Heavy rain came thundering down onto the roof just as Richard Flanagan was about to walk onto the stage. Thick heat had been pressing in on Melbourne all day and now finally relief. Flanagan looked up and noted the thunderous welcome before beginning his lecture. He was speaking on the role of environment in shaping his writing. A sudden deluge seemed a fitting introduction to his coming tide of ideas.
Flanagan took us on a journey pulsing through the rapids and pausing in the quiet places of Tasmania’s Franklin River. He guided us through the primordial temperate rainforests of the Tarkine wilderness of his childhood. Equal parts homage and lament for these places are no longer what they were, gradually stripped away by forestry, mining and tourism. The wildlife disappearing into extinction and receding into myth to be known only through story. The Tasmanian Tiger his parents pulled him from the car to see one late night standing in the rain and searching in the headlights, but it was already gone.
‘Loving Tasmania is like loving a beautiful junkie. You are always disappointed’.
Flanagan dragged us away from the remote West Coast of Tasmania and across the globe to London, metropolis, where he first encountered a large city, the shock of being alone in a heaving mass of humanity. ‘Who would be there for me?’ he asked. Flanagan reflected on what we have lost by being city-dwellers, our connection, our humanity and at what cost?
Of course, he talked about writing too. His searching for a voice when trying to write about cities, which he didn’t understand, and then going back to his muse the river, and finding his voice in the air pocket where he was stuck underwater for hours facing death. This voice did not fit the model of Australian literature he was told, and so he made a new cast and filled it overflowing with the river. He wound the tendrils of death and decay of the rainforest around his words to bind them.
And now, he looks out from his cabin on Bruny Island, observing from the edges as the species around him ever decline and he sees the mirror of nature smashed into a thousand shards that we think we might now like to reassemble but it is too late. And if we look into what remains of that mirror we find the greatest loss is ourselves and we fear our own demise.
And he said other things too, but I did not take notes. I fixed my gaze on the pattern of bluestone behind him. Maybe there was some humour and I hung on for some hope. But all I felt was a sharp arrow pierce my black heart.
We walked out into air washed clean by the rain. Down into the crowd together alone to find a place to eat. And when we sat down and our meal arrived, and we were lifting our food to our mouths and trying to pick apart the noodles and our thoughts, a man died on the floor right next to us. We watched and we looked away and we could not look away as the paramedics pushed down hard on his chest, their equipment scattered all around, our table shoved out of the way, the music switched off and the lights turned up bright. And they kept pushing hard on his chest. And then we said to each other he’s breathing.
Image credit: State Library Victoria @library_vic