Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • 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.

  • Seabirds That Sing

    Seabirds That Sing

    There once was a boy
    whose silhouette surfed
    over thick waves of thirst aqua,
    while on the shore
    he breathed short, sharp, shallow breaths
    into the hollow of his chest
    and his bones were like 
    those of birds - 
    thin like a whisper,
    and aching with songs
    that he had not yet learned 
    how to twist and tighten
    his throat around.

    So he hummed to the ocean on his own,
    while his shadow shaped itself
    like a sickle on the foam
    snarling
    on the curling reach of the waves,
    searching for the beach-head
    to land upon
    and up against
    the breast of the boy.
    Who was dreaming himself alive,
    the dark smudge of a lover
    on the sweet, vast sea.

  • The South Coast Track

    The South Coast Track

    A year ago, a flew down the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, over the shoulder of Precipitous Bluff, across the south-western forest, and onto a tiny gravel airstrip at a place called Melaleuca. It was the beginning of a one-hundred kilometre walk along the south coast of Tasmania.

    Over the next ten days, ground parrots were expelled from the buttongrass at my approach. I drank from cold tea-stained creeks and strung up my clothes on coastal banksias. Further south, Maatsuyker Island rose from the sea, a big isosceles triangle shrouded in powdery pink light. Seaweed pasta, sassafras tea.

    At the highest point of the track, atop the Ironbounds, I looked at the zigzag of mountain ranges, jagging countless kilometres into the distance. I thought of lost things, as I often do – of the lost heritage of the Aborigines, of the probable extinction of the thylacine, of the drowned pink beach of Lake Pedder. But I also remembered that, at one time, the decision to walk along the south coast of Tasmania was an idea and a dream, and it had since become a present reality. And rising up onto the top of that mountain, taking a nip of whisky to celebrate, I realised that I was seeing new mountains, new tracks, new ways of being, and that they were becoming a possible future for me as well.

    The frenetic ocean churned at my south flank for ten days straight.