September 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests’ by Anna Krien

By John Birmingham

Tasmania is another country, sometimes another world. To move beyond the edge of settlement, which largely peters out a short drive from the fairytale towns of Hobart and Launceston, is to pass into an antipodean Middle Earth.

As quickly becomes clear in Into the Woods, Anna Krien’s closely observed and beautifully written first book, Tasmania is a deeply riven place. In the very first pages, the reader – still reeling from the incredible amount of detail Krien can finesse into her prose – is presented with a glimpse of internecine struggle so deep that it brings to mind the standard cliché of all civil conflict: of brother set against brother.

The Tasmanian wilderness came to political prominence in the early 1980s when a small local movement opposed to the building of the Franklin Dam went viral and leapt across Bass Strait into the national consciousness and, eventually, into the federal election that saw off Malcolm Fraser. Bob Brown, then a young, unknown GP, became famous along with it. He appears here, “his blue eyes slightly misted as the steam from his tea curls upwards”.

Now the leader of a genuine third force in politics, it can be easy to forget what a radical threat to the established system Brown and his colleagues were thought to represent in the early days. The former Labor premier Michael Field recounts to Krien the difficulties of the doomed alliance struck between his party and the Greens to defeat Robin Gray’s Liberal government. The Greens, he complained, did not have policies so much as ideological positions from which they would not budge.

The politically active did not always respond to the challenge as a contest of ideas, however. Brown was bashed, shot at and openly threatened with more beatings while in the company of ministers and public servants. Krien reminds us of the bribery scandal that saw Tasmania’s mini-media mogul Edmund Rouse jailed for attempting to pay off a Labor MP to collapse the uneasy alliance between the ALP and the Greens in the state parliament.

In spite of the damning evidence Krien brings against Tasmania’s old, pro-development power structure, the great value of Into the Woods is balance. Krien likes trees but she is not a tree-hugging polemicist. Her ability to find fault and virtue on both sides of the divide in Tasmania make her an unusual but valuable contributor to the debate. She has a fine facility for understanding the humanity and motivations of everyone she speaks to. And she speaks to everyone: loggers, politicians, greenies, believers and players, and activists of all stripes.

If Into the Woods had been written in the 1960s, it would have been described as an adventure in New Journalism, Tom Wolfe’s famous project in applying the techniques of literary fiction to the ends of journalism. The technique is no longer new but Krien’s voice is still fresh. As with Anna Funder’s Stasiland or Jack Marx’s Sorry: Thee Wretched Tale of Little Stevie Wright – two of the best examples of Australian narrative non-fiction in this vein – Krien makes remarkable shifts between interview, pure narrative, profiling and discourse that testify to how stale is much of what passes for reportage in the Australian media.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.

@JohnBirmingham

'Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania's Forests' by Anna Krien, Black Inc., 304pp; $29.95
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