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.