Friday, April 29, 2016

More Autumn Glory - In Hobart's Japanese garden

Momijigari - the viewing of red leaves is especially valued in Japan and dates back to the first century
It’s not necessary to go all the way to Mt. Field to see beautiful displays of colour. I popped down to the Botanic Gardens the other day, specifically to look at the Japanese Garden, but the whole area was ablaze with the rich tones of autumn.

I am not sure what the fascination is, though as usual I have a theory. I  certainly think it is much more than people following a fashion to keep up with the folks on the hill and I am certain that science will eventually prove me right. I believe that just as other life forms  respond to declining sunlight – the lower angle of the sun as it enters the outer perimeter of its orbit, that makes birds begin their long migrations, squirrels put by nuts, and trees  invest energy in their roots rather than leaves and shoots, we too have a conditioned evolutionary response, though our need for storing food is less apparent in these days of global trade. 

 Perhaps, as with other seemingly mystical forces such as love, science will show that we are merely responding to pheromones as a result of the chemicals put out by the trees. Obviously more research is needed.  Meanwhile in me at least, viewing the changing leaves induces a sense of melancholy and an acute consciousness of the passage of time and the seasons and a kind of homesickness.

While I love the Australian bush with its many strange species, they are mostly evergreens which, with rare exceptions such as the Fagus mentioned previously, change little from season to season. This grey green backdrop makes the sight of a full grown tree in all those shades of red, orange, brown or gold all the more spectacular.

The Gardens themselves are a gift from the people of Japan

Time to reflect on the passing of time

Monday, April 25, 2016

Koyo* Season in the Bush - A frolic in the fagus

For those in the Northern hemisphere this may not look like a remarkable picture – deciduous trees are everywhere, but read on to find out why this is special.

 * Koyo is what the  The Japanese call the turning of the leaves. Both the Japanese and Koreans have long appreciated the distinctive beauty of  Autumn leaves
Rocks, a delicate tracery of leaves and equally ancient conifers bring to mind Japanese gardens

Autumn is my favourite season in Tasmania. The air is crisp and clear and everywhere the vegetation puts on its finest colours – not just in the gardens, the parks and the towns, but the bush as well. The plant shown here is the deciduous beech, Northofagus Gunni, Australia’s only native deciduous tree. Though it has distant cousins in New Zealand and South America, this is unique to Tasmania. They are an ancient species and their common ancestry confirms the theory of continental drift and that they were once part of the Gondwana Supercontinent which broke up over 180 million years ago.  It is also unusual to see such large specimens. For the most part they grow in harsh alpine conditions where, pruned by the wind and the cold, they rarely grow much taller than a shrub.

While large concentrations can be seen at this time of year at Crater Lake in Cradle Mountain National Park, we saw these much closer to home at Mount Field National Park, only around two hours' drive from Hobart. Mt. Field National Park, established in 1916 was Tasmania’s first and was  having a  Fagus Festival as part of its centenary celebrations.   This park is important not only for its scenic beauty but the range of land forms including cirques, block streams, tarns and karst regions as well as showcasing many of our endemic plants and animals.
The dainty leaves of the deciduous beech
 Long appreciated for its lovely and easily accessible waterfalls, the additional activities this weekend included guided walks, ranger discovery programs, children’s’ activities, Aboriginal dance performances, displays by groups such as the Southern Caverners and the Mount Mawson Ski Patrol, music and some lively folk dancing, which together with the superb weather, brought a large number of people to the park. 

Favourable conditions
You seldom see deciduous beech as tall as this

Getting in amongst it -children enjoy the day too

A lovely day for a picnic

Couldn't help noticing this little chap either - see him in action below

All in all, an excellent day!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

… and about those Empty Houses and Towns

Empty but not free

At first glance it seems ridiculous that we have empty houses and dying towns here, when there are refugees both here and abroad who could desperately use them. Indeed, one mayor, notably the Mayor of Brighton, recently proposed that to the Federal Government, since an influx of people would help to boost the town’s businesses. However, this has been rejected on the grounds that Tasmania is already regarded as  the ‘beggar ‘  state, having to rely on taxes generated  on the mainland to survive. The provision of additional services such as education and health required by the new population, would simply be another cash drain on an already impoverished public purse.

There are many reasons why these houses are empty and have been allowed to fall into disrepair and they are most certainly not free for the taking. Many of them would date from the great farm amalgamations which took place in the 1950’s when mechanised farming became necessary due to low margins, the absence of rural labour or to its rising costs. Others may have been abandoned in subsequent periods when drought, rural recession,  and changes in global markets  such as the removal of tariffs, or increased competition in the wake of free market agreements, or the end  of Commonwealth preferred imports  when the UK joined the EU in the 1970s, all of which contributed to making small farms unviable.

With rare exceptions - the story is the same all around rural Australia
Initially such buildings may have been used to house farm workers, but when they found them undesirable, farmers often replaced them with cheap but modern transportable houses left over from the construction of our hydroelectric schemes. In a rare good year, the farmer may have built himself- or more likely his long suffering wife, a new home elsewhere, leaving the older one to become a hay barn. In the case of the houses on the fringes of forestry reserves, like the one shown previously, the land may well have been bought by timber concerns for the purpose of converting it to plantations in future, once access to native forests was no longer possible. In the meantime, they are quite happy for nature to take its course and let the houses rot.

Even if a house was truly vacant, it would be almost impossible to buy because of the difficulty (and undesirability) of subdividing farm land. One  derelict house which we did manage to buy some decades ago, had been condemned  by the health authorities and the cost of renovating it and bringing it up to modern standards (indoor bathroom and kitchen for example)  was more than if we had built a large new house.

The next problem concerns the lack of infrastructure. Not only do many of our rural areas still have substandard water and sanitation, but what little there was in the way of services such as hospitals, shops, schools, buses, police and so on has gradually been withdrawn, due to the high cost of servicing small scattered communities with a low rate base. In one small community, Lorinna, some 19 Kilometres from Devonport, residents were offered housing in one of the intervening towns, because it was considered the cheaper option.

The biggest problem is that there is now very little work in Tasmania, especially not the kind of unskilled work  which used to be available when previous waves of migrants came to Australia.– the building of the enormous Hydro schemes, for example, the factories, or the railways, which employed a lot of manual labour  and did not rely on people having good English skills.
Now we have the highest unemployment rate in the country (around 6-7%) and hence a very high level of outmigration especially by the young and the educated. This is one of the main reasons for both the empty towns and the low tax base. It also leaves behind a lot of elderly folk, the unemployed and others dependent on welfare, none of whom can spend very much on other goods and services. The days of high employment of this type will not return.  It is part of the huge global restructuring taking place which sees cheap goods from countries with huge pools of cheap labour such as China and India out -competing anything which can be produced here, especially given our distance from markets.  Even administrative and call centre work has now been outsourced. Yet more poor people competing for the few available jobs would probably only lead to resentment.
Rationalised, outsourced or automated  out of existence - Abandoned processing plant, Victoria
 The only way  resettling refugees here could work at present would be as a temporary place of refuge, to learn the language perhaps, and to have their children educated rather than languishing in makeshift  camps until things return to normal at home.  Even then, the last thing Tasmania needs is more dependents. The only way it could work financially would be if the money for it came from outside Australia or was at least considered Foreign Aid – e.g.  Perhaps it could be funded by the UN or Oxfam or, as was tried in Greece, with the EU paying for their upkeep, thereby helping both the local economy as well as the refugees.

Lastly, would refugees want to live in this remote corner of the world, isolated not only from their country, but from major cities and each other? Along with the loss of services in many towns, has gone the loss of the clubs, pubs and churches which held the social fabric together. Those who are used to close urban living would find country living very isolated - worse than a crowded refugee camp, where at least they could communicate with each other. They would most likely want to head for the bright lights of Sydney or Melbourne at the first opportunity, as not only migrants but Australians have already done. ( Almost 70% of Australians lived in capital cities at the last census in 2011)

So what hope is there for our declining country towns? Why don’t we put our own poor and homeless people in, who don’t stand a chance of ever being able to afford housing in the cities, not even rent?  Under the Darwinesque policies of economic rationalism, public policy no longer allows unemployed people to move from places with potentially more employment i.e. the cities, to those with less, on pain of losing what little income support they receive.

Five years ago an experiment was begun at Trundle, a small rural community out the back of New South Wales where empty farm houses were offered to families  at one dollar per week, provided that they renovated them.   The story aired on television and five people took up the offer. Although only one of the original people remained, others eventually took their place, resulting in a new lease of life for the town.  Its main street has been renovated, it also has a popular ABBA Festival every year and now has a football team again. However, a similar experiment in Tasmania at Levendale in 2008, which attempted to attract families in order to save its historic school, was not so successful and the school closed in 2013.  At least three other remote communities have had $1 blocks for sale, but the prerequisite has been that purchasers had to have the funds to build houses, which not only precludes those who need it most, but limits the uptake to a few rare individuals.

I will say that those communities such as Sheffield, Deloraine or Cygnet in the south, which welcomed 'back - to - the -landers' in the 70's, have generally fared better with their nicely restored homes, the murals in the case of Sheffield, the Annual Arts Fair in Deloraine or the Folk Festival in Cygnet, than those which did not. I also liked the approach by Ariah Park in New South Wales, where local people bought the cafe and leased it out cheaply to newcomers, thereby creating a livelihood as well as a place to live. 

Lessons in keeping country towns alive- Ariah Park, N.S.W.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Small Update on the Fairy Garden

I was outraged a few months ago when I saw what had happened to a favourite place in the neighbourhood, but I'm pleased to see that something - not sure exactly what, has now been planted there. It's a pity that it is going to take so long before it regains  a little bit of  the magic and mystery that it had before.

How it looked before
How it looked last year
Starting to heal up and hair over, Thank Goodness!
And while I think of it, on the subject of the appalling state of our roads, if a fraction of the cost of constantly  enlarging and improving those elaborate interchanges around Launceston, were spent on our rural roads, the whole state would benefit, including Launceston. They remind me of Luxembourg, where an excess of wealth has spawned massive freeways which stop at the border and totally obscure its intrinsic charm.
The same goes for Kingston with its circus of roundabouts which no one wants to visit. With the money saved by the council  it could afford to put a few dozen Portaloos on Bruny Island. Since tourism is now our top earner, perhaps we should think about enabling our visitors to relieve themselves with dignity. The residents  and ratepayers of Bruny deserve better too.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Last Waterfall (for now) – Day 8 The last gasp and a close encounter

Cradle Mountain Beauty by John Lendis, one of many superb murals at Sheffield

I’d planned to stay in Sheffield, famous for its murals, that night, but after getting thoroughly lost in the maze of small roads that criss –cross inland from the coast, I found myself in Forth instead. These roads, though sealed, pre –date modern earth moving times and go around each hill and each farmer’s field. It must have been onion season now as I passed through acre upon acre of what looked like seas of golden pearls.

Camping was permitted in the recreation ground in Forth but it seemed as if several hundred people had already thought of that. It was apparently the weekend of Forth’s Annual Blues Festival and I only just managed to squeeze my van in between another car and a tent.  People were already gathered around barbecues and firepits, drinking wine and playing loud music. The people on my right kindly invited me to join them and it looked like it was going to be a lively night. Unfortunately, Matthew, the man who owned the tent, had other ideas. When I arrived, he was busy painting rust inhibitor on his car and, handing me the tin and the brush, insisted I do the same on mine.  He had also noticed that my tail lights weren’t working properly and spent ages helping me to fix those too.  After that and my six hour walk, I was quite happy to turn in.  I have been having a really good run with Matthews lately, so thanks all you Matthews out there, but I wouldn’t have minded that glass of wine either. 

I didn’t stay long in the morning. I was afraid that at any moment the festival organisers would be coming around to collect the $70 admission fee, so with the car still sounding really clunky, I started heading home. There was only one more waterfall on the way which I thought I might just be able to sneak in.  After a great morning shower in Sheffield, I spent four hours looking for the track markers  near the turn -off to Lower Beulah as instructed – even knocking on farmer’s doors,  but without success. They had not heard of these falls either. 

In a little clearing on top of a hill, I rechecked the directions on the computer. It turned out that there was a second turn – off to Lower Beulah further east.  From there it was supposed to be about 100 metres north, though there was nowhere to go but east or west.  This is where stubbornness pays off. I drove up the road and down the road – all double lines and tight bends, looking for the particular pine tree that had a pink ribbon on it.  There were lots of pine trees here and a whole plantation of them on the north side of the road. On the third pass, I finally spotted a bit of pink, high up on the left, though I would never have seen it coming the other way. Following the trail, I came upon a huge gorge just a few metres from the road and from there more ribbons led down the side until I eventually arrived at a lookout beyond which I could go no further.
There is a huge cleft in the rocks here, just a few metres from the road
You could see the falls from here. The Dasher Falls as they are called, are not  spectacularly high – perhaps ten metres, but so powerful that they had not only cut that deep swathe through the landscape, but also carved many little caves at their base. Pretty maidenhair fern, which I always thought was only a cultivated species, grew here in abundance, but beyond that, there was nothing for it but to clamber back up. 
I was a bit shocked to see a police car waiting for me at the top. “Have you been driving up and down here?” the officer asked sternly.  I had to admit that I had. “And were you parked on that hill up there?” That was true too. I must have looked worried.
“Just you is it?”  He asked, looking around and looking the van over much too closely. I nodded.  Then he said, “There’s been a break - in down on the river flats. The thieves were driving a van like yours.”
 “I’ve been taking pictures of waterfalls,” I stammered.

The elusive Dasher Falls
Then he broke into a smile,” Waterfall down there is there? I didn’t know that and I’ve lived here all my life. It’s alright,“ he said. “ The owner of the house took photos and you don’t look like any of them.” He declined my offer to show him the falls saying “Nah, not now, I have to get after them.” Then he took off. 
I also drove off  -very sedately, lest my noisy exhaust should cause him to change his mind.  In fact, I tiptoed all the way back to Campbell Town – not even stopping to visit Liffey Falls, though it would only have been a slight detour.  The kindly mechanic there whom I had seen earlier, said that if I could leave the van with him for a few days, he might even be able to do something about those gouges on the lefthand side. The last time I asked a panel beater about the cost of getting those fixed, he'd laughed in my face. "More than your van's worth, " he'd said.  It was an offer too good to refuse. It was thus that I left my car in Campbell Town and quietly caught the bus home, much to the consternation of my neighbours who naturally assumed the worst.

All was well. I picked up the van yesterday after taking the bus again and there’s hardly a mark on it to hint at  its many trials or the adventures it had had.  I on the other hand, have a cold and will be lying low for the next few days. I did however,  get a lead about another set of waterfalls up near Castra which can be reached via sealed roads. Next time perhaps. I'll keep you posted.