Saturday, 29 March 2014

Birdman 1

               “A myth is far truer than a history, for a history only gives a story of the
                 shadows, whereas a myth gives a story of the substances that cast the
                                                                                                   Annie Besant

Wet Horses. When the aft door swung open, a mustang moisture rode into the cabin, instead of that mix of tropical rot and jet fuel that usually pries you half awake, on any twilight torpid flight through the Southern Sea. This air was all wild wet horses.
Robyn and I had flown out of one legend into another, from the story of the New Cytherea, to a saga of societal collapse. We landed on the eastern tip of the Polynesian triangle, on a triangle-shaped island of multiple mythologies. There were myths of origin, of ancestry, of the Birdman Cult, and of death and rebirth. The Dutch captain that made the made European sighting on April 5, 1722, had no idea how appropriate was the name he had chosen. Paasch-Eyland. Easter Island. Jacob Roggeveen had been in trouble in Holland, for publishing a religious pamphlet called ‘De Val van's Werelds Afgod.’ The Fall of the World's Idol. In the ocean of mythical metaphor, Jake was on a roll.
We had all arrived on the most remote inhabited island on Earth, over two thousand kilometers from the nearest human thought, and that was on Pitcairn. Unlike the year it had taken Roggeveen to get here, Robyn and I had arrived on a LAN Chile Boeing 767 in only a few hours. The original 7th century Polynesians that had spawned the Myth of Origin had taken four months in two doubled-hulled canoes, each ninety feet long. They didn’t pass through Customs, they brought them, along with warriors, tradesmen, farmers, fecundity, and ariki nobles. And ‘fowl, cat, turtle, dog, banana plant, paper mulberry, hibiscus, ti, sandalwood, gourd, and yam.’  Hotu Matu'a had led the first expedition, from the legendary land of Hiva, either the Marquesas or Mangareva in the Gambiers. When one of his wives gave birth to a son after the long voyage, the severed umbilical cord gave birth to the name of their new home. Pito-o-te-henua. Navel of the Land. Or maybe Land’s End. It was the sanctification of the greatest ocean journey of human colonization in history.
Our arrival was a little less auspicious. There was the same salt wind and pounding surf and mud and marsh, but the crowing roosters and barking dogs had been here awhile. The ariki noble that met us outside the terminal was named Bill.
“G’day.” He said, removing a little of the shine off our discovery. But William Howe was a bit of a local legend as well, and no small hero of his own myth. An Australian film set construction manager, he had arrived on Easter Island in 1993 to coordinate the production of Ken Costner’s Rapa Nui, the one with the great scenery, far too condensed history, and Puerto Rican and mixed Chinese actors speaking New Zealand-accented English, emoting to a background beat of African booga-booga music. None of these results had much to do with Bill, of course, who related the nightmare of producing a complex film in the most remote location on the planet, and a hybrid world of Latin American and Polynesian efficiency.
“It was just like the theme of the movie.” He said. “A continuous war against the landscape.” Until Bill met Edith Pakarati, and his own world collapsed in a burning hunk of love. Edith was Rapa Nui wild horse woman, whose father, one of one of Thor Heyerdahl’s informants, had told her when she was 12, that her husband wouldn’t come from Chile, but from west of Tahiti. She met Bill in the disco, and he eventually met her 22 brothers and sisters, all of whom were descended from the only 36 ancestors out of the 111 Rapanui inhabitants still alive on the island in 1877.
Edith greeted us at their Taura'a Hotel, with soft words in English and Polynesian, and hard edges to some others in Chilean Spanish. Bill said goodbye, and set off to work on their ‘new house in the country.’  I wondered to myself what country he thought he was working in.
Robyn hung up our Tahitian laundry in the bathroom, I grabbed the umbrella from its shadow against the ochre wall, and we walked into the alternating rain and sunshine of an early Sunday morning in the middle of nowhere.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Blood in Wineglass Bay 7

                         “Fire has always been and, seemingly, will always remain, the most  
                           terrible of the elements.”
                                                                                                         Harry Houdini

Fire. Australians, despite their avowed dislike of Arabs, are not all that different from the object of their disaffection. Both tribes live in geographically isolated, mostly desert, hostile environments. Both are dependant on minerals and resources, foreign cheap labor, and western nations for development and investment. Both are ambivalent about their monarchies. Both have institutionalized racism, hostility and intolerance towards immigrants, non-whites and refugees. And both treat their women almost as well as their camels. But there are important differences. Australians show their maidens and hide their emotions, except at barbies where, as in most other cathartic social occasions, the men congregate near an outdoor source of fire, and the sheilas huddle together in an interior space.
And the tiebreaker, the one compelling distinction, separating the habibis from the hoons, is firewater. Alcohol is what makes Australia ‘The Lucky Country.’
The most I could remember, about the number of bottles of wine it had taken, to put enough corks around the rim of my hat to keep the flies away, was that it was odd. As were the stories I was telling, from the wine the corks had come from. There were a lot of flies.
Smutty and the other mates, and JB and I, were raging on out the back of the shack in Susan’s Bay. I knew we were getting along famously, because everyone was a ‘bastard.’ The conversation turned to barbeque lore. Fire dreaming. I believe I had made a disparaging comment about how Antipodean barbeques, reliant on a single large metal plate to cook the meat, was nothing more than a glorified frying pan, and lacked the finesse that aerated wood smoke and grill marks could achieve.
The criticism was received with more considered mental activity and less derision than I deserved, and I was invited to ‘give it a burl.’ In Tasmania, there was still sympathy for the devil.
The corks wobbled about my head, as I pulled the iron plate off the barbie, and dropped it into the dust. JB brought over a pile of blackwood and tea tree. I filled the bottom of the grill to the top, and lit a match.
Tasmania had certainly seen fires before I had arrived. In 1967, the Black Tuesday bushfires left 62 people dead, 900 injured, and over 7000 homeless. I wasn’t trying for a new state record, but my enthusiasm to bring sophistication to my out scrub relatives, was far too untempered by the ecology I was operating in. JB was the first to offer feedback.
“Fair dinkum.” He said, as the flames licked the top of the carport.
Fifteen years after I had almost turned the east coast of Tasmania into an inferno, the Angry Summer did. A heat wave that brought 41.8°C to Hobart on January 4, 2013, the highest temperature in 120 years, kindled a six month conflagration of forty fires that burnt out fifty thousand acres of bushland, and destroyed over a hundred properties. One of them came down with the northwest wind, over the hill into Susan’s Bay. The sky was just scarlet... It burnt right to the waterline. It was just unbelievable.
Luckily for JB and Debbie, daughter Kate and her boyfriend were at the shack, and managed to save it with a lot of quick thinking, and even more water.
The elements of earth, water, fire and wind, which pumped through the heart of Aboriginal myth, also gave life to their rock paintings. Earth was the first element, from which water was liberated, from which fire was taken, from which smoke became wind. From the blood of the Tasmanian Aborigines, and the Southern Right whales in Wineglass Bay, only the elements remained.
A red and black and yellow and white sunrise broke open the morning that Robyn and I left Susan’s Bay. Just after our departure, a strange form of facial tumor, capable of dissolving parts of the skull, began destroying most of Tasmania’s devils. In 2008 high levels of carcinogenic flame retardant chemicals were found in the affected animals. It seems that, in the race to prevent any more blood from being shed into the water, the new settlers of Van Dieman’s Land are caught in a perpetual struggle, between the devil and the deep blue sea.

   “Human kinds cling to earthly things, but I seek ever to embrace the
    torch of love so it will purify me by its fire and sear inhumanity from
    my heart.”
                                                                         Khalil Gibran

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Blood in Wineglass Bay 6

The peninsula had once been the exclusive domain of the Pydairrerme people- the Oyster Bay tribe, the last place the last Tasmanian aborigines were held. For some 30,000 years they lived there off the bounty of the sea and the forest. With the coming of Europeans, they fought a desperate guerrilla war to defend it until disease and deprivation did what musketry could not. By the 1850s, the Pydairrerme had been pushed out and the whalers had moved in, and then came sheep and cattle grazing, and coal and tin mining. Even the ancient Aboriginal middens were scoured for oyster shells to make lime.
“So what’s the story of the bay?” I asked.
“In the 1820s, whalers came to Wineglass Bay.” Said JB. “There was no job more laborious, more hazardous, and more disgusting.”
The Southern Right whales swam past Wineglass Bay in the winter months, on their annual migration from Antarctica. The shore bases that were set up, precipitated violent and fatal clashes with the local Aborigines. The whalers set out in small boats to chase and harpoon passing whales. They laboriously towed the dead cetaceans back to shore, where the carcasses were butchered, and the fat rendered in large iron trypots. The slices of blubber slices, known as ‘bible leaves,’ were kept as thin as possible for the processing. The extracted oil, cooled and barreled, was shipped to Britain, where it was used for lighting and industrial lubricants, and the whalebone for ladies' skirt hoops and corsets.
In less than fifty years, by 1750, the North Atlantic Right Whale had been nearly exterminated. It took less that twenty to do the same to the Southern Right Whale on the Freycinet peninsula, in the mid-1800s.
“In that short time,” Said JB. “Whenever the whalers went about their grisly business, the sparkling bay was dyed red with blood- like rich red wine in a glass.” Between the two near extinctions, the London Morning Post, on November 1, 1786, printed a propitious prognosis for Tasmania. This thief colony might hereafter become a great empire, whose nobles will probably, like the nobles of Rome, boast of their blood. The nobles wouldn’t likely be terribly disposed, to boast of the blood of the Aborigines or the Southern Right whales that they had slaughtered, to contrive their great empire.
By the 1840s shore-based whaling was in decline. Whale stocks had been severely reduced due to years of ruthless exploitation. Deep-sea pelagic whaling, with the sperm whale as the main quarry, would dominate the industry until the 1880s. The Southern Right whale would continue to suffer.
Waste from fish processing plants allowed seagull populations to soar, without any real reliably sustainable increase in their protein source. They turned to attacking and feeding on live Right whales. Because they need to spend up to a third of their time and energy performing evasive maneuvers, the mothers spend less time nursing, and the calves are thinner and weaker.
“This is one of the ten best beaches in the world.” Said JB. “Its climate is similar to that of France.” And how appropriate. The peninsula had been named for one of the Freycinet brothers, senior officers on Nicholas Baudin’s exploration of the region in 1802, on the vessels Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste.  

   ‘High granitic mountains whose summits are almost completely barren,
    form the whole eastern coast of this part of Van Diemen's Land. They
    rise sheer from the base. The country which adjoins them is extremely
    low and cannot be seen unless viewed from only a little distance at
    sea. It is to this strange formation that we must doubtless attribute
    the errors of the navigators who had preceded us into these waters
    and who had mistaken these high mountains for as many separate

But there had been a history of loss and sadness, over the wine dark sea.

   “And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the
     winds long to play with your hair.”
                                                                     Khalil Gibran

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Blood in Wineglass Bay 5

   “The earth has received the embrace of the sun and we shall see the
     results of that love.”
                                                                          Sitting Bull

Earth. King Island was not only known for what could come out of its wind, but what could come out of its earth. Every last morsel of Black Label cloth-wrapped Cheddar and Brie and Reblochon and Blue Triple Cream and Roaring Forties Blue were brilliant, and every one could be found at the Taste of Tassie celebration at Salamanca Place, following the culmination of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. Debbie and Robyn and JB and I took it all in, the hundred of stalls of artisanal local foods, the bistro and carnival atmosphere, and the random street performers that had infiltrated the festivities. We found a table beside a large group of papier mâché skeletal zombies and a huge black raven puppet mime. Lao Hmong people had the garden market produce covered, outside the laneways and squares, in the sandstone shadows of the former warehouses, built during the whaling industry boom of Hobart port, in the early 19th century. I loved the exterior lead plumbing.
Crayfish and orange roughy and oyster and salmon mongers shared space with the microbrewery owners and, most exciting for me, as a vintner and patron of the Heartbreak Grape, the largest collection of pinot noir winemakers, outside of Beaune, under one roof.
“Let’s go taste Tassie.” I said to JB. Though not strictly an oenophile, JB had several remarkable traits that would serve to enhance the adventure we were about to embark on. First, he was of good convict stock, and was discriminating in his choice of beverages. Second, he had knowledge of local lore, and knew some of the pinot purveyors personally. But it was his third attribute that would take us beyond plebian and into the patrician. JB’s brother, Jimmy, was the owner of the most famous seafood restaurant in Hobart. Robyn and I had eaten there, and its reputation was well deserved. Any budding yeast winemaker would give his first born, to have a fair go at the restaurant’s sommelier, a fact that I was not about to leave unexploited.
The only brakes on our escapade, were the tasting fees that each winery imposed on prospective buyers, to ensure that the descendants of half the original population of Van Dieman’s Land, was not unfairly rewarded for their thirst. Because of the stars in the eyes of the pinot pourers, however, this turned out to be a totally ineffectual impediment. Perhaps it was my initial introductory pitch.
“Hello.” I said. “I’m an international pinot aficionado from Canada. I’m sure you know JB, whose brother Jimmy is the proprietor of the finest seafood restaurant in town, and is always looking for exceptional wines to showcase from his cellar.” The response was immediate, and generous.
“No worries.” They would say, pouring out large samples of their reserve pinot, in the large glasses they kept under the counter for their special customers. No money crossed hands. I took their card, and JB and I went on to the next one.
This strategy worked fabulously for the first few suppliers, until the cumulative effects of their serial indulgences came up and whacked our heads. It became increasingly more difficult to maintain coherent speech, or strategy. Our final attempt to procure a free méthode champenoise fizzled rather than fizzed.
“Hello.” I believe I said. “ This is JB. His brother is a big bastard. Let’s have some bubbly.” We were done. Out of the earth of the Natural State, the Island of Inspiration, and A World Apart, Not A World Away, we had gone to ground.
Even in the world’s most remote penal colony, wine and terroir were inextricably shackled. On another day we had picnic at Morilla Estate. It was for sale, and I seriously considered making an offer, before Robyn made a more serious counteroffer. JB knew one of the originally transported, who baited his sale of an ancient Grange Hermitage, with a half decent 1967 Seppelt Great Western Colin Preece Memorial Burgundy. I should have known it wasn’t worth it by the ullage hanging below the neck of the bottle. I did manage to score a 1990 Henscke Hill of Grace at a local wine shop, and this would prove magnificent, ten years later.
We took Win out to a winery lunch out up the Freycinet Penisula, an outcrop of wild, pristine coastland on Tasmania’s east coast, eighty miles north of Hobart. And then JB suggested we leave everyone, and go walkabout.
“Where are we going, JB?” I asked.
“Wineglass Bay.” He said. And we began our trek along a path lined with white-flowering Kunzea myrtle, buzzing with insects, past eucalypts with moth larvae scribbles, climbing uphill through the three bare jagged pink and grey Devonian granite peaks of the Hazards, rising in a line from the sea like the Pillars of Hercules.
About forty-five minutes in, we came to a ridge, flanked by rock walls dappled with bright orange lichen. It was the same lookout view that Louisa Meredith wrote about, in 1853.

   ‘On either side of the ravine rose the towering summits of the
    mountain, bare masses of granite heaped up on high like giant altars,
    or rising abruptly from belts of shrubs and trees, like ancient fortress
    walls and turrets. But the downward and onward view was like
    enchantment! Far below my giddy perch...lay, calmly slumbering in
    the bright sunshine, that blue and beautiful nook of the Pacific named
    Wineglass Bay.’

I drank in my first sight of Wineglass Bay, a flawless dazzling white sand crescent fringed by a sapphire-colored sea, framed by sparkling roseate granite sea cliffs. A wombat crossed our path.
A sea eagle soared above us, black cockatoos and green rosellas flitted through the trees, native hens scurried through the scrub, and penguins waddled up the beach to their burrows. Pacific Gulls and Pied Oystercatchers waddled on the beach. Seals and bottlenose dolphins and a southern right whale played offshore.
“I see why they called it Wineglass Bay.” I said, appreciate the symmetry.
“That’s not why.” Said JB. And we continued downhill, towards the beach, through a wild hinterland of heath and Casuarina forest, punctuated with banksia, orchids, wattle and honeysuckle, melaleuca, and Oyster Bay pine.
A half hour later we emerged to a Bennett’s Wallaby on the beach, waiting for us, with a joey in her pouch. There were dunes behind the beach and, at the other end, there was a backwater, tea-stained from the Leptospermum 'tea tree'. The odd 'blue bottle' Portuguese Man' o war lay on the white sand with loaded tentacles, waiting. Even here, was a Fatal Shore. But not as fatal as what named it.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Blood in Wineglass Bay 4

The winds of Tasmania, which keep the green-patterned ground parrot from even thinking about nesting higher up in the trees, may be finally finding a benevolence. One of the most galvanized of Australian icons. Southern Cross windmills, produced by the thousands at the Griffiths brothers factory in Toowooba, still pump water all over the back of beyond. But a new generation of wind power is in the works for King Island, off the northwest corner of the Fatal Shore, in the Roaring Forties of the Bass Strait. A 300-turbine wind farm had been proposed which, if built, would make it the largest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere. When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.

'If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.'
                                                                              Khalil Gibran

                                                                          *         *        *

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Blood in Wineglass Bay 3

                           “No wind is of service to him that is bound for nowhere.”
                                                                                          French Proverb

Wind. JB and I would sit out the back of the shack, and play our didgeridoos. He had a real Yidaki eucalypt drone pipe, six feet long, hollowed out by termites, painted by a Yolngu from Arnhem Land, with wild black beeswax around the ‘sugarbag’ mouthpiece, and the non-harmonic spaced resonances that he produced with his asymmetric instrument.
I had length of PVC plastic pipe with a rubber stopper, but I kept up the circular breathing and vocalizations of my own aural kaleidoscope of timbres, imitating dingoes and kookaburras and thunder, and wind.
During the Age of Sail, it was another kind of wind, the Roaring Forties that ‘ran the easting down,’ and took the last breath from the last thylacine tiger, and the indigenous people that had lived there for at least 35,000 years. It was the site of the worst atrocities against the black man, the place of bread buttered with arsenic for the unsuspecting, and the terminal Black Line beating, in the hunt for the last survivors.
During the Royal visit of 1868, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, at the 28th Derwent River regatta, met ‘the last representative of the Tasmanian Aboriginal race, King Billy and the old woman Trugannini.’ King Billy’s other name was William Lanne, and he was the last captured male to die.
Even his death in 1869 gave him no respect. Dr Lodewyk Crowther removed his head at the Colonial Hospital, in the name of science. Neither it, nor the tobacco pouch that was made out of his scrotum, has ever been found. By 1876, the entire population of Tasmanian aborigines had been annihilated.
In the 50 years from 1803 to 1853, those same winds had brought more than 75,000 convicts to Van Diemen's Land.
‘They call it the end of the world, and for vice it is truly so. For here wickedness flourishes unchecked.’
Tasmania, haunted by extinction, was the first place in the Southern Sea where the headhunters and the cannibals had been the white guys.
Alexander Pearce had eaten all seven of the other convicts that escaped with him from Macquarie Harbor in 1822. He had originally been transported from Ireland for ‘the theft of six pairs of shoes, but he did himself one better, as he and his mates traversed the west coast, on the way back to Hobart.

        ‘And I said, right there’s another one, don’t you frown,
         Chew the meat and hold it down, It’s a tale they won’t believe
         When I get down to Hobart town.’
                      Weddings Parties Anything, A Tale they Won't Believe

His captors eventually found parts of one of the bodies in Pearce's pockets. He was executed at the Hobart Town Gaol at 9am on July 19, 1824, after receiving the last rites from Father Connolly. Just before he was hanged, Pearce said, ‘Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork.’
The wind caused more tragedy, when Robyn and I returned to Tassie, in 1998. The Bluewater Classic Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, over a thousand miles of high winds and difficult seas and ‘southerly buster’ storms, was widely considered to be one of the most difficult yacht races in the world. Of the 115 boats that left Sydney on Boxing Day, only 44 eventually made it to Hobart. Five boats sank and six people died. We hung around the winner’s boat, Sayonara, but no one was in a celebratory mood.