k) Personal archive
Possessed by the devils
This letter was written after a trip to far North West Tasmania to watch a Tasmanian devil feeding. The photos were taken by Daniel Gilmore.
The Tasmanian real estate boom has reached its geographical limit, and like any stretched balloon will soon pop.
I spent Friday and Saturday March 26th and 27th at Marrawah near Tasmaniaís far north west tip. Here gales blow so often even the people lean east. But that hasnít stopped the value of the neat little unit I stayed in doubling in less than two years.
The problem is mainlanders arrive on the kind of exceptional days I enjoyed Ė clear skies, no wind, views of long, pristine beaches and distant mountains that fade in and out of the sea mist. Sydney and Melbourneís speculators and hermits-to-be donít understand that in Tasmania outstanding beauty can mask profound ugliness, an ugliness they are often ill-prepared to face.
I was in Marrawah (pronounced in typically unlikely Tasmanian fashion as Marra-WAR) to catch up with my friend Dan. He had been there a week surveying rare parrot populations for the private eco-company he works for in Melbourne.
Our plan was to attend a specially arranged Tasmanian devil feeding, but on the way we diverted to one of the new "wind farms" that are sprouting thereabouts. After a few minutes at the wind farm gate interpretation booth and I could see something was amiss. Reassuring words about renewable energy didnít match the reality of an armoury of giant rapiers dismembering the air on the hill above us.
Up close the long, thin, curved blades are even more threatening. Their quick methodical rotation disturbs the air like an angry bird swooping or a projectile that passes too close. Every second and a half your senses tell you youíre about to be hit. Itís chilling in a way the cold wind could never be.
Instinct is not a sound basis for judging important new energy sources, or is it? The threat that the blades pose in the imaginations of land-bound animals is a reality for creatures that fly. Last month an eagle that had its wing sliced off at the shoulder by one of the giant mincers crawled a quarter of a kilometre before it was found dead from the trauma. Undoubtedly more have died this way, but the devils get to them before we do.
Of course there are much more conventional arguments against the wind farms. One of them is that once the Bass Strait electricity cable is laid, power from Tasmanian wind farms will supply coal-burning mainland power companies with the carbon credits they need to continue polluting the atmosphere.
But the criticism that took shape in my mind that evening was more about stupidity than greed. The forests of towers and turbines erected by the Hydro on Tasmaniaís isolated west coast are an utterly alien imposition on that land. Like the dams the Hydro built a generation ago, todayís wind farms are the outgrowth of a technology and an aesthetic developed far away and which makes no sense here. It speaks to the depth of our cultural cringe that we ape Europeís changing fashions in energy generation as mindlessly as its fashions in ideas and apparel. So intent are we on mimicry that it doesnít cross our minds to consider how energy flows through our land, and how we might extend this flow in a way consistent with the landís contours and potential. Iíve appointed Don Quixote as the mascot of all wind farm critics, and not just because he tilted at windmills. For both him and us ugly towers erected to catch the wind are monuments to the mediocrity of the times in which we live.
A short drive down the hill and we met our guide for the highlight of the evening. Simon Plowright manages a hide in the forest to which he escorts visitors who have come to see Tasmanian devils. Of course both Dan and I had seen devils before, occasionally in our headlights feeding on road kill but mostly at nature parks sleeping in the sun. This night we hoped to exceed these humdrum experiences with a glimpse into the lives of wild devils.
Simon staked out a dead wallaby just a few feet from the hide (which was sunk into the earth so that our windows were at ground level) and within minutes devils began to appear. Over a period of three hours we saw as many as twenty different individuals, gazed in amazement at their complex and unexpected behaviour, and had all our preconceptions about these little black wonders exploded.
The devil stories I was told as a farm-boy were shot-through with menace. Devils were as dangerous as the name suggested. In large packs they stalked and harassed pregnant, sick or dying cows and horses. If the stricken animal refused to fall the pack leaders would bite clean through its front legs and the rest would swoop in and tear still living flesh from bone until they were all wet through from the blood. Devils deserved begrudging respect and were to be avoided at all costs by small children. I can see now that the old men and women who said they knew for a fact that devils attacked animals fifty times their size were just trying to protect me from the dangers of the bush. But they were also voicing the fears they inherited from those early convicts who were being quite literal when they named the carnivores they had newly encountered after the Prince of Darkness. In their terrified imaginations this was the only appropriate reference for an animal that utters such unearthly screams and howls, that feasts so ravenously on dead flesh, and that reigns over the animate darkness of the chilled, tangled Tasmanian night.
The late twentieth century produced very different stereotypes of Tasmanian devils. Visit any Australian zoo and youíll come away with the now standard view of devils as quarrelsome, grumpy, smelly, ugly, mangy, lazy, lame loners. This isnít surprising given how poorly they are often kept and how unhappy these incessant roamers must be about being penned up. In contrast the devils Dan and I saw could have been a different species: bright, alert, agile, shiny, sleek, and - as the old stories, in their dark way, correctly asserted - thoroughly social.
Yes, they quarrelled, loudly and regularly. But it quickly dawned on us that their spats were not about hording food, but establishing or re-inforcing an intricate social hierarchy. In most confrontations a simple snort was enough to see off a younger social inferior. In contrast the more energetic disputes Ė we assumed between equals - usually resulted in both parties settling down to a meal together, a meal they not only shared but co-operated over. In a zoo when two or more devils bite the same carcass and tug it looks like a greedy waste of energy. But watch them more closely and youíll see they tug in a rhythm designed to pull their prey apart. As soon as it rips they settle down to eat the newly exposed flesh and bones (which they bite and chew like theyíre musk sticks).
Dan led and I followed in taking advantage of this clever pattern of behaviour. Heíd brought along a dead hare which he flopped out the ground-level window into the leaf litter. Pretty soon we were playing tug-of-war with devils that refused to let go until theyíd got their mouthful of hare. If early Europeans could have seen beyond the Devil in devils they would have dubbed the tenacious little creatures Native Terriers.
Another surprise was the devilís alertness and agility. Some young ones raced in and bounced out of the eveningís show so fast it was as if they were tethered to a point off-stage by elastic leashes. As they fed the devils could distinguish and ignore almost all the varied noises we made, responding instead to the virtually inaudible sound of another devil approaching, or to the couple of devil-like sounds we inadvertently made. When feeding devils detected two or three other devils approaching simultaneously they twirled on the spot as if to face each intruder at once, moving so quickly they became a blur.
If they performed this trick two or three times in a row they would look like spinning tops. Do Hollywoodís cartoonists know something most of us donít? When brown, spinning, tree-chomping, tropical-island-dwelling Taz first appeared it was from the pencils of Warner Bros cartoonists who had been G.I.s in the war against Japan. They were probably stationed in Queensland or given leave in Sydney. Did these satirist-soldiers, bored and keen for novelty, hear about devils from Tasmanians they met there? Maybe in their innocence they were alert to a part of the story to which we are blind because most of us see devils excelling at nothing much more than grunting and sleeping. The fact that they set Taz in the particular western Pacific environment they knew best is at least one clue to the mythical characterís possible Australian origins. Another is tree-chomping, it seems absurd to us today but it is the kind of extrapolation youíd expect from the old-time stories I heard in my youth. Taz may be a much more interesting zoological and cultural artefact than we ever realised.
After about an hour we began to recognise individual devils by their scars, spots and, unexpectedly, their facial features. A devilsí default expression is a mix of anxiety and seriousness a bit like Michelangeloís David. But on each animalís face this theme plays itself out differently and some play a different tune altogether. One devil surprised me and I it, when it walked along a log a foot from my face. We contemplated each other for what was probably 20 seconds but seemed much longer. Itís black eyes shone as bright with curiosity as its coat did in the light from our hide.
Before we left we ventured outside the hide and sat quietly while the devils which had at first scuttled from us tentatively returned. They sniffed the air more than usual, perhaps confused by strange new smells like laundry powder and aftershave. But it wasnít long before they danced all around us. We had conjured them from the night to entertain us. Like true devils they then seduced, bewitched and possessed us. I have belonged to them ever since and donít see their spell breaking any time soon.
The next morning found us on the rough road from Marrawah to Woolnorth, the GHQ of the 170 year old Van Diemenís Land Company. Well at least it used to be the GHQ until the company was bought by a New Zealand agri-conglomerate. Many people hailed the purchase as a sign of investor confidence in the reviving Tasmanian economy but Danís not impressed. He brought the four-wheeler to a sliding stop in a cloud of dust to show me where undisturbed native forest had been just a few days before. Hectares of ploughed sandy soil, dotted with charred log piles, some still smoking, had taken its place. Not even the White-throated Needletails that congregate here for their annual migration to North Asia and which were swooping on insects just above our head could calm Danís anger.
"This soil is useless for farming. But they donít care because they think itís another New Zealand. And thatís what it will be soon Ė an ecological disaster because they donít need a permit or an impact assessment. There just arenít the limits on private land clearance in Tasmania that there are in other states."
"I guess youíre used to seeing this kind of thing?", he asked. I had to admit I was. "Well you wonít be seeing much more because soon theyíll be nothing left to clear."
Heís right to be angry but wrong in his prediction. The investors, the speculators, the technocrats, the grand-planners, the world-weary, the elsewhere-failed Ė many times theyíve swooped on Tasmania hoping to write themselves across it. Tasmania is open to them but only as a poor man is open to an offer of food or work. Try to use his need to change his values and you will fail. So each new money or ego-driven scheme to transform Tasmania has also failed. Tasmaniaís dreams and nightmares are impenetrable to those who are absorbed in their own. Indeed there is a point at which Tasmania repels many of those attracted by its superficial charms. The joys are too ecstatic, the agonies too bleak, and the chasm between them too deep. Our demons are unsubdued.
Each new blow-in eventually gives up, maligns the place as unworthy of his money or talent and departs. So Marrawah home buyers will go back to Sydney when they tire of the smoke from land clearance and when wind farms are built right up to their front door. So the new VDL Co owners will pull stakes when they realise the land they cleared is useless to them. So wind farms will rust away when the new energy-tech fad hits. Donít get me wrong, the destruction, waste and ugliness is not inevitable. Tasmania can be transformed. But only from within its own story, and only by the struggle of love against fear Ė a struggle demanded by its dramatic landscape and history, a struggle to which money, technology, even ideas are ultimately irrelevant.
In a land alive with devils, the petty dreams of self-important men are doomed to fall before something humbler, more beautiful and infinitely greater. If you want to know what that thing is visit Marrawah and look deep into the eyes of a snarling little Lord of the Night.
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