- "Duck and Green Peas! For Ever!" Finding Utopia in Tasmania by Alison Alexander
Hobart, Australia: Fullers, 2018. 202 pp. Paper, $45.00, isbn 9780648218050.
This book's quirky title and strikingly beautiful cover will grab attention on any bookshelf. The image comes from an old watercolor tourism advertising poster, dreamily evocative of paradisiacal pristine lakes and towering mountains. The title comes from a supposed quote by an early nineteenth-century female convict who declared that what would make her life perfect would be "Duck and Green Peas! For Ever!" (2).1
There is much to enjoy about this book. It is written in a nonacademic, at times humorous, manner; is well illustrated; and follows a logical format.
The book opens with early explorers' fantasies of the lives of indigenous Tasmanians. While some regarded them as debased, not-quite-human, others thought that they epitomized the utopian South Sea native, "happy children of nature," a common trope in European mythology. Late eighteenth-century French explorers such as Bruni d'Enrecasteaux thought that so-called civilized Europeans "who boast about the extent of their knowledge [could] learn from this school of nature" (7). François Peron, his botanist, who came to know the "natives" rather than just look from afar, came to see them as "the miserable horde inhabiting these lands" (11).2 [End Page 358]
Whatever the reality, their lives were utterly disrupted when Great Britain established a convict settlement there in 1803. The British policy was to make conditions for the convicts so harsh, so dystopian, that they would deter crime in England. In spite of this, some observers opined that Tasmanian convicts lived in utopia. I doubt whether many convicts saw it that way—although the author does quote one convict, Richard Dillingham, "As for tea and sugar I almost could swim in it." But is utopia the best word?
Because Tasmania has a moderate climate and rich soil (at least in some areas), some late nineteenth-century writers thought this to be ideal for yeoman farmers. Thousands of migrants flooded in, and some prospered, but for many there was only backbreaking toil with scant reward. One religious enthusiast "dreamt of growing apples in a Garden of Eden, settling in a land untouched by human weaknesses" (45). The same pseudo-utopian pattern persisted through the first half of the twentieth century, with locations being named "Paradise" and "Promised Land" (73–75).
For more than two centuries some people have extolled Tasmania as being an ideal place, if not "utopia." For some this meant an industrial power based on cheap hydroelectric power and purpose-built worker accommodations such as at the Electrolytic Zinc Works at Lutana and Cadbury's milk chocolate factory at Claremont (86). For others it was the ability to raise (and sell!) the world's finest merino wool (88–90). Some saw the dramatic mountains as an artistic ideal, while others extolled the pure air and water, and bracing climate, as making it the ideal place to live (91–104).
Almost from the start of European colonization, there have been many attempts to create utopian intentional communities in Tasmania. Most have failed. Alexander mentions Castra (66–68) and the Southport Settlement (79–80) from the nineteenth century. She touches on several late twentieth-century communal groups such as Energy in Action, Gaia, Illusion Farm, Tagari, Teapot, Waterworks, and Wiiteena, all of which collapsed or exist in name alone (161–69). Unfortunately, she barely touches on Cascade Cohousing, Tasman Ecovillage, and the Hutterites at Rocky Cape Christian Community. In fact it appears that she did not bother to visit these prosperous contemporary intentional communities.
Overall, this book is interesting, well written, and informative, with a few quotable quotes: "This is the paradox of utopia: its very desirability eventually destroys the qualities people admire" (180); and "for people who never had enough to eat, plenty of food was utopia" (24). That said, there are several problems. [End Page 359] First, the author never clearly defines what she means by utopia. She writes, "I view utopia as a condition of ideal (esp. social) perfection...