Dreaming Tasmania

Engaging Ecology
  |  Gorp.com
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The clouds in Tasmania don't really stay up in the sky: They'll be resting over the river in the morning, then they'll blow into your ears and eyes when you're on top of the Ironbound Range. Rebecca tells us that, once when she was climbing near here, she saw her shadow in the clouds below her. We are walking along the beach near New River Lagoon when the clouds to our left rise up, briefly exposing Precipitous Bluff, an aptly named geologic feature if ever I saw one. Its cliffs—made of dolerite, or solid lava—look like a transported piece of Yosemite.

I love this light show, these short appearances by rock formations the size of Staten Island. I love spending a good part of the day watching the miniature worlds of moss and ferns on top of decaying tree stumps or looking at the brown speckled sand and having the taste of ginger spring to my mouth. And I love being bone-tired at the end of each day.

Precipitous Bluffs are ancient cliffs that play a supporting role in ongoing environmental controversies in Tasmania. The bluff was included in the World Heritage Area of Southwest National Park several years ago. In return, the border of Hartz Mountain National Park was redrawn to open an area called the East Picton site to logging. Environmentalists considered this an unfair gift to the logging industry, because fire or giant locusts with suckers on their feet are the only things that could effectively harvest the timber around Precipitous Bluff, while The East Picton site is in rather accessible, flat country with plenty of old-growth forest.

Many Tasmanian environmentalists have called for a halt to the logging of native forests in Tasmania altogether. About one-quarter of the island has been saved as national parks, World Heritage Sites, and other protective designations. Environmentalists' higher aspirations may not be totally unrealistic, given that the Tasmanian electorate has often demonstrated itself to be remarkably green in its political leanings.

How did this happen? Tasmania's colonial history started as a war against nature as brutal as any recorded on Earth. How did it take only two centuries for this island to spawn so many ecologically minded people? It could be historical coincidence, but maybe it's an expression of a love for nature that was never absent: Explorers and naturalists—and even miners and loggers—have always been struck by this island's rough beauty. One mineral prospector wrote a century ago that Mount Anne, the highest peak in Southwest, was "one of the most enchanting sights that anyone ever wished to behold. This mountain has been burst open by some great power in Nature, leaving it with perpendicular watts over 4,000 feet high on three sides and filled up with a beautiful take.... The beauty here cannot be exaggerated." The tribal society that wove Tasmania's wildness into every aspect of its life has been wiped out, but Tasmania is working its magic on a huge number of those who live there now. Its beauty has become a force, its wildness a call to action.

One thing I remember about Tasmania was a stand of tea trees. Their trunks were spindly and dry; their bark felt almost like rope. The Aborigines used to sharpen them and use them as spears. English sailors boiled their leaves and made tea from them. The trees were on a bluff, overlooking a beach of boulders. The waves were huge; they curled over and stepped down themselves with a roar, then crashed into the cliffs in slow motion, drowning the beach we'd planned to walk on. We were going to have to climb over a steep headland instead. But the tea trees were shielded from the gusts of wind by the surrounding trees. All they did in that clobbering gale was clack gently together. The purity of this place hit me in a quick, peculiarly painful jolt. An hour later, we packed up camp and headed over the next mountain.


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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