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Craving a Life Reset? Meet the Woman Who Went Down Under to Start Over

After a personal tragedy, Professor Maggie Mackeller restarted her life in a home at the end of the world.

THE MORNING WE TOOK THE BOAT OUT, clouds hung low in the sky at Pumphouse Point, a lakeside retreat deep in Australia’s central Tasmanian highlands. With Jim at the oars, Maggie and I scouted for rocks as we maneuvered through reeds to open water. Finally arriving at the center of the lake, we marveled at the beauty around us—the glassy surface of the water, the tall pines, the craggy slate. It was then that it began to rain.

Initially, there in the boat in the middle of the lake, it felt like a party. As the rain came down, first lightly, and then hard enough to turn the drops into pellets that bounced off the surface of the water, Jim and Maggie were ebullient. It would, they knew, be enough to soak the earth, enough to offer some relief from the drought that had lasted two years and nearly ruined Jim’s sheep farm. We hugged each other, and laughing, let the rain drench us.

Eventually, we started getting cold. Jim took up the oars again, and aimed for a shortcut that turned out to be too shallow to cross. By the time we made it back to land, sopping wet and hobbling barefoot over the rocky ground because our shoes were too soaked to wear, it was raining even harder. Jim’s phone rang. It was a call from Maggie’s daughter back at the farm. Concern clouded his face as he learned that the creek on their property had swelled to a turbulent river, cutting off some of the sheep from their paddock and threatening to wash them downstream. We hurried back to the truck.

As we clambered in, I caught a glimpse of Maggie. From beneath the worn leather hat she had pulled over her wiry, reddish-brown hair, her face was calm, but in her eyes was a determination I hadn’t seen before. Although she would later insist that she still didn’t feel at home in Australia’s southern island state, in that moment, to me at least, she looked wholly Tasmanian.

IN 2002, MAGGIE MACKELLER WAS TEACHING HISTORY at the University of Sydney and was pregnant with her second child when her husband—handsome, athletic, charismatic—killed himself. She moved in with her mother, with whom she was very close and who helped care for Maggie’s daughter, Arkie, then age five, and soon her newborn son, Clancy. But two years after Maggie’s husband’s death, her mother died of cancer. In her grief, Maggie left her job and moved her small family to a relative’s farm in New South Wales. There, between raising kids and doing chores, she began to write. The resulting memoir, When It Rains, tells in hypnotic prose the story of her husband’s death and her life in its aftermath. “It wasn’t therapy,” she says of the process. “I was very clear about that. I just needed to get it down on paper.” 

The memoir became a best seller. In the wake of its success, Maggie appeared on a television program that showcases the lives of extraordinary Australians. A Tasmanian sheep farmer named Jim Walters saw the program and was spurred to write Maggie a letter. “I had just been divorced and was filling a ream of pages trying to figure out what had happened,” Jim says. “On the show, Maggie said the same thing—that she wrote the book to try and make sense of it all. She had just had a bit of heartbreak, and I had had a bit of heartbreak.”

Maggie didn’t answer Jim’s letter for three weeks. But when she finally did, they quickly fell into correspondence. “He was very eager,” she recalls. “I would get emails from him at 2 a.m. with the subject line ‘Sleepless in Little Swanport.’ ” After a few months, he flew to the mainland to meet her. He was tall and broad, with a passion for Springsteen and an ability to make Maggie, already so accustomed to taking care of herself, feel safe. It wasn’t long before the uprooted Sydney intellectual and the Tasmanian sheep farmer fell in love. Months later, Jim invited Maggie and her kids to come live with him on his farm.

“I knew what I was getting myself into when it came to the work,” Maggie says. “I had lived on my aunt and uncle’s farm for years by then, and I knew what was involved—I liked what was involved. I like being useful, being competent. But I didn’t know how hard Tasmania would be.”

Maggie found it challenging to reconcile the demands of children, a new relationship, and a farm with her need for the time, space, and independence to write. But she also encountered difficulties specific to the place where she had landed. There were mean girls at her daughter’s school, and local women she found it hard to befriend. And then there were the challenges of the land itself: an old farmhouse in need of constant repair, invasive kangaroos, lambs that got sick, weeds always at the ready to overtake the vegetable garden, and that terrible drought, which reminded you who was in charge.

Jim tried to make it easier. When Maggie arrived at the farm, he had converted an old cottage on the property into a writing studio for her, put up a jump course for her daughter, an equestrienne, and erected rugby posts for her son. She fell in love with the thick stone walls of the house, its garden, and its history. The house, she learned, had been built by former convicts. She was drawn even further to Jim’s rootedness. “He’s like a big tree,” she said. “This is his place.”

THE DAY BEFORE THE RAIN FINALLY CAME, we were on a small tour of the places that had been meaningful to Maggie as she adapted to her new home. We were headed to the cottage in Coles Bay, on the Freycinet Peninsula, where Jim had spent holidays since he was a kid and where Maggie had worked on her second book, another memoir, titled How to Get There, about her early days of trying to settle into Tasmania. It’s a place where thick forests tumble down to sandy beaches, and at one of them—the turquoise watered Wineglass Bay—wallabies brazenly hopped across the sand. We found ourselves at the edge of a field, seated at a sky-blue picnic table piled high with shells. At the Freycinet Marine Farm, whose young owners, Giles and Julia Fisher, raise oysters and mussels, we feasted on the glistening shellfish, our fingers sticky with brine and butter, a fat brown Labrador dog at our feet. “Definitely New Tasmania,” Maggie said.

By then, I had a sense of what she meant. New Tasmania, I saw now, was artisanal cheese and craft beer; it was well-curated goods that looked like they came straight from the pages of Kinfolk magazine and young couples who raise pristine seafood. It was fostered by initiatives such as millionaire David Walsh’s astonishing Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) just outside Hobart, and expressed in artful shops and farm-to-table restaurants and simply but beautifully decorated hotels like Pumphouse Point.

Old Tasmania was trickier. When the British started colonizing the island in 1803, they not only began a war against the indigenous people who had lived there for tens of thousands of years but also set about trying to tame Tasmania’s rough, gorgeous wilderness. In the process, they turned the island into a prison colony harsh even in comparison to the brutal one they had already established on the mainland. Many of the convicts who survived long enough to be released ended up staying on the island, and today, an estimated 74 percent of Tasmanians can trace their origins to them. That link may help explain the locals’ clear-eyed toughness, their insularity. 

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That was the Tasmania that Maggie struggled with. As a writer and former city dweller, she found the new Tasmania, with its creative impulses and artisanal cheeses, more pleasingly familiar; there were parts of the island that seemed like Sydney or London or San Francisco, only with more land and Tasmanian devils. Yet it was the old Tasmania, so wild, so rugged and resolute, that she yearned to be part of. “The natural beauty of this place is so astonishing,” she said. “But it’s also accessible—it’s always right there.”

The very thing that Maggie loved about Tasmania—that powerful sense of identity forged in a tight-knit community surrounded by harsh nature—seemed destined to keep her an outsider.

AFTER OUR DRENCHING IN THE BOAT at Pumphouse Point, it should have taken two hours to get back to the farm, but the rain, which was now flooding soil too dry and hardened to absorb much of it, complicated the journey. Over the radio, we heard that the road we had planned to take was closed. Arkie called again: Rain was pouring through the kitchen wall and flooding the ground floor; Maggie calmly told her to roll up the living room rugs and start laying down all the towels she could find. Jim dialed the police, desperate to convince them to let us through the blocked road. “I’ve got a thousand head in danger,” he said to the cop, who told him that as long as he had four-wheel drive he could attempt it. Minutes later, we came to a deep pond bisecting the road. Several cars had stalled, but Jim didn’t hesitate. We plowed through.

“Maggie displayed the competence and confidence of a seasoned farmer—and of a Tasmanian used to battling the unpredictable forces of Mother Nature.”

Finally we reached the farm. Water was still coming in through the kitchen wall, and the power was out. Sopping towels covered much of the floor. But Arkie and Clancy were undeterred, cheerfully sweeping out the water almost as quickly as it came in. Jim went immediately to check on the sheep, and came back relieved. Although the flood-swollen river had cut them off from their paddock, none had washed away. That night, Maggie and I cooked by candlelight while Jim fielded calls from neighbors. Every conversation started with “How much’d you get?”

The next day, I accompanied the two of them to assess the damage. Jim went ahead in the tractor, slowing down to throw feed out the back as he moved from one paddock to another, and Maggie and I followed in the utility vehicle. As she drove, she recounted some of the things about life on a Tasmanian sheep farm that had been hard to get used to: the dramatic shift of seasons; the intensity and length of the drought; the fact that during shearing—the most exciting week of the year on the farm—she was expected to cook for the crew of eight men hired to relieve the sheep of their fleece. And that there was always so much to do, so much that kept her from her writing.

Periodically, Jim’s voice would crackle over the walkie-talkie with a request that Maggie shut a gate, or circle around to get a closer look at part of the flock. He led us into a pasture where kangaroos circulated among the sheep, nearly as eager for the feed. “There’s a lamb down,” he said. Maggie pulled up the vehicle alongside the ailing animal, got out, and carried it into the back of the truck. The lamb looked to be near death, but Maggie was unsentimental. “It’s probably worms. We’ll take him back to the yards and dose him, but he probably won’t make it.” It was there again, that look I had seen when she was climbing into the truck, intent, like Jim, on getting back to the farm. As she did the day before when the rain started pelting, Maggie displayed the competence and confidence of a seasoned farmer—and of a Tasmanian used to battling the unpredictable forces of Mother Nature.

ON MY LAST NIGHT, we went to dinner at one of the chic, new restaurants that fill the MONA ferry terminal in Hobart. Maggie was clearly pleased to be in so posh a room, drinking craft cocktails and dining on confited five-spice duck legs. In her delight, I saw a glimpse of the more cosmopolitan life she had given up when she chose to start over again with a man who, as he freely confesses, had never even tried Chinese food before he met her. But as the conversation turned to her plans for the future, she betrayed no interest in returning to that existence. Rather, she thought, she might want to start making cheese at the farm. Right now, Jim only raised sheep for meat, but a dairy, Maggie said, might be just the way in. “A joint project,” she said. “Something like that would make me feel anchored here.”

As I listened to Maggie’s plans, I felt pretty certain she would one day find her place—not necessarily by making artisanal cheese, but rather through the writing that always seemed to help her make sense of the most challenging moments in her life. Having published two memoirs, she was now working on a novel.

As the sun went down over the Hobart harbor, and I watched the bearded and tattooed pedestrians share space on the promenade with the rugged and weather-lined, a couple of the final sentences from How to Get There came to mind. To strive for happiness, Maggie had written, means I will never be content. But to live here means I have a chance at it. 

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