Thursday 11 June 2009

A Half Open Door: Nature Writing and Environmental Cringe

[published in Island #53, Summer 1992 - the piece that started me on the nature writing path]

There is a startling passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that could have been written in any particular place, but I find it hard to imagine it being written by an Australian.

The mating rites of mantises are well known: a chemical produced in the head of the male insect says, in effect, “No, don’t go near her, you fool, she’ll eat you alive.” At the same time a chemical in the abdomen says, “Yes, by all means, now and forever yes.”

While the male is making up what passes for his mind, the female tips the balance in her favor by eating his head. He mounts her. Fabre describes the mating, which sometimes lasts six hours, as follows: “The male, absorbed in the performance of his vital function, holds the female in a tight embrace. But the wretch has no head; he has no neck; he has hardly a body. The other with her muzzle turned over her shoulder continues very placidly to gnaw what remains of the gentle swain. And, all the time, that masculine stump, holding on firmly, goes on with the business!”

A less confronting, more plainly American piece is Edward Hoagland’s The Tugman’s Passage.

A tree swallow darts high with a feather, drops it deliberately, then swoops to catch it again. A woodchuck is raising a family in her summer depot the same den that she hibernated in; that’s back in the woods, headquarters for a skunk family now. Once when the woodchuck sat up close to his tent, as brindled-brown and husky-torsoed as a grizzly bear, he thought he might be camping in Alaska – except that, at the same time, a catbird overhead was mimicking the song of the Southern bird that the catbird, too, may have heard in Georgia last winter.

What Hoagland shows in his unexceptional way is he is perfectly at ease in describing the creatures that live around his Vermont home. He writes expecting the smile of recognition or shared experience which is the bond between reader and writer (which may be a grimace in Annie Dillard’s case). This is not something we might expect in Australian writing. Such intimate observations are absent from most of our writing.

We have a strong tradition of bush literature, even though it is execrated from time to time. But this focuses on the Big Country – Australia wide, brown and large. We lack a tradition of intimate “nature writing” akin to the rich tradition among the English, beginning perhaps with Gilbert White’s A Natural History of Selborne, and continuing through the likes of Richard Jefferies up to the present. Even provincial newspapers in Britain have a nature diarist of one sort or another. This tradition unashamedly loves the countryside and its inhabitants. What’s more, it writes for a public that knows – or at least wants to know – something about it.

In the United States the tradition is younger, if no less passionate. Thoreau is the patron saint. The Sierra Club and Audobon Society are among the evangelists. A latter day disciple, Stephen Graham, wrote in The Gentle Art of Tramping:

As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountains stream, the great door, that does not look like a door opens.

In Australia, “the great door” is only half-open. We’ve barely begun to integrate the Australian environment into our writing. Geoffrey Dutton, in Snow on the Saltbush calls this our “environmental cringe”, pointing to the hostility many writers have to non-urban Australia. ……. Their message has been one of intense guilt over the despoiled Australian environment (and) hostility against the bush tradition……Australians raped the country and massacred the ancient, indigenous population. The hostility has seemed to extend even to nature itself, as something undeniably large but irrelevant, except in the political confrontations of conservation campaigns.

The same sense of hostility to nature comes through in our mythology. In Intruders in the Bush: The Australian Quest for Identity, sociologist John Carroll argues that our great myth is the uncaring vastness of nature in Australia.

Drought, bushfire, blasting heat, hurricane, and the sheer monumental vastness of nature, of oceans, cliffs, deserts, mountains, and the sky itself-much larger and brighter than in Europe-will always make man feel a nobody on this continent. This is our greatest asset in an age in which man has the vanity of believing that he can do anything, that nothing in nature can check him, that his technology and his medicine will protect him from any threat. Australians are lucky that in spite of their fearlessness of God, they
must submit to a nature with many of the implacable and punitive powers of their lost divinity.

This antagonistic and Eurocentric view of Australian nature (which not surprisingly sits uneasily with Aboriginal mythology) is reflected in much white European-Australian literature, where it is hard to find a protagonistic view of nature. Instead much of our literature describes an almost gothic hostility between ourselves and nature, such as Marcus Clark’s demonising of Van Diemen’s Land in For the Term of His Natural Life. A similar brooding sense of hostility can also be found in recent works like Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark.

Whether the horror of the bush is intrinsic or extrinsic is never quite resolved, but it is hard to escape the feeling that we are not at home in our own homeland. The central character in Rodney Hall’s The Second Bridegroom is unusual precisely because he alone of the whites in the story does not feel an alien in Australia. Instead, he begins to share the bond which his Aboriginal guardians have with the land. Similarly Mary O’Halloran in Tom Collins’ classic Such is Life is exceptional in being a “child of the wilderness, a dryad among her kindred trees”, and therefore knowing the names of all the trees and “the dwelling-place of every loved companion”.

So why is it that so few Australian novels celebrate the Australian environment in an unselfconscious way? Consider D H Lawrence and Mollie Skinner’s response to Western Australia in The Boy in the Bush.

It was spring in Western Australia, and a wonder of delicate blueness, of frail, unearthly beauty. The earth was full of weird flowers, star-shaped, needle-pointed, fringed, scarlet, white, blue – a whole world of strange flowers. Like being in a new Paradise from which man had not been cast out.

Had Mollie Skinner written this alone, would it have been accepted as widely as it was? Perhaps environmental and cultural cringe share the same bed.

In Britain there is also a rich vein of nature fantasy that is absent in Australia. The most recent examples have tried to go beyond the animals-dressed-as-people variety popular in tales like The Wind in the Willows. Richard Adams’ Watership Down, an early and influential modern example, was based in part on the scientific study of rabbits and rabbit behaviour. It did not altogether escape anthropomorphic tendencies, but at least Fiver, Hazel and Co were not dressed up in waistcoats and smoking pipes. What Adams did for rabbits, others in Britain have since tried to do for moles, badgers, eagles, weasels, frogs and hedgehogs. The bookshelves of wildlife naturalists have been plundered as never before.

Regardless of the literary merit of this outpouring of ethologically correct fables, they show an interest in getting the precise details of the natural world right. Their commercial success indicates that they have tapped the broad conservation concerns of many readers, including their love of “nature” and their disquiet over the disappearance of habitats and species. You would think that Australia, which has seen the extinction of more than twenty native animals species since white settlement, and has over half of its total mammal population of 256 species on the vulnerable list, might have a similar market to tap. However there is very little Australian fiction which takes seriously the observed behaviour of our own wildlife. We have no kangaroo quest to Watership Down; no echidna equivalent of Duncton Wood. While a few children’s stories such as Leslie Rees’s Shy the Platypus take care to get some details right, the general run of Australian nature fiction is happier mythologising the bush and its creatures, as in Blinky Bill or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

Magazines such as Australian Geographic and Geo, or more specialists nature journals like Wildlife Australia or Australian Natural History, may appear to be safe-houses for the kind of nature writing I’m discussing. But while they contain some fine writing about Australia, most of it doesn’t amount to what I would define as “nature writing”. Australian Geographic sometimes comes close, though its format favours the spectacular and the graphic, after the style of the National Geographic. Picture prevails over word. What I am looking for is writing that has no need of pictures; writing that doesn’t stand or fall by academic whim.

Another potential haven is the conservation movement. At times though, this movement gives every appearance of being dominated by professional lobbyists who, perhaps unwittingly, push celebratory nature writing to the periphery. Some of the best – and worst – finds itself lost at the beginning of wilderness calendars and coffee-table books; word again subject to image: the door half-closed. To “sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach” doesn’t have the publicity impact of chaining yourself to trees or tractors.

There is an irony in this. By concentrating on the Big Issues the conservation movement risks neglecting the very thing it is fighting for – like a crusading social reformer whose own children run barefoot. Does it celebrate the Australian environment in all its daily humility, as well as its spectacular grandeur?

For surely nature writing is celebration. Even when, as with an Annie Dillard, it is aghast at what it observes, it is still able to maintain a sense of wonder, as this recollection of Bishop Burgmann’s bush childhood in An Australian Education shows.

One sat quietly at the foot of a tree, resting against the butt. To move at all was to move as though a baby were near which must not be awakened. At such times the bush is fastening its spell upon you. You breathe slowly. Time stops. Then a cricket is sure to break the silence. He can never keep quiet for long. One becomes conscious of bees in the blossoms above. A bird flits past, but one remains still. It is a pity that the moment must pass, but the babe is awakening. It may be Pan; it is the spirit of the bush; and it lives in the insects, the birds, the animals, as well as in the trees. A black magpie flies overhead with his raucous cry. He is an unruly bird, and doesn’t care whom he awakens. A snake may glide past, but he does it quietly.

Presently the babe is full awake and all the dwellers in the bush loose their tongues. Bellbirds, whipbirds, and all sorts of birds enjoy their songs, and as they make high festival the lyrebird can mimic them all. Nature must be taken as a whole. It speaks through its birds, it lives in its animals; man may only join in on Nature’s own terms. He can site He can sit and listen and let his fancy run free. He will grow more reverent as his sensitiveness to the presence grows. He will feel privileged to have been admitted into the audience of Nature’s moods. Birds and animals may even come to feel that he to some extent also belongs to their exclusive world.

It is foolish for man to think of Nature as below him. If he lives in the bush long enough he will find that reverence is the only worthy attitude. But the bush will take its won time to do the work. It will not speak to a man in a hurry. Its message is worth waiting for. Only the soul that is stilled in its presence can hear the music of its song.

To Burgmann, opening the door is a spiritual labour, and in the fifty years since he wrote few have followed his lead. In that half-century the microscope and magnifying glass have been superseded by the cathode-ray tube and the silicon chip; and awe and wonder have been replaced by mere amusement. By sticking to the myth of the vastness and implacability of nature in Australia, we hasten the retreat into the artificial urban world. Thereafter nature is either malignly ignored, or its downfall is actively plotted. Gilbert White offered a far more sanguine approach to the vastness of nature when he wrote at the time of the First Fleet that “every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer”.

One Australian write who stands out is Eric Rolls. His superb Celebration of the Senses was unusual in the Australian literary context that the blurb writers and publicists fumbled for ways to describe it. Rolls comfortably included observations of wildlife alongside ribald recollections of army service.

We wake to bird calls. In army training camps the first notes of reveille jerked us out of sleep at 6a.m. Tent flaps lifted, cranky soldiers cursed the bugler. “Bow your guts out your bastard!”. “Jam the fuckin’ thing down his throat!” “Stick it up your arse and play retreat!”. During the war in Papua New Guinea, when I woke a signaller to take the next night watch, I stood off and nudged him with a long stick. The Japanese were very close……..all of us were on edge. Bend over a man and wake him suddenly and he would come up ready to kill.

……In the country……I waken gladly to bird calls. All through the night in brief wakings one hears birds. When nesting the male Willy Wagtail maintains his territory day and night. “Sweet pretty little creature” he calls…..Sometimes one wakes to strange cackling laughter. A Spotted Nightjar that did not catch enough insects at dusk is on the wing again, hawking….. Each season has its own
alarm. In winter the cling clang of Pied Currawongs wakes us us fittingly after the sun is well up and the frost has begun to melt…..In autumn when the sunflowers are ripe, two thousand galahs awaken us. They come in rolling pink and grey clouds as noisy as thunder….. In spring so many birds wake us we have to concentrate to recognise them all. The White-winged Triller makes long rolls of two notes. The Rufous Whistler makes a few musical calls, then cracks like a whip, a good alarm. The little Striated Pardalote beats out its two notes
astonishingly loudly.

More recently Rolls was commissioned by the Sydney Sun-Herald to write regular pieces under the title The Cumberdeen Diaries This too is very good nature writing, but one writer doesn’t make a tradition. The 1990 anthology Gone Bush edited by Roger McDonald does take seriously the diversity and complexity of both nature and literary style in Australia, with writers as different as Elizabeth Jolley and Frank Moorhouse, Les Murray and Helen Garner, Barney Roberts and Bruce Pascoe all contributing stylish pieces. There are also widely different Aboriginal perspectives from Jack Davis and Mudrooroo Nargin; but it is Geoffrey Dutton who wryly shrugs off his environmental cringe in a wonderful evocation of Kangaroo Island.

Here in the bush around the house by the sea the blue wren hops across the emerald moss of an early winter like a chip of summer sky, and the scarlet robin lies flatly, wings extended, in the bird bath, fluffing out his chest, so much more fiery than that of his cousins in the Northern Hemisphere.

We need more writing of this kind. Frankly, most Australians remain woefully ignorant about the web of life around them and better educated about the badger than the bilby. I have a vivid picture of the utter astonishment of a South Australian visitor to Tasmania’s Southwest as an eastern quoll nonchalantly snuffles by in search of food. The woman’s face is a mixture of wonderment and mystification. What is this beautiful creature? She not only has no name for it, she has never imagined that such creatures existed.

Witnessing A Coup

[Written during a visit to Alaska in 2005]

Many of Tasmania’s most vivid landscapes have been bequeathed us by ice. Yet even a deep and prolonged association with both the fact and the landscapes only partially readied me for the drama of seeing a working glacier. The U-shaped valleys of Tasmania’s Lake Judd have a clean elegance, while the steep sides of Lake St Clair wear a forest-fringed softness. Even the vertiginous cirque walls of Lake Huntly and the sharp aretes of Cradle Mountain have a finished look, as though the ice has stepped back to admire its work. All of Tasmania’s glacial landscapes seem to mix even their most abrupt shapes with a sense of mellowed age, a vintaged wine whose astringent elements have been tempered through time in oak or bottle.

While flying over the altogether younger ice-fields and glaciers of Baranof Island in south-east Alaska, there was still a white-wedding aura about the uncomplicated virgin white of the stunning scene. Snow white purity dominated, with the somewhat dowdier peaks and lakes merely making up the wedding party. Given this gentle introduction – and my own Tasmanian conditioning – I was ill-prepared for the shot-gun wedding that is the South Sawyer Glacier. One of Southeast Alaska’s many sea-level or tidewater glaciers, South Sawyer extends more than 30km to the sea from the 2,500 metre mountains and ice fields of Canada and the Tracy Arm – Fords Terror Wilderness. The glacier guards the landward end of the vast Tracy Arm fiord, once a glacial valley itself.

The day of our visit is a rare and gloriously blue-skied Alaskan day. But it is the blue of the glacier that initially steals the scene. This is no blushing white glacier, nor even a pale, powder blue one. John Muir truly called it a “quick and living blue”. South Sawyer presents a huge rough-cut maw to us across the terminus of Tracy Arm, grinning with deep cobalt ice-teeth. If at first all seems silent, we soon discover otherwise, for this is no stately and static set-piece. Both teeth and ‘food’ are in motion the whole time we are there. Crashes and clashes of rock, ice and water are seen and heard all around. Meltwater shifts great quantities of rock and silt from the steeply enclosing walls and from beneath the glacier, pouring them into the water in torrents or loosening them for gravity to take its turn. Boulders tumble with loud, echoing thuds. Yet to the eye – fooled by the clear air and lack of vegetation for scale – the boulders look like mere clods of earth, fraying into fragments as they fall. With slow, chaotic regularity bergs of varying size slice off the glacier’s face, again seeming mere slivers until the sound reaches us with a thunderous roar. To call these juddering collapses ‘calving’ – a term that for me has gentle bucolic associations – seems to down play the rugged reality of a birth under the pressure of both gravity and the bullish weight of ice pushing from behind. Or is my perspective overly urban and masculine? Perhaps giving birth – even bovine birthing – really is as noisy, dramatic and messy as this.

As we watch and listen, some of last week’s bergs squeeze quietly past us. It is like rubbing shoulders with the ancients. Each luminous blue beast may be literally prehistoric, made up of compressed snow that fell many hundreds of years ago, and has moved from mountaintop to sea at as little as 20 metres a year. We had passed their brethren on the way here, all blue and bobbing in the sun, but growing imperceptibly smaller as they made their relatively hasty way to the sea and oblivion.

In fact glaciers are no drop-in-the-ocean. They hold over 2% of earth’s total water, oceans included. And around 75% of the planet’s fresh water is held in glaciers. Were all of these beasts to become extinct, sea level rise would be catastrophic. Each ancient berg also carries small loads of silt and dust, some stolen from surrounding rock, some sprinkled on them from the heights, some added by short-lived streams that flow onto the glaciers in summer. All will be added to some far future sedimentary formation, when even the unthinkable depths of Tracy Arm will be forgotten, and a new landscape will joust with ice, rain, heat, fracture or whatever else is thrown at it.

But the present action isn’t only mineral. Animal and vegetable stake a claim here too. On the congested ice dump beneath the glacier’s snout hundreds of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) dot the ice. With the temporarily solid ice preventing orcas from attacking, the seals loll insouciantly in the sunshine. It must feel quite the opposite of skating on thin ice – at least until hunger forces their next fishing trip.

From the surrounding slopes alder, hemlock and spruce watch and wait as the glacier retreats. In a mere dozen years it has retired hundreds of metres. Eventually, even in this dramatically steep terrain, there will be land ready for colonising. Others may be the first, but the conifers will surely follow. At the Mendenhall Glacier on the outskirts of Juneau, the glacier’s retreat has been systematically observed for well over a century. The Visitor Centre, high above Lake Mendenhall and several hundred metres from today’s glacier, was built where the glacier had been active as recently as 1935. Where once ice went unchallenged, there is now established coniferous forest. An ordered and predictable succession of growth has been noted, with lichen doing its rock-breaking, soil-producing work first. This is followed by pioneer species such as willow, fireweed and alder. Finally within 70-80 years the conifers start to predominate.

A day in the company of glaciers has me comparing history with geology. We may read blithely of a coup that replaced King A or President B, with years of peace (or otherwise) following. So too we may study geology and read mechanically of the epic landscape-altering work of glaciers. But seeing the violence and mayhem of a glacier up close seems to me like witnessing a coup. History judges a coup by its outcome. So too will geomorphology judge a glacier by its resulting landforms. But what a privilege, albeit a dangerous one, to be there for at least a small episode of this earth coup, and to see first-hand the processes that once shaped so much of my island home, Tasmania.

A Hymn to Tasmania

[A Welcome Speech to the Interpretation Australia Association (IAA) National Conference in Strahan, Tasmania by Peter Grant, October 3, 2005]

What is this place, this island you have come to that we call Tasmania? In a sense there are as many Tasmanias as there are people who experience it. So I would like to simply share something quite personal of what Tasmania means to me. I call it “A Hymn to Tasmania”, adding a warning footnote that not all hymns are “happy clappy”. Many of the best have a dark or sombre note through which hope and victory must struggle to shine.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is universally regarded as a magnificent work of art. In addition to the beauty of the subject, there is something about the enigmatic smile that has sparked both admiration and speculation for as long as it has existed. Likewise there is a certain magnificence to Tasmania. Here is an island – an archipelago of islands as our late Premier Jim Bacon liked to say – that is admired across the Strait by the majority of Australians, and loved by the increasing numbers who come to it from further afield.

Here you will find a beguiling mixture of utter wildness and amiable approachability. As American writer and photographer Arthur Rosenfeld put it “nowhere have I seen such breathtaking contrasts arise so naturally from the dialogue between mountain and forest, clarity and cloud, sun and moon. A person can disappear in beauty like this."

But once you have penetrated the beauty of this island you will find, as with the Mona Lisa, that there is also an enigma. Instead of a smile however, it is an enigmatic frown. On this heart-shaped island, there is a feeling that the heart has been hurt if not broken at times. What is the source of this frown; this veiled heart-ache? For me it derives from a sense that something tragic, something sad, flawed or failed has happened here. A skein of melancholy seems woven into the warp and weft of this beautiful place.

And our history bears this out, starting with the Aboriginal tragedy that unfolded here following European invasion. It is difficult to see how we can use any other word than invasion. Surely “discovery” is just plain wrong, and “settlement” euphemistic at best. Even before 1803 there were skirmishes between the Palawa, the original Tasmanians, and the Europeans – as there were also friendly exchanges. But once the English decided to come, their gaze having turned here following their capture of French information on the island, there was little that could stop them. Aboriginal resistance was blunted by both guns and germs. The Palawa, so long isolated from a host of germs, quickly succumbed to European-borne diseases. It was a victory of sorts merely to survive under such circumstances, but Tasmania’s Aboriginal people have survived … and we will hear more of that story later.

Not only were the English determined to injure, infect or ignore the island’s long-established inhabitants, they also worked to supplant them with convicts. This cargo of human misery was to be transplanted out of the old country – out of sight and mind – to the “end of the world”. A place where nature herself was to be one of the keenest gaolers. Thus were culture and nature dubious allies in old Van Diemen’s Land.

And then there is our more modern history, in which the worst excesses of Van Diemen’s Land were to be expunged through hard labour. But this time the work was not so much for the overseers as for ourselves. We would delve, cut, sow and pluck a new state into being, even changing our name to Tasmania as though to distance ourselves from “the hated stain” of our convict past.

So how have we fared on this rebound from the past? Let me employ an extended analogy. The ancient Hebrew prophet Hosea was given one of the most bizarre jobs in the bible. He was instructed by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer. This was so that he could experience, and then communicate to his peers, what it was like for the Lord to have his “wife” – the people of Israel – constantly unfaithful to him through worshipping false gods.

As I look at modern Tasmania, I sometimes feel a little like Hosea. I love this place, yet Tasmania, like Gomer, seems always ready to run off after false gods. In the post war years this included the idea that we could become a manufacturing centre – “The Ruhr Valley of the South” was the rhetoric of the time – if only we could produce enough cheap power to attract heavy industry. The loss of the irreplaceable Lake Pedder was one result of this short-skirts-and-gaudy-make-up approach. And currently it seems that we are selling off our forests for a cheap drink and a bit of slap-and-tickle, while only the Madam makes any money.

I have recently returned from Alaska, a place with many resonances for a Tasmanian. Alaska is seen – indeed their vehicle number plates proclaim it – as “the last frontier”. (We are “Your Natural State”.) When Alaska was purchased from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2million (about 2c an acre), it was derided by the press and many politicians as a waste of money for a useless “ice-box”. (While no-one had to buy Tasmania, I’m sure some of you consider us to be Australia’s bar-fridge in terms of climate! And doubtless Cascade & Boags would be happy to fill that role for you!)

Despite its inglorious beginning, one of Alaska’s biggest roles today is as a reminder of what the lower 48 used to be and used to have. In Alaska you will find vast forests, huge wildernesses of ice-fields and glaciers, wildlife in unbelievable abundance. Tasmania plays a similar role for Australia, albeit on a smaller scale, especially in terms of intact wild ecosystems. Chief Geographer Henry Gannett, writing of Alaska in the late 1800s, stated that its grandeur, “is more valuable than the gold or the fish or the timber, for it will never be exhausted.“ This quote, more than a century old, sets out some of the alternatives both Alaskans and Tasmanians still face today.

And in neither place is it always a straightforward choice. In Alaska the tourists that come to see the grandeur, especially those in cruise ships, can overwhelm the local populace and the unique local culture. Juneau, the state’s capital, is dominated as much by its plethora of souvenir and merchandise shops as it is by its stunning mountainous surroundings. The locals know that you only have to go 100 metres up any hill – and there are plenty of those – and you will shake off the exercise-shy tourists. Either that or wait for winter! In Sitka, where I spent most of the last month, the best coffee shop in town, a wonderful Bohemian hang-out, is hidden away at the back of a bookshop, and thus protected from the majority of the “boat people”.

Bulk tourism of this kind seems to be a very mixed blessing. Which is where Tourism Tasmania’s “Experience Strategy” seems to me to show the way. Here it is recognised that you will only add value to tourism, and win the word-of-mouth game, if you offer an authentic experience. Can you truly experience Alaska by spending several days in a cruise ship, stopping en-masse in ports that sell food and merchandise that comes from the cruise companies, and is usually made elsewhere? And if you seldom meet a local and go no further afield than the shops, how “Alaskan” is the experience? You could see the same scenery, and more wildlife, by staying at home and watching the Discovery Channel. You would also avoid sea sickness.

Tourism Tasmania, to its credit, has recognised that tourists increasingly demand an authentic experience. Moreover they have seen that the key to providing such experiences in Tasmania is interpretation. And so a circle starts to form, cycling through experience, stories and meaning to authenticity … with interpreters central to the whole process. However it will not remain authentic if we Tasmanians “whitewash our tombs”; if we try to gloss over the tragedies of our past or the inconsistencies of our present.

American novelist David Guterson (“Snow Falling on Cedars”), who himself lives on an island, observed that:

Islands fill mainlanders with an unabashed yearning for a life simpler than the one they endure, a pared-down life in which all that is elemental - sea, wind, sun, love, the last light of day, the sand beneath fingernails - is brought to the fore-front of existence.

In Tasmania we can choose to pander to that illusion. We can try to convey that here you will find only blessed and happy people; the cleanest and greenest of economies; food and wine fit for gods; and bounteous wild and untouched wilderness, all in perfect balance. Or we can tell the truth: that the human drama, with all its pathos, comedy, tragedy, farce and struggle, is played out here in the nature culture of Tasmania, just as it is everywhere.

And yet … it seems to me that there are lessons that can be learned from observing Australia’s island state closely. Our conference theme is Nature Culture: Interpreting the Divide. Here in Tasmania if we have witnessed, and continue to witness, some of the dreadful results of the perceived divide between the two, there are also positives that have been gained. I have spoken of tragedies in relation to our Aboriginal, convict and resource extraction histories. But each of these also shows us a hopeful side. Despite everything, our Aboriginal people have survived. And their culture and presence is burgeoning, as you will witness when you hear Jim Everett or walk the Henty Dunes. Likewise our convict past, as Richard Davey so eloquently reminds us, managed to produce some unexpected – and at the time unwanted – positives in terms of resistance, ingenuity and the triumph of the human spirit. And our natural resources have not been, and will not be, completely pillaged. Here in Strahan you are on the edge of 1.38 million hectares of World Heritage Area – saved and so-proclaimed through the action of individuals who loved this wild home, and told their rulers so.

As you experience the extraordinary places around Strahan, and around the rest of Tasmania, try to resist the notion that this is a place untouched by what happens where you live. And above all reject the notion that you are an alien here. As Gary Snyder has pointed out, nature is not a place to visit, it is home1. Welcome home.

1. The Practice of the Wild, p 7