Dispatches from the Edge of the World
| Meaghen Brown
| Meaghen Brown
The wind at the edge of the world comes in clean and cold. Without any significant landmass to temper its force, it rips across the 40th latitude and slams into the prefab houses that straddle the tiny seaside township of Arthur River where we’re staying. It strains against the windows and coats the logs stacked next to the door in salty ocean spray. Measurements from a meteorological monitoring station at Cape Grim, an hour north of here, record this part of northwestern Tasmania as having the cleanest air in the world. It’s emotional, vital, possibly revelatory—like you can tell that the earth is still spinning by standing in this wind.
“If the weather gives Tasmania shape, it’s the rainforests that give it definition.”
It’s dark when the regulars amble up the steps and through the swinging glass door of the Marrawah Tavern just up the road from Arthur River. They come from work, stopping on the way home for a pint of Boag’s, the local economy beer. A half dozen or so are parked for a long night. The bartender knows them all by name. Builders and farmers and surveyors. There’s a fire going in the hearth next to an occupied pool table. The daily specials are listed on a blackboard in the attached dining room, which is decorated with photographs and dioramas of endemic fish. Lamb from Cape Grim, breaded scallops. Steam rises from mounds of mashed potatoes. Outside the wind howls, knocking against a sign that says “Best in the West,” which is also carved into a picnic table on the wraparound porch.
At a corner table near the window, three men scrimmage over half-finished tens (the vernacular for half-pint). They share the weathered look of men who work outside—calloused hands that swallow their glasses, and crinkles around their eyes. They wear camo and flannel, unironically. And they want to talk, which isn’t really surprising. Even in muddy work boots and jeans, we’re conspicuous.
“What do you think of our weather?” one asks. He’s looking for a character assessment, not an answer. “They say if you don’t like it, just wait five minutes.” I’ve heard this truism before. It’s a popular one in places where the combined virtues of unruliness and resolve are essential to survival. But after nearly three weeks here, I’ll admit that Tasmania might be allowed to claim it. The weather is the island’s determinant factor; its context, shape and personality.
“So, what are you lot doing here?” says the one in the faded Carhartt sweatshirt. His tone is skeptical but genial.
“We’re making a documentary film.” (I’m the tagalong writer).
“You’re not fucking Greenies, are you?”
Not necessarily, but we do want to talk about the forest.
Locals fear that world heritage protection would prevent them from accessing places they consider to be part of their home. Photo: Mikey Schaefer
Australia’s least populated state is barely more than a 45-minute flight from the mainland, but it’s held on to a distinctive primordial wildness. Look at the world map on your wall. Tasmania might not even be on it. A mechanic and electrician who we met at a sawmill in the town of Meander described it as having been dragged kicking and screaming from Antarctica when the continents split apart and Australia drifted north. Being there is a bit like inhabiting a very strange dream. Everything is familiar, yet extraordinary.
The writer Richard Flanagan (who we tried and failed to persuade to narrate our film after a chance encounter in Hobart) once described Tasmania in an essay in The New Yorker as an “island Wunderkammer, crammed full of the exotic and the strange, the beautiful and the cruel, conducive not to notions of progress but to a sense of unreality.” It isn’t wild, it’s wildness—the distinction having to do with the evolving nature of the quality.
The mountains are round, Rubenesque and old. More often than not you’re shivering.
If the weather gives Tasmania shape, it’s the rainforests that give it definition. Mist eddies through the canopies like the first drops of milk in a cup of coffee. There are mushrooms that look like transparent jellyfish and others the color of safety cones and everything smells wet and alive. There are pepper berries that taste like cloves and gin, and a cadence of learned names—myrtle, blackwood, sassafras, leatherwood, celery-topped pine. It’s the language of place that gives it identity. Sixty species of rare or endangered animals live here. Macropod bound across two-lane roads and colossal man ferns (Dicksonia Antarctica) spread their fronds, umbrella-like, over the understory of cool temperate rainforests, vast tracts of which date back nearly 60 million years, to a time when the earth was still drifting from a single supercontinent into disparate parts and dinosaurs roamed the planet. This area, known as the Tarkine, or takayna in the Aboriginal language palawa kani, sweeps across 447,000 hectares in the northwestern corner of the island—from the Arthur and the Pieman Rivers to the coast. Whispered sightings of an extinct carnivorous marsupial called a thylacine are too frequent to assume it’s actually gone.
The first time I walked into the rainforest, I surprised myself by crying.
The Tarkine region of northwestern Tasmania is home to one of the last undisturbed tracks of Gondwana rainforests in the world. Photo: Mikey Schaefer
But Tasmania’s forests are not just remarkable for their age, they’re also the foundation of an entrenched and complicated timber industry that has existed on the island since the mid-1800s—the worst of which involves the clear-felling of old-growth forests.
Tasmania carries a freight of unprocessed historical traumas. A near-total genocide of the Aboriginal population in the 19th century, a poverty-stricken rural population with a 49% literacy rate, and an economy based almost entirely on obliteration of some of the very qualities that make it so singularly wild. The claims to heritage are polarising and abyssal. And it all gets written on the landscape. The plantations that line the white gravel are unnerving in their linearity.
We were there to make a film about the Tarkine and the conflict over the protection of wild places. Even on the opposite side of the world, if felt intensely relevant. While we tromped through sharp buttongrass planes and started to memorise the contours of the coastline, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was recommending massive cuts to a series of national monuments back home, and shortly after we returned, the president signed a proclamation reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by 85 and 50 percent respectively. He cited “heritage,” “respect,” “glorious natural wonders,” and “protection” in his explanation.
It’s become a familiar story—resource extraction, conflicting claims to landscape, the death of traditional industries and disappearing jobs. Rural communities plagued by unemployment, poverty and illegal drugs. Like a microcosm of contemporary America.
The oldest of the three men, a man with a chest like an oak barrel and thick white hair, leans against the bar with his beer held to his chest and nods at the countertop. “This bar was hewn from the trunk of a blackwood tree,” he tells me. “Tasmania was built on agriculture and forestry. By shutting off the forestry industry you’re taking away the culture as well. And it’s a real family orientated sort of a culture. I’m not about to say all forestry is good. I don’t like the way some of it is done. But I can’t say another way to do it.”
I ask about the connection between culture and land.
“Look, in my life here I find that the best conservationists are the people who have a vested interest in what’s going on. That live in the area, live with the animals, live with the forests. We don’t want to have a moonscape. But everybody’s gotta have a job.”
The essential qualities that make Tasmania so impossibly wild are also the ones that make it profitable. Photo: Mikey Schaefer
Clear-felling starts with chainsaws and ends with neatly maintained monoculture plantations and forests managed like nurseries. Massive old-growth trees are cut into saw logs, which get bought by a handful of mills across the state and turned into building materials or plywood. The surplus is sold to exporters and added to the global pulpwood supply as woodchips or pulp for tissue paper. We saw piles of these woodchips, as tall as massive buildings, being loaded onto container ships when we drove through the port city of Burnie.
Almost all the logging of native-growth forest is done through a government sponsored, and heavily subsidised, business enterprise called Sustainable Timber Tasmania (formerly known as Forestry Tasmania)—which is responsible for the management of all forests on public land, roughly 800,000 hectares. These areas are essentially the Australian equivalent of BLM land—open for multi-use, but also to logging and mining leases. The profits are used to support government functions.
Yet the industry is fickle, especially as the international price of woodchips fluctuates and demand evolves. In its 2016 annual report, Forestry Tasmania showed a loss of nearly $67.4 million, at which point the company underwent a government-issued rebranding, cutting jobs, renegotiating price increases with customers, and signing new contracts to move woodchips in the process. They relaunched in July of 2017 as Sustainable Timber Tasmania, with the stated intention of adapting to a “new operating environment,” according to statements made by Guy Barnett, the current minister for resources.
Not long after the relaunch, STT sold roughly 29,000 hectares of native hardwood forests to a newly listed company called Reliance Forest Fibre on a 99-year lease, citing a need to fund the transitional costs of the restructuring. Opponents of the deal pointed out that Reliance Forest Fibre is a subsidiary of Global Forest Partners, a private equity fund manager specialising in forestry investments that has been found to have ties to the Cayman Islands.
“Don’t vilify us. We want to help protect these places. But if you lock us out, we’ll rip the lock off.”
In a speech to parliament Barnett claimed that this shift was intended to make STT debt-free and would promote local jobs. But according to a 2012 audit, STT may have sold these publically owned plantations for about half of what they’re worth. Dr. Quentin Beresford, a writer who has covered the history of Tasmania’s logging industry, calls this kind of deal Tasmania’s “unique model of authoritarian capitalism.”
And now, thanks to a relatively recent reversal by the government of a moratorium on logging old-growth forests, places previously earmarked as protected reserves, including the Tarkine, are now available for extraction. This was largely a political move. The forestry industry is contracting rapidly, but rural communities in traditional timber towns still expect those jobs.
“The forestry industry is struggling,” said one of the men in Marrawah who does part-time contract work for STT. “Or Sustainable Forestry Tasmania,” (he said this part ironically). “They changed their name, sold off all their staff, they’re not making any money.”
“What did they do wrong?”
“Everything. It’s a dying industry. I’ll retire in ten years, and I reckon there won’t be any forestry left.”
But the locals here don’t see protection for the Tarkine as the answer. Kim Gale, who shows up in the film in a red flannel, his demeanor intense, explained it this way: He’d grown up in this area, surfing and fishing, and now teaches his nine-year-old daughter at one of his favorite local spots. All he wants is to continue taking her there, not to be told how to recreate, to show her what he knows about the landscape where he was raised. “I went around the world once on a trip and missed everything about this place,” he said. “I missed the noise, the sound of the openness, of the wind. We all know each other. I missed this community.”
Locals like Kim feel like they’re being excluded from the conversation, like they’ll be locked out of the places where they grew up hunting and fishing by conservationists who have never even been to this place, and don’t know the landscape nearly as well as they do. “That’s what’s so offensive about people coming to tell us how to look after our community,” he says. “Don’t vilify us. We want to help protect these places. But if you lock us out, we’ll rip the lock off.”
Nicole Anderson’s blue Toyota Land Cruiser is packed for a miniature apocalypse. Cross-country ski gear, cameras, maps, books, running shoes, a plant collecting kit, bars of chocolate, a hairbrush, a power pack, and, somewhat ironically, a chainsaw. Nicole is 46 years old, a redhead and one of only two doctors for a rural area the size of Guam. She also runs hundreds of miles deep into the forest to scout future logging coups (areas of forest set aside for extraction) and brings her information back to the Bob Brown Foundation, the conservation organisation leading the fight to protect the Tarkine.
As we amble along the Pieman River, which forms the southern boundary of the Tarkine, Nicole interrupts her habitual stream of consciousness to point out a neat row of native forest lining the highway, spared to hide the clearfell beyond. Propaganda strips, they’re called. When you drive through sections of STT-managed land, along smooth paved roads as black and perfect as if they’d been laid yesterday, this is what you see: promotional awareness on green and white signs to watch for endangered devils on the road, and explanations of the forests. “A working forest since 1850.” “Regrowth forest after clearfelling.” The logos haven’t changed since the company’s rebranding.
“Okay,” she says, idling to a stop as we round a corner on the road. “Let’s see some death and destruction.”
“The clearfell in front of us cut like a fresh wound through the existing rainforest.”
There was no preamble. No warning. Forest and then nothing. That nearly nauseating feeling of walking down a set of stairs in the pitch darkness and miscounting the last one, so that you actually find yourself stepping into empty space instead of solid ground.
Timber extraction is acutely visual. The blue flagging tape that flaps in the wind marking the boundaries of future logging coups, yellow gates blocking the entrances to dirt roads cut through the trees. The clearfell in front of us cut like a fresh wound through the existing rainforest. Wind whistles through the splinters, and a quote we used in the film echoes through my head, “If you want to see the greatest myrtle rainforest in the world, go to the mill in Bernie. It’s all in woodchips.”
“This just shits me,” says Nicole, kicking the toe of her shoe against a stump.
“When was this cut?”
About six months ago she thinks.
After a forest is clear-felled, two things happen to the scars left behind. In drier eucalyptus forests, sections of trees are cut and harvested in a pattern designed to mimic the way a forest would naturally regenerate. In wet eucalyptus forests, which have thicker understories, the entire ecosystem is felled, then bombed with napalm, burned and replanted with species that germinate quickly after a fire. We also heard stories of forestry workers leaving carrots soaked in poison around the perimeter of these newly planted areas in order to kill the potoroos and wallabies and wombats who come to graze on the seedlings.
While the film team set up shots, I sat down on a stump and wrote this in my notebook:
“It seemed some tragic absolution of logic, requiring a leap of imagination, to fathom that these towering eucalyptus might end up as tissue paper. But there is some resiliency to places like this. It’s quiet, but there are still birds. Signs of life among the destruction. In between the enormous muddy tire marks, and the slivers of old growth that looked like matted hair, we found fresh Tasmanian devil tracks.”
I could hear the wind whistling through the clearfell.
Forest on one side, clearfell on the other. Photo: Krystle Wright
Back at the house in Arthur River, over steaming cups of coffee, our talk turns for the hundredth time to conservation. Is an environmental campaign ever won? Why is conservation such a binary conversation? How do you protect a forest and a livelihood, as jobs disappear? How do you atone for the Aboriginal story and protect their claim to this land while still allowing rural communities to access these places as they did with their parents? How do you honor everyone’s perceived claim to heritage no matter how small the geography or how nuanced the issue at hand?
Regionalism helps give definition to society, but does it have to result in tribalism? The Greens and the bogans (the Tasmanian word for redneck) really aren’t as different as they’re made out to be. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re right, to assume a kind of moral superiority about the way things should be, but after hundreds of conversations, it seemed like everyone’s concern for the future was largely the same. And a lot of people who would never call themselves environmentalists still agree that logging native forests, is, to use a word we heard often, fucked. No one seemed to think that systematic old-growth logging was a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, popular opinion steered toward the contrary.
Tasmania isn’t alone in this cultural dilemma. It’s a moral relativism that needlessly places environmentalists against local communities and politicians against the best interest of their constituents. And it’s the same moral relativism that resulted in Donald Trump getting elected in the United States and our public lands being positioned as something to fight over, rather than celebrate. The crux exists not in differences of ideology but in outsized defensiveness of place. Only when everyone feels the same obligation to protect a place will the conversation change.
We left with as many questions as answers, but this is one of the things we took away: Ultimately the value of the land will never be counted in how many trees were cut, but in how many generations of families taught their children to love this place. As one local told us, “We’ve all got 10 percent Green in us anyway. None of us want to see the place destroyed and not come back the way it was.”
Patagonia is partnering with the Bob Brown Foundation and the Aboriginal community and calling for the Tasmanian Government to nominate the takayna / Tarkine for World Heritage protection.
Watch the full movie takayna
takayna / Tarkine in northwestern Tasmania is home to one of the last undisturbed tracts of ancient rainforest in the world, and one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal archaeology in the southern hemisphere. Yet this place is currently threatened by logging and mining. Our new film takayna, weaves together the narratives of activists, a trail running doctor and the Aboriginal community to unpack the complexities of modern conservation and challenge us to consider the importance of our last truly wild places.
Learn more and find a screening