Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged birds

  • Where You Wake Up

    Where You Wake Up

    I haven’t had my own room for more than six months.

    Part of that time was spent travelling – sleeping on friends’ couches or in hostel dormitories, in places like Istanbul or Ljubljana or
    Berlin – but it’s now been many weeks since I came home to Tasmania, and still I haven’t found a place to call my own – to stack my books and regularly rest my head.

    Where do I stay then? Friends and family offer their spare rooms, couches, or patches of carpet. The ranger in Strahan offers a bed; he and his girlfriend live in an old Federation-era customs building. Sometimes I end up sprawled with several other mates, snoozing heavily after a boozy night, wearied with laughter.

    Other times I strike off alone. I sleep in my tent, a yellow coffin of plastic which, for example, can be wedged in a cleft beneath the Snowy Range, or pinned to the dark earth by the Liffey River. There are mountain huts, too, which I can pretend are my own for a night or two: secret grey huts camouflaged in the boulders and snow peppermints of kunanyi-Wellington, or shacks built with bulky beams of pencil pine in the northern escarpment of the Central Plateau.

    The other night I slept in a repurposed water tank, which had previously been used as accommodation on Macquarie Island, for scientists working on a rabbit eradication program. (This was cosy.)

    This week, I’m waking up on a yacht. It’s not mine (of course), but I do some work on it, and in return, I’m allowed to contort myself into a v-shaped berth at the bow of the boat, as it sways quietly in sheltered anchorages in the south-east of Tasmania. This is Canoe Bay: the iron wreckage of a scuttled ship, the
    William Pitt, sticks up above the greeny-blue water. The dolerite silhouette of Cape Hauy is in the distance. Behind me, on the shore itself, a damp green tangle of forest. Big eucalypts stand above a busy network of ferns and flowering plants.

    In
    the canopy of one of these eucs, there is a nest. It is the nest of the white-bellied sea eagle, Haliaeetus leucogaster. The birds themselves are incredible, but so too are their homes. Continuously used, for raising one or two fledglings each year, they consistently grow in mass. Parent eagles will go hunting for fish, eels, birds, or small land creatures, and bring them back to the nest, feeding themselves and their young. With so much decomposing animal matter brought into their homes, the sea eagles will add fresh green foliage to the inside of the nest for hygienic purposes.

    Growing to dimensions of up to
    2.5 metres wide and 4.5 metres deep, they can weigh up to a ton.

    It is, I suppose, somewhat enviable. The dream of a permanent abode is borrowed from a human instinct for shelter and stability. I drive around, looking at the various living places of friends, of strangers. The west coast shacks of corrugated iron, the flaking weatherboard homes in the river valleys, the sandstone mansions of old towns. All have their various reasons for appealing. Above everything, they have their own kitchens, and walls to line with bookshelves.

    I am not the first Tasmanian, naturally, to live this lifestyle. There was a certain nomadic element to the lives of the Tasmanian Aboriginals, although perhaps not as much as we are often taught. Certainly, however, these people did not crave absolute permanency in a single place. They may have instead found their homes in the various passages and patches of the landscape which they frequented – in ‘country’, rather than a building.

    Sometimes I think I have found that too: I am happy in the high country, in the low moorlands, in the farm towns, in Canoe Bay.

    This mobility may suit me more than most. For plenty of others, it is not so amenable. There are some being forced into it. Suddenly, Hobart has become one of the toughest rental markets in the country. Mates are looking for a bedroom, and failing. (I’ve cast an eye on things myself and dismissed it as too difficult.) There are various reasons why this is the case, but partly it is because of Hobart’s popularity as a tourist destination: rooms are being rented to short-term visitors, rather than longer-term residents. A different type of nomad is being catered for.

    I don’t know what to make of all this, although I sense it augurs a different future
    on this island. One friend asserts that what is being lost is the ability to feel “secure enough in your home that you can unpack your life and become part of your community, to contribute to making Tasmania all the things that the government sells us off as to the rest of the world.”

    I personally drift through this days supposing that life will leave me behind. It seems that what I’d like from my days on this planet is different from most others. Occasionally, I realise I will probably never have a place of my own, somewhere to put my books. I sadly expect to find myself in a sort of exile, somehow.

    The nest in Canoe Bay is about 80 years old, but it has now been abandoned. This has been a successful spot, so it’s likely that the local pair will establish their new nest nearby, in the canopy of another of these eucalypts. The family will remain their neighbourhood.

    The yacht gently rocks in
    the bay. A sea eagle suddenly lifts out of the trees and soars above me, honking.

  • The Swamp

    The Swamp

    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.

  • World Wetlands Day

    World Wetlands Day

    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.


  • 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.