Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged environmentalism

  • The Lawless Loveliness of the Landscape

    The Lawless Loveliness of the Landscape

    I recently wrote of Denmark: at last, I hinted, we may have held up our end of the bargain in an intercontinental exchange. In the 1820s a colourful Dansker came to Tasmania; in the year 2000, a love affair between a Tasmanian and the Crown Prince of Denmark began. Where we once received Jørgen Jørgensen, we gave away our Mary Donaldson.

    But actually, Tasmanians are still one-up over the Danes. Because in 1891, another Danish migrant would arrive to Hobart and also make a significant mark on our island’s culture. This was the novelist Marie Bjelke Petersen.

    She had been brought up in the outskirts of Copenhagen, but moved with her whole family when she was a teenager. They arrived in the spring. In her reminiscences at least, the scenery was instantly affecting: it was “a paradise of untouched beauty”, she said. “When I saw all these mountains in Tasmania, I embraced it on the spot.”

    Certainly the mountains would have been impressive. She’d have seen a number of them whilst still at sea, and Mount Wellington must have have struck her as imposing. Denmark, after all, is rather flat; its highest point is 170 metres above sea level.

    At first she tried to transmute her feeling for the Tasmanian landscape into painting, but she soon converted to writing. Her first three publications were religious works, but in 1917 she wrote
    The Captive Singer. The plot featured a guide who took tourists into the caves around Mole Creek, and sang well, and charmed a woman. It sold 150,000 copies in Australia – and 40,000 in a Danish translation.

    It kicked off a steady stream of words, and sales. In
    Dusk she wrote of a love affair in the mining town of Queenstown; in Jewelled Nights she narrated a close friendship (which became a love affair) at a prospectors’ camp on the Savage River. In total Bjelke Petersen sold more than a quarter of a million books in English and many more in the six languages into which they were translated. For an Australian author of her era, this was an enormous success.

    The novels don’t necessarily age well. Their
    plots are sometimes frivolous, and Bjelke Petersen’s religious didactism doesn’t read well today. Today, her prose comes across as overly romantic, breathless and out-of-control. But one thing is certain: Marie Bjelke Petersen’s writing about Tasmania (and mainland Australia, in which she set a couple of novels) showed an original view of the landscape. Where other authors painted Tasmania as “bleak and cheerless”, Bjelke Petersen raved about the “lawless loveliness of the landscape.”

    Perhaps for Bjelke Petersen, excursions into the bush gave her liberty. She travelled far and wide into western Tasmania researching her plots. Her other career was as a teacher of physical education; she strongly believed in its virtues. She went places that few women of European background had been.

    You may be familiar with her nephew, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who would later become a Queensland politician. His aunt was also religiously conservative, but Marie was nevertheless a forward thinker in society. I’m not sure if she ever thought of herself as a feminist, but she certainly wasn’t willing to be constrained by expectations of gender roles. The novelist refused to be married, and instead lived with her close friend Sylvia Mills. (Plenty of tongues have wagged about what their relationship might have been, but I have little gossip to contribute.)

    Marie Bjelke Petersen was also an environmental conservationist. “It is really a matter that brings tears to my eyes to see the way our beautiful forests are being wantonly burnt off,” she declared in one public address. Her enthusiasm for the bush wasn’t confined to her literature. (“The jungle was a riotous confusion of strong growing things, which clung savagely together and almost strangled each other in their fierce passionate embraces!”)

    This is a recurring theme in Tasmania: so many of the activists who have spoken in praise and in defence of our landscapes have originally come from places like Denmark, Austria, Germany, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia. Although today I think some Tasmanian-born individuals have at last begun to understand and respect their surrounds, for many years we relied on those who had come from the outside to point out just how special it all was.

    Likewise, Marie Bjelke Petersen was a special character in Tasmanian cultural history – another Dane for whom we can be grateful. She died as an old lady in October 1969.



    Another fascinating literary figure from Tasmania was the Glenorchy-born author Christopher Koch.

  • A Peep at the Wilderness

    A Peep at the Wilderness

    There are few more significant names in Tasmania’s landscape photography history than J.W. Beattie and Stephen Spurling III. But these two artists had a different view on an iconic region of Tasmania’s high country at the beginning of the 1900s.

    Born at the 57th parallel north, in the “Grey City” of Aberdeen, John Watt Beattie migrated to the Derwent Valley with his parents in his late teen years. Farming didn’t come instinctively to him, but he was drawn to the romantic aspects of Tasmanian landscape – the young Beattie was particularly influenced by landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, whose depictions of this island’s craggy peaks and lake districts, in oils, continues to shape the artistic temperament in Tassie.

    Beattie’s photographic excursions took him to many remote regions of the island, including the nascent mine towns of the west coast. A supporter of the mining projects, he was nevertheless an early and outspoken environmentalist – arguing against forestry activities on the Gordon River, for example, recognising its scenic and scientific values.

    Also an eager archivist, Beattie’s historical awareness, at the end of the 1800s, was quite a long way advanced; his work was moulded by his political and social opinions. His art was popular, and he was extremely well-liked as an individual.

    J.W. Beattie’s journey to the mountainous country around the Cradle Plateau in 1901 left him unimpressed. It may have been the torrid weather his party endured, as they ascended Pelion Plains and headed north; as Beattie wrote in his paper for the Royal Society, day after day brought “furious wind and rain...to be succeeded by heavy snowfalls, and thunder and lightning, making every living and dead thing around in such condition that it was, to say at the least, misery to walk outside the hut...”

    Beattie managed to muster up some positive memories of deep conversations, “yarns and songs” in front of the fireplaces of the high country huts – but generally felt that it was “somewhat of lunacy to come into this country in such weather”. His camera was playing up and the weather offered no respite. Few photographs were produced, although one significant romantic image was titled ‘A Peep at Barn Bluff from Lake Windermere’ (the latter landmark portrayed for this article, albeit taken by a lesser photographer).

    But Stephen Spurling III, who was the self-described “pioneer photographer” of this area in March 1898, was miffed by Beattie’s deprecation of this landscape. He likely did create “the earliest extensive record of the Cradle Mountain and Western Tiers area,” according to the Companion to Tasmanian History.

    A third generation photographer, whose would also include photographic forays around Ben Lomond and the Franklin and Gordon rivers, Spurling believed these landscapes “compare in scenic excellence with any part of Tasmania, and will amply repay the tourist for any hardships he may endure in getting there,” as he wrote in a letter to the 
    Examiner responding to Beattie’s report.

    Stephen Spurling III would certainly to this part of the world, taking images of the Western Tiers in heavy snow, and later producing motion pictures of the highlands of the upper Mersey. He photographed the magnificent Hartnett Falls days after it was first witnessed by a white visitor, and named Lake Lilla (near Cradle Mountain) after his sister. 

    And indeed most would say that Spurling was right in this debate with J.W. Beattie: the country that Beattie shrugged his shoulders over are part of the Overland Track, one of the world’s most famous multi-day bushwalks.

    Though they bickered over this area, their work complemented each other, and the two pioneering artists (as Richard Flanagan has written) “jointly produc[ed] a vision of the Tasmanian wilderness that was definitive and which has endured more or less intact to the present day.”