Truganini’s Island: Food, darkness and belonging

I have just spent ten days in Tasmania, presenting at a conference on Food Politics, with prominent food geographer Michael Goodman and RMIT’s excellent Tania Lewis as the keynotes. My presentation was on food and hunting in Australia and Sweden, based on a forthcoming chapter in a book co-edited by Lesley Head.IMG_0463

All the Nordic countries and Australia have traditions of hunting. For most of Australia’s human history, including colonial settlement, wild harvest from the sea and the land formed the human diet, and hunting was a normal part of activity and cuisine. These traditions continue in 2016, but are controversial and contested. In the Nordic countries, in part because of the historic traditions of friluftsliv and allemansrätten, wild food gathering including hunting is currently much more normalized, and in fact valorized in the rise of the ‘New Nordic Cuisine. The percentages of the population that are hunters in these countries are relatively similar, between 2-5%. Indigenous hunters, Aboriginal and Sami, are marginalized and often criminalized for continuing to maintain traditions millennia old.

The conference was relatively intimate, and a good learning experience for me – food has not been my focus, so there was lots of new information, and some future possible collaborations.

I find Tasmania simultaneously incredibly beautiful and incredibly dark. The Tasmanian Art Gallery currently has a knockout exhibition, Tempest, that in part explores this. Taking Shakespeare’s last play as its inspiration, it powerfully layers Empire, islands, belonging, colonial science, and very beautiful artworks.

Artist: Tacita Dean

Artist: Tacita Dean

For five days prior to the conference, I stayed on South Bruny Island. Bruny was home to Tasmanian Aboriginal woman Truganini. During my school years we were told Truganini was the ‘last of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people’, effectively erasing the lives of the many descendants of Aboriginal people and various settler/colonist communities. I harvested from the ancestral waters of Truganini’s Neunone people: cold, deep water, rich and beautiful: oysters, mussels, edible seaweeds, native spinach. The Neunone people have recently regained access to some of their lands on Bruny, now called Murrayfield station. At the conference Mike Goodman spoke of ‘decolonising our food imaginaries’, which on Tasmania has quite explicit meaning. The abalone industry is worth $100 million a year, but excludes Aboriginal people despite a 40,000 year history of sustainable harvest demonstrated by numerous shell middens. Current active divers are arguing that the stock is on the verge of collapse after only 4 decades of over-intensive harvest. Tasmania’s agricultural produce is famous but totally ignores native resources.

Walking the tidal edge on Bruny, I kept thinking about British/Polish sea captain and writer Joseph Conrad’s words at the end of his 1899 novel Heart of Darkness: ‘the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness’. Tasmania is not so far from the uttermost ends of the earth, and it has a dark history, palpable in the landscape. The idea of ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ is not new, with writers Richard Flanagan, Rohan Wilson and others producing outstanding work exploring the psyche of the Van Diemonians. Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party is perhaps the most successful book I have read in presenting how Aboriginal people, in all their diversity, were totally compromised by the violent colonial process: there were no right decisions to be made, especially in Tasmania: all decisions had terrible consequences. Greg Lehmann, academic, curator and descendant of legendary Tasmanian Aboriginal resistance fighter Manalagena (a central figure in The Roving Party) writes of the ongoing tensions around contemporary Aboriginal identity and rights.

Manalagena - Thomas Brock watercolour 1837

Manalagena – Thomas Brock watercolour 1837

(After leaving Bruny I discover, astonishingly, that the rusting hulk of the Otago, a ship that Joseph Conrad commanded in 1889, lies near the shore of the Derwent River in Hobart.)

While in Tasmania I also wanted to dive, following my full immersion processes on exploring coldwater freediving, My first attempt was pretty short. It was morning, calm, no people, and I had just seen a trio of dolphins cruising slowly along the shore of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. I slipped into deep water from a boat jetty and was immediately shocked by the intense cold, less than 10 degrees by my dive watch. I kicked west across the channel towards Satellite Island, but with visibility only two to three metres, an instant cold headache and paranoia about hypothermia, I bailed. The second try was at Cloudy Bay, also very cold but I dived for maybe 45 minutes. Visibility was unfortunately also poor, and big swells meant I couldn’t get near to the underwater bull kelp forests, which seem to like high-energy coasts. Black cockatoos and a pair of sea eagles made the swim worthwhile, and I guess that gives me a reason to come back.

Bruny coast

Bruny coast

I spent two days with UOW historian, Antarctic veteran and world-class rock climber Ben Maddison, hiking together to sites where Ben climbs. Ben, having published an alternative history of Antarctic exploration, is writing a history of the Southern Ocean, which promises to be extraordinary. He is living on Bruny, and sees the Southern Ocean in all its moods daily. A great combination of intense physical activity and wide-ranging conversations covering everything from seal evolution to proliferation and extinction in the Anthropocene, in the spectacularly beautiful landscapes of Bruny Island. I can’t think of a better context for intellectual exchange.

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