Theodore Roosevelt said, “Old age is like everything else – to make a success of it, you've got to start young.” Writer and photographer Hilary Burden intends to prove the adage, one successful senior Tasmanian at a time.
Murray Hill is born and bred Swansea. By today’s standards he should have died a hundred times. Brought up on 40 acres in sheep grazing country, he left school at 14. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” was what the principal impressed on Murray when he took the boy aside on his last day at school.
Old Murray would not be telling me that now if he hadn’t learnt the lesson.
Young Murray left school to go to work – as a farm hand, bark stripping, land clearing, ploughing and sowing paddocks, and ringbarking trees. He grew up with a father who was blinded, lost one arm and half the other hand in a gelignite accident while working in the Lake country for the Department of Main Roads. Over his adult life, Murray earned his living as a council worker when men worked outside, shirtless on hot days, the sun reflecting off bitumen. Lately, the local doctor has taken about 20 cancers off his skin. He’s had his fair share of hospital, losing a third of one lung and a kidney, plus two liver operations. The kind of surgery you don’t see.
On August 20, 1960, when he was 23 (his wife Barb has the date recorded in her family book), Murray shot himself through the forearm by accident while kangaroo shooting. “I just had the stock of the gun resting on a log, I went to walk forwards and the stock slipped off and it was a hammer gun and it came down, hit the log and went off. Shot through my arm and blew the bone out.”
Today the arm looks like a piece of driftwood but he’s grateful it was saved, thanks to a local Swansea GP who’d worked as an army doctor in Europe during World War II. “He did the best he could for it. The last thing he told me was, ‘Don’t let them take it off because they’ll want to do that.’ Which they did but I wouldn’t be in it.”
After that, Murray must have just got on with it because one wall of his shed holds every old tool going. He boils the kettle and makes coffee using a thumb and pinkie on the ghost of his right hand.
“You get through on luck, or you just keep going.”
And that’s as true about life. After all the ops, Murray always knew the quicker he could get home, get back to Barb, the quicker he’d get himself right again. He’s less sure of an afterlife. Says if there was one there would have been a sign from his father at the place both knew as special – up the back tracks, in the bush gullies behind Swansea where his family goes back five or six generations.
He decides to take me there in his trusty former council ute with his old dog Perce, whose head is stuck out the back window. North to Riversdale. Take a turn, then up Springs Road, which goes nowhere, says Murray. “Well it goes somewhere because it’s where we’re going,” he auto-corrects with a twinkle in his eye measured against an instinct to part only with the facts. “The road’s mostly unmade and we can go and have a nice quiet look.”
I ask him if he thinks the bush is beautiful.
“Some people don’t like the bush but I could muck about in it all day.”
“What do you like about this country?”
“It’s a bit like us – laid back.”
When Forestry Tasmania started clear falling and burning, it put him off because of what they did to the tree fern and sassafras wooded gullies of Rocky River and Giles Creek that he loved. “Clear falling was clear dozing – they just dozed everything down so they could get logs out. It was a horrible way to do business.” He doesn’t class himself a greenie. “I’m an environmentalist. You’ve got to be able to work as well. Use the timber – don’t abuse it.”
. . .
We’ve stopped the ute as far up the track as we can get. Boots crackle on dry ground and the air is still until we both hear the sound of running water. Down the bank, across some rocks, Perce leads us to the spot where two rivers meet, where Murray’s father and grandfather before him used to go – a spot they knew as The Crossing Place, where the Rocky Rivulet runs into the Wye and flows all the way to Belmont homestead. The rivers are tannin brown, the swimming hole jade green. I could swear we were being watched by the light of old time.
Murray remembers swimming here of an evening after finishing stripping bark. Eighteen tons one day, carted out by horse and cart. Later, when he worked for Max Hall, the Swansea freighter, he drove the truck that took the last bark out of the mill to be freighted to Madras in India for tanning leather.
Murray Hill is the keeper of a way of life that has passed, a time when people called banksia “honeysuckle” and echidnas “porcupines” because they tasted like pork. “We used to boil them to get the fat off. You could use the oil to stop rust.”
On the way home from The Crossing Place, I felt a sense of melancholy to be heading back to the land of the living. I must have said it out loud because Murray turned to say, “I often think where we’ve just come from might have been a better place.”
All the handshake deals have gone. Now he has to ring up to get permission to drive through a paddock owned by someone new, when previously he’d been doing it for 70 years without say so. “As much as if it matters, it doesn’t,” he says, with the wisdom of old age.
Traditions have gone but it’s still a good place. The kids he used to look after as a runner at the footy are now in their 50s. Still, they say to him, “G’day, you old bugger!”
“It seems a bit silly but my oath it means a lot.”