Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

Currently showing posts tagged seasons

  • Stars on the Dark Forest Floor

    Stars on the Dark Forest Floor

    This is the sassafras tree in flower. A native to wet forests in south-east Australia, especially in Tasmania, this sassafras is in no way related to the homonymous trees in North America.

    (How many times in writing a natural history have I had to explain this! The northern hemisphere exiles, invaders, and migrants of the late 1700s and 1800s were so desperate to make sense of this antipodean foreignness that the first English names they received were those of trees from elsewhere, of which they were very roughly an equivalent. Our sassafras, for those keeping track, has the Latin binomial of
    Atherosperma moschatumand to clear up these confusions is why the botanical names exist.)

    These are my favourite flowers. They bring me a great deal of pleasure, both for their aesthetics and for what they offer my imagination. Generally speaking, it is more common to find the flowers on the ground, fallen; as they exist in the rainforest, often the flowers are at the top of the tree, receiving daylight. Sometimes you are lucky and find one in bud or in blossom, usually in a clearing, such as where a landslip has occurred. But to be honest, I’m just as happy seeing them star the dark forest floor.

    White forest flowers mean a lot to me. In particular, I attribute great significance to three different species that give white flowers in the high country at different times of the year. September’s sassafras signals the incipient end of winter; in early summer, especially around the longest day of the year, smoky tea-tree flowers fill the landscape with grey-white clouds; leatherwood flowers are a sign of the end of summer, and despite their beauty and their exquisite aroma, their arrival around February or March brings me great sadness.

    I feel lucky to be here for the sassafras bloom. I live my life in seasons, and it’s never quite clear what the next season will bring. I spent most of the winter away this year, but managed to get home in time for the seasonal change. You will hear Tasmanians whinge about the weather, but I can’t say a bad word against it.

    The snows have fallen hard and low on the multitude of mountain ranges; I have been fortunate to crunch across the Cradle Plateau and the Western Tiers and Mount Wellington, to see the peaks of the Hartz Mountains and the massifs of Ben Lomond and Black Bluff bold and white on the horizon. I have woken to frost on my tent; my boots have frozen stiff; I have sheltered in mountain cottages and highland huts while rain comes pattering down.

    Then again, as I noted with a mate at a wake the other day, winters can be long and Septembers seem to often bring tragedy. Sometimes the colourless days, the bitter cold of solitude, the shrunken hours of daylight are hard to bear.

    Soon enough it will all be gone. Snow can fall in the mountains of Tasmania at any time of year, but the seasons are so distinctly different. Sassafras flowers will seem like a dream. Long sunsets will stretch out, filling the olive buttongrass tussocks with the blackest of shadows. Lakes will beckon swimmers’ bodies.

    Everything is different as the seasons change. As I washed the dishes this morning, I watched fairy-wrens flirting.
    Elsewhere boobyalla brightens the coasts. Grey baby swans dot the estuary’s waters.

    Yes, it’s cold again today, but the season is not defined by the temperature. The silver wattles were early this year; the blackwoods have their bommyknocker buds exposed too. I walk down to the creek and sassafras flowers are strewn everywhere, amidst the moss, beneath manfern fronds. Have hope: it is spring.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Changes of the Cataract Gorge

    Changes of the Cataract Gorge

    Summer is suddenly over.

    Yet rock climbers still scramble up the basalt cliff walls, above the South Esk River as it veers out of town. Picnickers adopt the Fairy Dell; there is the occasional gentlemen in very small togs who looks as if he’s been tanned with wattle bark. This summer, a family of seals took up residence. A chairlift ferries tourists from one side to the other – Alphonse Bugler, German circus performer, balanced his way across it in 1987. Some choose the pool, others the deep blue, which we grew up believing had no measurable bottom. (It is 19 metres in depth.)

    Meanwhile, there are murmurs from the local council about making changes to the Gorge. There are “developments” in the works – a word that inspires tremulous fear in some Tasmanians, and unbounded optimism in others. Commerce has a troubled history on this island. Commercial interests can butt heads against community concerns; the present and the future can have differing needs. Business and government have had pockets close to one another.

    Why not change the Gorge? It has changed before, after all. It is not identical to the place that Aboriginal Tasmanians knew, nor that which surveyor William Collins thought bore a beauty that was ‘probably not surpass’d in the world’… In the early days of the colony, it was one family’s land. Once upon a time you had to pay a toll to enter. There are non-native plants there – the dark green of firs and redwoods, the pretty pastels of rhododendrons and hydrangeas – not to mention peacocks. In a rotunda, funded by some of Launceston's fin-de-siècle ladies, you could hear string quartets play. There’s a chairlift, a pool, two cafés, a suspension bridge, walking tracks, mountain bike trails, a hill covered in daffodils. So what would be wrong with some more change, to make it more accessible, more marketable, more commercially viable?

    In the end, the ratepayers of Launceston will be responsible for what happens to the Cataract Gorge. It is they who the council must listen to, above and beyond any developer. These constituents know which places hold the impressions of their memories, and whether those memories are more or less valuable than what might be gained in being disconnected from something that makes them tangible. It is their money being spent, and their place being tampered with.

    Summer is over, but there are still a few swims left; a couple of midnight skinny-dips; a bomb or two off Hogs Rock. And then, autumn kicks in, and the strange maples will rot like old mansions and collapse in shades of purple, chocolate, orange. The she-oaks will barely shake. Mist will gather on the surface of the water. Perhaps this year it will flood; perhaps not. The pool will be emptied, refilled. And before too long, it’ll be time again to dust off the togs and stand nervously on the precipice of that tenebrous basin, before bending the knees and leaping off, plunging into the cold depths.

    Beneath its surface, there’s more than algae and eels.