Readings from a Tasmanian Mountain Wedding

“To the Tail End”

Getting married is like adopting a dog.

At the beginning, it’s all puppy-love: every moment produces laughter and joy, and all the odd quirks are the cutest thing in the world. Every day you celebrate your love, and find new ways to enjoy it.

But it’s also hard work. There’s toilet training, and going for walks, and making sure that you spend time with your marriage, even when you’re tired or stressed. Sometimes there are problems too: marriage isn’t trying to do the wrong thing, but it doesn’t know better yet, and you need to set boundaries and learn together.

Those odd little quirks can become a nuisance. Those little surprises that marriage gives you aren’t always charming. Marriage can grow shaggy, and when marriage gets wet and smells and shakes all over you it can really test your patience.

Over time, with routine and familiarity, marriage just isn’t the exciting puppy it once was.

But as it matures, your love for it also deepens. Marriage can still be exciting and new, even after many years, but the very ordinariness of it is also part of the appeal: its place on the rug is stable and steady against all the challenges life can throw.

Marriage is for comfort on cold nights, with its familiar weight and warmth in the darkness, and sloppy licks on the nose in the morning.

Marriage is for sharing long days, for exploring new places, for fetching things that you throw away.

Most of all, marriage is for tail-wagging slobbery joy.

Marriage is your constant companion, and it needs to be loved and respected.  But in return, marriage will be your best friend, and will love you forever and ever, even when its old and slow and forgetful. And hopefully one day, many years from now, you will be able to take marriage’s grey muzzle in your hands, and stare into its eyes, and know that you’ve shared something very special together.

“To the Tail End,” Jessica Hewenn

(Inspired by How Falling in Love is like Owning a Dog by Taylor Mali)

 

 

“Trials Together”

May you wend through waving buttongrass in the golden glow of fading light, as wombats rise to walk their trails in growing night.

May you shelter then, seeing stars wink out between the waving arms of old gum trees, wary of their fickle limbs in the face of strong and growing breeze.

May you hear the storm amid the peaks as lighting flares and thunder calls, listen to the howling wind and roar of hail ‘gainst thin tent walls.

Find comfort then in knowing this, that you weather out this storm together, that dawn will come and clouds will lift for the strongest storm lasts not forever

And when your trail winds on through jagged rocks and dark peat bogs, through tea tree, baura and tangled logs,

As the snagging claws of scrub ensnare and through strength wear, look to your side and take heart to see love standing there.

For all these trials you share as one are stories of your life together, to tell with friends as tales of triumph when sitting calm in fairer weather.

“Trials Together,” Nick Ward

 

Response to the Marriage Monitum

The legal definition of marriage in Australia is:

“the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

This definition of marriage was added to the Marriage Act in 2004, and has caused considerable discussion and intense emotions for many parts of the community. There is an ongoing conversation about what marriage is, who it is for, and what being married actually means.

This is an important discussion, but one that can also be very exhausting. At times, the personal and the romantic meaning of marriage seems to be completely swallowed up by the political and the legal.

So I would like to pause here for a moment to reflect on what marriage means, and what it means to us.

Marriage has meant different things in different cultures over time, and there are still many problematic forms of marriage in the world.

But at its most basic, marriage is an expression of commitment and love.

Marriage is a bond of intention for two people to live their lives entwined with each other. It is a bond recognised across language barriers, across cultural barriers, across religious barriers and across all of human history.

It is not just about being in a relationship with someone, but about committing oneself to that relationship and to that other person. It is not just about being in love, but about building love, and growing friendship and solidarity.

Marriage has often been about strategic alliances and convenience, and this wedding is no different: I’m marrying Nick in an attempt to get a Tasmanian passport!

But while marriage has always been about living a shared life with another person, one of the most meaningful cultural changes to marriage in the last few generations has been the emphasis on love. It is not just about two parts making a whole, or two lives bound together, but about choosing to do so.

Although the debate about marriage in Australia is currently divisive, marriage is bigger, more meaningful and more reflective of our culture and values than any single definition, and we have no doubt that politics will eventually catch up.

So as we get married today, we do so with the intention that our marriage is more than just the union of a man and a woman, but the union of two lives pledging love and commitment together.

This post is to record the readings from the day, but is also an enormous thank you to everyone who made it so special – from my mother-in-law’s spectacular cooking, to the beautiful artistic contributions of our friends Annika and Jason – and a shout out to the local Taswegian businesses we used.

For a more detailed, often funny and brilliantly written perspective of the weekend from one of the groomsmen, see Chris’ account.

And there’s also my mother’s take on her first daughter’s marriage.

Post wedding mountain biking at Derby

Jason MacQueen photo of post-wedding mountain biking at Derby

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Boronia Tea Duelling

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the extensively expanded cottage that had once serviced the small whaling operation at Boronia Beach was turned into the Boronia Hotel. According to the Greater Hobart Trails:

“It was popular in the days when the old ferry docked at the jetty at Kingston Beach bringing day-trippers from Hobart. Folk would visit the hotel for a cup of tea and wander through its terraced rhododendron gardens down to Boronia Beach.”

Yet this tiny snippet of information is all that is available online. Questions are posed on the Internet, of the history of the hotel, and what happened to the building, and they go unanswered. Bloggers stroll beneath the cliffs of Boronia Beach, never seeing the historic homestead.

I only discovered how mysterious the old Boronia Hotel is after my partner and I started renting it a year ago, when it hadn’t been permanently lived in for about two decades. In my experience, the mysteries of the colonial building are usually: why is the possum screaming again? Where is this new leak coming from? Is that sound under the floorboards a wombat or the awakening of the undead?

Nevertheless, it has been the most perfect venue for hosting events. So, two years after the inaugural Antipodean Tea Duelling to celebrate my quarter century, inspired by the National Tea Duelling Championships I’d witnessed at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival, it was time to duel at Boronia.

We’d learned at the previous event that Arnott’s Nice biscuits were the most appropriate weapon, so contestants added milk and sugar to the tea*, dunked their biscuits for 3 seconds, and then competed to be the last to cleanly “nom” their biscuit.

Various strategies were employed: hovering the biscuit over an open mouth, eating the biscuit early and hoping that the others would push it for too long until the soggy biscuit collapsed, and sheer will power conveyed through eye contact. One contestant amused the crowd by rolling his sleeves, tying up a neckerchief and adding preposterous amounts of sugar to his beverage, but to no advantage as it turned out.

November again proved both convenient and an excuse to celebrate myself, so I pulled out one of those splendid unfolding teas, and my dear friends brought an array of impressive and delicious baked goods.

As well as the most spectacular, uniquely designed and hand-made tea duelling holster:

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Then there was feasting on baked goods, lawn games, more tea duelling, cuddling with the baby poultry. There was also the first known Tim Tam Slam-Off… which was only semi-successful and definitely needs more testing.

Then, in very Victorian fashion, the remaining party partook of a leisurely stroll down to Boronia Beach.

It was a glorious day, with glorious friends, although unfortunately not everyone could attend… ensuring that the tradition must be continued!

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*Tasmanian Breakfast Tea, from the very local Kingston company The Art of Tea.

Many many more photos on Flickr.

In Which I Forego My Maiden Name

Naming and Identity

Naming and identity are deeply entwined. Our names are so subjectively powerful that we can distinguish them from otherwise unintended and unimportant noise as early as 5 months old (known as the Cocktail Effect). They are the linguistic representation of identity, and they offer a lot of information about us, often indicating our gender, age, and socioeconomic background. In fact, some people go so far as to argue for nominative determinism; that is, names as an indicator of future socioeconomic wellbeing. Certainly, some research reveals the surprising statistic that more seashell shops are owned by Sheryls and Cheryls than other names, that alphabetic order has been found to correspond with success, and that people with unusual names are more likely to commit crimes.*

As such, changing names is an important personal undertaking that is often connected with broader culturally significant events. The changing of a generic title alone carries great significance, whether through marriage (Miss to Mrs), professional development (Miss to Dr) or recognition of achievement (Miss to Dame). While people have many and varied reasons for changing their personal name, the most common name change in Anglophone society is a woman’s adoption of her husband’s surname upon marriage.

Unusually, in my case, marriage had nothing to do it.

Indeed, when the conversation of names first became relevant, I vaguely assumed that I would one day adopt some future husband’s name, as I had assumed my whole life.

Rather, the prospect of publishing (which for my media-savvy generation is connected with a sense of personal branding) forced me to sit down and consider what name I would use for academia. This consideration of a publishing name is remarkable in academia only in how unremarkable it is – even males need to decide whether they are First Name Surname, Initial Surname, First Name Second Name Surname, or any other combination of their available names.† Inconsistency in publishing is not catastrophic – we can acquire an ORCID number that is associated with our publications forever, and can trace changes in our publishing name – but it does make everything easier. So the name that I would publish under for the rest of my life seemed worthy of proper deliberation.

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Although marriage had nothing to do with this initial prompt to think about the issue, it immediately became the crucial concern. Talking with fellow female academics about the problem I found that they had various solutions: get married and change your name before you publish anything, publish and continue publishing under your maiden name even after you change your legal name post marriage (to maintain publishing consistency), or publish under your maiden name and then publish under your married name, and just learn to deal with your references being tied to two different names. Yet perhaps what struck me most was that no one that I personally talked with, and indeed very few women who I had ever met, had kept their maiden names.

This sort of thing really interests me, so I started to explore the issue in earnest. Turns out that it is increasingly normal for women to take their husband’s surnames at marriage in Anglophone countries. A study of New York newspaper announcements shows that the number of women keeping their own surname peaked in the 1990s at 23%, having risen from 9% in the 1980s and slumping back to 18% in the 2000s. Of course, New York is statistically more affluent and educated than the rest of American, which are strong correlates for name-keeping in women, and according to a much larger (though self-sampled) survey by wedding website The Knot in 2011 the percentage of women keeping their own surname is only at 8%.

Even in Norway, where gender equality is part of the official ideology, the percentage of women keeping their surnames has barely changed from the 1980s: from 16% to 22%. The authors of the study suggest that perhaps in a country with high cohabitation such as Norway, the tradition of women adopting the husband’s surname helps to symbolically demarcate marriage from de facto. They also suggest that as gender equality increases, the importance of signalling equality and autonomy through name-keeping has decreased.

There are other cultures, however, where this patriarchal surname trend is avoided or even reversed. For more information, see my fun Appendix!

What does it all mean?

Well, that depends on who you ask. The surname debate provokes strong responses from people both for and against the dominant tradition, as demonstrated by the decision of Amal Alamuddin’s to become Amal Clooney upon marriage. The Internet howled in response, some furious that she had seemingly betrayed her progressive feminist agenda, some furious that anyone would ever contemplate not taking a husband’s surname. Most of the comment threads went in circles as they talked over each other, but what the fury did draw out are some of the recurring justifications both for and against adopting a husband’s surname.

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Arguments For and Against Taking a Husband’s Name

Commitment and New Identity
This article from the Telegraph illustrates the logic of changing her name nicely: “the biggest reason is love… When you share a surname with someone, it makes it clear that you’re on the same team.” For the author there, and for many people, the act of taking on a shared name is symbolic of commitment, and allows the couple to go forward into the future as a couple.
Yet, on the flip side, we do not assume that men are less committed to marriage on the basis of not adopting their wife’s name, so we cannot therefore assume that name adoption is a good indicator of commitment.

Tradition
The Anglophone western culture has a very strong tradition of women adopting their husband’s name upon marriage. Of course, tradition for the sake of tradition is not a strong argument, as traditions always continue to change to remain relevant. Even within the traditional institution of marriage there is considerable change: mixed race marriage was forbidden until 1967 in America, and homosexual marriages are being legalised in an increasing number of countries.
But perhaps most telling is the history of the surname tradition within Anglophone culture. Brought with the Norman conquest of England was also coverture, whereby upon marriage a woman becomes the property of the husband, and so takes on his name rather than her father’s name (see this BBC article for more about this history).
It is problematic and even a little absurd to argue that the history of a tradition should dictate its current and future usage – after all, the gay marriage debate is making marriage more relevant and modern than ever – but if the history of the tradition cannot be used against it, then the mere fact of it being a tradition should not be an argument in its favour.

Heritage and Legacy
The heritage argument is that by carrying on a surname one carries forward a family legacy, maintaining continuity with previous generations and demonstrating pride and solidarity with one’s family past. This is all well and good except for the obvious, which is that it only carries on the paternal legacy. Every argument in favour of a paternal surname can also be used against it: The more one emphasises the significance of a surname with regards to heritage, the more one must discount any maternal heritage. The more one emphasises connection with continuity, the more one must discard half the family.

Very few people actually think this way of course – most people do not feel detached from their maternal grandparents just because their names do not match. I like hearing about the women in my family history, and in every direction they have different surnames every generation, without actually disappearing from a line of maternal heritage. Moreover, most women do not feel that they are abandoning or cutting ties with their immediate family when they adopt their partner’s surname. Yet this argument is one of the most common ones made. Somehow we are convinced that carrying on a paternal surname is important, without attaching any particular importance to the discarding of a maternal surname.

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Cultural Pressure and Choice

While these arguments are interesting, and they should be debated rigorously, I also think that they distract us from the bigger issue: cultural pressure. No one is persuaded in either direction by the arguments above, for if people really did think that commitment and shared identity was the most important thing, then more men would be likely to take a woman’s surname when the woman was closer with her family, or if her surname was more convenient. Instead, self-sampled opinion surveys in Mens Health suggest that over 90% of men are strongly against taking a woman’s surname, even if she requested it. This suggests that these arguments are merely superficial coverings on the actual reasons behind name changing or maintaining behaviour.

Consciously or not, there is a pressure to conform to the societal norms, and in surname changing behaviours, we are actually becoming more conservative. In a study of 1990 and 2006 surveys of college students, students in the 2006 survey were three times more likely to say that if a woman didn’t take her husband’s last name upon marriage, she was less committed to him and their future together. This cultural pressure means that a decision to adopt a husband’s name is relatively unremarked upon, whereas any other decision goes against the grain. It is, in spite of the logistics of changing names, actually culturally easier for a woman to adopt her husband’s surname than keep her own.

Yet before jumping to any conclusions about how the opposite decision, of maintaining a maiden name, is a moral choice made in a cultural vacuum, it is worth remembering that there is a competing pressure for certain women not to change their names. After all, the Internet response at Amal Clooney was not all directed at her having made the right decision. As a left-leaning and highly educated woman, I am in a sub-culture that is more likely to promote name-keeping behaviour, and I do not think that my decisions are free from equivalent cultural pressures on those who do change their name just because the pressure comes from the opposite direction.

Of course, because of my political and tertiary trained tendencies, I do find feminist arguments genuinely compelling. After all, the weight of “commitment” is clearly unequal, and the history of the tradition deeply problematic.

Then there are the very sobering disadvantages of adopting a partner’s name with regards to domestic problems. Men who marry, divorce and remarry do so with logistical ease, with no need to declare anything: they are the same person through each process, by name. On the other end of the gender spectrum, most women adopt the surname of her husband upon marriage, when one in three marriages ends in divorce. At the end of that divorce, she is tied to the name of a husband she is no longer married to. Even worse (and here I am referring to the real scenario an acquaintance of mine found herself in), a woman can be trapped with the name of the man who has committed domestic violence upon her and from whom she has been forced to flee. We all shudder at the thought of forcing a girl to marry her rapist, but through the cultural practice of adopting a husband’s surname, some women are indeed left in the scenario of bearing the name of their rapist or their abuser. Even in the more common case of a somewhat mutual divorce, a woman is left with the identity of the man who is no longer her husband.

These arguments about the inequality of surname traditions are important, but they are no less the product of culture than arguments for name changing, and neither side is necessarily “right” – they just see things from different perspectives.

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Naming and Identity

Ultimately, then, naming practices are dominated by cultural norms. Seemingly individual choices are deeply influenced by our preconceived ideas, and although I had once assumed that I would take a partner’s name (as per the norm in Australia), years of immersion in tertiary culture and much reading of opinion pieces about gender late at night have influenced me to reconsider (which, while still a minority decision even in higher education, makes this position more likely than for those not exposed to that culture).

Yet a lifetime of assuming that I would lose my maiden name is not without effect, and so while I am strongly attached to the name as an indicator of my family, it is a name that I had always assumed would not always be a part of my identity. Academic concerns about being cited hadn’t persuaded me to retain my birth surname either, since it is so common as to get lost within Google Scholar.  I am Jessica, certainly (and Rose, thanks to my cousin), but I had always been waiting to find a new surname.

So I just went out and found one.

Hewenn is an old and archaic Middle English word, which appears briefly in that form in Orm’s 12th century manuscript (the Ormulum – see, names were important then too!) before disappearing. With roots in hewe, which denoted a household, Orm paused over this word twice in his text to differentiate it from hus, meaning house. Rather, hewenn meant what a surname has always meant: family.‡ Indeed, Hewe was an archaic surname for precisely this reason.

This family name which means family name came with other advantages too. Hewenn sounds like a surname because it already is one, homophonically, through existing surnames: the French Huon, and the Scottish Hughan (although Hewenn, being an entirely Anglophone word, actually has the most intuitive English spelling). Best of all, this homophonic relationship came with pre-existing connotations, for the Huon Valley in Tasmania was a special place for me, and Huon also featured in the topography of my childhood countryside. The word is entirely Anglophone, which is my language and cultural heritage, but representative of the landscape that I feel connected with.

Topping it all off, the word is not used as a surname in that spelling (spelling variations and a few individuals scattered through history aside), leaving it largely free from associations with other families, and leaving even the bottomless Internet with only a few entries. I would be Google Scholar searchable! And it felt… right. Just as some women who keep their own surnames do so because it feels right, and most women who adopt their partner’s surname do so because it feels right. Conversations about surnames and identity are important – the highly gendered responsibility for commitment is problematic and should at least be opened discussed – but ultimately individuals will make a choice that feels right to them at the time.

I started this discussion with the musing that names are indicators of identity. By taking on a new name I am embodying a new identity, as well as reflecting aspects of my left, educated, millennial, individualistic outlook. And I’m okay with that. After all, I am the person who cares about symbolism enough to go fossicking for the diamonds for my wedding ring!

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* I would not personally argue for nominative determinism, since those trends are more likely to be correlational than causational, but they are interesting even so. However, recent research has demonstrated the surprising result that people subconsciously adapt their appearance for cultural assumptions about their name, resulting in statistically significant demonstrations that, say, a Jessica looks like we would expect a Jessica to look.

† Some males with common surnames go through processes more similar to me, whereby they consider changing their name.

‡ Hewenn has also been used to denote rascals and household domestics. But in its short period of usage, it usually denoted family and household.

I would like to thank all of the many people in my life who have been made to suffer through my surname philosophising for the last few years. My conversations with friends from both ends of the political spectrum have given me perspective on my own decision, and respect for the strongly held and varying positions one can take on this issue. Most of all, I would just like to emphasise that this decision is one made by me and for me, and is in no way a judgment of any other decision that could have been made.

https://jakubmarian.com/most-common-surnames-by-country-in-europe/

Appendix: Anglophone and European Surname Practices

In most Spanish speaking countries, children formally have two surnames: the father’s surname and the mother’s. This allows easy identification of generational differences, even when children are given first names that are the same as a parent or grandparent. In marriage a woman may choose to add her husband’s surname to her name, but she will always keep her family name. This tradition also explains why such a high proportion of Hispanic women in America don’t change their surname when they marry. (Indeed, in the “Women’s Marital Naming Choices in a Nationally Representative Sample” study of 2009, women of Latin American origin were excluded because their cultural norm was so far removed from the non-Hispanic population’s naming preference.)

Iceland, such is the national pride in the purism of their language, bucks the European trend of fixed surnames and has maintained its ancient Nordic patronymic system. This was even put into law in 1925, when the adoption of new surnames was forbidden, and as a result less than 7% of the population possesses a fixed surname. As such, when a child is born, they are given a first name (their central identity, indexed in the Icelandic phone book) followed by their father’s name and the suffix -son or -dóttir (while matronymic surnames are accepted they are rarer). This has its own problems, and the Personal Name Committee is widely unpopular in Iceland (criticised for both lenience and rigidity). Most curious is the strict rule of unambiguous gender in naming, which although mocked, does reflect the Icelandic practice of feminism, which emphasises equal rights without necessarily questioning sexual difference.

And in perhaps the most divergent example, in 1983 a law was passed in Greece that legally required individuals of both sexes to keep their maiden names! (See this article.) The law was laxed in 2008, when couples were allowed to add their partner’s name to their birth name. Children can be given the surname of either parent. As the article linked above points out, however, a similar system has been in place in Iran for a century, and brings both benefits and disadvantages.

A broad look at European naming practices is in Valetas’ “The surname of married women in the European Union”, which brilliantly compared practiced and preferences across the EU. A particularly interesting example is that of France. Since the French Revolution in 18th century, all individuals may only legally be known by their birth name (except in certain circumstances, such as unfortunate names, which one can apply to change). However, at the time of the 2001 study, most women adopted their husbands name as “usage” names. Yet this created the biggest discrepancy between practice and satisfaction within the EU in the study, with 91% of women adopting their husbands surname for usage, and yet with 40% of women report wishing to use both their maiden and their husbands name. Valetas argued that this disparity could be attributed to dissatisfaction with a legal prohibition of transmitting the mother’s surname to children, because in desiring to have the same surname as their children, women were implicitly forced to take on the surname of the children’s father. Since 2005, this law has been lifted to be more in line with EU equality rights in the transmission of names.

The connection of parents to children through surname is not just important to the mother, but is arguably even more important to the father. On the Guardian podcast What would a Feminist Do? the guest academic Laurie Scheuble points out that while women can be certain they are the biological parent of their offspring, for men, a continuity of surname makes them more likely to be invested in their (particularly male) children.

A Poet of the Island: Elvie Bowman

Perhaps one of the most remarkable qualities of the Flinders Island literature that I have been exploring over the last week is, simply, that most of the people who write it are visitors. That is, by far and large, the written work produced about Flinders Island and the surrounding Bass Strait islands is done by people who are only in the area for a short time. The greatest surprise is that this even extends to the non-fiction and guide books! (Indeed, of the four readily available guide books for the island, only one is written by people who live permanently on the island.*)

This is not necessarily a criticism of the quality of the literature of course. To imply this would imply that all travel writing is inferior, that all temporary residencies are creatively stunted, and that my own time on Flinders Island cannot produce anything of value! Actually, quite the reverse is true, since some of the best commentaries are written by visitors precisely because they are able to offer some perspective. Even so, the temporary nature of the authors of Flinders Island literature is, nevertheless, worthy of note.

And with that introduction, I present to you a very local poet: Elvie Bowman.

Bowman’s work, published in a booklet (I assume on Flinders Island, although no date or publishing details are given), is a collection of the poetry that she put in the local newsletter. The sweet foreword summarises the contents nicely:

A collection of poems written by local poet Elvie Bowman.

For many years Elvie’s poems have appeared in the “Island News” and have usually been written on topical subjects.

They express her feelings and vast knowledge of the Island, the people, and the animals in it.

Bowman Poetry

Bowman’s poetry is well-known, and was invariably the first (sometimes only) answer I received to the question of what literature about Flinders Island is written by an islander. That marvellous blog Island Life Style; references Bowman’s most famous work, a sea shanty style poem written in the 1970s, “Where the Roaring Forties Blow” (in the booklet called simply “Flinders Island”). While I am not intending here to offer a full explication of the poems, I’d like to draw out a few points from Bowman’s work, to get an idea of what constitutes her unique voice.

Most obviously, the poems follow a traditional form: stanzas with end rhymes, and a great many of Bowman’s poems are rhyming quatrains (abcb). This form suits the theme of the poetry, since Bowman in many ways offers an island form of pastoral poetry. Her verses describe the everyday rural life of the islanders, with some celebrations of the idyll. This form also has the advantage that it feels like poetry – it draws attention to its own recognisable and repeating patterns, and is very familiar for most Anglophone readers.

This conservative form is then filled with an appropriately familiar use of language. The lines are from everyday life, and colloquial phrases give the poems a local character. In her poem “Pros and Cons”, Bowman says “Our cattle though are something” (4.1), and then later adds that the bull “doesn’t do things by halves” (5.4), the familiar idioms making for a very relaxed reading. The rhythm of the poems is also colloquial, often using “but” when desiring to clarify or expand on a statement, and there are a few rhetorical questions so open ended that punctuation marks aren’t even used (“Tell me, where does a dollar go” (7.4), “But what’s the use of grumbling” (12.1)). The language is inclusive, tending to be unambiguous even when using idioms, and very few poetic devices (similes, metaphors etc) are used. As such the poetry is quite self-contained, making very little reference to things beyond the island, and when these do occur they are comfortably familiar. In “Pros and Cons”, Bowman describes the island sheep through invocation of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep: “They all yield their three bags full” (2.3).

Bowman, Our Island in Bass Strait

This tendency to focus on the island extends to a suspicion of non-islanders. In “Michael Middleton Esquire”, the vet fondly remembered as an impostor when he was newly arrived on the island.

From mainland Halls of learning came

A man, in neat attire.

He brought a piece of paper,

Should anyone enquire.

His name was written on it,

In Ink still slightly wet,

Announcing to us common herd,

This man, is ‘Mick da Vet’

The poem describes the vet’s early mistakes, when he was accidentally taking the lives of dogs and cats, and thus proving right the islanders’ suspicion of the outsider. Even so, Mick finds his place on the island, improving his veterinary ability but also proving himself as a person to the community as a singer, musician and dancer. As he settles into island life, the Islanders in turn accept him, and the poem ends “Should someone ask “who is that Man”/They are told, that’s ‘Mick da Vet’”, transforming the derogatory title into an in-joke that Mick is a part of.

This non-islander “other” is best demonstrated through the use of Bowman’s anonymous “they”, which turns up in several poems. In “Our Fading P.O. Tower”, the eponymous tower is being pulled down. “Now ‘they say’ it isn’t needed” the poet informs us, referring skeptically to this unknown authority that deems the tower no longer necessary. The poet, conversely, will miss the tower, and unlike the nameless authority she bestows human traits on others who will miss it, including golfers, boaters and birds.

These descriptions of island life are evocative precisely because they are recognisable and local. The simple language becomes a vehicle for emotions and events because it does not draw attention to itself. In “The Drought 1987/88”, the line “The sheep so weak and cattle so thin/With calves at foot and no milk within” does not attempt to dress the animals with anthropomorphism, or to describe their suffering with emotive language. Instead, Bowman allows the events to be evaluated for what they are: hard facts of life.

While some of Bowman’s rhymes and metres are a bit forced, she is nevertheless able to offer a poetical form of island life. The famous Flinders Island wave *can* be over-analysed, to amusing effect, but the wave is ultimately just a familiar and distinctive islander form of communication. In much the same way, Bowman’s poetry could be dressier, drawing on more intertextual references and poetic devices, but it would be less distinctively representative of the island. As such, Bowman’s poetry is a demonstration of a particularly local sense of the island, and a local expression of it.

Bowman, The Furneauxs

Other Island poets include Don Napier and Derek Smith. Derek Smith’s “The Song of the Furneaux Islands”, which also illustrates many of the same properties as Elvie Bowman’s work, appears in Jean Edgecomb’s book Flinders Island and Eastern Bass Strait.

We live on a beautiful island

Set in a sapphire sea

Relying on one another

And living in harmony.

From the beaches of Palana

To Strzelecki’s lofty peak

It’s a beautiful, beautiful island

With peace for all who seek.

We see the wildflowers growing,

Hear song birds in the trees

And watch the boats unloading

Their harvest of the seas.

The cry of our wild geese echoes

O’er the tidal stream

And muttonbirds slowly circle

As silently as a dream.

When freezing gales of winter

Roar through the sheoak trees,

There’s a wild, majestic splendour

In the clouds and the raging seas.

And as we all grow older,

Still prouder we will be

Of our beautiful Furneaux Islands

Home to you and me.

*Of the guide books available in Bowman’s General Store (Whitemark), which accounts – as far as I can tell – for basically all the guidebooks readily available, a good half is written by seasonal or occasional visitors. “A Walking Guide to Flinders Island and Cape Barren Island”, now in its third edition thanks to Dooreen H. Lovegrove and Steve Summers, is printed by the Flinders Council, and has always been a product of islanders. Ken Martin of “Walks of Flinders Island” draws on an extensive and personal knowledge of the island, having spent seasons on it bushwalking for the last 30 years, and indeed writing some of the earliest advice about walking in the area. Jean Edgecombe’s “Discovering Flinders Island”, “Flinders Island: The Furneaux Group” and “Flinders Island and Eastern Bass Strait”, while written from Sydney, is based on Edgecomb’s many visits and draws on both expert and islander knowledge extensively. Len Zell, in Wild Discovery Guides, prefaces the book with the comment “My visits to the island were brief and I was able to talk to only a few people”, although the guide does not suffer for this and it should not be considered a criticism. Rather, I make this point to indicate that temporary authors are the bulk of the authors, not that their work is in any way inferior for this.

A Week of Waves: Auroras, Clouds and Greetings on Flinders Island

When entering a new community, there is always the worry about reading the social expectations, and responding with the correct etiquette. On Flinders Island, the most pervasive and remarkable mannerism is the wave offered between the drivers of cars. Island Life Style has posted a highly amusing account of this published in the local Island News some years ago, but in short, there is a simple expectation that the drivers of vehicles will raise a finger or a whole hand in greeting when passing each other on the road. The result is both a remarkably welcoming and inclusive sentiment for those who are new to the island, and this terrible horror of implied rejection when a wave is not exchanged.

Some years ago I came to the island for the Flinders Five Running Festival, and so being used to this special phenomenon, merrily wave to all those in view each time I’m in the car. My partner Nick, not having been to the island since he was a child, is less familiar with the wave habit, and so commits the social faux pas of IGNORING A WAVE whenever he sits behind the wheel, until – aghast and embarrassed – I attempt to correct his behaviour.

Indeed, perhaps it was no coincidence that the Scottish Country Dancing evening that we attempted to attend on Tuesday evening was abandoned…

The other waves of the island over the last week included the glorious waves of coloured light in the sky, the aurora australis. We had just enjoyed a delicious roast feast put on by botanical artist Jessie (and where I was remembered by one of the locals from the years when I visited the island as the person mad enough to enjoy swimming in the ocean in early September!), and had headed to bed, when I saw an aurora alert online. We dashed outside again, and sure enough, the southern horizon was aglow. The camera was able to capture the colour better than the naked eye, although the descending clouds meant that we only had time for a few shots.

Low cloud was also the undoing of our walk up Strzelecki, the highest mountain on the island. The summit seems to have a near permanent cap of cloud, even when the rest of the island is bathed in sunlight, but we optimistically thought that perhaps it would burn off by the time we reached the peak. The answer was a resounding negative, although we sat in the wind for some time staring into the white abyss waiting for it to clear.

Many of the sunrise and sunset timelapses that Nick has been attempting to capture are clouded in, but the days have been kind, even if perpetually windy. Our trek out along Killiecrankie Bay was in fine conditions, although we soon discovered that finding one of the famous Killiecrankie Diamonds (actually a topaz) was more difficult than simply strolling along the beach and picking one up. Conversely, it was very easy to walk into the lovely little Whitemark library and pick up a beautifully illustrated book about the diamonds. And, of course, by driving into town we were awash with friendly waves.

Sunrise from Mountain Seas

All photos and time lapses by the talented Nick.

Of the Island, Part I

Australia’s Last Frontier
The Forgotten Islands
Archipelago of Souls

These rather romantic terms refer to the sparsely inhabited isles between Victoria and Tasmania, wind-swept refuges in the shallow Bass Strait seas. The phrases describe the islands, but they are also the subject of my own time on one of these islands, being the titles of books written about the place. I am currently an Artist-in-Residence at Mountain Seas, an Arts Centre on Flinders Island on the eastern side of the strait. Between bouts of exploring the island with my partner Nick, I have nearly a fortnight to distill some of the literature of the place, and hopefully produce a treatise of a kind on the sense of islandness present in Tasmanian fiction more broadly. I’ll also be writing a less scholarly piece about walking on the island, because it really is very pretty.

Mountain Seas Art Centre

It is actually day two of my residence. We had spent a glorious Sunday back in Canberra gallivanting about in the snow with top hats and toboggans, before catching an overnight bus down to Melbourne. Being seasoned travellers of south-east Asian and Latin American sleeper buses we had high hopes for the amount of sleep we would achieve on the bus, but alas, the seats reclined a mere token effort before clicking into a near-vertical position. So, in spite of the flatness of the Hume Highway, we had barely dozed before disembarking at Southern Cross station. Then, with yet another Myki card to add to my collection, we made our way across the city to Essendon Airport. Although its glory days as Australia’s second international airport are long past, the airport is far from retirement, hosting several small airline companies and their remarkably friendly staff. Winter may be off-season for tourism on Flinders Island (hence offering artist retreat positions during the colder months), but our little Sharp Airlines plane was at full capacity with 19 passengers and a dog, whose easily-heard bark from the luggage area immediately behind us provoked some laughter from the children on the plane. We thus duly embarked on the hour-long scenic flight above Wilson’s Promontory, whose picturesque coastline was entirely obscured by cloud for the whole duration, though we did get a spectacular view of the rain-shawled Flinders Island before landing.

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Room at Mountain Seas

Collected by Retreat Manager and Chef Annie, we had a drizzly car tour of Whitemark and Trousers Point, and then a siesta before meeting the other artist at Mountain Seas. Another 25 year old from Albury Wodonga, and even a Jessie, our similarities ended abruptly at our art. Jessie is a talented botanical artist, invoking exquisite reproductions of leaves and shells on paper, while my stick figures would embarrass a child. Still, the small library at Mountain Seas does contain some extra Bass Strait islands books, so I will easily be able to work in my preferred medium with a few choice resources.

Nick took a timelapse of our first dawn from the room, which offers an indication of just how beautiful this location is. The appropriately named Mountain Seas is situated between Strzelecki and the beach, on a property abounding with wildlife.

Flinders Island is the largest (1,333 km²) of the Furneaux Group, a collection of 52 islands on the south eastern edge of Bass Strait. With a population of less than 900, everyone knows each other, and each time cars pass each other on the road a hand is waved. The wildlife on the island are very friendly too, but being far more populous and far less road savvy than their human counterparts the waves at wallabies tend to be of the swerving and horn honking variety. Today is boat day, when fresh supplies arrive on the island, so it is time that we too get on the road and make our way into Whitemark.

Follow my unfolding residency, where I’ll be exploring the literature and landscape of Flinders Island, on Twitter, Instagram and this blog. Have a book to suggest or a comment to make or an idea to unravel? I’d love feedback!

Other bloggers of the island include Karen Morrow, who took up an Artist Residency as a writer previously, and Island Life Style by Sammi Gowthorp and Megan Morphett, who write and photograph Flinders superbly.

Portrait of the artist as an artist

Antipodean Ginger Nut Tea Duelling

British traditions in Australia have had, for many decades now, a fierce Australian-ness to them. Take our names, for instance. Most of those Australians with British ancestry have a British name, but we tend to rampantly turn them into diminutives: David is Davo, John is Johnno, Shane is Shazza. For that matter, breakfast is brekky, barbecue is barbie, afternoon is arvo. And then there’s our flag, which is basically the Union Jack with the The Southern Cross stuck on the corner.

So it should come as no surprise that a competition involving dressing up in Victorian period costume and dunking biscuits into tea, a seemingly necessarily British activity, should incorporate a great Aussie bikkie* in the antipodean version. Or, in this case, several varieties of the same great Australian biscuit.

Antipodean Tea Duelling, The Duel

You see, back in the Victorian era, William Arnott, a Scottish immigrant to Australia, set up a bakery in New South Wales. (Even our place names are an Australianised Britain.) His sons continued to run this bakery in New South Wales, until amalgamations and acquisitions of interstate bakeries in the 1960s led to the national company. Then, disaster! The four bakeries, running out of different states, all using different recipes for Ginger Nut Biscuits, trialled baking them to the New South Wales standard. Non-New-South-Welshmen protested vigorously, and Arnott’s decided to maintain the four recipes, even when baking them in a single bakery and giving them identical packaging (apart from nutritional information).

According to the Arnott’s Facebook page (or at least a friend’s reproduction of this passage, as I can’t find the original!):

So now in Queensland, Ginger Nuts are thin and sweet, with a dark colour. In New South Wales they are small, thick and hard, with a light colour. In Victoria and Tasmania, they are bigger, softer and sweeter. While in South and Western Australia, the biscuits look similar to their Victorian cousins, but taste sweeter.

On this particular occasion, being the first known Tasmanian Tea Duelling tournament, we had only managed to supply the Queensland and Tasmanian/Victorian versions of the biscuit.

The tournament was ostensibly held in honour of the quarter century celebration of the year 1989: the year of the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the fall of the Berlin Wall and – coincidentally – my birth year. Thus we had gathered a group of discerning gentlefolk in their best Steampunk attire at the Cascade Gardens, below the impressive colonial façade of the Cascade Brewery. We set up the picnic tables with tablecloths, laid out home-made baked goods, fired up the hiking stoves, and brewed ourselves a good Australian Breakfast tea with Ashgrove milk.

Then, the challengers stepped forward.

Tea Duelling is a brilliant sport that I’d seen played at the Lincoln Steampunk Festival in England a few months previous, so I’d decided to import it to the colonies. None of us had ever played before, but we were so eager that we decided to play four people off against each other in the first round.

Eyeing each other off, and under my command, the challengers added Ashgrove Milk (or not), sugar (or not), and chose from amongst the mix of Queensland and Tasmanian Ginger Nuts.

Then, it was time to dunk.

Using the British tradition as a guide, I counted for three seconds. The longevity of the round indicated that the Ginger Nuts were made with far more gingery strength than normal dipping biscuits, but it still turned into a surprisingly engaging spectacle. To our surprise, the milk-less competitor was at no disadvantage even with her hotter brew, and she came solidly second of the four. The winner became the new Tiffin Master, and thus the game continued, using Arnott’s Nice biscuits when we wanted shorter rounds. (This biscuit turned out to be the undoing of yours truly, since the soggy biscuit lost structural integrity at the vital moment, and collapsed partly onto my face, resulting in the winner being the first – and only – competitor to have nommed his biscuit.)

The result of this great Antipodean Tea Duelling Ginger Nut experiment? To be honest, we did not actually keep enough record to scientifically state the superior Tea Duelling variety of Ginger Nut. However, you can cheer yourself up by reading an excellent review of the teeth-breaking strength of the New South Wales Ginger Nut in this blog.

And you can further console yourself with the knowledge that Antipodean Gingernut Tea Duelling shall continue, until a Superior Tea Duelling Ginger Nut† has been determined.

*Bikkie and bikky are acceptable abbreviations of biscuit, but since Arnott’s themselves use bikkie I’ve adopted that here.

†Though we all already know that the Victorian/Tasmanian variety is the superior biscuit per se.

In my research on the history of Arnott’s, I also discovered a quiz answering what your biscuit preference says about your personality.