The First Tasmanians


The opening of a permanent gallery dedicated to 40,000 years of Aboriginal culture marks a turning point in creative collaboration – but tensions remain as communities find their way forward.

One of the most striking features of The First Tasmanians: Our Story exhibition at Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, is a wall map of Tassie that has never been seen before. It depicts Tasmanian Aboriginal clans, and it is mesmerising. Shades of ochre, as opposed to lines, represent porous boundaries belonging to 57 known nations: the Toogee around Macquarie Harbour, Hobart’s Mouheneenner peoples, and the Leterremairrener in the north. In a side key, swan rookeries are identified, along with hunting and marine harvesting grounds.

Nearby is a black crow shell necklace, uncovered only recently in the permanent exhibition’s curatorial journey. It is thought to have belonged to Trucanini, for a long time wrongly considered the last full-blood speaker of a Tasmanian language. A massive projection of stars shows how the southern sky looked 50,000 years ago, long before the land bridge formed and Aboriginal people arrived in Tasmania. And an epic warrener shell necklace made by artist Julie Gough hangs on the wall – you have to take a step back to view it.

Until now, such aspects of the First Peoples’ culture have rarely been shared or acknowledged outside Aboriginal academic circles. A crack curatorial team headed by Jon Addison and David Maynard has plundered the extensive writings of former QVMAG director N.J.B. (Brian) Plomley, author of the seminal Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829-1834. On his death, Plomley donated his collection of books, maps and papers from the 1950s to the ‘80s to the museum.

Instead of a primary focus on The Black War – a 30-year period of intensive conflict between European colonisers and Aboriginal people culminating in Robinson’s exile of 135 Aborigines at Wybalenna on Flinders Island – the spotlight is on families and their way of life. Who knew so many clans thrived over many thousands of years in every part of Tasmania, each with its own architecture, names, technology, cultural practices and language?

Project manager and consultant curator Greg Lehman says the clan map is just one of the “wow factors” of the new gallery. He should know. Lehman has spent 15 years working with two galleries as a member of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s Aboriginal Advisory Council and the National Museum of Australia. He is also consulting to Mona as it develops the concept for a proposed Truth and Reconciliation Art Park as the centrepiece of Hobart’s Macquarie Point site redevelopment.

Lehman says the aim of The First Tasmanians is to jolt people out of their comfort zone – to see there were Tasmanian families living here 40,000 years ago. He says the team didn’t want a comfortable, old-fashioned museum of European record based just on archaeologist and anthropologist research. “There has to be another narrative,” he says.

The first permanent Aboriginal exhibition at QVMAG had its beginnings in the ’90s with a small installation at the top of the stairs. Lehman calls it “a little presence” – put together by North-East elder Patsy Cameron, a Coastal Plains descendant of North-East warrior Mannalargenna.

“We were so happy to have an expression of our culture in a corner of Royal Park,” says Dr Cameron, who is widely known as Aunty Patsy. “We were once placed alongside the museum’s curiosities. Look at us now – it is an amazing legacy.”

Just a stone’s throw away, in Cataract Gorge, Aboriginal clans once met and gathered for ceremony, hunting and trade. From the roof of the gallery at Royal Park, it is tempting to imagine pillars of white smoke from clan fires drifting up through the magnificent dolerite cleft.

It’s early June and the wind is chilling at Scottsdale’s Northeast Park when I catch up with Aunty Patsy on Reconciliation Day. About 25 people have gathered for a cultural event put on by Dorset Council. Former and current mayors and deputy mayors are present, along with local Aboriginal families and friends, teaching string-making and shaping music sticks from dogwood, later to be clapped together in a brief dance. The Yarning Circle (a loose gathering formed around these activities) is designed to help connect communities through cultural conversations, promoting a show of respect in the face of differing views.

Aunty Patsy is down to give a talk on the history of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture, “recognising the struggle but celebrating the strength in community for keeping it alive and thriving”. She is disappointed so few have turned up in the bitter cold, but she’s pleased to see the council supporting a Reconciliation Day event.

Along with cultural practitioner Dave Mangenner Gough from the Tiagarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Devonport, Aunty Patsy is co-chair of QVMAG’s Aboriginal Reference Group, formed before the exhibition was proposed. Also in the group are artists Vicki West and Lola Greeno, and Arts Tasmania program officer Denise Robertson.

Members of the Aboriginal Elders Council and Clyde Mansell from the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania (established to manage the state’s indigenous land) contributed cultural voices and objects to the gallery, including necklaces, baskets and kelp water carriers made by elders. Launceston organisations, groups and key individuals, including the Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (TAC), were invited to information sessions. TAC staff or representatives did not attend.

Lehman says the desire was “to complement not duplicate” what TMAG does (there’s little reference here, for example, to contact history). A Mona-style phone app has been developed for teachers and students, and 3D gaming technology has been used to demonstrate sea level rising (you get to see the Bassian land bridge rise and fall).

“This is not 200 years. This is deep time. Time that is almost impossible to imagine,” Lehman says. “It’s 10 times older than the pyramids – what does that even mean? The stars aren’t where they should be. Tasmania as an island doesn’t exist. The sea level is 150m lower, not 2cm higher. The coastline was way out to the continental shelf. We are challenging your point of view, trying to make the mind-boggling accessible.”

I am taken on a tour of the gallery by its director Richard Mulvaney. Upstairs in the main gallery, we visit one of QVMAG’s most treasured possessions, Aborigines of Tasmania 1859. The famous painting by Australian colonial artist Robert Dowling is based on a series of watercolour drawings made in the early 1830s by convict artist Thomas Bock, whose portrait of young Aboriginal girl Mathinna, adopted and abandoned by the then Governor of Tasmania, is held by TMAG.

Dowling made his impressive painting in London and presented it to the citizens of Launceston to be exhibited in the Mechanics’ Institute in 1860. It was later transferred to QVMAG for its opening in 1891, where it has remained ever since – “virtually in the very same place”, Mulvaney says.

The painting, along with other works by John Glover and Bock, shows Tasmanian Aboriginal people with a sense of majesty and nobility, although the artists’ humanity came far too late to save them. Very little has since evolved in the positive depiction of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Lehman says Tasmania has been slow off the mark compared with the rest of Australia to celebrate the culture of its First Peoples, “not least because Tasmania has an uneasy relationship with its past: a history of genocide”. “You could say there’s been an attitude of ‘least said, soonest mended’, or ‘let sleeping dogs lie’, or ‘too hard, let’s not go there’,” he says.

But there is something in the air in Tasmania with institutions factoring in the First Peoples in a different way, perhaps led by an increasing number of visitors looking for our “points of difference”. Take, for example, Federal Hotel’s new MACq 01 Hotel telling a story through objects of the Mouheneenner people who “fished and forged dreams in the Derwent shallows”. Guides or “master storytellers” take guests on the 114 Doors Storytelling Tour through “a patchwork of stories and artefacts that punctuate our hallways”.

Then there’s Mona’s Truth and Reconciliation Art Park proposal, with its recognition of the 30-year war between British invaders and Aboriginal people and the celebration of 40,000 years of continuous culture; and a new not-for-profit body, the Reconciliation Council of Tasmania, set to launch on August 9 (UN Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples), bringing the state in line with the rest of the country.

Reconciliation Australia’s Bill Lawson (the only Tasmanian board member, and founder and past chair of the Beacon Foundation) says RCT aims to improve relations between the state’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and ease tensions within the indigenous community. He acknowledges there’s work to be done in helping the Aboriginal communities of Tasmania come together and hopes the RCT will play a key role in that.

Institutions are responding to a long-held desire of visitors, as well as non-Aboriginal Tasmanians, to connect with a deeper sense of place and history. It is a different approach to, say, the TAC’s “Aboriginal Land” sign at Risdon Cove or the permission required to visit on Aboriginal land at Preminghana on the West Coast.

“Let’s go there” has been the approach with The First Tasmanians, but via a different perspective – “a commitment to inclusivity and valuing diversity”, Lehman says, “rather than trying to emphasise one privileged, European perspective, which means we’re also open to what people want to say”.

The approach includes newly commissioned works by renowned artists Gough, Greeno and West, who are all part of the National Indigenous Artists Triennial at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia. Visitors are guided to view First Tasmanians’ history not through a colonial filter but through a rich, deep, human past.

Mulvaney, whose late father was a pre-historian renowned as the father of archaeology in Australia, says the new gallery has national significance, describing it as “very valuable”. Some artefacts from the museum’s collection are only now seeing the light of day.

Last Mannalargenna Day – an annual celebration held in December on the anniversary of North East warrior Mannalargenna’s death in 1835 – QVMAG curator Addison and designer Andrew Johnson returned three hunting sticks from the museum’s collection to Country. They wore protective gloves to hold the precious artefacts, thought to have belonged to Mannalargenna, that now form part of The First Tasmanians. “One member of the Aboriginal community saw them and cried,” Addison says, “so moved were they to see them on Country again.” Many Aboriginal people in Tasmania trace their lineage back to Mannalargenna.

QVMAG guides have been tutored in cultural awareness. “It’s been a process of empowering the institution, its staff and curators,” Lehman says. “Creative collaboration is one of the great things that has developed through this partnership – to be able to think together and uncover things.”

You can understand why, at a time like this, with such positive outcomes driven by passion, research, lived experience and collaborative expertise, raising the subject of rifts between Aboriginal people has the potency of a wrecking ball. But rifts are in the air this NAIDOC Week.

Across Australia they come with a name: “lateral violence” is being openly addressed. In a recent article in Guardian Australia, “Too white, too black, or not black enough?”, @IndigenousX host Shannan Dodson describes lateral violence as “a festering sore of colonisation that continues to tear our communities apart”. Dodson writes how “anger and frustration about feeling powerless can lead to violence – not ‘vertically’ towards the colonisers responsible for the oppression but ‘laterally’ towards their own community”.

In Tasmania, this rift can be seen playing out between the TAC (formed in Launceston in 1971 to provide services to Aboriginal people, with offices in Launceston, Hobart and Burnie) and TRACA (Tasmanian Regional Aboriginal Communities Alliance), formed in 2015, representing seven groups in regions around the state, including Flinders Island, Circular Head and Bruny Island. Rodney Dillon is TRACA chair, while Aunty Patsy, who turned 70 this year, is vice-chair. Aunty Patsy also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Tasmania this year, and was last month awarded an Order of Australia for her services to indigenous education.

In a Mercury Talking Point last year, Aunty Patsy and Dillon explained the group’s formation as a response to “the continued mantra that the TAC was the only voice to speak for all Tasmanian Aboriginal people”, and to “better respond to the Hodgman Government’s policy to reset relationships with Aboriginal people”. While they acknowledge the TAC, they say it does not speak for them and say the TAC continues to meet and make decisions (especially about heritage, language and constitutional recognition) that appear to exclude them.

For example, palawa kani, a revived form of the original Tasmanian Aboriginal languages, was first developed as a project in 1999 in conjunction with the TAC. In this NAIDOC Week, themed “Our Languages Matter”, the TAC portrays it as the Aboriginal language. Schools are following their program.

In contrast, TRACA views palawa kani as “a creole language” and says there are other avenues to naming, including the works of Plomley (for example, A Word-List of The Tasmanian Aboriginal Languages).

In response, the State Government has halted the dual naming process until names can be agreed between everyone. At the time of writing, however, the Office of Aboriginal Affairs has not caught up with the re-setting agenda. Its website still endorses an Aboriginal and dual naming policy implemented in accordance with the TAC.

There are other tensions, too. Recent satirical article Tracking My Way by playwright Nathan Maynard, “published” in The Census Black and posted on his Facebook page, depicts him dressed in costume as a character he calls “Aunty Judy McConnell”. Some who see the creation as a vicious parody of real Aboriginal Tasmanians are distressed by apparent allusions to themselves in the spoof feature.

Maynard, a descendant of Mannalargenna, wrote his own story about his family’s muttonbirding culture on Big Dog Island in the play The Season, which played at the Sydney Festival and Ten Days on the Island. Along with Rob Braslin, he recently returned from a five-day workshop for new comedy writers organised by producers from the ABC’s Black Comedy. He described the Aunty Judy spoof as “my first piece as a journalist”, posting it on his Facebook page, hoping it would “get a spot on the community pinboard”. Among the comments were “too genuine” and “the next thing Hodgman’ll get her on the TRACA thingy”.

Maynard says the article was intended as satirical and was timed around the 2016 Census figures, which he says showed “a lot of people are claiming to be Aboriginal with no evidence of ancestry”. He wrote it for the community – his Tasmanian Aboriginal community – “the one that comes from the Bass Strait islands and the old fellas who came off the Reserve on Cape Barren Island”.

While recognising the Aboriginality of Dillon, Aunty Patsy and others, he says many are “imposters who wake up black one week” and that “true Aboriginals fight for land and rights”.

On the eve of NAIDOC Week, the TAC called for a “forensic audit” of the number of people claiming Aboriginality in the 2016 Census. The rise from 19,000 to 23,000, they say, doesn’t add up.

Aunty Patsy, whose mother was born at Cape Barren Island, believes Maynard is mocking aspects of her cultural practice. “A small group of people is inflicting lateral violence on Facebook and in public, while many others are showcasing our wonderful culture and telling our stories to the world,” she says. “For Nathan Maynard, it’s about credibility for himself as an individual. There is not one voice – we are many voices.”

Some elders who have kept cultural practices alive felt shamed by the satire, regarding it as an abusive form of attack. Aboriginal family violence worker Fiona Hamilton says “elder abuse is rampant in our communities”.

“And we have very high levels of family violence and a lot of under-reporting,” she says, describing Maynard’s posting as “an extremely complex little meme” and a “prime example of lateral violence and cyber-bullying”. “If a non-Aboriginal person wrote that, especially at a time when we’re struggling with power and the abuse of power, all hell would break loose.”

Can the positive depiction of The First Tasmanians go any way towards healing hostilities? Or are great tensions a sign of the extraordinary challenge of sustaining a living, evolving culture? How do you sustain a culture simply by trying to preserve it?

Singer-songwriter Dewayne Everettsmith, from mina-nina, an indigenous-owned company specialising in indigenous tourism and events in Tasmania, is unashamedly commercial in his approach. He sees the future in making their culture professional.

“We want to return our community to culture by encouraging them to learn skills and work in professionalised jobs, competing on a contemporary level in a high-quality, demanding industry,” he says. “We believe that competing culturally, not politically, will provide the best outcome for our people.”

In The First Tasmanians, Gough’s warrener necklace is suspended on a driftwood hook. Describing it as “a wayfinder”, it is the artist’s way of amplifying her culture. The making and wearing of shell necklaces by Aboriginal women is a traditional cultural activity that has survived 1800 years. It is certain to survive satire, too. The clan map of Tasmania is a powerful representation of diverse communities looking after their kin, their local heritage and their language. Can The First Tasmanians help provide a track back to that?

“We are a broad church,” Lehman says.

I ask how he would say that in Aboriginal language.

“Waranta [all of us] mapali [mob],” he says. “That’s the palawa kani spelling. Plomley records several other spellings.”

Though Mulvaney expects some fallout, he is undaunted by the gallery’s task. “It is absolutely vital we tell the Tasmanian Aboriginal story,” he says. “And there’s more to tell. But not by us – as in QVMAG staff. We are guided by the Aboriginal Reference Group. They’ve guided us through what could have been a murky and unhappy process. They’ve instructed, informed and we’ve responded. We’ve given it a very good shot. It is their story. And in telling their story through the gallery and our public programs, it becomes all our story.”

The First Tasmanians – Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, 2 Wellington St, Launceston. Entry is free. The gallery is open daily, from 10am-4pm.

Published in TasWeekend, July 8, 2017


A floating protest


Commercial scale fisher Chris Massie anchored in Okehampton Bay. Photo: Hilary Burden

JUST bring a sleeping bag and a toothbrush. You can sleep in the same clothes. That’s what I’ve been doing,” comes the message from 53-year-old skipper Chris Massie aboard the Mater Cara. I pack an esky and drive to Orford, where a friend will take me on the half-hour boat trip from the Prosser River jetty to Okehampton Bay.

In my 20s, cameraman Andy and I spent holidays at Orford, fishing for flathead with a handline and sailing across to Maria Island for sleepovers. We’d throw over an anchor and swim in the clear waters of Okehampton Bay, too. It offered the kind of tranquility yachts seek – shelter in shallow waters with a white-sand beach – along with a clear view to Maria Island. The only road access was through farmland and a gate kept open for those in the know.

In the Mercury on September 11, 1884, a correspondent described Okehampton Bay as “an excellent shelter landlocked on three sides” and “the beau ideal of a port for Maria Island”. At different times, though there’s little sign now, Okehampton boasted a whaling station, post office, store and quarry. Okehampton sandstone was used to build the Melbourne Law Courts, Victorian Library and Town Hall. The correspondent records the quarry failed because “too much was expected from it”.

It seems industry’s quest is nothing new at Spring Bay.

Twenty-eight fish pens will soon house 800,000 fish at Tassal’s Okehampton fish farm. I’m revisiting Okehampton to meet Massie, a fisherman who has taken up temporary residence in the bay to make a stand against the fish farm.

Despite the Federal Government giving the final environmental tick of approval for the farm two days earlier, Massie is sticking to his two-week vigil. Barges are being loaded up at Triabunna with buoys, ropes, anchors and concrete blocks ready to have fish in Tassal’s pens by the end of the month – proof that local mayor Michael Kent was right when he said plans for Okehampton Bay were “almost done and dusted” in the weeks before the ruling.

Back in the ’80s, Andy and I were colleagues reporting on the Franklin Dam when the No Dams referendum vote led to the demise of the Holgate Government. Now, here we are taking photos of barges against the dramatic backdrop of Maria Island, a National Park on land and sea.

Councillor Kent supports the salmon industry. He says it is creating jobs in a region that desperately needs them. But a recent Mercury poll found 48 per cent of Tasmanians do not want salmon farming at Okehampton Bay, with a majority 52 per cent in the Lyons electorate opposed. It might as well be dam wars, or forest wars, all over again.

The Glamorgan Spring Bay Council has previously identified Triabunna-Orford and Maria Island as “a visitor gateway” to the East Coast. Now, the warm East Coast welcome is split; neighbours, including this month’s two key players, are at loggerheads. It just so happens that Mark Ryan, Tassal’s chief executive, lives on the waterfront in the same Lower Sandy Bay street as Massie – in fact, just two doors down. Massie says when he makes his morning cuppa, he can see Ryan watering his trees.

The wind on the water is brisk as we speed across the bay in a 200hp motorboat. Andy points out a giant sea eagle’s nest in the branches of a dead tree at Flensers Point. Flenser, a French word meaning “to strip the blubber or skin from a whale or seal”, points to Okehampton’s history as one of the East Coast’s major whaling stations in the 1820-40s. Just around the corner, we find Massie sheltering in the bay.

On board, I watch as Massie makes tea in winter sunshine reflecting sharply off the clear turquoise sea. Mugs are warmed with hot water before he slices off two hunks of cake that the Wilsons, friends from the Channel, brought in support. Massie’s fish-fingered hands look too big for the delicate sponge.

Supporters delivered a sponge cake for Massie during his two-week protest. Photo: Hilary Burden

His sentences are economical. He doesn’t embellish, rage or rush. At night in his bunk, he listens to an audiobook on the life of the father of peaceful resistance, Mahatma Gandhi.

As he watches the barges laying the anchor buoys, he turns and says he knows some of the men working on the boats but holds nothing against them. He knows they’ve got to work. But he is sick of what he sees as spin and greed. He says he knows he’s not going to make a difference, but he wonders if, with Tassal’s “industrial fish farm”, Tasmania is witnessing “the last of our hunters and gatherers”. “It’s hard to say without accusing someone though, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s a bloody fine line.”

He says sadness, not anger, is his prevailing emotion on the water: “In 20 or 30 years’ time, at least I can say I put my point of view in a passive way.” He says he was nervous on day one of his protest. “But I reckon you’d bloody regret it later in life if you didn’t do anything about it. Two weeks in the scheme of things isn’t long, is it? I’m just not earning any money.”

Chris Massie with a map of the Mercury Passage on board the Mater Cara. Photo: Hilary Burden

Many friends have visited him over the 11 days and he has received plenty of messages and emails. One visitor was Malcolm Ferguson, a boat-builder and crayfisher from Triabunna who built the Rachel Christine, the last timber fishing boat in Tasmania. Massie shares one of the video diaries he’s been making to record his time on board. In it, he is having dinner with Ferguson in the downstairs fo’c’sle. Ferguson says he’s been fishing the area since 1980 and that it’s still pristine. “We haven’t damaged it. I don’t want it to start now,” he says, looking directly into the iPad camera.

Tim James, Massie’s best friend for 30 years from their Rosny College days, stayed for three nights. Massie had to ban him from the small galley kitchen because he didn’t leave things how he wants them. When James’ wife Ange visited, she took videos of the pair on her mobile phone but lost them all when she dropped it over the side into the water. Ange also happens to be Premier Will Hodgman’s sister. It’s a very Tasmanian story.

Massie is listening to a digital music playlist that James made especially for his friend’s vigil. It’s an ’80s mix: The Angels, Leonard Cohen, The Rolling Stones. One of the videos records the two men talking as they fish off the back of the crayboat. “I remember when they dammed Lake Pedder,” Massie says. “I was only young. My mother went down there. Well, this is like flooding Lake Pedder and we’re just marking the moment. It will never be the same.”

In other messages of support, his father Ron, a retired State Fisheries protection officer, says he felt betrayed by the fish farm activity “because of the impact on our wild fisheries”. There’s an email from old-timer Des Whayman, a mussel and oyster-fisher from the Channel who visited Massie in the first week: “Good on you for your great effort in bringing your views to the front. You are not alone. Keep up the excellent work. I will be with you all the way.”

Massie, his wife Tilly and their children Hamish, 17, and Eve, 14, have had a shack at West Shelley, Orford, for nearly two decades. Tilly’s family used to own the nearby property of Rostrevor. In his younger days, Massie made a good living working as a deckhand, then ran a cherry orchard on the East Coast for 20 years, fishing in between. After that he worked as a professional fisher with his brother for 15 years: whiting and tiger flathead out of Hobart, and sandy and tiger flathead out of Triabunna. “I’ve had the best of fishing,” he says. “The ocean’s been good to us. I feel obligated.”

He says they’ve always tried to catch small amounts of fish and supply the local market. Some weeks he only fishes a total of three hours. The way he says he fishes, they’d never fish it out.

“There’s got to be more fishermen like me,” says Massie, “but it’s so hard for young fishers to get into fisheries now. Once we did it as hunters and gatherers and we made a good living out of fishing. Now, big companies are taking this right away from us.

“I’m not against them. All I’m doing is asking the question – are there other possibilities other than putting in 800,000 fish out there? I don’t have the answer to any of this, but I don’t think putting them in is the answer.”

Massie met Tassall’s Mark Ryan about three years ago. His wife had organised a gathering to open the neighbourhood herb garden constructed on the nature strip of their Lower Sandy Bay street and the Ryans came over for the event.

Since then, he says they’ve “had a few run-ins”, especially after Massie put up a ‘No Fish Farms’ sign outside their house, which he took down when the council told him he needed development approval for it. Massie invited Ryan over, among others, for a sleepover on the Mater Cara (which means Dear Mother) on his first night at Okehampton. The invitation went unanswered.

“It’s hard to tick something off without spending time here,” Massie says. “With a little gem as good as Maria. They’re not making any more of them.” He produces a book from the cabin, Maria Island – A Tasmanian Eden by Margaret Weidenhofer. A tinny pulls alongside. It’s Wilhelmina Rae, spokesperson for Marine Protection Tasmania, and her brother Ben, owner-operator of Tasmanian eBike Adventures. They are here to wish Massie well before heading back to their mother’s family home at Orford.

At night, the Mater Cara rolls on calm waters. Massie lights the fire downstairs using timber from the shore. Dinner is barbecue T-bone steak with vegetables from his father-in-law’s garden, wine and a couple of beers. He says people mock him on Facebook “just because I’m trying to save something nice”.

“But I’ve got a right to express my concern without getting slandered,” he says. “I’m for small-time cottage industries. There are so many talented people at Triabunna. Better fishermen than me, plus engineers, farmers, boat builders … it’s annoying that a company is coming to ‘rescue us’. It doesn’t sit comfortably with me. If I was out in a ship sinking, I’d do everything to save myself. Maybe they could grow one-tenth of the salmon, and the Triabunna people could construct the pens and farm for themselves, for a niche market … they’re just ideas I’m having while I’m out here in solitude.”

sunrise okehampton
Sunrise on Okehampton Bay. Photo: Hilary Burden

The next morning I’m woken by the sound of fairy terns gathering on the beach before sunrise. It’s a cold sou’wester. I pee into a bucket that gets emptied into the sea. Downstairs there’s a

Sani-Loo. Legally, Massie says, he’s not allowed to discharge anything over the side less than about 5km offshore. He goes through the arguments again about fish poo, warming waters, algal bloom, pen tarps and feed tonnage, threats from seals and sharks, and asks why the Okehampton pens can’t go offshore in ocean currents.

Two sea eagles are perched on a tree on Flensers Point. Massie says it’s the first day he’s seen them together. “It’s a bit ironic,” he says. “Monday morning the barges are full into it for the first time, and they both appear. It’s almost as if they’re watching, too.”


Concerns about the impact of fish farm expansion have been in the air since 2009, when a group made up of salmon farmers and representatives from CSIRO, the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Government confirmed a “clear downward trend” of dissolved oxygen levels in deeper water.

In July 2015, on the first day of a Senate inquiry into Tasmania’s aquaculture industry, Premier Will Hodgman called the inquiry a “witch hunt”. Since then, environmental monitoring and reviews appear to have struggled to keep up with industry growth.

Reforms have been provoked by intense media scrutiny – including the ABC’s Four Corners program Big Fish, which late last year revealed damning evidence about the environmental degradation of Macquarie Harbour – as well as opposition from inside the salmon industry (for example, Huon Aquaculture’s ongoing legal proceedings against the State Government). Increasingly, high-profile campaigns by Environment Tasmania and Marine Protection Tasmania (with local shack owner and AFL star Nick Riewoldt on their 1500+ database) have also held the Government to account.

The Government’s latest Draft Sustainable Industry Growth Plan for the $730 million salmon industry, released last week, identifies “Grow Zones” and “No Grow Zones” with expansion “largely oceanic rather than estuarine” and a new commitment that “other than the small existing leases, the entire East Coast of Tasmania will be salmon-farm free”.

Tassal has described its Okehampton lease, on a pre-existing mussel farm, as Australia’s first “eco-aquaculture” site and says it has strong support at Triabunna, being the largest employer in the town. Opponents say just because there’s a pre-existing site, that doesn’t give them a green light to farm salmon. A Tasmania-wide coalition of community and industry interests has this week called on both major parties to agree to a moratorium on lease allocation until what it describes as governance problems are addressed and “proper community consultation” is undertaken.

Environment Tasmania describes the proposed 4000 tonnes (800,000 fish) stock load over 80ha as “intensive”. Tassal has about 7800 tonnes across three leases totalling 280ha in Macquarie Harbour. Tasmanians have until Friday, September 8, to provide feedback on the draft plan, which will be delivered by June next year.


Published in TasWeekend, August 19, 2017


Shear delight

MIDLANDS merino stud breeder Georgina Wallace has just won the grand champion title in the Australian Fleece Competition in Bendigo for the second time in three years. Only two others in the country have won twice. Wallace and husband Hamish won with a score of 97.1 out of 100 – the highest in the show’s history.

“We’re a small fish in a big pond,” she says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could be first in class again.”

With Tasmania winning five of the six major awards, you get the feeling there’s a big story to tell: Tasmanian superfine wool growers are consistently producing Australia’s finest. So why is it so unusual to see the premium-quality wool that is shorn here being branded Tasmanian – and worn?

We’re in the kitchen at Trefusis, the 1830s merino stud south of Ross where Wallace grew up learning about sheep at father Jim McEwan’s side. In 1988, he set the world-record price for superfine wool – at 32,000 cents a kilogram – and won the Ermenegildo Zegna trophy 15 times for fleeces he produced.

“Buyers like Tasmanian wool,” Wallace says. “It’s a niche product to market. Compared with mainland wool, it’s clean, green, with low VM [vegetable matter].” Wallace says this is because the seasons here are fairly even (although it’s been tricky of late, forcing them to make changes). But she says wool grown here tends towards super or extra fine, and has outstanding tensile strength, which means it is more suitable for spinning into cloth.

While Trefusis is focused on breeding stud merino rams for clients rather than the maker end, Wallace believes Tasmania is in the box seat to take advantage of the current fashion trend to market wool direct to customers. While she hangs on to her champion fleeces so she can show them, most Tasmanian fleeces are sold at auction. To a premium winemaker, this is like pouring grapes grown in Tasmanian vineyards into cleanskins to be marketed as “Australian wine”.

Georgina Wallace, a two-time Australian Fleece Competition winner at the Australian Sheep and Wool Show in Bendigo, at her merino stud near Ross. Picture: CHLOE SMITH

Alistair Calvert, the state wool manager at Roberts Ltd Hobart, drives the agricultural services company’s Tasmanian merino campaign, which he says has “ramped up over the past 18 months”, being registered in jurisdictions around the world. He says Tasmania produced 52,000 farm bales last season, 90 per cent to 95 per cent of which were sold at auction – a statistic that should shriek “branding opportunity”.

While not being critical of the auction system (he says it’s a transparent way of exchanging ownership), Calvert says that with value-adding now the name of the game, it’s time Tasmania took back control. Market analysts say the time is right with a clear push by consumers to understand where the product comes from and how it’s produced. We need to tell our Tasmanian story to the world.

“We’re hearing this all the time in food, and now it’s coming through to fibre. It’s a real shift,” Calvert says. “I’ve just had the managing director of one of the world’s largest, French-based top makers here in Tassie. He’s telling us we need to increase the value of the product – to stop dealing with it as a commodity and focus on the niche, high-end, natural fibre instead.”

Nick Bradford, wool fashion industry stalwart and owner of Nundle Woollen Mill in north-west NSW, agrees, but says it’s hard to differentiate yourself. He has worked in Italy selling wool to top makers and spinners, and says you need to start with the designer. “They have to love Tasmanian merino and want it in their collection, and then they will push it down the line to the spinner,” he says.

But it’s an uphill battle. Bradford says that while working in Europe he visited a suiting shop in Germany. “They think New Zealand grows the best merino in the world and yet the bulk comes from Australia, and NZ merino has grown quickly using genetics from Australia,” he says.

“I could not turn him around. And that’s what it’s all about. Someone had been in his ear … we need to start telling our own stories. Tasmania could be telling a real story of its own – that there is no other area in the world where sheep graze like they do in Tasmania. You don’t need to overthink it, or complicate it, or turn it into a mystery. There is nothing like Tasmanian merino. So come up with 30 reasons why there is no wool in the world like it.”

It’s also never been a better time, in recent history, in terms of price. In the past year, Australian wool prices have risen to heights “not seen in decades” and are expected to remain strong on the back of an export boom, according to Rural Bank’s 2017 Australian Wool Annual Review. Australia produces about a quarter of the world’s wool production, with 75 per cent of wool exports destined for a growing Chinese market.

Holly, Nicola and Carl Mason, from Smitten Merino, which is based at Battery Point but is trying to crack the overseas market. Picture: LUKE BOWDEN

Tasmania has been good at growing the raw product since merinos were first brought here from Europe. Midlands’ merino, in particular, has been one of the best stories to tell, with five studs established here in the 1820s thanks to a drier climate more favourable to sheep.

Luxury Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna recognised this reputation as far back as 1963 when it established the Zegna perpetual trophy for Tasmanian wool growers. The Zegna was awarded annually to the best superfine merino fleece until 2008. The trophy sits in a glass cabinet in the Tasmanian Wool Centre at Ross (opened in 1988 as a bicentennial project).

The museum/wool shop mainly services tourist clientele. If you’re looking to buy the Tasmanian brand of wool the Zegna was set up to reward, you’ll find popular sock brand Mongrel and satisfying balls of Nan Bray’s White Gum Wool, but no Tasmanian-branded clothing. Instead, references seem to lean towards the northern hemisphere, with posters advertising the global Campaign for Wool of which Prince Charles is patron.

Wallace repeats a neighbour’s quip that if there were no fences in Tasmania all the sheep would end up at Ross or nearby Tunbridge. But in the heartland of some of Australia’s best wool production there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to selling Tasmanian wool apparel.

In New Zealand, a quick internet search reveals merino brands including Untouched World’s luxury Ecopossum and washable Zque Merino (“easy care, easy wear and easy on the earth”) and Icebreaker (making garments for outdoor adventures from merino fibre since 1995, with stores throughout North America and Europe, promoting growers as “the true custodians of the land)”. So what are the opportunities for Tasmanian wool, and how can we grow our reputation?

Although there are small retailer designer/makers succeeding in manufacturing here (for example, Hobart’s Ally and Me and Launceston’s Spotted Quoll, set to open in Hobart), Bradford says manufacturing has long gone from the Australian landscape. “You cannot process wool in Australia,” he says. “If you’re going to go down that route, stop now. Australian-made? That boat sailed out of Australia 15 years ago. There is one commercial weaver left in Australia – that’s Waverley in Launceston. Lucky last. It can’t be done here. It’ll be hundreds of years before that returns because of the disparity in the costs of wages and energy between here and Asia, and all the OH&S hoops there are now.”

For Bradford it’s all about the sales channel. “Anyone can buy wool,” he says. “Not everyone can sell it.”

Alistair Calvert, the state wool manager for Roberts Ltd, in their wool store at Brighton. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

Not far from Trefusis, at Beaufront at Ross, fourth-generation sheep farmer Julian von Bibra is amused by “everyone suddenly discovering wool” when they’ve been doing it for 150 years.

“It’s the most old-fashioned industry in Tasmania,” he says, admitting it has had its moments, especially in the past decade with low superfine merino prices and a drought. “But we’ve stuck with it because it’s such a lovely thing. Everyone who wears wool enjoys it.”

This winter, Country Road produced a limited-edition polo using superfine merino wool sourced exclusively from Beaufront Station and milled at the famed Tollegno mill in Italy. Its provenance is marked on bespoke swing tags. Von Bibra says it took three years for the idea to come to fruition.

“Nothing happens in a hurry, but I never thought I’d end up wearing our own wool – it really is very satisfying,” he says. “Out here our main role is producing bales of wool and running sheep, we can sometimes forget the end use.” He says about a third of their wool from 30,000 sheep goes to Italy, and a proportion of this is branded Beaufront.

As with food, von Bibra recognises provenance has traction. He laughs when he recalls how his dad used to sit down at mealtime and say, “Apart from an onion given to us by a deer shooter, everything you’re eating we’ve grown ourselves”. “Well,” he says, “now we’re wearing our own wool.

“The crazier the world gets, the more people value something that is harvested sustainably off an animal and converted into something you can wear. The fashion industry is fickle – at the moment, they want a story – but wool is also a very good product.”

When it came to having a suit custom-made in Australia out of cloth milled in Italy from their superfine merino wool, von Bibra was ecstatic. “I cannot wear that suit and stay sober,” he says. “It is so exciting to put that on and know it’s made from wool we’ve grown – I always need a glass of champagne in my hand.

“People say, ‘You’re a cottage industry and you are outpricing yourselves’, but we’ve never got bogged down with price. It’s not why we’re in it. You’ve still got to have a business, but we don’t want to make polar fleeces for everyone. Selling your own wool is not all about price – as long as someone wears it.”

Wool grower Simon Cameron in his shearing shed at Kingston, in Conara. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

Kingston in the Northern Midlands is one farm that is successfully telling its story. Last year, The Channel was a digital ad campaign by Australian tailored menswear brand MJ Bale.

At a function put on by Italian fabric manufacturer Vitale Barberis Canonico, Matt Jensen (the MJ in the brand name) asked wool grower Simon Cameron about doing a line of suiting just from Kingston wool. After three years brewing the idea, he agreed to make a contribution back to the farm at Kingston (based on sales) for the management of its unique natural values.

“It’s an amazing project for a wool grower to be selected to have a product made just out of the wool they produce,” says Cameron, who is also Australian Superfine Wool Growers Association president.

Cameron says Jensen turned up at shearing in October with one of the suits made from Kingston wool. “It was an unbelievable experience in the shed,” he says. “The shearers were there, everyone knew this was the Holy Grail for a wool grower, to see a product just made out of your own stuff. Talk about traceability.”

For his part, Jensen promoted the range, organised the launch and made material available online. Male models came to Kingston and posed in the middle of a mob of sheep that produced the wool: The Kingston Collection was born.

Cameron says it’s only been going for one season but they’ve proven it can work with “quite a number of suits sold around Australia”. “For a long time we’ve had Cape Grim pies sold at Banjos,” he says. “There’s a story to what farmers do. You don’t hear about it because farmers don’t do that. But it does wonders for the product and gives people a sense of the passion behind it – and gives the consumer that link.”

Fourth-generation sheep farmer Julian von Bibra and wife Annabel in Country Road polos made from wool they produced at Beaufront Station at Ross. Picture: SAM ROSEWARNE

At Roberts, Calvert has high hopes but acknowledges taking back control is key. He says China has in the past been a big player in buying five or 10 bales and calling the whole 110-bale parcel “Tasmanian”. “That’s not cricket,” Calvert says. “We need to take back that control, verify everything as Tasmanian. Put an audit in place that verifies the step through the supply chain to make sure we maintain integrity. Once we do that, only so much wool will be available and we will start to twist price a bit at farm-gate level.” He says Roberts is very strong on ensuring a certificate of authenticity and traceability that is signed by the premier and dated on Tasmanian Government letterhead.

At the same time, he says there needs to be a shift of thinking and an education process. “Traditionally, the wool industry has been its own worst enemy – with three or four competitors vying for one client, all trying to undersell, driving price down to buy it cheaper and maintain margins,” he says. “We’ve got to flip that on its head and get to the other end of the pipeline – the consumer and brand end. We’ve got all of these things to talk about before we talk about price. If you like, we should be saying, ‘This is the price, there is no negotiation’.”

Food provenance has come of age in Tasmania with chefs making a beeline for Tasmanian produce. Now that wool is learning to tell the same story, Cameron sees an opportunity for regional growers to group together. “Getting links with retailers is a way of adding a little bit of value above and beyond just what we get for the fleece,” he says. “That’s what got me across the line. From realising I was losing money on wool I was selling, and deciding I had to try to make it work, eventually, after a 90-second mobile phone conversation, we had an agreement.”

Carl Mason, from Hobart-based Smitten Merino, says when he and his wife Nicola started their merino fashion clothing business 10 years ago, “most people thought wool was scratchy and itchy, yet it’s arguably the highest-performing fabric on earth”.

Education has been slow, but the greatest success with their lightweight merino brand (sourced from a co-op of mainly Tasmanian farmers) has been overwhelmingly in the tourist and interstate visitor market. “Professional women who fly a lot love our brand,” Mason says. “They know they can wear one scooped neck wool top all week – no washing or ironing required.”

Smitten’s head office at Battery Point is now its biggest local stockist, selling direct to the public. “Women fly down to buy direct from us,” Mason says. “Some don’t even visit Mona while they’re here.”

He says their family-run and owned business (their daughters are company models and sales reps) started gaining momentum in the past couple of years and, with a regular presence at Agfest and the Deloraine Craft Fair, they’ve received good feedback from wool growers. “It’s really nice to hear from farmers what a great job we’ve done for the Tasmanian wool industry, even though they may not be supplying us with wool,” Mason says.

At Smitten Merino, they see their next challenge as shoring up local sales while trying to crack the overseas market (which makes up just 10 per cent of total sales). “Europe – that’s our future,” Mason says. “We’re really just figuring how we market Smitten into northern Europe where they have a real fondness for merino wool – they get it. Do we get into building stores, or do we build websites in languages? We’ve got to tap into people who haven’t been to Tassie who are trawling the web for merino wool. Then we’ll be able to do a lot more for the economy.

“We’ve always believed in our Tasmanian-ness, but never before has it been more relevant. Never ever have tourists wanted local more than now – if it’s not Tasmanian they don’t want it. We’re lucky with Mona, with great chefs visiting and with our food reputation going from strength to strength. We hope to ride on the back of that. We just have to get our brand out of Tasmania – and out of Australia.”

Models pose for MJ Bale’s Kingston Collection.

Published in TasWeekend, August 5, 2017

Find time to give it a rest

EVER since my artist friend Maria La Grue told me she did her best painting while talking on the phone to a friend I’ve been fascinated by the notion of deliberate distraction and the possibility of achieving one thing while doing something else. Of working at something while not working at it.

This is not just the realm of artists or creative people who rely on letting go so their subconscious can take over. Think of the times you’ve tried to recall the name of a movie, find a lost object or solve a thorny problem. How you struggled for ages, racked your brain, strained your memory, only to have the answer come to you when you’d finally stopped trying and given it a rest.

Seemingly, it’s a bit of the brain we know little about but which in this overworked country is occupying the minds of some of our best thinkers. That is, that we operate at our best, most notably as high achievers, when we regard non-work, or downtime, as just as relevant and important as work itself. And that, rather than being in conflict, work and play are inextricably linked.

Futurist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is the author of the tantalisingly titled Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. He’s lived and worked in Silicon Valley for 15 years, a region home to the world’s largest hi-tech corporations employing more than a quarter of a million information technology workers.

According to Pang, “If there’s an official religion of Silicon Valley it is overwork. The more successful you are the harder you’re supposed to work.”

Author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

As a futurist doing strategic forecasting, Pang assumed that was the accepted way not only of keeping up but to do meaningful work that offered pride and status. “In a world where we’re all encouraged to become entrepreneurs,” he says, “[workaholic] figures such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk became the standards against which we’re supposed to measure ourselves.”

To arrive at his theory on rest, Pang spent time away from Silicon Valley, on sabbatical at Cambridge University, with his wife.

“It was the dead of an English winter,” Pang explains, “a great time to stay indoors, to read and think. I found while I was there I was getting lots of stuff done. Both my wife and I had the experience of having a lot more time to ourselves. I was feeling like I had a more leisurely life but also a far more stimulating and productive one. I realised that the relationship between long hours and productivity was not inevitable and it was possible to find other ways of working that are just as fruitful but allow you to have a better life.”

As someone who admits to “pushing 50”, Pang says he became interested in “that second life”. When the author of The Distraction Addiction pitched the idea for Rest to his publisher, he discovered there were 101 books about work, but “no book called ‘Rest’”.

“There is a genuinely counterintuitive quality to the idea that doing better work can come about by doing what seems like less work. But the big message is that almost no matter what kind of work you’re doing, it is possible to develop the kinds of habits and schedules that allow you to recover your physical and psychological energy and use that to do better work at your job.”

Sydney people say it must be so boring living in Tasmania, but the funny thing is I do more when I’m here because it’s so much easier to do – Management consultant David Day

It’s a subject Hobart-based writer Robert Dessaix also embraces in his latest book, The Pleasures of Leisure, a witty reflection on loafing and play. When we speak, Dessaix is busy writing a paper for a high-profile appearance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Asked what he thinks of Pang’s theory, “Well, I agree”, he exclaims.

“When I’m talking about doing nothing, I’m not really talking about mentally doing nothing,” Dessaix says. “The fact that you are sitting looking, or walking in the countryside, or reclining in a deckchair in the garden, doesn’t mean you’ve fallen asleep. It can also mean you’re being very fertile in your thinking. It’s not a barren kind of doing nothing like I consider watching cricket to be. In fact, it deepens your life, which can lead to other things rather than filling life with chatter and busy-ness.”

Big ideas don’t come out of chatter, Dessaix says. Big ideas come out of profundity.

“The world wants us to be a little ant or drone and we just have to keep saying that we are not ants, bees or drones,” he says. “We are human beings. We owe it to ourselves, as far as is practicable, to live creative lives – and that takes leisure. It doesn’t take busy-ness.”

It’s no fluke that it took a sabbatical away from Silicon Valley to turn on the light for Pang. The word is derived from the biblical Sabbath, which serves an ancient human need to build periods of rest and rejuvenation into a lifetime.

In his research for Rest, Pang found out some really famous creative people – not just artists – but neurosurgeons, entrepreneurs and chief executives, have some of their best ideas when they’re on sabbatical. He cites as an example Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who makes space for a week-long sabbatical every year in his “think week” cabin, which is accessible only by seaplane.

“It doesn’t require really long periods away,” Pang says. “Just some place so you can remove from your everyday life so you don’t have to deal with kids, parents, students, other things that occupy your day-to-day. Going someplace that feels different but is not too difficult to negotiate is the other critical thing.”

When I play music I feel better. It’s good for the brain – whether I’m listening to records or playing guitar. If I have a day off I’ll work on the motor [he’s restoring a Jag]. I’m a jack of all trades. I like it that way. It breaks up the routine. Gives me interest – Astrophysicist and DJ Warren Hankey

Rest gives plenty of details on the lives of famous people who found ways of taking their minds off their high-functioning roles. Author Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 novels and 16 volumes of non-fiction, went hunting twice a week and spent six weeks out of England each year. Erno Rubik made the critical design breakthrough that yielded the Rubik’s Cube while walking along the River Danube. A long afternoon nap let Lyndon Johnson have a “two-day shift” as president, broken up by his snooze.

Both Pang and Dessaix recognise we live in a world that no longer gives most people time to breathe, rest, restore or engage in what Pang calls “deep play”.

“In order to have time to rest, you’ve got to take it,” Pang says.

And while Dessaix acknowledges he may be more adept at finding time for leisure while living at Battery Point with no children, he says the rest of the world is unlikely to make room for engaged idleness anytime soon.

“I think all you can do is try to awaken a consciousness in individuals that life should not be busy and let society just get on with how it is until it changes,” he says. “Start by resisting the call of the city and a society that says, ‘Get off your bum and produce something’. By sitting in my recliner, I’m saying, ‘No, stuff you for half an hour. I am not going to do anything. I am going to own this half-hour for myself’. Because at leisure we are at our most intensely and pleasurably human.”

While Pang still lives in a workaholic capital of the world, he says he’s learnt to steal time by writing before everyone else is awake. He’s at his desk by 5am, where he’s set everything up the night before. The timer is on the coffee. He’s laid out his research on his desk, clothes at his bedside, “so when I get up I don’t have to make a single decision about what I wear”. “I simply pour the coffee, lift the laptop and start working,” he says. “The more seamless that experience, the more work I get done.”

Management consultant David Day makes cheese and rides his bike in his spare time. Picture: Supplied


David Day moved his management consultancy from Sydney to Hobart, where he also makes time to cycle, run and collect art – and he is also learning to make cheese.

Day would never have moved to Hobart from Sydney earlier in his career – “when you feel you have to prove yourself”. But what living and working in Sydney taught him was how to actively manage his rest time. “Your rest time requires as much planning as your work,” he says. “When you’re on a plane once a week, you can’t just let it happen – if you wait for it to happen it never does.”

Day, who now rents a desk in the co-operative working space at Parliament Co-working, says you have to claim rest time. “You actually have to make the decision to say no. It is hard,” he says. “It is easier for me to say that because I’m at the point

I can say that with the economic power to be able to make that call. But it’s a lesson I learnt in some ways many years ago when I lived in Hobart and I was reminded of when I came to work in Hobart again.”

Day says living in Sydney was all about how easy it was to get to the airport to fly somewhere else. But one of the things he’s realised being back in Hobart is how better able he is to enjoy having a lifestyle “because travel times are so much shorter”.

“Sydney people say it must be so boring living in Tasmania, but the funny thing is I do more when I’m here because it’s so much easier to do,” he says. “It’s certainly advice I’ve given to younger people starting out – particularly if your career involves a lot of time travelling. You’ve got to learn to actively manage your downtime.”

Day likes to work away from home because “working from home contaminates home, where I want it to be a complete haven, a retreat”. He says many of the people he shares his workspace with are refugees from the big city. “They’ve constructed their work so they can live here, and work anywhere around the world, and made active choices about how they manage their time.”

If you construct your work in a way that lets you do it anywhere, it also lets you do it any time, he says. For example, if the weather looks good, you won’t see Day at his desk; he’s probably running or cycling. “The great thing with running is it’s absolutely portable,” he says. “If I’m making an international flight I always factor in time for a run or ride before I have to do any work.”

Or you’ll find Day making cheese. Through his mentoring of emerging businesses in the food sector, Day has been introduced to the art of cheesemaking, though not as a commercial venture. He likes the practice because “there’s stuff you’ve got to think about – decisions about temperatures, cultures, the technical side – but it’s also a nice bit of repetitive, physical activity, standing there stirring a vat full of milk as you add culture to it … it’s like meditation”.

Psychiatrist Catherine Stringer is also a highly regarded artist. Picture: RICHARD JUPE


Sandy Bay psychiatrist Catherine Stringer has always combined her profession with being an artist. After graduating in medicine and working in a hospital for two years, she completed three years at art school, and nine studying psychiatry part time while being mother to three children. Contrary to the stereotype of burnt-out doctors, since finishing studying she has never worked full time.

Instead, she’s learnt the fine art of balance, currently working one day a week as a psychiatrist – “at a fairly intense rate of work that I couldn’t sustain if I was doing it every day” – and three days a week in her studio, where she paints (she’s been a Glover finalist) and makes paper out of seaweed.

Stringer is a perfect example of Pang’s theory, finding she has more energy to put into psychiatry “because I’m only doing it one day a week so I’m fresh and don’t resent it and then I can focus”.

“I was always a little ambivalent about medicine because I didn’t really want to work full time in a hospital,” she says. “As a psychiatrist, there’s so much work I could easily be working full time, 10 times over. So in building the balance of your life, you have to be structured and disciplined. You need to do this as an artist as well. You have to get into your studio and work.”

At other times Stringer is more relaxed, aiming to have half a day or a day a week “where I do things that aren’t either so I’m not missing out on seeing my elderly mother or doing something different”. She thinks it’s probably easier to work part time as a woman, “because we’re supposedly looking after our children”, but says it’s getting easier for men. “That’s the advantage of being self-employed. I can pretty much dictate my own hours and the combination of art and psychiatry is a really good balance.”

In psychiatry, she says, “you’re aware of your own reactions, but the focus is on the other person”. With art, “it’s more about myself and what I’m doing”. For Stringer, the two practices feed off and energise each other; art feeds her creativity, while psychiatry pays the bills. “Working full time promotes a very unbalanced life,” she says. “Everyone needs time and space to just play that is non-directed time. Space to play around and not know what you’re going to come up with. Kids have that but, as adults, we don’t do enough of that unstructured play.”

Astrophysicist and DJ Warren Hankey knows how to balance work and play. Picture: PATRICK GEE


While Dr Warren Hankey is an astrophysicist by day, he is also in demand as DJ Svengali (he’s appearing tonight at the White Sands Estate as part of the Festival of Voices).

“Getting things done is relaxation for me,” Hankey says. “I’ve always been busy. Music and maths might seem like a striking contrast, but they have a history of being related. Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, has a PhD in astrophysics. It’s a pretty logical harmony to me.”

Like most high achievers, Hankey rises with the sun. Sitting around doesn’t work for him. If he’s sleeping in, he’s making lists. He thinks it goes with his country background, growing up in a “hillbilly family” on the North-West Coast.

“I’m not good at any one thing,” he says. “When I play music I feel better. It’s good for the brain – whether I’m listening to records or playing guitar. If I have a day off I’ll work on the motor [he’s restoring a Jag].” In the physics department at the University of Tasmania, he’s busy getting the lab ready for students. Later, he’ll be up at the radio telescope. “I’m a jack of all trades. I like it that way. It breaks up the routine. Gives me interest.”

A lot of busy people, he says, can’t see the wood for the trees. They’re busy working on day-to-day tasks instead of the big picture. “People who are inventive or come up with new theories or discoveries have time to sit back and think,” he says. “That’s how, back in the ’60s, Peter Higgs discovered the Higgs boson [an elementary particle in particle physics] that earnt him a Nobel Prize.”

Hankey says Higgs – now emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh – no longer believes a discovery such as his is possible, given the pressure of modern work culture. “He says he wouldn’t have had time to come up with such a discovery as the Higgs boson. Back in the ’60s you could sit around with your feet up in the lunchroom, smoking a pipe while talking to colleagues and contemplating a problem. These days, there’s so little time to think.”

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less , by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Penguin, $29.99; The Pleasures of Leisure , by Robert Dessaix, Penguin, $29.99. Hear Robert Dessaix in conversation at Fuller’s bookshop on July 20, 5.30pm as he reflects on the life of each of his books and the journeys he’s taken for them.

The Pleasures of Leisure, by Robert Dessaix.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

Published in TasWeekend July 1, 2017

Off the grid

SUSIE Aulich and Gordon Cuff have just added a boutique garden room to their vertical board Cubist home on the slopes of Mt Arthur.

Made from salvaged shower doors and house windows, it is designed to take the surplus power they generate so they can grow vegies. It’s so pleasant to spend time there they’ve added a couch and a swing.

You’d never know they run their life and business off grid – without poles, wires, power bills or the quarterly visit from a meter reader – safe in the knowledge they’ll never run out of power.

“You think you’re depriving yourself of power [by] going off grid, or of the necessities of life,” Cuff says, “but actually we have excess.”

With so much water coming down the nearby creek, he marvels that they generate enough hydropower to have an 1800W heater on – permanently.

Their system was built 30 years ago by two trailblazers on adjoining properties who refused to accept the cost of getting power. They were quoted $30,000 to have power connected and needed to guarantee power usage of $1000 a year each.

“They were futurists,” Aulich says. “You had to use your brain to take control of your power in those days. Now it’s mainstream, and it’s going to become even more so. People are really getting that they can have control and it’s better for the planet.”

For an increasing number of people, the urge to get away from it all is no longer about two weeks in Sri Lanka.

“You can live like we do, run a business and not want for anything.”

Thanks to increased stress and the dearth of privacy in a politically chaotic world beset by extreme weather events – not to mention rapid advancement in sustainable energy technologies – living off grid has evolved to hold a similar appeal to going on permanent holiday. And it’s cheaper, too.

The pioneering Lorinna community of about 100 people has known this for decades. Generations have lived in an off-grid community in the Forth Valley in the Central Highlands, relying on solar, micro-hydro and timber as energy sources.

They get around on retrofitted electric quad bikes and golf buggies, grow up to 70 different crops, and produce heirloom seedlings and potting mixes, isolated from the influence of conventional agriculture.

Theirs is a viable community demonstrating alternative ways of living with climate change, epitomised by Wouter Sels and Elyse Acacia from Seven Springs Farm.

At the end of one of Tasmania’s wettest winters, with much of their hydro power washed away by floods, they still managed to get to Launceston’s Harvest Market with freshly bunched organic greens.

The lifestyle they have carved out dates to the 1970s – one of total self-reliance based on permaculture principles, strong work ethic and community supported agriculture.

But the picture is very different in 2017. These days, people who are choosing to live without poles and wires are engaging professional sustainable architects and solar-energy consultants who can access and monitor their clients’ system remotely.

The dedicated off-gridders even have their own magazines – ReNew and Sanctuary, featuring cover stories on high-comfort, low-bill homes. Increasingly, they are refugees from stressful lives interstate looking to slow down and live a more mindful existence with acreage.

“It’s a conscious decision for some people,” says Brett Carter, a long-time solar-energy consultant who has lived off grid in a self-built home at Nicholls Rivulet with his wife Annabelle and three sons for two decades.

“Ours was monetary at first. No bills for 20 years is a big reason. But a lot of people are moving down cashed up from Melbourne or Sydney, investing in a block, spending $30,000 on a road, building an architect-designed house and, because they want to build it, don’t worry spending $40,000 to $50,000 on a system.”

Carter recalls when the price of solar panels was $10 a watt and they had to import a special twin compressor fridge from Scandinavia.

Now, he says, the price is 50c a watt and you can walk into Harvey Norman and buy a compatible fridge off the shelf. Through his work, he sees first-hand the influx of self-funded retirees investing in a block of land off grid.

“The community around here was established by people wanting to escape the world,” Carter says. “Now the world is coming to us because they want our lifestyle.”

Those people Carter speaks of include Kate and John Reed, owners of Southern Swan pharmacy at Cygnet.

Eight years ago, they bought an investment block overlooking the Huon River with an eye on retirement and growing forest edibles.

But things moved quicker than expected when the contrast of the peace of Tasmania and their stressful lives in Sydney became more apparent.

They first transitioned their Sydney-based homeopathic pharmacy to Cygnet in 2011, living on the premises before their custom-built passive solar-designed home was completed in January.

“In Sydney, you’re so busy just living you think, ‘This is it; this is what my life is’. It’s hard to imagine doing something different,” Sydney-born Kate says. “Now we wonder how we lived in that environment for so long.”

The cost of setting up a power source to their house site was so expensive they decided to invest about $40,000 in an offgrid system.

Kate says they settled on a new build “because as much as the quaint little farmhouses look beautiful, you want to be facing north in a soundly built house that’s warm in winter – there’s not a lot of choice when it comes down to it”.

The Reeds commissioned local architect Paul Gibson, who was recommended to them by their neighbours, conservationist Bob Brown and his partner Paul Thomas. Their home has been determined by a design aesthetic based on a tight footprint and an acute awareness of their 13-year-old son’s future.

“When the computer age drops out, all the skills we learnt from the internet will be lost,” Kate says.

So inside their home, Paul designed a Trombe-walled library for the thousands of books John has collected and which Thomas will inherit.

After less than a year living off grid, they are amazed at how seamless the transition has been.

“We work five days a week and don’t get home until late,” Kate says. “We wanted to get home and turn on the lights and not have to think about it or worry about how much power we had.”

From Pennant Hills to Cygnet, the Reeds now enjoy total privacy on 60ha and live near people looking for similar things out of life.

Kate sees how it is opening up new possibilities, too. Her sister and partner have just bought a place nearby at Gardeners Bay, after selling their olive grove on French Island in Victoria.

While off grid can be a design aesthetic for the urban escapees who can afford to invest in the set-up costs, energy specialists are waiting to see what happens once prices fall.

Small communities, such as the Tasman Ecovillage at Nubeena – set up on permaculture and co-housing principles – are poised for costs to fall further before they can afford to go fully off grid.

The principle of self-reliance is motivating for both small communities and families.

“We don’t impact on society in terms of our needs and wants and we’ve learnt to rely on ourselves more,” Annabelle Carter says.

“I’d like to see it as a growth industry in terms of what people can do and understand about the way they live, not just run by businesses rushing in quickly to make a dollar.”

It’s an attractive thought – that you can have more than the power you need without paying for it.

And that you can be your own customer, too, releasing yourself from the vagaries of power outages and the quarterly bill.

Hydro Tasmania’s Off Grid Solutions continues to conduct research, recently holding an internet technology forum on isolated power systems at Flinders Island.

Solar, wind and diesel energy generation for local communities not connected to the grid went on show in Whitemark to international visitors from a dozen countries.

Given the mainstream transition and shift in consumer awareness, it is surprising no one seems to know exactly how many people are living outside electricity infrastructure.

Solar consultant Alan Barns says this is partly because people who live off grid are “hard to get next to – if not hermits, then bordering on it”.

He says many of his customers “don’t want to be interrupted, they don’t want service people coming to visit and reading meters, and they don’t want people to know where they live”.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, Barns is seeing a rise in tourism and eco-accommodation businesses that use the fact they are off grid as part of their appeal.

He was recently contracted to help install an off-grid system at former V8s driver Marcos Ambrose’s Thousand Lakes Lodge in the Central Highlands, and another, a new eco-accommodation retreat at St Marys.

In the space of a decade, the vision Aulich and Cuff shared for their Mt Arthur property has grown with their love for it.

They’ve established a flower farm and now run two eco-friendly, self-contained accommodation businesses on the property – The Trig and the Container.

Guests are encouraged to visit to experience living off grid, and are welcomed with beds warmed by 25W electric blankets. In the guests’ book, one visitor wrote: “This is the first place on our trip where we just stopped and drew breath. We didn’t leave The Trig for three days.”

Meanwhile, in Melbourne, their personal energy “guru” James Patterson, from Going Off Grid, can plug into their system remotely any time to troubleshoot – although Cuff shares most of the day-to-day maintenance with their neighbour.

“When the power drops it means something’s blocked, or there’s a tree over the creek,” he says. “I’ll go down in the dark with a head torch in all sorts of weather to clean it out. I love the fact that you get your hands dirty and you reap the rewards of being connected to where our power comes from.”

Adds Aulich: “Australia is one of the biggest polluters in the world. That we are even still discussing coal-fired power stations when people can be totally self-sufficient is crazy. I don’t see it as the future anymore. It’s the now. This system has been going for 30 years. People need to get it. You can live like we do, run a business and not want for anything.”

Dr Heather Lovell, associate professor at UTAS school of social sciences, is undertaking a four-year project funded by the Australian Research Council, looking at changes in electricity provision and consumption.

As part of her research, she spent a month trying to establish how many Australians lived off the grid, but succeeded only in coming up with a frustrating range of estimates of “somewhere between 200 and 10,000”.

“Our conclusion was that no one has a clue,” Lovell says, citing the CSIRO, the Census and solar installers.

“The kind of organisations you’d think would have figures simply don’t know. In the sense of it being a new trend, it’s an oversight that we’re not yet capturing data – and we should be. It’s a really important and rapidly changing picture.”

It’s also one as varied as people, with every system unique to its place. Some even talk of power systems having their own terroir, just like wine.

At Bridgenorth, on the West Tamar, it’s a school day in the Barns household. Home is a temporary transportable dwelling while they build their permanent home farther up the hill on 40ha.

His wife Sally takes Ellie, 4, and Jack, 3, to school while Alan puts a second load of clothes in the dryer and empties the dishwasher before starting work running their off-grid solarenergy company Eversun Solar. They’ve used their home as a test bed for people to visit and view how they live.

Before kids, while travelling around Australia, the couple realised how little they really needed to live. So they sold up the traditional farm and decided to become as self-sustaining as possible on an off-grid block.

“It was financially driven for us initially,” Barns says. “But we’ve since realised we can do so much more. At the moment, we’re trying to think of things to do with our extra power in summer.”

Last summer they bought an old 1000-litre hot tub, filled it with free water, heated it with free power and sat out under the night sky star-gazing.

“I just get excited when people go off grid,” Barns says. “It’s such a great lifestyle. Friends thought we’d huddle around a candle and that would be our heating and light source – you can do that if you want. Or you can have a house like this and not want for anything. The only difference is the kids might see their dad run out after it rains to wash the solar panels.”

Barns feels deeply comforted by the thought his family could sustain its own power needs.

“Going off grid, you can build in a location you’ve always wanted and live a lifestyle of your dreams, based on what your budget allows, and not be limited by the infrastructure of where the wires run,” he says.

“We can’t recommend it highly enough.”

Published in TasWeekend, Jan 21, 2017