Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged ocean

  • Figures and Textures: Waves, Fences, Fantails, Skyscrapers

    Figures and Textures: Waves, Fences, Fantails, Skyscrapers

    I find myself a spot on the point and watch. Gravity lifts mounds of water from the seemingly endless expanse. On a shaped plate of fibreglass, a surfer waits. He is in thick foam. He wants the waves to lift in a certain shape: his eyes are trained to see the first hints of this phenomenon. When he does, he’ll lay flat on the board, beleaguered as a turtle, kicking his legs in the surf before hoisting himself to his feet.

    I’ve never surfed. The ocean is not my realm. I swim, of course, and I love swimming. But I don’t feel the confidence that my surfer friend does. Perhaps it’s because I was caught in a rip off King Island when I was a teenager (how to describe the shape of a rip?) and almost found myself wrecked on the rocks like so many ships have on that island’s coastline.

    On land it is a different matter. I have great trust in my feet, my balance, in the strength of my legs. Often enough I possess an awareness of my legs; they seem to inhabit the entirety of my body sometimes. As a child, I had five acres to stretch them out into: no wonder they have grown so long and skinny.

    In cities they feel cramped. I do not like running up against the confines of urban design. One can only imagine how much more this version of claustrophobia affected Aboriginal Tasmanians, who had lived in a semi-nomadic style until Europeans arrived and claimed large areas of land for themselves.

    For the first time, fences came into the landscape. A surreal form, I suppose, to see strung along Tasmanian country, between bulky stringybarks and bendy wattles, with skinks and wrens breaching it. Even today, to see a grey fantail launch off a wire strand and make its circular forays in the air is one of the strangest collision of forms that I can think of.

    Sometimes I find creative inspiration from these weird incoherences. Other times, they are ugly in the broadest sense of the word: not only are the forms themselves aesthetically bothersome, but the ideas behind them are dull-witted, ill-conceived, authoritarian, and motivated by nothing more interesting than shallow greed.

    In this unappealing category I place the high-rise buildings proposed for Hobart’s waterfront. These are the designs of Singapore-based Fragrance Group. Unfortunately, they are awful designs, which fail to correspond to any of the landscape’s native figures. Anything in Hobart must match the beautiful forms and textures of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and kunanyi/Mount Wellington: these do not. As Richard Flanagan has written recently, these forms are not contiguous to Hobart. They have no relevance to this island. “They do not come out of Tasmanian culture,” Flanagan writes. “Their immense height and bulk do not respect or complement a cityscape where the tallest building is 14 storeys.

    Skyscrapers dominate and bully the small island of Singapore; they ought not in Tasmania.
    This is not only a contest between economics and aesthetics: when cities are designed in discord with their use and history, locals are alienated from their own places.

    Aboriginal Tasmanians would have worried more about the frontier conflict than the frontiers themselves, but, perhaps, with their nuanced understanding of the meaning of forms (as evinced by their artwork), they would have recognised that the straight lines of fences represented a barrier and a boundary in time.

    These Tasmanians had their own architecture, from simple east coast shelters to semi-permanent shacks on the west coast. That we have no interest in designing like this shows the perpetuity of a colonial “perceptual faultline” that we need buildings which are tall and straight.

    We turn to such buildings as a reflex, trying to prove to the world that we are relevant to them. Instead, we arbitrarily import irrelevant ugliness, when we could come up with something that imaginatively embraces the history and landscape of an island that is like no other on Earth.



    Last week I looked at other forms, comparing a west coast mountain to a Cretaceous dinosaur.

  • On the Cyprus Brig Convey'd

    On the Cyprus Brig Convey'd

    A party of forty had been camped here for two weeks in August 1829. Their situation was desperate; they were marooned and starving. Three pocket-knives were the only tools they possessed. With these they built a tiny boat from wattle timber, and put two men in it. They sailed for help in this “crazy little craft”.

    This was Recherche Bay in Tasmania’s far south – named after one the early French scientific vessels, it is still pronounced locally as ‘Research’ Bay. Ever since Europeans became aware of its existence, it had served as a useful harbour for voyages departing from Hobart Town to Macquarie Harbour on the west coast.

    The two score stranded on this beach had been on the same route, on a brig named the
    Cyprus. The colonial government had, in 1826, purchased the vessel from John Briggs, a notorious sailor and sealer in Vandemonian waters during the early part of that century. It had been bought for £1700. The Cyprus was then used for these south coast journeys: usually bringing supplies and convicts to the penal station at Macquarie Harbour, and returning to the capital with Huon pine and other convict-manufactured goods.

    So on August 6, 1829, under the charge of Lieutenant William Carew, the
    Cyprus left Hobart with 62 passengers. Exactly half of them were convicts, “a pretty bad lot all in double irons”. Lt. Carew was with his family; they would be moving to the Macquarie Harbour convict settlement.

    They had reached Recherche Bay on a still night when mutiny suddenly broke out. Lieutenant Carew had been off on a small boat, fishing for provisions. The soldiers’ quarters on the boat were blocked by the tactical positioning of a hencoop. The captain was knocked out. A shot fired produced smoke and added to the confusion. The pirates took command of the brig, and took two sailors hostage; the rest were sent off to shore with minimal rations.

    William Swallow, a former sailor and the alleged instigator of the mutiny, took command along with seventeen other convicts. The two sailors managed to escape and swim ashore. Regardless, the
    Cyprus then took an incredible voyage: through the South Seas, by the southern islands of Japan, and to China, arriving the significant trading post of Canton, now Guangzhou. Here, they destroyed their stolen brig, and came ashore pretending to be the shipwrecked sailors of a different ship, the Edward – somehow they had come into possession of property belonging to this ship, including a rowboat, her sextant, and logbooks.

    After some investigation from the authorities, most were given freedom to leave. William Swallow and three others were given passage to London. The others joined a Danish vessel and went to Mexico.

    For some reason, two of the pirates had arrived separately, on the coast away from China; Chinese authorities took them in as British subjects, and by the time they made it to Canton, news had arrived of the convicts’ mutiny. These last two were arrested; they made a confession; and they were taken to trial.

    In the meantime, the handmade coracle had reached another vessel departing Hobart Town, and the stranded party were saved. A convict with the superb name of John Popjoy
    (or Pobjoy) had become a hero. He had been fishing when the mutiny occurred; he had rowed their boat, and led the efforts to be found. Eleven years old when he was convicted and transported to Van Diemen’s Land, he was given his liberty when the party returned to Hobart.

    Popjoy’s descriptions of his fellow-convicts made it possible to identify William Swallow and the other pirates when they landed in London, just six days after an express voyage from Hobart. They were arrested. Those with him were executed; somehow, William Swallow managed to avoid responsibility for the mutiny, claiming he was ill and taken against his volition. He was returned to Hobart as a convict, and died at Port Arthur in 1834.

    The Bruny Island man Mangana told that his wife had been kidnapped and taken on the Cyprus, never to be heard from again.

    John Popjoy married in 1832, but continued his sailing career; in 1833 he drowned off the coast of France. Three months later his child, Elizabeth Sarah, was born.

    The convict mutineers who boarded the Danish trading vessel for Mexico are lost to history, but we know at least that they were not punished for their crimes.

    Convict poet Francis MacNamara recorded all of this in verse for posterity.

    "The morn broke bright, the wind was fair, we headed for the sea
    With one cheer more to those on shore and glorious liberty.
    For navigating smartly Bill Swallow was the man,
    Who laid a course out neatly to take us to Japan."


      
    Last week we took a trip down the west coast's Savage River.
    A maharajah arrived unexpectedly in the early days of Launceston.

  • Seabirds That Sing

    Seabirds That Sing

    There once was a boy
    whose silhouette surfed
    over thick waves of thirst aqua,
    while on the shore
    he breathed short, sharp, shallow breaths
    into the hollow of his chest
    and his bones were like 
    those of birds - 
    thin like a whisper,
    and aching with songs
    that he had not yet learned 
    how to twist and tighten
    his throat around.

    So he hummed to the ocean on his own,
    while his shadow shaped itself
    like a sickle on the foam
    snarling
    on the curling reach of the waves,
    searching for the beach-head
    to land upon
    and up against
    the breast of the boy.
    Who was dreaming himself alive,
    the dark smudge of a lover
    on the sweet, vast sea.

  • Sealing and Whaling

    Sealing and Whaling

    In the December 1815, James Kelly set off with four convicts from Hobart to complete a circumnavigation of Van Diemen’s Land.

    Born in New South Wales, Kelly was apprenticed as a junior mariner at the age of 12, and had made several voyages out of Sydney by his adolescence. He was employed as a sealer, and then served on a  trading vessel to Fiji. When was 18 and his apprenticeship was over, he sailed to India.

    Kelly returned to sealing for a voyage to Macquarie Island in the Campbell Macquarie, which was wrecked; Kelly was rescued, and taken back to New South Wales. Shortly after he was married and became a master mariner, in 1812, commanding the sealing boat Brothers to the Bass Strait. He is said to have been the first white Australian-born master mariner.

    His lasting connection to Van Diemen’s Land came through employment by Dr. Thomas Birch, who had him as master of the Henrietta Packet, a schooner which sailed between various colonial ports. Now, Kelly and his family relocated to a house on the Hobart Town Rivulet.

    While Kelly’s nautical career continued, his circumnavigation of the island over the summer of 1815-16, in the whaleboat Elizabeth, is well-remembered for its accounts of contact with Aboriginal Tasmanians. The day after they set out, attempting to pull into Recherche Bay, they were met with ‘a tremendous volley of stones and spears’. Kelly’s narrative of the journey, published five years later, offered insights into the life of the first Tasmanians that could only have been witnessed by that small party journeying around the ragged coastline of Van Diemen’s Land in the early years of the young British colony.

    Of course, anthropological concerns were not Kelly’s primary motive. His ‘official discovery’ of Port Davey and Macquarie Harbour on the west coast gained his employer a monopoly contract over the trade of the endemic huon pine. And Kelly’s own knowledge of sealing and whaling waters increased dramatically as he spent a year around the Vandemonian coast.

    James Kelly would be known as the ‘father and founder’ of whaling in Van Diemen’s Land, with his official duties on the Derwent River including pilot and harbourmaster. He also inaugurated the Derwent Whaling Club, and developed agricultural interests on Bruny Island. His ‘Kelly Steps’, built to connect waterfront Salamanca Place with the houses of Battery Point, are a picturesque feature of the Hobart streetscape today.

    But Kelly’s fate ended poorly - much like the industry he was involved with, and, for a time, its product. His wife died in 1831, his ship Australian was wrecked in 1834, his eldest son was killed by Maori in 1841, and the economic depression of the 1840s left him flat on his back. He died at age 68, suddenly. His funeral was well-attended.

    Of course, there is no whaling or sealing industry in Tasmania today, and the numbers of these creatures in Tasmanian waters is thankfully growing. If you look closely, you will see seals - dozens of them - on the rocks of the Friars in this photograph. These are just south of Bruny Island in the Southern Ocean. An easy target for James Kelly and his band of sailors in the 1800s, today that threat is gone.


    Daniel Cowper and his Hawaiian wife were also connected to the sealing trade.

  • 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 Chips Are Down in Triabunna

    The Chips Are Down in Triabunna

    Some say the hot chips from a certain takeaway store in Triabunna are the best in Tassie. So I stopped in there the other weekend, joining a handful of locals in front of a greasy bain-marie, as chunks of potatoes were lowered into a vat of oil in the back room.

    I was on my way to an art exhibition put together by the Tasmanian International Arts Festival, Reorder, which presented six site-specific sculptural installations inside the town’s decommissioned sawmill.

    Truth be told, I was drawn to the exhibition as much for the location as for the artwork. Triabunna is one of the most contested places in a Tasmania divided by lines of class, occupation and political opinion. Operated by Gunns – the byword for forestry in Tasmania for decades – to chip and ship timber from the south of the island, it closed in 2011 after four decades, 70 per cent of the area’s forestry jobs going with it. In a stunning coup, the mill was purchased by entrepreneurs and environmentalists Jan Cameron and Graham Wood, who employed former Wilderness Society boss Alec Marr as site manager. Marr oversaw the dismantling of the sawmill’s equipment; “I’ve been waiting 27 fucking years for this,” he told The Monthly’s John van Tiggelen.

    Triabunna was settled as a garrison town in the 1830s, with officers of the Maria Island penal colony and whalers also located in the region. Boat building and fishing have long occurred in the region, as well as farming; for some decades in the 20th century, a factory processed seaweed into alginic acid. Eucalyptus oil and wattle bark was harvested throughout the 1900s as well. But towards the end of the century, it was believed that something like 75% of the town’s economic activity relied on the forestry industry.

    You get a decent amount of chips for $5. I was still pulling them from the packet as I left through the big gates, along a road made for log trucks, down to the beach. It was only at the last moment I noticed the recurring word, ‘chip’. The pun was not intended; it’s just one of those remarkable, flexible words in our language. But there was something about it that snagged my curiosity. How much this town had thrived on chips of whatever kind, pieces cut or hewn from the whole.

    Going for a swim in Spring Bay later that afternoon, I had a profound sense that whatever happens to Triabunna in the coming years, it will mirror the fortunes of the entire island.

    May the hot chips be available long after the woodchips are forgotten.