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Planted in Tasmania

I have a clear memory of saying ‘I could live here’, during my first visit to Tasmania in 1979. It was a passing comment, spoken to my best friend and travelling companion during our fly/drive holiday a little more than a year after arriving in Australia. And it was made with no expectation or even genuine desire of it becoming reality. But the universe must have been listening, b ecause nine years later living in Tasmania is what I was doing.

By then of course I hadn’t wanted to move. Not to Tasmania, or anywhere. I was still relishing my love affair with Western Australia in general, and Perth in particular. But I was also enjoying a love affair with a Tasmanian man, who had never made a secret of his desire to one day return to his home state to live. Sooner rather than later. So one of my love affairs had to end, and as love affairs with places are more easily continued from a distance, and I already knew from personal experience the same is not necessarily true for people, I moved to Tasmania.

When I visited as a tourist thirty years ago I was largely unaware of Tasmania’s Janus aspect. Like thousands of tourists before and since I only skimmed its surface. I was moved and thrilled by Tasmania’s multi-faceted and dramatic physical beauty, but failed to observe the signs that suggested ripples of discontent could be simmering away underneath that careful veneer of local hospitality. The only hint there might be a darker flipside to the universal welcome being shown to us was when we expressed a wish to visit Port Arthur. Abandoned, grim, and completely free of today’s theme park superficiality. I had the impression Tasmanians preferred visitors ignore Port Arthur’s existence in the island’s history. Disregarded as a shameful place best left undisturbed and forgotten. Somewhere to be shunned, and abandoned under its shroud of misery and despair; a destination to be detoured, rather than an icon to be acknowledged, embraced and promoted.

But by the time I moved to Tasmania the failed fight to save Lake Pedder, and the success of the Franklin Dam campaign, had ensured those simmering tensions were well and truly exposed. They were strung out across the island, dividing families, friends and communities. A tangled cat’s cradle of dissent that cut far more deeply and painfully than the long-standing and bizarre north-south rivalry that has always bemused those of us who move to Tasmania from elsewhere.

Another fight between the environment and ideology was also in progress, a precursor to the one that would be revisited and magnified a thousand-fold almost twenty years later. The one I’ve been living for the last six years. The pulp mill Gunns Limited is so stubbornly determined to build in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley.

I cannot pretend to an immediate love affair with Tasmania when I became a resident. Its insularity, its decidedly cooler climate, (I arrived in June, and thought I would freeze to death that first winter), and the dour reserve of those born and bred here was depressing after Perth’s laid-back and open-hearted welcome. Did Tasmanians only smile in summer when the tourists were here?

The friendliness was still there of course, it was just offered more cautiously now I was no longer a visitor. An early indication perhaps that Tasmanians were realising their secret was finally out. The Apple Isle was being re-discovered. No longer simply a convenient place for mainlanders to visit for a long weekend or rustic bush-walking holiday, Tasmania was increasingly being seen as a desirable place to live. And not all the locals were happy.

Because of newcomers like me Tasmanians were being reluctantly dragged out of their cosy, tight-knit isolation, and forced to sit up and see their island home anew, through the eyes of outsiders. They were being made to consider why so many people believe the quality of Tasmania’s unique natural environment to be priceless, and its historic and cultural heritage worthy of protection.

Once again winds of change were disrupting Tasmania’s landscape. And they were malevolent winds, that have blown harder and stronger each successive year, tightening the knots in already tangled tensions, and ensuring more of the island’s environmental skeletons are exposed through the cracks.

This being Tasmania, for skeletons read trees. And specifically those venerable members of the massive and magnificent species found in the hushed tranquillity of the island’s ancient, and high conservation forests. Trees that for centuries have harboured a healthy and vibrant tapestry of inter-connected life; bustling, busy yet harmonious civilisations so noticeably absent from their precisely-placed, regulated and sterile counterparts, grown in the managed monoculture plantations that have been allowed to slowly and insidiously invade the island.

For decades trees have been central to deepening divisions between families, friends, industry, conservationists, and communities both urban and rural. And there are new emotional chasms dividing public opinion about how best to sustainably manage them, be they forest or plantation grown.

Division over whether or not to continue the rapacious clearfelling of public forests. Division over the rationale behind why cutting down three hundred-plus year-old trees, loading them onto log trucks to be carted away for pulp or woodchips, can ever be considered sensible, sustainable or profitable. Or why continued resistance, both to the reality of climate change, and the multiple scientific studies that show the economic and environmental value of such trees is actually far greater when they remain standing, should no longer be ignored. Ongoing and bitter division over the need to recognise the crucial and priceless role trees have as the planet’s lungs, and why they should be regarded as Tasmania’s own living, breathing and bankable carbon warehouses. As well as major tourist attractions.

We all have roots, and after twenty-two years mine are now firmly established in Tasmania. After all, I’ve spent – almost – more of my life here than anywhere else. And despite that initial reluctance to move, my roots – like mature tree roots – are now deep and well dug-in.

As is my love affair with Tasmania. Which is why, like so many others, I’m hopeful those firm handshakes across the forestry roundtable will ultimately succeed in uniting Tasmanians by permanently closing the emotional chasm.

But my affinity is also with the trees, and I’m no longer a wavering, transplanted sapling. Because I live in the Tamar Valley, with the daily uncertainty of Gunns proposed pulp mill a constant and malignant threat, rather like those ancient forest trees I’ve grown steadily stronger, more steadfast and resolute. Determined both to ensure this tentative, fragile peace will last, and that a pulp mill will never threaten the vibrant beauty of this valley.

Anne Layton-Bennett was born in England, and moved to Australia in 1977, settling first in Perth, Western Australia before moving to Tasmania with her partner in 1988. While she has always been an inveterate letter writer, she only got serious about writing professionally in 1994, after the sale of the florist business she and her partner owned. Some early success in writing competitions encouraged her to keep going, but apart from two or three short fiction pieces the yellow brick road to publishing success has largely followed the non-fiction path.

For a number of years Anne juggled writing commitments with a part-time job in a school library, and running a commercial flower growing business with her partner. During this time her work appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines both in Australia and overseas. These include: The West Australian, The Weekend Australian, Famous Reporter, Island, Tasmanian Boating and Fishing, Australian Fishing World, The New Writer, Hospital&Aged Care, and Facility Management. More recently Anne wrote features for the bi-annual Tasmania+, a publication currently in recess.

Anne co-edited: An Inspired Pursuit: 40 years of writing by women in northern Tasmania (Karuda Press) 2002, and has several essays included in An Inspired Pursuit: Volume 2, (Tatlers) 2012. Her work is also included in Breaking the boundaries: Australian activists tell their stories (Wakefield Press) 2016, and The Fabric of Launceston (Launceston Historical Society) 2016.

Anne currently works as a freelance journalist, and is a regular contributor of science-based, animal-related articles for specialist monthly magazine The Veterinarian. She is a contributor to the online publication about all things Tasmanian, Tasmanian Times.

Challenged several years ago to try her hand at writing poetry, Anne now has a growing portfolio of poems – some of which have even been published. She still writes letters.