Tristan Stuart

Tristan Stuart is a photographer and social researcher. He has undertaken projects in both Australia and overseas on social and environmental issues. Some of his projects have looked at the conditions of slum life in India, and threatened wilderness areas in Tasmania. His professional publications include work on homelessness, the emergence of underwater societies, and the role of the camera as a tool for social research. Currently Tristan is dedicating his time to photographically capturing some of the wild and beautiful wilderness areas in Tasmania threatened through climate change and modernisation. He's online at:

The Forgotten Whispers of an Ancient Forest

In late winter months, as the final snows melted from mountaintops, a dear friend and myself set out on a fieldtrip to a forest reserve known as the Upper Florentine. We sought to explore the deepest and untracked parts of the forest on a two-day journey. It was along the blood-red waters of archaic rivers, and under the canopy of some of the tallest trees on earth, that we became witnesses to the voice of an ancient forest, in an unexplainable event that transformed our understanding of nature.

Our Trip Plan & Party

Before leaving for the forest, I was in contact with several protesters who had defended the region from logging in the past. They described the geography of the Upper Florentine Valley, and told me of a track built by protesters that led to a deeper untracked area beyond the initial protest site. They said we would need to climb a hill out of the first forest, and descend its backside to reach the forest beyond. “If you do decide to go there, be careful, while it’s a magical place it’s quite scary, and has an unwelcoming feel”, one of them warned.

So our plan was set. On the first day of our trip, we’d explore the main protester forest, climb the hill, and set up camp on the other side. On the second day we’d explore the untracked forest beyond, before making our way home.

Our two-men party consisted of myself, a burnt-out academic, and my long-term friend Joseph, a man of deep religious faith. Barely a day would pass when in each other’s company without drawn out theological debates, in which my sceptical nature and his religious beliefs would butt heads. While Joseph was a Christian, our debates explored the Tibetan book of Living and Dying, the Hindus’ Bhagavad Gita, journeys of Buddha, influence of Hermeticism, and of course, the role of science and religion in contemporary society.  Debates would usually involve me spinning logic and rationalism into each comment and Joseph shedding such ‘sterility’, as he referred to it, with the beauty of spiritualism.

Our contradictory and unusual friendship worked due to my complete detachment to all view, and Josephs’ complete attachment to his views. I saw no argument as perfect, and felt no offence or pride in losing or winning them, while Joseph’s unshakable faith left him immune to self-doubt and free from religious ridicule. While we were worlds apart in our approach to life, we were equally enthralled by our appreciation of nature.

And so our party of two set out, one a sceptical burnt-out academic, the other a faithful theologian unshakable in his beliefs, into the ancient Upper Florentine Forest.

Remnants of Conflict

Two hours drive from Hobart, and we start out by exploring the abandoned protester camp located next to the Upper Florentine road. Remnants of conflict are everywhere. Several trenches are cut into the gravel, tree walls are built to block trucks, and, most inventive of all, a toilet is dug into the road. We also find the burnt embers of what was once the main camp building, which had mysteriously burnt down during major conflicts.

After a short exploration we head into the forest, following a track called Lungs of The Land. The forest is coloured in rich greens, and golden light sifts through the dense canopy overhead. The air is thick with moisture and a fog floats gently on the forest floor. Leaves drip water steadily onto the soft soil underfoot. Navigating our way along the ethereal pathway we pass complex tangles of myrtle, wattle and eucalypt. At the pathway’s end, we see Buddhist prayer flags hanging between three giant trees. I had heard that they were often hung in the hopes of protecting trees that protesters built special connections to. I remember an old conversation I had with a tree-sitter,

“Some trees just give you the feeling they refuse to be cut down. Then after the area has been logged I would often return to see all the destruction, and those strange trees that seemed to have a personality are still standing. The only trees left in a field of thousands”. I never forgot the comment. My sceptical mind couldn’t wrap itself around the idea of trees with personalities and intentions.

Looking up at the flags, Joseph says, “Perhaps protesters are more sensitive to the flows of energy in nature. Maybe by living in the forest they are tuned into trees in a way that we aren’t?”

“Communicating trees sounds a bit too pagan for me”, I respond. “But I can appreciate their connection to the place. It is incredibly beautiful.” We both agree that the name of the track is unusual in that it captures so accurately the ‘feeling’ of the place. ‘Lungs of the land’ – was the name coincidental, scientific, or had the protesters felt some strange breathing sensation in this section of the forest, as Joseph seemed to think he felt, and as I tried to deny I did?

As we pass the flags the forest around us begins to slip away into the distance and plains of buttongrass open before us. We start climbing the hill and the late afternoon sun laces waves of heat upon us. It is as if we had crossed some kind of threshold. As we continue over the hilltop, and down the other side, the sun reaches below, touching the horizon, and with its descent, we too begin ours, into the deeper, denser, and darker forest beyond…

Crossing the Threshold of the Familiar

The further we descend the hill, the thicker and more swamp-like our surroundings. Leeches appear, swarms of little black snakes parachuting from tree branches and slinking along the ground to our warm bodies. The track shrinks into a small trail, easily lost in the fading light, but we reach our campsite next to a river bordering the forest as the sun’s last light disappears behind the horizon.

After setting up camp we take a quick trip down to the water to fill our bottles. A deep blood red water runs between its banks. As I reach down dipping my hands into the red water to take a sip, Joseph turns to me and says, “It’s ironic that the water is blood coloured”.

“Why is that?”, I ask.

“In a way this is a land of blood. The forests have been logged, rivers have been damned, and the last Tasmanian Tigers were killed here.”

It is strange, I think, as we return to camp.

Joseph plops down at the tent doorway and starts unbuckling his shoes to discover several lines of blood running down his legs. Each line leads to a fat black leech gorging itself. “I’ve never seen so many of them!”, he says, while pulling another off his neck. We return them to the ground, a little less hungry, and tuck into our sleeping bags. I look out the small tent window across the river at the dark forest beyond as sleep slowly washes over me.

My dreams are haunted. In one, I’m standing on a lone mound in a forest. Something feels wrong. I look down to see my feet transform into tree trunks. Wood and moss grow over my skin as my body morphs into a giant myrtle. A bang sounds, and my consciousness shoots out of the tree. I levitate into the stars, leaving the earth behind, picking up speed as I go. Faster and faster I travel. Around me the universe is forming and decaying like the ebb and flow of tides. Abruptly my speeding consciousness stops at what seems to be the edge of the universe. A giant flora god with infinitely long vibrant green tentacles, reaching outwards into the blackness beyond, floats before me. I hear whispers but can’t quite make them out. One tentacle moves forward to touch me, its massive form like an avalanche crashes over me, and I am thrown from the dream.

I jolt up, sitting in the tent, covered in sweat and feeling as though sleep hasn’t come at all. For a moment my body feels as though it has travelled a million miles. I still hear slight whisperings, something about the future perhaps? The world momentarily seems less real than the dream, as I shake off my drowsiness. I turn to Joseph who is talking in mumbled sentences, rocking erratically from one side to the other. I crawl deeper into my sleeping bag, and fall back asleep.

We wake with the rising sun and set out. As we enter the forest we’re surrounded by incredibly green moss. Thick beds of it cover every surface. The forest is much darker than the one we walked through, the canopy much denser, and only a little light trickles. I look down to my compass and take a bearing off a tree a few hundred meters in front. We walk to that tree and take another bearing in the same way. Without significant landmarks to guide us, this straightforward technique allows us to track an easy route through the forest. So we continue on deeper into the forest, following the humble direction of our compass’s needle.

Suddenly the ground around us sinks and we realise we’ve walked into a marsh. Surfaces appear safe to step on, only to discover that by doing so the earth gobbles up our legs to the waist. As I stumble out of one bog, I step forward sinking further into another. I reach out to Joseph who takes my hand and pulls me free. After sloshing through the bog for some time we discover a small dry clearing and decide to take a short break. As I’m scraping the mud from my legs Joseph mentions how unusually quiet the forest is. I stop scraping and we both sit in silence listening to the sound of… nothing. No rustling of animals, or bird calls, not even a wind blowing in the canopy above. “Let’s keep moving”, Joseph decides, picking up his pack.

We’re happy to leave the marsh behind as we continue on more stable ground. Small mounds rise from the ground around us, and atop one a particularly unique looking lone myrtle grows. We climb up to its base and are shocked to discover a hole around a metre wide beneath its’ roots. “It’s a cave!”, we simultaneously state in excitement. Joseph takes out his torch and shines its light into the hole – “It goes deep”.



We crawl in and slide a few metres down the muddy entrance. The torch light illuminates a small room-sized cavity. Water drips from the ceiling and huge hand-sized spiders crawl around the walls. A thick heavy earthly smell fills the cave. It branches off into three different directions. The first two are only several meters long and lead to dead ends, but the third wraps around to our right twisting further and deeper into the earth below, like a corkscrew. We slowly move around the twisting descent, as the entrance light disappears behind us until a huge spider web covers the way from floor to wall. Several massive spiders sit on the web decorating it in different parts, like guardians blocking the passage. “I guess that’s as far as we go”, I say to Joseph.

Then all of a sudden, as we’re staring into the spider’s web, the torch starts flickering on and off, and the cave shifts from dark to light. We are uncertain if it is broken, or if the battery is going flat, so we quickly scramble for the entrance. Clawing our way out of the black hole, up the steep muddy entrance. Joseph turns to me, “Gosh that was freaky”.

Then something happens that neither of us can explain. In the midst of oppressive silence, we both hear a strange gurgling wind swept noise that seems to come from the forest canopy and the cave entrance at the same time. It almost has a language to it – undecipherable and lingering. I quickly scan around the forest trying to confirm there is nothing there.

“Did you hear that?”, Joseph asks. Looking at Joseph, I can see he is struggling with the reality of what is occurring – panic riddles his frozen face. As we stand back-to-back, one looking down the hole, the other out towards the forest, the breeze grows stronger, shaking the Myrtle’s leaves as it sweeps through the forest. The guttural noise seems to take form, that of a shriek. It sounds primal, beastly, and non-human, but words become distinguishable…“GEEET OOOUUT!”

Escape!

We run. We run as fast as we’ve ever ran, running through the bog we crossed earlier, eyes frantically looking down upon the compass while dodging trees as we go. We keep running until we reach the Florentine River. Puffing and panting, covered in mud and soaking wet, we continue on, walking rapidly over the hill and back to the first forest. My brain wracks itself as my heart is almost pounding out of my chest. What the hell is going on, I keep repeating inside my head. Neither of us speaks until we pass the prayer flags from the first forest, and the ambiance seems calmer. Our voices recovered, we flit from one possibility to another. Is it madness, inherent fear of nature, effects of a sleepless night, God, shock, just plain noises, or perhaps a depth and intelligence of an animate nature forgotten? Is it time to reincarnate the resting idea of a green mother?

Finally, we reach the car, and make for home…

 

Alone in the Storm

“I finally make it back to the pack at the bottom of the trail just as the storm rolls over my head. The day turns dark as the heavy cloud sets in. Only moments later the darkness turns a heavenly white. The mountain sings a loud song of sharp winds, and heavy snow.”

A NIGHT OF RAIN AND RUIN

It is the middle of the week and I’ve managed to acquire a few day off work. Winter is coming to an end and the sun has risen its’ head from what seemed like a long hibernation behind rain clouds. I can’t think of anything better to do than head for the mountains. I plan a one night trip to back of Mt. Field, following the Tarn Shelf on the first day, and on the second taking the back route up the Newdegate Pass, then over the Ranges and back home. It wasn’t long before I realised things were not going to happen as I planned.

I start the first day with a quick stop at the various waterfalls in the Mt. Field National Park, before making my way up to the mountain for an early afternoon start. Small pockets of snow cover the famous lakes at Tarn Shelf. The day goes by relatively quick. Soft winds and a gentle sun accompany me along the Shelf as I take various photographs. As the day comes to an end, I get excited about setting up camp, as I have brought a new tent to try. Just as I finish constructing the frame, clouds crest the ranges and rain starts falling. I crawl into my sleeping bag, but as the night sets in I feel small drops of moisture fall onto my face. The moisture building up in the tent makes it feels as though it’s raining inside as much as out. “This is the last time I ever take an untested tent into the wilderness”, I think to myself as the rain starts leaking through the seams.

THE WHITE SONG OF THE MOUNTAIN

As is common to the Tasmanian climate, and most certainly to the highlands, the promise of a sunny day is a fool’s dream. Light snow starts to fall as I set out early for the Newdegate Pass. “At least it’s not rain”, I tell myself, “a few quick photos and I’ll be around the back, over the top, and descending to the car park in no time”. Unfortunately, like many photographers I’m often incredibly bad with time when  I come upon a scene worth capturing. After spending some time taking photos on the highlands I come across the formation know as the The Watcher. This collection of rocks, like giant toothpicks protruding out of the earth, stands tall above the flat highlands. In my mind’s eye I can already see the amazing photograph from the top of those giant toothpicks. The day is getting late, but I cannot let the opportunity pass.

I drop my hiking pack at the bottom of the trail up to The Watcher and start climbing with my camera gear. Weaving in and out of the cracks and crevices along the path, I scramble atop the final rock to a view that shocks me. It doesn’t shock me because of its beauty, but for two reasons I didn’t foresee. The first is that rather than the magnificent view I had envisioned, a long valley of logged forests confronts me. This valley is hidden away from prying eyes, tucked behind the thin veil of the National Park’s boundary. The second unforeseen reason is that an ominous storm of thick dark clouds is thundering towards me. A slight panic seeps into my body. “Still time for the shot”, I tell myself. I quickly pull out the tripod, look for the best angle I can find, and start fumbling for the camera. Click, click, click. “Quickly pack the tripod up, don’t drop your camera, careful on the rocks”, I mumble away. It’s funny how we often talk to ourselves in moments of panic. As if a voice spoken aloud could somehow protect us from the inevitable disaster. “I should have bought a better coat”, I tell myself.

I finally make it back to the pack at the bottom of the trail just as the storm rolls over my head. The day turns dark as the heavy cloud sets in. Only moments later the darkness turns a heavenly white. The mountain sings a loud song of sharp winds, and heavy snow. The ground is covered white with fallen snow, the track hidden beneath. The cloud is so thick I cannot see more than ten metres in front of my position. Soft light from the vanishing sun reflects a white hue in all directions. The only way I can describe it is to imagine yourself in a purely white room full of fog, a freezing white room. Mountaineers know it as a ‘whiteout’. These storms are near impossible to navigate through. I realise I will be stuck here for a second night, unless by some miracle the storm clears. Of course, no miracle occurs.

I consider my options. Should I setup my soaking wet tent? The idea doesn’t seem very promising; I don’t like the thought of being a frozen popsicle in a leaking tent again. I open the map and carefully consider my position. I notice an emergency hut around two kilometres away and decide it’s the best choice. Luckily, I had a compass with me. Attempting to move one kilometre in a whiteout without one is the stuff of disasters. I triangulate my exact position off The Watcher I had descended, and the track I followed, and take a bearing for the hut.

After two hours of very slow and careful navigation, I sit down on one of the wooden benches inside the hut and start boiling a cup of tea to get some warmth into my frozen form.

LONELY AND FREEZING

It’s amazing how quickly confidence can shrivel to loneliness and fear in moments of isolation-  when the body is cold, and the hands are bright pinkish purple. It’s 3:00 AM and only small pockets of sleep have come and gone. The mountain still sings its song of white outside the small hut. I keep my hands tucked into my groin trying desperately to warm them. My sleeping bag isn’t doing the job it’s theoretically capable of because it is still wet from the previous night. Pulling myself out the sleeping bag, I decided a warm cup of tea will help the chill, and having a task to perform will shift my mind away from lonely thoughts. The hot tea invigorates my body from the inside, and a few nuts provide some energy for the coming walk. “When the sun rises, I’m walking over this mountain”, I tell myself. I look out the small window and ask the mountain to be kind tomorrow before falling back to sleep.

It’s 9:30 AM. I’ve managed another hour of sleep here and there and decided the time has come to trek over the Range. As I open the door of the hut a wall of snow confronts me! A small gap the width of my hand remains clear at the top of the doorway. “Drat”, I think to myself, “this is going to be a long trek”. After shoveling an escape hole, I start my ascent for the peak. The weather has cleared a little and I can feel a slight warmth from the light glow of sun through the still thick cloud cover. At least the snow has stopped falling and the wind has died down somewhat. It doesn’t make the walk much easier. Each step I take is grueling, and the snow comes to just below my waist. The track is largely invisible, and every few hundred metres I fall down into some unseen crack between the rocks. Each fall drains my energy and spirit, nonetheless, I am committed and forward is the only direction I’m moving in. As I continue the ascent, I enter the cloud line, and find myself in that white reflective room once more.

A few hours of painfully slow movement pass until I enter what appears like a den or oblong colosseum. Tall rock walls surround me. The snow grows deeper, coming above my waist. The cloud is so thick and close to my head I can reach up and scoop it from the sky into my hand for a fleeting moment before it dissipates. It’s like a white blanket floating atop my head. I must be high on the peak of the mountain and deep in the cloud. For a small moment the wind silences itself to a whisper. “It’s beautiful”, I think to myself. I want to unpack my camera and take a photo, but something stops me. I don’t know what it is exactly, the cold metal camera body and the pain I know it will bring to my fingers? Perhaps it’s the fear of being stuck here longer? I sit silently for a moment taking solace in the peace, and building energy for the final push. I leave my camera packed. Some images are meant to remain uncaptured. It’s as if nature had offered her most beautiful side when she knew I could not capture her. Or perhaps a moment of peace was my reward for reaching the peak of the mountain?

By my calculations, I am around three quarters through the range. I’ve developed a love affair with my compass and the occasional orange trail markers that poke out from beneath the snow. These little orange caps  atop pole are like small dots of relief and joy, and each one give me faith in my bearings. I go half an hour without finding one and my spirit grows heavier. Doubt enters my mind. I recheck my bearing, retrace my footprints, modify my bearing by a few degrees and set out again. Another marker! I am hopeful once more until too much time passes between markers and my hope fades.

This dance of hope and worry drags on until I notice something. “Am I descending?” The cloud seems lighter, my vision stretches a little further, when suddenly, an ecstatic joy fills my body as I breach the cloud line and my visibility returns. I can see the way out below. A flat layer of snow hugs the walking track. I yell thankfully into the mountain pass.

THE DANCE OF SPEED AND SLOWNESS

As I’m driving out of the National Park I reflect on the fact that in mere moments, I have travelled further than I was able to walk in three days. Hot air blasts from the heater as the car engine warms up. My frozen feet start to thaw and a tingling sensation runs through my hands as heat returns to them. My backside is finally comfortable on the cushioned seat, and my face untouched by the heavy wind, encased in the security of the glass and steel car. It’s amazing how far technology has brought us, and the subtle comforts it offers. But as I sit there thawing out comfortably, with kilometres speeding by in moments, I cannot help but feel a sense of loss and disconnection from something deep inside myself.

Some kind of inner primal self calls back to the mountain. It longs for the adventure once again. It is as if the mountain took a piece of me, or perhaps as if something inside me can only be uncovered when walking slowly across the land. In that slow walk I was connected to each and every bend and corner, to every stream that I drink from, to every hill that I climb. The warm comfort of my car seems sterile and lifeless in comparison. I have flashes of the logged landscape when sitting on The Watcher. I look out at the forest around me and wonder if it also is just another thin veil over a hidden and devastated wilderness? The speed of the car keeps me ignorant of such matters. I think of the moment when I was struck by the beauty of nature in the throes of the storm atop the mountain, and how in the slowness of walking I was more connected to the changes and movements of nature. Moving with such speed seems to make me a disconnected observer, rather than a sensing, and feeling participant. The speed of modern living has locked us away from the elegance of nature, which reveals itself only to those with patience and sensitivity to its subtle changes. Thoughts of how the speed of modern living have changed our connection to the land, and politics of nature, haunt my thoughts as I drive home.