Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged culture

  • Questions of Tasmanian Culture

    Questions of Tasmanian Culture

    I ran into a Tasmanian mate in Transylvania. We marched around under the mountains waiting for the weather to clear, and then wandered up to the ridgeline for a few days. When we came back down we got drunk and sat in a hostel kitchen ranting and raving about the honey of R. Stephens of Mole Creek. I feel like I may have done an impersonation of the legendary bushman Bert Nichols.

    My mate Jill is from Western Creek, underneath the Great Western Tiers. She’s from a farming family and like myself, she works as a bushwalking guide. I have no doubt that any other backpackers listening to the anecdotes of Jill’s life would have found it fascinating, even if they had to filter out the inebriated hubris of her travelling companion.

    I have spent the last two months away from Tassie; as always, being elsewhere makes me think of home more often, perhaps more clearly, certainly more critically. In Transylvania there are rich cultural expressions at the surface of everyday life – in tripe soup, the
    română language, gypsy music, and so on. Naturally, I wonder what lies beneath the surface. And I wonder what we Tasmanians display of our lives back home, what a traveller notices, what we obscure from them – what we don’t even recognise in ourselves.

    Because I think there’s plenty. I rarely hear people speak of ‘Tasmanian culture’. But perhaps that’s changing; perhaps Tasmanians are starting to realise that we are doing something different down home, and, quite apart from the attitude that I grew up alongside, we’re beginning to recognise it’s something we might enjoy.

    It’s not just Dark Mofo and blunnies (although I’m very fond of the winter solstice skinny dip, and I recently explained to a woman in Budapest that she was wearing ‘traditional Tasmanian boots’). It’s our bushwalking and woodwork practices; it’s wallaby meat and rhubarb jam;
    it’s an arvo at the footy or at a protest to look after the bush. There’s much that we draw from the old ways, from migrant customs (including those of our convict forebears), and most of all, the Tasmanian climate and landscape.

    Tasmania was
    truly one of the most unique places on Earth before colonists came. For 40,000 years a human population developed a way of being in this remote, southerly, curious location; a quarter of that time was spent in complete isolation. Much of this is lost, but not all. I am convinced that the more we are able to listen to today’s Aboriginal community, the more we will sense our own uniqueness, and love our island all the more.

    The land itself gives us much of our culture. I have been yarning with Jill about the foibles of our workplace (a theme to which bushwalking guides return again and again), as well as discussing our own journeys up Mother Cummings or to Frenchmans Cap or into the Walls of Jerusalem. We are lucky: we have been granted opportunities to get to know the moods of the mountains, the feel and smell of our rocks and trees and rivers, more than most.

    We also discuss farming (a topic about which Jill knows plenty), the arts (a topic that baffles me even as I try to exist as a writer and performer), and food (which we both love). In Tasmania, all of these have a unique bent. Although we might beat our chests and boast about them in hostel common rooms, there is also plenty – in these three topics as well as all others – about which we might be concerned.

    Jill and I part ways on a drizzly afternoon beneath another citadel, another castle. She travels west, I go east. The shared delirium of being Tasmanian will be put on hold for now. But I have no doubt how much my being born amongst the blackwoods of the Tamar River has shaped me. Tassie is not the entirely remote island that it once was, but I believe I still grew up in special conditions. 

    Have you ever seen black-hearted sassafras? Sometimes the timber of this rainforest tree is infected with a fungus that stains the wood with beautiful streaks of black and brown. The way I move, talk, eat, dance, dress, think and write: like this, I am marked with streaks of culture.



    Speaking of sassafras: the flowers of the sassafras tree are one of my favourite landscape markers.

  • Steaming Tea-Pots of Gigantic Capacity

    Steaming Tea-Pots of Gigantic Capacity

    A few weeks ago, I was here, in southern Austria, in the vicinity of the Carinthian mountains. Gustav Weindorfer was born in the midst of these mountains, upon the river Drau. Later in life, he would become a pioneer of Tasmanian environmentalism; it was he and his Tasmanian wife who first campaigned for Cradle Mountain to be protected.

    It was near this mountain that Gustav and Kate Weindorfer built a chalet of sorts, named Waldheim. Waldheim is a fascinating building: two different vernaculars meet in the one building, with the practical improvisations of Tassie bush architecture meeting the long-standing traditional style of Austrian alpine huts.

    Within those cosy king billy confines, Gustav and Kate entertained a number of guests: once again, the
    Gastfreundschaft on offer was a melange of cultures, with (for example) Viennese-style coffee and desserts following wombat stew. He even managed to entice two Austrian skiiers as visitors, Franz and Julius Malcher, who regrettably showed up too early for snow.

    These were not the first proponents of hospitality in Tasmania. I cannot speak much on the practices of the first Tasmanians, but welcoming guests quickly became a key skill in the life of colonial Van Diemen’s Land. Not too many laudab le qualities are credited to the Vandemonians, but “the traveller was sure to meet with a kind reception wherever he went”, recalled Dr. Ross. To provide food and drink to those passing through was “the custom of the colony”.

    In Van Diemen’s Land, to be in a remote location was to be extremely vulnerable, to the predations of bushrangers or the retaliatory attacks of Aboriginal bands. Yet the reputation endured: the early east coast resident Louisa Meredith spoke of how readily a visitor was greeted with “a steaming tea-pot of gigantic capacity”, which no doubt was always gratefully received by those who navigated the hills and forests on horseback, on their arduous routes towards elsewhere.

    Kate and Gustav Weindorfer had a different motivation for their hospitality. They wanted to have guests in their forest home near Cradle Mountain, in order to showcase the superlative values of the landscape. They trusted that those who had a firsthand experience of the area would be struck by its significance and smitten with its beauty, and thus assert the need for it to be left as it was. They were largely correct, and it largely has been. More than 200,000 people visit the Cradle Mountain region each year.

    Around one hundred years later, the Ressmann family took me into their lakeside hotel in Carinthia. They fed me schnitzel and wheat beer, and during the day I was free to explore their mountains. Certainly, their kindness allowed me to enjoy the peaks of the area in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to. They are not campaigning for Carinthian conservation, but to see me returning from a day on a limestone summit and cheerfully praising the beauty of their area seemed to satisfy them. They asked for nothing more.

    All these observations make me wonder – what is our hospitality in Tasmania like these days? I work in tourism hospitality, serving up lamb ragout and pouring pinot noir at the end of a day’s bushwalking, in the same vein as Gustav Weindorfer. As tourists appear in greater numbers, though, how do we learn to respect them individually? How do we need to shape our tourism industry so that Tasmanians and visitors can maintain a fully human relationship, rather than simply a commercial one? How do our tourist operators, and our Airbnb hosts, represent us?

    What about our international students? Are there tea-pots unfailingly waiting for them? What do they see of Tasmania during the years they pass here, at the expense of thousands of dollars?

    Tasmanians are an interesting lot. On some occasions we can be rather open, expressive, and charming; in other ways, we are awfully circumspect, suspicious, stingy, and solitary. I actually like that we have both aspects, but I still maintain we could be a little more welcoming, to be less inclined to suspect every stranger of intruding and doing harm.

    So I look hopefully to venues like the Inveresk Tavern, which puts on a special menu every Sunday: the pub invites a different migrant community to run the kitchen and serve the punters throughout the afternoon. This is a double act of hospitality: with the tavern’s permission, migrants are allowed the chance to host those with whom they share a town. Sudanese or Bhutanese or Afghani, they certainly appear to relish the opportunity. For the rest of us, the blend of Tasmanian and migrant cultures continues to be appealing.

  • 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.

  • The Paddocks

    The Paddocks

    After following a narrow, muddy track for some time through the rainforest, we emerge to an open field of straw-coloured tussocks. We have come upon 'the Paddocks'. Outside the canopy of tanglefoot and sassafras, the rain is heavy and quickly drenches us. But across the field is a wooden hut, of a modest size, and we are aiming for its verandah.

    My friends didn't know that such a place existed. This hut, knocked together from native timber, disconnected from electricity, away from mobile phone signal, and hours on foot from the nearest road, is not a one-off: in Tasmania's isolated central highlands, such structures have been scattered along rivers, by lakes, and on mountainsides for more than a century.

    But by the nature of their purposes, settings, and designs, they are rarely visited and not widely-known.

    As we took off wet boots and put the william on the boil for cups of tea, the sound of the rain merged into the rushing of the Mersey River as it snaked around the base of a mountain range shrouded in mist. The Upper Mersey, archaeologists tell us, has at least 10,000 years of human history. The Paddocks, which have been managed by post-colonial stockmen for around a century, was probably fired by Aboriginal Tasmanians for at least a couple thousand years to aid their hunting practice.

    In the 1880s, the Field family - eminently successful cattle barons - employed George Lee to drive cattle in this high country. It was a three-day trip from the township of Mole Creek to the Paddocks, and following his marriage to one Alice Applebee, George would also take his sons Lewis and Oxley to the area. Like many mountaineers in Tasmania, they also hunted for fur.

    The sons inherited the land after George Lee's death. Oxley, who was illiterate and an alcoholic, sold his share of the Paddocks in the 1960s; Lewis Lee continued to visit the area several times a year, until his death in 1989. It was his hut that my friends and I would be sleeping in. Now belonging to other family members, it is generally accepted that bushwalkers may stay there, if they follow the correct etiquette.

    The mountain huts of Tasmania are remnants of a fascinating and unique culture. As Simon Cubit, the foremost historian of high country stockmen, writes, they 'are a little known but nonetheless important part of Tasmania's cultural heritage.'

    One wonders if part of their significance isn't derived from the fact that everything about the lifestyle these huts point to is remote, rarely-experienced, and not well known.