Thursday 11 June 2009

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

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