Tasweeekend magazine, Saturday Mercury, September 2017
Walking to work each day I’d look up at kunanyi/Mt Wellington towering above me and long to be up there, exploring rainforest and ravine, woodland and waterfall.
Work as a journalist always got in the way, the priorities of typeface over rockface, and I would have to wait for retirement to realise a long-cherished dream of visiting the mountain daily for an entire year, recording the seasons in my shorthand notebook.
In all those moments of dreaming, of making plans as I trudged as Shakespeare would say, “like snail” down Macquarie Street in Hobart, I didn’t realise that something else loomed in front of me. The mountain, “The Shy Mountain” of the book I eventually came to write, would become a metaphor for retirement itself.
The mountain viewed from the city, the early-morning pastel sun bringing a smile to her face, can appear friendly and welcoming, an escape from the rigours of the day, the rigours of a 50-year working life. But hidden dangers can lurk there, as with retirement. Crossing from sunshine into shadow, one can suddenly feel alone and bereft; both mountain and retirement can be a challenge unforeseen.
“Beware of what you wish for,’’ my friends had warned me, when I told them of my plans to divorce myself from my old life down in the city and go in search of every bird species listed on the mountain’s avian checklist.
I didn’t realise it at the time that this very interest in birds, and a desire to expand my knowledge into the wider sphere of natural history, would give me an outlet in which to funnel all the energy I had previously devoted to my career.
Conversely, instead of just expanding my knowledge about bird behaviour, I discovered the sometimes troubled natural history of my own tribe, the baby-boomer.
I was fortunate in that my transition to retirement – to use the jargon of the pension industry – I had been the “On the Wing” columnist on birds in the Hobart Mercury’s Tasweekend magazine. To this day the column not only keeps me in touch with the twin passion of my life beyond wildlife, newspaper journalism, but the journalists, my old colleagues still practising the craft.
Visiting the Mercury watering holes from time to time I don’t feel like an outsider, a hack past his sell-by date struggling to keep up with the news and gossip
It was a scenario I had seen so many times before in my half century in journalism; the retiree who can’t let the workplace, and the camaraderie that goes with it, go.
The baby-boomers are unusual in the social history of working people in that so many have retired, or are coming up for retirement, at the same time. It gives these retirees the chance to compare notes, or to create social structures beyond old folk’s clubs to occupy themselves. The men’s sheds are a good example of this, and I wonder if there has ever been a need for such an organisation in the past.
I’ve never been very practical or handy with tools so joining in a men’s shed might have proven dangerous to myself and my new colleagues. The mountain called to me, however, and beyond my passion for birdwatching and a target to see all the species listed on the mountain checklist I learned about tree and plants, orchids and fungi, and butterflies, spiders and other insects.
In this I was grateful for the Hobart Council’s Bush Adventures program, which took me not just up the mountain but to other places across the city with natural values. And on my hikes on the mountain trails I also met fellow retirees, and learned of lives lived, and those to still be lived in retirement.
And my book? What started out as a diary, possibly merely to provide research for my bird columns, became an all-absorbing passion. It was intended to be about wildlife but the year I chose to compile it – covering the natural calendar from the start of winter 2012 to autumn 2013 – proved to be significant in the political history of the mountain. During this period the Mount Wellington Management Trust lost its power of veto over development on the peak.
That move was followed by the establishment of a development zone at the summit, and then earlier this year the announcement by the Liberal Government of its intention to take control of this area out of the hands of the Hobart Council.
It means controversial plans for a cable car can take shape, a proposal which no doubt will face fierce protest from those who want the mountain to stay free of development beyond what is already there.
I’ve tried to stand on the sidelines, letting Mother Nature, or Mother Mountain as I term kunanyi/Mt Wellington, speak for herself.
And in this regard, studying books on botany when I’m not on the mountain itself, I’m grateful that the mountain has largely given me an excuse not to drift into town, and bore young reporters at the Mercury with stories from my days as a war correspondent in Africa.
Around the time I retired on my 65th birthday, I telephoned my best friend in Britain, an Australian who by coincidence was born three days after me, to see how he was going.
Like me, he had spent is life in journalism, in the past 20 years as an internationally known television reporter. Wars in Africa and Europe, postings to Moscow and Beijing behind him, he did not have any interests to sustain him in this transition to a new life.
When I phoned him on his birthday, his wife informed me he was not there: he was on a train travelling to a rehabilitation clinic for alcoholics.