February 2021. Life in Tasmania, I’ve written recently for The Lancet, is like living on another planet. We can go to cafes and restaurants and cinemas; the markets and shops and even festivals (the smaller festivals, at least,) are open and running ‘as usual’. Our weekly row in wooden St Ayles skiffs with a group of other people is only hindered by the weather, not by any pandemic. In fact, there hasn’t been a case of community-transmitted COVID in Tasmania for 6 months. I feel astonished, lucky, and very, very far away from many friends and family. One new friend who holds a monthly gathering for local women said she feels a sense of “radical responsibility” to gather in community-focussed ways expressly because so many other people cannot. To do this for ourselves, yes, but also as an act of humanitarian empathy. I think that’s a beautiful thing.
October 2020. Theme song: ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it…’ Do I feel fine? I feel as worried as any of us with a scrap of humanitarian empathy, with the news of the world (particularly places close to my heart, the US and the UK, where many friends and family reside). I feel heartbreak for the vast suffering now, and to follow.
My husband and I are probably more acutely aware of being fortunate and grateful for where we’ve managed to land than we might have been otherwise. It seemed like the right choice for us to move (we decided to do so before the pandemic,) but as we went through the process of emigrating quickly, things seemed to be falling apart (or burning down) at our heels.
So here we are, in this astonishingly beautiful, low-density place. Rowing on a week-day morning, no less, under a pristine blue sky, chatting about the echidna we saw the day before…
Not that Tasmania is without its own big problems, certainly. And perhaps that’s what 2020 is revealing – there is bald-faced corruption and destruction around every corner. As ever, the natural world (when I’m not worrying about its corruption/destruction,) is a respite, joy, and restoration for the soul. The more ensouled we are, the less destructive we’ll be. Here’s hoping that when I next write, Biden/Harris will be US President/VP, and we’ll be starting to turn this tide, little by little.
September 2020. Settling in Tasmania! We have been incredibly fortunate to make the quarantine deadlines (purely by accident, as things change all the time,) so that we quarantined in Perth for 2 weeks in a hotel, then enjoyed time with family there, and quarantined in our rental accommodation in Tasmania for 2 weeks. We’ve been cleared, out, and exploring for nearly 2 months!
Tasmania is truly the land of rainbows. I’ve seen more rainbows here in 2 months than I think I’ve seen in my whole life! Of course, that’s because the weather is wildly changeable, and we’ve learned to have pretty much everything in the car: suncream, wooly jumpers, raincoats, hiking boots, sandals…It’s also good that my time living in England ‘trained’ me to go outside, whether or not the weather looked appealing (otherwise, you’d be stuck inside for days…) If it’s pouring one moment, it’s gorgeous (and surprisingly sun-burn-y) the next.
We’ve been getting to know the excellent little village of Cygnet, which is our local place – great cafes, and all the amenities you really need, from Heartfelt Wholefoods, a lovely refill shop, a few good grocers, from The Larder to the local family-run IGA (great hummus), and a fab little sushi place that seems to be run entirely by one person. Locals have been welcoming and friendly, and we’ve joined the Port Cygnet Sailing Club, which is very egalitarian and accessible. (Thanks, Australia!) This includes an awesome group of women who have sailed all over the world, and around it, from the Azores to the Galapagos, from Canada to Australia. I’m agog at their stories. And very grateful to the organising that means less experienced women are invited onto sailboats to learn skills. “Water women” meant I was sailing for 9 hours a couple of weeks ago, with a great group of people, on a beautiful boat, “Spirit,” simply to learn, and to help sail the boat up to Kettering – though Captain Ginny could certainly sail the boat by herself if needed, and she has.
July 2020. Exploring Herdsman Lake in Perth, a stunning yet peaceful space in the city, and home to an abundance of birds. There is a boardwalk with a grove of Melaleuca or “paperbark” trees (Melaleuca quinquenervia,) which creates a magical, Sleepy Hollow feeling…(There are about 240 different species of paperbark tree in WA alone, and I cannot tell you which one(s) we saw.) Melaleuca is a widely medicinal tree: “The leaves and bark of several species were used to treat ailments from coughs and colds to cuts and sores. These were applied directly or crushed and soaked in water to create a drink or liniment. Alternatively, they were burnt and the smoke inhaled.” You may have encountered tea tree oil? That’s Melaleuca.
As we walked along, we were accompanied by friendly wagtails, and could hear the small snap of the beaks of swallows which were zipping about all around us. The purple swamphens (Porphyrio porphyrio) we saw are apparently “very common,” but seem outrageously exotic to me. I think “swamp hen” as a name doesn’t do them justice! And of course, the black swans (Cygnus atratus) are equally magical, as, no doubt, the white swans of the Northern Hemisphere seem to visitors from Oz.
I mentioned in my last post that we had a surprise on the beach one morning a couple of weeks ago. Storm winds had washed thousands of bluebottles (locally known as “stingers,”) – Physalia utriculus – onto the beach. Of course, I didn’t have my camera. A pity, as they were still glowing and alive, iridescent with their beautiful – but cautionary – bright blue whips. On a later day, I was able to take a photo of one that hadn’t yet deflated. Bluebottles, or “man o’war,” are fascinating: “not a single animal, but a colony of four kinds of highly modified individuals (zooids,)” according to Australian Museum online, “The zooids are dependent on one another for survival. The float (pneumatophore) is a single individual and supports the rest of the colony. The tentacles (dactylozooids) are polyps concerned with the detection and capture of food and convey their prey to the digestive polyps (gastrozooids). Reproduction is carried out by the gonozoids, another type of polyp. They aren’t jellyfish, but for the sake of, “don’t go in the water, it’ll sting the **** out of you,” they are similar enough!
Back to our walk at Herdsman Lake: the purpose of the walk was to head to a particular tree, where my father-in-law has regularly seen Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides,) also known as nightjars, or nightjays. They make a lovely hoo-hoo sound at night, and they are nocturnal creatures, but they aren’t owls. I was absolutely thrilled to see not one, but three of these charming creatures, nestled together in their “usual” tree, and my gawping drew a couple of other interested walkers, and we all had a nice look (“sticky-beak” in Australian slang, for nosing around anything, not just birds!) at these snoozing birds, who appeared completely unruffled by our presence. The tawny frogmouths have a wonderful upright stance, having evolved to camouflage extremely well with tree branches, and were very soothing and charming to watch. They definitely had a Buddha vibe going on.
June 2020: We’ve emigrated to Australia! These are a few of the fascinating birds I’ve seen so far in Perth, Western Australia, where we’re spending about 1.5 months with family. Having emigrated once before, from the US to London, I know how strange it can be to land in a completely new world. It’s comforting and exciting to learn some of the local flora and fauna, since I’m always interested in the natural history around me, even (or especially,) in a city.
Perth is a deeply unnatural place: a strange, urban landscape, thrown up out of a desert, built on mining money, and kept green by desalinated seawater. Fortunately, we’re just two streets away from King’s Park, a 400.6 hectare (that’s a little under 1,000 acres) park, with a good patch of what Australians call “the bush,” as well as landscaped botanic gardens. On our second night here, we saw a bandicoot, a little brown marsupial. (Much too quick to take a photo.)
The type of birds in the above photos are pink and grey Galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla,) a type of cockatoo. There is a pair who are busy nibbling out a nest hole in that eucalyptus tree, which is just outside the back of the house. They are charming birds, especially when they’re in pairs, chirping softly to each other. They whisk off in great, noisy flocks to feed. The second photo is a different pair of pink and grey Galahs in King’s Park, cozying up to each other. They mate for life, and are very sweet to observe in their little duos.
The above photo is an Australian magpie, which makes incredibly eerie and varied sounds. The beak is serious! Though my husband joked about all the poisonous and deadly things in Australia before our first visit, when we got here, I asked, “Hey, what are those road signs with an eagle on them?” and he said, “Oh, those are actually the swooping magpies. Every year they take out the eyes of one or two kids on the way to school.” WHAT?! There is actually a website to help people track sites where nesting magpies have taken to particularly aggressive behaviour (apparently not all of them do). Cyclists have been badly hurt and even killed trying to avoid these birds.
Having survived the magpies so far (but then, it isn’t nesting season yet,) the next photo is a lovely wattlebird drinking nectar in King’s Park. Part of the genus honeyeater, I believe this one was a red wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata) – on the left.
The photo above right was perhaps the nicest surprise: as we were talking and walking, a rather demanding call came from up in a tree, and we looked up to see two of these beautiful birds, which I think were Forest Red Tailed Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banksii), but may have been Glossy Black Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus lathami), which are not as rare, but still fabulous. They were nibbling nuts from a gum nut tree. Like the pink & grey Galahs, these birds look at you with quite a lot of interest. Seeing as cockatoos are smarter than human toddlers, it’s no surprise!