Mt. Hotham Writing Retreat Feb 2014

What happens when 14 people from GIRG and WERG get together at a ski lodge in Mt. Hotham for 1 week in early February?  Well, writing of course…and all kinds of it at that.

The first ever GIRG/WERG writing retreat took place this month and may well become an annual event.  The idea was simple, escape from our regular routines with other like minded individuals to a lovely location in the Australian Alps where we hid away most of the day in a ski lodge writing, analyzing, and consulting with each other over such exciting topics as R-programming, discovery grants, and when to use ‘amongst’ versus ‘among’.

The retreat started for a few of us with a hike along Razorback Walking Track out to Mt. Feathertop.  We camped overnight at Federation Hut, which was recently rebuilt after the fires.  Along the way we gleefully shared our plant, insect, and bird knowledge with each other.  Luis took amazing pictures of insects that will one day grace his power point presentations and Ale finally collected a Jumping Jack Ant to add to his reference collection.  Chris, meanwhile, showed us all how it was done by packing along a camping espresso maker from which he made us tea and coffee.

Clockwise from top left:  Ale and Luis getting a good look at wasp larvae.  Luis, Jesse, Ale, Steve, and Chris atop Mt. Feathertop.  Chris and Luis along the trail.

Clockwise from top left: Ale and Luis getting a good look at wasp larvae. Luis, Jesse, Ale, Steve, and Chris atop Mt. Feathertop. Chris and Luis along the trail.

Ecologically speaking, the hike itself was interesting. This part of the Alps had been burned recently, so what had been a well shaded hike through a Snowgum Forest prior to 2009 was now mostly an unshaded hike along the ridge. Bright gray Snowgum stumps with black bases marked the fire’s range.  Through many areas the fire had marched straight up and over the mountains consuming all in its path, but, as chaos is sometimes want to do, the fire left random unburned swaths in certain valleys.  Burned areas were not only sparsely vegetated, they also notably lacked both a diversity and abundance of insects.

Burned out Snowgums along the trail.   A welcome rest in the shade of an unburned section.

Burned out Snowgums along the trail. A welcome rest in the shade of an unburned section.

During the week work was the primary order of business for all us.  Each day we edged towards our personal or group goals, often starting before brekkie and shutting down sometimes after midnight.  We had access to both the upstairs and downstairs.  This allowed everyone to find a spot they liked and stick with it for the week or to float around.

Clockwise from top left: Chris and Matt comfortably working hard.  John, Luis, and Tim pounding it out around the kitchen table. Luis enjoying his office view.  Carragh and Annie set-up camp at the downstairs table.  Ale working outside for a while.

Clockwise from top left: Chris and Matt comfortably working hard. John, Luis, and Tim pounding it out around the kitchen table. Luis enjoying his office view. Caragh and Annie set-up camp at the downstairs table. Chris and Sam discussing some R, while Tim is making a point. Ale working outside for a while.

Bogon Moths were prolific.

Bogon Moths filled the windows nightly.

While on the subject of work, the Bogon Moths need to be mentioned.  Every night when the sun went down and the lights came on the moth came out in droves.  They spend their days in crevices hidden away from the sun.  Apparently anything counts as a crevice, including the space between a screen and the awning.  This was all well and good until the one windy afternoon when the screen seemingly gave way under their weight and perhaps a couple hundred of them filled the upstairs of the lodge.

A strategic benefit of this writing retreat was the opportunity to have meetings with co-authors and collaborators.  All week long high powered and important meetings were had in the ‘boardroom’.  These meetings covered everything from strategies for winning grants to what subject matter should a particular manuscript cover.  The opportunities available for students who attended to have easy access to their advisers was greatly appreciated.  The free flowing statistics help also needs mentioned. Of particular note, R-programming juggernaut Chris Walsh was in attendance and he graciously took time to help all who asked no matter how complicated the issue.

Nick, Luis, Steve and Carragh discussing a paper.  Tim, Steve, John, and Nick discussing funding/grants.  Tim and Matt having a heart to heart about a proposal.

Nick, Luis, Steve and Caragh discussing a paper. Tim, Steve, John, and Nick discussing funding/grants. Tim and Matt having a heart to heart about a proposal.

At least one new GIRG/WERG collaboration may have come from this retreat.  Tim was seemingly intrigued by Ale’s soil infiltration data from his PhD work comparing remnants to different vegetation management levels on golf courses.  They are going to explore the potential of applying the MUSIC model software for urban storm water modelling to his data, a situational application for which the model has not been previously used.

Daily at 5pm was confessional time.  This was an opportunity to state to each other what we’d been working on, whether we were meeting our goals, and also an opportunity to ask the group for help with something we might have been stuck on.  For instance, My paper was rejected, any ideas where I should try next?  The journal I am submitting to wants me to answer this question, but I am not sure how to approach it?  What was your strategy for getting a discovery grant?  Early in the week we had a nice, but brief discussion of how to write a paper using the Brown method during confessional.  If can’t access through the link: Brown et al. 1993 Righting the Scientific Writing: Focus on your main message. The Rangeland Journal 15(2), 183-89.

5pm Confessional

5pm Confessional

All this said, it does not mean we didn’t try to break-up our days and the week with different sorts of planned and unplanned activities.  Each day different people were assigned to the cooking duties.  No one went hungry, plus we may have discovered some hidden talents amongst the attendees (Sam and her pavlova, Chris and his Waldorf salad).  Meals, needless to say, were an enjoyable break from work both culinarily and socially.  I think we would all agree that after dinner trivia will be a must at any future writing retreats.

Sam and her pavlova.  Chris at lunch time.  Our last retreat supper.  Trivia time!

Sam and her pavlova. Chris at lunch time. Our last retreat supper. Trivia time!

Monday and Tuesday mornings included a short hike and bird watching on Dinner Plain.  We spotted Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, Fairy-wrens, Flame Robins, Crimson Roselles, Brush Cuckoo, Wattlebirds, Honeyeaters, and White-throated Treecreepers.  Thursday and Friday mornings started with a brief swim in the rather brisk Swindlers Creek.

Sam, Carragh, Steve, and Luis on a morning hike.  Matt, Tim, and Steve chillin' at Swindlers Creek.

Sam, Caragh, Steve, and John on a morning hike. Matt, Tim, and Steve chillin’ at Swindlers Creek.

Overall, I don’t think anyone attending would deny that this retreat was not time well spent for a variety of reasons.  We were all productive professionally with the completion and/or submission of papers, editing of book chapters, writing of grants, reviewing of papers/manuscripts, establishing manuscript outlines, and analysis of data.  While I don’t recall if I heard anyone else articulate it, I would certainly say, I look forward to having the opportunity to do this again next year and many sincere thanks to Steve for planning and coordinating this retreat.

Attendees:   Stephen Livesley, Nicholas Williams, Tim Fletcher, John Rayner, Chris Walsh, Samantha Imberger, Caragh Threlfall, Matt Burns, Luis Mata, Rhys Coleman, Alessandro Ossola, Annie Hunter, Harry Nankin, and Jesse Kurylo