Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen

Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen

Author:David Quammen
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Scribner

The Trees Cry Out on Currawong Moor

The man’s real name, his birth name, is lost in the mists of northwestern Tasmania. He seems to have left it behind, irretrievably, when he was brought into the cold comforts of civilization. Probably it would seem a tongue-twister to us, as do other Tasmanian Aboriginal names—Toeernac, Wobberrertee, Calerwarrermeer, Drummernerloonner. His mother was called Nabrunga. What she called him, we’ll never know. His adopted name, given him as a child among the sanctimonious white jailers, was William Lanney.

He became a conspicuous public figure in mid-nineteenth-century Tasmania, this William Lanney. Years later, during his lonely adulthood around the city of Hobart, some of the whites dubbed him “King Billy.” It was mockery, but they probably let themselves think it contained a strain of affection. He was a big, boyish fellow with black skin, curly hair, and an expression, at least for the daguerreotype camera, of sad and long-suffering calm. His shoulders were round and his eyes were liquidy. They called him the last living male of the Tasmanian Aboriginal race. That was misleading, as we’ll see, but convenient. They called him more than one thing that he wasn’t. Certain dry-hearted pranksters even went so far as to introduce him to visiting British royalty as “King of the Tasmanians.” Jesus of Nazareth was once labeled “King of the Jews” in roughly the same droll spirit.

Lanney had been born into a different language, a different world, somewhere along the northwestern coast of the island. In the last days before their capture, he and his family had moved inland and upland, finding their way among the glacier-carved peaks, the eucalyptus forests, the high foggy moorlands near Cradle Mountain. A century and a half later, I’ve come to search for him here among those same peaks, forests, moors. The polite phrase for such a presumptuous enterprise is fool’s errand. At very least, though, I’ll get exercise and scenery.

• • •

WITHIN A few days after landing in Hobart, the capital, I’ve learned this much: Tasmania is complicated. It’s an oxymoronic place, combining the gentility of English-style tearooms with the raw sort of high-country wilderness I know from Montana; a former penal settlement, notorious for its harshness, graced today by an especially free-spirited variant of the breezy Australian charm; a wet, chilly landscape that supports its own version of temperate rainforest on the far side of the tropics. Profoundly alien, yet somehow oddly familiar, Tasmania defies categories and confutes expectations. It’s part of Australia (the smallest state) yet detached, a separate island down under the Down Under. It’s a final refuge for some of the rarest marsupial species. Even the Tasmanian Aborigines are distinct, having been isolated genetically and culturally from mainland Aborigines throughout most of the past twelve thousand years. In fact, some observers say that the Tasmanian Aborigines were, until Europeans arrived, the most isolated group of humans on Earth.

When that isolation was suddenly breached—by explorers, by whalers and sealers, then by British penal authorities and convicts and eventually by settlers—the very distinctness of the Tasmanians became their great disadvantage.


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