22/8: And you could write a book about the long and hideous terminal, always without enough seating, in which we wait for the cheap flight back home...Through the portholes on either side I caught glimpses of the island: the arc of pale sand on a Bass Strait bay, the sugar-filled green of watered paddocks, blue-brown rivers slowly travelling to their destination, familiar mountains capped with cloud or snow.
23/8: Moss grew in the most vivid shade I may have ever seen. A big beige fungus at the base of a tree-stump looked to be liquefying. The pinkberries were almost all without fruit, but some had pleasant white flowers sprouting from them; there was common heath in flower too, the blossoming all pink and shaggy, seeming artificial. Optimistic wattles have produced their seasonal neon baubles.
27/8: A currawong and a cow both let out their respective sounds simultaneously, evoking an unexpected harmony.
21/9: Last week out here I watched a brown bandicoot sticking his nose into the dirt at the orchard gate. It was so intent on that business that I could watch it for a quarter of an hour, taking a pace closer whenever it buried its head. This is an arena in which such stories might cross, my being with other beings. There are the eccentric butcher birds, the prolific kookaburras; tonight it is a human family with their chorus in the living-room, and the frogs outside. And a solitary plover sniping at something in the dark.
15/10: We took off up to Lake Mackenzie and started strolling through burnt country, some pencil pines still surviving in damp indentations in the landscape, the white skeletons of heath bushes like claws in the ground, or some sort of strangely-devised animal trap. We quickly decided to go off-track...A bush-bash commenced. Full bushes jostled us. Rocks wobbled indecisively. Sticks caught in our socks, branches went up shorts. We were covered in benign pink scratches; bright claret dripped down to my boots...Later Rob abruptly slipped and planted his boot in the river; he looked up promptly at me, hoping he’d not been seen. “That fucken sheepish look,” I said and threw my head back to laugh.
24/10: On Monday night I happened to be online just as the verdict came out on Lake Malbena...I went quickly into a pique of work, calling several members of the guides’ association mob...An hour or two later, I was at Kenna’s place, as the bluffs outside his windows turned a charmed shade of pink. We were trying to put together a media release; a baby quoll ran around on the table and shat next to my shitty laptop...We both observed that we were ill-fit for such a task, but well-positioned.
26/10: That evening we had whisky by the water. A fair breeze shot through the strait where we’d crossed to the island, but our position was protected and the lake was calm, still, and pale blue. Colour slowly deepened into darkness. We toasted the old hut, the old timers, the old ways. And we lamented the punters who’d probably be there soon, enjoying the same hour, the same serenity, excluding us from it – it was an odd effect, knowing that we would possibly not have the chance to come back here, that the door was closing so distinctly.
18/11: Outside the eucalypts grow tall and thin, sprouting a nest of branches only near their summits. They sway in the afternoon breeze as if trying to reach each other, to rub against one another and produce friction. To light that spark. It is a forest that yearns for fire. There are little wet gullies nearby, a chain of ponds where the spring runs down, but it is mostly eucalyptus, coprosma, exocarpos, bush peas, cutting grass...Embers in here will be the end of all my possessions, all my work. If a bushfire came there would be nothing to do but flee and know that a long shadow would fix itself in our wake. And hope that something would grow again.
22/11: Last night, awake and absorbing the feeling of failure, I thought, if this next project goes nowhere, I might as well up and leave. With no time in mind, like I did years ago, starting in India then continuing west. Uzbekistan, Crete, Alexandria, Ethiopia; Athens, Sarajevo, Lapland, Japan. It would achieve very little I suppose. I would not be surmounting anything. But would it count for much to retreat in this train, mouldering away for a winter, rotting in the stench of wilted dreams?
28/11: There was a line I read a little while back, in a history of the Himalayas that I didn’t otherwise love – “Man is a track animal.” Inevitably, I am; inexorably I have become so. I’ve just done another six days on the Overland. On “the track”. Another “trip”. Not so many can say that they live through the paradigms of journeys more than bushwalking guides. It’s part of the appeal of the job. Perhaps there’s an element of addiction.
5/12: I came home, cracked a beer, and ate ham sandwiches for lunch. I had a nap. I made another coffee. Emma dropped by. I finished The Savage Detectives. I made a tasty dinner, vegies in coconut cream with rice noodles. I poured stout into my nonagonal glass. It must not be forgotten that this is in almost every single way precisely the life I dreamed of. Down to the stout, to Bolaño.
19/12: The other night I dreamed of Lake Malbena – it was built up, like a modern island-city, but there were dolphins in the waterways.
25/12: I looked up and Danny and Flo were on the rocks, near where we jump in. “Do you reckon our ghosts will just sit here throughout summer?” Danny asked. Don glided up to us with a cheeky smile, a grinning grey fish...Danny and I swam over to Hogs Rock and took the plunge. Someone had written the word ‘eternity’ on that big dolerite column, and a recommendation for a certain biblical verse, in colourful chalk. Can I really think about eternity at the Gorge? As Danny suggested, there is an unshakeable characteristic of summer here, which seems to be all we know. Yet it’s also where we see that the years are passing. That it was not one or two summers ago that we did certain things, but seven or ten. That many lives have passed through ours here, some now irretrievable.
Currently showing posts tagged philosophy
22/8: And you could write a book about the long and hideous terminal, always without enough seating, in which we wait for the cheap flight back home...Through the portholes on either side I caught glimpses of the island: the arc of pale sand on a Bass Strait bay, the sugar-filled green of watered paddocks, blue-brown rivers slowly travelling to their destination, familiar mountains capped with cloud or snow.
I do not know why this creature had come to fix its feet in the woodchips of a city garden. But there it was. A goshawk, glaring at me. I was twenty-one years old and I had no idea what it meant to look a raptor in the eyes.
There had been time, and a camera handy, to take this photograph before the goshawk flew off. I showed the photo to a girlfriend, who identified it. She lived above the park, and had an aviary of visitors – her birds. She fed cubes of steak to the local kookaburras. There was a grey fantail who often described its tricky loops amongst the leaves of her backyard.
I envied her closeness with these birds. A few months later, I came upon a cohort of about thirty green rosellas in the flowering gums, on the non-descript street in which I rented a room in the hills of Launceston. I felt suddenly that this was an emblematic animal; they appealed and squealed together, arrowing between the ornamental trees.
There were wattlebirds in my yard then. In a later home, on the other side of the forests of the Cataract Gorge, I watched these bellicose birds hassle and chase the others, including the larger kookaburras. The kookaburras sat forlornly on the powerlines, obsessing over the possibilities of food beneath their beaks. In the spring, black cockatoos frolicked in the hakea hedges, cracking woody seedpods like they were macadamia nuts. One morning we woke up to find a tawny frogmouth wedged on the rail of the rampway down to the backyard, squished up against the weatherboards of our house, in plain sight, undisguised.
Over the years, I suppose, I have been lucky enough to make most parts of this island a base, of one or another kind. In the mountains I have approached bassian thrush, black cockatoo, pink robin; on the coast I have been near to sea-eagles and gannets.
Where I am now living, spinebills cling to the windowframes and trill their choruses. Fantails knit their brows in frustration as the insects that congregate in my room remain secure from this predator’s snippy beak behind a thin pane of glass. Native hens run amok out of sight, down by a neighbour’s dam, their call “affirming the society of life”, as the poet says; indeed, I am at the very least brought a bit of good cheer from their rambunctiousness.
I have been fortunate to spend some months with these birds, on the property of a woman who has generously allowed me to rent a room from her. I am grateful to have been among friends that enjoy avian companions too, and it is not much of an exaggeration to say that almost the best thing of these past months has been interplay with birds: efforts to mimic, to meet them on their terms, to learn their patterns, and perpetually to be surprised by them.
(Some things cannot be personified. I found myself recently underneath the imperturbable flight path of a white goshawk. I imagined her coming from a haunt on the nearby mountain, emerging from her mysterious eyrie. But even with that imagination I did not sense that I had glimpsed anything of her secrets.)
I should say that I eventually did stare into the eyes of a raptor once more. I was hiking up a well-worn path to the plateau; emerging through an aperture where the creek began to fall into the forest, I found, maybe three paces from me, a wedge-tailed eagle. It looked imperiously at me, indignant, as if I had caught it in a moment that was supposed to be private. There was seemingly some reason for it to be sheepish, standing on a boulder slab in its hairy breeches, rather than soaring wildly above that stony country. It radiated intensity, for a brief moment that lasted a lifetime, and then launched upwards, in a spiralling vortex that may well be the shape of life, far beyond my comprehension.
I could hear the snow, like the impossibly soft paws of mythical possums scuffling on the roof.
It was September in southern Tasmania. I’d been sliding upon all sorts of roads, scraping my crappy car along gravel tracks. No wonder it died later that summer. But now I had left the car at the bend and taken a more reliable form of transport, my own two legs. I had taken a short walk along a marked track, and then veered off, through scrub, along a rough footpad of dirt and pineapple grass, following occasional cairns of short stature.
In my backpack I had only the bare necessities: a sleeping-bag, a sleeping mat, my billy, some bread and chocolate and cheese, a comic novel, and some warm clothes.
I lowered myself down an outcrop and glimpsed the hut only moments before I came upon its door. In terms of colour, it is well-camouflaged – another shade in a palette of exquisite greys, from weathered dolerite to snow peppermint trunks. It is the foreign angle which makes it stand out, an a-frame of corrugated iron in amongst the bending trees and polymorphous boulders.
I could see a fair wedge of Hobart, a panorama only occasionally obstructed by eucalypt branches. It’s a beautiful city, clinging mostly to the waters of the Derwent estuary, running up the gullies of forested foothills without uniformity. Southern Tasmania is mostly water; the land is largely made up of peninsula and isthmus, in often blonde tints offset against marine tones.
The Derwent is a montigenous river that turns, somewhere, into the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which later empties into the Southern Ocean. Several other rivers do the same, galloping down from the mountains north and west, riving the land, offering fertility to the valleys, hinting at the country’s wintry history. The surfeit of water before me in turn reminded me of the surplus of mountains at my back: from another secret spot nearby, I might have looked west, where the sky’s vastness would be reduced to a thin band of off-yellow, squashed by iron-coloured cloud.
The mountain silhouettes would be bold in that gloom, black and bleak, and beckoning. For such spectacular geographies often bring out the more audacious aspects in us.
Septembers always make me reminisce. It is from September that I take my measurements. Perhaps you’ll recognise the sort of things: who was I then, who am I now? In which ways am I diminished and what within me has grown? What matters to me today that wasn’t significant then? What metamorphosis is taking place today?
Then I was wondering what I would do with my spring and summer. I was curious about where to live, how to earn my money. Such scrutiny is one part of life. But sometimes it is overcome by spontaneity, like a swift change of weather. That evening, when light turned so grey I couldn’t read any longer, I climbed up into the loft of the mountain hut, stretched out on the bunk, and listened to the eucalypts bend and reach in a southerly – as if they ached, they yearned.
But then there was the snow, the quiet white flurry of possum-ideas. I took a deep breath and made a decision on the spot. When I woke, I broke the fresh white clumps all over the heath. A decision had been made.
That was a year ago though, and the decisions of that season are due to be revised.
I suppose it was six months ago that Jimmy and I decided swiftly to head out into the boisterous weather and see if we couldn’t reach that waterfall after all. It would be a most wonderful bushwalk, but we would come back to camp both knackered and hungry.
It was the second-last night of the year, so in the last half hour, as we crossed plains in the dark, trying to redirect our attention away from our bellies, I asked Jimmy which was the most beautiful place he’d been that year.
We both had plenty of the world to choose from. We’d wandered far and wide, made new friends and reunited with mates we knew from long ago. We had done much of it on hoof. There had been high mountain summits, pastures, pine forests, marketplaces, city streets.
The question was only a way to hear a story, and Jimmy had a story. He painted a terrific scene of a landscape of exquisite beauty, and some of the most important relationships in his life tied to it. There they were – I saw them as he described it – tethered delicately high above the layers of mist, and the world.
Of course he turned the question on me, and I weakly answered with an anecdote, when all I could think of was that the best place I had been all year was that waterfall – or rather, the route to it, through an extent of myrtle forest that seemed endless, and between the big stringybarks whose bulk made Jimmy gasp with glee. Those black creeks from which we drank like animals, where I tried to tell a ghost story. The slippery black rocks beneath the waterfall – which now chutes through my mind in a single silver strand. I am sure that even today it is roaring through central Tasmania. But inexplicably, in memory, it is silent.
Half of this year is done. Where is the most beautiful place you’ve been? The questions raises two equal spirits in me. There is the sadness and satisfaction of the past, in which what we had is lost but they are at least complete; and there is the excited anxiety of the present, in which I feel that everything could be plucked from me at a moment’s notice.
Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way, although I could believe it is a condition that Tasmanians might easily feel. Perhaps it’s familiar to all modern people, but it seems keenly Tasmanian, a facet of life in a land with peculiar meanings, where memory serves us in a series of ways that are unique outcomes of our human history, and with which we do not easily contend. Or maybe it’s just dear, dreary old me.
Jimmy and I also went to this party for an old hut last year; in fact, Jimmy baked cakes for it.
I’m not sure when the word ‘branding’ became common parlance, but I do remember when I learned that the word ‘Tasmania’ had a certain appeal. I was on my first extended journey overseas, and it became clear to me that my native toponym warranted an excited response for people from, say, the U.S.A. or Italy or Germany.
That has only increased as the years have passed, and now I realise that there’s now an official effort to elicit responses like this to ‘Tasmania’. That’s what branding is – a deliberate attempt to attach certain positive associations and assumptions with a name. Those euphonious syllables – Tasmania, Tasmania – have no meaning of their own.
Now is not the first go at this: the renaming of Van Diemen’s Land in 1856 was intended to rid the colony of a certain stigma. Lately, we’ve become interested in the brand of Tasmania as tourism has become a big part of how we make a crust on our island. Tourism has begun to make a noticeable impact on our lives here, and we’re told it’s only going to continue to grow.
I started working in tourism just as it had begun to rumble. It’s an interesting time to have accidentally wound up in this realm of work. I have to say that it’s given me plenty of opportunities. Yet I also have some grave reservations about it.
I’m addicted to looking at marketing material. Usually I find it tacky and laughable, but I nevertheless look, wonder – often mystified – and critique. If you’re Tasmanian, I encourage you to pay close attention to the ideas within the ads around Tasmania. We must learn to read between the lines.
Maybe I worry about how we advertise ourselves because I know what the marketing material doesn’t tell. Tasmanians don’t all drink fine wine or snack on goat’s cheese. Half of us are reportedly illiterate, and very many Tasmanians certainly can’t afford a gourmand’s diet.
I’m not expecting tourism brochures to spruik the issues we have in health or education, but nevertheless, we must not let ourselves be distracted or deluded by the glossy images.
All too frequently I am encountering news that reminds me of the shadow side of our advertised identity. For example, the government’s recent attempt to redefine areas of World Heritage country so that they can be adapted for high-end business. Or the unfair involvement of politicians in the proposal for a cable-car on kunanyi-Mount Wellington. Or the cost-cutting short-cuts that the Chinese owner of the Van Diemen’s Land Company farms is hoping to implement. Or the way individuals and families struggling to find housing are camping on the edges of Hobart while visitors are encouraged to come glamping on the edges of national parks.
This is sadly a part of Tasmanian life: part of our history, and very much a part of our present.
The troubles that are associated with tourism branding is to do with what we’re trying to sell ourselves as, and to whom. Inviting visitors to come and voraciously consume our offerings is dangerous, and in the long term, counter-productive. Tourism is a fragile industry. It seems to me that the more slowly it is developed, the more robust it becomes. We can’t rely on merely being trendy – trends veer off in wild trajectories sometimes.
This is especially relevant in Tasmania, which, as an island, has an inherent ecological and social fragility. We emphasise quality over quantity, and among our major commodities are slowness and quietness. Not to mention the fact that most of our special landscapes can’t handle an inundation of humans galumphing through them. We have plenty of incentives to moving more cleverly and less brazenly into a future of tourism.
There is nothing inherently wrong with tourism, nor with branding. I had a conversation this weekend with a well-known restaurateur who mentioned, with some passion, that he wanted to see Tasmania become world-renowned for our skills in service. Now this would be a worthy way to portray ourselves. Likewise, I would like to see us as an island of ideas, a locus for experimental education, for landscape studies, for science, for attentiveness.
We can be bold with our brand. It seems to me that, in a sense, Tasmania is in a position to choose its tourists. For example: why shouldn’t the visitors centres in our national parks stop selling takeaway coffee? That would communicate a raft of fine messages about the identity of Tasmanians, our connection with place, and our commitment to conservation. Drink slowly, we are saying. Linger in beautiful places. Don't wreck the joint. Those who want to consume rampantly can go elsewhere; those who will savour reflective moments – those who will truly taste what we are offering – will be more attracted to our place than ever.
But of course, that couldn’t just be branding. A brand without substance is a brash lie. And in the end, I don’t want us to focus on improving the brand of Tasmania. I’d rather improve on the place, on how we live here. Goat’s cheese, chardonnay and lavender teddy bears aren’t truly the crucial materials of Tasmanian life. We have other, deeper resources that give this land its meaning.
Summer weather comes and I strip the walls from around me. Beginning with a blush of pink on blocks of dolerite, sunshine spans across the broad skies above, throughout all the broad hours. The creeks run weary and dry. The day disappears, colour disintegrating so gradually I barely notice, and then the old stars blink and whistle silently over the whole array of country, my office, my backyard.
I’m out on familiar tracks, mostly working as a guide. The labour works its way into the sinews of my legs. They feel hard and taut and strong. My mind falters, though, from paying attention to the people around me. I need hours in front of fires or falls. A rill of water will do: I take an afternoon off, stomp off track upon a crispy carpet of parched moss, and find a forest there upon the stones of a riverbed. There I discover a few enormously fat conifers. They’re the biggest pencil pines I’ve ever seen; they honestly may have sprouted when Christ first squawked to life in Palestine.
Between my six-day stints on the Overland Track for work, I take excursions into the same high country, and make the effort to notice everything I can. Every subtlety in the every scene works over my mind, muscling into my memory. The distant mountains are a nostalgic blue. The late light creates pyramid shadows of the trees. A crown of pale gold sits on the westerly summits at sunset. I have been here before.
There are red tones in the landscape – the seed pods of a shrub called mountain rocket, and the odd leaf of a eucalypt or tea-tree. I watch a native rosella for a while. At first he chirps as incessantly as a chihuahua barks, but when I stop and watch, it eases off. His eye-mask is a brilliant red; his belly is the yellow of dried-out sphagnum.
I have absorbed the whole palette. There are is an iridescence within me that corresponds to the colours of these places.
Back to work. The fifth afternoon: I race up and over DuCane Gap, bootsoles finding their places between the boulders. There are cream curls on the lomatia bushes. The deciduous beech has ripe green leaves: I know they’ll soon be orange-yellow, and then the branches will be bare, and another season will be snuffed out, flickering out like the flame of a metho stove.
These leatherwood flowers begin to throw themselves on the black tracks. I am sentimental about this too. It all reminds me of something. On day six, I am heading south. I admit that I can feel the tentacles of telephone reception as I head to the Narcissus River and out of the reserve, ever-strengthening rays of faint connection to the rest of the planet.
Those who aren’t used to remoteness call everything else ‘the real world’. We’re going back to the real world, they say, on repeat. I think that’s lazy talk. Dombrovskis famously said: “When you go out there you don't get away from it all, you get back to it all. You come home to what's important. You come home to yourself.”
But can’t it all be the real world? Isn’t this all the one life – my life? Yes, eventually the track runs into a road and I’m no longer exclusively on foot. I take a boat across the lake, then I take a bus. I drink a beer in a pub. All the rhythms change. Later, I turn on my telephone, and there is a text message that makes me happy. I read a book about another country. The ache in my muscles goes away. Summer’s finale now reaches out towards me, the tentacles of the future.
Those leatherwood flowers fade into the heavy soil. But the leatherwood’s whole year is in those flowers; and the growth of those flowers is just a crucial point in the tree’s annual cycle.
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.
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?
They are dead.
One of the first stories George Robinson recorded in his diary while working as a storekeeper on Bruny Island is that of the death of a wife of an Aboriginal known as Joe. This is, for us, her life story: that she was one of Joe's two wives, that she had been previously sick, and that she was now dead in April. And that her last words were: 'ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.'
Joe's other wife, Morley, died shortly after. Mangana had a story of his wife being abducted and his son dead. Joe and Mangana would die too. Mannalargenna died at the Flinders Island settlement that Robinson had co-ordinated, like many others.
Robinson records the names of five women who were kidnapped in one of the many raids by sealers: Troepowerhear, Niepeekar, Moondapder, Larpeennopuric, Reetarnithbar. Just names, and a traumatic event of their lives. Nothing more to be said.
While Robinson was bush-bashing his way through the Vandemonian forests, he received a letter from his wife, saying she was ill, and that their abode had become 'a house of morning' for their youngest child, Alfred, 'departed this life 21 February'.
Mrs. Robinson - born Maria Amelia Evans - also died, in September 1848, near Melbourne.
George Robinson died in England two decades later.
But even for George Augustus Robinson, we cannot say we know him, even though he wrote so freely and frequently about himself and left a narrative of his life for us. We can know that he did this or that, that he experienced much 'mizzling rain', that he was profoundly here at a profound time. But the vast majority of his thoughts and deeds are lost, and we must read between the lines to understand his various motivations. Needless to say, his life has been interpreted a hundred different ways, each reader or researcher coming up with their own evaluation.
Trugernanna outlived Robinson. She is even more enigmatic, suffers more gossip, elicits more various reactions.
For many more - for most people throughout most of history - we don't even have their names. Their sentences were not overheard and marked down. Their rituals went unobserved. Their body parts were not measured. Their languages murmured off into extinction, idiosyncratic expressions lost for all time.
In Tasmania these topics - names like Trugernanna and George Robinson, phrases like 'the friendly mission' or 'the black war' or 'genocide' - excite a lot of emotion. The study of the history of that island has become a matter of conflict. 'The History Wars'. As if we haven't had enough of that.
I am no historian. I am just a bloke who has his brow wrinkled, trying to remember. But it's not easy when I wasn't there and when every human being from the past seems as inscrutable as the phrase ROEGE A CORAGGREE LOGGEENER.
Maybe if we were a different mob, we would employ the ancient forests and mountains of Tasmania to bridge the historical abyss. Because they were there - dolerite and granite, pencil pine and huon pine. It would not be methodical history, but it would be a gauze of memory over the gaps, a patch of story. I am not trying to say that this would be better than the rationalism and empiricism of moderns, but that I suspect many different cultures would have done this. Yet when I go bush, and I try to hear the stories from the forests, the old stoics remain dumb. Or I remain unable to hear.
'To my mind,' W.G. Sebald once said, 'it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives.' But I keep trying to remember.
This is the last piece in a series on George Robinson and Trugernanna, beginning with Trugernanna's death, looking at their curious relationship, and heading to the site of Robinson's final years.
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.