Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • Returning in Fog

    Returning in Fog

    About two years ago, Danny and I returned to Tasmania after some months away. We’d been in different countries, remote from one another, and yet somehow came back to the island within twenty-four hours of one another. Soon enough we went for this bushwalk, to the top of Mount Arthur.

    Stomping up through the vivid green of a damp forest, it struck us how ordinary
    this reunion was – not only our reunion with each other, but with the forms and textures of the Tasmanian bush. “We’ve been and come back too many times,” I said. It was still beautiful, but a certain sentimentality seemed to be gone.

    The other day I made the last of six flights in the direction of home. I took a window seat and waited for the plane to descend through reams of thick cloud and fog. When I finally caught sight of home country, I struggled to find any landmark I recognised. The hills were all misted over, and the two-dimensional view of agricultural terrain offered me little obvious.

    There was a river, which I correctly guessed was the South Esk. It was lined with paperbarks and bald willows, full as a googy egg, making wetlands of the fields. It led me to the airport.

    I was quickly prompted to go for a drive in the countryside. I found myself drawn towards Mount Arthur again, on the backroads in its foothills. The wonky patchwork of farmland, garden, plantation and native forest was all well-known; the marsupial colour scheme of the vegetation as well; so too the rosellas in the branches, and the roadkill on the bitumen, sharp white bones sticking out from opened-up wallaby carcasses.

    I have passed more than one-third of this year outside of Tasmania. But wherever I’ve been, I’ve spent much time writing and researching the island. Is that why it doesn’t feel at all strange to suddenly be back in the midst of this endemic existence?

    Same as two years ago, I find myself
    whispering, like an incantation, the Latin binomials of pepperberry, waratah, myrtle beech. Fog hangs at the tops of stringybarks. Baubles of moisture hang from mossy trunks. There’s a white-out over Mount Arthur’s summit.

    A few weeks ago I caught up with Danny; once again, he’s also
    elsewhere. We know our friends mock us. We are openly and desperately enamoured with Tasmania, and yet we have spent more time away from it than almost anyone we know. We are sickeningly sentimental while we are afar, but then, upon return, it is all so normal and natural to be on an island at the bottom of the world, to wake up to the sounds of cantankerous birds, to smell eucalyptus or sassafras on the air.

    Yet of course the mystique persists. In 2015, on Mount Arthur, we had been wrapped up in fog for the duration of our bushwalk, when all of a sudden the scene opened up. We could see farmland and coastline, and the cluster of houses we lived in, clinging to the hillsides of a fertile river valley.

    Likewise, I find myself in new scenes every day. The modest burrow of a crayfish sits by the Second River. Ben Lomond is lumpy with snow and silver with morning light. I have dropped down beneath the cloud and I can be lost in a landscape which I’ve spent years trying to understand.

    The fog has suddenly cleared and the sky has taken the colour of a fairy-wren’s pate, the sun tilted south towards me, the westerlies stilled and restful.

    Before too long, Danny will be back as well.

  • Bouquets for a Back Road

    Bouquets for a Back Road

    You read the headline. It speaks of the death of someone about your age, from a neighbourhood you know well. Your heart sinks. There’s a good chance it’s one of your extended mob. Someone you used to run into at the pub or at a gig every now and again – if not someone you know even more closely. This is the reality of growing up in a place like Launceston.

    I’m still 4000 kilometres from home, and to find out that Theressa
    Roberts died on a back road in Longford, on a Monday night, in the dark, her body struck by a big machine...it brings a grim type of grief, one that is cold and empty and aloof. I am almost without feelings.

    It’s like this. Today I am in a tropical place, warm and bright green and noisy with birds; I cannot conceive of the Tasmanian winter, I cannot picture damp and foggy Longford. There is a thick curtain between the season I’m in, and the one
    passing in Tasmania right now. Likewise, I am alive, and I can’t imagine any of my friends no longer in this same arena. But it is so: Theressa Roberts has died, and the barrier that is cast between the seasons of life and of death is a heavy one indeed. Theressa is irretrievable.

    I went to high-school with Tress. When,
    as a teenager, I was taking unimaginative portraits of friends for my photography class, I asked her to lie down on a grassy knoll in South Launnie and scattered my mum’s cassette tapes around her head like a wonky halo.

    I am embarrassed by
    how juvenile and unoriginal an artist I was, but perhaps it’s for the best. As C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay on grief, “A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and an obstacle.” Photographs can serve as markers for our memories, but too many of them, or the act of making an icon of one image, can cause us to forget the intricate presence beyond the frame. A death reminds us that a photograph is awfully insufficient.

    I
    knew a young woman who was bursting with music, and earnest spirituality. She was also a bit loopy, and I think she’d grin at the thought of me saying this. Her speech was quick and went in directions I did not expect. She was very candid with me, more so than I ever am with anyone. She was warmer than me. She worried about her body’s form, but I believe that she had a keener sense of the innate strength and beauty of women, including herself. She was proud to be Filipina.

    I know that in many traditions, the names of the dead are ritually unspoken. In the anglo-antipodean culture, we grow to speak of those who’ve died in a mumble, a whisper, apologetically stammered. Follow whichever tradition you like, but for me, it is useful to speak about those who’ve wandered off beyond our reach. This way, their complex personalities continue to exist, and are kneaded into our lives.

    The site of her death,
    the verge of that narrow country road, is probably already marked with bouquets of flowers. We can count this as traditional practice – it is recent, but nevertheless it is now a tradition and an event in the ritual of road deaths. But bouquets wither, and those who feel immediate searing pain of loss will notice it lengthen and change texture as the years go by. How do we absorb this grief? It is mysterious, but it is so, and it must be.

    My bias is place, and my memory is geographical. In years from now, I will recall the points in which Theressa’s life intersected with my own: the canteen porch at Kings Meadows High School, a scratched table in the Gunners Arms,
    her home in Evandale, that lawn in South Launceston.

    The tragic patch of Woolmers Lane in Longford will also become a point of reference for me too. I will drive through it from time to time, the smell of hay and animals on the air, clouds bunching up in the western mountains. It will remind me to sing, to invent, to consider the existence of the spirit, to be a bit loopy, to be proud, to be warm, to love. To use my car with caution.
    To be aware of the brevity of our days in these beautiful landscapes, to cherish every human body as awfully beautiful and vulnerable.

  • Cornish Pasties

    Cornish Pasties

    A friend in Mexico City once took me to an eatery for what he said was a regional dish from his family’s home nearby called pastes. A pastry shell stuffed with meat and/or vegetables, it was delicious and hearty meal. It was also something I’d grown up eating. It was a pasty.

    The pasty is said to have been popularised by tin miners from Cornwall, England, who held it by its thick crimped edge, so as not to contaminate it with dirty – or arsenic-tarnished – fingers.

    So it was that Cornish miners in Hidalgo, Mexico, brought pastes to that country; and likewise, migrant workers from Cornwall brought their “regional dish” to Australia.

    In 1843 a north-eastern farmhand followed his dog into the bush; the dog was chasing after wombats, and digging a hole into a bank, it revealed a seam of coal. Before long, a tent city had sprung up around the mine. Because of the number of Cornish migrants who had come to put use to their mining prowess, it became known as Cornwall.

    In this second half of the 1800s, these men picked and shovelled their way into the Nicholas Range, using sticks of gelignite to open up their shafts. At the end of their days, workers returned to ramshackle-style houses with walls of split palings, hessian, and layers of newspaper, and dirt floors covered with chaff bags.

    A railway built from the midlands to the east coast in 1886 livened the mine’s – and the town’s – prospects. By 1950, there were around one hundred houses, a post office, a butcher, shops, and daily bread delivery. A couple of churches and a school with attached recreational facilities serviced the town.

    Only a few years later, however, the coal industry lost its momentum. Cheap oil gained a stronghold around the world, and the Cornwall Coal Co. lost its customers. In 1964, they closed the mine. The town shrivelled. Houses were sold for a pittance as workers moved away in search of other work. Public buildings and services, along with shops and churches, were closed, torn down, or burnt out.

    In 1982, the mine reopened, with production up to 300,000 tonnes a year. But the town was still a shell of its former days; the mine only employs 70 people, with that number soon reducing by a third. Only forty houses still remain in the town.

    Perhaps home-made pasties are still made there, as the fog rolls in down from the forested mountains. Made, and made well, no doubt. But there are none sitting in bain-maries waiting to be bought for those who make the eight kilometre detour off the A4, on their way to St. Marys.