Where the wild things are

ADV, Saturday Magazine, HILARY BURDEN, p.6 – 24 Jan 2015

My garden is like many old Tasmanian gardens you can see from the road. A mash-up of flowers and old fruit trees, things planted by previous owners that have survived, others brought back from special trips to local nurseries on Brown Mountain and in Springfield, or from Open Garden openings, or online.
There are particular shrubs friends have brought, including a Christmas gift of a potted herb of lemon-and-lime-flowering Lady’s Mantle from my mother’s neighbour, Peg. She thought it would be well-suited to the Nuns’ House garden. There are parts left wild, others where flowers have mysteriously self-seeded and popped up.
So this garden, like most, is nothing really planned. Happened more by luck, gift and fancy than by design. It’s only recently that I’ve realised my pale green thumbs have been influenced mostly by English settler gardening than a sense of what used to grow here before 1803.
Thanks to all kinds of local knowledge (from a course on bush foods with Kris Schaffer, organised by Tamar NRM, to walking on Country with Aboriginal Tasmanians) in recent years, as my roots go deeper, I’ve learnt more about native plants.
A recent trip to Habitat Nursery, the Tasmanian native plants nursery run by Sally and Herbert Staubmann at Liffey since the early ’80s, helped my garden take on a diversity of native varieties that were either fragrant, floral or edible, such as hakea, she-oak (the necklace variety that I thought sounded pretty), kunzea, leatherwood, manuka, native laurel and climbing blueberry. It’s still early days but I’m hoping some of them will find their home here.
Not long after it closed last spring, I made a trip to Tiagarra Aboriginal Culture and Art Centre on the Devonport Bluff and was welcomed to Country by Tasmanian Aborigine Paul Docking from the Six Rivers Aboriginal Corporation, whose lease on the property had just expired. Expressions of interest have since been opened by Devonport City Council to determine what happens to this special place, an incredible step into a pre-settler world. There, on the cliff’s edge of Bass Strait, looking back on smart beachside houses that overlook Coles Beach Rd, is an area cared for by descendants of the original inhabitants. Here you can see how the coast may have looked, where ochre is sourced, where women who swam like seals fished off the rocks. You can trace your finger in the sensual grooves of rock carvings made tens of thousands of years ago.
Paul says he learnt much of what he knows as “a dark-skinned boy living on this beach”. He says his grandmother told him to avoid the bigots and racists he should “tell them you’re Indian”.
But Paul is more Tasmanian than I will ever be, pointing out native species I’d never really noticed, and others I knew without knowing their names. “Here, do you recognise this?” he asked, holding a flowering stem gently between his fingers. I told him I couldn’t be sure. That it looked like blackberry only the leaves were smaller.
“It’s wild raspberry,” he smiled.
Craig Williams from Pepper Bush Adventures has a similar eye. The self-styled bushie is a third-generation Scottsdale resident who now runs internationally famed nature tours off the beaten track in the state’s North East. Craig says the bush will tell you everything you want to know if you read it. He stops to point out the mountain pepper berry trees and alpine cider gums, which he describes as the source of the first alcoholic drink in Tasmania used by Aborigines.
I have thought about eliminating all the non-native plants and trees in my garden but that felt like genocide the other way. Plus, I like the flowers, bulbs and deciduous colour too much. So I’m going for both: stick with the mash-up while learning more about what new Tasmanians might have ignored when they started clearing land for farms.
Although gardeners and writers are never on holiday – like artists, farmers, owner-operators or possibly parents – I’ve finally got around to reading a book put aside for reading on these lazy days of extended daylight. The Rambunctious Garden – Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, by Emma Marris, came highly recommended by Ted Lefroy, director of the UTAS Centre for Environment. The Oregon-based author wrestles well the paradox that the only way to have a pristine wilderness is to manage it intensively, something Aborigines learned over millennia, know instinctively, and can teach us if we want them to.
“Nature is almost everywhere,” writes Marris. “But wherever it is, there is one thing that nature is not: pristine. In 2011, there is no pristine wilderness on planet Earth. We’ve been changing the landscapes we inhabit for millennia, and these days our reach is truly global We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.” It’s a challenging thought for those of us who think of our Tasmanian wilderness as pristine. But it’s also one way of bringing together the opposite drivers of introduced cultivation on the one hand and what’s always been there on the other. Not “wild v cultivated” but “half-wild, half-cultivated”.
Perhaps this approach might help care for the future of Tiagarra when it’s decided. And, perhaps, whilst appreciating the abundance of produce we receive from our backyard fruit trees, we might also, this Australia Day, be inspired to plant a leatherwood or another native tree. Jennifer Stackhouse shares her suggestions on page 27.
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