Don Knowler reveals how an obsession led to his new book
Walking to work each day, I’d look up at kunanyi/Mount 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 longcherished 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 St, I didn’t realise 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 as with retirement, hidden dangers can lurk there. 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 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 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 – included writing the On the Wing column in this magazine. To this day, the column not only keeps me in touch with the twin passion of my life beyond wildlife, newspaper journalism, but 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 go of the workplace and the camaraderie that goes with it.
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 create social structures beyond old folks’ 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 me and my new colleagues. The mountain called to me, however, and beyond my passion for birdwatching and a target to see all the species on the mountain checklist I learnt about trees and plants, orchids and fungi, and butterflies, spiders and other insects.
In this I was grateful for the Hobart City Council’s Bush Adventures program, which took me not just up the mountain but to other places across the city with natural values. On my hikes on the mountain trails I also met fellow retirees, and learnt 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 City Council. This 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/Mount Wellington – speak for herself. And in this regard, studying books on botany when I’m not on the mountain, I’m grateful it 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.
About the time I retired on my 65th birthday, I phoned 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 his life in journalism – in the past 20 years as an internationally known television reporter. Wars in Africa and Europe and 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, his wife informed me he was not there: he was on a train travelling to a rehabilitation clinic for alcoholics.
The Shy Mountain, Forty South, $29.95, is available now and will be officially launched by Charles Wooley at the Hobart Bookshop at Salamanca on Wednesday, September 20, at 5.30pm