Stoney Creek nation

The Aboriginal flag flying high next to the Australian Union Jack outside George Town’s Memorial Hall

By the time you read this I will have been inducted into the Port Dalrymple School’s Wall of Pride. I’m pretty chuffed that my old school in George Town cares about writers as much as I care about being one. But I wonder, when I address the school assembly, how the students will take this alumni on the wall, alongside champion cyclist Danny Clark and Hawthorn assistant coach Brendon Bolton.

Although grateful to receive this honor, I would prefer the spotlight shone on them. Awards should not be about setting an individual apart, but about inspiring a community to dream, strive, learn or nurture.

I hope I use this time well and don’t discourage them from a writer’s life.   Like most creative pursuits, writing is a vocation, not one that pays well or enables you to buy a house in Sydney in your lifetime. It is also solitary rather than social – unless you make it so. People seem to be writing more these days on social media but it doesn’t mean it’s readable.

My advice to the Port Dalrymple School assembly will be to try and balance social media with how your heart beats in a broader world. Try not to fill your day receiving life through one focal point (be it smart phone, tablet or computer), but to get to know the landscape where you are (night and day) and its kaleidoscope of focal points.

I’ll mention when my father was the local doctor in George Town he asked if I’d like to go to Grammar school and I said no I thought I’d be fine right here. I may mention how this school is where I first read Shakespeare out loud, heard Edith Piaf sing on a record in a French class, learnt to touch type with all fingers, watched the first man walk on the moon on a classroom telly, heard Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had been sacked, and had my first period.

I’ll explain it was through their school I learnt to swim at Lagoon Beach and dance the Can Can (badly) on stage at the Memorial Hall. I’ll tell them I was hopeless at exams but had fantastic teachers I still remember, and that my playlist was vinyl and included Supertramp, Abba and Marcia Hines.

If I have one regret in life it is that a seventies’ education in Tasmania did not include a study of the first peoples – other than from a first settler perspective. We were taught Tasmanian Aborigines died with Truganini.

Now, Port Dalrymple School is aligning its cultural arts program with the Australian Curriculum’s focus on Aboriginal cultural studies and the stolen generation. And a coastal walk through George Town has been developed from the town along the foreshore, respecting Aboriginal middens along the way. As children, how more connected to this place might we have been had we known Aboriginal people once fished where we swam?

I’ll also share with the school assembly how it’s the job of schools to teach but the student’s to learn: to have a passion, if not today, then some day. Feel lit from within and know that learning lasts a lifetime.

I’ll mention since returning to Tasmania a decade ago I’ve been striving to learn as much as I can about the landscape we share. I want to feel that sense of country that existed before man invented plough or wheel.

Pipers River, Karoola
Pipers River, Karoola

The photo of Pipers River at dusk was taken just down the road. It’s a short walk down the valley I often do to take the measure of my patch, accompanied by the song of magpies and currawongs, a sky palette so delicate it brings you back to beauty. With each step it feels more like home.

I try and imagine what the valley was like before it was cut up and divided by surveyors into British land parcels of 500 or 100 acres and connecting roads. After a while – a long while – you feel it.

This pocket of the state celebrates well the discovery voyage of Bass and Flinders who named Port Dalrymple (now George Town) during their exploration of Bass Strait in 1798. History books make note of the first flag, first camp, first settlement, first port, and the first government house in northern Tasmania.

Before that, this was Stoney Creek nation, an area outlined, not by theodolite, but by the Tamar River to the west and Pipers River (or wattra karoola) to the east. I live in Karoola, an Aboriginal name meaning ‘medium sized stream’, first recorded by Joseph Milligan in his ‘Vocabulary of the Dialects of Some of the Aboriginal Tribes of Tasmania’ of 1859.

Until I knew this, my valley view had been that of tourist. Challenged by Aboriginal elder and academic Patsy Cameron to ‘listen to the voices of my ancestors’, now I see the landscape as Stoney Creek nation, one of nine Aboriginal nations or territories across the state.

As a writer, I struggle to find the words for what went before, finding a sense through seeing instead. I’ve created an Instagram hashtag (#stoneycreeknationtas). I’ll invite the students at Port Dalrymple School to post their own Stoney Creek nation images. Through seeing and sharing the landscape together, we might find more words, tell more stories, at least appreciate its unadulterated beauty.

Perhaps, through schools, this might spread to all the nations, and we could see our cultural landscapes come to life through a hashtag.

I hope the school assembly understands this sense of deep history I missed out on in that hall, and how they can make a difference by making the history of today. If one in 510 students understand that then I will have truly earned my spot on their Wall of Pride.

Wall of Pride selfie with Port Dalrymple principal Phil Challis
Wall of Pride selfie with Port Dalrymple principal Phil Challis

First published in TasWeekend, June 2o 2015