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Middle-aged men are always wrong: lunch with Sir Tim Smit

There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all job title for Smit. Trained in anthropology and archaeology, he has spearheaded big projects, including helping to discover and rehabilitate the Lost Heligan Gardens in Cornwall and conceiving and co-creating the Eden Project. He was also once a music producer – but more of that later.

Artist's impressions of proposed Eden Project development at the former Alcoa site in Anglesea.

Artist’s impressions of proposed Eden Project development at the former Alcoa site in Anglesea.

Underpinning the British project, he says, was a desire to “bring a whole lot of people together to make something better, something that was derelict”. For Smit, it’s about hope, vision and education. “We wanted Eden to be the best classroom in the world … where you would learn effortlessly because you didn’t even think it was a classroom. It is a provocation to see things afresh, and by doing that you rediscover your curiosity and you then want to … learn and learn and learn.”

Ambitious plans are afoot for similar projects around the world, on every continent except Antarctica, by the end of the century.

Smit came to Anglesea with some reservations, namely the potential for green-washing, but was pleasantly surprised. “We were much impressed by the genuine intent of Alcoa; they have not behaved as the clichéd multinational. I think they genuinely want to leave the place enriched.”

Working closely with Indigenous people is critical, he says. The site would be a thing of “great beauty, very gentle on the land, technologically innovative, employment-wise innovative and also give people a lens on the extraordinary biodiversity of your country.”

“The world is moving from wanting passive play to experiential stuff and to be able to build something that has nobility about it … something that is world class, here is something that really could be.”

The Anglesea proposal would cost in the vicinity of $150 million and employ about 300 full-time staff, Eden estimates offer, and construction would take about 18 to 24 months. Community consultation meetings were held last year, with traffic management, environmental protections and protecting the local character of Anglesea topping the list of concerns. That said, Smit says the overwhelming response to the idea was positive.

The NGV's Garden Restaurant goat's curd cigars with figs.

The NGV’s Garden Restaurant goat’s curd cigars with figs.Credit:Joe Armao

Yet to be resolved are issues around planning and, particularly, water usage; the next 12 months will be critical.

It’s all a far cry from Smit’s first career, when he “fell into music”, co-writing a couple of hit songs (Dancing by Moonlight and Midnight Blue) with his university roommate, Charlie Skarbek. Although he went on to produce albums by the Nolans and Barry Manilow, the vacuous nature of the industry left him cold, as did some of the key players. “I didn’t like all that limousine stuff, hated the business. There is nothing that feels more creepy than middle-aged men digging the music of young people, especially young women. The male equivalent of mutton dressed as lamb.”

Gigs are regularly hosted at the Eden Project, including appearences by Amy Winehouse, Elton John and Kylie Minogue; a LiveAid concert was staged there in 2005.

Months after our NGV lunch, we reconvene for a catchup over Zoom. Smit has had a very productive time under COVID-19 restrictions, based in Cornwall, with a view of the woods outside his window. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard as I have since lockdown. Reading like a hound and writing like a maniac,” he says.

Early on, he discovered an app that identifies plants and decided to teach himself the woodland plants of Britain. “So I’ve been going around like Homer Simpson, getting cross when I get it wrong.”

The scallops at the NGV's Garden Restaurant.

The scallops at the NGV’s Garden Restaurant. Credit:Joe Armao

As well as Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, one of the best books he’s read recently is Diary of a Young Naturalist, a memoir by then 15-year-old Dara McAnulty: “He writes and talks like an angel”. The young Irish author has autism and talks about the intrinsic difficulty of human relationships. These complex interactions drive him into the natural world: the park or the woods, because there, in nature, everything behaves as it should.

Apart from being a cracking read, the book underpins the notion that being outdoors is intrinsically good for us. “It is absolutely fundamental … central to our sense of wellbeing.”

While conscious of the devastation of the pandemic, Smit can see positives, with people enjoying a slower pace of life, free of the swirl of busy-ness and consumption. Does he think these changes will stick? “I’ve been trying to guard myself against sloppy optimism,” he says with a smile. “I gird my loins with muscular hope.”

Receipt for lunch.

Receipt for lunch.

Hopeful for the future, he argues it will be “about us daring to take responsibility”.

“There is a huge hunger for a different kind of leadership to direct us in a way that we know in our hearts is actually right for the planet.”

“We spend so much time telling ourselves how bad we are, but organised around purpose, we are extraordinary.”

Aware of the irony in the statement, he is dismissive of current power structures. “Work on the principle that middle-aged men in history have always been wrong, always …” Smit says.

“If we can find a language that looks at the next 30 years as being a wonderful challenge to our ingenuity and makes us feel like we have purpose and meaning, then it could be a very powerful time. Very spiritual.”

The bill, please

NGV Garden Restaurant

180 St Kilda Rd, Southbank; 8620 2434

Daily 11am-4.30pm; now closed

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