Learning to plant ourselves

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Bees busy on The Nuns’ House lemon tree smile

You can’t help but notice, right now, summer in the country: farmers busy bringing in the hay, paddocks sown, berries flushed and vineyards lush and bunch-laden.

I’ve just picked a few kilos of broad beans from my patch. A couple of bags will go to friends, and three litres of fresh cow’s milk is ready to be collected from a friend’s farm up the road. I plan to make yoghurt today. Kate’s given me a birthday jar of her luscious Sweet Surrender jam, so I’ll have it with the yoghurt if it sets…Thankfully my old hens are still laying the odd egg that I’ll poach for breakfast with a few silverbeet leaves from my patch.

When productivity starts in our back yards, supermarkets should be a place of last resort.

Most Australians know at least one line of Dorothea Mackellar’s quintessential poem about Australia, My Country. But, with more people now living in urban areas, surrounded on a daily basis by bitumen, concrete, steel, and glass, how many get to see this sunburnt country and her sweeping plains?

Tasmania is different to the rest of Australia. With the majority of its population living outside our biggest city, we are more connected to land, to mountains, rivers and to the sea.

We are lucky to live so close to what makes us thrive. We know we live in a natural world just by smelling the air so busy now with big-bottomed bees going about their business. We file behind tractors on main roads, and like it or not, see log trucks in Macquarie Street. To disconnect from what’s grown or farmed is to shut out our nature. Connecting with what’s natural should be our first instinct not a postscript. It’s human to grow your own food.

Which is why I’m with Independent MP Cathy McGowan who described the ABC’s cutting of Bush Telegraph as “a huge mistake”. “The ABC board needs to ensure rural issues are broadcast into the city,” she said. “We should be building bridges between the city and the country, not getting rid of them.”

The centrist, economic pull of cities is inevitable: jobs beckon offering the life support of a stable, regular income. But in the process, this shouldn’t turn country towns into hollow places, or what demographers call kill zones, suitable only for people who seek an impossibly idyllic lifestyle. They must equate to livelihoods, too.

It misses the point to describe living in the country as a ‘tree’ or ‘sea’ change – a lifestyle choice often featured in magazines or as seen on TV. It is both harder and deeper than that. For many country people their ambition is not to rule the world; it is to run their own lives. Not to consume, but to create.

My friend Lyndy has lived in cities but chooses to live and work in the country because she wants to make her own decisions. Together with husband David they run Pinners Organic farm and B&B. While they farm seeds for Diggers, they also welcome many families as guests, their children enthralled by feeding chickens by hand, having lambs play at their feet, and watching the house cow being milked.

Lyndy says let’s face it, no one likes to be told what to do. “We’re not locked into anything here and can be as innovative as we like. If we decide to have mini goats or breed alpaca, we can.”

In the country, sorting your own life comes first, rather than being driven by payday. Often you’re busier with jobs connected to cultivating where you live, either in the community or on the land. Jobs that can’t be measured because they are investing not spending; they are unattached to an hourly rate, or being clocked in, with measurable inputs or outputs, or that can be ‘leveraged’ to ‘maximize’ anything in particular…

On urban living, Island magazine’s fiction editor Geordie Williamson says we are all locked inside our little boxes staring at screens: “We need to remind people that natural places exist”. Which is why he’s encouraging writers to enter the Nature Conservancy Australia Nature Writing Prize. There’s a $5,000 prize for essay writers who can best explore their relationship and interaction with the Australian landscape. The deadline is Christmas Eve. (More info: http://www.natureaustralia.org.au)

I like to trust that you can be in the day just like bees gathering pollen. Doing what you do because of where you are not who you want to be. Being in the world not to work, or to be idle, but to live in and care for our environment because it is part of our nature.

Sometimes it’s hard to do this when the managerial world takes such a hold. Old timers I know shake their heads and laugh at the regulations and approvals we must seek nowadays when previously they would have just, say, built a barn. They have decades to look back on and can see that the things they made without those approvals caused little or no harm.

One seventy-something I know says ‘we should have died 100 times’.

When you work for yourself you should be, especially, free to frame your own day. And when we live in tune with the country not only do we plant a garden we plant ourselves.

First published in Tasweekends, The Mercury on Saturday, December 13th, 2014

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In the land of the giants

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It’s a challenge to photograph big trees well.  From beneath, all it’s possible to really grasp is a Kardashian-like butt and a girth you can’t see past.

Big trees reign above an understorey of other trees that don’t permit you to stand back and gain perspective. Instead you are rooted at the bottom, feeling the full force of their footprint, their weight, the air around them, the majesty of their mass and how small you are in their shadows. You look up at the lower branches that are themselves big trees and wonder about the metropolis of the wildlife they cradle.

A big tree will not let you take it all in. Or hug it.You must just press your chest against it, let it hug you, feel it, be small in its presence. Allow it to look after you because that is how it has survived. But photograph it?

A new path to seeing big trees has been opened recently. The 2.4 km Blue Tier Giant Walk, designed by legendary trackmaker John “Snapper” Hughes, is an Environment Tasmania project dedicated to the Friends of the Blue Tier; its $180,000 budget allocated by the federal government. The gently sloping track (so smooth-as-chocolate I reckon you could walk it in high heels if you wanted to) takes you through sassafras and myrtle rainforest, tree fern glades, and into the shadows of not just one but several big trees that share this patch of the northeast with the biggest of them all: a 60m tall swamp gum saved by the loving tenacity of the Friends of the Blue Tier over decades. Sensitive signage tells you how one of the tallest flowering plants in the world started from a seed.

It’s been a long road for the local group who first came together in the 90s as friends, mothers and neighbours sharing a love of the land. Lesley Nicklason, a fourth generation Pyengana resident and Scottsdale nurse, says the story of how the Blue Tier Giant was saved is “as long as a book”.

Big trees create stories, myths and legends because they are ancient and survive. People who want to find them save them because they listen.

Locals first heard about the Blue Tier Giant in the 90s. It was in a coupe destined to make way for plantation. They set out to find it. In the past, even Forestry Tasmania has found it hard to pinpoint giant trees but thanks to new technology called LiDAR they’ve located 13 giants in State Forest in recent years, including Centurion, the tallest, at 99.6 m tall.

Imagine trying to find a giant swamp gum without the help of a helicopter, road, or path without even much of a clue, just a rumour on the wind.

Lesley says they heard that you “just drop down over the bank and you’ll find it near the bottom of the valley”. When they finally did, after hours, days, weeks, with a GPS and maps, Lesley remembers the understatement in Dave Ransley’s voice:“I reckon this is it…”

“It was the start of how the rest of our life was going to be,” recalls Lesley.

Friends of the Blue Tier went on taking people in, each time trying to re-trace their steps. They learnt that was the way to save trees like this from their previous experience with Halls’ Falls. A hundred people went on the first big tree walk in November 2002. The late Jeremy Ball helped organize it and came up with the phrase “See it, save it”.

One day, Lesley and three friends, all mothers, went in for a picnic and found a road had been built.They knew if a road had gone in to native forest it wouldn’t be long before the coupe would disappear. They didn’t go home that night. They didn’t go home for 5 weeks. Four hundred people visited them at their camp on the road.

“We only went home because we got arrested,” says Lesley. “We never intended to but we made our point by being there.”

For some years the small walking track was in dispute – locked to visitors. Friends of the Blue Tier talk about that era as the dark days. The Blue Tier Giant Walk is on the map now, and still part of a working forest. Signs on the access road on the way to Lottah off Weldborough Pass, remind visitors the road is shared with logging vehicles.

“We’re not really sure we’ve saved it,” says Lesley, “except that track has to have done it.”

This track opening reminds us of the global importance of Tasmania’s role in looking after big, tall and giant trees. According to the UK-based New Phytologist Journal, trees greater than 70m tall are one of the world’s rare phenomena, and most of the tallest species are either conifers from the west coast of North America or eucalypts in Tasmania.

Surveying over 455,000ha of northeast Tasmanian forest, Forestry Tasmania found 388 tall trees more than 74m tall, and lists more than 100 trees on the Giant Trees register (trees measuring more than 85m). They all have names and GPS coordinates, listed on Forestry Tasmania’s dedicated website http://www.gianttrees.com.au. Visitors are invited to explore the forest and discover them for themselves.

For more information on the Blue Tier Giant Walk, visit Environment Tasmania at http://www.et.org.au or phone 03 6281 5100

Where’s your pathway?

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     A well-trodden bush track. Not noteworthy or iconic. You wouldn’t find it in a Lonely Planet guide. Could almost be anywhere. Growing up in Tasmania we’ve all found ourselves on bush paths like this one.

     Kids still run down this track in George Town to get to Pebbly Beach on the Tamar. Running ahead, hiding behind gum trees reeking of piss-ants. It was always a race to be first. Bags the rope swing tied to a big tree branch overhanging the beach.

     Pebbly Beach was our go-to, school’s out, summertime playground; what we kicked off against, ran away to, moved away from; what helped shape us and what we lost. Where you met and broke up with people, sulked or celebrated. Where you learnt how to swim and hold your breath under water. Where your parents hoped they’d find you if you went missing. Where you wanted to forget but it wouldn’t let you because it was part of your living being.

     When you revisit these places after 40 years you’re not sure what they mean. Only that meaning lies deep and goes in all directions, like a dream, hard to put into words.

     If you’ve watched Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery or Who Do You Think You Are? you will know how chatty celebrities are rendered speechless when they return to their old school or family home. Anarchic comedian Ross Noble struggled finding words to describe what it meant going back to his claustrophobic upbringing in northern England. And, in retracing his mother’s Bohemian ancestry, Adam Hills was brought to tears by a plot of grass in the Czech Republic where his grandfather’s home once stood.

     “Of all the things I thought I’d get emotional about, a patch of empty land was the least,” said Hills with tears welling up, “but it seems to have the most significance.”

     In trying to learn more about what descendants of the First People mean by Country, maybe this emotion is the closest white fellas will come. It will never be quite the same in Tasmania because of the particular treatment of a people surviving for 40,000 years and decimated in 70.

     But perhaps the reverberations of that path, that patch of grass or piece of land, are similar to Country in that a sense of ancestry feels present – so strong and poignant as to seem alive. Feeling the landscape in this way is more than simply scenery.

     “People look and see dirt and trees but it’s more than that,” says historian Patsy Cameron, an Aboriginal elder born on Flinders Island. “It’s a place of spirit where ancestors walked – and they’re still there. Country is a living Being.”

     This is what Patsy feels when she visits “Grandfather’s Country” in Tebrakunna, now known as Cape Portland. By grandfather, Patsy refers to her 19th century ancestor, northeast clan leader Mannarlagenna, who she writes of extensively in Grease and Ochre – the blending of two cultures at the colonial sea frontier.

     While protest and conflict seemed to scupper the opportunity of telling a bigger story at Brighton when the Bypass went in and Aboriginal relics were found, Patsy was negotiating with former Hydro Tasmania boss Roy Adair to include a Visitor Centre as part of the Musselroe Wind Farm.

     How can you tell the story of the wind farm without telling the story of that country, the First Peoples – and of Mannarlagenna – all those years ago, she told Adair. Well let’s do it, he told Patsy, and so the Tebrakunna Visitor Centre was built.

     Tebrakunna at Mussleroe is a stunning location where renewable energy can be seen close up. It’s also where the last of the First People, including Mannalargenna, stepped into small boats, exiled to Flinders Island. Many Tasmanians were wrongly taught that the last Tasmanian Aborigine was Truganini, who died in 1876, and libraries of words have since been written about that.

     Now, today’s school curriculum looks at the long and continuous connection of Aboriginal Peoples to Country and asks what life was like before the arrival of the Europeans. Finally, the First People are acknowledged, their culture taught, and their descendants acknowledging themselves. In the 2011 Census indigenous Tasmanians numbered 19,625.

     Many, like Auntie June Swain, born on Cape Barren Island and who grew up in Invermay in the 1930s, never forgot. Despite being regarded for most of their lives as “half-castes” she says her father always taught her family that they were Aborigines. “We were never allowed to forget it,” Auntie June says in the book Aboriginal Connections with Launceston Places.

     For the many mixed race European Tasmanians who grew up being taught that there were no living Aborigines – despite never being expected to pass the pureblood test ourselves – this period presents a gross knowledge gap; a canyon of ignorance. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to learn more? Like visiting a new country. You get the guidebook, visa, currency, phrase book, and size up local customs to help fill in the blank pages and at least arrive dressed in something more humane than ignorance.

     In this new country at Tebrakunna you may stand beneath a majestic wind tower and read about “Coming into being”: how the night sky’s Milky Way was a sacred pathway used by Ancestral Beings to reach trouwunna (Tasmania) where they made the mountains, rivers, plants, animals and the people from the earth.

     Where war is the way of a world in constant search of peace and meaning, finding our own sacred pathways might be a beautiful place to start.

I’d like to acknowledge the leterremairrener people of the Stoney Creek nation, the traditional custodians of the land on which I live.

First published in TasWeekends, The Mercury on Saturday.