Story by Elizabeth Carroll | Illustrations & Photographs by Louise Thrush
It’s been a long time since I threw myself into a car and across Tasmania. But now I’m doing it with a toddler. No plan survives first contact with a baby, and sure enough we are late. And then we stop for milk when she wakes, crying with confusion and hunger. We are slow together. A little unreliable. My daughter’s needs come first, but we made it. I walk her down to the river in her pram, trying to ignore that frazzled feeling of embarrassment. Lou waits patiently with her paints, pens and paper.
On the way here I’ve been thinking of the way one of my heroes, Robert Macfarlane wrote ‘The Old Ways: a journey on foot’. A little like a hobbit walking party: groups of men, leaving women and children behind. They all seem to be seeking a kind of escape into the self or friendship, the past or the landscape or language – to be most Romantically Alone, communing with the picturesque and losing self to the transcendent. I admire it so, but it’s not my life right now. His stories are almost completely disconnected from the daily business of feeding, entertaining and cleaning up after a toddler. Almost but not quite – I remember his comment about his children showing him how they see the world close up in miniature vistas.
What will my daughter show me?
First of all: food. Milk, then food eaten with gusto and thrown on the ground at the picnic shelter for the local ducks, who waddle up from the river splatting their green poo on the pavers. The immense pleasure of ducks coming to meet her and dabbling for her crusts of egg and bacon pie. Defying the picturesque and the transcendent. Ducks are as down to earth as it gets.
The first thing I know in my own body is the biting wind from the Tiers, then traffic sounds from the highway. Sounds like open spaces and other people’s journeys – a little lonely. These two sounds go everywhere we go in our walk around Ross.
We walk on south along the river bank path to a gate and haul my daughter’s pram over it, setting her over on the other side. The church paddock, bitten low by sheep and crusted with droppings. My daughter crawls off boldly to explore, prancing with excitement. Lou and I see a sharp rise of hill and old stables or byres cut into the living stone. Beyond my daughter’s view I can see the Wesleyan Church sitting on the escarpment above like a castle but she doesn’t care for that. She sees space to scamper, the small grasses and pebbles – offers me one and wants to know about the rabbit poo.
To me these old stables are a wonderful surprise – right down to the trough carved out of the rock for water or hay. And for the rest of the walk, everything around us feels charged with wordless stories, feels more than just itself. The past is everywhere, as the sandstone beneath our feet is everywhere and only thinly covered with earth. It’s everywhere, but I don’t know what it means. And that’s oddly freeing. It frees me to make up my own story, if I feel like it later.
We scoop my daughter up back into her pram and keep going. I smell the river mud, willow and farts of marsh gas from the Macquarie and sense the weight of water. The riverbank here is a tangle of feral, introduced trees – wild plums aplenty, hawthorn and sloes dense with nettles and blackberry. Old mushrooms lie rotting. It makes me think of fairies – close enough to people, but not too close. I think of easy foraging in season.
We come to the Ross Female Factory site and let my daughter lose again. She prances off merrily across the cropped grass, around the nettles and thorn trees. I get down on her level and crawl with her, feeling undulating ground and the chilly sweep of wind, seeing the rabbit poo, the fine gravel from the pulverised ruins digging our knees. For a while we ignore the sandstone building, but in the end we go in, agreeing perhaps to read the signs, find out more about where we are. My daughter bravely climbs the steep stone stairs on her own and her drumming hands and knees as she patters around punctuate the silence. We read that more than a thousand women came through the complex before being reassigned – many bore children here and had to put them in the care of the Factory nurses. Infant mortality was high. Only this one building now remains. My daughter grows wary of the inside and wants to head out again and so I let her go down step by step again on her own.
When we come out, Lou and I are thoughtful. We sit between the thorn trees and the cottage on the tiny pulverised rubble of the Female Factory and watch my daughter exploring on hands and knees. (Would my daughter have lived? I ask myself. Almost certainly not.) Why do we favour sad memories over the countless happy ones that could have been lived here? Lou wonders aloud. She thinks of the local Aboriginal nation camping on the river over thousands of years – there would be ducks and kangaroo in plenty. I think of the feral foods for foraging, that could have kept those convict women healthier – nettle soup and plums and haws in their seasons. I know many ate better after transportation than ever before.
Does the earth remember? We can’t say, even surrounded by the detritus of the past. It’s hard to know for sure beyond our own feelings. Lou says ‘I don’t feel sad here,’ and neither do I. Inside the cottage perhaps, but not in the open. And my daughter is playing happily. It’s just a place to her.