THIS IS A STORY of redemption and change. It concerns a long-time friend and it starts with her on an aircraft returning to Australia after several years living in China. There, she had worked initially as an English language teacher and latterly in journalism on an English language publication. That was quickly being put behind her as the aircrafy droned on southward.
She realised there wasn’t all that much left for her in Sydney, where she lived before going to China. Ties of the heart there had long ago dissolved and her children were now independent—one or two had stayed with her in Beijing for varying periods. So, why not follow some of her friends who had made the trans-Bass Strait leap and were now living in Australia’s southernmost state—Tasmania?
She had been there before, long ago, but for only short visits. Once—it was decades ago now, she remembered—she had gone there to pick apples with her sister. The two of them had simply decided going would be a good idea, so they abruptly left the share house they lived in in Woolloomooloo, packed a bag each and caught a flight south. That was something of a working holiday, a youthful adventure to a place unknown, and for her sister it proved a live-altering event.
It was quite some time after that—around a decade later, maybe—that she returned to Tasmania, once to visit me in Hobart, and on another occasion with her partner of the time and their young child. I still remember the photo of them standing by the Pedder hydroelectric impoundment on some desolate, button grass covered hillock with the broad, blue-grey waters of the lake in the background and, way beyond, the jagged ranges of the South West. I recall looking at the three of them in the photo, thinking that they seemed happy living in Sydney while here I was in Tasmania (also quite happy), and then recalling how my gaze moved to those ranges where seemingly so long ago I had walked and scrambled on the rough dolerite and sharp quartzite and braved weather blazingly hot and blizzardly cold.
City of the south
Surprising is how the news of her impending move to Launceston grabbed me. I had always thought of Yvonne as a big city girl and so Hobart would have made more sense had it not been for the presence of friends she—and I—had known for a long time who had settled in that city.
Launceston… it’s a pleasant little city of around 70,000 (the population has fluctuated little over the past 40 years) that stretches north from the CBD along the banks of the Tamar. Follow the Tamar Valley through Exeter, past vineyard and village and eventually you get to the shores of Bass Strait at Greens Beach. The city sprawls southward too, into the grasslands that lead towards the farms of the Midlands. Eastward the suburbs sputter out beyond Waverley where bushland commences, and westwards the houses climb the steep ridge to West Launceston. It was here that Yvonne would settle, right on the edge of the ridge with a fine view eastwards over the city to the country beyond and, on clear days, all the way to distant Ben Lomond on the horizon. This is the city’s ski field, mediocre by mainland standards I know but a place where I have a memory of carving sweeping telemark turns on touring skis.
And this is where the change I mentioned comes in. When she arrived in the city Yvonne did some part time writing for a local publication, but it seemed her days of journalism had really been left in Beijing for she qickly returned to cooking, her previous livelihood, and she has been there ever since, now running her own small catering business, Yvonne’s Kitchen. And now, one of her children, well and truly grown up, is following in her culinary footsteps.
The first time I visited Yvonne here I had been flown down from Sydney for an interview for a communications job with the local council. Yvonne had invited me to stay at her house. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived there, driving slowly along the gravel lane. She parked, we got out and I looked around and… yes, it was those trees… there was something different about this place.
We stood amid a small forest of apple and pear trees and, looking into the backyard of the neighbouring house, I saw that it held even more than Yvonne had around her place. She told me how this West Launceston ridge had, decades ago, been orchards but most had been cleared to make way for suburbanisation. All that remained were in Yvonne’s and her neighbour’s backyard.
Many of them appeared to be small apples, much like crab apple, though I have no expertise in apples so they could have been anything. There were pears, too, and a plum over the neighbour’s fence. How fortunate not to have fruit fly, I thought, and to be able to grow stone fruit free of infestation by their larvae.
In the years since she moved in Yvonne had undergone something of a meteporphosis—more of that change I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Not only has she changed from a big to a small city girl and from a livelihood writing to one of cooking, she has gone—and I would have thought this very, very unlikely—organic, more or less. You can see that this was something of a shock to me. The reality started to dawn on me when she told me to follow her outside to look at her vegetable garden. There it was, the work of a New Zealand WWOOFER (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), a landscape designer, apparently.
It didn’t stop there. Not all that long after the vegetable garden came the chooks. These she proudly shows visitors and she demonstrates how she has taught one of them to obey commands, doglike, shouting at it to “sit”. This it seems to do most of the time but I think the reality has more to do with the natural inclination of chooks to crouch in expectation of being picked up, and even, dare I say, it might have to do with verbal intimidation. She has maybe eight birds of mixed type accommodated in a substantial chook house that, over the entrance, bears the name of Cluckingham Palace.
Kitchen as habitat
If Yvonne has a natural habitat it is the kitchen. She has always cooked and she continues that tradition. I’m not talking about cooking at her small catering business, Yvonne’s Kitchen, but at home too. In this she involves the Asian students she accommodates during their study time in Tasmania… the house is always a buzz of people who frequently seem to be involved in preparing food.
Then there’s the preserves. I’m still working my way through a jar of Quamby plum jam, Quamby being the name she brands her home-mades with, and there is often a bunch of similar jars filled with sweet jams and other goodies on her kitchen work bench, according to season. It’s then that the kitchen is churn of people peeling, stirring and Yvonne giving orders about what to do, when and how to do it.
Some of the fruit that goes into those jam jars comes from the trees in the garden. In using them Yvonne retains the remnant orchard as a productive landscape on this high ridge above the city. Here, it’s garden-to-kitchen and it’s best to visit Yvonne at the end of the fruiting season if you want some tasty take-aways.
Change to redemption
It’s good to see the changes that have come to Yvonne for now she has settled in a city of her choice and found a rather busy livelihood that fits well her usually busy—maybe I should say hectic at times—mode of living. She’s a high energy woman, this one. It’s also good to have seen her discover the garden, chooks even, and to make use of the fruit trees that came with the land.
Standing there in the garden within clucking sound of the Palace, amid the apples and pears with trunks displaying the greens of moss, I saw Yvonne’s as an example of how life is change, a mix of happenstance and the variable fortune it brings, of deliberate choices and sometimes simply the adventure of setting out on something, to somewhere, and making the most of what life throws up. I guess that’s how she ended up here, atop the high ridge surrounded by her student guests, sometimes her visiting children and frequently her friends. Her’s, it seems, has been change for the good that manifests in a positivistic attitude to life, a substantial intolerance of bureaucrats and red tape, a rejoicing in the company of others and a just-do-it approach to life, all of which show as a strongly independent woman.
But… what of that redemption I mentioned at the start of this wandering travelogue along West Launceston’s ridge? Has Yvonne been redeemed and what has she been redeemed from and into? We can’t count redemption as redeeming her from journalism to cooking, for journalism, practiced ethically, fairly and properly, is a fine profession, though this perspective might be clouded a little by having made a living in it.
I guess change in life can include redemption, and if she has really been redeemed then it is from being occasionally insecure to being confident and independent. I was going to add ‘bold’ to that description but then I recall that Yvonne has always been bold—if you know her then you will realise that adding that term would be merely to state the obvious.
What can I say about having known Yvonne now for quite a long time? One thing is that she moulds our own journeys through life from role to role, circumstance to circumstance and place to place.
By observing the life journeys of others we can sometimes see our own. Doing this is difficult unless you are one of those people who find it easy to stand outside of themselves and see themself as others might perceive them. Looking at someone else’s journey is like looking in a distorting mirror—you don’t see them reflected back but, with a little reflection of the mental type, you do see yourself.
The other learning? It is that people can change how they live as readily as where they live. The person you were yesterday might not be the person you are today, and that might not be who you are tomorrow. Life, I suggest, is a combination of circumstance mixed with individual direction setting, making do and having a general sense of where you’re headed if not an actual map of the route.