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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Fat of the Land

Months ago, in what seemed like another life, it was the height of another glorious Tasmanian summer. The sun was shining, temperatures soared into the low 20’s and our tiny little garden patch was going nuts, providing far more tomatoes and zucchinis then we knew how to handle.

At the peak, several kg's of zucchini and tomato would be harvested every few days
In particular, the 4.4kg monster (now downgraded from a delicious, sweet zucchini to a somewhat less appetising marrow) would require a burst of creative inspiration to appropriately consume. The easiest to find a use for are tomatoes. Tomatoes and cheese on crackers, tomatoes on toast with cheese and tomatoes in lasagne  with a cheesy sauce are just some of the varied and delicious uses I was able to think up. 

The green sauce was best!
I even tried deep-fried green tomatoes, which had the added bonus of using surplus eggs. Delicious, but I am guessing, probably not healthy. This left the large marrow to figure out. Luckily, what to do with over-sized marrows is a solved problem. A quick check in an old cookbook for the recipe and a beer or two later I was away!

How to turn 4.4kgs of marrow into 2kgs of nondescript beige cubes..
Before it could be cooked, the marrow needed to be cored, peeled, diced and salted. Due to its age (I had left it a month or two too long in a futile hope it would grow even bigger!) there was some nasty black stuff that oozed out when it was opened. Even the chooks were not very interested in those scraps…

The chooks were smarter than to try and eat that muck
After this stage, I was getting hungry so made some tempura batter using a home-brew stout and cooked up some cocky salmon Rach had caught a few weeks ago. Delicious!

Dark beer makes an excellent base for tempura batter. In this example I used my own home brew milk stout. To make sure no one drank it by mistake I put it in a XXXX Gold bottle

Hunger sated I could get back to putting the marrow in a large pot. Add in some vinegar and mustard plus a few secret ingredients (basically salt, chillies and onions!) and then simmer for a couple of hours. By this stage I was pretty thirsty, so another beer was required. A few beers later the resulting pickle was scooped into jars which had been sterilised in the oven.

With just months of gardening and hours of cooking you too can have 5 jars of pickle!
Months later, here in very hot and humid Laos, all that’s left are memories of pickles and cheese on crackers and a cool, sensible summer. Somehow I think I will cope though….

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That's right, In Laos you drink beer with ice

Monday, 28 March 2016

Selling up and a (final) trip to Trial Harbour

Zeehan Manse has been a hive of activity. Recently, the possibility of living and working in Laos for at least a year has transformed into a definitive. Preparations have begun in earnest for the upcoming overseas move. We will be heading away with only a few bags each. The threat of enormous excess baggage charges acts as a strong incentive for the culling of unneeded and superfluous items. Dozens of facebook and for sale gumtree postings, donations and a garage sale have helped reduce our possessions marvellously. There is still much to do, we leave in two weeks for Brisbane and aim to take only what can fit in the back of the station wagon (plus the motorbikes obviously). We plan to write about our experiences to a new blog, which can be found at
In between the packing, selling and procrastinating life goes on. The chooks need feeding, copious amounts of tomatoes and zucchinis need picking, eating and cooking. Attendance at work is still, if not for much longer, required. And if one is lucky enough to get the holy trifecta of a day off work, sunshine and all chores completed you think about a trip to the beach! Many people do not immediately associate beaches and Tasmania together. Sure, they probably think green rolling hills, old convict built stone buildings and a general ‘UK’ vibe, but not beaches. Yet, the east coast of Tasmania probably has some of prettiest beaches in Australia (and thus, the world). Sure, the water temperature rarely exceeds 18 degrees Celsius, but they are pretty.
A lovely Tasmanian beach
Unfortunately, Zeehan lies on the west coast of Tasmania. Beaches on this side take the full brunt of swell and storms that have travelled thousands of kilometres across the Southern Ocean. Still, on a summer day with little wind they can be pleasant. Trial Harbour, a little over 15 minutes drive from Zeehan has a small community of off-grid shacks, a camp ground and an old Telecom phone booth with a missing ‘2’.
Before the railway was built between Strahan and Zeehan, passengers and supplies used to come via Trial Harbour. The tiny gap in the reef and small sandy beach apparently enough to be considered a safe harbour. Prospectors and families hoping to get rich in the new silver mines walked with all their belongings up the dusty trail to Zeehan seeking fortune.

Today, Trial Harbour is good for abalone, crayfish and brave surfers. Those willing to risk their 4WD can drive south along Ocean Beach. 30km of soft sand and freak waves later you will arrive in Strahan. Locals dryly suggest this trip should only be done in a convoy. There is the occasional washed out wreck of cars that went alone.


After it became obvious we were not getting anywhere in the treacherous sand two-up on the motorcycle, plans for visiting the nearby Little Henty river mouth were shelved and we headed back home. Not quite ‘There and Back Again’ but a good outing nonetheless.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

When it rains it pours

Summer in Zeehan has been dry. Record breaking, locals can't believe this weather, bushfire emergency dry. By the middle of January, we got our first fire when a small blaze was ignited by a rare bolt of lightning. Watching the smoke rise from my kitchen window, I called 000 but was informed four people had already called. Ten minutes later a helicopter began water bombing (a small squadron of helicopters had evidently been pre-positioned in anticipation), making short work of the fledgling blaze. The 2016 bush fire season had begun!

Lightning strikes, giving locals something to talk about

In the weeks that followed, depending on the prevailing wind, the weather alternated between hot and clear, or hot and smokey. The town was full of fire fighters from across the state and country, helicopters constantly buzzed overhead and it took a very long time to bring out my meal at the overflowing local pub. More worryingly, the lone blackberry bush at the bottom of my yard got smashed by the unrelenting heat. This was disturbing as it meant I needed to walk around the corner to obtain a reasonable quantity of delicious berries.

Long, hot days exact their toll on the exposed black berries
Unlike other parts of Tasmania, there are no water restrictions in Zeehan and I was able to ensure a steady supply of water to the thirsty zucchinis and tomatoes. An upcoming interstate trip concerned me though, one or two days without water could jeopardise the entire crop, including my prized mega-zucchini. Thankfully, a couple of days before leaving the forecast changed to rain. In fact, it was going to rain every day! I left Tasmania safe in the knowledge that the garden would be watered and the bush fires extinguished.

Northern beaches are not only too warm, but full of terrors
The trip to Queensland was great fun, although I found both the air and ocean to be too hot. I feel that after a swim, it is not right to start sweating before you can even dry off! On return to the more sensible Tasmanian climate, I discovered that it had indeed rained. In fact, it had rained so much that the tomatoes had begun to burst. The fresh rain also encouraged an ungodly swarm of small insects to hatch and begin hovering over the town. A deep, low buzz can be heard whenever you venture outdoors. The birds do seem happy with their bonanza though.

Tomatoes drink till they burst
 Not quite as happy are the chooks. The warm weather has encouraged them to begin moulting, egg production has ceased and small mites have moved onto their feet. I can't do anything about the egg predicament except scowl and chastise them as I walk past. The mites however, are a problem that can be solved.

Not shown, eggs
I mixed a small quantity of pestene powder (containing sulphur and rotenone) with a little bit of oil. Then it is simply a matter of catching all three chooks, tipping them upside down and brushing the mixture onto their feet. Be sure to hold them firmly as it stings a little bit on any open sores. Luckily, the chooks appreciate my efforts and we remain friends.

A happy chook

Friday, 26 February 2016

The future belongs to the mad

What can Mad Max teach us about the decline and fall of civilisations?

In popular culture, depictions of the future often fall into two possibilities. The first is a type of techno-utopia, free from war or want as depicted in shows like Star Trek. Occasionally, our protagonist faces a vexing time paradox or a whale loving alien megaship threatens to destroy Earth. In the end though, teamwork and compassion overcome adversity, leaving humanity free to continue its blissful existence. The second is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic hell hole like Mad Max or The Walking Dead. Zombies, nuclear bombs or ecological calamity have wiped out most of humanity. Only ragged bands of grim survivors remain, battling each other to the death for scraps of dog food and a tank of gasoline.


Pick your future!

Both scenarios make for great stories, but is either very likely? Predictions, as they say, are difficult to make. Especially about the future. The first scenario, a techno-utopia, is the easiest to dismiss. Requiring both new, fantastically dense energy sources and a complete change in how humans interact, it is improbable at best. The continuous spruiking on the internet of algae-powered lamps, non-existent fusion reactors or solar-roads as some sort of viable solution simply highlights the enormous gulf in understanding what a modern, industrial civilisation requires to operate. Yet the portrayed alterative, a rapid slide into chaos and anarchy as civilisation crumbles due to plague/financial crisis/environmental disaster is, if anything, even less likely.


Can we do it again? Source: Stuart McMillen, Peak Oil

Over the past three centuries, humans have moved from grass and wood onto coal, then oil as the energy source of choice. Whilst highly unlikely, it is at least possible that something new might be found to fuel our energy hungry factories, trains and facebooks. On the other hand, despite the Earth being littered with ruins from dozens of major civilisations over thousands of years, there is very little evidence to suggest that any of them collapsed quickly.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t collapse in one either. Depending on where you start counting, it took over three hundred years of decline before the Visigoths came knocking at the gates. The same slow decline is evident for the Minoans in Crete, the Shang and Han empires in China, the Khmer Empire in SE Asia or the Babylonians in the Middle East. A 3rd century Roman slave or a 14th century Khmer peasant would have lived their day to day lives much the same as their parents. Even the quickest collapses, such as that of the Mayans, took almost one hundred and fifty years. It is only when summarised in text books that we see those eras as dramatic periods of contraction and turmoil.


Jon Snow Vs a volcano. Not how civilisations end!

So how do civilisations collapse? The list of failed empires is long and historians often have their own favourite theory. Volcanoes, droughts, climate change, warfare, changes in technology, resource depletion and cultural decline are all popular. Ignoring the root causes, which may differ, there is often a common path that each civilisation follows. Tonybee summarised these into distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state and finally disintegration. Note that these stages can have blurred lines and overlap. For example the Roman empire arguably entered its 'time of troubles' in 49 BC when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, yet it continued to 'grow' its borders and wealth until the reign of Trajan in 117 AD, over 150 years later.

Tonybee also highlighted the formation and growth of an internal and external proletariat. He argues during the 'universal state' phase, a dominant minority begins to control the political and economic spheres. This self-reinforcing process leads to inherited privilege and the formation of a large, permanent and growing under-class which he called the internal proletariat. Meanwhile, outside the borders, an external proletariat looks on with envy at the riches and luxury even a poor citizen enjoys. Eventually, the pressure of the external proletariat outside the borders and internal proletariat within, crush a political system that no longer serves them. It is worth considering the resemblance of this scenario to the topical issues today of inequality, corruption, declining living standards and refugees. Indeed, the rising popularity of Sanders and Trump in the US can be directly attributed to these concerns.

It is fair to say that Hollywood and popular culture presents us with unrealistic depictions of societal collapse. It is unlikely we will see the compelling story of a Roman tradesman losing his job to a Celtic slave. Or the touching and heartfelt inter-generational drama of a poor family on Easter Island struggling with declining crop yields. However, there is a surprising franchise which does acknowledge at least some of the realities of collapse, even if only subtly.

The Mad Max series is well known for its action and outrageous costumes. The latest entry, Fury Road, is literally a two hour car chase across the desert. Yet despite their bombast, if you know where to look, the series has a lot to say about the gradual decline of civilisation and what rises to replace it. Just like Star Trek can use highly improbable human-looking aliens and wondrous warp drives to explore the themes of racial harmony or the nature of justice; if you scratch the surface just a little, and treat the irradiated wasteland as just a setting, Mad Max can have a surprising amount to say.


Who says Hollywood can’t do subtle?

In the first movie, our protagonist is a member of Main Force Patrol, a semi-official militia whom patrol the highways in modified XB coupes with their headquarters in an abandoned factory. There is a functioning government with railways and towns, but outlaw gangs are beginning to encroach and Main Force is fighting a losing battle. There is mention of a recent world war, and the general look is of economic and social decline (a nice side effect of the films miniscule budget). In one memorable scene, Max takes possession of a brand new V8 Interceptor, unfortunately it is the last to roll of the production line due to factory closures. Main Force will never again get new equipment. So whilst there are still jobs, hospitals and a police force, overall, things are looking grim. Unemployment is high and growing, swelling the ranks of the internal proletariat. Thanks to the rise of heavily armed motorcycle gangs it isn’t safe outside major cities anymore. Eventually, as small towns and regions become lawless, refugees (external proletariat) begin to flow towards the cities, increasing costs at the same time as tax revenues dry up. The scene is set for collapse!

In the second film, The Road Warrior, collapse of society is complete. Nuclear war has irradiated the coastal cities, leaving survivors to roam the wastelands. Max, now in a very battered Interceptor, stumbles across an outpost of survivors from the old days, struggling to defend a working oil rig against an army led by the charismatic sociopath, the Lord Humungus. He leads a group of bikie gang members, army veterans and social outcasts. The only interaction with society these people ever had is at the wrong end of a Main Force gun. They have no love for the old days since they received very little benefit from the old ways. They loot, pillage and destroy with relish, repaying decades of exclusion, both real and perceived. Those trying to defend the oil rig, who long ago outsourced their protection to people like Max, are easy prey. Ultimately, this movie boils down to some great car chases, but underneath is an important historical lesson of what happens to societies who farm out their protection whilst hoarding the benefits.

For hundreds of years the Romans persecuted and mocked Christians, who were seen as nothing more than a weird, sometimes dangerous cult. The teachings of Christ, with its focus on the meek inheriting the Earth, eternal salvation and so forth became very appealing to the millions of slaves and downtrodden in Roman society. As the internal proletariat grew, the tried and true solutions of lion feeding and crucifixions became less effective. Riots, insurrections and civil wars became more common. Eventually, with Roman society weak and fraying, the Emperor Constantine officially converted to Christianity, but it was too late. Externally, Rome now only controlled a fraction of its former empire. Internally, centuries of tradition and creed were being replaced by the latest and greatest religion.

As Rome pulled back from the regions, new rulers rose to fill the power vacuum. They needed to be charismatic, so men would follow them. Ruthless, to grab power in the chaotic aftermath of Roman withdrawal and pragmatic, to hold onto their hard-won spoils. In short, they were warlords. To provide an aura of legitimacy, many of them adopted Roman customs and titles, after all, the local population would still consider themselves Roman (post-Roman Britannia was run along more or less Roman lines long after the legions left). The rank of Duke, denoting the ruler of a duchy in medieval Europe can be traced back to the old French term, duc, which is from the Latin, dux. In the empire, the rank of Dux referred to the commander or governor of frontier troops in the provinces. Such an individual would be well placed to stay behind and take over as the empire shrunk. That the term duke is still in use nearly a thousand years later suggests that many of them tried this and succeeded. And it still works today, consider the rise of Putin, a former KGB officer, during the break-up of the Soviet Union.


What’s the difference?

The first two Mad Max films were set during societies decline and collapse. The next two show what rises to replace it. In Fury Road, we visit the Citadel, an immense fortress that sits atop a water aquifer. It is ruled by Immortan Joe, a former Army colonel, turned outlaw bikie gang leader, turned despotic ruler. His army worships him and the cult of V8, if they die in battle, eternal life in Valhalla awaits them, all shiny and chrome. It is all great fun and may seem unlikely until you remember that former army officers and weird cults is usually what moves in to replace a retreating culture.

Despite the presence of these details, the Mad Max series should not be held up as a possible future, the portrayed collapse is at least an order of magnitude too quick and severe. Yet, its portrayal of the proletariat, declining society and the rise of fringe cults and strongmen to replace what’s lost is historically accurate. When one considers the success of Putin, Trump and other ‘strongman’ politicians across the world, these themes and ideas have a modern significance. Indeed, to the students of history, their success is a troubling indicator of exactly what phase of decline our society can be placed.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

What lurks in the shrubbery?

Heat waves, bush fires, dense smoke, inquisitive chooks and an incompetent gardener seem to be a winning combination for this garden patch. Shaded by dark, broad leaves lurks a thick, green surprise! I am told they won’t taste very good when you let them get large. However, this needs to be balanced against the fact that massive vegetables are pretty awesome. The zucchini lives to grow another day!

It might not be tasty, but it is large

The garden is also producing normal size zucchinis along with various types of lettuce. And today I got the first tomatoes of the season!

Staking not required

Zuchinni slice?

Not too shabby for two people, and it is early days yet. Based on some of the green fruit I saw, in a few weeks we     might have more vegetables than we can deal with…

More to come....

Monday, 4 January 2016

Benign Neglect

The soil, though bolstered by several buckets of chook manure and straw, is predominantly clay. The easterly aspect is sub-optimal (and the hill behind us makes it worse). The fences block access to the inquisitive chooks in only a theoretical sense. Despite these setbacks, the zucchini, tomatoes and lettuce are doing well (it is best not to dwell on the subject of beans, capsicum and cucumber). So well in fact, that they even survived without me for 10 hot summer days and almost no rain.

Garden on 21st of DecemberGarden on 4th of Jan

Most of the plants are fruiting and the signs are looking good that something edible might be produced!

Yellow zuchinniGreen tomatoes

The real test will be if they can survive now that I am here to look after them!