Maria Island – Tasmania
March 30 – April 1
The wall is cold, hard. Whitewash now cracked. From the warm down cocoon of my sleeping bag my hand rests flat on the stone. Dark. Middle of the night. A few mozzies. Time seems to bend and crack like the exhibit in MONA where video of people in a city distorts to stretch and compress the action. I can feel you here, James Merner, touching the wall, bloodied. These very same walls constructed by your hand. The masters found out about your bricklaying and building skills. At first it seemed like a way to gain favour and privileges in this god forsaken place at the end of the earth. You were able to lessen the cruelty a little while you were of use to them. Two years to replace the logs and bark with this strong new penitentiary. 66 convicts to a room, 4 rooms. Your hopes of earning a return to Hobart dashed by the commissar – no reprieve. Stealing two pairs of trousers back in England had led you here.
66 convicts to a room, 4 rooms. Locked in together at night. A place the troopers wouldn’t risk entering in the dark. Cruelty of overseers translates to those around you. I touch the wall and feel your black despair. No reprieve. Back in the cell with the others now your work is done. You wake and know it’s on. Whispers, stirring bodies, stench of vomit and piss and shit from the overflowing bucket in the corner. Men, dirty, grimy, cold, scratching at sores jostle awake. In my waking nightmare I see the top dogs call the action. Low talking complaining leads to growling. Some legs and arms flail dance not caring what they hit. In the darkness you try to melt into a corner in the throb. Knowing arms twist you into the room, into the seethe. The noise builds to a rhythmic group scream. 66 convicts to a room, men here for life, no women anywhere. No hope. They turn on each other, on the lowly. Wild, they separate into two groups on sides of the room then in an apocalyptic climax both sides rush at each other in a futuristic Metallica heavy metal wall of death. Broken and unbroken now move together in a circle like a whirlpool. Pushed into the central pit you are hit from edge to edge then lose your footing and are trampled by the mob. Soldiers outside fire into the sky to break the spell of the rabble.
Can people rise above their own harsh realities to live good lives in concert with each other? James Merner, did you in the end?
The commissar reports “frightful irregularities” next day.
I sense your desperation, your dashed hopes, your terror, your utter despair as I tourist in this same room. I brew up tea and update my bird list. Outside the evening light is golden over the other convict buildings of mixed stone and brick. I read on the information on the wall that after being refused reprieve you escaped the island on a bark canoe, were apprehended and then imprisoned with hard labour in the Hulk chain gang for a year as punishment. Tiers of bunks with separating battens were erected later so each convict could be confined safely at night. The Island seems hushed and still as if remembering its grim past. I consider my own minor acts of lawbreaking and bending the rules and thank my lucky stars that I didn’t live 190 years ago in England.
James Merner, your story here disturbs part of my world view as I tremble into the possible past. A cool breeze comes through the open window. Scuffling outside now in the dark. My hand cold against the wall. A devil screeches close by. I don’t know if you were an honourable man or a scoundrel that got his just deserts for deeds done. But I sense your pain and anger and desperate despair. I marvel that you could live through it all. I’ve had the view that our troubles to each of us are equal. That we all feel despair and pain and we have to honour this in each other. That even now people do unspeakable things to each other, parents to children, men to women, like to like. Do we have an innate capability to inflict violence on each other or do people reflect what they are surrounded by? Motorcycle gangs attired in black, emblazoned with skulls ride our streets armed, shooting at houses and each other? School kids and adolescents can be very cruel to each other. We all feel the effects of these things deeply. In some realms there’s an epidemic of despair among young people. I know I’ve been instrumental in preventing two youth suicides but also had another young person in my pastoral care group end their life just out of college. But now James Merner you’re showing me through the wall that we are not all equal in our darknesses. I imagine battens across the bunk bed in the gloom. Sleep again, finally.
Cruiser and pennitentiary
In the morning we hire bikes and cycle down the island. We complain to each other about the lack of gears, the inappropriateness of the cruiser bike for bush tracks, the grumpy captain on the ferry, about our sore bums. I consider what is real in our suffering. I think about heavy metal music and the dark times of youth. The growling screamo vocals and wild and dangerous mosh pit movements that tap into a collective searching for an outlet for anger and frustration. Is this any different to the Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper of my own formative years? Teenage melancholy circling in on itself and fed by mass popular culture. Has it taken me till now to realise that only some of us have real “frightful irregularities” to deal with? Or am I getting old? As I drift away from my long and intensive work with young people am I letting go of my own youthful vulnerability that I was confronted with in nearly every classroom?
For $20 each we get on the ferry back to the mainland. James Merner how much would you have paid? Your penitentiary stands proud on the hill above the bay, and recedes in the salt spray. Whitewashed walls.
Tasmanian devils have been introduced onto Maria Island where they have never been before. Healthy individuals are surviving and breeding isolated from the main population suffering from a deadly facial disease. It is thought the disease developed from a genetic mutation in a single female which has spread widely on the Tasmanian mainland through the population that has diminished genetic diversity due to decimated numbers thereby leading to less natural resistance.
Museum of Old and New Art – “On Perspective and Motion – Part 2” a complex video and mirror installation by Daniel Crooks 2006. Gonzo interpretation by Elizabeth Pearce – “Stretchy Time. You know when you’re bored, time stretches, and when you’re traumatised (dumped, injure yourself), it compresses again? I think this is what this is about – the stretchiness of time – with technical mastery.”
I ordered a new snowboard about 10 years ago – a model highly recommended by an expert. When it arrived I was tempted to send it back because of the graphics. Over time I have got used to it and am now starting to identify with the ghost rider in the sky/powder. Model name -“Nitro Punisher”