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

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