Lighting up our lives

Selfridges from the No.9 bus, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden

Strangely at this time of year I miss the big city lights and longest nights of a northern winter and ‘proper’ Christmas. Right now London is alight with street chandeliers, angels’ wings and glittering snowballs. Through a mist of nostalgia I’m recalling all my northern hemisphere Christmases: navigating the river of people spilling onto Oxford Street, wrapped up against needles of cold and willing on the arrival of the No 9 Routemaster bus to Hammersmith. Or, eating Christmas pud in the snow in Sloane Square; drinking whisky in front of a roaring fire in a hunting lodge in Inverness; or serving up a steaming roast around a table of Yuletide strays, waifs and orphans.

I only really miss living in London in December. If you’re not young and innocent the slipping away of another year is a time of reminiscence and reflection; a moment to let sad tears of the past mingle with the happy ones of now.

I worked in London’s Carnaby Street for the National Magazine Company when the Spice Girls turned on the Christmas lights around the corner in Oxford Street after their first single, ‘Wannabee’, had topped the charts. You couldn’t see Piccadilly Tube for screaming teenagers wanting to get a glimpse of their idols. At the time many were dismissive of their talents, being the first of a new wave of 90s girl bands who sang without instruments.

But, now, watching apparently the most watched viral video of 2016 (Adele’s Carpool Karaoke with James Corden) I’ve learnt that Adele was one of those girls in Regent Street the Spice Girls inspired. “It was a huge moment in my life,” Adele tells Corden in the front seat of the car as they sing along to her songs on the car stereo. “Girl power, five ordinary girls, who just did so well and got out. I was like ‘I just want to get out’. I didn’t know what I was getting out of – but I wanted to get out. It was a really important part of my life that.” And they drive on, in hilarious duet: to ‘Wannabe’. “Tell me what you want what you really really want…” Would you believe it’s the 20th anniversary of that song?

Oxford Street was closed to traffic this year when Craig David switched on the Christmas lights: 1800 snowball-like decorations lit up once again. The NSPCC, a charity partner, asked Londoners to donate £5 to dedicate one of the star-shaped lights to a loved one. Presents, lights, and loved ones…

The shopping instinct has hit here with so much choice to shop locally inspired by Tasmanian designers and makers. In her first year’s tenure at Design Tasmania in Launceston, Sydney’s Karina Clarke has observed “the sense of the handmade having a resurgence” in furniture, jewellery, textiles and ceramics. While navigating Design Tasmania’s 40th anniversary, 40 Years 40 Designers 1976-2016, Clarke (who’s also adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of NSW Faculty of Art and Design), is shepherding a new generation of young gun furniture makers in the UTAS Furniture Design Grad Show (running in Launceston until Feb 22, 2017).

I’m at a sunny Salamanca Market sizing up sun hats and thinking seedlings from Provenance Growers would make a good small present. But it’s just not Christmas. In Australia, to feel the true spirit of Christmas you’ve either got to be up before dawn, or wait til 10pm when it’s dark enough to see the lights. Christmas is a barbecue. It’s the summer solstice and the longest, languid days of the year when we need lights the least.

I’ve just had a call from a friend with bad news. I feel I must say a prayer although I don’t know exactly what a prayer is other than to contemplate the unspeakable tragedies of life that cannot be reasoned away; that rip into our souls, that make us change direction or stoically go on.

I will light a candle, turn on the fairy lights at midday and then invite the angels to carry away the pain of a year that cannot be undone. Because it’s Christmas, soon another New Year, and the light that twinkles in a child’s eye is precious.

First published in TasWeekend, December 17, 2016

London Eye on South Bank, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden
London’s Oxford Circus from the top deck of the No.9 bus, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden
London’s Regent Street, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden
London’s Covent Garden, Xmas 2014. Photo: Hilary Burden 

Beware the angry gardener

Wild rose by the roadside

Gardeners aren’t usually the angry type. But I’ve met a few lately – in particular, a friend living high overlooking the Huon is concerned about the suburbanization of where she lives. Her anger is at odds with the peaceful nature of a dedicated plantswoman.

Another, who’s 80 something, is practising the burning of “bureaucratic bullshit” she encounters in her everyday life. She does so on bonfires and is seeking to broaden her cause, inviting the igniting of what she calls “bullshit bonfires” across the state.

Why do our elected representatives insist they are getting planning decisions right when instead they seem to enrage quiet women who nurture beauty? When gardeners get angry, government should listen.

Take the gutters in Bagdad. What’s behind this obsession with fitting urban street furniture into rural towns? What’s wrong with pulling over on the gravel strip when that’s the way it’s always been, and what puts the word country into countryside?

In the coastal villages of Orford, Bridport and Penguin, too, Tasmania’s holiday towns are being given the look of a commuter suburb.

In seaside Penguin, about 1300 people have signed a petition complaining to Central Coast council about new street furniture in the main street. There are dotted white lines, pavement markers, bollards, painted pedestrian islands made of concrete, yellow bumps in the road and median strips, all in the space of half a kilometre between the church at one end and library at the other.

The council says it’s to make it safer but how, you wonder, with so much distraction?  Sue Wood, who has lived on the coast for 30 years and at Penguin for six,  says: “Before the changes Penguin Main Road was pleasant and no one fought over parking.”

Driving through Penguin now, she says, makes you feel like you need to keep your elbows in. “The council has spoilt the seaside town. Now it looks like everywhere else.”

Plus, she and others think it’s more dangerous. There have been several near misses at the supermarket and many letters of complaint have been written to the council. Wood describes the replies she gets as “bureaucratic gobbledygook”.  And although the council has told her there will be changes, they haven’t happened yet.

Who has the vision for the amenity of our towns, with natural charm at heart rather than identikit development? Who talks about the poetry of the roadside, a wild dog rose wrapped around an old wire fence? The grader driver that scrapes and piles them up on the side of the road to be burnt has no eye for the superb fairy wren that nests within.

Two weeks ago the Heritage Council advertised the removal of 514 properties from the Tasmanian Heritage Register, which lists buildings deemed important to preserve by the state because of their historic value and ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations’. Anyone who has previously made a submission to appeal has the right to appeal again – in 30 days.

Tasmania’s natural and built cultural heritage seems under attack – a point made by Professor Michael Buxton at the recent town planning meeting in Hobart. Another public meeting is being held in Launceston on Tuesday, December 3. While Building and Construction Minister Guy Barnett said the proposed changes to the planning laws would “create certainty for developers” and “bring on more development and growth and jobs” that’s exactly what Prof Buxton warns against in Tasmania.

Tasmania, he says, is the last state to adopt statewide planning changes which favour the property industry.

“What’s been happening in Australia for the last 10 years has been one of the most sustained attacks on resident rights through changes to land use planning systems in this country’s history, and part of a national deregulated approach to favour developers,” Prof Buxton said.

“Tasmania’s heritage and amenity are its greatest strengths. Once that character is changed it’s gone forever.”

Concrete gutters on rural streets and street furniture in seaside towns are ugly symbols of centralised control by planning. Beware the angry gardener.

A public information night, Planning Matters, will be held on Tuesday, 7-9pm, at the Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston.

First published in TasWeekend, Dec 3, 2016 


Recognition at last

A path ahead? The time is right for healthy discussions around “belonging”, and how Aboriginal people can help non Aboriginal people find new, deep and interesting ways to connect to places they live in and to country. Photo: Hilary Burden

It is tragic how little Tasmanians know about their immediate past other than through endless re-writing of “The Black War”. We seem to be capable of only remembering what we did to Aboriginal people, not who they were before genocide, or how they lived their lives.

Northeast Aboriginal poet and historian Greg Lehman sees the Tasmanian condition as “living with sadness” and that to construe a life that doesn’t confront this is “living an unauthentic life”. “The challenge,” says Lehman, “is to create new ways of approaching the subject without going into a colonial foetal position”.

On October 20, under the British Empire gaze of Queen Victoria, the Upper House voted unanimously for historic Constitutional recognition for Tasmania’s First People, the last state in Australia to do so. According to those present there were both tears and applause. In briefings, at least two councillors opened up about their own Aboriginal heritage and how they wanted to learn more to connect.

Representatives of Tasmanian Aboriginal communities gather with Madeleine Ogilvie MP and Premier Will Hodgman outside Parliament House on an historic day for Constitutional recognition

Although Constitutional recognition remains unresolved in the nation’s parliament, in a Bill introduced by Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Premier Will Hodgman, Aboriginal people have finally been recognized in the preamble to the Tasmanian Constitution as “Tasmania’s First People and the traditional and original owners of Tasmanian lands and waters”.

Given its historic significance and the high emotion of some speeches, deputy chair of the Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Corporation Alliance (TRACA) Dr Patsy Cameron was shocked at how little attention the unanimous vote received outside parliament.

It is understandable how non-Aboriginal Tasmanians might not get the true significance of that day, especially when messages from descendants of the First People have long been conflicting. Long-standing Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell, apparently speaking for all Tasmanian Aboriginal people, had previously described the Hodgman Bill as a “politically out of touch gesture” that “does not create a single right or benefit for Aboriginals”.

In a meeting with the Legislative Council last week, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre CEO Heather Sculthorpe – who attended the briefing alone – argued the Bill would put relationships between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people “back to the 1960s”.

However, in a shift that the Premier’s re-setting of the relationship with Aboriginal people is designed to reflect, TRACA’s voice, representing diverse groups of Aboriginal people from around Tasmania, welcomed the occasion with open hearts.

TRACA chair Rodney Dillon says, “It shows a country is maturing and acknowledging things in the past. Only 40 or 50 years ago we were regarded as flora and fauna under the Aboriginal Relics Act. It’s only recently been believed there are other groups [outside the TAC]. It means we can now work on that relationship and what it means for our heritage and culture.”

Fiona Hamilton, spokesperson for the northeast’s melytinah tiakana warrana Aboriginal Corporation (mtwAC) says it was a cathartic moment for everyone. “Something in the political landscape of Tasmania has shifted. Councillors have accepted that our community could be divided just like theirs. They’ve allowed us that respect, that we, as human beings, have a diverse community.”

For Maxine Roughley, CEO of the Flinders Island Aboriginal Association Inc, the day was a step forward but there’s still a lot more work to be done. “Now they know there is another group out there – a group of Aboriginal organisations that have come together to be heard. Hopefully it’s made it easier for the government to consult with us.”

“Work to be done” must surely include addressing how TRACA’s voice that has enabled the momentus shift to occur is funded. It has never been clearer that the TAC does not speak for all Tasmanian Aboriginal people, yet, it is a multi-million dollar organization. Their 2015-16 end financial year report (made available to members only) is believed to show an income of over $13 million including more than $10 million in grants.

On December 3, as patron of Mannalargenna Day, Governor Kate Warner will travel to Cape Portland in the northeast to symbolically honour the 1830s promise made to Mannalargenna by George Augustus Robinson on behalf of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur to return Aboriginal people to their own districts from exile on Flinders Island. mtwAC will advertise and host the visit of the highest officer in the State on a budget of just under $8,000 after being unsuccessful in the latest round of community grants from the local Dorset Council.

“We understand the TAC uses over $2m a year to run their offices and we couldn’t even get a crumb off the table,” says mtwAC director Dr Cameron.

Aboriginal elders are happy to sit and have tea with anyone around the kitchen table. Just ask the Premier who in the past year has consulted widely with Aboriginal people in their communities. TRACA now hopes healthy discussions can be had around “belonging”; and how Aboriginal people can help non Aboriginal people find new, deep and interesting ways to connect to places they live in and to country.

All-comers are welcome at tebrakunna on Mannalargenna Day, December 3, 2016. Aunty Patsy says just bring a picnic lunch.

First published in TasWeekend, November 5, 2016 Copyright Hilary Burden

Defined by pride of place

Home Hill, the home of Dame Enid and Joseph Lyons, built in 1916.
Home Hill, the Devonport home of Dame Enid (Australia’s first woman MP) and Joseph Lyons (the only Tasmanian-born PM), from 1916 to 1981 .

My tour of Joseph and Enid Lyons’ family home reminded how democracy – “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – matters. Not only that, but how key Tasmania has been in the evolution of democracy in Australia.

Home Hill, the Lyons’ home from 1916 to 1981, now jointly managed by Devonport City Council and the National Trust, has just hosted its centenary. Dame Enid, Australia’s first woman MP, would have approved of the volunteer-run garden fete; and how the former PM’s home relies on community volunteers who show pride in maintaining its homespun and worldly treasures as if the couple had just left the room.

Lyons’ plain speaking and honest heart led him to turn his back on the Labor party and form the United Australia Party in 1932. Home Hill manager Ann Teesdale points out that, along with the Greens, two Australian political parties had their origins in Tasmania. In fact, she’d like to see “a democracy bus tour” of both founders’ properties – between Home Hill in Devonport and Oura Oura in Liffey. She says it would inspire people to feel proud of democracy and their ability to effect change.

Which is what a Town Hall meeting in Hobart in ten day’s time is desperately hoping to achieve. November 8 is not only US election day. It’s also World Town Planning Day.

Tasmanians are well acquainted with the spirit of public protest; it has stopped dams and mills. Now, 20 (and growing) community and environment groups (from the Beaumauris Action Network to the Tasmanian Planning Information Network) are joining forces, horrified by the proposed statewide planning scheme which seeks to scrap all local planning schemes and replace them with a single Statewide planning scheme.

The draft Statewide Planning Provisions (SPPs) will make a number of significant changes to the way that use and development is assessed in Tasmania. For example, local councils will have no opportunity to refuse development in National Parks and Reserves that has been approved by the Parks and Wildlife Service, and the public will not be given a chance to comment and/or appeal against many significant tourism developments.

Organisers of the Town Hall meeting say it’s hard to get people to care all over again about highly technical and complex legislation when many have had enough of conflict, are burnt out, and their resilience frayed. Nonetheless, they’re motivated by an incremental weakening of planning laws already underway in other parts of the country that removes the legal rights of home-owners and communities.

Michael Buxton, Professor of Environment and Planning at Melbourne’s RMIT, is one of the speakers lined up for the November 8th Town Hall meeting. In Victoria, Buxton has observed “a paradigm shift away from careful and considered strategy-led planning, towards market-driven, ad hoc development facilitation”.

Three months of public hearings on the draft SPPs are now wrapping up, with Minister Gutwein due to receive the final report from the Tasmanian Planning Commission in early December.

Sophie Underwood from the Freycinet Action Network is stepping into the fray again with 20 years of background in planning at a local level in Swanwick. Through her involvement in numerous appeals tribunals including Federal Hotels and RACT developments in Freycinet, she has learned the importance of appeal rights; how they can lead to better decision-making processes for a community affected by development.

“Without third party appeal it’s hard to hold developers to account,” says Underwood. “This is more important than ever because people don’t realize how the draft statewide planning scheme affects every land title in the state. It’s not only a threat to national parks, threatened species, undeveloped coastline, urban amenity and sites of Aboriginal cultural significance. It could potentially impact on everyone in their own backyard.”

At one of the Tasmanian Planning Commission’s Hobart hearings, Underwood says she pleaded with Chair Greg Alomes to talk to the minister and advise him to re-think the whole thing.

“I get how important it is,” says Underwood. “It’s about a vision for Tasmania. It should be a vision for all of us, not just developers’ ability to shape our future. I don’t want to be a victim of something that we didn’t want in the first place.”

Along with the 19 other groups, Underwood, through Freycinet Action Network, is now sharply focused on raising awareness. “My dream is to pack out the Hobart Town Hall on November and see it overflowing onto the street. The government needs to listen to the people.”

Tasmanians have always had a great connection to place. Our local character, different around every corner, is shaped by a distinctly regional way of life. We should all care if there is a risk of losing the right to shape our own lives in the way we have always done; it’s made us who we are.

First published in TasWeekend, October 29, 2016.

Poets and painters

Poet Adrienne Eberhard (left) and painter Sue Lovegrove find inspiration at The Big Punchbowl. Photo: Hilary Burden

While painter Sue Lovegrove scans the surface of The Big Punchbowl, holding three pencils banded together, poet Adrienne Eberhard arrives to share what she calls “a watery nest”. Artists are perched, delicately like wrens, on driftwood at the edge of the lagoon. With a black book in her lap Adrienne starts playing with words, seeing the fringe of trees, though Sue hasn’t got past the water yet. The morning belching of frogs fascinates her and she’s trying to mark each sound. They’ll sit here for most of the day making friends with the blank page.

Sue and Adrienne are among 18 renowned Australian poets and painters participating in a three-day retreat at The Big Punchbowl Reserve. The wetland oasis is part of a series of lagoons dotted across 244 hectares on the Freycinet peninsula, acquired by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy as its 14th permanent reserve in 2015.

Carol and her late husband Dick Bett, of Hobart’s Bett Gallery, started the poets and painters initiatives (where writers and artists pair up to produce collaborative work) in 1986 as part of the gallery’s audience development.

“Back then, an exhibition was us, the artist and the artist’s mother,” recalls Bett. Artist David Keeling, who’s been with the Bett Gallery from the beginning, and is paired now with poet Edith Speers, acknowledges with gratitude how the gallery’s approach made it possible for artists to live and work in Tasmania.

It’s the first time in 30 years Bett Gallery has joined with a third party. After the TLC’s hosting of a wilderness residency that created The Skullbone Experiment in 2013, it seems a natural match. Both hold passionate regard for their worlds, where species are endangered or rare.

This time last year The Big Punchbowl was empty. January rains have seen the return of the globally threatened green and gold bell frog and waterfowl in large numbers.

The TLC’s Sally Bryant sets off with a party to view two raptor’s nests; later they’re rewarded with three sea eagles soaring above them. Freycinet’s first oyster farmer Andrea Cole shucks oysters while lunch is prepared at the bush camp by the AliCart food truck; wines from Devils Corner just a few kays away.

Andrea, a resident of more than 50 years, recalls when all you could get on the peninsula was a pie and milkshake and there was a set menu at the lodge. She sees the changes. Retired now, and clinically blind, she cares for wildlife and shares her stories at nearby Shuckers Cottages; how Pacific Oysters were a gift from Japan after the Second World War.

Poet Pete Hay is co-curator with Carol. The collaborative works from this retreat will be exhibited in August 2017. Hay calls Tasmania “a poet’s island”. “We’re expecting a lot from them”, says Hay. “Not just one piece. It’s a whole body of work.”

Adrienne, a teacher at St Michael’s Collegiate, has three sons and writes poetry in what she calls “the stolen moment”. She worries social media is discouraging the quiet, contemplative space people need to write and read poetry. “I think if young people never learn to concentrate, to read, to give a poem a go, then they lose something of immense value.  It’s not that we lose poetry but we lose the readership and the potential in ourselves for understanding, empathy, and compassion that poetry can provoke.”

Tasmanian Aboriginal poet and essayist Greg Lehman, who is paired with artist Imants Tillers, has welcomed the group, and urges them to learn the name of the local Aboriginal tribe who once lived in the area. In their watery nest, while they draw and write, Sue and Adrienne repeat the tricky name over and over: Loontittetter Mairrenerhoiner, Loontittetter Mairrenerhoiner, Loontittetter Mairrenerhoiner…

It is fascinating to observe the impulse when in nature there is nowhere else you have to be. It seems it’s what you do with that moment. Those present are practiced at preserving it.

Out of this intimate privacy, the general public will be able to view the extraordinary next August: paintings and poems dug out of stolen moments, caught at The Big Punchbowl. Every story will be different and unique. Not snatched but absorbed and digested. From contemplation speaks the hope of the artist that they might help make the world a better place.

That translucent wallaby skull, a wombat that seemed to walk on water, the orchestra of frogs, wind on the lagoon, a swan with her cygnet, the Blue Love-creeper, the wedding bush and native cherries ripening on the tree…

Poet Jan Colville says to write poetry she has to be excited by something. “It has to have amused me, frustrated me, intrigued me. It’s what I’ve loved, what I’m passionate or curious about.”

“In a way,” muses Colville, “when you’re working on a poem, it’s working on you. For us old fogies you hope it will come back to a point where there is a place and time for contemplation.”

Poet Ben Walter and painter Richie Wastell are about to wade into the middle of the Big Punchbowl. Can’t wait to see what they’ll make of that.

Words & photo copyright Hilary Burden. First published in TasWeekend, October 22nd, 2016

Milk of kindness


Joe Snr, Antonia and Joe Jnr, Elgaar Farm
Joe Snr, Antonia and Joe Jnr, delighted to be making cheese again at Elgaar Farm, Deloraine  Photo: Hilary Burden

Along the bush-lined gravel drive up to Elgaar Farm pretty calves lead stress-free lives, lying with their mums under tall gum trees. The landscape is shaped to mimic the cow’s natural environment on the edges of forests. While a bucolic pastoral scene, it’s hard to believe the cows’ owners have been living on a knife-edge for two years.

The Gretschmanns, parents Joe and Antonia, and their family (5 sons, daughter and grandchildren), had been producing organic milk, cream, and cheese on the Moltema farm near Deloraine for over 20 years. Their cheese making, using traditions dating back over 600 years to Joe’s Bavarian ancestors, had earned international accolades. And, they were one of Australia’s leading organic, family-run dairy farms, renowned for milk in glass bottles delivered in old-fashioned wooden crates.

Elgaar attracted the kind of customer who not only fell in love with the quality of its cheese and the cream on their milk, but the way it was made – ethically, humanely and with passion. Eighty per cent of their products had been trucked to the mainland, selling through 140 shops, with no food safety incidents.

The Gretschmann family gathers itself to tell how, on July 8 2014, Elgaar Farm’s license to manufacture and process dairy products was suspended indefinitely by the Tasmanian Dairy Industry Authority. And how they were only able, finally, to start back on August 23rd this year.  Throughout the suspension period Elgaar continued to hold a separate dairy farmer’s license enabling them to sell milk to other suppliers. But, with a small herd of 100 cows, manufacturers were asking them to commit to a 12-month contract. Elgaar chose not to bind themselves to such contracts, always believing they’d have their license back within a matter of weeks.

The impact of the Authority’s action is not something on which the family wishes to dwell. Instead, they’d rather focus on the good news, making cheese again, returning to farmers’ markets next week, to see old friends and new, and receiving orders for Christmas hampers.
The road back to recovery has been long and painful. They lost their income. Months of unpaid work were spent trying to satisfy the requirements of the TDIA. A dozen employees were let go. Two sons had to leave the family farm. Milk they believed they could no longer sell was dumped on the fields as fertiliser. After satisfying every rule and regulation, they start back with a $400,000 debt.

Minister for Primary Industries and Water Jeremy Rockcliff says the government and the TDIA “work constructively with all dairy processors to ensure they meet the mandatory dairy food safety standards, whether they are large, small or considered ethical or artisanal producers”. But the family is baffled, saying what they have experienced is the precise opposite.

I’m greeted on farm by a child’s warm welcome. “Hello, my name is Andrew.” The Gretschmann’s 5 year-old grandson plays in a farm trailer turned child’s sand pit. Antonia walks up to the cheesery with a pot of freshly brewed coffee. And Gareth, their only daughter Tonia’s partner, is renovating the granary where they hope to soon launch their new organic grain business, milling organic wheat, spelt, barley, rye, linseed, and oats. Gareth says he had to do something with the down time. “Two years is a long time to think about stuff.”

It’s the day before they start making cheese “officially” again. Joe Senior, an imposing and passionate man, whose voice reverberates through the cheesery, greets me with a fat lever arch folder.

“We stopped for two whole years,” he says, “and this is the reason – our food safety program. It used to be 60 pages – now it’s more than 600. We kept our own records but because it didn’t fit into their modern system they chose not to believe us anymore.”

Later he says the industry now is “Kill everything – on the wall, on the floor, on the equipment, even if it’s beneficial. Just kill everything. We work in a natural environment where we encourage beneficial bacteria and resilience of systems to stop listeria growing in the products. While the science knows this exists, it’s incredibly difficult to get this across.”

You don’t interview Joe without interviewing the family; everyone has roles that overlap.

“All over Europe it’s accepted that small factories can do that because it works in small factories,” says Joe Jnr. “In Australia – no. The little ones have to be just like the big ones.”

Joe and Antonia explain how they were in Europe when the cheese factory was closed down. “We came back to a shut factory,” says Joe. “I thought it would take a week. We always thought we’d have the license soon, next week, next month – another four weeks… There was nothing wrong,” says Joe. “It’s just unbelievable what we had to go through – the process, the control. Here we have flow charts…”

He finds pages in the folder. “Every significant step you have to put down, even though I could reel them off… We spent days and days, weeks, trying to mould what we do, this artistic thing, into those pages there. You think this is crazy but you have to do it. If I really have to say it in one word – it’s gone from a passion into a technocratic description.”

You can see why they try hard not to dwell. And why the time they spent with the TDIA was difficult for them. That file represents the recipe for what they have always done by nature. It must have been like asking Picasso to paint by numbers.

Antonia is Joe’s peace and his strength. “This is all designed for the big cheese factories,” says Antonia, who first met Joe in Bavaria when she was an Ag Science student. “There should be a different way for smaller, family-run factories,” she says. “The rules are written for very large operations that haven’t got that single control over the process. We have unique farming and production practices. And we know our cows. You don’t if you have 500 milk suppliers.”

“We don’t make 1000 kg of cheese a day or 10,000 kgs or 100,000 kgs of cheese a day,” explains Joe. “If we make cheese we make 160 kgs a day, from our own farm from our own cows. And we produce for the people. We don’t produce for the legislation or anyone in authority. We have it under control but now we have to prove it. We have to measure it. We have to test it. We have to write it down.”

At the entrance to the cheese-making room now there’s a visitors’ book. Antonia asks me to sign in, write the purpose of my visit, and the time I arrived. “If you don’t do it we are in breach,” she says, calmly.

Joe and Antonia, Gareth and Tonia, and Joe Jnr stand in a semi-circle. Whitewashed walls have been painted over with an impermeable paint, according to required specifications, despite the fact that traditional cheese factories in Europe use whitewash. And the new high spec $100,000 pasteurizer, funded by crowd funding and installed over 12 weeks by Joe Jnr, glows in one corner.

The Elgaar farm story went viral when the option of selling the farm had become a very real one. Money had run out. Without a license they couldn’t get a bank loan. Along with no income, they were considered not to have a viable business.

When they were told a valuer was coming to value the farm they sought help, first from friends and then openly, through crowdfunding on their own website. Tonia says she had to learn some stuff pretty quickly: how to accept payments, set up a shop. They called it their “Comeback Campaign”.

“People were ringing up every day asking when we were coming back,” explains Gareth. “We wondered would any of those people actually put money up to help us?” In four days they raised $100,000, the majority from Tasmanians, enough to pay for the pasteurizer. Within a month the total had reached $230,000. Those who helped the family get through this period are all named and acknowledged on the Elgaar Farm website. “We were stunned. It’s just hard to describe,” says Gareth.

Joe says “People said to us, ‘I’ve got some money in the bank. You have it. I want to see you making cheese again. Build that dam pasteuriser. Get back to the market!’ That’s how we survived I think – it’s the people out there. You still can’t find the words for how it touches you.”

You can understand why the family has decided to get back to business by getting back to farmers’ markets first. It means they can say thank you in person to everyone who’s helped. “We’ve got to pay these people back,” says Gareth. “It’s not just about us and keeping the business alive but unfortunately there is no alternative if you want organic milk that’s not in plastic in Tassie there is just nothing else.”

Joe Jnr explains how they’ll re-build slowly. “Milk volume isn’t that high. We’ve got to start slowly financially as well. We’ve got to ease into it otherwise it’ll be gone again…”

Is there any way the family thinks the Elgaar brand has been damaged through all this? Gareth believes the opposite, that people who are already committed to buying the product are even more committed now. “We could thank the authorities for that,” he says and smiles.

What’s it like to getting back making cheese again?

“Delightful…” says Joe Snr.

“It beats sitting in the office writing things,” says Tonia.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Joe Jnr. “It was like having your hands tied for two years: you can’t touch this, can’t make that. Can’t, can’t… Suddenly we can actually do it!”

Joe’s passion is back. “We made the cheese as we did. We take our hands and get in the cheese as we did. We can taste it, smell, it. We just have to write it all down. Now they can go and look and if they don’t believe me – it’s there.”

Antonia says it’s been a tough, wet winter for the cows but they’ve come through and now it’s warm they’re happy. Joe will tell you when they’ve had enough they turn their backs to the weather. “When it gets really wet cows just sit it out.”

Elgaar Farm returns to Harvest Launceston on Saturday 24th September and Hobart’s Farmgate Market on Sunday 25th September

First published in TasWeekend, September 17-18, 2016

Count blessings, not years

Shane Gould on her early morning ocean swim at Bicheno. Photo: Hilary Burden

I’ve watched two friends turn fifty this week. Twenty, 30, 40, 60… new decades have a way of making us reflect more on where we’ve come to and what we want next. Their birthdays have brought to mind that great Joan Rivers’ saying, “Looking 50 is great if you’re 60.”

There’s something about turning half a century old, however, that makes people stop and think, reflect and plan, sometimes panic. It shares the same fears and expectations of seeing in the New Year – but for your life. You need to be with the right people, in the right place, have the right face on to front the second half.

The recent National Aged Care Summit in Hobart had us thinking about getting older. We heard about the “tsunami of old people” on our doorstep, “the baby boomer bulge”, and how Tasmania is the oldest state in the country (with 16% of our population aged 65+), and ageing faster than any other state. We learnt how demographers divide our ageing population into ‘young olds’ (60-74), ‘mid olds’ (75–84) and ‘older olds’ (85+). How, based on the 2011 Census, 1 in 6 Tasmanians were aged 65+. In 2020, they project that will be 1 in 5, and 1 in 4 by 2030.

In focusing too much on the measuring of age, somehow we wind up thinking an ageing population is a bad thing. Maybe when you count things they get worse. Can we learn to use different words, like ‘the elders’? Or, ‘people older than us’? Or, people in the second half of their life, however long that turns out to be?

Then we might stop thinking of old age as if it were a disease, and more of the mystery that it is. Elders and people older than us are individuals, rather than an expanding, homogenous mass. They know more, have lived longer, weighed it all up and spat it back out. They’re survivors, not on the downhill run of a demographer’s measure.

We are counting too much. Thanks to a friend (who’s about to turn 60) I’ve recently discovered there’s a word for it: “performativity”. She gave me a paper by sociology professor Stephen Ball who defines performativity in an education policy context. He says, “It requires individual practitioners to organize themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluations. To set aside personal beliefs and commitments and live an existence of calculation.”

In his 2001 book The Tyranny of Numbers David Boyle wrote, “We take our collective pulse 24 hours a day with the use of statistics. We understand life that way, though somehow the more figures we use, the more the great truths seem to slip through our fingers. Despite all that numerical control, we feel as ignorant of the answers to the big questions as ever.”

When I think about the elders I know the arc of their lives is so much more fascinating than the short-lived burning desires of youth. Many are spending the second half of their life recovering from being a young person. Many are off the track we think we all need to be on and doing the things they want to do – an attitude often mistakenly thought of as ‘grumpy’. More often than not it’s just contrary to what is expected of them and they’re finally free of paying up and shutting up.

My 50-year-old friend decided to take her motorbike test and buy a second hand bike. She’s riding it now in leathers and beeps every time she roars past the house. At 69, another friend has signed up to study an online course in geology. Another, at 59, starts each morning with an ocean swim. Their age is not the important thing. They’re living a life well lived.

My friend who turns 50 today said how hard it was to hear people complaining about getting older when others haven’t had the chance. Tonight, as she gathers to sing, dance and count her fifty blessings with her loved ones and closest friends, she’ll miss the friend who didn’t make it. She’ll think of others turning 50 who’ve dealt with so much more grief and heartache. Which is why she’s seeing her 50th as a once in a lifetime occasion.

I asked for her thoughts on turning 50. “Life goes fast and can change in a instant,” she wrote, “and so 50 seems as good a time as any to take stock, say thank you, tell the people you love how important they are to you and challenge yourself to live the next stage of your life as best you can.”

Next week she’s jetting off to New York for the first time. Fifty’s a number she’s chosen to embrace. Meanwhile, I’ve been raiding the book of milestone birthday quotations, and chosen this by Albert Einstein.

“People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live…[We] never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”

Happy 50th Birthdays to Roisin: thank you for your magic and words, and to Bron: thank you for your friendship and all the loving things you do.

Coffee Club ocean swim group, Bicheno
Coffee Club ocean swim group, Waub’s Bay, Bicheno. Photo: Hilary Burden


In a league of their own

Watching the Hampson-Hardeman Cup, the AFL Women’s All Star Match, last weekend you couldn’t help but notice how good it was and how well it flowed. Women have played football for 100 years – we just haven’t seen them.

We’re watching something new. And it’s proved a TV ratings success, with over a million viewers nationally tuning in to watch the Saturday game, and a record for any Saturday night AFL match.

Culturally, Australians are not accustomed to seeing a team of strong women play high profile sport. We’re used to tall and agile women make a name for themselves in netball or basketball. Swimmers and tennis players make front-page news, often more for their looks than their skill.

Sure, there’s women’s cricket and soccer teams that rate a mention now and then.

But AFL is different. It’s Australia’s game and a contact sport, reflecting a unique culture. It’s fast, tough, and calls for skill at kicking, hand-balling, marking and tackling. Until now, women mostly made news for being glamorous wives – ornaments not equals – certainly not for kicking a goal from 55m, as the Demons’ Tayla Harris did.


The genie is out. Women who love to play footie will no longer struggle to be noticed or have a voice. They have a league of their own. The inaugural national women’s league kicks off in February 2017.

Last weekend, the Western Bulldogs and the Melbourne Demons ran onto the Whitten Oval wearing smiles. There were blondes and brunettes, ponytails and headbands. No one even cared if they were wearing makeup or not because their passion and talent was what mattered. What they came to do was what counted. No mention of hip measurement or cleavage. This is what happens when women are treated equally and respectfully.

One reporter observed it was all commentators could do to keep up with the play, at first stumbling over terms like “ruckwoman”. Soon, it will be the norm.

Our Watch (part of the government plan to reduce violence against women and children) partnered with the AFL for last Saturday’s game. They’re onto the value of this, while sponsors are also beginning to sit up and take interest.

Our Watch CEO Mary Barry said, “Sport has an influence way beyond the field it is played on. Providing opportunities and pathways for young women and girls to play AFL at an elite level normalizes the role that women play in our sport – on the field, in the clubroom and in the boardroom. Gender equality is at the core of healthy, respectful relationships.”

While men have often hidden their emotions behind the game, there’s something different happening with women players. We know already Moana Hope, who scored 6 goals for the Bulldogs and was best on ground on Saturday, is from the school of hard knocks. And Katie Brennan is a former bulimia sufferer who now sees beauty in and harnesses power from physical strength.

“Strong is the new pretty”, said Brennan memorably.

The new code marks a continuation of a necessary evolution for the AFL. Racism and sexism have long found common ground, on and off the field. Just as footy fans are being challenged to focus on the player not colour, this goes for women too, being recognised for who they are and what they can do, not what they look like.

Bulldogs vice-president Dr Susan Alberti is at the heart of the revolution. She was one of many signatories to a letter of complaint to Channel 9 about their treatment on The Footy Show. Sam Newman called the signatories liars and hypocrites and Alberti fought back, suing for defamation.

An apology from Channel Nine was read out in court, saying the network had not intended to impute Dr Alberti was a liar. She received $220,000 compensation, ironically helping to fund the women’s league.

Alberti told Australian Story, “I believe the culture of any organization, particularly AFL, it comes from the top. And I was making noises behind the scenes, albeit ruffling a few feathers, saying this is crazy, why haven’t we got women playing AFL football? It’s not a privilege, it’s a right.”

Racing Victoria should consider itself on notice, using topless models alongside horses and men in suits to advertise the upcoming Spring Racing Carnival. It was only less than a year ago Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

The AFL said that amongst the final total of 6,365 at Whitten Oval were “little girls sporting the unusual combination of over-sized footy jumpers and fairy dresses”. Now that’s a look. And, in a second-quarter televised interview, Bulldogs President Peter Gordon proudly said, “I see a future in which girls know that they can not only watch the game and love the game but play it at the highest level. It’s fantastic to know that half the population, the female population, get to play this game, get to start up a league of their own.”

The Hampson-Hardeman Cup is named in recognition of female football pioneers Barb Hampson and Lisa Hardeman who developed the first women’s championships in 1998.


First published in TasWeekend, September 10, 2016

Touring the new Tate

Inside the new Tate extension last August 2015
Inside the new Tate extension, London, last August 2015

Tasmanians know well the transformative powers of a museum.  This week, flocking to MONA’s Dark Mofo festival, they were feasting outdoors in bitter winds, preparing to swim naked, or practising a day of silence to mark the Winter Solstice.

Yesterday in London, after 8 years in construction, the Tate Modern extension had its official unveiling.The parent building opened 15 years ago in a former 1950s oil-fired power station on the south bank of the River Thames and is one of the UK’s top three tourist attractions with 5 million visitors a year.

Last year I was fortunate to have a private tour of the new extension with Martin, my twin, the project design director for Ramboll in the UK, responsible for the structural, facade geotechnical and civil engineering design. It’s been his passion for 8 years, from appointment to opening, including a pause and partial opening of the oil tanks for the London 2012 Olympics.

When I’m in Hobart I feel connected to my twin. Marty graduated from UTAS with a Bachelor of Engineering in the 1980s and one of his first jobs, with Philp Lighton Floyd Beattie engineers, was on the Port of Hobart control tower near Constitution Dock where I feel he’s watching over me. He left his mark on the North Hobart Oval stand, too, and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s Macquarie St entrance.

In London last summer, donning compulsory hard hat and steel-toed boots, I was able to trip through the inside of this amazing space from my brother the engineer’s perspective.

You have to understand the engineer’s perspective isn’t sexy. It often involves holes in the ground, particulars about building materials, and measurements that fail to translate into the kind of awe you know you should be feeling. Frequently the engineer’s discourse incurs grumbles about architects who seemingly get all of the glory while engineers have about as much profile as, well, a hole in the ground.

But I’ve learned to appreciate that what holds up a building is as important as what you see and how you live in it. So often the message is lost in translation, with attention gravitating towards the design instead, rather like moths to flames.

Last August, Marty told me how this building was structurally and geometrically unique: using a “bricks and sticks” system designed and developed by Ramboll, with not one single right angle. Practically every form of concrete is employed (insitu, precast, post tensioned, exposed, panelized, and three-dimensionally framed), and, on top of it all, spans London’s highest and newest steel pedestrian bridge. The perforated sloping masonry façade – like a piece of giant origami – contains vast cathedral-like spaces.

IMG_4237 IMG_4242

What I truly appreciated about this building, even a year before completion, was how it made me feel. Despite being surrounded by busy builders in high-vis and hard hats, I wanted to dance right through its open levels laid with unstained oak timber flooring and waltz down spiraling staircases that put people first.

The £260m extension, called the Switch House, revolutionizes the idea of a public gallery.  The 11-storey high brick pyramid is built on top of oil storage tanks that once serviced the power station. Designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, it provides an additional 60% of gallery space dedicated to live art, film and installations – what Tate Modern’s Director Sir Nicholas Serota calls “a different kind of art because in 15 years art itself has changed”.

As MONA-goers know, art is being experienced and lived not simply observed or viewed. You get the sense that this will be the measure of this Century.

Aside from this week’s reviews, design critiques and fancy openings, I remind myself what this building does is put the common brick centre stage.

The hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the Great Wall of China, the largest man-made object on the planet; the Hagia Sophia, one of the most beautiful churches ever built; the structure of India’s Taj Mahal; the unforgettable profile of the Chrysler building in New York – all these have one thing in common – they were built out of brick, perhaps the most ubiquitous and yet least regarded of materials.

At the Switch House, 380,000 bricks were placed on the façade, matching those on the existing museum, but at the same time creating something radically new – a perforated brick lattice through which interior lights glow in the evening.  Yanchee Lau, the design associate and expert at computational design in 3D, spent the majority of his time on the brickwork. “We gasped at the ambition, barely able to grasp the level of attention that it would demand from us,” he said, “but we knew that it was going to be special.” Lau began the process of drawing every brick and anointed each one with a name.  Hand-laying each and every brick, he says, was central to assembling it.

Marty told me Derek Byrne, the man who laid the new gallery’s first brick in August 2014, laid the last one on Valentine’s Day this year before the ten-week process of disassembling the scaffolding. When I asked more about Derek, Marty emailed that he looked a very seasoned, well-worn brickie, probably in his late 50s, from Essex where his company is based. “He’s super proud of what he and his team accomplished. They’re now moving on to develop ideas for Roman Abramovich’s new football stadium for Chelsea – where 6 million bricks are required.”




Where else in the world?


Wilhelmina, Orlando & Denvor at Orford, with Maria Island in the background
Wilhelmina, Orlando & Denvor at Orford, with Maria Island in the background

In my 20s I lived and worked in Hobart and spent holidays in Orford, doing the sort of stuff we take for granted in Tasmania. Typically: sailing, boating, fishing, snorkeling and diving.

Back then I remember watching a young girl with long, sun-bleached hair ride a horse bare back down the road to Millingtons’ Beach; two boys kept up on foot behind. Although not knowing who she was, I’ve carried her image with me throughout my life – a tantalizing reminder of the lifestyle I’d left behind to follow jobs in big cities. To me, that young girl oozed natural spirit and outdoor freedom – a symbol of a special Tassie way of life.

I’m telling you this because last week I happened to meet that girl – a young mum called Wilhelmina Rea. Now 32, with two boys Orlando, 4, and Denvor, 3, she still holidays in Orford, at Porthcawl, the home barged over from Maria Island during the Depression by her great grandfather Len Nettlefold.

Rea is one of a growing number of residents who’ve joined Marine Protection Tasmania Inc. They’re so alarmed about Tassal’s plans to develop a 28-pen fish farm in Okehampton Bay, Triabunna opposite the World Heritage Maria Island National Park, in April they started a campaign: “No Fish Farms In Tasmania’s East Coast Waters”. Vice President Grant Gaffney, who’s been diving on the east coast for 30 years, confirms 490 local and 1500 online signatories.

Locals walking their dogs on the front beach stop to swap the latest with Rea. They tell me they feel the concerns of families who’ve holidayed there for generations have largely been ignored. Information days, they say, do not equate to securing a social license. They’re worried the Marine Farm Planning Act was written in 1995, and want to see a new marine approval process for the fish farm instigated because the lease for fin fishing in Okehampton Bay was granted nearly two decades ago, to Spring Bay Seafoods. A lot has changed since then, they say, not least rising sea temperatures, toxic algal blooms, severe depletion of fish and abnormal coastal erosion.

Tassal, Australia’s largest salmon producer, stresses it has undertaken engagement in the area. “We may not have everyone on the same page,” says CEO Mark Ryan, “but we’re doing it within the rules and being accountable”. “For us to have a social license doesn’t mean we have to please every single individual.” Marine Protection Tasmania remains far from convinced – with some 2000 voices Tassal has failed to convert – and are focused on the next stage of their campaign.

I used to sail in a trailer sailer across to Maria from Orford, so I know what Rea means when she says she’s grown up swimming with dolphins in Chinaman’s Bay, fishing for crayfish in a bikini in knee-high deep water, floundering at night, and counting shooting stars through the boat cabin window. She shows me a photo of her, aged 2, in nappy and lifejacket, fishing with her father who’s holding up the biggest flathead you’re ever likely to see.

Wilhelmina fishing with her late father, Robbie

“I’ve always dreamt of doing that with my own children,” says Rea. “I want them to have the same experiences and opportunity on the East Coast as I have.” She says Orlando was in a boat when he was 3 weeks old, and Denvor even earlier than that. “I’m nurturing the same thing.” But with the onset of East Coast fish farms Rea believes much of that is at stake.

Orlando runs up to greet us on the beach with a fist-sized crab shell he’d just found. “Never in my wildest dreams would I think all this would be taken away from me,” observes Rea. She and her mother, Willie, are preparing for the kind of battle they never thought they’d have to fight. Already, Orlando talks of fish farms collectively as “poo poo fish farms”.

Sharing crab shells
Orlando sharing crab shells

It’s not just her boys Rea cares about, but generations of other family histories she hopes to protect. Next to the old Aga in the Porthcawl kitchen hang two framed photos: her mother in the arms of Wilhelmina’s late father Robbie, on their honeymoon on Prosser Bay. Rea says her parents had packed up their Sydney lives in the back of a Holden after “cracking it in a traffic jam”. They even dug up the lemon tree and stuffed it in the boot of the car before driving to Tassie. That lemon tree survives and has broad branches now.

Willie and Robbie on honeymoon on Prosser Bay
Willie and Robbie on honeymoon on Prosser Bay

As children, Rea and her three brothers, fifth generation Nettlefolds, spent every weekend and entire school holidays going up the coast to Porthcawl, sailing to Maria Island in “The Rose”, four kids squeezed in with windsurfers, boogie boards, surfboards, diving gear, fishing, and “epic amounts of food”.

She says every day her mother worries about where else they will go if fish farms eventuate and the waters where they’ve played are changed for good. “Do we have to think about moving to Flinders Island?” she ponders.

Mother & daughter
Mother & daughter

Rea says she’s not against fish farms, just not in these waters. She knows there are more sustainable ways of farming fish and wonders why farming has to take place in the bay where locals have always played and fished.

Willie minds the two boys as Rea sifts through folders of facts, papers, and letters. Orlando wants his mum’s attention but she’s preoccupied, pointing out that Tassal’s proposed timeline of works for Okehampton Bay (detailed on their website) is starting shore base construction this year and installation of marine infrastructure in 2017.

“It’s not just me, but so many families share a proud connection to the culture of this coast,” says Rea. “I teach my boys how to catch crayfish from the paddleboard. Where else in the world can you get that? Where else can you light a fire on the beach and have lunch together eating fresh crayfish? If we have fish farms in our East Coast waters, chances are we won’t have that anymore.”

“Where else in the world?” matters. It brings us home to ourselves. Our island connections to land and sea matter, as much as our need to exploit them. Any doubts about that cause sleepless nights for those with caring hearts.

Stapletons Beach overlooks Maria Island
Sheer beauty: Stapletons Beach overlooking Maria Island

Tassal is holding an Information Display of the Okehampton lease and shore base operations at the Triabunna community hall next Saturday, June 18, 10 am – 2pm.

First published in TasWeekend, June 11 2016

That’s me, sailing on Prosser Bay