Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged identity

  • To Enjoy the Earth

    To Enjoy the Earth


    At 216 metres it’s not the most impressive of mountains, but wukalina / Mount William affords a fine view of the north-eastern tip of Tasmania, and the islands of Bass Strait beyond it. “Them islands are very special to us,” Ben said as we crouched on a rounded lump of granite for lunch. Later – a little further south along the coast, yet with the islands still faintly blue on the horizon – he would tell me how his grandparents met there.

    I was working on the wukalina walk, an eco-tourism project run by the Aboriginal Land Council in that far corner of the island. They have built a most impressive shack on Cod Bay: called krakani lumi, ‘resting place’, the buildings’ design absorbs the features of the landscapes and Aboriginal architectural history in a stunning way.

    Mount William National Park was inscribed in the 1980s to look after the coastal heath ecosystems
    and preserve the last stronghold for the forester kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) – while we have in Tasmania a lot of smaller macropods, like wallabies and pademelons, there are very few kangaroos. This is dry country, as thirsty for fire as it is rain. Along the gravel roads, bracken wears brown dust. Acacias, black peppermints, banksias and xanthorrhoeas stand out above the low shrubs. The beaches, meanwhile, glisten; the sea heaves itself onto the shore in dull crashes.

    As Ben finished explaining his people’s heritage on the Bass Strait islands, I added some geological insight: the islands were formed by an event known as the Tabberabberan Orogeny, which involved an intrusion of igneous rock which stretches from what is now Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, through to the Hippolyte Rocks off the coast of the Tasman Peninsula.

    Those islands were mountains when the first Tasmanians crossed Bass Strait; then, the strait was in fact a stretch of lowland plains, before the end of the last Ice Age flooded it and rendered them islanders. It was the longest isolation of any human culture in history: the cutting-off of that granite chain meant that the Tasmanians had 10,000 years to develop a completely unique way of being. Those were the ancestors of today’s palawa, three of whom were my colleagues for that weekend at wukulina and larapuna. They are also the descendants of white seafarers, who were part of wreaking the complex of rapid changes that mutilated so much of what the Tasmanian cultures would have been.

    Much is lost, but contrary to what we may have been taught, not all. The purpose of the wukalina walk is to ensure that palawa culture is lived and shared. In many cases, it is a matter of relearning, and perhaps the most exciting facet of the trip was making three new palawa friends, each of whom is rediscovering what it means to be Aboriginal, in their own idiosyncratic ways.

    And in my own idiosyncratic way, I am trying to work out how to be a Tasmanian without having any known Aboriginal heritage. I listened intently, then, to an elder telling a story from the old people, about the creation of first palawa man – how the spirits formed him, and, in the elder’s words, ensured that he “could enjoy the earth”. It had a poetic insight into human interactions with the Tasmanian landscape that I find very valuable. But I’m also reluctant to borrow the poetry from a people with a voice to which we listen too poorly, knowing that this can carry the same vibes as colonialism.

    Yet my identity is tangled up with the landscapes of the island, and there is no understanding the bush here without understanding the 40,000 years of human history within it. I have read much of the ethnographic material on the Aboriginal Tasmanians – that is, the stuff that whitefellas wrote. We know it is flawed, but many times, these same sources are being used by the palawa community to reconstruct their identity.

    It was a real treat, then, to work alongside three palawa who are learning the same craft as me. To sit on the edge of a shell midden, to watch Ben put his thumb into the worn groove of a stone cutting tool that his old fellas made. To listen to them stumble over the words of their euphonious language, palawa kani, the syllables of which seem to me to take in the rhythm of the land and sea and stars here. And to explore that curious space, of unknowing and relearning, of both our shared heritage and the vast differences in history – a space that swells the imagination, and from which I am sure a great deal of good is coming.

  • A Roman Centurion at the Sidmouth Auld Kirk

    A Roman Centurion at the Sidmouth Auld Kirk

    A couple of summers ago I went to the carols concert at Sidmouth, here on the lawns outside the ‘auld kirk’, a restored building that the locals are rightfully proud of. I’d gone with my housemate at the time, who was playing trombone for the occasion. There I sat solitary amongst the parishioners, murmuring along to a few of the songs. The elderly gentleman in front of me fumbled ahead in his songbook to see what songs were coming up next, like a cheating student; another fellow by my side was in costume. “I don’t know why I’m here, there’s no Roman centurion in the biblical story,” he quipped – then tried the joke again, correcting himself: “...in the nativity story.”

    Stars, silence, sleep, and sheep: what fine themes to sing about. These are lovely old narratives. There are a few better yarns than that of the first
    noel being proclaimed to a cohort of dozing shepherds.

    Funny, though, to sing of David’s royal city whilst the shadows were lengthening the paperbarks’ silhouettes along the Tamar River. The quiet placid waters of the Tamar took in the angular light of this end of the hemisphere, a sharp southern summer sunset. Tamar, of course, is a biblical reference, but if we let that river have a name with an older lineage, kanamaluka, then the stories of the Middle East settle awkwardly on this place.

    Christmas is full of borrowed stories; many are naturalistic, but none of them are rooted in Tasmania. The birth of Christ is a kind of epic that has a broad human appeal, of course, but as the years pass I yearn for motifs that make sense in my surrounds, and connect me to the seasons. I want stories that make me consider country, and how I might care for it. What am I supposed to do with reindeer in the snow, or the King of Bohemia? What has Jerusalem to do with Hobart? What is a Roman centurion doing in Sidmouth?

    So what are the marks of seasonal change at this time of year? An obvious one is the flowering of a certain
    Correa shrub, which has the common name ‘Christmas bells’. It pops out a nice flower – tubular, yellow and red at about this time of year, joining the colourful scattering of summer blooms which brighten up our land.

    But there’s also the cherry ballart, or native cherry,
    Exocarpos cupressiformis, which at this time spurts out its edible, slightly sweet, red oval berries amidst the tree’s shaggy light-green leaves. The appearance of this fruit is a happy time, and must have been well cherished by traditional Tasmanians making their summer travels around the island. It ought to be considered as delicious my grandmother’s cloying creamy desserts, which normally sit poorly on a stomach full with potato and beer, in the thirty-degree heat that is common for our Christmas afternoons (although I’m yet to turn them down).

    The snow, of course, is a usually irrelevant
    Yuletide reference here. But in the mountains it might snow anyway. I recall taking German honeymooners for a hike one December; presuming summer weather, they’d not wanted to bring a beanie or gloves. We had a minor blizzard over the Cradle Mountain plateau. In the evening we made Glühwein in the hut, as if it was a Christmas market. So nowadays I can live with the occasional reference to snow at Christmastime.

    Only once have I spent a Christmas abroad. I was in Maharashtra, India; I passed the day, I think, at a Catholic orphanage. Children danced, and sang on a stage, through loudspeakers that screeched in protest at frequent intervals. Santa Claus strode through the dusty yard, sweating his suit of red felt. The season’s greeting was strung up for the occasion. It read, “Happy Birthday Jesus, We Love You.”

    So ideas flow between all lands now. The symbols are confusing, but most people don’t seem to mind. Perhaps I needn’t overthink it. Living at this latitude offers many gifts, and the long hours of twilight are not the least of these. I suspect I will enjoy a beer with old friends, with the maddest of my family members.
    This, now, is the tradition of these dates. At other times of the year, in the spirit of the age, I’ll make my own festivals that fit my private intentions to live well in the landscape: a pilgrimage to that old pencil pine on the Plateau, an annual expedition looking for a certain liverwort, the first swim of spring, an occasion of departure, a return.

    And if at Christmas I find myself feeling like a centurion in the wrong time and place – in the wrong narrative altogether – I won’t be too put out. I will embrace the germ of the Christmas idea. In the words of Albert Camus (and to borrow from him is of course another incongruity), “All great ideas have ridiculous beginnings.”


    The jarring symbols of cultural clash were even more obvious come Christmas Day, 1831, on the Ouse River.

  • Down Home

    Down Home

    When Peter Conrad was twenty years old, in 1986, he put his belongings in a burning incinerator in the backyard of his family home in the northern suburbs of Hobart. He had a Rhodes scholarship, and went off to Oxford. To all appearances he had grown out of the mould cast for him, against his will, by the island of his birth.

    Conrad became a noted scholar. He didn't return to Tasmania for a decade. In 1987, he had Down Home published, a memoir of his later Tasmanian experiences. After a childhood in which he barely left Hobart's north, Conrad travelled widely around the island: to Queenstown, to Melaleuca, to Wineglass Bay, to Tiagarra, to the Pedder dam.

    The book is not widely cherished here, mostly because the author refuses to bang on about how uniquely beautiful it is and we are. That is essentially what we want to read more than any real critique; we dearly crave outside acceptance. But frankly, Conrad didn't love Tasmania, although a creeping appreciation for his island of origin appears throughout the book.

    Like any memoir, though, the book is more about Conrad than it is about its purported subject.

    Re-reading Down Home recently, I began worrying that my work is uncomfortably analogous to that book, which precedes my writing by three decades. Like Conrad, I am writing a travel memoir about my own island. There are some differences, of course. I still live in Tasmania, for example, and I am at times rapturous about how thoroughly I love walking and working here. I also know the island more intimately than Conrad ever did (I admit that I relish finding those handful of mistakes in Down Home). But there is a similarity in form, in themes. It is a conundrum, or perhaps it is merely interesting.

    I have chosen to live without a home for the summer. When asked, I explain that is a matter of practicality - I work away often, renting a room would be a waste of money - but implicit in the decision is the effort I am making to expand my home territory to the entire island. Home is here thanks to my childhood, and over the past years many aspects of Tasmania have become very familiar to me (dolerite, myrtle, wedge-tailed eagles), but I still feel like a foreigner in certain corners, certain conditions. I am only now starting to learn the winds and swells of the east coast. I must better understand kelp, abalone, orchids, chert. There is a fairly unattractive beach in the north-west, with an astounding geological diversity that I am can barely begin to pull apart.

    It's a dangerous decision though. Whenever I finish up with one or another season of my life, I wonder if it's time to settle down, to roam less, to cultivate a patch for myself. I now see that I am getting further from that ideal. It seems that I will never own land. I came to an intersection of my life: whether to be less or more of a dirtbag, in the parlance of my bushwalking colleagues. I am more of a dirtbag than ever. I have a pile of books and a 1992 Ford Laser to my name.

    That car recently broke down. It's fixed again, but now, more recently, my laptop has carked it. It suddenly blacked out and went quiet, never to make its breathy hum again. Someone is currently trying to pry the data out of its now-useless case. But I may have lost much work.

    It has so happened that most of my identity has been derived from growing up here. That's what Peter Conrad was writing about too. I have perhaps accepted that more readily, and devoted myself to the task of understanding what it means to be Tasmanian: to live amongst these materials, in this climate. I am a state of constant travel - by vehicle and by foot - roaming around trying to sus out what it is that I belong to. But the thought has lately struck me: what if it doesn't turn out? What if being post-modern, middle-class, and non-Aboriginal are conditions that preclude me from truly connecting to country?

    Peter Conrad wrote of being afraid when he was alone in Tasmania. For me, it's what I like best. The other night I was driving on the highway as a sunset sent all sorts of colours sprawling over the Western Tiers and Ben Lomond. I don't need to share that with a mob; it seems enough to share it with the land, with its ecosystems, with history. While Tasmania  - as a concept - becomes popular in a way that poor Peter Conrad could never have guessed, I am more inclined to find areas that haven't yet been touched by branding or signage. I recognise that I am pushing myself out further into a sea of solitude. As the years progress, I suspect that this will become an estrangement, from which it will be harder to return.

    I also think I will find it worthwhile, so long as the land doesn't turn against me. But it might. Recently I returned to a spot, a pile of rocks at the end of an east coast beach, where I once discussed how I might retreat from the world, distant, if it all got too ugly. The problem is that Tasmania is not in fact remote enough to be immune from the intense changes to the natural order of the world. Just out from those same rocks, oceanic surface temperatures have risen dramatically. What if, just as I started to feel like I had gotten in step with the swirling vortices of our ecosystems, they spun out of control?