Birds are our living link with the past and when I follow in the footsteps of the Victorian artist John Glover on a favourite track on Knocklofty above Hobart I think of the honeyeaters, the robins and flycatchers serenading him as he went on his way.
The last time I walked the track the black-headed honeyeaters were in full voice – as they would have been in Glover’s time – and their piping calls rang through the canopy of wattle and gum on what is officially known as the Glover Track.
I always join the track at mid-point, when it links with another to the main Knocklofty Reserve car park, so I had not in the past had a chance to read all the interpretive signs that tell of Glover’s life, and work, in Hobart. I put that to rights one morning by parking for a change at the end of Poets Rd in West Hobart where the Glover Track starts.
It was not just the black-headed honeyeaters calling and singing on this fine autumnal morning. The summer migrants I had seen and heard in previous weeks might have left for the mainland but yellow-throated honeyeaters, grey shrike-thrushes, scarlet robins and grey flycatchers could still seen and heard.
Nothing would have changed in the 173 years since Glover entered the Salvator Rosa Glen above West Hobart, to climb to the spot where he painted his famous painting of what was then known as Hobart Town, as seen from the slopes of Knocklofty, then called Woodman’s Hill, because of the large amount of firewood and building material it supplied.
The information panel at Poets Rd told me that if I had been standing at this spot in the summer of 1831 I would have seen a “solidly built Englishman in his mid-60s heading off uphill, lugging an easel, canvas, brushes and oil paints”.
Glover had just arrived in Tasmania and on this mission he produced one of Tasmania’s earliest paintings.
As another information panel looking out over the vista explains, Glover had written on the work of art – which now hangs in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery – that it was “painted on the spot”.
It was not just art I was interested in, however, but the birds and Glover’s place among them. The first Tasmanians, the Aborigines who came to these lands 40,000 yeas ago, would have heard the same birds and even given their own names to them. The native-hen, for instance, was called the Triabunna. And the honeyeaters, yellow wattlebirds, magpies and butcherbirds would have been witness the comings and goings of Aboriginal hunting parties, to Aboriginal clan wars, to the first explorer’s ships arriving, to black-white wars and the settlers who initially were to cut down the forests.
One bird I saw on Knocklofty this day, the dusky robin, was even called the “stump robin” by the pioneers because it perched on the remains of the gums which had been cleared. The robin used the stumps to pounce on insects disturbed in the tree-felling process, and it became a friend to the woodcutters, as the robin in Britain displays a familiar and friendly presence in gardens.
Glover’s painting from Knocklofty actually shows a rather denuded landscape, with the fledging Hobart Town viewed through a rocky cutting with a charred and dead gum tree.
The Friends of the Knocklofty Reserve have replanted much of the forest under their care and they now appear as they were before the Europeans cut them down, so much so that the view of Hobart from Glover’s spot is obscured by new growth. And from these trees the black-headed honeyeaters call, as I hope they will for future generations of Hobartians.