Go Tell it on the Mountain
by Steven Jeffrey
Photo by Ed Kleingeertz

This story begins with the best of intentions and has yet to end that way.

As a child holidaying on Phillip Island, I developed something of a preoccupation for rabbit trapping around the Newhaven township. I will always remember the thrill of walking into the trapline and hearing the clink of a chain showing us we’d caught at least one rabbit. There was the joy of finding trapped rabbits, the curiosity watching (and later learning) the skinning and lastly the hot meat with a gamey taste. Cooked over coals, or broiled in a pan there was always a charm in eating something that you had caught from nature. Growing older and getting a bow I took to shooting as well as trapping and started to range over Phillip and French Island. With traps and bow and later with a gun I spent a lot of time camping, cooking rabbits and curing their skins. About this time I developed my "Four Famous Rabbit Recipes" – Boiled rabbit, broiled rabbit, rabbit and salt and rabbit in brine. All of which curiously involved a jointed rabbit covered with water in a set of mess tins and a handful of the cooking salt which was used to cure the furs.

Then I suppose I grew up.

One moment I was down on the Islands chilling out between frantic periods of study for my VCE the next I was studying at college and could only escape on planned projects or holidays. Then I became employed and had to snatch time in between work, next I was married and my wife had demands on my time. The rabbits happily ran free, I inserted myself into the yoke that many of us still look on as "normal" life.

I was quite happy in that life. I’d go away with some mates now and again to shoot a few rabbits for the table, but I very rarely went out overnight and travelled as I had when I was young. I found that I had become a kind of weekend warrior – out to shoot for "sport" and inflicting harm without really thinking about it. In short I found myself becoming the worst kind of hunter.

As a result I became less enthusiastic about rabbiting, the traps are rusting in my Mother’s garage and I went out less with my other friends, most of whom had no time to go shooting anyhow.

Then I met up with Viki Nathan. She fostered my interest in a group called Resource Rica. It is a conglomerate of environmentalists who have bought a block of land that has been cleared of trees and are revegetating it. One of the problems that they have is that the place is infested with rabbits and they will be planting out trees soon. On hearing this, I promised to spend some time up there getting rid of the rabbits and doing some camping. Thus far I have spent a few days up there helping to build a shed during the day and hunting during the evenings.

The hill on the block is a stark jutting outcrop of broken stone and clay. The entire area has only three sizeable trees on it, all gaunt, sick looking creatures. While I talk to the others in the RR group I can see their vision. Hillside covered with little trees. These people are working hard to repair a hole that we have torn in the land with our own hands and exploitative, violent farming practices. By bringing forest spirits back to the land they hope to add weight to what is becoming a turn around in rural environmental thought in the area. When I first heard about the property I thought of going there in order to shoot some rabbits and have some fun as I did when I was a child. But speaking to Resource Rica I realise that it is going to be a lot more than that. I am becoming part of a community who want to bring a hill back to life.

Seeking to increase my involvement in the project I have winnowed my camping gear to a point that it is easily carried on a bicycle, I have a telescopic sight set for my rifle (the land is very different to hunt in compared to the scrub of French Island) and I am ready to go out sleeping in the heather. So long as I can find a way of getting a crowbar out there I will be able to dig rabbit burrows out during the day and hunt during the evenings. I look to my role as a sort of forester, spending time out in Avoca, looking after this hill. Rabbiting may be the official reason I am out there but the place is sucking me in a well.

Thus far I have spent only one night out at the hill and I can’t call it spiritual. I had brought a tent and so I slept isolated from the hill and bound up within myself, next time I will take just a groundsheet rolled up in my sleeping bag and will be more open to the elements. On this trip I was ill equipped. Boots weren’t suitable for hill work, the country was too open for shooting with open sights and I had no bicycle to fetch spare water. Overall it was a bit of a flop.

Only one rabbit came across my gun that evening and I skinned it back at camp. The next day there were very few rabbits out, but I met two wedge-tailed eagles who seemed local. The hill teems with birdlife and foxes. I watched a mob of eastern grey roos mooch their way across the flat land below the hill. That afternoon the rabbit was cooked for lunch on a little fire built just for the job and eaten with the others during a break in the shed building. I know that I will go back soon. Hopefully I will spend a few more days up there this time, with fewer worries and better gear. I cannot say that I have had a spiritual awakening thus far in the project, but I am hoping that the future will bring this about. Because I have yet to achieve any real impact out there, I do not feel that I have been spiritually improved by the hill. I feel that instead, it has the potential to improve me. It may not happen on the first trip, or the second, but it will occur.

The resurrection of the hill is an important step in spiritual development. In many ways taking it on as a project has revitalised me as a person and will (given time) restore me from being a shooter to a hunter. I am actually questioning the wisdom of taking some of my friends up there in case they still want to hunt the way we used to. Blasting away without much thought about what is actually being shot and why. Here it is a different process. I want to become a good hunter and a clean camper. The hill (and I) deserves it.