Liberating the island’s soul
ABRILLIANT idea and a fundamental leap in understanding began in Tasmania 50 years ago.

It was a reactionary response to the hydro-industrialisation of the island’s wilderness.

The taming of the wilds to generate electricity brought great wealth and power to politicians, bureaucrats and businesses, and good honest livelihoods for the working class, particularly immigrants brought here to build roads, dams and hydro systems.

But in yoking the ancient wilds to power the industrialisation of the island, Tasmania also saw great destruction to what was referred to in the 1960s as “scenery”.

By the late 1960s, Tasmanian MPs were increasingly voicing concern about preserving scenery.

The wilderness was perceived as a backdrop to humanity. That’s the way it had been since the British colonised the island 200 years ago.

The Dickensian society of 19th century Britain was transplanted here. Settlers and convicts shaped the land to recreate English-style sheep farms, dairy pasture and cropping, complete with hawthorn fence-lines, rabbits, mice and willowy creeks.

Tasmanian wildlife such as tigers, devils and wedge-tailed eagles were regarded as predatory threats to farmers to be hunted and killed; possums, pademelons, wallabies and kangaroos were vermin to be culled.

Hydro-industrialisation lifted the pace of the transformation of the island at the turn of the 20th century, delivering the power to boost the island economy. By the 1940s, materials and garments from Launceston’s textile mills were as highly regarded as those manufactured in famous Scottish and English mills. Tasmanian apples were exported globally.

Newsprint mills, an aluminium smelter and mining thrived as a post-war boom drove housing, roads, curbs, guttering, powerlines and garbage collections.

Hydro-industrialisation had delivered great wealth. However, a proposal in the late 1960s to dam Lake Pedder brought a massive outcry from all quarters of society.

History shows the Hydro Electric Commission rode roughshod over this public concern and buried one of the world’s most rare and beautiful mountainrimmed lakes, including its beach with pink quartzite sand, under 200m of water for a dam, which the HEC then, either cynically or hopefully, called Lake Pedder.

Debate continues in our society about the beauty of the original lake and that of the dam of the same name because the new catchment is mightily impressive — as long as one is able to forget or ignore or remain ignorant of what was once there.

And therein lies the rub.

The new idea, which represents a leap in understanding, requires us to try to comprehend Tasmania for what it is, rather than through a British or Western lens.

It asks that we look at what is here in Tasmania and to try to get to know it, to study how it works, to look hard into the landscape.

Attempts to look Tasmania squarely in the face can be found as far back as the 18th century when French expeditioners arrived at these shores, and in the work of settler Louisa Anne Meredith in the mid-19th century.

But something bigger took hold in the 1970s, so much so it can be described as a movement. This change manifested itself politically as a protest movement and as the Greens Party, with the emergence of Bob Brown and environmentalism.

However, there is a foundational aspect to this movement that is far broader and more cultural and psychological. It involves the way we see ourselves, our hopes, dreams and values, in the context of this island. It involves how we see this island and ourselves in it.

From the late 1960s a wave of writers, photographers and artists such as Clive Sansom, Barney Roberts, James McQueen, Olegas Truchanas, Peter Dombrovskis, Edith Holmes, Patricia Giles, Max Angus and Elspeth Vaughan peered more deeply into the island’s soul than ever before.

Traces of this new way of seeing can be found in the 1971 book, A Pocketful of Nature, a selection of columns published in the Mercury under Michael Sharland’s pseudonym, Peregrine.

By the 1980s, the study of this island became one of the most fertile areas of research at the University of Tasmania, with leading academic Pete Hay mentoring the likes of acclaimed historian James Boyce and writer Richard Flanagan.

Boyce reimagined colonisation of the island in his seminal work, Van Diemen’s Land, the thrust of which was how Tasmania changed the colonists, rather than vice versa.

Hay’s Vandemonian Essays in 2002 is perhaps the most direct attempt at addressing the movement’s central themes and defining its concerns, and his Forgotten Corners: Essays in Search of an Island’s Soul, released last year, shows the poet is still on the scent.

Hay and fellow academic Jamie Kirkpatrick contributed hugely to this explosion in understanding of the island’s geography, botany, history and wildlife by overseeing countless uni students in the past five decades.

The realisation that the Aboriginal community survived colonisation has added to this gradual expansion of consciousness, fed by the political voices of Michael Mansell and Heather Sculthorpe, the artistic expressions of Julie Gough and Ricky Maynard, and the words of the likes of Jim Everett, Greg Lehman, Patsy Cameron and Graham Maynard.

A veritable explosion of artists, such as Richard Wastell, Michael McWilliams and Michaye Boulter (whose brilliant exhibition is now on at Bett Gallery in Hobart), is looking more honestly and deeply at this island’s heart than ever before.

This movement has permeated Tasmanian architecture, where some building design is now being informed by the features of a local site, the Tasmanian landscape around it and the ecosystems into which it fits.

Forward-thinking timber workers and designers, such as furniture-maker Kevin Perkins, boatbuilder Ian Johnston and sculptor Peter Adams, for decades railed against clearing and burning native forests in favour of selective logging. They argued that Tasmanian timber was so precious it should be expensive and used only for work of the very finest standard, which should demand high prices to match.

Sadly, the woodchip industry — one of the most ruinous, ill-conceived ideas imported to the island — sent much of that valuable resource overseas, often to be turned into toilet paper.

This movement is not subterranean, but marches ahead regardless of the ruling paradigm of the day because it is largely personal and private. It’s about introspecting honestly about who we are and where we are, and appreciating.

It is only when you know of the millennia of geological factors that combined to create Lake Pedder and its inland beach, and the attendant realisation the pink quartz sands were there long before humankind walked to this ancient torn-free chunk of Gondwanaland 45,000 years ago, that you can grasp the extent of its loss.

It is only by realising the land on which we stand is more than just scenery to be preserved as a backdrop for humanity. Lake Pedder’s beach existed for millennia without the trace of a human footstep.

Our survival depends on getting to know, and learning to love, our island home as it is, and in designing our lifestyle, economy, transport and businesses around it.

We need to see the beauty in a lapwing chick, to marvel at the gliding stealth of a southern eagle ray, to rejoice at the sound of millions of soldier crabs blowing bubbles, and to laugh at the antics of galahs, cockatoos and rosellas. We need to be fascinated by the functioning of wetlands, the snow on the mountain, the coming and going of lagoons, and the awkward fluffy innocence of cygnets.

We need to move beyond taming this island and instead to thinking about how we, as a people, can adapt to it and learn to learn to live with it.