Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged geography

  • A Deeper Map of Tasmanian Towns

    A Deeper Map of Tasmanian Towns

    A couple years back, photographer Pen Tayler and I were approached to choose twelve Tasmanian towns and approach them through our chosen media. This week, Towns of Tasmania: a journey through time will be foisted into the public domain.

    I’m yet to physically handle a copy and, naturally, I have had nothing to do with the editing or design of the book. The publishers always do a tidy job of their editions – I’d not have taken on their project if they didn’t – but nevertheless, as the book’s development reaches its conclusion, I have my quiet concerns that I won’t be satisfied with what I have written.

    Mostly, I worry that I won’t have done justice to the dozen towns we selected for the title, that the people who belong to them will feel I have missed the point of how they live.

    What is most interesting, to me, is that I didn’t have a hometown for almost the entire duration of the genesis of this book on Tassie towns. Much of it was written whilst I was scooting around the island in my ’92 Laser (may the poor old rustbucket rest in peace), or indeed while I was elsewhere in the world. I vividly recall writing about Ross while I was in a Sarajevo café, about Queenstown in an Istanbul apartment, and about Derby on a balcony from which I looked upon a Balinese temple.

    It is entirely coincidental that this peripatetic period has concluded concurrently with the release of the book. After two years, I’m renting a room again. My books are piled precariously in the northern-eastern corner of a house in Meander; spinebills and fairy-wrens come tapping on the windows as I type. The other day I was cooking with the kitchen doors wide open and a score of currawongs swept into the trees only a few metres into the yard, and began a five-minute chorus of their cackling call.

    Meander isn’t featured in the book; we chose Deloraine as a representative of all the townships of the Great Western Tiers. But even after a few weeks in Meander, I feel I could write a lengthy tome on the town. After all, I have been eavesdropping on a great deal of gossip lately. And either way, it’s a town that is both deeply interconnected and fractious, with a rich and rippling history, and a close proximity to landscape.

    Yesterday the Meander Town Hall hosted a community concert, a memorial for a music teacher who died here last year – a young woman who had inspired many in the Meander area. Various locals cobbled together the gig, from performers to impromptu set designers. It was a manifestation of a special community spirit out here, a will to contribute, to cultivate and create a space for people to belong.

    Over the years, there are several Tassie towns that I have considered home. One is featured in the book: Beaconsfield, where I spent my first years. There is also Penguin, where those who bore my surname first set themselves up in the 1850s. The edges of Launceston have looked after me too, and I have spent so much time in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park that it may as well be home. I have no idea how long I will be able to stay in Meander, but I already know that it’s a place to which I will hopefully maintain a sense of belonging over the years.

    When I arrived at the hall, Mother Cummings wore a scarf of rain; by the time we finished the bush dance, it was terrifically warm and the mountain was clear. There is nothing more important to Meander, I would dare assume to say, than this mountain peak. If there’s anything I hope to have said in the book that comes out this week, it’s that human communities are indebted to their landscapes, and that any township ought to have a strong relationship with its rocks and shrubs and rivers. If we all had deeper maps of the places where we lived, I’m quite convinced we would have healthier and happier communities.

    For whatever reason, several years of frequent movement have developed in me a sense for uncovering the layers beneath a location. A more stationary season, especially in beautiful Meander, can only help me go deeper.


    Towns of Tasmania will be launched in Hobart on Wednesday evening, and again in Launceston on Thursday night.

  • Archaeology from the Anthropocene

    Archaeology from the Anthropocene

    If you stumble upon a strata of Permian mudstone in Tasmania, you’ll likely find some fossils in it. Don’t expect dinosaur bones: what we have are impressions of various flora and fauna from the sea, bivalves and brachiopods from the era that began roughly 300 million years, and ended with an apocalypse in 251 million years ago.

    Palaeontologists can recognise the Permian pretty easily, because nearly all of the creatures on the planet became extinct at this stage. At the time, Tasmania was covered with a shallow sea – much of the Earth’s landmasses were. The prevailing theory (although there are a few contenders) suggests that underwater volcanoes poisoned everything.

    Oh well. I stop at a cleft of mudstone somewhere, finger the pretty imprints of shells and the wavy lines of sea-fern fronds; then I get back in my car and drive to the next place, to an outcrop of Devonian conglomerate, perhaps, or the pub in the north-west town of Marrawah.

    I have spent comparatively little time at the helm of a motor car, preferring a life on hoof. Still, the power of the combustion engine gives me a great rush: what a phenomenological experience! I have a very fine vehicle, and its complicated mechanics and its ability to push me along at a great velocity. In fact, there may be no faster car in Tasmania than my 1992 Ford Laser.

    Sometimes whilst driving I see an echidna fumbling and fidgeting on the verge. “Such earth attunement!” shouts the poet Pete Hay. The most minute vibrations in the grass will attract their attention – they’re after ants.

    Given their poor eyesight I’m glad they’re not driving my car; I suspect they wouldn’t want to either, as I have seen them find an ants’ nest, and, positively covered in the insects, they appear (I’m afraid to say) like they are in the throes of an orgasm. They are in their glee and they wouldn’t trade it for anything. I think I would swap my phenomenological experience for theirs too.

    Half-way down the winding road from Marrawah to my campsite of choice, I see a plaque and swiftly pull over to observe it. A map of the area has been forged and stuck on a concrete plinth; we can thank the Marrawah Women’s Progress Association for this, who organised it in 1977, or so the plaque says.

    A van is in the corner of the headland where I want to camp. It belongs to two European backpackers; I decide to chat with them, mostly to see if they are leaving and if I can claim their spot. I have given them some bushwalking advice and we are having an amiable conversation about their travels until, a propos of nothing, they begin to insult Aboriginal people. My mind goes blank with anger and turning on my heels to leave them immediately, I say, stupid with rage, “Shut up.”

    Later, when they are gone, I sit and face the sea, and try and let my anger cool in the sea breeze and the distance. The Women’s Association plaque has told me that Cape Horn is 15,586 kilometres from me, almost due west. But closer by is Cape Grim, Tassie’s north-west tip: there, in 1827, an Aboriginal party was massacred by a group of shepherds. These shepherds were apparently retaliating to the murder of some sheep. But we know that sheep are not the true meaning of all this: they were fighting over land use, both fuelled with theories and superstitions about spirituality and economy – which is to say, most of what gave their lives meaning and their relationships purpose.

    There are more cows than sheep in the north-west today. They too are an economic symbol, with “Cape Grim Beef” one of those contemporary phrases which lacks poetry but is nevertheless loaded with significance. It’s delicious dairy country up here too. I am lucky enough to have spent some time working with cows, and I like to look at them. They’re really rather lovely, although to touch them is to lay hands on a strange biological sculpture. They have a weird figure, bones and cartilage in places you don’t expect them.

    It’s a memorable form, and one which must have seemed monstrous to Aboriginal observers when cows were first dropped onto the island two centuries ago. Cows are seriously harming the environment, but it’s not really their choice. The real monstrosities have been caused by humans.

    At a conference in the year 2000, a scientist jokingly described the current geological era as the Anthropocene Era. The joke has lost its humour. Dig, in a million years, and you will find the evidence of our roads and buildings, our landfills of plastic, our soil-degrading farms, of Permian-style mass extinction. I think it would be embarrassing to be there on that day. “What were you lot doing?” they’d ask. “What insanity was the era of the Anthropocene?”

    I’d like to think they will find this plaque in Marrawah though; I can see this in a future archaeological museum, with a naff little write-up next to it. It’d be nice if it could be exhibited with the current graffiti intact: someone has spraypainted a multi-coloured love-heart and scrawled the word ‘Land’ in the middle. It could prove to an insightful archaeologist that at least a few of us loved our landscapes. “They weren’t all bad,” they might say.

    I don’t suppose the paint will last, however.



    I've been thinking a lot about forms in the Tasmanian landscape: fences and fantails, for example, or otherwise bird tracks and moon shapes.

    And also on the topic of environmental destruction in the north-west, we went to Savage River...

  • Ross Stop

    Ross Stop

    I used to skateboard with a young man who had been born in San Bernardino, California, and had since relocated with his mother to Ross. It seemed a long way, not only geographically, but notionally. San Bernardino sprawls in a hot, dry valley basin east of Los Angeles; it is the 100th most populous city in the U.S. Ross is a handsome village in the midlands of Tasmania, occupied by sandstone cottages and other convict-built edifices.

    I never really found out how my mate had ended up in Ross, but I did take the bus down there to visit him a couple of times during my teenage years. And since I have returned many times, like plenty of Tasmanians, en route between Launceston and Hobart.

    Sometimes I do this on the Redline bus (although not often, as it is a rather overpriced service, if I may add my two cents). I look up from my book whenever
    turns off the highway, at Tacky Creek or over the famous bridge at Macquarie River, depending on from which direction we’re coming. Chugging gently into the town, I would hear the bus driver say – although ‘say’ is perhaps too strong a word, as it was more as though he was clearing his throat or perhaps struggling with the effects of strong drink – the words, “Ross stop; this is Ross stop.”

    And at this point, all too often, a lone Japanese woman would step out of the vehicle, and wander off, as if dazed, into Church Street. I marvelled that they could interpret the bus driver’s ‘announcement’, and wondered wonder what these poor individuals were doing, staggering off into the tidy main road, and where now they would go. It was often a bit early for a seat at a public table, so I would presume that these lonely wayfarers were going to the bakery, for a famous dish, such as a scallop pie or vanilla slice.

    I later discovered that the Ross Village Bakery attracted tourists, and particularly those from Japan, for other reasons. The bakery is said to have been the model for the setting of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a popular 1989 anime film. As Chris Norris has shown in an enjoyable thesis titled A Japanese media pilgrimage to a Tasmanian bakery, a ‘cult geography’ has formed around the place, one to which most of us as we rumble through the village are oblivious.

    But we each have own personal geographies. The bakery guestbook reads both “I never forget that I watched a movie in Kiki’s room” and “that was the best pie I’ve ever had”. Here in Ross, I got drunk for the first time,
    and Mitch kissed a girl I adored, the day she got her braces taken off. Many years later I rummaged through the antiques store and bought The Australian Ugliness and a percolator.

    Countless times, I have gone to look at the sandstone bridge with its “hallucinatory composition of Celtic carved motifs and gargoyle-like human faces”, including one of a personality from history to whom I’ve devoted far too many hours of study.

    More importantly, John Helder Wedge, a surveyor in Van Diemen’s Land in the days when it took some courage to traverse this island, and who came and went through this town many times over, noted in his diary in the 1830s that on one occasion, on his way here, that he “rode in a jaunting-cart, sitting opposite the lovely Miss Watts”.


    Here is a personal geography of the Midlands Highway.
    And here is the story of the Man O' Ross Hotel.

    This is the bloke on the bridge, to whom I've devoted too much time.

  • Floods

    Floods

    As I returned home from a short trip to the mainland, the major river systems of northern Tasmania were in flood.

    After heavy rainfall a few days earlier, rising waters destroyed homes and property, swept away livestock, and
    brought about the end of at least one life, with several more people missing.

    Latrobe, on the Mersey River, looked almost entirely submerged in aerial photos; 19 houses have been rendered ‘uninhabitable’. I am about to move into the suburb of Invermay: it was evacuated as I returned to it. I tried not take this personally.

    Flying across Bass Strait, the aftermath of flooding in the Emu, Forth, Mersey, Meander, Macquarie, North Esk and South Esk Rivers was evident. I couldn’t see much from the aisle seat, of course, but I joined the neck-stretching gawkers trying to see what had occurred while we were north, on the big island.

    I went straight from the airport to the Cataract Gorge. Dozens of people were there, watching huge quantities of water barrel down beneath the suspension bridge, a turbulent, seething, brown-and-white mass. The flooding of the Gorge has long had this effect; it brings a crowd, at all hours, and suddenly we have something to talk about with our neighbours.

    It also reminds us that this town at a confluence of three rivers; the water in the Cataract Gorge, spilling over the blunt concrete of its dam walls, is identifiable as a genuine river, the longest one in Tasmania no less, whose headwaters at the base of Ben Lomond require several days to journey to the second-most populous town on the island. As our lives move away from practical geographical knowledge, the Gorge is treated like an island, as if it is its own ecosystem, isolated: many Launcestonians I know could not tell you which river runs between those dolerite cliffs, and I suspect many do not even recognise it as part of a river system.

    But we can understand it better, even if the way we talk about it is unscientific. “I’ve never seen it this high,” says everybody. “Do you reckon it’ll go over?” the residents of Invermay asked each other by the flood levy on Tuesday night, before the evacuation. “Nah, don’t reckon...”

    On the aeroplane, a husband is pointing out what he thinks are various roads, submerged farms, bridges that must be washed away. She looks up from her electronic book, and spits, “Oh, what would you know!”

    This flood follows a summer in which a lack of rainfall threatened us. Hydroelectric dams ran close to empty. Dry lightning struck dry vegetation, creating bushfires in the rainforest.

    Gaston Bachelard has written a
    Psychoanalysis of Fire; who will treat a psychoanalysis of floods? We so blithely use the river as a metaphor for steady movement, progress, providence, time. A flood ignores these interpretations. The river is usually an uninterrupted flow of hours; the flood interrupts, makes time’s rhythm seem less benign. It reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have an allotted amount of days, or that the hours will trundle by coolly and calmly. Years may pass in peace, but the arrival of a single violent moment can end it all. We are alerted to the fact that the same hand which feeds us might yet throttle us.

    And yet for modern witnesses, the spectacle of the sublime draws us to itself. Even as elsewhere lives and livelihoods are being washed away, we stand by the seething rivers, waves lifting out from the depths and pushing forcefully out to the mouth, into the sea, suddenly unnoticeable.

    My new housemate takes the record player off the top shelf; we were not flooded out. The levy held the waters back. They say this was a more severe flood than the one in 1929, which was a genuine disaster. But our infrastructure has reprieved us of much worse. In a poorer country, the death toll would stand at thousands. In rural Tasmania, the consequences are devastating: socially, economically, emotionally. But for those in town, we once again allow ourselves to believe we have mastered the ancient processes of our ecosystems.



    Two years ago I wrote 'A Short History of Shitty Weather', about the 1929 floods.
    More recent is this piece on pirates in southern Tasmania.