Olegas Truchanas and daughter Rima at Lake Pedder in 1970. Picture: Courtesy of Melva Truchanas Source: Supplied
IN Tasmania today to be green is more a question of religion than politics, or so says former premier David Bartlett. If he is right, then in Pedder Dreaming Natasha Cica rewrites the story of the faith’s principal saint.
Cica signals early that she understands the mythical dimensions of her subject. She knows how challenging a task it may be to re-evaluate the man whom she credits with “subtly but surely craft[ing] the modern frame through which we now interpret the beauty and value of Tasmania’s wild places”.
Lithuanian-born Olega Truchanas migrated to Tasmania in 1949, where he became simultaneously an employee of the Hydro-Electric Commission and the photographer who unveiled to the world the remote and exquisite southwest Tasmanian lake that would be flooded in the name of hydro-electric power. In a tragic twist, Truchanas and Lake Pedder would drown in the same year, 1972, each of them leaving behind a catalogue of unforgettable images.
Like that of Truchanas, Pedder’s memory is layered in myth. More than a lake, more even than a spectacular lake, it is the green movement’s cradle and touchstone: the place, Cica says, where “Arcadia meets Atlantis”. Hope for its eventual restoration lingers still.
Pedder Dreaming is necessarily in conversation with The World of Olegas Truchanas, a photographic memoir created in the emotionally charged years immediately following Truchanas’s death and that was the collective work of a group of friends and admirers led by Tasmanian watercolourist Max Angus.
Both books are a blend of text and image, though the content of their respective extended essays should place each of them beyond the coffee table. Perhaps the two are best taken together.
Angus’s text provides a more linear exposition of Truchanas’s life and of the flooding of Pedder, while Cica’s supplies a commentary that considers the ongoing legacy of both phenomena.
In his final sentence, with a deep flourish, the still-grieving Angus writes of Truchanas: “Classical mythology affords no stronger example of the drama of the incorruptible man who passes into legend.”
It is here that Cica picks up, titling her first chapter The Incorruptible Man. But, more than three decades on, she presents Truchanas as a rather more human being.
This is not to say that it is Cica’s project to demythologise Truchanas. The voices she has gathered together are univocal in their admiration of the man, whose archive and reputation are under the careful stewardship of his widow.
However, the effect of presenting Truchanas as a husband and father, as a son and a brother, is to dilute the narrative of the solitary hero and craft a deeper and more affectionate portrait of the man.
Excerpts from Truchanas’s loving and unexceptional letters to his young family, and an image of Truchanas standing ankle-deep in Lake Pedder alongside his daughter Rima, provide a moving counterpoint to the lone figure he cuts on mountain ridges and the banks of wild rivers.
An important contribution Cica makes by positioning Truchanas in relationship to others is to recognise and valorise the importance of the formidable women who moved in artistic and environmental circles in 1950s and 60s Tasmania. These included Truchanas’s future wife, Melva Stocks, artist Patricia Giles, artist and educator Elspeth Vaughan.
In assessing Truchanas’s legacy, Cica demonstrates that she is an astute commentator on contemporary Tasmanian life. Drawing on her understanding of the omnipresence of the past in the island’s present, she makes some unexpected but intriguing connections. One such is the parallel she draws between Truchanas and Jane, Lady Franklin: both visionary, she says, and both misunderstood.
Cica also points perceptively to the progress that may not have been made since Truchanas was prosecuting his passionate campaign for Pedder. His 1971 assertion that a properly managed Tasmania could be “a shining beacon in the dull, uniform and largely artificial world” has lost none of its relevance.
The images that fill the pages of Pedder Dreaming include photographs of and by Truchanas, watercolours and oils by the artists who worked alongside him in the decades before his death, and more contemporary artworks by those who have felt his influence.
There is much besides images of Lake Pedder to look at and admire, but it is undoubtedly the lost lake of the southwest that is the visual heart of this exquisitely designed and produced volume.
While some books are readily translated to the small screen of the e-reader, others are staunch in the physicality of their bookishness. As well as the pleasures of word and image, Pedder Dreaming, with its soft-focus palette and creamy stock, offers the considerable enjoyment of holding it in your hands.
Danielle Wood is a Hobart-based journalist and novelist. She lectures in writing at the University of Tasmania. Her forthcoming book is Housewife Superstar: The Very Best of Marjorie Bligh.
Pedder Dreaming: Olegas Truchanas and a Lost Tasmanian Wilderness
By Natasha Cica
UQP, 256pp, $59.95