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.

  • Our Mary

    Our Mary

    I met a Danish lass last week. It took me precisely 30 seconds to bring up the two things I always mention when I meet Danes. They are my favourite connection points between Denmark and Tasmania: Princess Mary and Jørgen Jørgensen.

    I have spilt much ink about the latter, so let it suffice to say that my new friend Ulrikke had never heard of her countryman Jørgensen – as is the case with every Dane I’ve ever met. Also, she told me (not for the first time) how badly I was mispronouncing his name.

    But Princess Mary? Oh yes, she was quite fond of Princess Mary.

    Mary Donaldson was born in Hobart in February 1972, her parents both staff at the University of Tasmania. Her own schooling would lead her to UTas as well, via schools in Sandy Bay and Taroona; she studied a combined Bachelor of Commerce and Law.

    After graduation, she would move to Melbourne; from what I can tell she didn’t live in Tasmania after that point. But she’s still
    our Mary.

    In a story that has been retold countless times, Mary met Crown Prince Frederik at a bar in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. (The bar was called the Slip Inn, surely one of the worst recorded names for a drinking establishment.) Apparently he didn’t use his royal title as a pick-up line, to his credit. They embarked a long-distance relationship; in 2001, the Danish weekly rag
    Billed Bladet – no doubt highly respected – revealed Mary as the prince’s girlfriend; in 2003 Queen Margrethe II gave the green light to their marriage. A very romantic story.

    Once upon a time people said that it was every girl’s dream to become a princess. I really don’t know if that’s true, and I have strong doubts that a young lady growing up in Taroona would ever harbour serious hopes to become such a thing. Royalty generally isn’t sourced from Taroona, or any neighbouring suburbs.

    Then again, Taroona’s pretty bloody lovely. There is fine swimming here at Hinsby Beach, for example. The D’Entrecasteaux Channel is making good progress towards the Southern Ocean; the eastern shore takes on a golden hue in summer. Eucalypts stand tall on the cliffs. Their branches abound with birds, the refreshing breeze heavy with the pullulating screech of rosellas and wattle-birds.

    It’s a far cry from Copenhagen, where Mary now lives. Maybe it suits her better; not every Tasmanian loves its landscape as much as I do, I’ve discovered. Maybe she likes the flat, broad boulevards of the Danish capital. It certainly is a beautiful city. But I don’t envy her life. I would prefer to anonymously duck into the surf at Hinsby Beach (perhaps completely unclothed, with mates and wine, late at night) than to have to maintain palatial etiquette at a ceremony in Kongens Nytorv, for example. Then again, no princess has tried to woo me into being her Crown Prince; perhaps if the opportunity came knocking, I’d plunge in. Royal life might suit me better than I think.

    Whatever the case, it is good that the Danes love our Mary. She is wonderful. And she dresses very elegantly.


    I once met a bloke who claimed he snogged Mary before she was betrothed to Crown Prince Frederik. I suspect that there are quite a few blokes who say such things. I am content to say that I occasionally swim at the same beach that Mary presumably also visited – and to go on using Princess Mary as fodder for conversations with Danish ladies.

    I
    do like to think that Mary Donaldson heard, at some point in her younger years, the story of Jørgen Jørgensen; perhaps, that famous night at the Slip Inn, when Frederik said that he was from Denmark, Mary mentioned Jørgensen, mispronouncing his name dreadfully. I know I would have.

    Probably Frederik has never have heard of him either.

  • Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    Figures and Textures: Mountains, Yards, Moons, Dinosaurs

    I am increasingly compelled to pay attention to the figures and textures of Tasmania, and to wonder what impression they have made upon my brain and our society as we each pass our time within their midst.

    For example, as the years go on, I become more familiar with such forms in the mountains where I work. It is not only the silhouettes of massifs and gendarmes that affect me. I recall last patches of light on the summits, the rock changing colour as the sun disappears behind a hill or forest. There is the coarseness of dolerite’s crystals against the soft pads of my hands, or the sharp contortions of quartzite under the thick leather of my boots’ soles, or the slippery grains of wet sandstone.

    Artists have a keen eye for these things. I am not an artist, but I admire someone like Peter Dombrovskis, a photographer who spent incredible amounts of time and care during his forays into the bush. A cursory look through Dombrovskis’ catologue is enough to tell us that he knew these forms intimately: the curl of the pandani, the burled bark, convulsions of kelp, ice-encrusted flower petals.

    But even those who are considerate and attentive will today arrive with the aesthetic prejudices of Europe. We must remember that straight lines are rarely found in the Tasmanian bush. Maybe there are rectilinear forms in geology, but very rarely are they truly straight. Even the horizon may have taken on a different meaning for the original Tasmanians: this line, I am told, is not the crux of much Aboriginal art, unlike what we have been handed down from the classic painters of Europe.

    Tasmanian art, as far as we can know, was most often in the media of bodily scarification and petroglyphs. Here at preminghana or Mount Cameron West, in the island’s north-west, is said to have some of the mesmerising and memorable examples of art in the latter medium. (Today it is concealed and only accessible to some members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.)

    Stylised circles, moon-shapes, dots, crosses and bird tracks were recorded by early European observers; similar motifs appear in the descriptions of the cicatrices cut into the flesh of Tasmanians. The “curved emblem” was also found at Aboriginal gravesites, and in their temporary huts. The full meanings of these figures are not shared, but commentators have remarked on the potential symbolism – “an awareness of a spiritual dimension within the land”, says Roslynn Haynes.

    Probably, they had a range of possible meanings, a beautiful and complicated polysemy.

    I grew up on a bush block in the Tamar Valley and there are countless forms that have unalterably changed me. Perhaps the open land we had is the most obvious: my gait, I think, corresponds to the yards in which I strode as a youth. But there are many more,
    most of which I do not yet comprehend. But I am spending a lot of time trying to unravel it all.

    For example, when I came to look at preminghana, I found myself comparing it to a Pachycephalosaurus, in a certain unlikely posture. I was very fond of dinosaurs as a lad.


  • The Swamp

    The Swamp

    The day I was supposed to shuffle into Invermay, back in June, the rivers were in flood. Invermay was evacuated and it seemed likely that the suburb would be swept away.

    We were lucky: despite the huge volumes of water in the rivers, they didn’t exceed the newly-built flood levees. I moved in along with my scarce few possessions. William, my housemate, had put the record player on the mantelpiece: the only concession he’d made to possibility of
    disaster.

    Invermay remembers floods: in 1929, around 2000 of its homes were washed away and 22 lives were lost. But this has always been an area that is susceptible to the rivers’ influence. The suburb is built on reclaimed land, and an early colonial name was ‘Swampton’. It was not seen as attractive land, and settlements didn’t spread much in this direction until the first systematic draining works occurring after fifty years of Launceston’s settlement. The area had serious hygiene concerns for decades, with scarlet fever, typhoid, and respiratory illnesses all worryingly prevalent.

    It quickly built itself into an industrious area – a lively neighbourhood, replete with buskers and brothels. It retains an eclectic local population. It also has eclectic architecture: cottages line narrow alleys between the main drags, and a number of beautiful art-deco buildings stand, including our lovely Post Office. We also have a high concentration of mechanics, and more takeaway stores than you can poke a stick at.

    History persists and pervades, but changes are always wrought, and more are on their way. Our footy ground, York Park, is branded as the University of Tasmania Stadium; a plethora of government dollars have been pledged to transfer the entire uni to its Invermay campus. It will change everything here. Sorting out the traffic will be challenging; house prices will surge; businesses will open; demographics will change. The bain marie may be replaced by taps of craft beer.

    I spent the winter here, my first Tasmanian winter in some years.
    Afternoons were crushed by darkness quickly, old boats’ silhouettes disappearing as river and darkness merged. The sirens at the nearby football stadium yowled, corresponding with the anguished mewing of our local cats. The Boags brewery gave up its malty belch. Smoke, fog and mist lowered themselves into the river valley. Pedestrians battled robust winds that are driven down the Tamar. The hostelries seem quiet, but there is always life at the hearths in the corners of the public bars.

    Summer fled by, with its usual flurry of visitors and excursions. Bright red baubles appeared on the tomato vines in the backyard. Housemates passed like ships in the night.

    Now evening darkness comes early again, and I'm off. Mick, my neighbour, caught me putting boxes of books in my car the other day. “You’re not moving out are ya?” he bellowed. I felt guilty telling him that I was.

    I was never going to be here for long enough to become a true swampie: not like the bloke I met at the Bizzy Bee, on an electric skateboard, wearing the t-shirt of a local contemporary dance show. He had Invermay’s postcode, 7248, tattooed on his neck. We were both buying hot chips.

    Mick and I kept talking. He’s a good neighbour: he’s a gruff character, but always happy to stop and chat when we run into him walking his two dogs, Bear and Nightmare, down the street. Somehow our rambling chat came to a familiar old topic. Mick threw his arms up to express its mystery: “Love.”

    This is a place that invites the curious to keep paying attention. My notebooks are replete with Invermay observations. As I write this, Mick stops to chat with another neighbour and his pram-bound baby. Black swans and purple swamp-hens stomp the rushes along the North Esk: they are the true swampies, I suspect. The marsh beneath asphalted streets shakes beneath the tyres of trucks.

    I am moving out of this ecosystem, Mick, and wandering off into another one. I may or may not be back in Swampton. You never really know.

  • Poplar Parade

    Poplar Parade

    There were many afternoons during my teenage years in which I came upon this view. Not always were the mountains set against a blue sky; in winter, the grass and trees were greener, the yellow blossoms absent. In those days, there were fewer houses wedged into the landscape.

    Usually I had taken the bus from school, although sometimes I was just returning from a mate’s house. Often I had a skateboard under my arm and I was ready to hurl myself down the hill. (Once or twice I toppled off.) Just where the slope levelled off, on the left, after the roundabout, I would tumble into my home.

    After some time away, I return to this hill. These are quiet streets – the edges of an urban space, where a regional city meets its bucolic background – but for me the neighbourhood is pullulating, populous with ghosts. It is a cluttered scene, years layered on top of each other. I see the Vollmers’ and Masters’ houses. I wonder if Ben’s grandmother is still alive, where Matt has moved on to by now. The austere brick house that the Lucases lived in for a while reminds of the tethers of their stories, which we have heard mostly through the avenues of gossip. There is a certain house to which I snuck on cold nights, in my pyjamas, to rendezvous with Miss A., also in her pyjamas.

    Where the road has its elbow at the bottom of the hill, my brother once threw off his left shoe in a fit, and appeared to be dancing. He ran back to the house cursing the wasp that had crawled into his Vans and stung him.

    Coming back to my mother’s house (once, both parents shared it), I feel as though I’m making a similarly ludicrous return.

    There are all sorts of relics here too. As I write this, I look up at a photograph of two young Spinkses with the larrikin footballer Billy Brownless. There are other images: the grandfather who died before I was born, my old dog who is buried in the yard, clippings from my occasional appearances in the local newspaper. In the bathroom: the pot plant a girlfriend gifted to Mum more than half a decade ago.

    Venturing away from the house, I am equally ensnared. Somehow I can’t help but hear of the corruptions and collusions of local politics, business, and media. The local Member for Parliament refuses to address his constituents. A hideous giant supermarket is being erected near the centre of town. The flags of another town’s football team flap all around Launceston in the early afternoon winds. The letters to the newspaper make me cringe, wince, want to cry.

    I fear that the people who live in my town secretly hate it. That beneath the odd gesture of civic pride there is a deep concave of shame in our guts. That we wish we were something else, somewhere else, with more cheap shopping and football games.

    Perhaps this has something to do with our origins, with the way some of our ancestors stole the landscape from the first Tasmanians. These rolling hills I have come upon so many afternoons of my life were once the hunting grounds of the largely-forgotten tribes of the north of the island. Beneath that banner of blue sky (or silvery-black, on the gloomier days), there were spirits and stories in amongst the black wattles and bluegums, in with the echidnas and snakes and wallabies.

    If there is a horror at this, I do not discourage it. But there is a sense in which this is simply an era, a landscape, an urban arrangement, an historical moment which we have inherited. Which I have inherited. And if I wander through the streets of this town and feel grumpy for knowing it is lined by the houses of too many greedy or ignorant or complacent fellow-citizens, and then trudge down this hill into a home where all the change across two decades of my life manifests itself, without trying to resist a sense of hopelessness or sentimentality, without putting a hard shoulder against it, then I have lost home altogether. And there can be nothing worse than that sort of exile.

  • Winter Customs

    Winter Customs

    There are those who hate winter in Tasmania. It is, they say, too cold, or too wet, or too windy, or too dark. It is as bleak as Siberia. It is the most depressing place on Earth.

    But there are others who cherish these days when the sky hangs low like a big-bellied whale over the towns, and some days the mountains rise like white-capped waves. It is good, they contend, to see the grass turn bright green, to don the thick woollen socks and down jackets, to feel frost crunch beneath your feet, to smell the spice of woodsmoke in the air and to sit by the fire yourself with a cosy over the teapot.

    The change in weather is a chance to cultivate new habits. Some of them are idiosyncratic: one gentleman I know takes to boiling eggs on winter mornings and putting them in his pockets as he walks to his place of vocation so they warm his hands.

    Other customs may seem familiar. For instance, one winter when I was short of money, I spent my spare hours scrounging around for good firewood. And on those crisp, starry nights when the weather has cleared but the air is still cold, I would feed sticks and logs into my pot-bellied stove and sit around it with an Irish coffee, sometimes with friends, watching the embers pulsate like melting caramel and tinkling like thin glass cracking in the changing temperature.

    And we should not forget that for thousands of years, this is what people have done in Tasmania during the months of June, July and August, these lunar cycles when the night seems to have more strength than day, when it is cold and wet and windy and dark, and Rowra hovers in the silhouettes of the eucalypts just beyond the room of firelight.

    Yes, for millennia, Tasmanians have had their rituals, their customs, their diets, their ideas, their politics and their dreams flex and change with the weather.

    So as you wipe the hoar off your car window, get a soup going in the slow-cooker, pull out your stripy longjohns, or invite the girl you flirted with all summer over to watch a movie on your laptop beneath a patchy quilt, remember that these details are part of what it is to be a human being in your time and your place. And that though customs have changed dramatically, at times with violence and force, the little behaviours that you share with your contemporaries are significant, full of memory and therefore full of meaning.

    Even the boiled egg hand-warmers. (They will end up in an Ethnographic Museum sometime, somewhere.)

    Perhaps in these months you will look out your window and see the European trees that have dropped all their leaves, and it will makes you feel something of a sense of loss.

    Perhaps you will stand over the Liffey or the Clyde in full flow, and know the trout are spawning, and feel hopeful for what is next, maybe even to the point of impatience.

    Perhaps you will see snow on Mount Wellington or Ben Lomond and long to feel the mist clinging to your hair and your shoes fill up with slush.

    Whatever it is you do and feel from now until the wattles are in blossom, this is the Tasmanian winter to which you belong.

  • 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.

  • The Easter Egg Hunt

    The Easter Egg Hunt

    The gold mine in Beaconsfield reopened in the same year that I was bitten by my dog Sox, above the eye, on my birthday.

    I grew up on a five-acre property just outside of that town, ‘up the river’, as my mother would always say. I remember it as a jackjumper-infested swamp, with a couple of flat grassy areas on which to play footy. A few big eucalypts stood tall above silver wattles and native cherries, and scrub. In Easter, my parents hid chocolate eggs wrapped in colourful foil in the fronds of manferns. We had a goat that needed putting down.

    The gold mine, which had once been the richest in Tasmania, was not as it was in its heyday. In 2006, when a subterranean rockfall killed a miner and trapped two others, it was closed again. But the mine was not the town’s identity anymore. If anything, Beaconsfield, and the Tamar Valley, was apples, with some forestry on the outskirts, and a reasonable proximity to both Launceston and the industrial ports where the river met Bass Strait.

    My family moved to town. Sox was put down too. My life’s shape changed. Shadows on the world’s map furled away. My knowledge increased. Suddenly, I was a young man, and on my way across the ocean. New places were impressing themselves upon me. New landscapes complicated my memory.

    Even while we were living there, in the 1990s, there were folks planting grapevines in the Tamar Valley. These were people who could foresee a future for cool-climate wines in this area – or they were hobbyists, enthusiasts, optimists. Nowadays, all around Beaconsfield are trellises in rows, vines clinging to them. I drove through there the other week. This year’s fruit has been harvested, of course. The leaves have turned all sorts of burnished Old World colours.

    An author has moved to Beaconsfield and has run a literary festival there. I hear rumours of other developments, boutique food and booze and accommodation, capitalising on tourists in search of a good pinot noir.

    It will change.

    I have changed too. But here is where I spent some formative years, getting stung by jackjumpers and bitten by dogs, tripping over the strips of shedding stringybark, collecting tadpoles from puddles on Lightwood Hill Road.

    In whatever this town becomes, there will be the history of the gold rush – of the Dallys, of Hart and Grubb, of the Chinese migrant workers, of Todd Russell and Brant Webb and Larry Knight.

    There, too, is the history of who came before them: the Letteremairrener people. Or of what came before that: the flora and fauna, the geology and geography of the Tamar Valley, which too is not as it once was.

    Wherever I find myself in this world – peering into portraits in the Uffizi Gallery, for example, or listening to mariachi music at a restaurant in San Diego – I am still the extension of that memory too. I am not entirely who I once was, but I am still the boy who found chocolate eggs in the garden. I find myself scrounging around for stories with the same enthusiasm.

    For people may change their places, but it is more true that places have changed us. That we belong to the places that we spend most of our time in – especially in childhood.

     

    Last week, I wrote a short history of the town of Beaconsfield - once known as Brandy Creek.

  • Dense Connections

    Dense Connections

    Ten million years ago, this valley was formed by volcanic and glacial forces.

    A long time after that, humans came to the island. They were largely nomadic societies, and certainly passed through the Tamar Valley, although the evidence of what they did for their thousands of years here – what they witnessed of climatic change, how their beliefs adapted to the world changing around them – is sadly missing.

    English explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders came through the Bass Strait in 1798, and in 1805, the recently-created British settlements of George Town and York Town were moved down the river to Launceston. One of the island’s chief surveyors, George Prideaux Harris, reckoned it was “the finest country in the world, as beautiful a country in appearance as I ever saw.”

    Two hundred years later, there are plenty of people in the town of Launceston who would agree. Like every settlement in Tasmania, it hasn’t had an easy run. After a boom in 1850, the economy here has endured prolonged depressions. And with that comes crime, or lack of educational opportunities, or political corruption. Not a few people who live in Launceston today think it’s buggered, as if the emptying of shopfronts is a new thing for us.

    But you don’t have to look very far to find reasons to feel lucky. Many of us do.

    Some of our community go further. There are a rare few who put in hard yards to make this place even better, to fill our town with energy and optimism, to wake us up to the beauty around us.

    Summer’s coming, and I’ll be spending much of it in a house at the end of a street next to the bushland around the Cataract Gorge, where black cockatoos revel in the clear light, above the milky gums and blossoming wattles; at a lower level, fairy-wrens and bandicoots and snakes sneak between twigs and bushes.

    There was a bloke who used to live in the same neighbourhood who won’t be any more. The whole town will miss him dearly. One of our historians writes that here on the island we are “part of dense networks of kinship and friendship” and that means you sorely notice when someone disappears. Things are deeply connected here, from the forces of 10 million years ago to the miserable news of Monday night.

    It could be that the bloke we lost understood this better than most of us.

    It might take a while, but I hope one day a local play or a bike ride or a walk in the bush will remind us each that we are nearer to the things we miss than we often realise, that all the memories of all the losses in all our lives are still with us, and they are in the cockatoos’ screeching and the snake’s quick shadow and the dark water in the river basin and the laughter at the end of a shaggy-dog story told by an old mate. It’s not the same. But it’s something.

    Yes, these are dense networks indeed; yes, this place is as beautiful as I ever saw.


     
    Another memoriam, on a cliff looking over the Cataract Gorge.

  • What They Hated

    What They Hated

    Many years ago, it was proposed to make a certain southern hemisphere island a prison colony for the wayward souls of gin-soaked London. It was an idea not without its complications. Ships would lug the new population over the waters of several oceans, before spilling out those grimy contents on the shores of the strange land. They would share the colony not only with horrible rambunctious birds and creatures with pockets in their bellies, but mobs of natives, who had inhabited the place for not a few years, had adapted a culture completely at-odds with those idealised by the Empire, and were not really satisfied about giving the land up to the visitors.

    In short, everyone loathed the new arrangement, save for a few observant folks in London alleyways. But what to do but make a go of it? In the crucible of conflict of every variety, something unique was forged. Half-castes, bushrangers, drunks, piners, explorers, whores, loners, poets and painters, fisherfolk, gardeners, apiarists, brewers and distillers all popped up like mushrooms in black soil. Eclectic and idiosyncratic governments ruled. Much was lost, too much. An eerie peace settled like a gel on the island, limned with absence, heavy with the echoes of 40,000 years of human history. All of it created a new culture, a new topos with new ideas and legends and slang words and ways of falling in love.

    I suppose that all happened a while ago, and these days it's easy to imagine it was always this way. But it wasn't. There was once a time when people arrived in Tasmania and didn't like the food, the songs, the romantic options, the scrubby trees, the ominous mountains, or the bloody fucking birds.

    There are dangerous waters on every side of the south-dwelling island I am writing about, and for most of the people who came here those many years ago, it was a treacherous journey to something about which they had few nice things to say. What they hated, I couldn't love more. And when I think about certain mornings when I have crossed those waters to return home, and seen the coast rise like the crest of a green-and-tan wave, I am pleased to come to what for me is home.

    When my ancestors saw it, their hearts sunk. Mine couldn't be more buoyant.

  • Life of an Hawaiian Wife

    Life of an Hawaiian Wife

    MAUI
    Maui was not a healthy child and his mother tossed him into the sea. But Maui didn’t die. He lived in the sea until he was a teenager, looked after by the creatures that lived there, and went back to the land as a young man to find his brothers and his mum. His folks were both gods, but his own baptism had been botched, and as a result, he was condemned to mortality. He wore it well, though; mortality seemed to be an added charm for Maui, and he became a beloved intermediary between gods and mortals. He brought fire to the people; he fought against the earthquake god; he slowed down the sun so as to make the days longer.

    He was a ladies’ man. He struck deals with the pretty young women, convincing them to spend the night with him. Maui had a number of lovers before he truly fell in love, with a Hawaiian girl named Hina, something of a goddess herself, moony and dreamy and wildly beautiful. It was almost of the death of him, of course. And his actual death was even more suitable. Maui had heard that if a man could pass through the goddess of the night, twice, he would gain immortality. So he climbed up the goddess’ thighs – and got stuck.

    DANIEL COWPER
    Daniel Cowper came to the island of Maui, where I lived. He was a man of the sea; he was a ladies’ man too, and he took me away with him. He wooed me the way a bull seal tries to find a mate: fighting furiously with any other man around, while I watched on indifferently.

    We ended up on a rocky island in the middle of a strait thrashed with heavy winds. There, we found birds bigger than men. Kelp blackened the beaches. We were there for the seals. Demand was endless for the skins; the Chinese bought our big casks of seal oil. Our home was a rude hut of four bark walls, but it was enough. All day long I kept the fire going, chopped up the flesh of wombats and emus and roos, tossed them into the one indiscriminate stewpot.

    Maui, they say, made the islands of Hawai’i, by accident. His fishing line got snagged on the ocean floor and he ended up dragging up a big arc of land as he rowed away from it, trying to free himself of the snag. The land fell down with almighty crash in the end: chunks of it scattered everywhere across the Pacific Ocean. But who made this island that we made home? The English call it King Island, but I’ve heard about their Governor King. He’s a trickster like Maui, but he’s no god. Maybe the seals made this one: somehow used their big bulk to push together all the rocks at the bottom of the strait, and make this rough island. Or maybe it floated here by accident from South America.