Caught by the River

Subdividing: A Tale of Two Rivers

16th April 2016

Words and pictures: Liz Evans

Last month the neighbouring farmer told us he was going to sell off his paddock. He plans to carve up the big swathe of field next door into little residential plots so tree-changers can fund his retirement. Soon, 28 acres of riverside pasture, some of which hugs my garden, will vanish beneath concrete and gravel. Eleven or so houses will spring up here, along with carports, and driveways, all flattening the red clay soil in a maze of septic tanks, electricity cables and water pipes, burying the long, pale yellow grass beneath paving, decks, and turf.

I don’t how to respond. The paddock is my gateway to the wild, the interface between my humble, domesticated acre and a secret land of eagles, hawks and serpents. This is where I nurse my yearning for England, down by the water’s edge, where the predators roam.

I arrived in Tasmania six years ago but my bones still ache for home. I drive through the mountains listening to music made by old friends and bands I once interviewed. The Charlatans, Lush, Björk, Nirvana and Sonic Youth are all on my soundtrack of a life lived long ago and far away, jolting and jarring me, stirring me up in ways I cannot explain to anyone out here. I don’t want it back, but I struggle with the eternal displacement and the ongoing dislocation. I feel unmoored, without anchor, and wonder if that will change. People tell me this is the curse of the migrant, the in-betweens and the neither-here-nor-theres, so I turn back to the river as it rumbles on beneath an unbroken sky. The borderlands beyond the field don’t ask me for roots and I can wander here without feeling lost.

Treading through the paddock, I navigate blackberry bushes and cow-pats. I feel my tentative sense of home expanding as I scramble past pine trees and silver wattles. Beyond a broken fence-line, the field opens out onto a wide horizon of hills before leading down to a brambly path of heart-shaped stones, embedding me now within a wider web of life. Here, fallen branches and thick scrub cover the steep descent to a hidden strip of marshy, deep green Crown Land that banks the broad sweep of the Huon River. A dark expanse of water, the Huon rises in the south-west wilderness, gathering force from remote mountain ranges before flowing down through the fertile valley where I live. Along the riverbank tall, swaying eucalypts shelter white goshawks, swamp harriers and wedge-tailed eagles. Bees nest inside a huge, old willow that straddles the winter creek, frog song fills the air at rainfall, and geese bustle through mottled grass past an ancient lone pear tree. Always, the cawing of crows rides the wind while the black tide rushes and swirls.


Before moving to Australia, I lived by another river, the Lea in London. I loved that urban waterway for all its pollution and decay. The tow-path ran by my front door, threading through wetlands and along the bottom of parks, past houseboats and herons, with gasworks dominating the skyline. It linked me with horses, swans and shaggy, striped cows that were led onto the nature reserve each Lammas, and soothed my city-worn soul with a quiet world of creeping marshwort, reed swamp and sedge marsh, Essex skipper butterflies, rare hoverflies, water voles and marsh warblers. It also harboured criminals, local gangs, and joyriders who set their stolen cars on fire in Springfield Park. Now the playground of trust-fund hipsters, in 2001 Lower Clapton was known as Murder Mile.

Up the road in Shoreditch things were sparkling. My artist friends could still afford the rents, and we’d drink in The Griffin on Leonard Street where the landlord tried to fend off phony hipsters, slumming models and city boy investment bankers. I’d dance on rooftops till dawn in Old Street, but walking home from the bus stop, over Clapton’s dimly-lit common, I kept my thumb on my rape alarm, and was ready to run. Once in the early hours I awoke with a strange feeling, and sat up in bed to watch a car slowly sinking into the river, its tail-lights still on. Worried, I phoned the police who wearily dispatched divers and floodlights to check for bodies among the drowned tangle of stolen bicycles, shopping trolleys, and tyres that polluted the river.

The Lea was unsafe, but the Huon is unruly. Humans hold no sway here, and the eeriest encounter I have is with a white goshawk at dusk. Perching in a tree, a freshly caught rabbit dangling from its talons, the hunter watches me stealthily as I return its gaze. Between us, the boundaries of nature and culture blur in the dimming light and I am shocked and enthralled by the savage beauty of this scene. Unnerved, the bird stands its elevated ground, clutching its prey and staring fixedly as I walk away.

When it rains, black cockatoos swoop up from the riverbanks, piercing the wind with their nerve-shattering squawks, and kookaburras laugh from the tops of swaying poplar trees, as they hunt for snakes at sundown. In winter, mist rises from the water, cloaking the hills and settling in the lanes, masking the sun till mid-morning and lending treachery to the roads, but I don’t mind. I welcome the cold. Tasmania’s latitude is equivalent to Rome or Barcelona, but the harsh Australian sun withers me. I thrive on crisp autumn air, deep blue skies and the soft holding of cloud cover.

As summer fades, I sit by the paddock beneath the green tower of a pussy willow tree, bees humming overhead. Up in the branches, wattle birds and green rosella parrots rustle and flap, warbling gently to each other among the catkins, and wasps hover at the base. A white butterfly comes to drink from pink clover, dandelions bob individually on little strands of breeze, and crows caw and cackle lazily up among the eucalypts. I think of the field, a small portion of earth destined for further division, and notice the push and pull of my own divides. I wonder how past and present, here and there, near and far, conspire to pull me apart as I sink down among the chirps and the buzzing, the ticking air and the soft sun, the warm bath of space and silence around me.