“It is said privately that up the country, instances occur where the Natives are ‘shot like so many crows,’ which never comes before the public.”
(Colonial Advocate & Tasmanian Review and Register 1830)
Closing the front door of Sacre Couer at six twenty-five,
my daughter and I dissect empty Sunday streets.
We are leaving on a pilgrimage to the middle of this cryptic island.
The roads are threadbare.
The sky unfolds, and at last, we can breathe.
We divide fields of white poppies,
the road a seam of hand-stitches hemming up the wild places;
the sides of the gravel pinned with the regular white tacks
that keep the small wildnesses in place.
Blackwoods and gums crowd the edges
like tattered beggars jostling for place. Hills rise up suddenly.
They are the backs of grey-green carrion,
their spines picked clean of flesh or pelt…
their backbones exposed to the scavenging seasons.
Voluptuous farmland, fecund and stretch-marked,
dimples up to the foot of a plateau-
it rises like twins born scalp-to-scalp,
their stubborn chins pointing east and west, defying separation.
Sheep are molasses-faced and fat.
Even shorn, they are lardy and stolid.
There are recently-ploughed acres,
the orange soil worked to a delectable tilth.
Staid towns are uncluttered and almost unpopulated streets
where old bachelors drive unpretentious utes
and raise a single finger in greeting.
This is a kind of pilgrimage. It is a pilgrimage to the heart of the island-
a wide and brazen chalice surrounded by a circle of rough-cut stone.
But once: an open wound, gouged out by the persistent thrust
of ice-age glaciers. It is summer and there has been rain.
The pasture is electric and plush; cattle long-bodied and svelte.
We cross corduroy bridges tatted over rivulets and rivers.
You wonder how anyone can manage to carry on the threads of a life
so far away from everything, and are reminded that everything tends to be
wherever you decide to tie off the knot of your life.
2. The Sacred Heart:
I grew up with the image of the Sacred Heart
affixed to my mother’s bedroom wall
alongside Our Lady of Sorrows: both in heavy gilt frames.
He was a caucasian Christ, of course, with long, pale gentlings of hair.
He held his hands open to reveal cuneiform slits
in narrow, uncalloused palms.
Most surprising of all was the open heart exposed
to show beating muscle bound by a woven ring of penetrating thorns,
a cross skewering the flesh from above,
and a bright flare of flames encroaching from behind;
(while, alongside, Our Lady of Sorrows wept her hot tears
with seven swords stuck permanently in her guiltless heart
and a twist of something like fencing wire corseting her throbbing valves).
3. Badly-behaved children in a two-dollar-store:
We have set off to see the absolute heart of this island, and to return.
We are seeking something spiritual- some throat-aching sacredness-
but have no expectation of where we might end up,
except that it is a place called Jackeys Marsh.
Just off-centre of this wild dead-end,
a narrow road leads to some pasture where another wave of invaders,
(the photos show uncommonly large-chinned souls;
they could be the founding members of some
Appalachian Anabaptist Clogging Jamboree),
have returned to set up camp over a couple of decades.
Not so different from those original invaders,
they have come from the tail-end of an Age of Enlightenment,
and they, too, believe they know a better way of being human.
And, just like the first invaders, they barely see the people
who have made their homes in the wide and motherly expanse of the valley.
Like some tribe invented from the pages of Anthropology for Dummies,
they misappropriate the gewgaws and baubles of culture,
barging through millennia of complexity and subtlety
like badly-behaved children in a two-dollar store.
They gobble religion and mystique before they even reach the check-out,
leaving their empty wrappers behind. But,
in the strong and beating heart of this place, they are only a murmur:
their djembes barely puncturing the deeper rhythm of long centuries.
There are photos from each festival on the ‘net, dating back to 1983.
I am no longer a wide-eyed romantic.
I can imagine the pit-toilets, the mess left behind by these
strangely detached children-of-nature. Along Jackeys Marsh Road,
the blackberries have invaded the bush and crowd at the edge of the gravel.
We imagine the excreta of the forest-festival-goers infesting the bush,
germinating all these noxious weeds.
We pass a man and a woman leaving a cabin to clamber onto their pushbikes.
They look like they are meditating on where the hell they are.
We turn onto Sugarloaf Road.
The surface becomes rougher, the road narrower.
Eventually, we come to a portentous Private Property sign.
My daughter gets out of the car to read a sign further up.
She returns to tell me that our foray into the heart of the bush has ended
at a Buddhist Retreat. I turn the car and retreat to Meander.
Like the weeds by the sides of the road, another exotic invader.
At this omphalus, this navel at the centre of the valley,
a resting place for that flighty moth: introspection.
Yet there is room here, too, in this place where we throb with separation,
with the ultimate cutting of the cord that once attached us to the soil.
We pass the bike-riders again.
They seem serious and intent, wobbling on their silly bicycles
their senses of humour clearly left behind with their soy chai.
And you think, if this is truly the heart of this large island,
surely a good laugh would not be out of place.
Were the original people of this place as poe-faced as those who came after?
Surely there were times when their smoke-reddened eyes brimmed with mirth…
when their lungs heaved with amusement- the old mother’s fat old belly quaking,
her old cheeks pushing so far upwards that she could barely open her eyes.
Do we truly imagine the old-timers living lives devoid of hilarity?
Do we picture those first immigrants seeing out whole generations
without a wry chuckle? At the heart of this island,
in the old belly in the shelter of the stony heart,
there must have been tears of laughter besides tears of despair.
There must have been the ridiculous, as well as the sublime.
5. Keepers of the Ochre:
There are layer on layer of history here,
like the smooth muscle layers of a human heart.
Long before the Buddhist Retreat at the end of Sugarloaf Road;
long before the forest festival and its own brand of colonialism…
even before the ordered streets, the quiet homeliness of the Meander Store,
there were the settlers and there was a people called the Pallittorre.
The old mother was ancient even before the Pallittorre people arrived.
Like children and grandchildren, they found the safe place in her belly,
tucked in underneath her stony heart. And they made their homes there,
little knowing the icy violence that had gouged out her motherly softness:
a monster river of ice and gravel had scooped out her insides
leaving behind the savaged wound that would become a beautiful valley.
Her many sorrows gathered like great tears pooling in the rim
of an eye…and they fell, and they fell,
feeding the gentle river until it burst its banks with maternal suffering.
The old mother, the ancient grandmother, would be pierced at her very womb,
and knowing this would happen was one of the sorrows
that penetrated her.
Over the millennia, she had given birth to trees,
to birds and to beasts, and to the people who, like all people,
and unlike the other creatures, had given a name to themselves.
The Pallittorre people belonged to that old mother, and,
because they were her people,
she gave them access to her ochre mines…her mother lode.
The ochre was the thick, sweet after-milk of the old woman’s flesh.
The Pallittorre people grew fat and important on the oily milk,
the chrysm, of their old mother’s teats.
6. The newcomers:
When the newcomers came, pushing inwards into the old woman’s innards,
the old and faltering womb was pierced again and again.
When the sleeping Pallittorre people were shot with nails around their campfires,
the old mother wept her hot tears…Such great and unstoppable tears!
When the women were raped and mutilated
in reprisal for the theft of a couple of lice-ridden sheep,
the old mother wept tears of blood;
and when the children were stolen away from the dolerite and quartzite
from which they were made, there were no tears good enough,
except those terrible and timeless tears of stone.
Still, those exiled peasants who came to hack the trees
and burn the stumps and breed their sheep
were more akin to the Pallitorre people than the head-shaking Government Man
in his paper steeple of bureaucracy.
Those peasants understood the pull of the motherly valley;
they knew the threat of a long winter and slow hunger and probable death-
they, too, knew what it was to have a wife and children slaughtered…
they knew the fear of inexplicable Otherness,
and in that way, were not so far removed from the people they displaced.
It was the clean-handed and detached official in his fortress of detachment
that was most despicable…who came from an era of Enlightenment
and truly believed he knew a better way of being human.
The Pallittorre people perhaps saw themselves as a Scaled-fish people;
they saw themselves in the river blackfish that swam its meandering path;
they knew their brothers and sisters in the divergent gaze of the tiny galaxia.
And, being a high-born people, keepers of the sacred,
the Pallittorre people would never stoop to consume a scaled fish-
just as those later foreign people would be repulsed
by the greedy consumption of dog or dolphin.
For it is not the creature that a people reviles, that is taboo;
it is the creature that is most cherished in the souls of the people
as brother or guardian.
Nor did the people sew their kangaroo or possum skins to make clothing,
but wore it as it came off the beast: whole and animal-shaped;
and in this way, they showed their great respect.
7. An echidna by the side of the road:
Heading home toward the Lakes, we are followed by a series of convertibles,
multi-coloured and polished with impatience.
Their united bravado irritates us in this primal landscape of rock and water.
I take each bend carefully and the convertibles swing behind
like a colourful tail on a kite.
Finally, sealed road gives way to gravel. I pull over to let the cars pass.
They slow down to park before the bitumen ends.
The last car in the convoy passes us and we read its number plate:
ZEN. Laughing heartily,
we leave it behind and contemplate white rock
strewn across this god-sized world.
An echidna waddles at the edge of the gravel.
And, so, if that wide and comforting valley is the mother, crying tears of blood,
then the embracing ridge-tops are the son, young yet, and arrogant.
Scourged and weatherbeaten, the ravaged ridge-tops
tower over the pliant green valley.
Columns of dolerite and quartzite flaunt their naked perpendicularity.
The open stigmata of clearfelling punctures distant hilltops,
the acres yet unburnt cross-hatched with a cruel mockery.
Where, once, the settlers cornered the original people
there is an unending line of power-poles silhouetted against the great emptiness,
like an unending row of crucifixes waiting to be adorned
by an endless supply of messiahs.