By Bob Brown
Issue 4, Spring 2011
IMPOSSIBILITY AND CERTAINTY ARE TOGETHER ON EARTH. The sheer immensity of the universe, with its billions of stars like our Sun, is beyond the comprehension of our humble human brains. Yet, evolved in the fertile little valleys of this tiny life-covered planet, our minds are attuned to the comfort of confined reality. We can draw certainty from our own locality and our own upbringing.
In 1973, I was tossed on the hopeless seas of cosmic limitlessness. I helplessly looked upon the Cold War in which some of the brightest young humans sat in missile silos ready to press the buttons of nuclear Armageddon; upon a Presbyterian upbringing at odds with the certainty of my own homosexuality; and upon the plainly unnecessary injustice of global poverty. So I set off one Saturday afternoon to drive from Launceston to the shelter of the ferny enclosure above Liffey Falls, at the top of the ‘remote upper Liffey Valley’ (as a contemporary Launceston Examiner story about a drug bust described it). While up there, I saw an old-fashioned white cottage tucked in under the towering dolerite cliffs of Dry’s Bluff. There, in the irresolution of my anxious existence, sat the hope of certainty.
A year earlier, having crossed by ferry from the mainland to Tasmania for a three-month job in a Launceston medical practice, I had sent a postcard to my parents back in New South Wales: ‘I am home.’ They seemed to absorb this news with relief rather than perplexity. Now, as I drove back from the falls, old Frank Page was putting his cows over the gravel road. I stopped, wound down the window, and asked if there were any properties for sale in the area. Frank had the weather-beaten face of country kindness. ‘Well, no,’ he said, adding, ‘though the white house up the road was for sale. I think it was sold this week.’ I had that feeling you get when the person you have suddenly fallen in love with turns and stares you gently in the eye and says, ‘I’m seeing someone else.’
Repressing waves of disappointment, I turned the car around and drove back up the valley. I walked across the rustic bridge over the swirling Liffey River and up the long-grass paddock to the white cottage. The owners, John and Stephanie Dean, again showing the essence of country kindness, confirmed the sale but added, ‘the buyer’s wife from Hobart is coming up to see the house on Tuesday.’ Late on Tuesday John phoned me with the news that the buyer’s wife had taken one look and said, ‘I’m not going to live in a dump like that.’ So, for four decades, my locality, my geographical certainty and my hedge against the impossibility of the universe, has been this little white cottage at Liffey.
Someone else’s dump was my delight. The cottage, along with 10 hectares of vibrant forest and meadow and a kilometre of riverbank, cost me $8000. The barred bandicoots, rare sweet-faced bettongs, ruby-eyed white goshawks and boobook owls were included, gratis. I called it Oura Oura (pronounced Oo-ra Oo-ra), after the Aboriginal girl who, it is said, took a red feather from a young French sailor on Tasmania’s southern shore two centuries ago. Oura Oura is Aboriginal for black cockatoo.
Liffey suddenly gave me an anchor in the drift. With a friend from my Sydney University medical school days, Fran Newman, I spent the 13th and 14th of December, 1973, at Oura Oura in a mood of infusing euphoria. None of the world’s worries went away, but here was a warm cocoon, an envelope of intense contentment. At Liffey, the windows on the wider world became opaque.
In the following month, I climbed Dry’s Bluff. In the highest rock gully with its waterfall and remnant alpine rainforest, I came across the ropes used by the Deans to ascend the cliffs to the top. I was enraptured. From Bass Strait in the north to the southern ranges near Hobart, a vista of Tasmania’s wild heartland lay beneath. A wedge-tailed eagle flew across the treetops below me and the sun cast my shadow from this cliff-top lookout to the 200 metre-high cliff due west. I raised my camera to snap the scene, lost my balance and nearly fell: saved by drop-squatting and crab-crawling backwards over the rock plateau. On getting back down to Oura Oura, I sat a while on the old wooden bridge and, out of nowhere, a platypus surfaced beneath my feet. This little valley produced an endless flow of natural surprises, diluting my dismay at what British philosopher Bertrand Russell had called his deepest impression on life: the needless cruelty of human affairs.
As I settled into sleep that evening, my body ‘jumped’ – I was back on the cliff-edge and about to fall. But I woke with a smile, infused again with that contentment. A couple of winters later the same waking smile led me to write a poem called ‘Winter’s Night at Liffey’.
When sleep shuts off
the winter gale
with its freezing rain
and hail that clatters
on the iron
then silence wakes me
to a still
a softest quiet
I smile to myself
knowing through the night
Now, like a painter’s first layer, I need to go back and fill in the above sketch of settling in at Liffey. But, as that might take weeks, I’ll give you the abridged version. A lot happened. There were practical problems: the occasional local shooters hell-bent on culling my possums and wallabies; the pipe which burst one frosty weekend in my absence, flooding the house and pitting the ceiling; the snake which took up residence in the rock wall at my back door, and the thieves who swept through while I was off bushwalking. Once, a couple of escaped prisoners took up residence in the back shed and, when hunted by the police, left a sawn-off shotgun under the bed. And, of course, there was much happiness. I took up daytime residence on the front verandah to write philosophy, even when winter afternoon temperatures lingered down in single-digit figures. I cooked on the open fire, saving the cooled vegetable juices for the next day’s lunch. On Fridays, I cycled the 50 kilometres to Launceston, keeping watch over the doctors’ patients until Monday morning and then, backpack full of groceries, rode back home for a week in Liffey’s enfolding comfort.
But this comfort proved too thin to keep out the real world. The penalty clause for ordinary intelligence is reflection and conscience. My denial mechanisms failed. So I patted the verandah post twice and left home, accepting that Liffey would be a refuge. The rest of my life would be out there where they are smashing down forests, building more A-bombs, exchanging human rights for oil and thieving resources from people who have never needed to read or write. I went to Hobart to help the Tasmanian Wilderness Society’s campaign against the damming of the wild and wondrous Franklin River.
Curiously, in this Australia where Christianity claims moral authority, it became clear that the human propensity for denial was never so great as in the accumulation of riches, despite the Biblical warning that a rich man has no better chance of getting to paradise than a camel does of climbing through the eye of a needle. I know some exceptionally humane and wonderful millionaires. But read a Business Review Weekly and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t expect to find there a dissertation on equality, frugality, compassion or even plain common sense. The denial of the unsustainability of the human herd’s current gluttony is a perversity of nature which comes out of our need to deny mortality. The zest for life does not flower if one’s mind lives open to the ineluctable reality of personal extinguishment. Of course, the enjoyment of riches is inversely proportional to our ability to deny the humility and suffering of poverty. And that ability is built-in. We all have it. But it collides with our own intellect. This sets tensions in train – as the mind-blocks evaporate so does our comfort. It’s not easy being Green.
The Liffey Valley is sensationally beautiful. I’ve walked the riverside and mountainside hundreds of times. I’ve felt the crunch of a midnight frost underfoot on the moonlit meadows, slept in the woods, strolled over frozen tarns on the bluff, watched snow falling across springtime daffodils, and seen platypuses foraging together in the pool beneath the bridge. Nature, which cradled Homo sapiens, also created an inseparable bond between us and it. We love nature. I love Liffey.
Liffey has been my respite and though I’ve been away most of these last thirty years, it has been with me everywhere. For years I carried a cameo reproduction of Val Whatley’s painting of Oura Oura in my wallet. One night as I walked with friends to the theatre in Hobart, I had an inexplicable urge to go home; I left them there and drove through the night to Liffey where a storm had torn sheets of iron off the roof. I spent the rest of the night hammering them back into the old rafters.
The walnut tree near the house has shaded Greens fundraising picnics, Wilderness Society forest blockade meetings, Judy Henderson’s help in Bush Heritage Australia’s birth as a national land-purchase organisation for saving ecologically valuable places, a marriage or two, my partner Paul Thomas and my commitment ceremony, children whooping on my father’s cartwheel swing and possums fighting over the autumn walnut crop (those left over after Paul’s Christmas raid for pickling). The events were all lit by Liffey’s beauty: its sheer loveliness, its turbulent weather and its incremental changes.
Oura Oura turned my wastrel soul into an organised force joining the many other enlivened people striving to make our common human tenure on Earth longer, safer, fairer and happier.
And now Oura Oura is in the safe hands of Bush Heritage itself. Dean’s Track up the Bluff is open to all comers as are those meadows by the Liffey River. I hope they give others – as many as may be for as long as may be – a little of the joy they have so freely given me.
Posted 13 April, 2012.
Bob Brown was the inaugural Parliamentary Leader of the Australian Greens and the first openly gay member of the Parliament of Australia. Brown practised medicine into the late 70s. He was on duty at St Mary Abbott’s in London when Jimi Hendrix was brought in to the emergency ward, already dead. In 1990 he founded Bush Heritage Australia, a non-profit organisation dedicated to purchasing and preserving Australian bushland. On 20 March, 2011, Brown gifted to the organisation a fourteen-hectare property in Liffey, Tasmania, that he had owned for thirty-eight years. Brown lives in Hobart with his long-time partner, Paul Thomas.