Heather Rose: Heartland

I have travelled widely, but I have lived almost all my life in my heartland, our heartland, this heart-shaped island at the end of the world. If I die here one day when I am very old, with the sun coming in the window, with autumn light motes in the air and my rowboat at the front door, then I will consider myself lucky.

. . .

It might be the sea that holds me to Tasmania. I live but 70 centimetres above it and I imagine, one day, I may have to use a small rowboat to reach my door.

But it is the light as well. The blue calm winter light that is so unexpected by seasonal visitors who anticipate the winter will be like London or Melbourne – grey and bleak and bitter – but find instead sunshine and a sky so blue it might be the true colour of infinity. Out of the sunshine, it is chilly, but inside there are fires and slow-cooked food. The days begin to lengthen in September and spring flowers erupt out of the damp, cold earth. The rhododendrons bloom. By October the trees are all in leaf and the light is green and sweet. By summer the sky has lifted, the sun has swung north and it is 9pm before it is dark. And then comes autumn where the light is filled with golden motes and the hills turn mauve in the afternoon’s descent.

Beauty – perhaps it is beauty – that holds me here.

But it is community too. My immediate neighbours include some of my best friends. My back deck becomes an outdoor room for months of the year, canopied by two gleditsia trees whose abundant foliage is fluorescent green. I am blessed with a tapestry of friends who paint and sculpt, read, write, design, build, play music, spin fire, dance, craft, create and cook. People who throw their minds into science, politics, philosophy, spirituality, teaching, ecology, leadership, history, landscape, academia, agriculture, architecture …

Many of them are new arrivals. In a room of 50 I will often be the only one born in Tasmania.

In Hobart, we have certain accepted behaviours. If we are in a hurry, we walk down the street making no eye contact. This is code for: “I’m on my way to a meeting and can’t stop and chat.” Otherwise, we would take all day getting anywhere. We see each other in our most casual wear and our most formal. The sea changers and tree changers find themselves surprised by the opportunity for authenticity, the possibility of joy. We are visible to each other by proximity and familiarity. The quality of our character, our eccentricities, our beliefs – it’s all evident because there’s no hiding here, which might be one of the loveliest aspects of Tasmanian life. Despite all our various opinions, we’re very good at getting on with one another.

My family has been in Tasmania for seven generations. We were convicts, sailors, surveyors and servants; middle-class on one side of the family, less so on the other. Years ago I asked my father why he had stayed in his government job for 44 years when he clearly had the capacity to do more. He said, “I wanted to build a bridge between the lower class and the middle class for all of you.” Now eight of his grandchildren either have degrees or are on their way.

All this from a small island at the bottom of the world. The other day an Uber driver from Punjab, newly arrived as part of the visa program, asked me why my family had stayed here. “It is so far from anywhere,” he said. “Because we made a life here,” I said. For seven generations we have all made a life here. He said that Punjab is about the same size as Tasmania. Here we have half a million people. There they have 30 million.

My children are now in San Francisco, Sydney and London. I said to them many times as they were growing, “Go live your big life” and they have taken me at my word. I went, too, at their age, living and working in Europe and the UK, and then a decade in Melbourne. I came back only when my boys were born. My daughter, born a few years later, is my only Tasmanian child by birth but the boys will always be Tasmanian in their hearts.

As a child I spent my holidays at the family shack on the Tasman Peninsula. In those days I’d go out in a dinghy with my grandfather for fish and within half an hour we’d have enough to feed eight of us for breakfast – flathead, perch, latchet. At night, under a quiet moon, we’d wade the silver waters for flounder. Wallaby was staple fare. The other day, my daughter in London was asked if she’d ever eaten wallaby. “Of course,” she said. “In fact I was 13 before I ate bolognaise made with beef,” she added.

. . .

There is the truth of the people we displaced to have this life. Another people evident everywhere – the middens, the hollows in the she-oak groves where people camped and slept, the grasslands and button grass plains, the gardens and thoroughfares to the sea. There is the colonial darkness too. The convict bricks we’d find in the bush as children, each marked with a thumbprint by its maker. The haunted buildings. The long stain of a criminal past only lifting in these most recent decades. Before then it was unmentionable.

And there was Bruny Island. My father had a block of land there. We’d camp and wander the shore, swim in the freezing water, delight in the ferry crossing with the breeze blowing up the channel and the sea spray coming over the bow onto the bonnets of the cars.

In my late teens there were camping trips with friends to Freycinet with its pink granite mountains, sparkling beaches, enormous boulders and a breathtakingly bright sea. There were weeks where we’d see no-one else and live entirely on our camping rations until the call of fish and chips or a burger took us in to the tiny township of Coles Bay.

Once I returned home to Tasmania, I’d take the children camping at Freycinet over summer. We’d sail, kayak, surf and climb the granite slopes to watch the sunset. We’d also go to Bruny and wade the shallow waters of Great Bay observing small fish and crabs, seaweed and sea life. We’d go to Lake St Clair, too, and rent an old wilderness hut that cost $60 a night for all of us. From there in winter, we’d tramp across the snow-laden ground to the marshlands we called Narnia.

There was always a walk down the lake to see a fallen tree we called The Dragon, and photos to be taken on a huge rock by the boat ramp, so that now there is a record of my children moving towards adulthood with one unchanging vista. We’d walk to Shadow Lake, or along the Overland Track, observing ferns and trees, and the way the light falls green and gold in a rainforest and water tells its own stories.

It was there, often with my children close by, that I wrote The River Wife. That book was started in the highlands but it was finished on Bruny, just as the characters also move from a highland lake to the sea. The Museum of Modern Love was finished on Bruny too, and of course Bruny was also written through various stays on Bruny.

There are memories everywhere, good memories, which is a rich way to live. And there’s also now. In Tasmania we live far from the crazy; at least we hope so. Perhaps that’s why I wrote Bruny. To capture that feeling – the fragility of home and what we might be called to do to protect it. Because there’s the future, too. What value do we place on our land and soil, our food security and biosecurity, our small population, our clean water and air, our solitude? How will we care for this magical place in the years ahead?

I have travelled widely, but I have lived almost all my life in my heartland, our heartland, this heart-shaped island at the end of the world. If I die here one day when I am very old, with the sun coming in the window, with autumn light motes in the air and my rowboat at the front door, then I will consider myself lucky. It has been a privilege to have known this place and its people and to have been inspired by it – it’s beauty, its community, it’s magical cloudscapes and it’s ever-changing deep blue sea.

. . .

Heather Rose’s seventh novel. The Museum of Modern Love, won the 2017 Stella Prize, the Christina Stead Prize and the Margaret Scott Prize. It has been published internationally and translated into numerous languages. Her new novel, Bruny, is a political thriller, satire, family saga and love story – a global story told through a very local lens. It was published in October 2019 by Allen & Unwin. Heather Rose lives by the sea in Tasmania.

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