My wheels spun in the churned-up clay, but I managed to slide in next to another car.
‘That’ll do,’ she yelled.
By my Toyota, stood a tall woman with a peaceful face. Stepping out, I tried to gauge her years. It took a break in the clouds to give it away. Her eyes were blue and reflective. The hair that dropped from beneath the hand-knitted beanie was uniform in colour and without a hint of coarseness. Her face and hands were shaded olive by the sun but radiated with the pink hue of vitality. I observed the way her body filled out the wiry, patchwork fabric of her clothes.
We introduced ourselves.
‘I hope I can get out of there,’ I said, looking down at my wheels. They were completely covered in mud.
‘You’ll be fine. There’s a whole crew of us.’
‘So, you’re Rainbow?’ I asked. ‘Why do they call you that?’
Looking at her now, I felt stupid for asking but it had been on my mind ever since our email correspondence began. Rainbow belonged to a green group and had reached out to me to visit their protest camp. It was in a logging coupe earmarked for felling. I had agreed to make the journey on my weekend off. Above us, strung from the branch of a white-gum on one side of the track to a rusted steel pole on the other, was a PVC banner. Once white, it was now stained with red clay. Faded, bold lettering said Save the Wyld Forest. Someone, more recently, had outlined several hand stencils on either end of the banner in ochre-coloured spray paint. I winced.
Rainbow smiled in response to my question. The skin around her eyes crinkled deeply as she held my gaze. She tilted her head.
‘I feel like we’ve met before,’ she said, and I noticed—or perhaps felt—a combination of authority and playfulness in her words. Before I could respond, she opened her arms and summoned me to her with a light beckoning of her fingers.
It wasn’t the two-second, pat-on-the-back hug you give your least favourite aunty. We weren’t just going through the motions.
She held on in a prolonged, sighing embrace. I’d experienced it before with a school friend who had turned to an alternative lifestyle after college. He had hugged me a few times at the commune where he lived. What it said was, ‘I live in the moment and I want to connect with you’. At least that’s how I took it.
Rainbow swayed her hips and hummed, childlike. I could feel the cold cartilage of her ear pressed into my cheek. She eventually broke away and took my hands in hers.
‘Thanks for coming, brother.’
There was a long pause while we stared at each other.
‘Let me show you around.’
Their camp wasn’t far from the main road. Like they had promised, there was an old leather boot—set on a steel dropper—at the entrance to a dirt road with an open, yellow boom gate. It was a long drive to the West Coast from Launceston. But I knew that I would be looked after once I was there. Blackfellas always were. I had been around conservation groups a long time. But this was a new crowd. A new generation.
I followed Rainbow up the forestry track that dissected the camp. Brightly-coloured tents were nestled amongst the man ferns and the dogwoods. The West Coast vegetation was a deeper, darker green than on the East Coast, healthier somehow, hydrated and mineralised. Some of the tents were strung between trees, elevated like hammocks. They had European brand names. For greenies-slash-hippies, they could afford good gear. One of the tents had a rainbow-striped blanket hanging over a branch out front. I assumed it belonged to my host.
Fifty metres past where the tents petered out, a large tree had been felled across the track —by forestry contractors, no doubt. The horizon of the trunk reached my chest. Rainbow pointed to the forest beyond it.
‘The tree-sits are back there,’ she said. I got in close to her and followed the trajectory of her arm. She smelled like woodsmoke and damp clothes. I could see across the treetops as the forest dipped down into an impressive valley. I searched for the people in the trees, expecting bright colours, banners and dangling ropes. Nothing. Disappointed, I zoned out and stared into the distant hills and mountains beyond, fading to a dull, atmospheric blue.
‘Come on, I’ll introduce you to the others.’
The camp living area looked like a shanty complex in a developing country. The ground was sloped and naturally terraced. A kitchen was knocked together in the centre from used timber and tip-shop materials. An assortment of cups and plates were stacked and set out along temporary benches—no two were alike. Underneath, milk crates and waxed cardboard boxes brimmed with fruit and vegetables. Not the blemish-free varieties available all year round from Coles and Woolies but the kind you had to wash the dirt off and cut the bug-eaten bits out of. Home-grown, donated, and almost definitely organic. Dry plaits of garlic hung from rusty nails in the timber. Above the kitchen, strung between the small, interspersed saplings, was an overlapping ceiling of tarpaulins. I wondered why they were all tilted at an angle until I discovered one that wasn’t. It bulged downwards like a pregnant belly and the sun shining through its contents cast shimmering ripples across the shade.
On the next natural terrace above the kitchen was an open area ringed by an assortment of tattered furniture and moulded plastic chairs. In the centre was the campfire, above which a blackened steel tripod suspended the largest camp oven I had ever seen. The lid of the camp oven was slightly off, revealing vague glimpses of colour through the steam. It smelled good but lacked the saliva-inducing effect that meat in stew produced. Vegetarian, or perhaps even vegan. I hoped it was not intended for me.
‘Everyone, meet Mick,’ said Rainbow. She had been standing behind me but took my hand and led me to the fire area. I had noticed there were people around, but hadn’t taken in details. There must have been at least a dozen. They were all similar to Rainbow in a way—all sharing a characteristic I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Rainbow stepped up to the next terrace above and cleared her throat.
‘We are all so grateful you are here, brother. It’s so good to have a palawa person supporting our campaign. Please show Mick a lot of love while he is here.’
The group clapped. Hands patted my back. They came to greet me in turn, acting humbled by my presence. I felt like royalty.
A girl with dreadlocks and a tie-dyed shirt offered me a cup of tea. I accepted. She stirred the stew simmering over the fire before fixing my drink in the kitchen. I figured she must be the designated cook—or perhaps they all took turns. Some of the people wore harnesses with carabiners dangling like some sort of adornment. They were fussed over by the others. This group was well organised. Everyone seemed to have some sort of role in the camp. Rainbow was clearly their leader.
A young man with a white streak in his hair asked me in a Swedish accent if I would participate in a video. I nodded. I knew something like this was coming. It always did. They would get their mileage out of me. The kitchen girl handed me my cup of tea, holding it out in two hands like it was a precious gift. She gave me the same brand of prolonged, grateful smile that Rainbow and the rest had.
‘My name is Bill,’ said the Swedish guy. ‘Please come to the tent.’ I looked to Rainbow, who stood by the fire sipping her own cup of tea. She tilted her head towards the tent as if to say ‘go’.
‘Impressive,’ I said, with honesty. The media tent was one of those thick canvas types that block out the light. It had its own tarpaulin over the top. Added protection from the rain, I guessed. The equipment would have been worth a small fortune. Across the 27-inch screen of an iMac computer, bounced and spun the image of a young woman. She wore a wedding dress and was posing on a platform, high in a forest canopy. The scene was contrived— some sort of married-to-the-trees scenario. A line of Fanta-coloured electrical conduit extended from the top of the tent over the track to the trees and bushes on the other side, to which it was fastened with cable ties. For the first time I noticed the humming of a generator coming from down over the bank.
There were several tables in the media tent, stacked with Pelican cases of various sizes. At least three cameras were connected, via black cables, to a buzzing powerboard. The bright lights of the charging gear cast a shadowy, red glow onto the rear of the tent. It looked mystic and strange, reminding me of a fortune teller’s parlour at a carnival. There was a small neat desk and a chair. This was Rainbow’s office, I could tell. Bill disconnected one of the cameras, checked something on the LCD screen and said, ‘Come on. Let’s go.’
Bill had a place in mind. It was in the area Rainbow had pointed out, where the tree-sits were (although I still couldn’t see them). At the base of an enormous, moss-covered eucalypt, an Aboriginal flag had been strung between some ferns. The colours of the flag were vivid and the fabric was hatched with square creases. It was brand new. Straight out of the bag.
‘Can you stand in front of the flag?’ asked Bill, attaching the camera to a tripod.
‘To the left a bit more … perfect.’ Bill fiddled with the camera. Rainbow joined us. I hadn’t heard her approach.
‘Have you got it set up?’ she asked Bill, with a hint of authority. Bill stepped aside and Rainbow stooped to look through the lens.
‘Great,’ said Rainbow. She beamed at me over the top of the camera. ‘Thanks so much for this, brother.’ Her voice was mellow again.
‘No worries,’ I said and cleared my throat.
‘I’ll leave you to it then,’ said Rainbow as she handed Bill a clipboard.
‘Ready?’ asked Bill. He flipped open the clipboard. There was a long set of handwritten questions.
I gave him the thumbs-up.
After the interview, Bill got to work in the media tent. I walked back to the living area. There were some new faces—and some from before had gone. Amongst the new people was a fit-looking guy, with a long, red beard. The top of his golden hair was tied back, the rest hung well below his shoulders. He wore a red harness over a tattered button-up shirt, undone to his navel. He frowned as he crouched at the campfire, poking foil-wrapped parcels into the coals.
I took a seat at the fire.
‘You must be one of the people who man the tree-sits,’ I said to the guy.
‘And you’re the Aboriginal guy, right?’ He didn’t look up from the fire. ‘How did you go with the video?’
‘Okay,’ I replied. ‘It must be boring as shit sitting up in a tree all day.’
‘Nah, brother,’ he said, standing. He reached his hand towards me. ‘It’s actually really beautiful.’ We shook. He had a firm grip and held it there. He gave me none of the airs the others had. Offered up no pedestal to stand on. I had become accustomed to a certain level of appreciation from people like him. His blue eyes were appraising, lingering over my soft hands and the padded parts of my body. In contrast, his forearm was wiry and vascular, hands rough with layers of tree-sap and ash from the fire.
‘I’m Alex, by the way,’ he said, finally letting go and turning his attention back to the fire.
‘Right,’ I said, under my breath.
I flattened the rear seat in the Toyota and made up my bed. It started to rain so I lay on the bed for a while and looked out. A group of the camp people were huddled around the entrance to the media tent. Bill was showing them something. An alert sounded on my phone. Coverage was patchy in this area—the nearest tower being above Queenstown. I had been tagged in a video. It was titled, palawa behind Wyld forest campaign. The thumbnail showed my face, mouth open in mid-sentence. The bold colours of the flag filled in the background. Looking back to the media tent, the group were clearly pleased. Hands patted backs. Rainbow was the only one looking serious. She was pointing into the tent, giving Bill some sort of instruction.
It turned out the stew was for all of us. It wasn’t too bad, once I’d loaded it with salt and pepper. There were jacket potatoes too. But they never seem right without bacon. Everyone ate together around the fire. Bill played a live Leonard Cohen album through a tinny Bluetooth speaker that was perched on a tree stump. Cohen didn’t quite gel in this environment. Someone retrieved a box of cleanskins from one of the vehicles. The red wasn’t bad and I was thirsty. Rainbow sat close and we chatted as we ate. Alex shot us a look before taking food out to the folks who were up in the trees. I wondered how he got it up to them. And I wondered what that look was about. Rainbow didn’t seem to pay it any mind. I discovered that she was almost 40 – way older than she looked. There must be something to this clean living. I poked at the soft vegies in my bowl and looked around at my surroundings as Rainbow spoke. Her voice was like a siren’s. It lulled something inside me, tugged at something inside me. Rainbow, the wine, the earthy vibe. I experienced the shivery effect that ASMR subscribers on YouTube pursue like drug-seekers.
After dinner, an older guy with a long beard brought out an acoustic guitar. He was just fiddling and tuning it while he chatted to some younger girls. Alex came back from the bush and went around with the wine bottle, topping everyone up. I was the only one who he asked—reminding me and everyone else that I was the outsider. He took the guitar off the old guy, who gave it over without question. Bill turned off the music. Alex played, louder than seemed necessary. Everyone listened intently to his performance. He slapped the body of the guitar to keep a beat. It was an aggressive style. I looked to Rainbow. At some point during the evening, she had replaced her beanie with a head scarf. I finished the whole mug of wine in one go. Some of it dribbled through my beard, making my chin cold. I willed her to take me away from the group so we could keep on talking. So that I could keep on listening to her. But she just stared at the fire.
After a few songs, Alex leaned the guitar against his chair and poured himself another drink. One of the crew had filled up my cup again but I was nearly ready for another.
‘So you’re from Launceston, Mick?’ asked Alex. He was on the other side of the fire from me. His form wavered through the heat.
‘We had some local mob here the other day,’ said Alex. ‘Nice people. Real nice.’
As drunk and cloudy as I was starting to become, my ears pricked up at what he said.
‘Yeah, from Duck River or whatever they called it. Up the North-West Coast.’
‘Ha!’ I blurted out, much louder than I meant to.
‘What does that mean?’ said Alex. He roll-tapped the top of the guitar with his fingertips.
‘You’re not one of these in-fighters?’
‘Alex,’ said Rainbow. He continued eyeballing me across the fire, ignoring her warning.
‘It’s fine, Rainbow,’ I said. ‘Look Alex, it’s only in-fighting if both parties are Aboriginal.’ I couldn’t help but smirk.
‘Are you saying they aren’t Aboriginal?’ asked Alex. His voice perked up and he looked around the rest of the group as if to gather their allegiance.
‘Well, they have never been part of our community. Most of them have no Aboriginal ancestry at all. And the very few that do, have only just discovered it. They’re phonies, mate. They haven’t been part of the struggle. They formed an organisation to get money. And they recruit people like army generals. They’re a fucking joke.’
Those who weren’t listening already tuned in at my use of the word ‘fuck’. I chuckled to myself as I finished off my wine.
‘More, please,’ I said to the person closest to the open bottle. It was the girl from the photo on the computer. The wedding-dress-wearing one. She was much prettier in the picture. She poured me a drink, her eyes flicking between Alex and I.
‘Pretty rough to say they’re phonies,’ said Alex. He picked up the guitar and played a single chord. It didn’t sound right, like he had a finger wrong. ‘Just because they don’t have your background.’
‘You say that like I’m privileged,’ I said. I could feel everyone look at me. Even Rainbow looked awkward. I should have just let it lie. Conceded. But I couldn’t. ‘If they are so authentic, Alex,’ I paused for effect. ‘Why didn’t you get them to do the video?’
Alex just stared.
‘You know, the one that hit the internet before I’d barely finished speaking.’
More uncomfortable silence. The old guy took the guitar from Alex, who was now stroking his hair and whispering something to the woman next to him, and played a country and western tune I didn’t like. One of the crew brought around some cheese and biscuits. I took a handful. The cheese tasted weird. I figured it must have been vegan. One of the younger women came over to Rainbow and slightly opened her hand. Inside was a white streak. I couldn’t make out what it was. Rainbow stood and went with her. At the periphery of the campfire, she turned back to me and made a smoking gesture. I stood up slowly, letting my head and legs coordinate, and followed her.
The dope tasted herbal—not the sweet, ‘skunky’ stuff I had the last few times I’d smoked. I was tempted to joke that it must be a vegan alternative but that didn’t really make sense and wouldn’t have gone down too well either. Rainbow passed it to me, the butt slightly wet. I put my lips where hers had been.
‘I’m sorry about that,’ she said. ‘About him.’ She turned her head back to the campfire.
Rainbow took the joint and drew in deeply. It cast a red glow across her face. I put it down to the weed and wine but I pictured Rainbow in that moment, at her desk in the media tent. Shrouded in red light, strands of dark hair falling below her scarf and framing her heart-shaped face. She was the fortune teller and the crew were under her spell—her power. They were like carnies, these people. Circus folk. They moved from protest to protest, their lives makeshift and collapsible, just like their camp.
‘I hope you don’t think we used you,’ she said, as she exhaled the smoke. I leaned into the cloud to breathe it in. To breathe her in. ‘You know, for the campaign.’
‘I know the drill,’ I said, and took another puff. ‘And I was expecting it. I support what you do here. Looking after country.’
Rainbow held out her arms for a hug, just as she had when I arrived. This time, I held on like a child to its mother, truly embracing her without the awkwardness of strangers.
‘I love you,’ I said, without meaning to. The world was spinning, my heart racing from her touch, the dope, the wine. I felt her stiffen up. She held me gently at arm’s length.
‘I love you, too, brother. And I appreciate you coming.’ But there was too much sincerity in her voice. I sensed an awkwardness from the other smokers. One of them leant down and drowned what was left of the joint in a small muddy puddle. They walked back to the fire. Rainbow sat close to Alex and put her head on his shoulder. He slung a wiry arm over her, pulling her toward him.
I woke to a dull morning, the cockatoos and the rosellas painfully unaware of my hangover. The sun was still a red ball through the trees. Wiping the droplets from the inside of the window, I could see that nobody else was awake yet. Nobody except for those up in the trees who I imagined would be cold, damp, waiting patiently for the police to coax them down or the next greenie to take their place. I dressed, opened the back door and urinated into some ferns—so as not to make a noise. I didn’t want to think about last night, how I made a fool of myself with Rainbow. I looked over to her tent where she and Alex no doubt lay, entwined. All I wanted to do was leave. To forget this trip even happened. I’d made the video and helped in my own way. I’d given Aboriginal support to their campaign.
Grateful to get away unnoticed, I shifted into the front seat. Head pounding, mind in a fog, I turned the key and the engine ripped through the silence like a chainsaw. But what did it matter now? I was out of here. I shifted into reverse but the car didn’t move. I gave it more revs and heard the whine of spinning wheels. I wound down the window to see the tyres choked up with mud. I wasn’t going anywhere. I turned off the car and listened to the sound of tent zips join the chorus of birds.
Adam Thompson is a pakana writer from Launceston, Tasmania. His work has been published by the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Kill Your Darlings and Griffith Review. Adam is the author of Born Into This (UQP, 2021) which was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards, The Age Book of the Year and the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.
Header photo by Jack Robert-Tissot