Judges’ comments: Tasmania’s Heidi Townsend is to be commended on her atmospheric evocation of the transforming effects of British settlement on the landscape of her region. We felt this depiction was firmly within the English pastoral tradition without being in any way over-drawn.
From Acorns to Oaks, by Heidi Townsend (Tasmania)
In late autumn the air here has a distinctive chill. The hedgerows are heavy with hawthorn berries, the apple trees are losing their leaves. Around me there are fields of pasture, slowly recovering from the heat of summer, becoming green once again.
Ayrshire cows graze nearby, one of the many British cattle breeds in Australia, brought here generations ago by a settler who wished for the cows of his homeland. Down the road we sometimes see Scottish Highland cattle with their shaggy coats and aurochs-like horns, Herefords in small herds raised for beef, Dexters from Ireland and the unmistakable black Angus, growing fat on large fields of grass, the favourite beef breed of many Australians. The animals here are indistinguishable from their ancestors in the British Isles because of the care taken by our ancestors to keep the breeds true to type, as a memory of the animals of home, of the regional idiosyncrasies of the old country that many now take for granted. The Wessex saddleback pig is easily found here, but is now extinct in Britain.
Driving down the road there are English oak trees, strong and silent, which must be over two hundred years old, for this is an old part of the country, where the first British settlers arrived, acorns in hand, to plant these oaks. The earliest settlers may never have seen the shade of these trees, but their children, grandchildren, and many generations ahead can now look up at these trees and remember. To see them standing, proud and strong, brings me to reflect on the courage of those first settlers, who arrived in a harsh, unknown landscape, separated from their homeland by great distance, a long and dangerous sea voyage behind them.
Great tracts of land were claimed. Humble cottages quickly built. Wells were dug and water was hauled from the rivers – the lifeblood of the harsh summers to sustain life in the animals, bringing life to the first seeds sown and the first crops grown. Lessons were learnt about how to adapt our agricultural traditions to a different climate and different soils. Isolated farms, separated by vast distances from others would have to provide for themselves. There was no choice but to endure.
Old roads were formed, winding along the countryside. We can drive along them today and look upon the poplars, oaks and elms lining them. Sometimes we’ll pass by an old bridge, constructed by hand out of large stones, built to endure, superior to any bridge built today not only in strength but in appearance. We have an atmosphere of old Australia on these roads, of the best qualities of the British people brought to a new land, to forge ahead, to build something from nothing, to form something of their own in a vast wilderness.
Separated from the British Isles by many wild seas, detached from all lifelines and supplies there, the settlers fought against the odds to put down roots in this new land. Thousands of hawthorn hedges were laid, carefully tended, to form dense stands, protecting the stock from furious winds, and the crops from marauding animals, establishing boundaries between the new homeland and the wild lands beyond. These early settlers have a great strength we can all look up to and aspire to.
This strength continued as we suffered through all manner of strife over the years, through wars and the loss of many of our best. There was nothing we could do but forge ahead, and approach the unknown future with the same courage our ancestors had in the past, for their blood flows in our veins, their memories in our hearts.
Many of the settlers did not arrive of their own free will. Rather than dwelling on the tragedy involved, they got on with their lives, forged ahead, made this land their own. A kind of meritocracy emerged in some places, and those with the will to succeed were rewarded. Many Australians are descended from these convicts. Maybe it’s our tradition of the stiff upper lip, maybe it’s our common sense, but we don’t wail and whine about the tragedies of our ancestors, we forge ahead, their courage alive in our veins.
Autumn leaves and acorns drop from the old oak trees, the leaves cover the earth, decomposing to bring new life to the tree. Some acorns will grow into new trees, and in the distant future maybe they too will be great oaks to be revered. These oaks and their yearly cycle can be seen as a symbol of our British heritage. Planted as acorns in a distant land, against all odds, they continue to endure and inspire.
May their cycle continue. May new oaks spring from these great trees, to forge ahead in this land, with health, vigour, and ancestral strength in their roots.
© Heidi Townsend, 2016