18 Dec 2021

Tim Higham: living sustainably on Aotea Great Barrier Island

From Saturday Morning, 8:45 am on 18 December 2021

The troubling sense of loss many people feel about climate change has us hurriedly trying to solve problems when we actually need to slow down and collect ourselves first, says science writer Tim Higham.

In a secluded house on Aotea Great Barrier Island that he and his wife Julie-Anne bought 20 years ago, Higham is now doing just that.

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Photo: Saskia Koerner

Higham says he and Julie-Anne never planned to move to Aotea Great Barrier Island, but while they were on a visit home from overseas, a local real estate showed them a rather special house.

"When we sat on the lawn, [the house] seemed to have this almost archetypal quality… It was white-washed at the time, it had thick walls, it had this European thing, but it was in this native bush clearing. It seemed to have existed before me yet it was familiar and I kind of wanted to live there."

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Higham's new book Island Notes is about both the importance of "rediscovering a sense of wonder" and "the instruction a wild island and a mouldering house can provide," he tells Kim Hill.

Higham suspects his move to full-time life on the island probably didn't happen until he was ready to slow down.

Now he believes slowing down is essential for effective problem-solving.

"With all these environmental problems and this sense of loss and change around us, I think we try to speed up to quickly solve problems because we're so troubled by what we're observing.

"I think the opposite is what's required. We have to stop and we have to profoundly stop because we have to find a new way of… collecting ourselves to respond adequately to the kind of challenges we're facing."

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People addicted to keeping themselves busy drives consumption which in turn drives climate change, Higham says.

"The bigger challenge [that we face] is [finding] the discipline that comes through stopping and then waiting and listening and feeling our way as to what the solution might be … and being prepared actually to accept there might not be a solution. That's one of the harder things to do but I think it's necessary."

There's a palpable feeling of environmental loss on Aotea Great Barrier Island, which is getting quieter and quieter, Tim says.

He's quite excited about helping out the local predator-free project, though, and there are plenty of other interesting things going on.

"Everyone's off-grid. It's a Dark Sky Sanctuary. And it's got a set of amazing businesses that have sprung up that are in tune with the, I guess, biophysical limits and the community dynamics, that are gearing themselves appropriately to living in place."

Tim Higham is the curator of the Small Island Big Ideas writers festival. He has championed the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, worked with Predator Free 2050, with DOC on offshore nature reserves and with the UN Environment Programme.

He and Julie-Anne are no longer together but she still lives and works on the island. Their son works for a local conservation company where their daughter is also working for the summer.

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Photo: 123RF