Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • 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.


  • Steering South by South-East

    Steering South by South-East

    On board the Norfolk two friends from the Fenlands sailed along the northern coast of the island.

    George Bass had thirty-three years tucked under his belt; Matthew Flinders was only twenty-four. They had become dear friends on their early journeys around Australia, beginning on their voyage out in 1794, and now the waterway that would become known as Bass Strait, with eight volunteers and no timepiece.

    It was from a note in Flinders’s journal, on November 4, 1798, that Low Head, like so many features observable by boat, received the name it would bear on maps from then on.

    Six years later an expedition of four ships would make their attempts into enter the Tamar River to settle at Port Dalrymple with Lieutenant-Governor Paterson in charge. These vessels were the Buffalo, the Lady Nelson, the Integrity and the Francis: but as the gale blew up at the mouth of the river, one ship – the Buffalo – was separated from the others, and Captain William Kent was forced to make landfall for a time on that eastern headland Low Head; shortly after, attempting again to enter the river, the ship was hammered by the weather and was washed aground.

    At last they all reconvened at Outer Cove. Were there locals at hand to watch the flag-raising ceremony, the beastly watercrafts stalking down the river that was known as kanamaluka or Ponrabbel?

    Some had no doubt seen Bass and Flinders “steering S. E. by S. up an inlet of more than a mile wide” one late spring afternoon in 1798, in that handsome colonial sloop. A giant white swan swooping onto the placid waters of the widening river.

    The colonists quickly set about establishing their colony at Outer Cove, now George Town, with two prefabricated huts from Sydney. Bricks were laid and vegetables were planted. The destinies of the northern colonies were to unfold sporadically, progressing uncertainly, struggling against natural elements and without the wisdom of those peoples who had seen “Bass’s Strait” when it was indeed not filled with water at all.

    But the purpose of Low Head was more clear. The broad river they called the Tamar, flowing out of the confluence of two further long rivers that tumbled down from the high dolerite slopes of Ben Lomond to create the significant hydrographical systems that had created life and meaning for the north of the island for so long, was difficult to navigate where it met the Strait. There were many hazards to contend with, and Low Head was a suitable place from which to address these.

    So early on beacons were established there, beginning with a simple flagpole of Captain Kent's construction. A pilot’s station was manned from 1805, by one William House, but he absconded after two years - sent to Sydney in 1807 to seek assistance as the fledgling colony verged on starvation, he did not return.

    The first lighthouse was built by a gentleman dubbed “Bolting Dick” or R.M. Warmsley. It was erected in 1832. The famous colonial architect John Lee Archer designed a more permanent fixture, built by convicts from stone and rubble and armed with a revolving light at considerable expense. It was finished in 1838.

    This had to be replaced five decades later by the brick building that stands today. By this time, cottages for coxswains and crewmen had been constructed; school houses and workshops were added; the pretty Christ Church was holding services; farmhouses stretched along the river; cows and sheep grazed in paddocks; couples raised their children; and roadways to Launceston had been cleared.


    Recently on the Field Guide, we remembered explorer Henry Hellyer.
    Further along Bass Strait lived Tarenorerer, a freedom fighter, born around 1800.

  • What Lies in the Middens

    What Lies in the Middens

    Dr. Rhys Jones was the first professional archaeologist to work in Tasmania. Born in Wales and educated at Cardiff, he arrived in Australia to do his doctorate in Tasmanian archaeology.

    His research began in the north-west of the island, particularly around Rocky Cape. Using radiocarbon dating techniques on various cave middens, Jones reported that Rocky Cape had been continuously occupied by Aboriginal Tasmanians for 8000 years or more.

    This was the least contentious of Jones’ claims. He also entered into a long-running question about the Tasmanians: could they make fire? Much of this question was based on observations (or, perhaps, a single observation) made in the diary of George Augustus Robinson, who travelled with Aboriginal populations in the 1820s and 1830s. Fire, Jones suggested, was carried “in smouldering slow burning fire-sticks”, but if they went out, the Tasmanians had no way of relighting it.

    The archaeologist also suggested that some 3000-4000 years before now, the Rocky Cape middens revealed that Aboriginal consumption of scale-fish completely stopped. He concluded that the Tasmanians had forgotten how to catch fish. Bone awls were also no longer being produced.

    Rhys Jones concluded that with the relatively small population stranded and separated from Australian Aboriginals following the post-Ice Age flooding that created Bass Strait, the Tasmanians had been struggling to adapt. He described it as a “slow strangulation of the mind”.

    Later archaeologists tend to disagree. They refer to other references, by both French and English observers, of pre-colonial Tasmanians using fire-making implements. These Tasmanians would have struck chert (a flint-like stone), sending its spark into dry bark, moss or grass, these archaeologists say. This stone – myrer, Robinson writes that the Bruny Islanders called it – was possibly considered special, and fire-making may have been the responsibility of leaders within a band or kinship group.

    In fact, there may have been a variety of techniques for fire-making: in the early 1900s Quaker observer Ernest Westlake recorded conversations detailing the use of grass-trees, banksias, stringy-bark, tea-tree and fungi, in a variety of methods, for Aboriginal fire-making.

    The change of diet to exclude fish is still mysterious, but recent research tends to suggest that a cooling of the climate occurred at a similar time. In fact, evidence from 3000-4000 BP presents a series of dramatic adaptations across Tasmanian populations. Settlements changed, artistic practices developed, and Tasmanians began to manage the land through seasonal burnings and honed their hunting techniques accordingly.

    “These developments, and their concurrence with similar developments in south-east Australia, contradict the strangulation view,” writes Shayne Breen.

    Tang Dim Mer is one of the names the original Tasmanians had for Rocky Cape; the more prosaic name comes from Matthew Flinders, who spied it from the strait as he circumnavigated Tasmania in 1798. At that time, there were Aboriginals living amongst the banksias and wildflowers, beneath the jagged cliffs, facing out on that notorious stretch of water.

    We are still trying to work out what we lost when Europeans destroyed their lifestyles.

    And although Rhys Maengwyn Jones may be most remembered for its controversies (he died in 2001), much of his work helped to support Aboriginal populations, especially in evidencing for their antiquity. Jones himself hoped to introduce to a wider audience the brutality with which Aboriginal populations around Australia were treated. In Tasmania, he said he saw a history of genocide.


     
    George Robinson's tours with Aboriginal Tasmanians were hugely significant in Tasmanian history.

  • Cheshunt Pine

    Cheshunt Pine

    William Archer’s father emigrated to Australia in 1811 and became a noted landowner and commissariat in Van Diemen’s Land. In 1820, he gave birth to his third (but second surviving) son, William.

    After schooling in Campbell Town and Longford, William was sent to the old country to study architecture and engineering, and when he returned in 1842, he worked on a number of buildings that are today still standing and recognised as significant parts of Tasmania’s colonial heritage. Mona Vale, Woolmers, and Brickendon were all part of Archer’s portfolio. He also designed his two properties that remained in his family: ‘Fairfield’ at Cressy and ‘Cheshunt’ at Deloraine.

    At the death of his father, William inherited the family’s extensive land holdings and was able to concentrate his attention on another hobby – botany.

    Both of Archer’s properties had views of the imposing range to the west, the Great Western Tiers, and it was through here that he took most of his botanical excursions. Professionally, he worked closely with Ronald Campbell Gunn, one of the island’s foremost botanists. Politically, they were at odds; nevertheless, it didn’t at all get in the way of their study of local plants, and Gunn took most of Archer’s specimens back to Kew Gardens.

    Archer also worked closely with Joseph Hooker, who produced the Flora Tasmaniae. Hooker gave much credit to Archer in his dedication of the book, crediting him for having ‘sedulously investigated the botany of the district surrounding his property.’

    His work is memorialised in the nomenclature of several plants too, including the diselma archeri, known commonly as ‘cheshunt pine’ – a low-growing alpine conifer which, although it wouldn’t have grown around his property in Deloraine, is found in the Great Western Tiers.

    “Sadly,” writes the botanical historian Wapstra, “and in contrast to his extensive contributions to society, Archer’s finances deteriorated,” partly through an unsuccessful political career, but also due to familial obligations. He was forced to give up the Cheshunt property and died at the age of just 54 years old. Twelve children, and his wife Ann, survived him.


     

    Botanist Kate Cowle married the Austrian migrant Gustav Weindorfer.