Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged poetry

  • People Who Live on Islands

    People Who Live on Islands

    It is is morning. I have been up for hours, although only now did I just serve myself my first cup of black coffee. I suspect a second isn’t far off. Now I have settled in to a morning of writing. I’ve been commissioned to write reference material for walking guides who will begin working on the Three Capes track in south-eastern Tasmania in spring. I have laid my hands on surveys, maps, and specialist reports. “The Tasman Peninsula has a coastline of around 323 km in length and an area of 473 km2,” I begin.

    The anomaly in the situation is that I’m sitting in a hiker’s shelter underneath the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, in Iceland. I woke up this morning on a pass between two glaciers. It was one of those ugly wet-tent pack-downs. I suspect it was about 4a.m., and I began to head north, off the mountainside and into a verdant valley populated by handsome birch trees. North: further away from Tasmania.

    I believe I’m about 17,000 kilometres from the Three Capes track, but that won’t stop my head from spinning with the Latin names of Tasman Peninsula flora (as per the ecological survey of Wapstra et alia). Mixing this in with the Icelandic vocabulary I’m trying to muster up, I’ve got a wild porridge here. But how pleasant all these words are. If you listen carefully (and with some imagination) you can hear some similarity between Eyjafjallajökull and the word ‘eucalypt’, I think.

    There is no familiarity in volcanoes and glaciers, in the young black rock that washes down murky rivers like soot. But there are numerous commonalities, in the size, the population, the sense of distance, the islandness. The ptarmigan in its dappled winter coat puts me in mind of a favourite bird back home, the Bassian thrush.

    Not the least commonality is how we both sit aloof from our continents, far north and far south, sparsely populated. It’s possible to find days of solitude. Icelanders and Tasmanians may both take the beauty of our home places for granted, and yet we both may identify with it and romanticise it too.

    Icelanders and Tasmanians, we live on islands. What was it that the poet Louis Macneice came up with? “There is only hope for people who live on islands.” Macneice had his reasons, but there seems to have been a truth to it when he said it. Overpopulation is perhaps the great threat of the planet’s future, and we seemed, for a time, to be immune for it. But people are now looking to disperse to the islands.

    In a fjord off northern Iceland there is a rock-island called Drangey, which is famous in Nordic literature. Here an outlaw named Grettir the Strong lived out his last days. It can’t be an easy swim out there, but in the saga written for him in the 14th century, we read that he managed to do it. It’s a story that relates to my research. Archaeological evidence of Aboriginal activity has been found on Tasman Island, off the southern tip of the peninsula where the Three Capes runs. A skull discovered there by early European scientists was disregarded as being that of some ‘accidental adventurer’ stranded there, somehow.

    Now, we’re rather more sure that the Pydairrerme ancestors did indeed visit the island often enough, swimming and boating out there. Only, unlike the exploits of Grettir, we don’t have any written stories of who these swimmers might have been. As is so frequently the case in Tasmania, we don’t know the heroes of our island’s history.

    In Iceland, writing about Tasmania. Maybe it isn’t so strange. Last night, eating polenta and mushrooms from the billy-pot, I took account of my appearance. The possum fur beanie was a gift. My woolly jumper was from a charity store in Zeehan. The shorts I wear most days of my life (even in the waist-deep snow of the Fimmvörðuháls track) are from an op-shop in Queenstown. My pink socks were given to me by an overly friendly lady in Tullah. My soggy hiking boots were from the Deloraine op-shop, $15. We drag our homeplaces with us.



    The connections between Tassie and Iceland also involve a 19th-century adventurer.

  • Myrtle Forests

    Myrtle Forests

    Myrtle trees seem to live in fables,” writes the poet Andrew Sant (born in 1950), and off he goes, growing a shadowy rainforest in damp green words. The trees “grope through mists that swirl” and the poet stands in “owlish and spidery dank encampments of gloom.” This poem, ‘Myrtle Forests’, is very good.

    The tree the poet praises is Nothofagus cunninghamii, which Tasmanians know as myrtle and Victorians more commonly call myrtle beech. It is distinctly unrelated to the Myrtus myrtles of the Earth’s north, which is named for a female athlete who gamely challenged the men, and won – and was punished for it by the goddess Athena by being turned into a shrub.

    Andrew Sant was born in London, but spent some years in Tasmania working as a teacher and as co-editor of The Tasmanian Review (which is now Island magazine). His poems roam the globe, and they describe a strange garden of arboreal species: apple trees, birch and spruce, pines and casuarinas all fill the landscape and filter the light. There is “dried wood” and “gathered timber”. An array of birds flit between the tousled canopies of vegetation.

    Sant sees Tasmania as a “skewed island, all that mountainous weather-burdened weight in west!” And it is true: don’t let the historic bickering between the towns in the north and south fool you: the division o
    f this island is vertical. There is the difficult transylvanian west, with its “straining forests”, facing towards the worst weather and absorbing it, reprieving the “sheltered east, with its vineyards and holidays”.

    But some life likes wild weather. Our humans and holidaymakers may like dry, flat, open expanses, but our myrtles will only grow in high-rainfall areas. They find gullies and valleys commodious. And if we look closely, we find whole townships of lichen, moss, fungi and fern that have adapted to grow in myrtle forests, countless species that life has chosen for this environment.

    Andrew Sant claims not find himself rooted to any place. “Language, I find, is home,” says Sant, so wherever he can use English to interpret scenes, he will be at rest. He burrows into the world in search of meaning. “So that is history here,” he suddenly says in the myrtle forest, boldly thrusting his language into shadow and wood like a drill bit aiming for a core sample – centuries-old shadow and centuries-old wood, with a lineage of millennia.

    One must be careful with language: after all, whoever first called this a myrtle got the words wrong.

    Consider the huon pine bowls and vases,” Sant writes elsewhere, “– one man has entered a two-thousand-year-old tunnel of cellulose with sharp tools and imagined them, he jokes, to be as perfectly preserved as sacred artefacts in an Egyptian tomb.”

    The woodworker has their own poetry. I read some on a webpage advertising timber products:

    “Myrtle is a striking wood with rich red, brown, and almost orange tones...It is believed the richness of colour comes from the quality of the soil it grows in. The deepest red myrtle comes from highly fertile soils on basalt.”

    On the same page, links are provided to brochures, where Japanese, Korean and Chinese connoisseurs can approach these fables in their own languages.




    Join Field Guide on a trip through the forests of the Overland Track.
    "Geography buffs will recognise that Melbourne, is not, in fact, Tasmania."

  • 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.

  • Petrarch's Poetry

    Petrarch's Poetry

    “Assuredly but dust and shade we are / Assuredly desire is blind and brief / Assuredly its hope but ends in death.”

    So wrote fourteenth-century Tuscan humanist and poet Francesco Petrarca, who is commemorated at this western Tasmanian lake under his Latinised name, Petrarch.

    It was the classically-inclined surveyor George Frankland who called Lake Petrarch so, although he generally preferred Greek nomenclature. He had seen the lake from the summit of Mount Olympus on February 12, 1829, and upon descent from the mountain, he and his party came to it. It was the first time in his life any of them had seen a certain conifer tree, athrotaxis cupressoides, “a remarkably handsome species of Fir” that he named “the pine of Olympus.” Nowadays it is commonly known as the pencil pine.

    Another explorer, the geologist Charles Gould, came to camp upon the sandy beach of Lake Petrarch in January 1860.  It was the beginning of a long expedition to the west, and Gould and his men looked at the silhouette of another literarily-named peak, Mount Byron, from across the still waters of the lake.

    Landscape painter W.C. Piguenit, born in Hobart in 1836; his father was a convict, and his mother, a teacher of French, music and drawing. From 1874 he devoted himself to his craft, travelling on foot with surveyors to remote areas of Tasmania. Piguenit depicted Tasmania’s wildernesses in a Romantic light, as Ruskin was the European Alps contemporaneously. In 1887, he travelled with chief surveyor Sprent to the west coast. He took advantage of this expedition to make an excursion to Lake St. Clair, and further north through the Cuvier Valley, to Lake Petrarch, which he painted in hazy pastels. A grebe sits on a clump of dark rocks; Mount Byron overlooks the glistening water in a rosy twilit hue.

    A century later, Peter Dombrovskis photographed Lake Petrarch. Born to Latvian parents in a World War II concentration camp in Germany, Dombrovskis was influenced by a fellow Baltic migrant, the unassuming yet influential Olegas Truchanas. Both became famous for involving their work in conservationist movements against the damming of wilderness rivers. Before his death by heart attack in the south-western mountains, Dombrovskis forged a reputation as one of the world’s great landscape photographers. In 1994, on a journey into the Cuvier Valley, Dombrovskis made a sensitive study of pencil pine boles near Lake Petrarch.

    The Cuvier Valley is largely made up of golden buttongrass plains; it may have been managed as an Aboriginal hunting ground before Europeans arrived to the island known previously as Trowenna. How they perceived Lake Petrarch we do not know. Likewise, unknown numbers of personal expeditions in recent times go unrecorded.

    In the Tasmanian Government’s current Draft Management Plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, Lake Petrarch is rezoned so as to be permitted as a helicopter landing site – along with around a dozen other localities. “Men often despise what they despair of obtaining,” wrote Petrarch to a contemporary in the 1300s, and so they do today, still.

     

    Why was George Frankland so obsessed with Greek names?