortions of quartzite under the thick leather of my boots’ soles, or the slippery grains of wet sandstone.

    Artists have a keen eye for these things. I am not an artist, but I admire someone like Peter Dombrovskis, a photographer who spent incredible amounts of time and care during his forays into the bush. A cursory look through Dombrovskis’ catologue is enough to tell us that he knew these forms intimately: the curl of the pandani, the burled bark, convulsions of kelp, ice-encrusted flower petals.

    But even those who are considerate and attentive will today arrive with the aesthetic prejudices of Europe. We must remember that straight lines are rarely found in the Tasmanian bush. Maybe there are rectilinear forms in geology, but very rarely are they truly straight. Even the horizon may have taken on a different meaning for the original Tasmanians: this line, I am told, is not the crux of much Aboriginal art, unlike what we have been handed down from the classic painters of Europe.

    Tasmanian art, as far as we can know, was most often in the media of bodily scarification and petroglyphs. Here at preminghana or Mount Cameron West, in the island’s north-west, is said to have some of the mesmerising and memorable examples of art in the latter medium. (Today it is concealed and only accessible to some members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.)

    Stylised circles, moon-shapes, dots, crosses and bird tracks were recorded by early European observers; similar motifs appear in the descriptions of the cicatrices cut into the flesh of Tasmanians. The “curved emblem” was also found at Aboriginal gravesites, and in their temporary huts. The full meanings of these figures are not shared, but commentators have remarked on the potential symbolism – “an awareness of a spiritual dimension within the land”, says Roslynn Haynes.

    Probably, they had a range of possible meanings, a beautiful and complicated polysemy.

    I grew up on a bush block in the Tamar Valley and there are countless forms that have unalterably changed me. Perhaps the open land we had is the most obvious: my gait, I think, corresponds to the yards in which I strode as a youth. But there are many more,
    most of which I do not yet comprehend. But I am spending a lot of time trying to unravel it all.

    For example, when I came to look at preminghana, I found myself comparing it to a Pachycephalosaurus, in a certain unlikely posture. I was very fond of dinosaurs as a lad.


  • A Peep at the Wilderness

    A Peep at the Wilderness

    There are few more significant names in Tasmania’s landscape photography history than J.W. Beattie and Stephen Spurling III. But these two artists had a different view on an iconic region of Tasmania’s high country at the beginning of the 1900s.

    Born at the 57th parallel north, in the “Grey City” of Aberdeen, John Watt Beattie migrated to the Derwent Valley with his parents in his late teen years. Farming didn’t come instinctively to him, but he was drawn to the romantic aspects of Tasmanian landscape – the young Beattie was particularly influenced by landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, whose depictions of this island’s craggy peaks and lake districts, in oils, continues to shape the artistic temperament in Tassie.

    Beattie’s photographic excursions took him to many remote regions of the island, including the nascent mine towns of the west coast. A supporter of the mining projects, he was nevertheless an early and outspoken environmentalist – arguing against forestry activities on the Gordon River, for example, recognising its scenic and scientific values.

    Also an eager archivist, Beattie’s historical awareness, at the end of the 1800s, was quite a long way advanced; his work was moulded by his political and social opinions. His art was popular, and he was extremely well-liked as an individual.

    J.W. Beattie’s journey to the mountainous country around the Cradle Plateau in 1901 left him unimpressed. It may have been the torrid weather his party endured, as they ascended Pelion Plains and headed north; as Beattie wrote in his paper for the Royal Society, day after day brought “furious wind and rain...to be succeeded by heavy snowfalls, and thunder and lightning, making every living and dead thing around in such condition that it was, to say at the least, misery to walk outside the hut...”

    Beattie managed to muster up some positive memories of deep conversations, “yarns and songs” in front of the fireplaces of the high country huts – but generally felt that it was “somewhat of lunacy to come into this country in such weather”. His camera was playing up and the weather offered no respite. Few photographs were produced, although one significant romantic image was titled ‘A Peep at Barn Bluff from Lake Windermere’ (the latter landmark portrayed for this article, albeit taken by a lesser photographer).

    But Stephen Spurling III, who was the self-described “pioneer photographer” of this area in March 1898, was miffed by Beattie’s deprecation of this landscape. He likely did create “the earliest extensive record of the Cradle Mountain and Western Tiers area,” according to the Companion to Tasmanian History.

    A third generation photographer, whose would also include photographic forays around Ben Lomond and the Franklin and Gordon rivers, Spurling believed these landscapes “compare in scenic excellence with any part of Tasmania, and will amply repay the tourist for any hardships he may endure in getting there,” as he wrote in a letter to the 
    Examiner responding to Beattie’s report.

    Stephen Spurling III would certainly to this part of the world, taking images of the Western Tiers in heavy snow, and later producing motion pictures of the highlands of the upper Mersey. He photographed the magnificent Hartnett Falls days after it was first witnessed by a white visitor, and named Lake Lilla (near Cradle Mountain) after his sister. 

    And indeed most would say that Spurling was right in this debate with J.W. Beattie: the country that Beattie shrugged his shoulders over are part of the Overland Track, one of the world’s most famous multi-day bushwalks.

    Though they bickered over this area, their work complemented each other, and the two pioneering artists (as Richard Flanagan has written) “jointly produc[ed] a vision of the Tasmanian wilderness that was definitive and which has endured more or less intact to the present day.”

     

  • The Subtle Colours of the Western Tiers

    The Subtle Colours of the Western Tiers

    For about one hundred kilometres across northern central Tasmania, a protrusion of Jurassic rock emerges, overlooking the agricultural landscapes around townships like Deloraine, Westbury and Longford. These form the north-western boundary of the Central Plateau: they are the Great Western Tiers, or, in an Aboriginal term, kooparoona niara: ‘home of the mountain spirits’.

    British transplants arriving in Tasmania in the early 1800s began spreading their claims of land ownership to the inland districts beneath the Western Tiers within several decades. By the middle of the nineteenth-century, landowners had pushed their way through to the forests at the foot of the mountains.

    The earliest known track up onto the Tiers was cut in 1879, and is known as Higgs’ Track. Today it remains one of the most efficient, popular and enjoyable routes into Tasmania’s high country. Higgs’ Track was cut by the father and son team of Joshua and Sydney Higgs; the Higgs family had arrived from London’s West End in 1853, and their track led from the Western Creek sawmill to the plateau’s edge,
    where they had a grazing lease near Lake Lucy Long.

    Subsequent tracks began braiding their way up the slopes, through a tangle of snow gum and sassafras, mountain pepper and kerosene bush: Parsons Track, Warners Track, Yeates Track, Mole Creek Track and Staggs Track form, among others, a network of routes that made journeys to the lakes and peaks of that region. When trout were released in the waterways of the Central Plateau in 1895, these tracks became more and more popular; fishing became a serious attraction for visitors to the region, and locals offered their services for hospitality and guiding.

    The Higgs family house was built with American architectural influences, and each of the twelve children helped to raise their accommodation. Joshua Higgs would move to Launceston to become an early architect in the fledgling city. He was also a gifted artist: significant works that survive include a sketch of the early Kings Bridge tollhouse in Launceston, and a beautiful painting of the Western Creek sawmill from which Higgs’ Track led.

    His son Sydney Higgs would travel around Australia and New Zealand as a young man, earning a reputation as “a noted shearer” according to his 1934 obituary in the Examiner. But Sydney would return to live at the foot of the Tiers, in Caveside, where he met and married Lydia Stone. Sydney had a wealth of experiences from which to draw stories and was consequently “widely known as a brilliant storyteller who could hold an enraptured audience for hours,” according to local historian John F. Pithouse.

    Hoofing it up the track he cut to fish his favourite streams, Sydney Higgs would be found in a dinner jacket and bowler hat. A photograph exists of this gentlemanly figure on the rocky edges of a tarn with a fishing rod in hand.

    Higgs’ history continues to live in the towns beneath kooparoona niara, and elsewhere: Sydney Higgs jnr. was also a renowned watercolour painter, and his own daughter, Avis Higgs, remains one of Wellington’s treasured textile designers and watercolour artists at nearly 100 years of age.

    Dairy pastures follow the road until I turn off the tarmac; an old timber signs points towards the tracks, as well as a ‘Big Tree’, which, according to local knowledge, is now just a big stump. My old car grumbles as I pull in to park at the trailhead. The serrated leaves of sassafras shine with a young green, while the trunks of eucalypts seem antediluvian; ferns sprout from damp corners; rills of water sprint across the path and plunge into creeks; some recently- and beautifully-constructed walls of pitched stone push back the dark earth.

    Lady Lake Hut sits perched on the plateau, a rebuilt version of what Sydney Higgs once erected here. Welcome swallows neurotically wave around their nest in the eaves. I am nearly a kilometre above the low mosaic of farms and towns, and here, as much as anywhere, the subtle colours of rugged country remain much the same as they did for thousands of years after the glaciers melted away from it. Soggy sphagnum, well-lit layers of distant dolerite, the springtime maroon on mountain rocket: these all offer a restful impression on my eye.

    For a pioneer and bushman with artistic inclinations, there may be no more wonderful place.

  • A Colony of Fish

    A Colony of Fish

    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.

  • Nowhere Valley

    Nowhere Valley

    Beneath here is Nowhere Valley. There, the bushranger Lucas Wilson set up his utopia. “What I’ve done in establishing Nowhere Valley,” he said, “is to escape the world which is too much with us…Here in this beautiful place, we’re in a territory that’s never been spoiled: one that’s just as it was at the beginning of time.”

    Fiction: from the last novel of Tasmanian author Christopher Koch, Lost Voices, published in 2012.

    Nowhere Valley is Collinsvale, a hamlet hidden in the northern bumps and folds of Mount Wellington. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the invented scholastic woodsman and his followers had established their society in Koch’s novel, British settlements had begun to creep up the creeks from Glenorchy and New Norfolk into this valley. Sorell Creek was the region’s first name.

    And then came the first immigrants from Germany and Denmark. These Lutherans were drawn by cheap land and good water supplies to start a township there, centred around agriculture, from 1870. They planted vines and potatoes, and worked as carpenters and blacksmiths and bakers. The relative isolation provided by the valley allowed the migrants to maintain their identities. Their names were Neilsen and Fehlberg, Tötenhofer and Appeldorff. In 1881, the town was gazetted with the name of Bismarck, after the Prussian statesman.

    But a few decades later, with the Great War invoking anti-German sentiments around Tasmania, a letter-writing campaign sought to change this name. Collinsvale, after the first Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, David Collins, was proposed. “We are quite unanimous in believing that Collinsvale is a far more suitable name for a Tasmanian township than Bis-marck,” wrote one W.F. Andersen in December 1914. “The only ones who do not think so are Germans, and a couple who are probably under obligations to Germans.”

    The latter’s oppositions included the claim that the brand name of Bismarck was associated with high quality produce. This was quashed: the town was renamed Collinsvale.

    Names can change with extraordinary ease: mountains and hills less so. The utopia of Nowhere Valley failed. The bushranger Lucas Wilson perished. His final exhortation was, “Keep faith with the hills.” His author, Christopher Koch, who grew up in the town of Glenorchy beneath the mountain summits now known as Collins Cap and Collins Bonnet, narrates: “Though I’ve lived most of my life outside the island, my native hills have figured very often in my work. Back here again, perhaps to stay, I wander outside the town and study their rhyming outlines: olive green; deep green; blue. Familiar, unchanging and apparently static, they nevertheless have a look of illusory fluidity, and are constantly renewing themselves.”

    And indeed they are. Lucas Wilson was wrong: this is not how these places have been since the beginning of time. “And the beauty that Lucas had so often spoken about was mere fancy – something he’d grafted onto this landscape.”

  • The 29th Annual World Ploughing Championships

    The 29th Annual World Ploughing Championships

    Where were you on June 14 and 15, 1982?

    If your answer is not the Christ Church on Illawarra Road, just outside of Longford, Tasmania, then I can assure you were wasting your time.

    For on that winter weekend, the 29th Annual World Ploughing Championship was taking place there.

    A lovely bluestone church surrounded by golden paddocks and poppy fields, the Christ Church is a site of pilgrimage for art aficionados. Australian painting innovator Tom Roberts is buried there next to his second wife, and some of the altar decorations were designed by contemporary artist Arthur Boyd.

    Edward Dumaresq was born in Wales in 1802, and followed a standard upper-crust military educational trajectory, via the Royal Military College in Sandhurst and a cadetship with the East India Company. After serving on several continents, Dumaresq was relocated to the Antipodes, his sister having married the Governor of New South Wales.

    In 1825 he was made the Surveyor-General of Van Diemen’s Land; after that, he worked as a revenue collector, and a police magistrate. He obtained property outside of the settlement of Longford in 1842, named Mt. Ireh, and on it he built the Christ Church, with thick walls and Baltic pine rafters.

    Dumaresq moved to Kew, Victoria; travelled back to England; and had his wife, Frances, pass away. A Mrs. Charlotte Fogg was briefly the partner of what Dumaresq himself described as ‘the fatal act of a second marriage’. He returned to Longford and lived out the rest of his years – a quite substantial amount of time, his obituary declaring him dead ‘at the extraordinary age of 104’. He was claimed to be the oldest justice of the peace in the world.

    Which is quite an achievement.

    But the church remained standing. Architect Alexander North added the tower and the asp in 1910, four years after Dumaresq died. And of course, the farm went on to host farmers from twenty countries and they ‘steered their tractors straight and true up and down Mt. Ireh’s flat-as-a-pancake paddocks’. Longford joined the esteemed company of locales such as Peebles, Ohio and Wexford, Ireland and Kaunas, Lithuania as one of the hosts of the World Ploughing Championships.

    For those keeping score, Ian Miller was the Conventional Champion of that year, the second New Zealander in a row to get up (Alan J. Wallace had triumphed in Wexford). A Kiwi took second place as well.

    They reckon 40,000 people braved the wind and rain to watch the action that weekend. But were you there?

     

    Tom Roberts, the great Australian painter, was buried here at Longford.
    Last week, we wondered about the fate of the Tasmanian tiger.

  • The Chips Are Down in Triabunna

    The Chips Are Down in Triabunna

    Some say the hot chips from a certain takeaway store in Triabunna are the best in Tassie. So I stopped in there the other weekend, joining a handful of locals in front of a greasy bain-marie, as chunks of potatoes were lowered into a vat of oil in the back room.

    I was on my way to an art exhibition put together by the Tasmanian International Arts Festival, Reorder, which presented six site-specific sculptural installations inside the town’s decommissioned sawmill.

    Truth be told, I was drawn to the exhibition as much for the location as for the artwork. Triabunna is one of the most contested places in a Tasmania divided by lines of class, occupation and political opinion. Operated by Gunns – the byword for forestry in Tasmania for decades – to chip and ship timber from the south of the island, it closed in 2011 after four decades, 70 per cent of the area’s forestry jobs going with it. In a stunning coup, the mill was purchased by entrepreneurs and environmentalists Jan Cameron and Graham Wood, who employed former Wilderness Society boss Alec Marr as site manager. Marr oversaw the dismantling of the sawmill’s equipment; “I’ve been waiting 27 fucking years for this,” he told The Monthly’s John van Tiggelen.

    Triabunna was settled as a garrison town in the 1830s, with officers of the Maria Island penal colony and whalers also located in the region. Boat building and fishing have long occurred in the region, as well as farming; for some decades in the 20th century, a factory processed seaweed into alginic acid. Eucalyptus oil and wattle bark was harvested throughout the 1900s as well. But towards the end of the century, it was believed that something like 75% of the town’s economic activity relied on the forestry industry.

    You get a decent amount of chips for $5. I was still pulling them from the packet as I left through the big gates, along a road made for log trucks, down to the beach. It was only at the last moment I noticed the recurring word, ‘chip’. The pun was not intended; it’s just one of those remarkable, flexible words in our language. But there was something about it that snagged my curiosity. How much this town had thrived on chips of whatever kind, pieces cut or hewn from the whole.

    Going for a swim in Spring Bay later that afternoon, I had a profound sense that whatever happens to Triabunna in the coming years, it will mirror the fortunes of the entire island.

    May the hot chips be available long after the woodchips are forgotten.

  • Petrarch's Poetry

    Petrarch's Poetry

    “Assuredly but dust and shade we are / Assuredly desire is blind and brief / Assuredly its hope but ends in death.”

    So wrote fourteenth-century Tuscan humanist and poet Francesco Petrarca, who is commemorated at this western Tasmanian lake under his Latinised name, Petrarch.

    It was the classically-inclined surveyor George Frankland who called Lake Petrarch so, although he generally preferred Greek nomenclature. He had seen the lake from the summit of Mount Olympus on February 12, 1829, and upon descent from the mountain, he and his party came to it. It was the first time in his life any of them had seen a certain conifer tree, athrotaxis cupressoides, “a remarkably handsome species of Fir” that he named “the pine of Olympus.” Nowadays it is commonly known as the pencil pine.

    Another explorer, the geologist Charles Gould, came to camp upon the sandy beach of Lake Petrarch in January 1860.  It was the beginning of a long expedition to the west, and Gould and his men looked at the silhouette of another literarily-named peak, Mount Byron, from across the still waters of the lake.

    Landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, born in Hobart in 1836; his father was a convict, and his mother, a teacher of French, music and drawing. From 1874 he devoted himself to his craft, travelling on foot with surveyors to remote areas of Tasmania. Piguenit depicted Tasmania’s wildernesses in a Romantic light, as Ruskin was the European Alps contemporaneously. In 1887, he travelled with chief surveyor Sprent to the west coast. He took advantage of this expedition to make an excursion to Lake St. Clair, and further north through the Cuvier Valley, to Lake Petrarch, which he painted in hazy pastels. A grebe sits on a clump of dark rocks; Mount Byron overlooks the glistening water in a rosy twilit hue.

    A century later, Peter Dombrovskis photographed Lake Petrarch. Born to Latvian parents in a World War II concentration camp in Germany, Dombrovskis was influenced by a fellow Baltic migrant, the unassuming yet influential Olegas Truchanas. Both became famous for involving their work in conservationist movements against the damming of wilderness rivers. Before his death by heart attack in the south-western mountains, Dombrovskis forged a reputation as one of the world’s great landscape photographers. In 1994, on a journey into the Cuvier Valley, Dombrovskis made a sensitive study of pencil pine boles near Lake Petrarch.

    The Cuvier Valley is largely made up of golden buttongrass plains; it may have been managed as an Aboriginal hunting ground before Europeans arrived to the island known previously as Trowenna. How they perceived Lake Petrarch we do not know. Likewise, unknown numbers of personal expeditions in recent times go unrecorded.

    In the Tasmanian Government’s current Draft Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Lake Petrarch is rezoned so as to be permitted as a helicopter landing site – along with around a dozen other localities. “Men often despise what they despair of obtaining,” wrote Petrarch to a contemporary in the 1300s, and so they do today, still.

     

    Why was George Frankland so obsessed with Greek names?

  • From Fingal to Pebble Beach

    From Fingal to Pebble Beach

    Over in Monterey, California, I was introduced to Mr. Seavey by his daughter Cat. “Tasmania, eh? You’re not from Fingal, are ya?”

    I’ve never before been asked if I hail from Fingal. With a population of 366 at the last census, and dwindling rapidly, Fingal is not exactly famous. There are probably plenty of Tasmanians who have never heard of it. I’ve never met anyone from Fingal.

    These days, things are looking pretty bleak there. According to local drug counselling organisations, it’s one of the hotspots for methamphetamine use in Tasmania, for example. Unemployment is high, real estate prices are low. There are plenty of closed shopfronts on the main drag; even the old hotel, which once claimed to have the biggest Scotch whisky collection in the southern hemisphere, is gone.

    The Fingal Valley was first surveyed in 1824, and in 1827, the town was settled as a convict station. In 1852 gold was found ten kilometres north. Towards the end of the 19th century, coal became the centre of the area’s economy; the town of Fingal was growing rapidly, and a young man named Francis McComas was born.

    This was Mr. Seavey’s connection with Fingal.

    Francis became one of the world’s great watercolourists, famous for his modernist landscapes. As a young man, he had been sent to Sydney for training under a master plein air landscape painter. Watercolour was not widely regarded in Australia, but young Francis adopted this as his medium of choice. He then went across the Pacific to the United States.

    Like many young Australian artists of the time, Francis had wanted to go to Europe to paint – to Paris, specifically – but got distracted, making friends in Monterey and having successful shows in San Francisco. He returned to Australia at least once, to Sydney, where he made scathing reviews of the Australian art scene. He probably never returned, and died in the luxurious Californian coastal town of Pebble Beach, where you can find one of the world’s richest golf courses.

    A new coal mine is in the works, and the old hotel is opening. Could there be another Frank McComas ready to burst out of Fingal?

  • Tom Roberts Fell in Love

    Tom Roberts Fell in Love

    In summer, Tom Roberts’ gravesite is the kind of setting familiar to his paintings. Roberts’ works were maligned by critics for not being ‘high art’. Instead, he famously portrayed sheep stations and wood splitters, often displaying his works on 9 x 5 inch cigar boxes. Where he now rests, the dry midlands heat has parched the grass. The gravestone faces out to a field of poppies, recently harvested. Behind the nearly-abandoned church (the lawns are nowadays decorated with an idol to ploughing), the bitumen road shimmers and glistens, and trucks scream down it.

    Roberts was born in Dorset, England, in March 1856, and migrated to Australia as an eleven-year-old. As a young man, he lived in Collingwood and studied art while working as a photographer’s assistant. He lived for most of his life in Victoria, but he married a Tasmanian woman, Jean Boyes, with whom he had made a number of visits to the island; when he died, he chose to be buried at the Christ Church just outside of Longford, Tasmania.

    She was an old family friend, and he was a 72-year-old widower. His friends called him Bulldog.