Sunday, July 18, 2010

Death of a tree – Launceston, Tasmania

It was a young tree standing tall and proud on the ridge overlooking the Tamar Valley, at the time when convict and bushranger Matthew Brady was making his escape along the river in 1825.
Sadly, a few weeks ago, that tree was felled in the march of progress.

It measured 29 feet around its trunk and must have been over 200 feet high – a true gentle giant which harmed no-one.
Yet from my window, I watched it being torn limb from limb and its roots dragged from the ground by a yellow machine which had no soul.

Twenty years ago, when I lived in Western Australia, I wrote a poem to the demise of the majestic Karri trees in the south west forests.

Here are a few verses from that poem.

The Karri Tree
by Margaret Muir

What dignity, the giant Karri Tree,
Tall sentinel to years of privacy.
A thousand summers bleached her naked boughs
And yet she stoops not and stands tall and proud.

But time runs out as seasons come and go.
Man waits his chance to set upon the wood,
Debase, denature, then depart
No tear, no shame, no guilt fills his cold heart.

Hydraulic mammoths lurk between the trees
Their lethal arms, darting like snapping dogs,
Forward and back in foreboding waves
Menacingly amputating limbs.

A whirring blade wielded like a sword
Slices through myriad rings of life.
Discarded limbs tossed to a haphazard pile
Like headless matches from a broken box.

But mortal man can never emulate
The enviable permanence afforded to the trees
And in his death, man’s ashes to the soil return
Awaited fodder for the forest’s germ.

© * * * * * * * * * *

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Antarctic expeditioner - Jon Stephenson

In this day and age, it is not often one gets the chance to chat with a real life Antarctic explorer. It happened for me at a reception at Tasmania's Government House for delegates of the Antarctic Visions conference.

As we drove to the reception on the coach, I noted an older gentleman sitting alone. He waited until everyone else had alighted and as he did, I mentioned to him that I would appreciate the opportunity to speak to him.
'I'm sure you must have a story,' I said.

Little did I know!
Jon Stephenson was the only Australian chosen for the First Commonwealth Trans Antarctic crossing led by Vivian Fuchs in 1957-58. This was the journey which Sir Ernest Shackleton had planned to make in 1913, but which was aborted when his ship 'Endeavour' became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea.

As a young geologist and a mountain climber, Stephenson was studying in London in the 1950s and jumped at the chance to go to Antarctica. 'Bunny' Fuchs led the party which was to head south to the Pole from the Weddell Sea, while Sir Edmund Hillary led the party approaching from the opposite direction (Ross Sea Region) in order to lay supply depots.

Arriving at Antartica in the previous season, Jon and two other scientists wintered on the ice 800 km from the pole, surviving the temperatues of minus 50 degrees and more, and existing through the blackness of 24 hour nights.
As a geologist, Jon took whatever opportunity he could to collect rock samples, like the plant fossils collected by Captain Scott before he died. This evidence proved that the continent of Antarctica was part of the great land mass of Gondwana that had once been joined to Tasmania/Australia.

When spring eventually arrived and the days started to lengthen, Jon and his companions were joined by other members of this Crossing party, and by two teams of huskies. Though he had never driven dogs before, it was Jon's job to drive one of the sledges to the pole. He was also engaged in helping to guide the heavy vehicles through the treacherous crevasses fields.
Like playing Russian Roulette!

On one occasion Jon fell through a snow bridge but managed to lodge an elbow in the snow and prevented himself from falling hundreds of feet to his death.
It took 50 years for Jon to get around to writing a book about his experiences on The Ice.

Published in 2009, Crevasse Roulette captures the essence of the people, places and events of 50 years ago, as though it was only yesterday.
Jon Stephenson was the first Australian to reach the South Pole since Amundsen conquered it in 1913. Jon and his companion were also the first since that time to arrive by dog sled. This achievement will never be repeated as current restriction do not allow dogs on the Antarctic continent.

I felt priveledged to meet Jon that night and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the lecture he gave the following day when he discussed the attributes of various Antarctic expedition leaders. Since returning home, I have read Crevasse Roulette in which Jon tells his remarkable story. It is illustrated by some of his own photographs. If you are awed by the pristine beauty, yet unforgiving nature, of Antarctica and you admire the courage and endurance of the expeditioners, you will enjoy Jon's book.

Pic: His Excellency the Governor of Tasmania and Mrs Underwood. Jon Stephenson centre.
Taffy Williams with the second dog team - photo by Jon Stephenson from his book Crevasse Roulette published by Rosenberg Publishing 2009.

Frozen in time – the tale of two amazing dogs

Dog's bones - the oldest and the coldest!
The remains of two amazing dogs, frozen in time, echo the past. One reflects the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration, the other reaches back to the hearty days of Henry VIII.

If only the bones could speak, what a tale those canine ghosts could tell!

When Henry VIII’s warship, Mary Rose, sank off the coast of Portsmouth in 1545, hundreds of sailors and soldiers, went to the bottom of the Solent with her.

The Mary Rose had been sent out with other Tudor navy vessels to engage the approaching French fleet, but without a cannon being fired, the king’s favorite warship heeled over allowing water to pour in through her open gunports. In full view of the royal party, the ship sank to the bottom of the busy roadstead. Settled in layers of silt, the Mary Rose remained there for hundreds of years until twenty years ago when a mammoth effort succeeded in lifting the remains of the near 500 year old ship.

After transporting the remains of the ship's hull to the Royal Naval Dockyard, restoration work began and today the Mary Rose is still undergoing preservation.
Amongst the artifacts collected from the wreck and only recently released for display, is the skeleton of a dog which had been aboard on that fateful day. This exhibit proved to be a star attraction at this years Cruft's Dog Show.

But who had this mongrel dog belonged to - the Captain or one of the nobles? As it was found near the hatch to the carpenter’s cabin, it has been named, Hatch. Being a terrier, it probably was kept busy catching rats as there were no cats on board. Cats were thought to bring bad luck.

During the Heroic Era of exploration in Antarctica, many of the famous explorers used huskies to pull the sledges. Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton, Mawson and others before them all used dogs. In some instances, when provisions ran out, the dogs were killed for food. But eating dogs’ liver, which contains toxic levels of vitamin A, at times proved fatal to some of the explorers.

Captain Scott refused to kill either dogs or ponies for food but in the end he and his four companions died near the South Pole during their unsuccessful attempt to return from it. Scott's unrealistic expectations of the ponies, and his attitude to the dogs, contributed to his disastrous final expedition.

Following the Madrid Protocol on protection of Antarctica, a ruling was made that dogs of any kind should not be allowed on the continent, the reason being that they had the potential to carry and transmit diseases (e.g. distemper) to the polar wildlife – namely penguins and seals.

But the fate of all the dogs which ever went to the pole is not known. Some were returned to northern Europe to work on the snow fields, some died on the Antarctic continent, their carcasses being preserved for who-knows-how long.

In 1998 the carcass of a husky was recovered from the Antarctic Plateau near Cape Denison. How long it had been buried in the snow, no one knows.

I wonder whose sledging team this dog was part of. I wonder if it died on an expedition or ran away. From all appearance of the curled up carcass, it would appear that the dog had settled itself in the snow and gone to sleep, however, its body had succumbed to the sub-zero temperatures with its carcass quickly being covered by the snow of the driving blizzards.
Today the dogs remains are regarded as a historical artifact and preserved as part of the heritage of a bye-gone era.

More to come on Antarctica and a dog sled team.

Pic of Mary Rose, by Geoff Hunt
Pic of 'Hatch' the dog with John Lippiett, Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust.

Husky pics from Australian Antarctic Division website.

From Penny Farthings to Punch and Judy

Where did the first half of the year go to?
For me, it has flown.
I think back and wonder what I have done. One thing’s for sure, I have failed to keep up my regular blog entries.
However, now I sit down and look back over that time, I can see why.
Firstly, I enrolled at the University of Tasmania to commence an Associate degree in Arts – a case of doing some more undergraduate units in areas which interest me.
Semester 1 consisted on History, Aboriginal studies and two units of Antarctic Studies.
One of the reasons for going back to study was to learn more of the history of early Tasmania – Van Diemen’s Land - as it was originally called. The Antarctic units were of interest to me because of my book, Floating Gold in which one third of the book is set in the Antarctic Peninsula. Read about Crevasse Roulette in another post.
What else have I been up to?

I’ve not been anywhere of significance, though in January I visited Cape Grim and the Woolnorth wind farm with my son (visiting from UK). We also went to Hobart and drove up Mount Wellington (see pic), and took a cruise down the Channel to Bruny Island.

In March, I went to the Penny-farthing races which are held annually at Evandale in northern Tasmania.
The Punch and Judy show reminded me of the words from one of my books, The Black Thread – ‘I’m coming to get you!’

During the past few months, I did the final edit on my latest book, Floating Gold and saw it published on 31 May. I did a modicum of publicity, though not as much as I would have liked, however, I am pleased to say that the early reviews are excellent. I just hope the reviews reflect in sales, plus an offer for a large print edition (though I would have expected that to be forthcoming by now).

June was University exam time – not something I enjoy – and afterwards I went to Hobart for two conferences – one on Antarctica and the other on Tasmanian Colonialism and its Aftermath.

The conference topics were interesting but not quite as interesting as some of the people I met, such as the Governor of Tasmania who I was introduced to at a reception at Government House. Also Alice Giles, international and world renowned harpist, and Jon Stephenson - the first Australian to the South Pole after Amundsen. After wintering on the ice, Jon drove a dog team to the pole - but more on Jon and dogs in a later post.

Sadly, a couple of months ago, my mother died in England aged 99. I had planned to go the UK in December to help her celebrate her 100th birthday, but that is not to be. Six weeks later, her sister, also passed away. I think she was 94. Sad time which marked the end of a generation.
So that brings me up to date.
Last week Semester 2 started and I have embarked on 3 History units and 1 unit of Indigenous Studies so, before I get bogged down in assignments, I thought I should update my blog.
Best wishes to you all. I promise my posts will be more regular in future.
Pics: My sons and I at the top of Mt Wellington, Hobart.
Penny farthing races and Punch and Judy at Evandale, Tasmania.
Penguin pic courtesy of email spam "There is always one idiot in every holiday snap!"