Wednesday 29 December 2010

Wild Gifts at Christmas

Christmas decoration: the flower of a Tasmanian waratah

Christmas is a bittersweet time. There’s joy in spending the day or days with friends and family, but there are also pangs for those you love who are absent or gone. And then there are the presents: a whole mixed bag in and of themselves. They can range from funny to groanworthy, and from over-the-top to very touching.

But sometimes gifts at Christmas can be unexpectedly wild. Like the late gift that came to our habitat garden on Boxing Day. With a mixture of science and faith I had planted a garden that was supposed to be something of a gift to the wild creatures of the local area. The theory was that planting local native plants in your garden would attract wildlife, as they would see it as part of their habitat. “Build it and they will come” as Danielle Wood had written in a newspaper article on my book and garden. There’s more in my blog here:

And sure enough, on Boxing Day 2010, three wise birds came calling. Actually “calling” isn’t quite how most people would describe the sound made by yellow-tailed black cockatoos (Calyptorhyncus funereus). As the three seriously comical birds raucously squawked and flapped and lolloped their way over the valley, they spied a couple of honeysuckle banksias (Banksia marginata) in the garden.

For the next quarter of an hour the birds sat in the tree working over the banksia cones to remove the seeds, chattering to each other in a series of low-key scratchy squawks. For the gardener it was like having a child open their present, then leap and squeal with joy.

A black cockatoo: a late Christmas gift in a banksia tree

The local bush too is capable of decorating itself for Christmas, and offering gifts to those who seek them. On a Christmastide wander on Kunanyi/Mt Wellington we found Tasmanian waratahs (Telopea truncata) lighting up the bush with their wonderfully red spidery flowers. They obviously have sweet nectar too, judging by the plethora of winged and legged insect life they were attracting.

A scoparia bloom: sharp but sweet

Small patches of scoparia, normally the (literal) scourge of the bushwalker, were also in bloom; all sweetness and coloured light to suit the season. The flowers bulge with nectar-filled globules. A few year back I saw a Bennetts wallaby supping on some of these flowers. Out of curiosity I too nibbled a few, and they were indeed as sweet as honey.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

"From One Quaking Tussock to the Next”: Walkers and Buttongrass

[A wry celebration of Tasmania's buttongrass: originally presented as the evening entertainment at a scientific workshop in July 2007]

Buttongrass, with it characteristic seed heads reaching skyward

Somehow I have found myself at a buttongrass management workshop. As a bushwalker, surrounded by people who love buttongrass, I wonder whether I should feel a bit like a train-spotter among railtrack engineers? Or a swimmer among hydrologists? 

Surely for bushwalkers, buttongrass is nothing more than stuff you have to travel over or through, at best an inconvenience, at worst a hated impediment. That kind of thinking has quite a tradition. Consider the following accounts from travellers over the last couple of centuries.

A track cutter’s attitude to buttongrass is typified by D. Jones in 1881.

“Whenever we could get a fine day we burned what we could, and the benefit to us was incalculable, rendering the travelling comparatively easy.”  

Fellow track cutter Thomas Bather Moore and his helpers similarly “put a match” to great swathes of moorland. He describes a typical instance near Frenchmans Cap in 1887.

“We found the fire had done excellent work and was still blazing ahead . . . The fires burned for a week, and cleared the hated buttongrass and bauera splendidly, in all directions for miles.”

From the same year here’s the more genteel James Backhouse Walker in his travel book “Walk to the West”.

“The worst of button grass is that the tussocks are so placed that [it] is equally difficult to walk between them as on them, and as the boggy ground is generally undermined by ‘crabholes’ made by a little land-lobster, you find yourself now twisting your ankle by an insecure tread on the top of a springy tussock, now plunging over the top of your boot-tops into a mud hole, each a sufficiently exasperating alternative. A few miles of this sort of walking tends to become monotonous.”

Onwards to the 20th century, at the beginning of which photographer JW Beattie made a trip into “the Barn Bluff country”. He and his party are benighted on the buttongrass plains beneath Mt Oakleigh, an experience he doesn’t appear to have enjoyed. 

“On we went … stumbling and splashing, moving slowly in single file. Sometimes down would go one of the pack horses, and the procession would stop until the order was passed along to move on again, then more stumblings, shoutings, boggings right up to the knees, complete collapses over the wretched grass clumps, wringing wet, and still on we had to move.”

Buttongrass in snow, February Plains, Tasmania

As the century proceeds, the feelings persist. Dr C.S. Sutton’s 1928 sketch of the vegetation of Cradle Mt. curtly tells us that buttongrass “occupies much of the wet, sour ground in the valley.”  Even the customary lyricism of Charles Barrett, in his 1944 celebration of Tasmania entitled “Isle of Mountains”, falls flat before our famous sedge. During a walk he describes “millions of little flower faces brightening the drab-coloured button-grass which flourishes in Cradle Valley.”

Keith Lancaster’s report of a Launceston Walking Club trip to Frenchmans Cap” in 1951, reinforces this desire for botanical diversity.
“The stretches of button grass along the Loddon Plains had their monotony broken by occasional Xyris, Patersonia and Styllidium blooms and several little clusters of the delicate little violet Utricularia.”

ET Emmett in “Tasmania By Road and Track” describes a trip on the Overland Track in the late 1940s.

“After lunching by the sandy shore of a pine-fringed lake all we had to do was to stumble through five miles of button-grass, cross a couple of rivers and follow a real track that leads to Cynthia Bay at the south end of Lake St Clair.”

Another public servant, former Conservator of Forests L.G. Irby, had a truly original take on what to do with buttongrass. He has left us an intriguingly titled two-volume work, “Conquest of the Button Grass Plains and Heathlands of Tasmania”. In it he outlines his experiment in transforming buttongrass plains into agricultural land. He claims “that excellent pastures can be established at a cost, ex fencing and farm buildings, not exceeding twenty pounds per acre” (this in 1955 currency). He also contends that these “formerly treeless wastes”  could be turned into conifer forests, producing millable trees with heights of 70 feet in 14 years. (I would suggest that leaking this report to Gunns might not be a good idea if you value the retention of buttongrass moorland as “treeless wastes”.)

Moving closer to our own era, C.J. Binks in his 1980 book “Explorers of Western Tasmania” gives a long and fair description of buttongrass, and its prevalence in western Tasmania. But in flatly disagreeing with Irby’s hopes, he declares that “button grass has so far defied efforts to tame it for man’s use.” He sums up tartly: it is “useless to man.”

Botanist I.J. Edwards, in “The South-West Book” (1983 edition) informs us buttongrass is the climax species on very poorly-drained sites in the south-west. His first-hand experience of walking there would be backed up by many a bushwalker. He tells us “progress over such an area is quite hazardous, as one must jump from one quaking tussock to the next.”

Let’s hear again the litany of buttongrass descriptors we have so far uncovered: hated, useless, wretched, monotonous, drab-coloured, insecure, exasperating, hazardous, sour, waste. If buttongrass were a child raised on that kind of language, you would fear for its self-image. Can we say nothing more positive about it?

With some difficulty I have uncovered a few passages that might be thought to reflect a little more favourably on buttongrass. Let’s return to 1887 and James Backhouse Walker, who eventually started to really see the buttongrass, even while calling it “a curious production of nature”. He continues: 

“A walk across the Western Country affords large opportunities for studying it at leisure. It . . .  is not particular about its abode. It is a thin leaved yellow rush growing in thick tussocks 2 or 3 feet across, and each tussock bearing a few flower stalks some feet long and about as thick as a stout knitting needle, adorned at the top by a seed vessel like a rounded marble or button – from this button it derives its name.”

At least he is really looking now, and eventually he can’t help but see some poetry in the views around the Navarre Plains. 

“The most striking were the precipitous bluffs and peaks of Mount King William rising in our front from dark green forest, beyond a broad foreground of button-rush plain glowing with every blended tint of yellow, red and brown.”

A very different poetry emerges a century later from Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, Les Murray. After a visit to Tasmania in the 1980s, he wrote “Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands”, a poem that has been widely praised and anthologised. I suggest you don’t try to understand this poem, but rather just go with its flow of images and words.

“Flashy wrists out of buttoned grass cuffs, feral whisky burning gravels,
jazzy knuckles ajitter on soakages, peaty cupfuls, soft pots overflowing,
setting out along the great curve, migrating mouse-quivering water,
in the high tweed, stripping off its mountains to run faster in its skin.”

Murray goes beyond simply seeing. He is having total sensory immersion in buttongrass. Perhaps the first step to us achieving something similar is the simple act of standing. I literally mean standing still in the middle of buttongrass. Is there anything that can give you a greater sense of arrival in the Tasmanian wilderness than being surrounded by buttongrass? 

Consider what else you might experience. If it’s a hot day, you may feel the stored-up warmth of the peat radiating out towards you, the buttongrass stalks becoming antennae that focus the heat onto you. Or in the rain, cease your talk, soften your breath and listen. Can you hear the dripping of water from the stalks? Do the droplets runnelling down towards the heart of the grass make a sound? And when saturation point is reached can you make out any trickling, burbling or squelching coming from the earth beneath you? If you’re up early on a still morning, look for bedewed webs spanned between the patient stalks. Not one, not a few, but hundreds and thousands of exquisite ephemeral arachnid artworks.

When you’ve been in its midst for a while, you may even find yourself removing your hat in a mixture of awe and admiration for what this vegetation community has achieved. On the workshop's field trip many of us had the chance to do just this. For an hour or two we stood out in the south-west’s elements, thinking ourselves brave in our thermals and “Goretices” (that’s the official plural of Goretex). And then we scurried   back to our bus and returned to warm and comfortable habitats. 

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every week, every year, every decade, every century, every millennium for the last several thousand millennia, with no time off for good behaviour, these moorland communities have stood out there. Through sun and snow, freeze and thaw, flood and drought, fire and wind, buttongrass has not only stood, but thrived and spread to become the signature floral species of the south-west. It might not be greatly loved, but you have to admire its persistence and success (a bit like John Howard, I suppose).

Having gone from the sublime to the gor’ blimey, I would like to finish with reflections on the lighter side of buttongrass. I want to introduce you to three games that you might try when you’re next out among the buttongrass. 

Sometimes walkers CAN skirt the buttongrass

The first is a time-honoured game, and there are still some who like to play it, even if the correct attire is becoming harder to procure. My experience of this game, which I will call “Where’s Wally?”, dates back to the early 1980s. Picture the scene: my walking friends and I are in the Cuvier Valley, to the west of Lake St Clair. Remember that in this era Goretex is still a dormant synapse in some chemist’s brain, and we, like most bushwalkers, have been outfitted at the nearest army surplus store. Picture us in our khaki woollen trousers, our drab woollen jumpers, hand-knitted woollen beanies, ex-army boots and gaiters. As the rain descends I stop and drop my khaki canvas H-frame haversack, and reach inside for my state-of-the-ark oilskin.

But my companions have moved on into the gathering gloom. When I’ve finally got my jacket on, I look up to find that they’ve disappeared. Misty rain blurs whatever distinction there may have been between their clothing and the surrounding buttongrass. As an aside, I will confess that I’ve never actually walked with a Wally, but “Where’s Wally?” sounds better than “Where’s Jim?” or “Where’s Ken?”. And the effect is the same. My khaki-clad companions have become invisible against the buttongrass. 

So the aim of the game is simply to find your companions again. After 5 minutes of trying – back there in the Cuvier Valley circa 1981 – I began to feel a bit like a member of the legendary Heckarwee tribe. A congenitally short-statured tribe, averaging only 4 feet in height, they were said to wander around the 5 foot-high grasslands of Central America saying “We’re the Heckarwee!”

The second game sounds similar, but there are key differences. The aim of this game is to seek and find discarded footwear in buttongrass bogs. I call this game “Vhere’s Volley?” for reasons that might require a little explanation. For decades now walkers from mainland Australia, in particular those from NSW, have run a noisy campaign against traditional leather walking boots, preferring Dunlop’s lightweight tennis shoes known as Volleys. Here’s an early example of their propaganda taken from the book “Paddy Pallin’s Bushwalking and Camping” (1985 edition, written by Tim Lamble, pp 48-49). 

Intrinsic in the protection offered by a boot is the lack of care needed to place the foot on the ground. The picture of a relentless army, crunching its way across the country, is not far removed from the practice of some walkers. The lighter shoe reminds its wearer of the sensitivity of both foot and countryside.

This high-sounding rhetoric dissolves before the acidity of the peaty mud underlying buttongrass, which will soon remind the wearer that Dunlop Volleys were never made to stand up to Tasmanian conditions. They deteriorate rapidly on such trips, soon gaping, and leaving the tender mainland foot open to the elements. Even legendary NSW Volley walker Dave Noble confessed as much when he told aus.bushwalking that Volleys “tend to rot a bit quicker in the acidic buttongrass water - and you can only get about two weeks solid walking out of a pair.” 

But more than that, Volleys can’t always be successfully extracted along with the foot when you step into a deep mudhole. Thus do buttongrass moorlands become graveyards for inadequate footwear, and deliver us the wonderful game: “Vhere’s Volley?” For this game you simply need a rubber-and-canvas-seeking equivalent of a metal detector, and a pen and paper to keep score. I admit I haven’t tried it out yet, but I would envisage world record scores coming out of places like the Cuvier Valley.

The third and final game very neatly combines botany and ornithology. There’s a delightful synchronicity about it in our current context, as it features a bird that is almost totally associated with buttongrass. I’m referring to the ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus). The alert among you may already be anticipating the name of this game, but I would urge you to hold your council for just a moment. My experience of this game is restricted to the area around Melaleuca in the south-west, but I understand it can be played in many other parts of western Tasmania, even at the Strahan airfield.

The key to the game is to find one of these birds before it finds you. This is easier said than done. I first played it on the boardwalk between Melaleuca and Cox Bight. As I walked along in a boardwalk-induced trance, I was startled by a sudden rush of wings. A brownish/greenish blur arced across the track, at a very low trajectory, and settled into the buttongrass some 20 metres ahead. Each time I came near, it would repeat the performance, doing so for well over a kilometre. And yet in all that time, despite having a good bead on the whereabouts of the parrot, I could never spot it before it flew off.

Of course the game is called “Where’s Wallicus?”, and I would encourage you all to try it out when next in the area.

Monday 20 December 2010

Thoughts from the Overland Track: Part 3 - Transitions

Lake Will, with Barn Bluff behind (Cradle Mt-Lk St Clair National Park, Tasmania)
To live is to be in transition. And for me, extended walking is both a metaphor for such change, and an opportunity to reflect on it.

On the Overland Track, with the clutter of urban life on hold, transitions become clearer. For a start there is the weather. It comes and goes in all its swirling, inconvenient, thrilling, inexorable and transitory glory. And for better or worse, you’re out there with it.

On day two we leave Waterfall Valley with cloud shredding from the summit of Barn Bluff. By the time we reach the turn-off to Lake Will, hardly an hour later, the spring sun has burned the cloud away. For the first time in many visits to the area, I will see Lake Will in still and brilliant sunshine.

The lake is shallow, formed in an ice-scooped depression left behind by the last glaciation. If the lake has any frozen memories, it is keeping them to itself today. It shimmers and scintillates beneath the darkly handsome bluff. Yet the next day the cloud will return, and the day after that Barn Bluff, along with all the higher peaks along the track, will have a light cloak of new snow.

We are noticing other transitions by then. Before and after Lake Windermere, we begin to conjecture that buttongrass rules here. The high, wide and gently undulating valleys are covered in the sedge and its associated species. They give the area such a tawny gold hue that some European explorers envisioned vast livestock herds grazing here.

But then, quite suddenly, as we draw close to Mt Pelion West, we dip into wet forest. The mountain draws moisture to itself, even here on its leeward side. That combined with the easterly aspect and the steep slope, lays the foundation for a forest of myrtle beech, sassafras, king billy pine and celery-top pine.

"Gondwanan" wet forest in the Pelion area, Overland Track
In human terms buttongrass’s dominance is ancient, partly the result of Aboriginal burning over perhaps 40 000 years. But the wet forests which have retreated to the soggy slopes and gullies are another order more ancient still, dating back to Gondwanan antecedents that originated maybe 100 million years ago.

Here in the Pelions the interface between wet forest species, and grasses, sedges and trees such as eucalypts, represents an evolutionary frontline. It is the transition zone between ancient moisture-loving, fire-sensitive plants and those which ultimately benefit from fire and drought.

If you combined the patience of Job and the life span of Methuselah, you would still struggle to witness this botanical changing of the guard. But if – as seems likely – we are in transition from cooler and wetter to warmer and drier climate, it’s a change that looks irresistible.

All the more reason to love what we have while we still have it.

Friday 17 December 2010

Brickendon and Woolmers

Some pictures to tell the story of Brickendon and Woolmers, two convict-worked, World Heritage listed farms near Longford in northern Tasmania. Please click on the link beneath this image to view the album.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Nature Writing Prize

It's time to get that writing out of your bottom drawer, especially if it's related to nature. Here's why: 

$5 000 in cash, plus airfares to Tasmania, and a two week writer's residency in one of Tassie's wilderness national parks!

That's the prize for the winner of the Wildcare Tasmania International Nature Writing Prize. Please spread the word to any writers or would-be writers you know. Details are in this flyer:

Monday 6 December 2010

Thoughts from the Overland Track: Part 2 - Currawongs

If I were to find myself in a deep, dark dungeon, and was striving to recall one sound that would lift my mind into clear, bright skies, I would choose the call of the currawong. And not just any currawong: it would have to be Strepera fuliginosa, the black currawong, found only in Tasmania.

It’s early afternoon, mid-November, and the currawong’s kar-week, week-kar call welcomes us to the start of our Overland Track trip. It is a sound that locates me in the Tasmanian highlands as surely as a café accordion and a man saying ooh la la would land me in France. But just as the French might equally be arguing football or discussing Proust, so the currawong’s claxon call is far from its full story. Or so we will discover.

The weather is clearing after early showers, and currawongs are cavorting in the early afternoon sun. After the initial pack-settling climb, we pause at Crater Lake. A currawong hops up for a close inspection of our packs. It is all swagger and golden-eyed defiance, the large cutlass-like bill betraying its piratical attitude.

A curious black currawong sizes up my pack near Crater Lake, Tasmania

I casually warn the first-time walkers not to leave their packs unguarded. These intelligent and inquisitive birds have learned a few tricks, including pack-invasion. The two Dutch girls in our party look unconvinced: they’ve already heard enough drop bear, yowie and tiger leech stories in Australia to make them wary.

I click off a few portraits of the handsome pirate, then turn to concentrate on the grunt up Marions Lookout. The currawong’s call remains our occasional companion, along with its other “calling card”. These are its casts, odd-looking pellets that are somewhere between ugly red scats and huge, deformed raspberries. The casts are in fact undigested food, particularly pinkberries (from Leptecophylla juniperina), regurgitated by the birds.

A currawong's cast, full of partially digested pinkberries. (Photo courtesy of Alex Dudley)

Pelion Gap is the next place we actively notice the "pirates". Wooden platforms have been built here to manage this high traffic junction, where walkers wanting to climb Mt Ossa or Mt Pelion East can leave their heavy packs. Since they've learned their special trick, the currawongs have transformed the platform into a seasonal galley.

On a busy day there may be more than forty packs left at Pelion Gap for hours at a time. And the trick? Currawongs have learned to use their beaks to unzip packs. Once the pack is breached, the birds probe for any and everything they take a fancy to. Walkers have lost food, money, even passports to marauding birds.

The defense is to either cover your pack with a groundsheet - as the commercial groups usually do - or turn your pack onto its zips so they are minimally exposed. The three of us preparing to climb Pelion East do the latter. But when we come back, we learn that even this might not be enough. The top pocket of Tim's pack has been breached, and his mobile phone has been lifted!

After a quick search of the scoparia bushes, he locates the phone. Luckily it's still in its zip-lock bag, and undamaged by the scudding showers that have swept the Gap while we've been summitting. We can only suppose that the currawong grew tired of waiting for a signal and chucked the phone. As I said, a smart bird!

Monday 29 November 2010

Thoughts from the Overland Track: Part 1 - Mt Pelion East

[part 1 of a series of reflections on a November walk through Tasmania's Overland Track]

Mt Ossa and the rest of the Pelion Range from the slopes of Mt Pelion East

Pelion Gap, at an altitude of 1126 metres, is the high point of day 4 on the Overland Track. It is a place more exposed than most to the wild weathers that made, and continue to make, this high and rugged area what it is. My rule of thumb that there is always snow in November in the highlands holds true today. Showers turn to flurries of sago snow as we sag down at the Gap.

Its been a constant hour and a half trudge up from the Pelion Plains, but the promise of fresh bread from a friendly commercial guide has drawn us on. We top the bread with homemade raspberry jam, cheese and other delicacies. The heavenly taste brings internal sunshine even as the next snow shower swoops over the Gap.

Four members of the group think better of our earlier plan to climb Mt Pelion East. That leaves three of us to don extra layers, including gloves and overpants, before we continue up the mountain. Ive been here twice before, but it is hard to resist the short, sharp ascent up what looks an impossibly steep summit ridge.

My hazy recollection, that you walk straight towards the nipple-shaped summit before skirting left then ascending from that side, proves accurate for once. But as we start to clamber up the final steep band of dolerite, sago snow engulfs the mountain and us. We shelter behind some pillars, the sago piling up like tiny styro-foam pellets at our feet. We are in no danger. This is a half-hearted sprinkling of snow that will melt within the hour. But it does make me wonder what it would have been like here 12 000 years ago, during the last Ice Age.

Waiting out the snow showers, Mt Pelion East

Back then the confetti of snow at our feet would have been several hundred metres thick. And we would have been waiting a couple of thousand years for it to melt, giving the slowly flowing snow and ice ample time to grind away the bulk of Pelion East. The peak itself is a nunatak, meaning it stayed largely above the deep snow. But its flanks, exactly where we are standing, would have been buried deep. The brutal and relentless mass of ice would have gouged away most of the mountain side. Later that day we will find glacial erratics large boulders carried and dropped by the moving ice peppered throughout the Pinestone Valley.

I am sobered by the thought that Aboriginal Tasmanians were here during that whole age. Without the likes of boots, down jackets, Gore-Tex, polar fleece or ruck-sacks, and carrying only fire and essential tools, they ranged throughout this whole area, leaving their own erratics in the form of quarries, middens and all manner of other artefacts. The Pelion Plains and similar open buttongrass areas are probably the largest artefacts of all: the result of aeons of systematic Aboriginal burning.

The snow soon stops, and we scramble the final few dozen metres to the summit. Tim is in his element, reminded of foul-weather scrambling during his years in Scotland. Rose, from the Netherlands, is just thrilled to be in such a wild and elevated place.

From the summit we can see for a hundred kilometres or more in every direction. Across Pelion Gap is Mt Ossa, the states highest peak. For a short while the snow showers have cleared its bulky eminence, as they have the other mountains of the Pelion Range: Mt Pelion West, Mt Thetis and Paddys Nut. The wind too has dropped, and it looks like we will have at least five minutes to enjoy the summit before the next shower. On a day like today that is more than we could have asked.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Overland Track, Tasmania

[A selection of images from a recent Overland Track trip. Click on the first image to open the Picasa web album ... enjoy!]

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Peeling Back the Interpreter

[My keynote address to the Interpretation Australia Symposium in Launceston, Tasmania - November 12, 2010]

[Curiosity, openness, wide-eyed wonder: characteristics of children - and of good interpreters. My grandson Felix models it here.]


It is common to think of interpretation as layered. Many of us layer our interpretation to cater for different audiences. Some neatly categorise these audience types as streakers, strollers and studiers.

But have we considered that interpreters too are layered? Sometimes we stay on the surface and focus on what is plain to see. Sometimes we peel back the surface layers, and dig into difficult topics. And sometimes the interpretive process takes us very deep indeed; not only into our topic, but into our very selves.

It is this inner delving that forms the core of this paper. Using Tilden’s six principles of interpretation as a starting point, we ask whether it’s time to develop some new principles. Can we advance a set of principles that address the personal formation of interpreters?

We put forward some suggestions for this inward journey. We consider how these might affect the place of the interpreter in the interpretive process. And we put a question that is both idea and a challenge. If we interpreters are committed enough to our subject to go deep within ourselves, might we paradoxically end up presenting that subject to its greatest advantage?

Finding what cuts through

I live near the Hobart Rivulet. It is a narrow, brief, rushing thing, literally cobbled together from dolerite boulders torn off the crumbling flanks of Kunanyi/Mt Wellington. Steep-banked, scrubby-sided, pocked and youthful, it is a duckling with few prospects of a serene swanhood. But every so often – perhaps every other year – the rivulet asserts itself, and floods so profoundly that boulders the size of lounge chairs are tossed and tumbled by the force of water.

One such episode occurred in early August this year. The rolling boulders could be heard – or felt – from inside our house, some 100 metres away. We were inside the house, the rain thumping heavily on our corrugated iron roof clashing with the roar of the water and the loud music coming from our sound system. Yet above – or beneath – it all was a deep, visceral, almost animal thrum. The sound of boulders grinding, tearing, bouncing so vigorously that the ground shook.

[Hobart Rivulet in South Hobart in a quieter mood]

What is it in your life that thrums so deeply that it can cut through all the other things that clutter your life? Theologian Paul Tillich spoke about “the ground of our being” – what he called God. Whatever we call it, I believe most of us have that growl, that rumble – for some subliminally – that can cut through everything else; make all else seem trivial. It is worth finding the source of that thrum; worth cultivating it, and worth growing our souls in the process.

Revisiting Tilden

Such an approach actually arises straight out of Interpretation 101, that is the basics of interpretation as outlined by Freeman Tilden more than half a century ago in his book “Interpreting Our Heritage”.

In this 1957 work Tilden comes up with Six Principles. As if anticipating a generation or more of queries about the number and nature of the principles, he asks: “Now, what are these principles? I find six bases that seem enough to support our structure. There is no magic in the number six. It may be that my reader will point out that some of these principles interfinger.” Or, he continues, “since I am ploughing a virgin field so far as published philosophy of the subject is concerned, some of my readers may be provoked into adding further furrows.”

Tilden deliberately focuses the principles on what he calls the interpretive effort. But interestingly he also mentions the matter of style, which he calls a “priceless ingredient of interpretation”. Style, he says, “is just the interpreter himself.” He goes on to ask how the interpreter might give forth style, answering his own question thus: “It emerges from love.”

Was this wise elder deliberately leaving open a door to the re-interpretation of interpretation by his mention of style and “the interpreter himself”? And through his metaphor about adding “further furrows” to the field? In the early 21st century, where technique and technology are merging, and threatening to dominate the interpretive effort, I am willing to argue that he was. To me it seems the right time to turn the focus back onto the inner life – the personal formation – of the interpreter.

To do this I have attempted to re-mix Tilden’s principles with the inner life of the interpreter in mind. I hope I’ve done this with the greatest respect for Tilden who, as Sam Ham puts it, was so far ahead of his time that he could fairly be called the Einstein of interpretation.

My own humble effort is necessarily brief and tentative, with more questions than answers. But hopefully it will plough some furrows which others may follow, or into which they might sow.

Tilden’s Six Principles of Interpretation re-mixed

Principle 1) Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

Re-mixed : “Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the interpreter will be sterile.”

This is the starting point for using Tilden to explore the inward journey: the personality/experience of the interpreter. Interpretation may be an outward, audience-focused work, but in a very real sense every piece of interpretation starts within the interpreter.

There at the start of the interpretive piece we have the subject/object and we have the interpreter. And the interpreter needs to relate to that subject/object in some manner, even if it is with disdain! Otherwise a rote recital or a robot will do fine; or interpretation as a paint-by-number exercise will suffice.

So how do we learn to relate to our subjects? The poet Les Murray once said “I am only interested in everything.” We can develop an interest in many things if we cultivate an intellectual curiosity; if we read widely; if we listen to others; if we realise we don’t have all the answers; if we understand what an incredible gift life is, and how rare it is in the universe; if we not only observe life, but actually live it.

In having our personality as a focus, I am NOT suggesting that we interpreters need to necessarily have our personalities out there on show. But they should be in there and relating to our subject (and of course to our audience).

Principle 2) Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

Re-mixed: “Interpretation is not just about information, but about revelation. The interpreter must be open to revelation.”

Revelation to the audience presupposes revelation first to the interpreter. And nothing is revealed to those who aren’t looking. So again an attitude of openness is required of the interpreter. We have already touched on intellectual curiosity. To that I would add developing intelligence per se. Tertiary study is one way, but there are many others, including specialist study; careful research; wide reading; subscription to journals and good old fashioned asking questions.

Let’s seek to stay both open-minded and intellectually lithe as we grow older. Let’s resist succumbing to forces and habits that entrench and ossify our thinking. Being open to revelation, open to being shown new things, or perhaps old things in new ways, also means that we will resist fundamentalism of any sort. A closed mind will not be open to new thinking. Have an opinion; know what you believe; defend your position by all means. But remain open-minded, including to the possibility of your own biases, prejudices and fallibilities. Above all, remain open to what your life has to show you.

A willingness to sometimes be quiet and still seem important to this. In the 1940s E.H. Burgmann, Anglican Bishop of Canberra/Goulburn, reflected on the special places of his Australian bush upbringing, and the place of humans in the natural 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 own 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."

If Bishop Burgmann is right, learning from nature – and from the wider universe – may take a great deal of patience; a willingness to listen; a capacity to be still. Such openness is a kind of spiritual labour.

Principle 3) Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

Re-mixed: “Interpretation is in part an art. The interpreter needs to consider how to be/become artful.”

As well as cultivating a broad intellect, this principle asks that we cultivate art within ourselves. I see art as an attempt to give shape to the shapeless. Be it via visual arts, music, literature, movement or performance, art at its best explores big questions; questions about meaning, love, justice, and some things that we struggle to otherwise articulate.

Have you ever stood in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles at the National Gallery? Or any of Giacometti’s extraordinary sculptures? I know little of the questions asked, or the answers given by those works, and yet somehow my life is the richer for having seen them.

Consider now some of the art or music or poetry or performance that has moved you. Perhaps it is this power to move us that makes art so important. As interpreters are we still open to being moved? Are we still teachable? Or do we tend to be “know-it-alls”?

Let’s determine to remain wide-eyed and open-minded; in touch with our emotions, and self-confident enough to be moved. Because life, in all of its triumph and tragedy; its banality, joy and pathos, is an extraordinary phenomenon that ought to move us. If we are unmoved by life, if we allow a carapace of casual cynicism, a shield of self-protective fear or a façade of fascinating facts to protect us from being moved, then both we and our interpretive audiences will be the poorer.

[Power, silence, green peace: The Mersey River cuts through forest near Tasmania's Overland Track]

As well as simply experiencing art, I believe it’s important to explore and cultivate our own artistic, creative side. Whether or not this is incorporated into our interpretation is irrelevant. Every single one of us has a creative side that is wanting to be expressed, even if it’s only for ourselves or our most tolerant family and friends. What art do you, or might you practice?

Principle 4) The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

Re-mixed: “The chief aim in the inner formation of an interpreter is not just to be instructed, or to learn, but to provoke ourselves.”

If we are to provoke our audience, we can start by provoking ourselves. The literal meaning of provoke, coming from the Latin provocare, is “to call forth”. Tilden is following and quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that “it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another soul.”

Again we are talking about the things that are already there inside each one of us. The re-mixed principle asks us to “call forth”, to give expression to, to be moved by those things that matter to us.

What is it inside of you that needs to come out? I’m not speaking here about those fault lines in your personality that might best be poured out to a therapist or a confessor, as important as that may be. Rather I’m speaking of such things as your love of history; your passion for place; your anger at destructive practices; your amazement at a natural phenomenon; even your desire to connect with an audience and see the light bulb flickering on above their heads.

We can have all the knowledge there is to have about our subject, but if we haven’t been provoked in some way concerning our thoughts and feelings about that subject, then why are we trying to interpret it? We might as well be a robot.

Finding out what it is that needs to be called out of you will require reflection. This can be individual and private, but it might also come out through group work or significant relationships with others. Self-help is rarely the sole answer here, so it will be helpful to seek out others who are willing to explore these issues with you.

Principle 5) Interpretation should aim to present the whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole person rather than any phase.

Re-mixed: “In presenting to the whole person, the interpreter needs to strive to be a whole person themselves.”

All of the principles seem to lead to this one point. For how can people who aren’t personally striving to be whole aim to present the whole.

It’s not that the interpreter is some kind of perfect being, a Renaissance “man” who simultaneously rides a horse while shooting a bow and arrow, composing a love sonnet and playing a lute. Rather we ask ourselves “what is the whole; how can I be whole”? We seek for ways to integrate everything in our lives; to bring things together rather than to dissect and scatter.

Earlier I talked about true openness being a kind of spiritual labour. I used the word spiritual advisedly, because I think that part of the thrum that registers in most of our lives – more for some than for others – has to do with spirit, with soul, with the transcendent, with the mysteries that we grope towards but don’t often know with certainty.

We can approach the transcendent in many ways, and from many traditions. Prayer, music, art, meditation, poetry, worship, literature: these are some of the tools we might use. If we are to strive towards being whole people, it’s my contention that we need to find some way of approaching the transcendent.

And we need to find a language in which we can share such strivings. Australians have not always been good at articulating their spiritual or internal struggles. If we can’t easily raise such things in the average morning tea room, then at least we might try to find people with whom we can share such things. Because another truth about wholeness is that it is a corporate and not just an individual matter. We are not whole as a person if we are not in some kind of human community.

Principle 6) Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

Re-mixed: “Interpreters presenting to children follow a fundamentally different approach. In so doing they are also recognising the value of childlike characteristics for the interpreter.”

I think it would be fair to say that, as important as this principle was to Tilden, it appeared at first to be something of an afterthought. And yet … few things that look casual or throw-away in Tilden turn out to be so. Time again we find that he knew – or intuited – what later study would bear out. So here, we find him early among those who recognised the importance of reaching children through interpretation, and doing so in an age-appropriate manner.

In recognising both the importance of, and the different nature of children, we are acknowledging the importance of child-likeness. Think of characteristics we often associate with children: playfulness; curiosity; naivety; a capacity to keep asking questions; a sense of fun; a wide-eyed sense of wonder; the ready expression of emotions; a willingness to depend on others; a capacity to acknowledge ignorance … the list could go on.

Aren’t these some of the characteristics that we interpreters would want to be cultivating in ourselves? As an interpretation manager I would be more than happy to see some of them re-mixed into an interpreter’s statement of duties!

To sum up this attempt to find principles for the interpreter’s inner journey, I would like to bring together two golden threads: one from Tilden, the other from Blind Willie Johnson. The former, as we have already seen, believed that the defining ingredient for the interpreter was love. The latter, in his Depression era blues classic, asked “what is the soul of a man?” Blind Willie Johnson’s guileless answer was “it ain’t nothin’ but a burnin’ light”.

Our life, our light, isn’t going to burn forever, at least not here on earth. But while it burns, fuel it with love and shine it on things that matter.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Seeing Birdsong

[A currawong: artist as well as songbird?]

Sound, no longer defined
by our hearing. As though the tone
that encircles us
were space itself expanding.

- Rainer Maria Rilke

I sometimes see bird song. Rilke, and artists such as John Wolseley, have helped me think Im not completely bonkers.

Rilkes poem is about the sound of a bell, but the principle would seem to hold for birdsong too. Somehow sound can take visual shape can paint, sculpt or otherwise craft an image that is not just mental. That seems to also be part of what Wolseleys visual interpretations of birdsong are about. For an exhibition of his bird paintings he writes:

I have been intrigued by how often my drawings do in fact have the appearance of musical notations. The black lines and rhythmic dots made by hitting and dragging the paper against re-bounding twigs and branches often look like a musical score.

I began to realize that some of these marks have a correspondence with sonagrams or graphic representations of bird song. Not just any bird song but that of the Gilbert's Whistler or the Hooded Robin which were singing in the very trees I was moving through. It was as if the song and the carbon marks of those trees were both an expression of the energy fields of that particular habitat.

- from

Wolseleys work prompts me to think that writers too might do more in describing birdsong than offer a straight transliteration. Apart from anything else, this method doesnt always succeed. I once fell foul of a mother for describing the call of a yellow wattlebird as like strangled vomit. She told me in no uncertain terms that her young childs tender ears were offended by such a vulgar description.

[a little wattlebird, whose call is described by Simpson and Day as "harsh cackles"]

So in what sense can anyone see birdsong? I can only answer personally, but to me the voice of a single forest raven casually tears the sky, leaving slender, ragged black gaps. But when I hear a large group of them, perhaps fifty as I did last week, its as though theyre shredding the sky.

Ive read that Jackson Pollock worked with other artists in his drip-style creations, including the famous Blue Poles. In my forest the communal ravens are Pollock in reverse, stripping rather than dripping, scratching hundreds of scrawny black holes in the heavens.

Blackbirds, by contrast, seem to embroider the dawn, their calls now thin and linear, now round and flowing. Their melodic intricacy adds delicate weight to the growing glow of the sky, as perfect and welcoming a way to wake as anything, short of a lovers embrace. I for one can forgive them their feral status in return for that song.

I see other calls too: green rosellas drape their calls across the sky; clinking currawongs scissor and shear; lapwings stiletto; native-hens rasp and saw; pardalotes nip and tuck.

There are liquid visions too. Pied butcherbirds lay a flouncing, fluid layer across the sky; magpies drop globules that ripple deliciously through the heart and onwards to the horizon.

And there is so much else to see and to say, even if all attempts to convey the full feel of birdsong are vain. They are vain in the same way that transliterations are; and they fail just as impressionist painters fail; just as all art, all music, all words fall short of lassooing the wonder of life.

And what a wonderful part of life birdsong is. O Lord protect me from ever being deaf or blind to these befeathered angels, these celestial impressionists!