Van Dieman's Land
Black Inc., $49.95 hb, 388 pp
Henry Lawson epitomised the weather-beaten laconic when he said: ‘Death is about the only cheerful thing in the bush.’ A century later, Bill Bryson, in Down Under (2000), picked up where Lawson left off: he defined the ‘real Australia’ as places where ‘no sane person would choose to live’. Somewhere in between, Patrick White created one of those dubious entities, a sweat-stained eccentric in an undaubed slab hut who told the explorer Voss that the country ahead of him was all stones and thorns, a place where anyone crazy enough to go out there might celebrate a ‘high old Mass ... with the skull of a blackfeller and his own blood’.
The reality and the mythology of Australia seem to merge in agreement around what’s called the ‘harsh geography’ thesis, but if that signifies the mainland it certainly does not fit the island we now call Tasmania. There the world turns upside down, or once did.
From the beginning of British occupation, Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then called, was evidently endowed with an abundance of wildlife, indigenous plant foods and grasslands. This natural bounty created as many problems as did the unforgiving ground that is most of Australia. When the surveyor George Harris walked across the island from Hobart Town to Port Dalrymple in 1808, he was ecstatic about the trek ‘thro the finest country in the world...the quantities of kangaroos, emus [yes, emus] and wild ducks we saw and killed were incredible’. This was news to spark wild dreams.