Pedder Dreaming: Forty years since the flooding of Lake Pedder and the beginning of a movement

Ten days ago, Senator Bob Brown delivered the 2012 Greens Oration, on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the United Tasmania Group, the first of many in a series of green political parties that have formed across the globe since that time.

This year also marks forty years since another key event in the green movement: the flooding of Lake Pedder, in the mountains of Tasmania.

The battle to stop construction of the Franklin River Dam during the late 1970s and early 1980s is perhaps the most well-known environmental battle in Australia’s history – and a successful battle at that. But this campaign had its roots in the fight to save Lake Pedder, a fight that was made famous in part through the photography of Olegas Truchanas.

Truchanas was a Lithuanian immigrant who, in the aftermath of his experiences in World War II and having left his homeland behind, developed a passion for the Tasmanian wilderness. Through his photography, he sought, in the words of Natasha Cica, to “bear witness to its remarkable beauty, to document, to protect”.

He was part of a group of Tasmanian artists, writers and photographers who journeyed to Lake Pedder to record and capture its unique and outstanding beauty, and who were strongly opposed to the Hydro Electric Commission’s plan to build three dams that would flood the lake, drowning its sandy beaches.

This group and in particular Truchanas himself are the subject of a 2011 book by Tasmanian writer and academic Natasha Cica, Pedder Dreaming: Olegas Truchanas and a lost Tasmanian wilderness. This beautiful book tells the story of Truchanas and of the period leading up to the flooding of the lake not only with words, but with visuals: Cica’s narration is intimately connected to photography and art.

The book is visually stunning, with matte pages lending a softness to the images reproduced throughout. This is fitting, given that Truchanas’s photos were known for their softness as a result of the single, “lousy” lens that he had for his Nikon 35mm camera.

The photography in Pedder Dreaming is essential to both the book and the story. Through the course of nearly 250 pages, Lake Pedder is captured in so many ways: soft in the morning light, still and monochrome under the moon, rich and colourful, reflecting the mountains and the trees.

Of course, Lake Pedder is no more: those who fought for the original lake’s preservation refuse to call the new body of water by the same name. The original lake had a maximum depth of around 3m with two islands; the new lake extends to 43m deep in parts, and has 45 islands. The new lake is not really a lake at all – it is a reservoir, an artificial impoundment.

Pedder Dreaming illuminates the scale of the tragedy of Lake Pedder, but it is done without drama or prosthelytising. Cica’s narration touches on the divided nature of Tasmania today and on the unique closeness of the island community, then and now. The story is told largely through the eyes of those who were there at the time, including Melva Truchanas, artists Max Angus and Trish Giles, and educator Elspeth Vaughan.

It reveals their sense of what was about to be lost and of the emerging environmental ethic in Tasmania, an ethic that took so much of its inspiration from Olegas Truchanas. Truchanas was the first to navigate the full length of the Serpentine and Gordon rivers in a kayak in 1958, photographing his journey along the way. He used his photography to show Tasmania’s wilderness beauty to a wider audience, fighting to save Lake Pedder “by mesmerising people with its beauty”.

Olegas Truchanas’s voice ends with the flooding of the lake in 1972, for he drowned the same year while attempting to repeat his journey down the Gordon River. He had lost all of his negatives and slides from his first trip down the Gordon during the 1967 Tasmanian fires. The battle for Lake Pedder was lost, but he knew that the Gordon faced a similar threat and felt that a future campaign to save it would require its beauty to be captured on film.

Then, as now, development projects are usually spoken or written of in terms of a particular anthropocentric benefit, most often in terms of economics and opportunity. Pedder Dreaming is the story of people who questioned this framework and questioned the right of humans to destroy a place like Lake Pedder.

The title Pedder Dreaming means many things throughout Cica’s book and resonates in a number of ways. For me, the story of Lake Pedder adds strength to a particular dream that I have: that we may one day accord to the natural environment the respect that it deserves, for its own sake and not for our own.

2 thoughts on “Pedder Dreaming: Forty years since the flooding of Lake Pedder and the beginning of a movement

  1. Jim says:

    I arrived as a migrant into WA in December 1971 and was immediately aware of the battle over Lake Pedder. i bought the books, used the issues in lectures and felt passionately about this distant lake. Having grown up in the mountains of British Columbia, I understood the beauty of the setting that Truchanas’ photos brought to life. I couldn’t get there in time so missed seeing the lake in person. The mention of Lake Pedder still reminds me both of how far we have come with environmental protection, on the one hand, and how nothing has changed on the other.

    Lake Pedder transcends both the equine and the ocean, but detracts from neither.

    Thanks for writing this review, Suzi.

  2. TJ says:

    Beautifully written review, fitting of the book itself. In ‘Pedder Dreaming’ Cica has presented a stunning book, in many ways bringing to prominence once again the importance of this chapter in Australian history which seems to have been somewhat forgotten. Given the new environment frontlines we are currently facing (think James Price Point, coal seam gas, dredging and dredge waste in the Great Barrier Reef and the ongoing battle over Tasmania forests), ‘Pedder Dreaming’ is a timely reminder…

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