I ran into a Tasmanian mate in Transylvania. We marched around under the mountains waiting for the weather to clear, and then wandered up to the ridgeline for a few days. When we came back down we got drunk and sat in a hostel kitchen ranting and raving about the honey of R. Stephens of Mole Creek. I feel like I may have done an impersonation of the legendary bushman Bert Nichols.
My mate Jill is from Western Creek, underneath the Great Western Tiers. She’s from a farming family and like myself, she works as a bushwalking guide. I have no doubt that any other backpackers listening to the anecdotes of Jill’s life would have found it fascinating, even if they had to filter out the inebriated hubris of her travelling companion.
I have spent the last two months away from Tassie; as always, being elsewhere makes me think of home more often, perhaps more clearly, certainly more critically. In Transylvania there are rich cultural expressions at the surface of everyday life – in tripe soup, the română language, gypsy music, and so on. Naturally, I wonder what lies beneath the surface. And I wonder what we Tasmanians display of our lives back home, what a traveller notices, what we obscure from them – what we don’t even recognise in ourselves.
Because I think there’s plenty. I rarely hear people speak of ‘Tasmanian culture’. But perhaps that’s changing; perhaps Tasmanians are starting to realise that we are doing something different down home, and, quite apart from the attitude that I grew up alongside, we’re beginning to recognise it’s something we might enjoy.
It’s not just Dark Mofo and blunnies (although I’m very fond of the winter solstice skinny dip, and I recently explained to a woman in Budapest that she was wearing ‘traditional Tasmanian boots’). It’s our bushwalking and woodwork practices; it’s wallaby meat and rhubarb jam; it’s an arvo at the footy or at a protest to look after the bush. There’s much that we draw from the old ways, from migrant customs (including those of our convict forebears), and most of all, the Tasmanian climate and landscape.
Tasmania was truly one of the most unique places on Earth before colonists came. For 40,000 years a human population developed a way of being in this remote, southerly, curious location; a quarter of that time was spent in complete isolation. Much of this is lost, but not all. I am convinced that the more we are able to listen to today’s Aboriginal community, the more we will sense our own uniqueness, and love our island all the more.
The land itself gives us much of our culture. I have been yarning with Jill about the foibles of our workplace (a theme to which bushwalking guides return again and again), as well as discussing our own journeys up Mother Cummings or to Frenchmans Cap or into the Walls of Jerusalem. We are lucky: we have been granted opportunities to get to know the moods of the mountains, the feel and smell of our rocks and trees and rivers, more than most.
We also discuss farming (a topic about which Jill knows plenty), the arts (a topic that baffles me even as I try to exist as a writer and performer), and food (which we both love). In Tasmania, all of these have a unique bent. Although we might beat our chests and boast about them in hostel common rooms, there is also plenty – in these three topics as well as all others – about which we might be concerned.
Jill and I part ways on a drizzly afternoon beneath another citadel, another castle. She travels west, I go east. The shared delirium of being Tasmanian will be put on hold for now. But I have no doubt how much my being born amongst the blackwoods of the Tamar River has shaped me. Tassie is not the entirely remote island that it once was, but I believe I still grew up in special conditions.
Have you ever seen black-hearted sassafras? Sometimes the timber of this rainforest tree is infected with a fungus that stains the wood with beautiful streaks of black and brown. The way I move, talk, eat, dance, dress, think and write: like this, I am marked with streaks of culture.
Speaking of sassafras: the flowers of the sassafras tree are one of my favourite landscape markers.