Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged memoir

  • Exploring the Neighbourhood

    Exploring the Neighbourhood

    At the time I was quite sure it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. Most of us were housemates, and we'd left our Launceston rental home on a January morning to go and set ourselves up at a scrubby, sandy retreat for a few days. To get to the beach we had to walk less than one minute, upon a soft pad through flowering pigface. We were at the coast.

    When we first arrived there was a reddish tinge to the shore. It was like algae, only it disappeared as we approached it. It was a plethora of soldier crabs, an absolute throng of them, corkscrewing away into the sand as we came towards them. We watched them closely, then caught them in our hands, and finally, after being out in the open sun for so long, we parted this red sea of crabs and dove into the blue sea of Great Oyster Bay.

    I also declared it the finest swim of my life. We threw a tennis ball, rough-housed each other and dived into wads of seaweed to catch it. The water was an electric blue, a blue I usually only find in my dreams. Something slashed my foot; the blood was bright red, another dream-like colour; the scar remains. In the evening I remember laughing into the closing sky. I remember the sun full on the horizon, the tide out. Someone was reading Thoreau by the fire. For dinner, sausages. Then hot chocolates. Stars multiplied into the southern constellations. We were full of sticky sugar, and well-rested, and somehow felt watched over.

    I remember saying: "I think I'm learning to see emptiness as space."

    In my dreams I saw swarms of crabs covering everything with hard scales of red, beaches and mountains and planets, rheumy images in my tired mind. When we awoke the tide was up and they were gone. We yanked up cockles for breakfast. Pelicans lounged on the sandbar.
    An adjacent range of mountains loomed silvery in the early light. A gannet went plummeting madly into the sea to catch its own brekky.

    Somehow in my memory it seems like the first time I'd ever looked into a rockpool and seen the vibrant colours of limpets and sea-snails and seaweed, the tiny glossy mussels and sea slugs, the wraisse or yellow-tail or whatever that fish was that I saw, I realised, simply by waiting, adjusting my focus, honing my attention. "It is a slow process, this learning to be patient," I wrote in my journal after that trip, "but I am being patient with it. I am going to see."

    This wasn't my first fish, my first rockpool, my first swim, or my first beach. But there hadn't been many. To go to the coast - and it is always 'the coast', by which we mean the east coast, although there a thousand different spots you might go: we were at Dolphin Sands, on a shack block
    that my housemate's parents were about to sell - is a typical rite of passage for any young Tasmanian. But there were a number of rites of passage that I missed somehow.

    For a long time I had a very small world. We didn't go on family holidays much. There was a patch of bush behind our house, and I am not being fatuous when I say that this was truly enough. Even this I don't think I knew very well - I had no names for anything in it except 'gum tree' - but I understood myself in that landscape at least. I learned my body, if nothing else: a thousand lacerations on a prickly currant bush will do that to you. Breaking off the branches of a black peppermint, running down a steep slope of she-oak needles because you think a ghost's chasing you: that's an education.

    These days the shadows on my maps are being peeled back. There are still a fair few roads left for me to go down in Tasmania, but probably more that I've visited. I look back on the notes from those days, the tatty journal I kept for that summer: we tore a tree down in the backyard that January, and I remarked on its pink, minty smell. In a grumpy mood I went erratically off into the bush, not very far, but into the realm of "wallabies and tangled plants", into "a damp, mossy part of the world". I watched some ants assault a caterpillar at Lilydale Falls; they shoved it right off a wooden handrail into the creek. On my balcony there was "a beautiful possum", nervously tightroping the powerline towards me. Were these my first nights under the stars?

    This was about a decade ago now and I do not often recognise myself in those old notebooks. I sleep so often under the stars, and see so many beautiful possums, that some of the events of those younger years strike me as utterly bizarre. What makes more sense is that exactly at the time of this trip to Dolphin Sands, I started reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by the American nature writer Annie Dillard. In it she was coaxing me "to explore the neighbourhood, view the landscape, to discover where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why."

    Why - I had spent a lot of time, dwelling in a moody adolescent way, on why. At some point around that trip to the coast, I began to explore the neighbourhood instead, and found that I very much liked where I so inexplicably was.



    Later I would find things like this dead porcupine fish, prompting me to write of convict artist William Gould.

  • A Sport of Season and Landscape

    A Sport of Season and Landscape

    I grew up on a five-acre block in Beaconsfield, a parcel of inherited land that was inconveniently lumpy and swampy, but gave us plenty of space. There, my brother and I first began to take our lanky shapes. I have lately wondered if our bodies didn’t grow rangy to accommodate the landscape.

    Dad was always going introduce his two sons to Aussie Rules, but that version of footy was the ideal game for our paddocks. Even when we moved to a house on the edge of suburbia, the first thing we did was test out the backyard for our one-on-one matches. It had a 45-degree slope; it was nevertheless perfectly adequate.

    We played for the South Launceston Bulldogs. The ovals were suddenly flat and green, although given that we the opening bounce for our games occurred at 8:15a.m. on Sunday mornings, they were frequently silver with frost. And in fact, since it was winter, they were often brown with mud too.

    Bright red was another important colour – have you ever had your little schnozz hit with a leather ball when the temperature’s zero degrees celsius? I had countless blood noses.

    At one point during my teenage years I started to push footy away. It was at that stage of life when a young man starts pushing all sorts of things away. Footy came back to me, though,
    and now, when adulthood and its associated behaviour is supposed to have me in its vice-like grip, I am entirely enamoured with the game. I like the ball’s thud, its wobble and its spin, the way it bounces as if by its own volition. I like my body’s arrangements, the poise of my muscles, the silent measurement of my eye and its communication through the brain to my bent leg.

    Anyone who has met me in the last year will know I played on a gravel oval in western Tasmania last year. I’ll have shown them the scars. Perhaps I prefer the odd surfaces. As a child I imagined a large-scale sport like footy that took place in eucalypt forest, in which players had to adapt to the landscape as much as competitors.

    Some have argued that Aussie Rules was invented after whitefellas observed an Aboriginal sport of this kind. It’s a theory I tend to believe.

    This sport occupies space. It favours the flexible, and the foreseers. It is a game for totems, won by devotion to the invisible.

    That’s what I’ve taken from growing up with it anyway. I kicked the ball as high and hard as I could, and I saw the blossoming wattles shake, and my body felt as if it had full to the brim with magic.
    On some days, bushwalking gives me the exact same sense.

    I spent most of this
    winter away but came home the other week and went to watch my cousin play a finals match at Invermay Park. It was twilight, and the colours on Ravenswood Hill were resplendent. They deepened into dark blue and finally winter’s night black. The ritual football was heaved around, and the crowd gasped and cheered and groaned. A bunch of blokes, whose lives normally pass before almost no-one, soared. It was a hard-fought game and the evening grew taut with drama. A player fell before us with a sickening knee injury. At my side, my auntie’s mood fluctuated severely. The boundary umpire fell to the ground with a strained muscle. With seconds to go, the timekeeper started hamming it up inexplicably. Auntie Karenne cursed him. Finally, he blew the whistle. My cousin’s team had won by five points.

    I’m aware that others aren’t, but I am mesmerised by the milky sheen on spinning ball in the silvery afternoon light, by the players’ shadows warping and contorting as they gallop. I am deeply satisfied to see rosellas and galahs streaking in garish colours across the field. Most of all, though, I like to feel myself move, in the midst of a trivial but entirely meaningful activity, beneath the home ground of these southern skies.

    And it’s another means of measuring seasons. Spring now looms. An openness beckons, verdant and wide as a football field.



    "It was an idea not without its complications." Reflections upon returning home three years ago.

  • 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.

  • A Savage Shock

    A Savage Shock

    Captain Abel Tasman had suspected there were mineral deposits in the mountains of western Tasmania; his compass acted up as the Zeehaen and Heemskirk approached the island in 1642.

    In 1877 the work of intrepid government surveyor Charles Sprent confirmed the presence of various ores in that rugged country, including deposits of
    magnetite iron ore, on the Savage River, whose tenebrous waters flow down from beneath Mount Bertha through pristine rainforest into the Pieman River and the west coast.

    But the ore was of lower quality (only 38% iron) and it took nearly a century for mineral investors to believe in the economic potential of a mine there. The town of Savage River came to be over the years 1965 to 1967 and the mine began its life. Today it is operated by Grange Resources, a Chinese-owned company which is the largest non-government employer in north-western Tasmania. An 80 kilometre pipeline brings the magnetite concentrate to a plant near the port town of Burnie.

    In 1990 a young couple from New Zealand arrived to practice medicine in the town. A bushfire had just ripped through the Hazelwood River valley. Local stories varied as how the disaster had occurred: as one of these doctors recalled in a recent letter, it was either “campers who hadn’t doused their fire properly” or “the forestry boys who prior to the end of the financial year had $ to burn so would experiment with dropping fire bombs from helicopters.”

    Meanwhile, the Savage River was being severely polluted by run-off from the mine.
    30 kilometres of the river was poisoned by acid seepages and other contaminants. By 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, parts of the river “were found to have lost 90% of its invertebrate biodiversity and 99% of its invertebrate abundance”. Even by the standards of other local environmental ravages, this was a terrible result.

    In the 1990s, though, an environmental rehabilitation process was implemented.

    For three years
    these Kiwi doctors worked at Savage River; their work had seen them attend to snakebites, jackjumper anaphylaxis and indeed mine fatalities. this year, they returned to Tasmania to tour the island in a campervan. I had met these doctors previously on a bushwalk; in a remarkable coincidence, we found ourselves camped on other sides of the Savage River on rainy west coast evening.

    A letter had just been written to me, full of observations from their time revisiting the area. “May as well save on the postage,” we agreed.

    As the road wound its way towards their old place of work, they were greeted with post-bushfire reforestation, and the mizzling rain that they had lived with most days of their three-year stint in western Tasmania. However, the sight of the Savage River township was “a savage shock.” The accumulation of waste rock, removal of temporary homes and buildings, boomgates installed over roads: twenty-six years of memory were undone in an instant. “The squash courts remain – as what?”

    The doctors were taken aback by the visual impact of the mine, and suggested that what had seemed like a contained site in 1990 had now spread malignantly into the surrounding forest.

    In the meantime, other sites in the area have moved away from such industries and are hoping to survive from tourism. This area is now widely known as the Tarkine or
    takayna, a broadly-defined region covering much temperate rainforest, mountainous terrain, and rarely-visited coastline. A recent publication, Tarkine Trails, invites recreational visitors to the area in order to promote its conservation value. On the other hand, some sixty-odd mineral exploration licenses are valid in the Tarkine region, which environmentalists worry will continue to “significantly disturb river environments”.

    They are campaigning for a Tarkine National Park: a proposal which they accept will have no effect on the current lease of the Savage River Iron Ore Mine operated by Grange Resources. North of the mine, the Savage River National Park is Tasmania’s least accessible national park, and the river, untouched, drops down through forested gorges before it comes upon the mine.

  • Two Accounts of Marion Bay

    Two Accounts of Marion Bay

    I.
    At the turn of the New Year, thousands of revellers can be found at Marion Bay, on Tasmania’s south-east coast, for a music-and-arts festival called Falls Festival. I haven’t been there for a few years. It was the end of the decade: in the lengthening evening, Grizzly Bear played, and a teenage girl from a Catholic school in Hobart, drunk on gin, put her head wearily on my shoulders. The bay gleamed beyond the stage, replete with small and bothersome jellyfish. As the last minutes of 2009 unravelled, lightning crackled over the water. A deluge of silver rain was unleashed, briefly. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs played in the new calendar.

    II.
    In 1772, the French explorer Marion Dufresne became the second French captain to bring his ships to Terres Australes. He landed in a bay in the south-east of Van Diemen’s Land. In an attempt to make a good impression on the natives, Dufresne made a strange mandate for his crew. He made them strip naked before going ashore. They were the first Europeans to meet the indigenous people of Van Diemen’s Land. A flurry of spears greeted them: but they survived nevertheless. However, the good captain was killed and eaten by the Maori of New Zealand shortly after.