Other Writing




The Silk Road: Silk Farming

An edited version of this article was published in The Monthly, June 2011

An hour out of Melbourne on the South Gippsland Highway, the land is flat and loamy. Here, tucked among alpaca paddocks and vineyards, flower farms and market gardens, stands two hectares of healthy mulberry trees. Fringed with chilli plants and olive saplings, this prototype farm has been established by Sarita Kulkarni, an Indian-born woman determined to revive Australia’s long-lost interest in silk growing. Pioneering though it may seem, Kulkarni’s vision for silk farming taps into one of the oldest forms of Australian agriculture since colonisation.

Sarita Kulkarni

“Money does not drive me. It’s the passion.” Sarita Kulkarni, on her silk farm in Cranbourne, Victoria, where she also grows chillies, curry plants and olives.

A zoologist with a Masters in sericulture from Karnataka, India, she came to Melbourne in 1987, following her engineer husband. Kulkarni approached Monash University with a PhD proposal to study Australian sericulture but, to her astonishment, was advised to choose another topic: there was no such activity here. In South India, silk factories had been on the rise because of the crop’s high efficiency; only small plots of land are needed for abundant silk production. Taking less than two months to harvest, silk also compares favourably to the three to nine month period required for most other crops, and modern egg refrigeration and incubation procedures allow for year-round hatches independent of the seasons. With a climate not dissimilar to South India — ideal for profuse mulberry growth — and with ample farming land, south-east Australia seemed to Kulkarni ideal for silk development.

Silk production sounds like the stuff of fairytales: caterpillars feed on nothing but mulberry leaves and grow through five stages or ‘instars’ to maturity, before spinning protective cocoons of a single thread within which to metamorphose into breeding moths. This thread, a protein fibre measuring up to a mile long, is then loosened and reeled by human hands to make opulent upholstery and drapes, luxury gowns and suits, saris and kimonos, neckties and lingerie — around the world, every single silk garment chosen by the discerningly attired is the result of domesticated insects.

Like precious metals, gemstones and other natural treasures, silk has always held an intense appeal. Whether it’s the promise of wealth for the grower, the exquisiteness of the fabric or the mind-boggling nature of its production, silk can inspire a fever that was rampant in Australia by the late nineteenth century. In the earliest days of the colony, when it was discovered that the hardy mulberry tree grew so well here, thoughts were given to establishing an industry with trade opportunities in China and Italy. As early as 1825, the Australian Agricultural Company expected good results from silk, as it did from vineyards, olive oil, opium and orange groves; despite this, no steps beyond backyard experimentation were taken to develop the potential industry.

Early silk production

Early silk production in Melbourne: Sericulture in Australia: The South Yarra rearing-house, 1874.

Later, silk was considered again, and viewed by many settlers as an ideal supplementary crop — an easy addition to any farm’s main harvest. Because only light labour is required in the short time it takes for silkworms to finish their growth cycle and spin, silk farming was regarded as something women and children could attend to, allowing them to make a valuable contribution to the national economy. This idea was seized upon by Mrs Bladen Neill of Corowa who, in 1849, established the Victorian Ladies’ Silk Association — Australia’s first silk co-operative, set up to promote silk cultivation and to educate poorer women in rural areas. In her 1866 treatise, Sericulture Queensland, Anne Timbrell wrote that “a clever quiet girl of ten is not only as fit but fitter to manage silkworms than a man.”

By the 1860s the gold rush had passed its peak and there came a move to “unlock the land”, with emphasis shifting from large landholdings to smaller acreages in more marginal areas. However, many small landholders had little success with the usual maize, wheat, wool and sugarcane and, over the next decade, there was a concerted search for alternatives. Like grapes and olives, silk was a crop with which settlers from Europe were well acquainted.

Silk enthusiasts such as Bladen Neill and Timbrell were planting mulberry farms and lobbying the government to establish a local industry. At first, growers were mostly individual entrepreneurs with a penchant for science. Later, the poor Italian immigrants of ‘New Italy’, south of Lismore, would successfully draw on their ancestral knowledge of silk growing and reeling to improve their struggling lot, and here it was believed the industry could establish sustainable roots.

Australian silk became recognised as among the best in the world. Healthy silkworm eggs were being produced in Australia at a time when the mighty European silk industry had been devastated by disease and the major silk-producing countries, Italy and France, were importing all of their eggs from Asia. This presented exciting prospects but it wasn’t until 1891 that then NSW Premier Henry Parkes officially appointed Reginald Champ to initiate a silk industry in New Italy with government-funded loans to farmers.

Yet, despite the advocacy of Champ and fellow officials from the Department of Agriculture — and the ongoing ingenuity shown by the New Italy community — the industry never gained a foothold. Parkes resigned as premier shortly after the appointment, depression hit NSW in 1893 and then fire ravaged the New Italy settlement, destroying reeling equipment and putting an end to sericulture as a government-sponsored venture. Subsequent governments lacked interest in the scheme and, when cheaper artificial and synthetic fibres were introduced in the early twentieth century, the silk market became much more competitive and the idea of a commercial industry was abandoned completely.

Ultimately, it seems the failure of silk came down to notions of national identity. We did not see ourselves as a silk growing people; the idea was too strange, especially to our leaders, who continued to cling tightly to the customs of the UK. But more than a century on our national identity is changing. The wine industry is one recent Australian success story of cultural reinvention. Olives, avocados, macadamias, essential oils and alpaca wool are all non-traditional crops that began experimentally and have gone on to demonstrate commercial profitability. As farmers, scientists and governments attempt to adapt local agriculture to our increasingly stressed environmental conditions, they cast around again for innovative practices that are suited to our climate of extremes, our fragile soils and our erratic water supply.

Today, silk remains the world’s highest-priced natural fibre. Apart from being the sexiest of fabrics — it is lustrous, drapes beautifully and breathes well — silk is also incredibly durable and its ability to absorb moisture without feeling damp, along with its cool-in-summer, warm-in-winter properties make it exceptionally comfortable to wear. Even with the mass manufacture of nylon and polyester, silk continues to be in high demand because of its unique physical advantages, which as yet have been unable to be reproduced in the factory. Lightweight enough for parachutes and strong enough for bulletproof jackets, cocoon by–products are also used in cosmetics, foodstuffs, and throughout the electrical and healthcare industries. And, while the demand for silk is increasing, production is decreasing, mostly due to the industrialisation of countries such as China, India and Japan, where arable land is quickly being lost. Between 1995 and 2005 Australia imported over $500 million worth of silk products and, although it is unlikely Australia could compete internationally with China (which produces about 75% of the world’s raw silk), we are well placed to satisfy our internal demand for silk.

In 2000 a feasibility study was carried out by the University of Queensland zoologist Dr John Dingle, who concluded that commercial silk production in Australia was indeed achievable; the university was given funding to establish a mulberry plantation at its Gatton campus and to employ two PhD students to carry out research work and study sericulture technology overseas. At the same time, Kulkarni was granted a small subsidy towards the independent practices she had already established on her own silk farm in Victoria. But by 2005, Kulkarni was the only scientist left in the silk game: the two Gatton PhD students had left the country and — with no continued funding — the university’s silk plantation was ripped up.

The following year, Kulkarni’s work was recognised by the federal government Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC). With additional funding, Kulkarni was able to foster her connections with the Indian sericulture industry and, most crucially, obtain purebred eggs from which quality silk could be produced beyond two or three hatches. She also travelled to China to study farming practices there, though much Chinese sericulture technology remains a closely guarded secret, as it has been for millennia.

If our links to silk culture in the past were predominantly Italian, Kulkarni believes our modern links are Indian. In the last seven years her project has had its share of successes and setbacks: her trees are thriving and her silk production is premium quality but she has had problems getting permission from Australian authorities to import breeding stock and she has lost a number of valuable egg batches from India. In 2008 there were RIRDC budget cuts and her project was one of several that lost its funding. She has turned to harvesting other produce, even mulberries when in season, in an attempt to keep her farm afloat. This year, she produced her first batch of award-winning mulberry liqueur.

Despite serious health concerns, Kulkarni has energetic plans to build a silk museum on-site, hoping to snare motorists on their way to weekenders on the Mornington Peninsula. She wants to continue the educational silk unit she has established at her son’s primary school and to develop a co-operative among small-scale silk farmers. Hearing all this I sense a stirring from the distant past, the ghosts of pioneering scientists and pragmatic migrant farmers who believed that silk would one day become part of our identity.


For more information on her award-winning Silk Estate Mulberry Liqueur, contact Sarita Kulkarni through her website: www.bbtcpl.com

And for some truly mind-bending uses for silk in nanotechnology, take a look at this TED talk by Fiorenzo Omenetto — Silk, the ancient material of the future.





Bears Do It


‘Did you know that when bears hibernate they make a plug out of … I don’t know, something sticky … clay, perhaps? Anyway, they make a plug for their bums to stop ants crawling in and building a nest inside their bodies during winter. Can you imagine, waking up in the spring to find your insides eaten out by ants? You stretch, you yawn and you’re ready for a big breakfast when suddenly you realise there’s something more sinister to that hollow feeling in your stomach. Do you think that’s really true? Are you asleep yet?’


‘Because I’m wondering, how would a bear make something like that? How do they know to do it? They must have an instinct for it, a butt-plug-fashioning instinct. I’m not even sure a bear can reach its own bum — they have enormous arses! Maybe another bear helps, that must be it. They do it in pairs, the final ritual before snuggling down together in a warm cave. A bear version of locking the back door and putting the cat out, what do you think? Are you asleep?’

Silence. Nothing but deep, even breathing.


She was a freak, she knew it. It was all right, though. She’d been reading up on Buddhism lately and that was helping. To say she was happy wasn’t exactly true, but she wasn’t miserable either. She’d reached a kind of calm resignation and it no longer got her down, not anymore. Not like it used to.

The problem was she hated the cold. She loathed it with an all consuming  and debilitating passion. It was exhausting, the lengths she went to avoid it.

Winter was horrible. She dreaded everything about it: dressing in the morning, layer upon layer, while the frigid air bit into her skin; her nose always red, always running; the way her frozen extremities screamed when she accidentally knocked them against a doorframe or a bus rail. At night in bed her feet were like lumps of stone inside her socks. Hot water bottles were her salvation, but all too often she was impatient and against the advice from her mother she would push her bare skin against the burning rubber bladder instead of waiting for the warmth to seep through the cover. Soon she developed two chill blains, one on her instep, the other on her inner thigh. They itched in her sleep.

Not that she lived in a land where winter was considered severe. Not compared to other places where it snowed and sleeted and the sun disappeared for half the year. Where she lived, scarves and gloves and thick coats were looked on as a bit excessive, a dramatic addition to the wardrobe. There was no central heating, no need for it, everyone insisted, and so the houses were always poorly insulated and draughty. But winter here was insidious and cunning. It crept under doorways, snuck along corridors and seeped into rooms to numb fingers and toes. This kind of cold was relentlessly uncomfortable. It made her clench her jaw and hunch her shoulders. It made her shiver and sweat at the same time.

She’d had this sensitivity for as she could remember. It irritated the people around her. Nobody understood, not even her own mother. Reptilian! She’d hiss, on arriving home from work to find her daughter in front of the television, wrapped in a cocoon of blankets with the heater blasting. Exasperated, her mother would flick the heater off and charge around, flinging windows open. You’ll pass out! Dehydrate! Burn the house down one day! She made quivering predictions to try and rattle her daughter into some sort of normalcy: haven’t you heard of spontaneous combustion?

Of course she’d heard of it. It was one of her greatest fantasies, warmth so intense it set her whole body on fire. She wasn’t a pyromaniac, though; she knew the difference. Flames didn’t fascinate her. She just hated the cold.

Puberty was a tough time. She was the only child who insisted on wearing a skivvy to school. High school. In summer. Eventually her mother had to accept that she had given birth to a child who was not quite right. For a while, the teenage angst that consumed her, the frustration and confusion, the embarrassment and rage and self-loathing had been for her, for her freaky self, almost unbearable.


But she was delivered through those miserable years, thanks to a summer holiday when she was fifteen and her mother, at her wits end, sent her to stay with a little known and previously underrated aunt who lived in a small town in the state’s sheep belt. It was a strange place, a shallow bowl of solidified earth chapped by the wind and cracked by the hard hoofs of all those sheep; a sun-bleached, simmering place where everything came either baked or deep-fried and there wasn’t a linoleum crevice that escaped the heat.

And what a heat it had been! It was different to anything she had experienced before. It was like the dry breath of God, alive and fluid and pressing itself into every part of her; her face and neck, her hair, her stomach, even her eyeballs. When she moved, ripples radiated into the space around her. She felt comfortably embalmed, as though in plastic film; a cling-wrap mummy preserved forever in the salt of her own sweat.

The timing of that holiday had been crucial. Those three blistering weeks were a welcome change, but most importantly she learnt how to conserve. If she drew strength from each summer and stored the warmth deep inside her internal cellar, then she could draw on it during the colder months, the long and dreadful winter months when everything around her was barren and hostile. Despite her disability, she could survive.

And so within her shivering soul, tiny embers were stoked. They flared, glowed and proceeded to warm her enough to see her through the long night of adolescence. When at last she found herself greeting adulthood it felt like a new dawn. She stood in wonder, snorting steam, stamping her feet and slapping her arms to encourage circulation. Despite it all she had reached the prime of her life. Somewhere along the way she decided it would be a shame to miss it, freak or no freak.

Her university years were wonderful, mostly because she lived on campus and could attend all her lectures in her pyjamas. At last she found herself among like-minded people. Quite often she encountered other bleary-eyed students shuffling into the concrete freezer of an auditorium in chequered flannelette or a pair of ragged, much-loved slippers. Once she even spotted a dressing gown. University was full of people exploring countless styles of dress and strange behaviour; to be odd meant to fit in and anyone normal, anyone seen not to be experimenting with their identity was regarded with suspicion. It was liberating. She grew to like herself somewhat.

Plus there was the joy of the university library. It was always hot in there, no matter what time of year. All seven floors were infused with the fuddy smell of old books, ancient carpet and sour feet. But the warmth was infinite. It was because of the heaters. They were magnificent. Built just after World War II, they had been designed by men riddled with the fear of mortality and driven to create machines that would never die. It seemed they couldn’t be turned off, a feature she was thankful for, even though it created an overwhelming feeling of drowsiness that often made it difficult to concentrate.

Once when she was in the library, a young man approached her. She recognised him from some of her lectures because he had a particularly impressive set of ugh boots. He asked if she’d like to join a new club: the Pyjama Appreciation Society. The group met once a week in one of the student lounges to drink warm milk and discuss what the young man referred to as ‘Jim Jam philosophy’.

‘Did you know that Napoleon wore his favourite bed-socks into battle? With his boots of course. He never took them off, not even with Josephine. It’s astonishing how many charismatic figures believed in pyjamas as out-of-bed-wear. Really astonishing.’

He was respectful, bashful even, and as he spoke she realised that he considered her one of them. He even admitted that that it was her fearless and unrelenting pyjama attire that had inspired them to begin such a club. She looked down shyly at the pinstripe flannelette poking out from beneath her jumper and felt her first thrill of power. Inside her slippers she wiggled her toes with joy. She was a freak but she was admired. And there were people in the world even stranger than herself.

After university, things changed. Her flannelette was discarded for corporate attire as she settled into her first office job. Life began to plateau. It stretched ahead like tundra, an endless land of blue light disturbed only by gusts of frozen air conditioning. There was no one like her for miles around.

She endured the discomfort of the office and made a few friends. Bleakly, she joined in with their endless grumbling about pay, management and morale but she never revealed the real reason behind her discontent. She knew they’d only find it peculiar.

Slowly, her life began to leak meaning. She watched helplessly as day by day her skin grew paler and more translucent, until the only colour remaining was the light blue of surface veins desperately trying to circulate warmth. She felt increasingly alone.

More and more she found herself at the university library, which she continued to visit because of the heating. It helped her to thaw. During her time as a student she had divined that the library’s fourth floor was the warmest of all. She guessed this was because of the giant photocopy room below sending up currents from the constant whirring of all those motors.

It was here, on the warmest fourth floor, that she first noticed him. She was searching for her desk, the same one she always sat in because she was following an amusing dialogue of graffiti when she saw him asleep at the desk opposite.

Initially she didn’t take much notice and resumed her reading. The Buddhist notion of reflection explains that we are each a diamond with hundreds of surfaces. When we are drawn to someone it is because they are reflected in one of these surfaces and, in essence, we recognise our own self …

Then he let out a snore. Not even a snore, it was more breathy, a kind of snuffle. She glanced over and saw that he was in a very deep sleep. Sitting in the chair he had folded himself over the desk and was resting his upper body on a terrace of books. The books were masterfully arranged to support his torso and shoulders in perfect comfort. Underneath his head was a particularly pulpy paperback.

His flushed face, turned her way, looked naked. It had the defenceless expression of slumber seen only by siblings, mothers and lovers, and she studied it with interest. His mouth was open slightly and she could see a little of his tongue glistening pinkly. His lips looked incredibly soft. Eventually she turned her attention back to her book and for the next hour she read, soothed by the gentle rhythm of his breathing.

At last he stirred. For a few seconds their eyes met: his glassy with sleep, hers embarrassed to be caught watching. But he didn’t seem to register. Groggy, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and gathered his books together. He stood up, dumped the pile onto the nearest sorting trolley and was gone.

For the next few days she shivered under the fluorescent lights of the office and thought about his warm breath, his soft mouth. She imagined laying her hands on his cheeks and feeling the cold in her fingers dissolve. At night, the chilblain on her inner thigh itched maddeningly.

A few days later she spotted him again. Again it was on the fourth floor but this time he was reclining in a vinyl lounge chair, one arm flung over his eyes, the other elbow rested on a small stack of novels he had placed beside him.

She sat across from him and opened her book. This time his face was hidden so she examined the rest of him instead: Kahki pants fraying at the bottom with knees splayed comfortably, as only men could; well-worn canvas hiking shoes resting on their rubber edges; crimson woollen jumper covered in pills and, underneath, his broad chest rising and falling in slow deep breaths. His dark hair was thick and needed cutting. She could tell he chewed his fingernails.

Once more she admired his easy slumber as students came and went and library attendants trundled past without so much as a glance at this interloper with no interest in their wares other than bedding.

When he woke she pretended to be reading.

‘Good book?’

She looked up, feigning surprise. His face was etched in wool weave where his arm had lain. It seemed terribly intimate seeing him so fresh from sleep, his smile so unguarded. Post coital, she thought, and felt her face grow hot.

‘You’re still reading it … does that mean it’s hard to get into or you don’t want it to end?’

Had one of the heaters exploded? She moistened her lips. ‘Buddhism,’ she said. ‘The Bible for freaks. It makes us feel better about ourselves.’

He raised his eyebrows, plucked sleep from one eye. ‘I’ll have to borrow it sometime, then.’

They sat quietly for a moment. Had either of them smoked, it would have been the perfect time for a cigarette.

She was curious. ‘Do you ever worry about bed hair, sleeping in public like that?’

He ran a hand through it. ‘It’s the least of my worries. Desk hair is even more ridiculous. Then there’s bench hair, lounge hair. I don’t know what it is about futons but they give you the worst bird’s nests…’

And that was how they met.

Soon she became well aquatinted with his ability to sleep. His range was astonishing: parks (dappled shade), cafes (any place with cushions was good), tutorials (in the corner, out of sight behind the filing cabinet). Sleep to him was a subtle and complex pursuit; nap, doze, kip, deep plunge. He could even get cosy on a futon. She had some standards.

A fan of the snooze button, she liked to set her alarm a little early in order to appreciate the extra sleep and enjoy her relaxed body, the warm bed, the comfortable embrace. His style was to sleep deeply to the very last second and then project himself into the world before his body had a chance to register the trauma. He had trained himself to be up and out the door in exactly thirteen minutes, including breakfast. Like a reformed alcoholic he treated the snooze button with caution: too tempting to touch.

His body was a living thermostat. In bed she abandoned her pyjamas because there was no need for them. It was warmer skin to skin and far more delicious. He let her burrow her icy hands into the hot pockets of his armpits and put her frozen feet against the backs of his knees. Being with him was like taking a long, deep bath. She felt molten and porous. She was at one with the universe.

In the autumn they moved in together. His futon became the lounge and they shared her double bed with all the trimmings: woollen under-blanket, 100% down doona, flannelette sheets. Basking in the heat of new love she felt transported back to her aunt’s sheep town. Once again she was enveloped by a heat so intense that she didn’t have to grasp at it, it overflowed. She didn’t need to clench, it radiated from her.

Deep within their hothouse of love she failed to notice the warning signs: the shortening days, the weakening sunlight, the draught under the door. Because of him she had let her guard down.

Then one day she found herself at the bus stop without a jacket and an icy wind slicing through her clothes, the first cruel wind of winter. Her body shuddered with the shock. She wasn’t prepared. In a panic she ran back to the house and crawled into bed, where the covers were still warm from his recently departed body. Despairing, she wept into the pillow and didn’t even bother calling in sick.

Hours later he found her there, crumpled and miserable but warm at least. Sniffing into a disintegrated tissue she told him it was hopeless. Nothing could save her from winter, not even Buddhism. Not even love.

For a while he said nothing, just patted her layered bulk comfortingly. Then he moved to the kitchen where she heard him fill the jug with water, pull mugs from the cupboard. He returned to the bed with tea. She sat up and shifted over to let him in beside her. Clasping the burning mug in her hands she watched the steam rise. He released a sigh and did not meet her eye. ‘We’d better skip it, then,’ he said.

Just like that. In a heartbeat he had given up, decided she was simply too weird to bother with, more trouble than she was worth. At least he was honest. And yet his casual withdrawal took her breath away. Inside her chest she felt an unbearable chasm open up, the chasm of happiness departing. It was running out of her like bath water, leaving only a cold ceramic shell and a dirty line to show where it had once been. Under all those covers, she shivered.

He yawned. ‘Yep. Let’s skip winter this year’.

She stared at him. His eyes were glassy, his face soft. She knew he was envisioning sleep. He glanced over and smiled. Suddenly she understood.

He shrugged. ‘Why not?

She nodded. Sniffed. Laughed.

She removed all the perishables from the fridge and tossed them in the rubbish. He put out the bins, made the necessary phone calls and pinned a note on the front door. She checked the iron. He unplugged the telephone.

They were set.

Together they shook the doona, puffed up the pillows and made sure the bed was free of ants intent on tunnelling. Then they climbed in. Snuggling down they pulled the covers up to their chins. She rested her feet against the backs of his knees, opened herself to the unfathomable heat of his body and breathed a long sigh of contentment.

And for the next three months, warm as toast, they slept.




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