Brickendon to Woolmers November 2016

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

 

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‘Driving home I see those flooded fields
How can people not know what beauty this is
I’ve taken it for granted my whole life
Since the day I was born
Clouds hang on these curves like me
And I kneel to the wheel
Of the fox confessor on splendid heels
And he shames me from my seat
And on my guilty feet
I follow him in retreat’

Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

‘Okay, run,’ says my husband in an under-voice as our daughter chases quacking after a flock of ducks. We have just gotten her back from a walk that was too much for her, howling and sobbing all the way ‘Walking! Walking!’ Now she is happy again among the plum trees and outbuildings of Brickendon farm. I turn and don’t run exactly, but walk quickly in the other direction, around a corner out of sight and down the pale cream farm track running through the hedgerows and fields, running down to the Macquarie River.

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Lou and I have been planning this walk for a while. Brickendon and Woolmers are two World Heritage farming properties that face each other across a broad river valley and flood plain. I’ve worked at Woolmers and nearby Longford, picked sloes with my husband from the hedgerows to make sloe gin, loved the sunsets in this enormous sky, the sudden floods and river fogs and the enormous sense of space punctuated by the patchwork of hedges of the old ‘model’ farms. Now Lou is waiting down the other end of this lane somewhere, while my husband distracts our daughter. They will meet us on the other side.

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While today is warm, the big sky is low and curdled with clouds promising more rain. The paddocks are still green and the grazing horses stand nearly belly-deep in grass. The hedgerows are mostly hawthorn, their flowering nearly done. From within the grip of their thorns I hear the tiny ‘peeeep peeeeep’ of wrens or finches. The constant breeze flowing from the Tiers across the Midlands is delicious. It’s a beautiful day and I love it here. The Northern Midlands are bound up for me in memories of one of the happiest times of my life.

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The laneway comes to a T-shaped junction. One arm leads north to a jetty and the river. The other side runs south in the lee of another hedgerow, along the knees of the gentle hill before it falls into meadows and floodplains and the Macquarie. I keep an eye out for Lou – it’s funny. I should be able to see her. There’s surely not much between here and Woolmers hill on the other side of the river. Then I spot her, waving her arm and standing surrounded by bulrushes where the track turns east again. She is so far away she looks tiny. How could I have missed her in all this space?

When I reach her, Lou says she’s been loving the quiet and space and having it to herself for a little while. As we walk back along the path we reach the first levy wall. She tells me in a low voice that she thinks there’s a dog up ahead off its leash. ‘It’s black and white. We should be careful – it might be unpredictable, might not let us pass.’

There is only one path along the levy. A cranky dog would block the way as sure as Cerberus, I think.grass1_web

We keep walking along the levy wall, through an alleyway of bulrushes and high grasses flanked by a drainage ditch on our right. We float maybe seven feet high or more above the fields below. Suddenly the levy dips lower, lined with a concrete spillway for water to pass over. Yes, the floods will flow that high. There’s the proof.
I glimpse a black and white shape half hidden by the reeds and grasses up ahead. We go warily but we don’t want to turn back. The ‘dog’ freezes at the sight of us, then lopes away off the levy into the reeds. It’s a young cat, barely out of kitten-hood. First my eyes, then Lou’s are baffled by perspective and scale in this open space. This river country is a tricksier place than it first seems.

The levy is not really made for us to walk on, but to direct the flow of floodwater. It feels solid, but oddly precarious. The topmost layer is road metal, a crushed grey rock not native to here. In places, I see it is crazed with cracks from flood damage. We see flood-wrack marooned above the fields like mad basket-work. Everywhere we look there is the evidence of floods. The meadows look like they were once wetlands drained by their network of ditches, causeways and levies over 150 years old.

Winter brought terrible floods this year, taking the lives of three people and destroying farms and roads throughout Northern Tasmania. For all the order and prosperity of this country, the muddy Macquarie River is still wild and sly, giving with one hand and taking with the other. It floods every year, bringing fertile fields but sometimes stock losses and ruined fences and livelihoods as well. The lush grass comes with a price of chaos and loss every year.

_DSC5282_Edit_webEverywhere we look water is being managed, diverted and trapped but ultimately the river will win. It is your host and it’s folly to reckon without it. This farm is a work of art, of minds and bodies over many years but it’s not tame. Perhaps nowhere really is?

I ask Lou what our walk makes her think of? ‘I’m thinking of the past,’ she says.

Being a historian changes how you see the world. You see things in layers, and in Tasmania it’s easier to see those layers running across each other than anywhere else I know. But it’s funny: today I only want to see the present, and float down Time’s stream into the future like everyone else, on the surface of things. The fields, the smell of clover, the smell of river mud, the basketwork of reedy flood-wrack. The art and craft of the farm as it lives and breathes around us. Today I’m finding it hard to care much about the past at all.

We see interpretation panels that introduce the convict men who worked here for the Archer family, digging the drainage ditches and levy, and drawing water from the river. They all seem to be about managing the flow of water. Also, all the stories are of men’s lives. This open space was a masculine domain. Women’s lives were enclosed in courtyards and attics, dairies and drawing rooms. I doubt two women could walk from Brickendon to Woolmers without supervision. Then I laugh to myself: walking anywhere for pleasure is very much a middle class thing. Working class or convict women wouldn’t be seen walking alone without suspicion, but they would probably wonder what the fuss was about. And despite myself I’m thinking about the past after all, swimming deep in it.

Does Lou have any convict ancestors? ‘My Dad said we didn’t – I went looking and found one in New South Wales.’

‘Me too,’ I say. ‘Patrick Carroll came as a convict during the potato famine from Ireland. From his description I think he would have looked like my brother.’

grass2_webThere was a time when it was fashionable for us to feel sorry for convicts as victims of the system, and proud of what they endured, especially if they number among our ancestors. I find I feel less sorry for the ‘old lags’ these days. Yes, they were probably excluded from owning a parcel of this prime country. Yes, they were often excluded socially and economically by the families that exploited their free labour – but ultimately they would have had more opportunities in Australia both to sell their labour but also even to own land or run a business. Things that ‘back home’ were unimaginable. Your small holding could be a dream here. Back in Britain? Not a chance.

As we near the river I draw a deep breath and another. The air is… stuffy. I hadn’t expected that. On the Norfolk Plains there is the constant breeze, sometimes cool and sometimes icy: the breath of the Western Tiers. Down on the flood plain that breath is gone and for all the sense of openness and space, the air here feels thicker, swampier.

I say people writing casually about the hedgerows being built ‘out of nostalgia for England’ makes me cross. These fields, like the drainage ditches, weren’t about creating Ye Olde Englande in the new country. They were up to date farming methods. The Archers, their managers and workers brought their knowledge farming from the old country and applied it to the new. It’s too easy to tease out meanings that the early settlers wouldn’t have necessarily seen, to accuse them of ‘avoiding’ views or turning their backs on their land with their enclosed gardens and fields, or of morbid nostalgia for ‘home’. Like most of the great estate farms, the home sites of Woolmers and Brickendon were chosen with a keen eye for position and view of the surrounding country. It’s hard to believe that aesthetic choice as well as pragmatism wouldn’t have played a part in that.

walking_webThat being said there’s a darker side that I think about later, after this walk. Yes, hedgerows block wind, create microclimates and stop stock straying, but ultimately enclosures mark possession. In Britain they were used in a deliberate effort to exclude peasant farmers from commonly held land, to gather it up and bring it under the possession of a few very wealthy men. I can’t ignore that it was the same here. Not only the dispossession of the first people, but the exclusion of the small holders off this prime land. I doubt there was much opportunity here for labourers and their wives to own their own bit of land, to herd sheep or cows, plant crops or tend to pigs and geese. This land was too valuable except to be given as a gift by the Crown to their most favoured servants. That would change in the soldier settlement schemes of WW1 and WW2. In turn some of the farming families of the Midlands would feel dispossessed as their land was parcelled off to returning soldiers by a grateful government. The boundaries of these estates that look so eternal, have shifted and changed over the centuries, and are more fluid than they first appear.

Lou says when she paints this place, she wants to work to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’, for the sense of peace it brings her.

‘You know how I’ve never been to England,’ I say. ‘Does this remind you of the hedgerows and fields there?’

I can see Lou looking with a loving eye across sweep of plain between Ben Lomond in the East and Dry’s Bluff in the West, and the curve of the sly, muddy Macquarie River. ‘I think it’s more beautiful because I can see our mountains.’

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‘Our mountains.’ I like the sound of that. I like that we can share them, and I like that they might be a little bit mine. Or I might be a little bit theirs. They are certainly Lou’s and she is most certainly theirs.

grass3_webI wonder what it would be like to live in a place, for your family to have lived there for generations, and to decide to share it with the world, to have your property part of UNESCO’s World Heritage list. I guess that makes this place a little bit ours as well. We get to share it, too. I like that. I am always looking for places to belong to – that can be a little bit mine, and I can be a little bit theirs.

We climb up the swinging bridge over the river to the other side, to Woolmers. A dead tree swept by the floods is now almost interwoven with the bridge some five or six metres in the air. The old house sits above us on the hill, but for now we follow the local fishing path below across the paddock, stomping through the long grass to scare off any snakes, to where my husband and daughter wait in the car.

To walk it, think about it and then write about it – perhaps that’s another kind of claiming. To impudently insist: ‘I know! I know!’ when so many people are so much more closely entwined here than I could hope to be. But walking across this river valley still helps me know it better than I did before. It’s slippery, tricksy country, eluding me like a fish between my fingers. I found I was reluctant to write about it – perhaps because I was reluctant to tease it apart, for it to lose some of the magic that it has for me.

In one of my favourite gardens are carved the words of Diogenes: ‘It is solved by walking.’

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‘Yes,’ I think, and then change it. I need to know it in my body to know it in my imagination. Maybe that’s what this first year of Stone and Tree has been about.

 

‘It is known by walking – the land is known by walking.’

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Liffey Forest September 2016

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

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The Enchanted Forest

‘Magic shall be written in the sky by the rain, but they shall not be able to read it;
Magic shall be written on the faces of the stony hills but their minds shall not be able to contain it;
In winter the barren trees will be a black writing, but they will not be able to understand it…’
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke

There should be giants here.

Lou and I are standing at the look-out at the top of the Liffey Valley, at the top of the Tiers crowned with dolerite pillars, opening up onto the moorland plateau that runs down the centre of Tasmania. I think of the giant City Ruinous and of hot baths at Harfang in C S Lewis’ The Silver Chair.

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It smells clean and cold from the top of the cliff looking down over the valley and the Northern Midlands opening out below. This time we don’t have a particular plan – just the idea that we could follow the track down into the valley, maybe find the Liffey River. Maybe. We step down off the viewing platform and into the transitional scrub, still tough, small leaved and alpine. As we descend it smells greener and more of rot and fungi. There is surprisingly little smell from the damp little patches of toilet paper and whatever they hide. Poo rots pretty quickly. Toilet paper doesn’t.

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We step down, down into forest, but the bones of the place are all tumbled stone. We are climbing down through the remains of an old boulder field, now covered in an open myrtle woodland of silver-grey and green, and moss and lichen of a thousand creeping textures. The mountains are throwing down their dolerite crowns and the remnants tumble down their sides.
It is my first time hiking without my daughter, and the furthest away we’ve been from each other since she was born. But it’s also my first time in a long time walking in the Tiers; the first time in a long time bumping down a track half on my bottom, or placing my feet with painful care down the ladder of slippery tree roots and pivoting rocks.

scan-2_webA 22 year old ankle injury sometimes flares up before a big change in the weather, and it’s aching now. We know the weather will turn later today, and this just confirms the BOM’s prediction. My body has changed post pregnancy – I have wobbly, clicking knees, and it feels like I can’t quite trust my joints, making me panic that I’ll never be able to do this kind of walking properly again. I’d forgotten how much I love it: it requires your whole body, your whole attention as you twist and turn down a ladder of roots and loose rubble, and go down on your bottom and knees. It’s the most physical form of meditation I know. In the south when I’ve walked it’s all been broad cleared paths or fire-trails. I wouldn’t have believed how much I’ve missed this Tetris of hands, feet, bottom among the slippery tree roots, rocks and leaf mould. I don’t think it’s enough for me to just follow the broad paths anymore.

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Lou looks a bit concerned and asks if I’ve thought of those hiking poles.

Not helping, Lou.

Then there comes a point where I am going back seven years with every step, deep in the throes of a wild love for my adopted home, walking other forests like these: Split Rock my favourite, Lower Liffey, the Ball-room Forest at Cradle, and later, Rinadeena Falls. Myrtle Forest back of Wellington in the south. All myrtle forests, with the silver trunks, the strange twisted trees, the heart-shaped leaves that form paths of golden brown at your feet. They are all the same trees, but no myrtle tree is like another, but shaped by weather, lichen , rot and age into a thousand shapes, and no myrtle forest is like another either. Each has its own textures, its own flavours and configurations of trees, rock, water, decay, and their different fragrances through the year.

I am remembering a story I wrote for the myrtle forest in Split Rock: a chilly story of a silver-limbed forest man, crowned with branches, stars and fungus, and a woman who leaves her home and disappears into the mountains following him. I’m remembering what I said then: that everything looks like something else in a myrtle forest: trees look like castles, outstretched hands or rocks. Rocks are covered in green shaggy pelts of moss like crouching beasts begging to be touched. Because you are walking on a decaying boulder field, the very ground is unstable beneath the loam as rocks turn and springs bubble up and fungi sprout beneath your feet. I find myself telling these stories to Lou as I walk.
scan-1_webThis particular forest is full of illusions. It looks open and free of undergrowth but the middle distance disappears into silver grey trunks and deep green leaves. We’re following the curve of the mountainside as it folds towards the Liffey River. We can see where it should be, can guess the distance even if we can’t see or hear it precisely. Where will we stop? On a trail where we don’t really know the destination, and can’t see ahead more than twenty or thirty feet, how can we say for certain when we’ve arrived? We have to pick a place, an arbitrary goal.

Lou’s eyes light up: ‘I can hear a spring, or a stream,’ she says.

We picnic by a brook that tumbles over the
square steps of the boulder field under the trees. Lou fills her bottle with water from the stream and offers it to me, but thinking of little squares of toilet paper above I decline.

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While we eat our sandwiches, Lou says she thinks of thylacines: how she wants to see them. She wonders how the forest and wild places would change for her if she knew they were still there.

I say that for me it’s the old people, the first Tasmanians. I never walk without seeing them in my mind’s eye, walking alongside or coming to look at the strangers before leaving on their own business.

We’re both haunted by absences after a fashion. But the forest is full. Not empty, not lonely. Walked, known, touched, smelled, felt with all our senses. Weed in, poohed in too, as the little squares of toilet paper by the lookout show. There are many more stories and memories than mine or Lou’s and that’s just fine and how it should be.

The forest is populated, and somehow also we populate it with beings of myth, imagination and story. As I walk, now I am thinking of Tolkien’s elves talking to trees and rocks, naming and talking until things wake up and start talking back. Here it’s like they’re awake and speaking on the edge of hearing in a language on the edge of my understanding. It makes me feel so happy. The rocks could rise up and walk, and the forest trees peer with intelligent eyes like Fangorn and I would not be especially surprised.

scan-4_webI tell Lou about the Raven King in Susannah Clarke’s master-piece Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The great magician the Raven King has one foot in Fairy and one in England. He hears land and sky speaking. He can understand their speech and can speak in words they understand. His prophecy is that the English will never again understand the words of stone and tree and sky and rain but that this is at the heart of magic, to speak and be understood, to listen and understand. This is how this forest makes me feel. Like it means something beyond ‘tree’, ‘moss’, ‘wind’, ‘creek’ – like it means more than one thing – like it is speaking over and over and over and I am right on the edge of understanding what the rocks, the moss, the trees, the wind are saying.

We stop and listen. It is so, so quiet we can hear the wind roaring up another mountainside in the distance.

A bird is singing.

‘I can almost hear voices’ says Lou.

Maybe it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s the stories or the trees speaking, or it’s us. Storied land, storied forest – storied, sung, en-chanted.

The change in the weather comes. The wind blows up the valley, cold and promising rain.

I check. Yes I do have a mobile signal. I have a text from my husband. He and my daughter have seen the dinosaur exhibition and crawled around the trains at the Queen Victoria Museum, and watched the macaques at City Park. But she’s getting tired and grumpy and it’s starting to rain in Launceston. And here is our arbitrary goal: where we both say it’s time to head back up the path.

Like always, it goes more quickly returning. My legs feel stronger, like they’ve finally remembered how to move on a mountainside and I laugh. The wobbles were just low blood sugar, and vanished with lunch.

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Dare I tell stories of a stolen country? How dare I not speak my stories of the forest man and the star belly, the buried woman who rises pregnant from the leaf mould and mud? Of the artist wooed by the forest man of silver myrtle, shadows, rot and tiny leaves? They rise from me like springs.

They are me talking back to the forest in something like the language I hear it speaking. Something like the language of dreams, magic and myth. It is a forest of stories.

 

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The Dark Parade June 2016

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

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This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

All around me the red glow of Dark MoFo and the Winter Feast but I am stuck in a queue like a sheep at an abattoir, looking for my husband while Lou watches my daughter in her pram. Instead I should’ve…

Should’ve chosen my darkest fears a week ago, written them down and slipped them into the belly of a dragon and we should’ve all been ready together for the Dark Parade shouting and chanting to drive out fear, marching to the industrial wasteland of Dark Park and cheering as our fears go up in flames. I would feel fierce and free of fear, and the world would turn and the sun would come back, and this newly constructed piece of ritual magic would work its miracle for me.

Then I’d write about it, and Lou would paint and draw it. Job done.

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But no. We’re separated and disorganised. My partner has sought a cider and fire after a hard day’s work and I have failed to write and confess my fears and post them into the belly of a dragon. It’s all meaningless.

I hear drums. I hear voices. It’s starting. I still want to see. My daughter is facing the Dark Parade without us. I push through the crowd, wondering if David Walsh’s employees open up the dragon’s belly like black Christmas elves and read and chuckle over the thousand fears of ordinary people.

Please don’t let it be vascular dementia. Don’t let her get lead poisoning from all the flakes of paint in the backyard. Don’t let me not finish my story. Don’t let me let go of my dearest dreams and learn to forget a second time. Don’t let me not fulfil my potential – my blasted potential, always. Let her not be bullied. Let our house not fall down.

‘I think you’re supposed to post a wish in the dragon and burn it, so it comes true,’ I hear someone say. Wishes to come true. Fears to avert. All by burning.

I think of the Tarot deck where a fear or a wish occupy the same space and how sometimes they’re hard to tell apart. You have to decide sometimes which is which.

I make it back to my daughter and friend, and there is this sound piercing the drums and voices – and my ears. My daughter’s face is half grin, half grimace as I try to put my hands over her ears. She knocks them away.

A dancing Chinese lion, black and green and white, to ward off… evil? The heralds of the Dark Parade bear their banners and then… the fear mongers. What else can I call them? They shape dread with their ear-splitting ambient, techno sounds and their covered faces. The black figures of my night-terrors marching in sombreros. My daughter starts to cry and I don’t blame her. They are chilling but the crowd holds us tight and there is nowhere to go.

They pass on and we see torches and hear chanting, and we see the dragon high and proud-bellied above the crowd. A dragon? A leafy sea dragon, portly of tum and friendly of eye, painted in sunrise rose and gold. I could confess my fears to her. She looks kindly. Now they will burn her for carrying the crowd’s fears in her belly. Oh this is strange. I like her, this sacrifice, made to be burned like a Viking ship for a dead king.

She rises and falls on the crest of a dark wave as her black clad bearers lift her up and down, chanting and smiling.

More solemn banner-men and women, black-blinded torch bearers. More chanting. In the torchlight I see her. They are calling her name: Ogoh! Ogoh!

This… the nightmare demon of fear. The most horrifying thing people could imagine: an ageing, naked, pregnant-bellied woman with dark breasts bursting with milk, covered in animal hair, tusked like a wild boar, glaring on us like a demon goddess. The sum of all fears is a pregnant, hairy woman, nearly at term, half animal, half human. We are going to burn the Other again. This becomes very strange indeed. Why would I want to burn my hairy, pregnant, ageing, angry self?

In her wake comes a transgendered pig, tusked like a boar and uddered like a sow. Another Other for burning? In another land and culture, the dirtiest of creatures, made even stranger by its double sex. Oh what am I seeing?

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Then the crowd comes, adults and children shouting and banging on pots and pot lids with wooden spoons, making a joyous defiant racket: a wassailing to drive out the dark and cold and fear. People like me (like I would have been), coming to see the burning of their fears in the belly of the dragon. They pass too, and the crowd folds up around them and follows down the city street.

And we are held in place by my husband, still on the other side of the fence, cider in hand. I might be glad.

Fear eats the soul says the sign. And yes, it does, or it can. The thousand fears born of our hurts, griefs and worries that we are all heir to – they can eat us, or paralyse us, or spur us on, make us move. (Yes I’m dying so what?) We all carry them throughout our lives like the dragon did that one week.

Left behind, I imagine the roar of the crowd as the dragon goes up in flames. Do we hope that by burning our fears, the misfortunes they represent won’t happen? Do we just hope not to feel hostage to them anymore? Or by naming and knowing them, do we at least make them smaller? But misfortune inevitably still waits. (We are all going to die. Just not necessarily today.)

My own fears rustle like dead leaves. I imagine after burning they might spring back like weeds. Always there, like death, illness and misfortune, like my ageing, animal self. But like the Dark Parade, they make their noise, bang their drums and pod lids and shout, and then they pass.

And the world turns.

TAROONA BEACH May 2016

STORY BY ELIZABETH CARROLL | ILLUSTRATIONS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOUISE THRUSH

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Longing. My bones still warm and melt a little at the thought of it. The dream took hard, aching shape here, and here I walked, carrying my dream every weekend before I carried my daughter.

I was all emptiness then, walking the beach and rocky paths of the headlands like a ghost, forced into motion by pain. I’d miscarried our first baby only months before.

I would walk: see the bright brave kids roving with their dogs and the tiny tots with their mums and dads. My heart would clench at that shy look of pride those mums would offer me as their little kids, damp sandy and tired, would troop past. Back home to their gardens, their vegie patches, up the goat path past the damson plums, feral passionfruit and the flock of grey geese.

My heart would yawn as wide as this bay. It seemed to me that they had everything.

_DSC2923_webBringing my partner down one late summer afternoon, the sea haze turning gold over the Alum Cliffs, the kids on boogie boards, the adults snorkelling over the reefs or cooking a barbecue. ‘Well this is… disgustingly idyllic,’ he said.

Tiny sandy tots become king or queen of the castle in a kingdom of boulders and beach creeks, barbecues and kayaks, free as hunting terns, secure in their world. A place where people’s eyes light up a little with pleasure when you mention where you live. Who wouldn’t want that for their kids?

If you have a kid that is.

Even now the smell of blue gums and the sea brings it back.

My daughter was conceived and born at last – pure chance, our miracle – and our world was torn apart and remade, as I now know happens when babies come into your world. Not just your body tears.

I want to promise her that idyll of Taroona, of a ‘good’ school surrounded by smart kids, the dog park and community garden, the beach and the bush just out the door, and a café for me. We may never be able to afford it for her, but we can bring her to play at the beach at least and she can own it and her summers here while she plays. And at least she’s here. Our miracle. Impossible joy after pain.

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I am busier now and we come here less often, but when we do I tell her ‘I dreamed of you here. I waited for you.’

ROSS April 2016

Story by Elizabeth Carroll | Illustrations & Photographs by Louise Thrush

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It’s been a long time since I threw myself into a car and across Tasmania. But now I’m doing it with a toddler. No plan survives first contact with a baby, and sure enough we are late. And then we stop for milk when she wakes, crying with confusion and hunger. We are slow together. A little unreliable. My daughter’s needs come first, but we made it. I walk her down to the river in her pram, trying to ignore that frazzled feeling of embarrassment. Lou waits patiently with her paints, pens and paper.

On the way here I’ve been thinking of the way one of my heroes, Robert Macfarlane wrote ‘The Old Ways: a journey on foot’. A little like a hobbit walking party: groups of men, leaving women and children behind. They all seem to be seeking a kind of escape into the self or friendship, the past or the landscape or language – to be most Romantically Alone, communing with the picturesque and losing self to the transcendent. I admire it so, but it’s not my life right now. His stories are almost completely disconnected from the daily business of feeding, entertaining and cleaning up after a toddler. Almost but not quite – I remember his comment about his children showing him how they see the world close up in miniature vistas.

What will my daughter show me?

First of all: food. Milk, then food eaten with gusto and thrown on the ground at the picnic shelter for the local ducks, who waddle up from the river splatting their green poo on the pavers. The immense pleasure of ducks coming to meet her and dabbling for her crusts of egg and bacon pie. Defying the picturesque and the transcendent. Ducks are as down to earth as it gets.

ducks_webThe first thing I know in my own body is the biting wind from the Tiers, then traffic sounds from the highway. Sounds like open spaces and other people’s journeys – a little lonely. These two sounds go everywhere we go in our walk around Ross.

We walk on south along the river bank path to a gate and haul my daughter’s pram over it, setting her over on the other side. The church paddock, bitten low by sheep and crusted with droppings. My daughter crawls off boldly to explore, prancing with excitement. Lou and I see a sharp rise of hill and old stables or byres cut into the living stone. Beyond my daughter’s view I can see the Wesleyan Church sitting on the escarpment above like a castle but she doesn’t care for that. She sees space to scamper, the small grasses and pebbles – offers me one and wants to know about the rabbit poo.

To me these old stables are a wonderful surprise – right down to the trough carved out of the rock for water or hay. And for the rest of the walk, everything around us feels charged with wordless stories, feels more than just itself. The past is everywhere, as the sandstone beneath our feet is everywhere and only thinly covered with earth. It’s everywhere, but I don’t know what it means. And that’s oddly freeing. It frees me to make up my own story, if I feel like it later.

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We scoop my daughter up back into her pram and keep going. I smell the river mud, willow and farts of marsh gas from the Macquarie and sense the weight of water. The riverbank here is a tangle of feral, introduced trees – wild plums aplenty, hawthorn and sloes dense with nettles and blackberry. Old mushrooms lie rotting. It makes me think of fairies – close enough to people, but not too close. I think of easy foraging in season.

We come to the Ross Female Factory site and let my daughter lose again. She prances off merrily across the cropped grass, around the nettles and thorn trees. I get down on her level and crawl with her, feeling undulating ground and the chilly sweep of wind, seeing the rabbit poo, the fine gravel from the pulverised ruins digging our knees. For a while we ignore the sandstone building, but in the end we go in, agreeing perhaps to read the signs, find out more about where we are. My daughter bravely climbs the steep stone stairs on her own and her drumming hands and knees as she patters around punctuate the silence. We read that more than a thousand women came through the complex before being reassigned – many bore children here and had to put them in the care of the Factory nurses. Infant mortality was high. Only this one building now remains. My daughter grows wary of the inside and wants to head out again and so I let her go down step by step again on her own.

When we come out, Lou and I are thoughtful. We sit between the thorn trees and the cottage on the tiny pulverised rubble of the Female Factory and watch my daughter exploring on hands and knees. (Would my daughter have lived? I ask myself. Almost certainly not.) Why do we favour sad memories over the countless happy ones that could have been lived here? Lou wonders aloud. She thinks of the local Aboriginal nation camping on the river over thousands of years – there would be ducks and kangaroo in plenty. I think of the feral foods for foraging, that could have kept those convict women healthier – nettle soup and plums and haws in their seasons. I know many ate better after transportation than ever before.

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Does the earth remember? We can’t say, even surrounded by the detritus of the past. It’s hard to know for sure beyond our own feelings. Lou says ‘I don’t feel sad here,’ and neither do I. Inside the cottage perhaps, but not in the open. And my daughter is playing happily. It’s just a place to her.