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

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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

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

CATHERINE STRINGER

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

WARREN HANKEY

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

 

Lighting up our lives

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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

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