Ruth Dawkins is a writer, editor and campaigner, originally from Scotland but now living in Tasmania with her husband and son. Ruth is now a columnist for The Island Review, and will be contributing to the site regularly.
You can find her blog here.
I was born on the Isle of Harris – about as far northwest in Scotland as you can go. You travel the island by single-track roads, lined on each side with sleeping ewes and their dancing lambs. It is a tight little community that still observes the Sabbath. Sundays are for resting, for passing pandrops along your pew in church, and maybe for a quiet walk up the back hill. Nothing else.
Thirty years on from that island childhood, I’ve made it to Tasmania, Australia’s only island state, south of Melbourne, shaped like a heart. There is no Sabbath here. Sunday is about filling your bag with fresh produce at the farmers’ market, then settling in for chicken wings and a pint at your local. With a landmass similar to Ireland, and a population equivalent to Edinburgh, it makes me laugh when people call Tasmania ‘small’.
But there is something about places at the edge of the world. For all the myriad differences, it’s the similarities that are more striking. I don’t feel like I’ve moved 10,000 miles across the globe, I’ve just sailed from one island to another. It has been a smooth transition, and after less than a year here I feel more settled than I ever thought possible.
Perhaps it’s because island inhabitants are tuned in to the rhythms of nature. There is that old joke, that the British always like to talk about the weather. But in maritime communities there’s no need for talk, because you can see the weather coming.
When you live on an island, the climate controls everything: whether the boats sail or the aircraft fly, whether the fishermen cast their nets or the farmers harvest their crops. If the conditions aren’t right for whatever you have planned, there’s nothing you can do about it. You get by with what you have until things change. That acceptance, that refusal to struggle against the hand that nature deals, leads to a happier and more relaxed pace of life.
It also leads to a stronger connection with the earth. There’s a real focus here in Tasmania on eating local, seasonal and organically grown foods. There is an ongoing dialogue about how to balance environmental responsibility with the need for people to make a living. Hobart is the winter port of the Aurora Australis – the great red icebreaker that takes scientists and supplies to Antarctica – and some of the most crucial research into climate change is happening at the university building on the waterfront.
Life on Tasmania, as it did on Harris, revolves around the harbour. As a child I used to sit with my Granny in the big window of her house overlooking the pier, and we would count how many cars came off the ferry from Skye. Now I walk my son to school, twenty minutes along the banks of the Derwent, and we watch the kayaks, the Sea Shepherd, the great tankers heading to the zinc works upriver. In summer we listen out for the honking horns of the cruise ships that dock for a few days and spill their ambling occupants onto the pavements of the city. They are welcome here, those visitors, and then they are gone.
Perhaps I like island life so much because there can be no secrets; because whether you have lived here for five months or five generations, people will take an interest in your story.
I was at a work dinner with my husband a few months ago, and the host asked us to say a few sentences to introduce ourselves. There were only ten of us around the table, but dessert had been served before those introductions were done. What a joy it was to hear people share anecdotes about their lives, offer well-informed views on local news, and discover previously unknown friends or places in common. I love those connections. I feel more aware of them here than ever before.
The honesty and the straightforward nature of conversation here is a delight. After two years in London, where people stare at their feet to avoid eye-contact with a stranger, it came as a shock the first time I got on a Hobart bus and the wee lady beside me wanted to chat. I raised an eyebrow when the man delivering my newly cleaned rugs wanted to know how much we paid for our house. But it’s refreshingly simple to live in a place where the availability of everything, from the driest firewood to the freshest fish, depends on a nod and a wink from someone you know.
Hobart is the most colourful place I have ever lived. The lack of air pollution means there is a vibrancy that makes everything pop. Whether it’s a trick of the light or a state of mind, everything here just seems ‘more’. The clouds are wispier, or fluffier, or more ominous. The wine tastes fuller, or softer, or fruitier as you swirl it around your mouth. The cherries are fatter and brighter, and every crunch of an apple is sharper than the one before.
Harris is the island that I know best in the world. I can walk around it and show you the steps where I drank whisky from the bottle with my oldest friend. I know which stone in the Scott Road Bridge shoogles around when you sit on it, and I can tell you what time to leave the house if you want to catch the ferry without queuing. It takes time to know those things, to build those memories, to tune into the rhythms of a place.
Tasmania is the island that I’m just starting to explore. I know, now, that when you wait by Bus Stop 4 you can hear the music students practice in the conservatorium, their graceful notes drifting out of an open window. When I step outside to stand on my porch at night, I’m learning to look for the Southern Cross instead of the North Star. But the rest I’m still learning.
An island is an intentional place. You can't end up living on Tasmania by accident. You must truly want to be here. And once you are here, you need to be patient. You need to understand that although you fell in love with this land of rainbows just five minutes after you stepped off the plane, it will take time and effort for you to be loved in return.
I am happy to wait. My clock is set to island time, and my glass is full of island wine. There is no hurry. I am home.