Image for Discovering the Spirit of Tasmania ...

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Tim Holmes ... The Holy Grail has already been claimed by the Welsh ...

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Eager punters line up to get their book signed by author Shannon Davey ...

• Peter Patmore

After studying at the University of Tasmania, with Shannon, Peter went on to study at Cambridge, and later gained a PhD in Political Science in 2000. He is a barrister and solicitor, and was an MP for 18 years, serving as Deputy Premier of Tasmania and Attorney-General. He currently lectures in law at the University of Tasmania and from 2002 has been an Australian delegate to the United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs.

When I first looked at this book I was a bit worried about my thoughts. What were they going to be?

After all, let’s have a look at this. It covers a lot of territory, physical and cultural Tasmania, Aboriginal survival, cultural attitudes, Tasmanian history, unions, labour, asking who we are, the Tasmanian spirit, and of course, surfing.

So you can understand my concern, it puts you in the possible position of seeing a mate’s ugly newborn child and having to say how lovely he or she is.

This wasn’t the case; it was not the case.

So how do I describe the book for those who have not read it? Why is it relevant?

I think it is published at an opportune time. I thought about it today when I read the Australian, something I hate to do, but I like to be irritated. On page 3 there is an article and it is entitled, ‘Modern Rat Race is making us Unhinged’. I’ll just read a section because it relates to Shannon’s book. It reads, “The big questions don’t come more perplexing than this. Has the human race inadvertently fashioned a style of living that is completely misaligned with our mental and physical wiring? Has the drug of economic growth put us on a rat wheel of false expectations, a conduit for the materialistic beast that must be fed at the expense at the expense of the community and social life at the heart of our fundamental wellbeing.”

That was in the Australian today. I thought about it and, “Yep”, that is pretty much what this book is about. I think this book deals with this conundrum. I don’t know whether he meant to, but I think it does.
So rang Shannon this morning and said, “Mate, why did you write the book? What is it about?” He was a bit taken aback by that. He avoided the question and spoke about how the Judeo/Christian values of non-conformists had contributed to egalitarian society in Tasmania.

I think I asked him am unfair question because he has already shared his beliefs and views with us. I reckon its brave and I reckon that it is worthy.

I describe it in another ways. The English mystic, romantic poet William Blake writes in his poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence’. He has a quatrain,

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.”

To Blake it speaks of how the beauty and nature of the universe is often in the small everyday details and this is what I found in Shannon’s book. It isn’t just religious and political views.

So I said, “Mate, you have written a love story, not Mills and Boon, but you have written a love story.”

It is a love story about Tasmania, its environment, its people, its beauty, its history.

The first section describes the uniqueness of Tasmania’s environment, its geological and biological wonder. Blake’s grain of sand becomes Tasmania, a microcosm of the world and the beauty and the danger that it faces. So it is about love, love of the environment, the need to nurture and protect what we have.

One of his quotes here is, “Environmental sustainability understood is love bequeathed to future generations”.

So Shannon reminds us of the legacy we have, our awe of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania, the important role of non-conformists in shaping our community, the rise of religious fundamentalism, the loss of moral authority of the church and by default, how educators have had to step into that role.

And of course, it concludes with surfing, of course! ‘Have we ever really surfed… or done anything?”  I’ll quote from this, here is what Shannon says, “From the thrill of riding that first wave and the feeling of speed and elation that it gave;  to the first bouncy bottom turns and bangs off the top in onshore slop;  to those trips at night in the back of the panel van falling through space to explore those distant wilderness beaches;  to the discovery of beachside Aboriginal campsites and realising we are but recent interlopers;  to feeling the first power drive turns;  to laying sleepless in anticipation as the wind and rain lashed the bedroom window and bought up that swell;  to the first on edge, rooster tailed cutback feeling the G forces;  to all those fantasy movies that ran in our head of what we would like to do on a wave;  to the first landed, weightless re-entry over the white water;  to that tube where time stood still;  to a wave count of thousands over the years;  to that journey into our own nature as a person in the weekend surf where we question our attitude and behaviour towards fellow surfers in a crowded, competitive environment;

… have we ever really surfed?”

“In the ‘soul surfing’ culture we inherited,… there is a link between the act of riding a wave to a deep, wholesome appreciation of life, nature and a personal spiritual ethic.”

He goes on to suggest an indicator as to whether a person has ever really surfed, or done anything in life. The book describes a seeking of equality, to understand who we are.

And of course this is all supported by these magnificent photographs. They, for me are an equal love of nature and our society. Kip Nunn, Gary Tew, (Stu Gibson, Ron Rainbow, Phil O’Neill). In fact when I see who has assisted in this book I see a collaboration of old friends that have gone through the decades.

In summary I reckon the book speaks for itself. It gives a privileged window into someone’s view, it doesn’t preach, it doesn’t order. It mirrors Shannon, a gentle but insistent voice. It invites contemplation of the absolute privilege of living in Tasmania. I call it the cosmic lottery. What other reason are we here and not in some other awful part of the world.

It is a book that rewards returning to. I think that many of the chapters stand on their own. It gives you a chance to think, it gives you a chance to meditate. They are worth thinking about and worth considering.

• Bob Phillips

Bob Phillips is a former General Manager of the Education Department and previously worked throughout Tasmania as a School Principal, School Superintendent and State Curriculum Manager. He has been involved in significant community partnerships at the Primary School level and in partnerships with the University of Tasmania addressing teacher training. He has a big picture perspective of international education and of systems theory with his PhD studies. Bob was a former Hardie Fellowship holder and is currently an education consultant.

I think it is a fascinating book in that it explores the history of Tasmania from its geological, geographical and biological history through to human occupation and history of ideas that have influenced our culture and community.

From that point of view it is a fascinating enterprise and a credit to Shannon how these themes are brought together.

For me it is the pleasure of engaging and re-engaging with ideas that cause me to think about things again. As I reflected on Shannon’s book I thought of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding prose, where he said,

“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”.

And I really do think that that’s the nub of this book.

Shannon takes a whole host of ideas that we’ve all perhaps considered from time to time in different settings, but he holds them up to us and invites us to reconsider our position, and know our place for the first time. He holds up our past to us and lets us know Tasmania again, or at least in a new way.

It was an honour to read a draft of his book and be able to comment on it, and an honour to speak about the book at tonight’s launch. When I read the draft there were a couple of points that really hit me hard, and in terms of knowing this place again from a different perspective.

One of them was his chapter on ‘The War Against the Aboriginal People’ of our state. His account of the extent of the massacres was something that, while I knew of them, I didn’t know the extent.

One of the themes that comes through the book is that until we recognise and reconcile with our past, then we can’t move on. There are things that need to be addressed if we are to become the community that we wish to be. So he holds up our dark past to us, he says we need to acknowledge it and address it before we can reconcile.

He holds up a choice to us towards the end of the book, to say we can be a nation of ‘haves and have nots’, or we can be an ethical nation that wishes to be equitable and inclusive, to be connected. It is a point so worth making and so worth reflecting upon. Thank you Shannon for bringing it together in such a coherent way in the book.

Shannon, being Shannon, the last chapter is a celebration of life, with its title, “Have We Ever Really Surfed- or done anything?”

With all the interaction, with what makes us a community, what makes up our culture, he holds up our lives and says we can choose, we have choices about what we do.

We can chose to have a celebration of life, to be vibrant, to be excited, to be connected with our land. And this is a very “Yeeehaaaa” type of experience, we can connect to our community and culture in such a rich and deep way.

It has been such a pleasure in reviewing the book. I should finish with the ‘Little Gidding” piece. A little further on in the prose Eliot says,

“Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea”.

So we’ve got a place for reflection in the space between the waves where we really consider deeply some of that which is part of our life and experience. Congratulations Shannon.

• Tim Holmes

Tim Holmes was born in Wales which gives him another perspective on Tasmania, but has lived in Tasmania for 40 years. He is a builder/designer and has been a member of the Master Builders State Council with expertise in colonial architecture. Tim has been a full-time artist and has been a leader in the arts community. He has worked in tourism and accommodation as owner of the Potters Croft Gallery at Dunalley.

I was not so sure about the cover when I first saw the book. 

But having read the book, I can say with confidence that you can judge this book by its cover.  However you won’t understand the cover until you have read the book. 

A massive dolerite column, a sea washed ledge, a vacant grey ocean. A brooding sky and a lone figure in a stance that hails the universe.  A brilliant photograph, the perfect choice. 

American Robert Green Ingersoll said,

“Life is a narrow vale between the cold barren peaks of two eternities, we strive to look beyond the heights”. 

Within that narrow vale we share this life, we share this moment, this evening, here on earth, here in Tasmania.  We have the opportunity to consider the question that Shannon asks in the preface, “What is the Spirit of Tasmania”. The question is a call for us to think about it.  In seeking to answer the question Shannon gives us a sense of place, puts us in context and gives us an understanding of who we are as Tasmanians. 

This book is an ambitious undertaking, a broad brush story that tells of geological and climactic forces, anthropology, natural history, social history, adventure, exploration, convict transportation, commerce and industry.  A concise history of much that has gone before us in Tasmania. 

What strikes me about this work, the words and the photographs, is the way that I am carried by their suggestion into that place of shared wonder, that place where we touch an ethereal quality and know that others also see the same beauty in the landscape and in life itself.  We stand mute witness in time and space. Shannon has had the courage and been articulate enough to say something meaningful in the silence. 

The wilderness photographs are powerfully evocative.

“Misty mountains where the eagles fly, lonely valleys where the lost ones cry”. - Robin Williamson Incredible String Band

When I first came to Tasmania in the early 1970’s it was said that Wedge Tailed eagles were occasionally seen in the sky over the general post office in Elizabeth St.  You can still see Wedge Tailed Eagles and Sea Eagles over our place in Dunalley. 

Shannon describes a dramatic physical backdrop of wild oceans, rugged mountains, verdant river valleys, a myriad of sparkling lakes, coastal headlands, towering cliffs and pristine beaches.  Which he says creates the setting for life in Tasmania. 

It is certainly one of the things that has kept me here.   

Last Monday was my wife’s birthday, it was a classic, sparkling, autumn day.  So with our two daughters, their husbands and eight of our grandchildren we went to a remote beach on the Forestier Peninsula. 

We walked for a while and came to a headland where we stood and looked along the coast. What lay before us was a completely unspoilt beach. No sign of any human development, no footprints in the sand, no boats on the water. My youngest daughter Vanessa told the children the story of the French Expedition that arrived under the leadership of Marion Dufresne in 1772. In this very bay the sailing ships Mascarin and the Marquis de Castries came looking for timber to re-mast the Marquis and fresh water to fill up the barrels. The sailors came ashore in a long boat and a yawl. There were Tasmanian Aborigines living in the area, at the site of these foreign vessels, the like of which they had never seen before, the aboriginal family groups sent the women and children to hide in the bush. The bush was probably just where we were standing.  The men stood boldly on the sand with their spears and waddies. Marion Dufresne and his men were the first Europeans to meet Tasmanian Aborigines. Tasman had not met Aborigines when he visited in 1642. At first the meeting was friendly and the strangers from the northern hemisphere gave trinkets and tried to ask for water. The contact did not end well because some apprehension and misunderstanding resulted in a volley of musket fire and Aboriginal casualties.  Shannon tells this story and many others as he deals with the plight of the indigenous people in a sensitive and respectful manner. 

A few years ago Shannon sent me a piece he had written on indigenous Tasmanians and after reading it I suggested that he should write a book.  He has written that book, among other things it is about our transient existence in a landscape previously populated only by indigenous people, the spirit of whom still pervades the land. 

There is a beach north of Marion Bay where the forest comes down to the sandy shoreline. In the dancing shadows I have imagined human figures like spirit memories. 
What Shannon calls a powerfully evocative wilderness with a unique ability to nourish the human soul. 

There are 27 Chapters in this book, each one an essay.  Shannon has been unconstrained, with no need to conform to any protocols or conventions, no need to be answerable to anything other than his own high ethical standards.

While he does not speak about himself, he has distilled for us the story of Tasmania.  He handles the hot chestnuts with bare hands and is not afraid to diagnose the ailments of modern society and prescribe some strong medicine.

He describes the invasion and the attempted genocide and explores the background of “Western Civilisation”.  The reference pages show he has researched well. 

He tackles the big issues of environmentalism and concepts of God. 

I thought at first that “Western Civilisation” was a rather grand inclusion in the title but on reflection I think it is justified. Shannon explains the social background and conditions in Britain and Ireland. He mentions the enlightenment, the throwing over of superstition and fear, the growth of equality, justice and mutual respect. 

I do have to correct Shannon on one issue, Chapter 10, “The Holy Grail and Tasmania”. He suggests the Holy Grail could be found in Tasmania. From Shannon’s point of view the Holy Grail is equality, justice and freedom. 

Noble thoughts Shannon, but you need to know that The Holy Grail is the cup used by Jesus at the last supper. The Welsh have already claimed possession of the real Holy Grail.  It is buried under Arthurs Stone on Cefn Bryn, a mountain near where I spent my childhood. 

The cup was apparently taken by Joseph of Arimathea to Wales.  Joseph was a trader who travelled to Cornwall to buy tin and he is credited with taking Christianity to Britain.  He left the chalice in the care of the Welsh.  Therein lies another story of the Celts, Christianity, the Vikings, and a multitude of other events, the history of another place. It is what goes before that makes it what it is today.

Shannon’s book has given me a much better understanding of what has gone before and what contributes to The Spirit of Tasmania, what makes it what it is today.

Congratulations Shannon and all involved, especially the photographers.   

LAUNCHED LAST WEEK on Tasmanian Times ...

Robbed of Every Blessing ...

• John Biggs, in Comments: Another my kind of book is the hyperlink to this page for Tim Thorne’s erudite review of Robbed of Every Blessing, which reveals a much darker view of Tasmania. Robbed of Every Blessing is one of the grimmest books I have read. It is as Tim says a damned good read, with chapters told in different voices, which provide a different perspective to the ongoing action that is gripping.