The Tarkine Wilderness: An Introduction

Nature is always value-less, but has been given value.
– Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1974, section 301.

Tarkine (also spelt Takanya) is the name of the area given by the aboriginal people who inhabited the North-West area of the island of Tasmania located 240km south of the south-east coast of the Australian mainland. The name ‘Tarkine’ was adopted by the environmental movement in the 1960’s to refer to the large area of wilderness, whose boundaries are today given as enclosing about 490,000 hectares of wilderness, consisting of Australia’s largest area of temperate rainforest, extensive button-grass plains, and coastal areas with some of the country’s most significant Aboroginal archaeological remains. Since the 1960’s to the present there has been constant and increasing interest amongst inhabitants of the island, and spreading to the mainland of Australia, in conserving and protecting this region of wilderness as a world heritage site. Despite numerous efforts, business interests in mining and forestry have always held the upper sway and the government of Tasmania has ruled time and again against the protection of this gradually dwindling wilderness.

Gaining World Heritage Protection is a little like a beauty contest,

     where the given wilderness must appear unique throughout all of its dimensions. It is not the whole that is of significance, it has to be proven that the wilderness has a ‘national heritage value’ above and beyond the mere fact of it being amongst the last traces of wilderness in a tamed world. If the last existing Tasmanian tiger were to be discovered in the Tarkine there would be no doubt about cornering off a certain tract of land in which it might frolic away its terminal existence. But an entire eco-system, the likes of which are approaching their end of days in the world at large, that is less likely to get the judges vote. It is, of course, a farce. The discussion of heritage ‘value’ already alerts us to the predispositions and assumptions of the contest, placing wilderness into a world of valuation, where the raw material of nature has a determined use, price, cost, potential profit or loss. Surely no one is so credulous as to believe it is a question of beauty; there are far too many stakes involved to let a little aesthetic predilection sway the discussion. Of course, what is really being discussed here is the economic future of the wilderness, and though it is complex, the basic tenet is whether more profit is to be gained through the forests immediate annexation for its raw material, or whether it could be prostituted out over a longer period of time in the name of the eco-tourist industry. Now let’s not be naïve: any use of this land will cause it damage. The question is, how can we frame an argument for the wilderness as something without value, and therefore as something that can remain outside the market, and essentially, beyond the sovereignty of man?

But first, a summary description of what the Tarkine actually is:

     There is no doubt that its forests are beautiful, but then rusty reinforced steel can have its own particular beauty as well without our needing to put it in a museum. The difference is that a few rusty slabs of steel can be reproduced by the hand of man (though there is always the chance a woman would do it better), whereas a few thousand square kilometres of wilderness cannot only not be reconstructed by human technique, but nature itself struggles to recreate its equivalent even given hundreds of years; because a wilderness is not merely a work of nature, it is a living creation that alters the very workings of nature.
     The Tarkine contains the largest tract of cool temperate rainforest in Australia, but it is also largely undisturbed, flourishing for millennia without the intervention of European civilisation, which of its own is something extraordinary today. It was generated by times colder than these and now maintains an ecosystem so different to, so much wetter than the more common sclerrophyl forests of southern Australia. Like any rainforest, the Tarkine is composed of a canopy providing shelter from the harsh sunlight and trapping moisture, an understory, and a very important floor of detritus consisting of leaves, wood and bark decomposing and regenerating the soil by defusing it with oxygen. These broad categories of a rainforest not only serve one another, but they change the local weather conditions by creating a humid zone trapping water in the soil, enriching the soil and preventing both soil and water from running off into rivers. A rainforest creates its own environment, but it cannot be definitively estimated how long it takes to do so. We know that the rainforest found in the Tarkine is a remainder of a much larger rainforest that once covered the entire continent of Australia, dating back to the early Cenozoic period, some 60 million years ago, if not more. The Tarkine rainforest provides us with a rich abundance of fossils dating back to this period which tells us without doubt that this forest has been there for so long. 60 million years is a time scale the human mind cannot fathom. Are we really prepared to be held responsible for destroying something so far beyond our grasp?

However, the Tarkine is much more than rainforest:

     It has a highly varied vegetation, geology, geography and social history. It boasts one of the few archaeological sites of aboriginal settlement dating to the period preceding and during early European colonisation. Today it can also be argued that it has a peculiar significance as the object of a long-lasting social and political debate, spiralling into conflict, concerning the rise of the environment movement in Australia. The Tarkine has a geo-morphology unique throughout Australia, composed of the rare magnesite Karst formations. It has the most incredible variety of lichens, mosses and liverworts. It is home to some however many rare, threatened species. It provides a relatively safe home for a population of the increasingly threatened Tasmanian Devil. And it’s trees, it’s trees, they are so large it would take ten people to surround a single trunk… Ah, but we are back in the realm of the beauty contest, listing the wilderness’ easily applauded qualities.

The truth is, however, that it is only when the Tarkine is being appreciated for its aesthetic beauty that it is being considered not for its use-value, not as a means to wealth, but as an end in itself. This is where art, philosophy and nature coincide: their work is an end in itself. They allow us to contemplate universals, such as good, beauty, truth and justice. Of course, art and philosophy can both be bought, though purchase does not ensure understanding. They are however both works of the human mind, and therefore suffer the limitations imposed. A wilderness however, it works very differently. It is not there in order to be understood, there is no message conveyed. Like a slave it might be bought and sold, raped and put to use, but like the soul of a slave, something remains beyond our control; something that outlasts us, not one generation or two, but the human race itself. This beauty is not cosmetic. One might look at it, but can one ever know it? A changing thing, composed of millions of organisms, the wilderness is not beauty in any superficial sense: it is as much death, decay, fetid putrescence as it is birth, rebirth and becoming. If it is to be celebrated it is for these qualities, and the ongoing battle between life-giving forces and entropy. The beauty of the wilderness is awesome, fearful, Dionysian. In the words of Dylan Thomas;

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green agethat blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

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