Lola Greeno collects delicate, pearlescent shells she turns into jewellery, the way Tasmanian Aboriginal women have been doing for thousands of years.
But this year Greeno has missed the spring tide on Flinders Island, one of the very few times to harvest them, because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Greeno will have to wait until November, when the little rainbow kelp shells reappear in the shallows at the end of their breeding season.
The knowledge and skill of shellwork is an otherwise unbroken tradition passed down through generations of women from the Furneaux Islands off Tasmania’s north-east coast.
Greeno, whose intricate work appears in all state and territory art gallery collections, says she learned from two great teachers of the art: her mother, Valerie Burgess, and her mother-in-law Dulcie Greeno, who is now 96 and in an aged care home. The art of shellwork was part of life growing up on Cape Barren Island.
“It was just a common practice. It was all part and parcel of our life over there.
“Living on Cape Barren was pretty isolated. We used to walk to school and walk home from school but we enjoyed it, because we enjoyed school. To us it seemed fine, but other people have said to me, ‘Well, it must have been pretty difficult for your mother’, because the Cape Barren Island Reserve Act was still in place until 1951.”
The Act, introduced in 1912, was modelled on Aboriginal protection legislation on the mainland, and gave authorities the power to remove Aboriginal children from their families. The Act recognised islanders as a distinct group but had strict control over their daily lives.
“It was more difficult for families because they couldn’t leave the island. There were still restrictions,” Greeno says. “You could go outside the reserve once the sun was up but you had to be inside it before sundown. And it was silly to have that on an isolated island – you know, where could you go?”
Shell collecting, like muttonbirding, were traditional seasonal activities that were – and still are – fundamental to Aboriginal life on the island.
“To get to get the best-quality maireener shells you need to go at a spring tide,” Greeno says. “We’re very limited to how many spring tides we have in a calendar year.”
At those times, Greeno says the shells are close to shore, clinging to the kelp.
“They take on the colours of the coral and disguise themselves in rock pools. Then they go out into deeper water to breed and then they come back in again and they’ve reached their full growing potential by the end of April.
“I’m very careful about how much we take. We use little sandwich bags to measure how much we collect in a day.
“If I miss this tide next week, that means I don’t have any shells for the rest of the year.
“Usually I take my husband and my son and my grandchildren but you know, I’m not going to be doing too many more, I’m probably going to be sending them in future.”
The whole family join in collecting and they take enough to last 12 months.
“Everybody loves them, because they are very pearly, iridescent sort of colours, the bluey ones and the greeny ones.”
But they don’t give themselves away too much. In the water they’re usually covered in “a little brown skin, like a little brown coating”.
“We bring them home and we ‘rot them out’ [lay them outside to let flies and insects do their work], so that the little fish are cleaned out. And we have to keep checking every few days and then they are rinsed and washed, and then we use a solution to get that outer coating off, to reveal that opalescence.”
Traditionally, Greeno says, women would put the maireeners in another big beach shell and put it in a fire and smoke them.
“And then they sat and rubbed the outer coating off, and that was their traditional way of cleaning them. They pierced the shells with the eye tooth of a kangaroo bone and threaded them on to [kangaroo] sinew.
“That’s a very ancient part of the practice. It’s been there since the year dot as far as our people are concerned.”
Traditionally, the shells would be polished with muttonbird oil.
“They say that we’ve been here for 60,000 years. The women always dived in the water, the women always gathered berries, and diving in the water after abalone was a common practice for women in the earlier days.
“Women had necklaces when the first explorers came in 1700s and exchanged with the French, they took some necklaces away with them.
Covid-19 has added a new layer of homesickness for the nourishment that being on country provides.
“I still love going to the beaches. There’s nothing like it. The thing is that walking on the beach, you’ve got to have a walk with no shoes on your feet so all that lovely sand sort of rubs clean the soles of your feet. It just does something very good for you.
“If I’d been over there, I probably would have left the rest of the family in the bay collecting and I would have walked. I’ve got a favourite bay that I walk around, go around to the end and then come back again. So we make the most of our time.
“You never get those times back again. You’ve just got to make the most of what you can and some good things will come out of this.
“I’m hoping that it will make families appreciate one another more.”
Read the rest of the series Old knowledge for the new normal