This flicker of prose is dedicated to my partner Taylor. Kindred spirit and lover of wild things.
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot…Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with with. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a masque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” ALDO LEOPOLD, Madison, Wisconsin, 4 March 1948. From "A Sand County Almanac".
One of the smartest bushmen I know told me about Aldo Leopold when I worked as a seed harvester with him in my early twenties. He would climb the tallest flowering tree in the world, Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus Regnans) and with surgical precision drop limbs to the ground for us to harvest. In a team of no more than three, we would use chainsaws and secateurs all day, surrounded by the flowering giants. The idea was simple, use the chainsaw to get your limb condensed into a pile of workable branches, then cut the seed off with secateurs into a waiting canvas sack.
The occasional squall of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos would screen the sky. The forest canopy was dense, old, what little light space was available would be momentarily blanked out by the Cockatoos. We worked in any weather, and rarely saw anyone else, even though these were public forestry roads. Each morning, before first light, we would bundle into the front of the Landcruiser and make our way into a State Forest. My favourite part of the job was the exploration of new ground. The faithful Landcruiser would grip and shoulder any terrain, from dangerous red clay to rocky and rutted goat tracks. We would stop eventually, usually on a roadside pullover in the middle of nowhere. One of the jobs was to get a fire going on those freezing, bitterly cold mornings. During smoko we would sit near the fire and dry soaked work gloves. The steam would curl from us and the gloves. I recall a period of days with snow.
Seed harvesting draws in a certain breed of person, someone who doesn’t necessarily need modern comforts. Someone who likes the wild things in their simplicity. This isn’t meant to be an arrogant statement, just a matter of fact way of saying that people are different. Here on Maatsuyker, I’d compare seed harvesting with the fishermen who work the Southern part of Tasmania. Often away for long periods of time, no stranger to bad weather and isolation. These people have a respect for the land and sea.
The following is a partly romantic, quietly scientific exploration of Wilderness in relation to my life and my experiences to date on Maatsuyker Island. It’s a selfish endeavour that is deeply personal. I had to write it, likely will read it only once, and maybe again in a matter of years. Aldo Leopold, amongst others are the inspiration for the piece.
Two years ago I read an Obituary which stuck with me. It was written by caugustelliot, a former soldier with the Australian Army, about someone he served with in the Australian Army - Ashley Johnstone. In his obituary, he quotes from another, that of Mountaineer Bill Denz, written by David Austin in Alpinist magazine. On a climb of Mescalito and the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in 1978, Denz recalls something his dentist once told him.
“Young men must go into the mountains because they long for war”.
At first I felt guilty for relating to this statement. Guilty because being able to relate to it meant that I too longed for war. Over time, I realised it doesn’t have to be taken literally, war can be a longing for adventure, for love, for struggle. This last point is important.
“Like Bill Denz, neither myself nor Ash had found a worthy “struggle” in the military. So, like all young men of our generation, we sought struggles elsewhere. I chose to pursue a life of mountain climbing and the life of a struggling writer. Ash chose to go and fight with the Kurds on the frontlines of Syria.” (caugustelliot)
I never enlisted in the military, though seriously considered it at times. Instead, I found my struggle elsewhere.
In 2009, terrible wildfires blazed Victoria, Australia. They came to be known as Black Saturday. I was overseas at the time, but quickly found out that many people had died in the town where I worked. My family was ok, I felt terrible for those that lost theirs. I also felt guilty for feeling so low when I hadn’t suffered immediate loss. That guilt carried on for years. The immediate reaction of the community was resilience. I worked in a pop up cafe with my boss, younger sister and other locals. We operated in the open air, under a rotunda and in a golf course. All we needed were a few tables, a tap and a generator. In the meantime, I helped repair the actual cafe building. We spent the following Winter in a tent funded by bushfire recovery money. We had salvaged the coffee machine and used a BBQ outside for cooking. I remember snow falling on the BBQ one day, I was the cook!
I just did what everyone else did, help out when you’re needed. Even so, I remember the questions, comments and inappropriate comments from some visitors vividly. ‘Did you lose anyone?’, was just one question. I was angry then, hid it but it lay there. Now, I accept that some people don’t have that filter, the common sense one. Either that or they were a journalist. I was also there through choice, this was part of the grieving process for me.
My dad found an ad in the local paper for summer fire crew. I got the job and worked 3 fire seasons as wildfire firefighter. I developed a healthy respect for fire that still exists. Wildfire on the mainland is like the ocean surrounding Maatsuyker. It can and will harm you. Fire is still a part of my work and my life.
In 2009, came the mountains. I became a weekend regular on the Cathedral ranges in whatever the weather. The first time I hiked the range I was vaguely fit, carrying the wrong gear and full of confidence. I camped overnight, saw no-one and was scared shitless by deer honking in the night. So followed a love of isolation and remote places.
I found that if you pushed yourself hard enough, you felt better. I would head up the range via a track called Neds Gully, then I would trace the Ridgeline all the way to Sugarloaf peak, head down the vertical sheerness that is Wells Cave and run back along the gravel forestry road to the car. It was about 15km with half of it a hike/rock scramble and half of it a run on the road home. I did it over and over, most weekends for a long time. People sometimes asked me what I was training for, I didn’t really know. I don't think I needed a reason.
What I was really doing was trying to find my connection to the ‘wild things’. I sought solitude and tried to define Wilderness in my mind. I felt that mountains were spiritual, though I didn’t call myself religious.
To me, Wilderness was vast untouched tracts of land, where the flora and fauna lay undisturbed from human interference. Of course such areas don’t really exist anymore.
“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” (Aldo Leopold)
Pioneers may have killed the wilderness, but that didn’t stop me from chasing it. Both before I met Taylor, and now with her. Light-keeping is a dead and buried industry, since coming to Maatsuyker we both mourn its loss.
The shovel and the axe:
I believe that freedom without blank spots on the map is comparable to the passing of certain vocations. Or at least they go hand in hand. Light-keeping and light-houses are a romantic notion, when you hear and read stories and accounts of actual life it is mentally and physically demanding. Living on Maatsuyker, we are lucky to get a taste of that life. Some ‘keepers’ lived here for 9 years, a hard life. Reading historical accounts of life here, I find myself wishing more and more that it was not a dead trade.
There is very little mechanisation here on Maatsuyker, with the exception of “Dave’ the 4WD and the propelled mowers. Nearly every hand tool conceivable hangs from the workshop wall. Piles of PVC conduit, wire, scrap copper, metal pipe, guttering, lumber, taps, lead, fittings and every nut bolt and screw lie in abundance. The return to working with what you have is refreshing. Being able to go to Bunnings is too easy, making something from nothing is good for you. It’s good to ‘not’ have things.
"When some remote ancestor of ours invented the shovel, he became a giver: he could plant a tree. And when the axe was invented, he became a taker: he could chop it down." (Aldo Leopold)
When we sweep the drains with our homemade conduit brooms, I wonder if I couldn’t just do it easier with a leaf-blower? And of course the answer is yes (sometimes) it would be easier. But when I follow all these solutions to the end, I realise there are always easier ways to do something. In many ways, doing it the easy way takes away from the experience. At the end of the day, this is the closest we will ever get to living like it was in the 1890s. The irony of writing this on a MacBook and posting via Satellite internet is not lost on me here. But still, it is. Not only this, but I believe that similar logic is the reason why light-keeping ended. A cheaper, more efficient modern lighthouse that is self-sufficient VS three families living on an island with regular supply drops.
I will take my experiences of the shovel and the axe away from Maatsuyker and try to pass them on. Sometimes I’ll smash rock up to use in concrete just because I can. We used the last bag of pre-mixed ‘rapid-set’ making a step, from then on we’ve broken up rock to use with a stone hammer in our own mix. I’ll forever be on the lookout for scrap copper from hot water tanks, what a beautiful material that is to work with (even as an amateur)! I’ll keep chopping wood because it’s the way I was raised and I need to do it. I’ll always record the weather and always search for those blank spaces on the map.
I don't believe there is much true wilderness left, and for those who crave the wild things, that will always be difficult to accept. I do believe that Maatsuyker Island is just about the closest I will get to living in a ‘wild’ place. It’s also true that life here has inspired me (us) to perhaps seek a different life. I suppose that could be struggle enough.
It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese. So would I- if I were the wind. (Aldo Leopold)
Note. The photo above is the yacht 'Morning Star', recent competitor in the Melbourne to Hobart yacht race. Morning star passed by Maatsuyker Island in swells of up to 5.0m, gale force winds and hail. Both Taylor and I took many photos of the yachts.