Among the Willows and Wild Things,
the Fingal Valley nature diary of a young girl in the 1930s
edited by Margaretta Pos.
Reviewed September 14, 2018
In the 1930s schoolgirl Ann Page set out to explore the “beautiful unknown” of the Fingal Valley and eighty years on her daughter, Margaretta Pos, gives us the chance to join her on her adventures. Ann had a nature diary in mind but what she produced was a stunning portrait of the valley, in all its beauty, in all its seasons; in all its hardship. Wind and rain, and drought and depression. All those years ago, Ann could not have known that her extensive writings would not only record the wildlife of time and place, but become a vital social history of life in rural Tasmania between the two great wars.
The diary had its genesis in contributions she made to Little Folks; The Boys’ and Girls’ Magazine, published in London from1871 to 1933, and over time it evolved to become a true life “Girl’s Own” adventure tale befitting a child of empire. Ann rides her trusty and sturdy steed Valiant across paddock and moor, through forest and mountain glen, across shallow streams feeding rivers “slipping silently” towards the ocean. All the while the “brooding” Ben Lomond, its ramparts sometimes in purple, sometimes in pink hues, watches over her progress.
The diary is illustrated by Sabina Gillett and edited by Pos, who applies a soft touch, just clarifying specific names of birds, animals and plants that might not be clear. References to badgers, for instance, have wombat in parenthesis.
Ann’s words retain a sense of wonder at what she saw around her. Moved by the beauty of a foggy day, she writes: “A heavy fog hung over us until after 10, then it suddenly rolled back in great white banks, leaving a brilliant world behind.”
At the same time life in the country could be brutal. Ann does not shy away from its realities. She writes of trappers digging out a “badger” from an earth “pungent and damp with fern roots”.
“At last they caught him and, before we could say a word, killed him. I have never seen a sweeter animal, broad, fat and thick set, with a smiling, honest, kind little face, and he was flung back, dead, into his own little home. It was very sad.”
Ann also notes the impact of land-clearing on the local forests in the Fingal Valley. The site of such destruction a “rather desolate place with a sprinkling of stark, ring-barked trees and blackened stumps…”
Ann’s diaries are based on her excursions from the rural property she grew up on, Frodsley, on the Break of Day River between Fingal and St Mary’s. Although mostly home schooled, she went away to school in Hobart at one point and so was in a position to compare city life in her dairy with that of the country: “The smell of gums in the heat, of soil and grass in the wet, of horse, of wild flowers and – in town – petrol!”
Ann is also aware of the economic realities of life in the country in the 1930s. She devotes an entry to the forced sale of a property owned by farmer Billy Norcutt: “Cook [a shepherd from Frodsley, with whom she often went riding] has ridden out over the hills to Billy’s little, sequestered farm to help him put his things in order. It must be sad for the poor old man, who has lived there for so long, to have to leave his sheep and cows, his many ponies and flocks of goats, his pigs and poultry, and all his other belongings. Tonight will be his last at his home. Tomorrow, strangers will overrun his home and wrangle over the price of all his old animal friends.”
Ann described the Fingal Valley as the most beautiful place on earth and clearly was inspired to put pen to paper to describe it, to share her experiences and to have a lasting memory in the written records of her childhood. As she wrote, “The spring is so pretty and soft and delicate, I wish I could do it justice in writing it down, so that I could recognise these little pictures of life.” The diary not only gave Ann memories to treasure, Pos’ determination to bring them to public attention gives us a portal to a world that has vanished.