“Danthonia” of Bruderhof: a sacrificial commitment

~ DESTINATION TWO: ELSMORE, NSW ~

Serving Jesus to the max

It’s been two days since we left Bruderhof’s “Danthonia” community near Inverell, about 3 hours west of Coffs Harbour in New South Wales. In that time, Heidi and I have had numerous conversations and debates about the place: challenges, opinions and comparisons. bruder-logoThe reason for all this ruminating is due to the depth and complexity that makes up this most intense community. While the point of this blog is to try and explore communities from a non-judgemental and objective perspective, Danthonia struck a chord with us in a variety of deep and personal ways.

Bruderhof is an umbrella organisation for a whole global network of intentional communities whose members live as if they are a single entity – despite being spread across vast distances. From beginnings in Germany in the early 20th century, they moved the community to England, were politely forced out and then found their way to Paraguay, eventually moving to eastern USA and more recently expanding to Australia. They now have communities in each of these regions with members routinely being relocated within the system. One odd feature: most individuals have an west coast American-styled accent, which was a bit bewildering (someone referred to it as the “Bruderhof accent” as it isn’t really specific to a particular part of the US).

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Bruderhof is not easily defined as there is a lot of stuff happening on many layers. But at its core, it is a Christ-centred community, a point which they take very seriously (as in, literally commit their life to). The basis of their faith is largely around following Jesus in the way of early Christians, being people of immense faith, simple living, and “united in a bond of solidarity and equality in which each one says: Whatever I have belongs to the others, and if I am ever in need, they will help me.”

A major stipulation of being a member of Bruderhof is that you dissolve all assets and personal possessions and give them away. That sentence is worth re-reading and thinking about as it is easily one of the biggest commitments that anyone, anywhere will voluntarily make (consider: prospective members who are home owners will sell property, car and furniture, drain bank accounts, sell shares and relinquish pensions. All of it is donated to charity (or to Bruderhof if you desire, but they are quick to say that this is not a requisite. They would prefer that you sort out your affairs before joining)). The reason for this is that in order to fully and completely follow Jesus, the members of the “brotherhood” believe that this is only possible without a way to back out or with potential expressions of individuality becoming a distraction.

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IMG_8538In terms of “authentic community”, Bruderhof takes the concept of sharing to the only logical conclusion given their beliefs, and it is truly impressive. Most dwellings are homes which are shared between several couples, singles and families with shared kitchens and bathrooms as well as modest-sized personal space. Homes are somewhat utilitarian (almost institutional) in their design, outfitted with all the basic needs but not much more than a handful of members’ personal ornaments, books or pictures on the walls. A dining hall furnishes members with at least one shared meal a day. Doors are not locked and money is never exchanged so keys and wallets are unnecessary. IMG_8543-2All clothing is supplied as required and they have largely settled on a “uniform” of sorts: blue jeans and checkered shirts for men, somewhat formless Amish-style long dresses with head scarves for women. Rather than see these as sacrifices, Members embrace them as gifts: a way to keep them focused and pure; a way to keep life simple and sustainable; a way to dispense of the frivolities and unnecessary intrusions of modern life; and especially a way to keep their mind on the task of serving Jesus.

There is a co-operative business that helps pay for ongoing costs called Danthonia Designs, a commercial sign-making shop that does very high-quality products which you can see throughout the region. From a community-and-business perspective, they have nailed this one on the head: the product is competitive in every way with no corners in durability, design or service; it can be staffed by nearly anyone in the community

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Me getting into some sign work

(Heidi and I both paid our way by working there), and that staff doesn’t require a wage; the building is on-site so no rent need be paid, meaning that all profits from very low overhead goes back into maintaining the community. Brilliant.

Initially, I had some real concerns as soon as we entered into this community. I was a real fish-out-of-water in my inability to talk-the-talk biblically-speaking, which can be intimidating in a 300-person community who are all deeply committed to God. Then, upon arrival, when our friendly neighbour suggested that Kito would be fine staying outside in a meter-square cage, I was concerned that dogs were not going to welcomed warmly and our pup might have a terrible week (to their credit, they quickly welcomed Kito into the house when we balked at that, and he stayed in our cozy room most of the time). Concerns increased still as the entire community seemed to be 100% meat-eaters (not so convenient given we are mostly vegan; also a bit hard to understand why the compassion they show through their faith doesn’t extend to animals), although IMG_8547I give full credit for the whole community making a valiant attempt to accommodate us with a vegetarian diet instead (sidebar story: there was a funny moment when a “Tyrolean folk song” about the harvest was sung that featured the lines: “If we raised nothing for people to eat // Then what would they live on if there were no meat? // No roast and no dumplings, for coffee and cream // No eggs and no chickens – Oh what a bad dream!” which had people around us giggling. Heidi and I sang the ending “oh what a good dream!” instead 😀 )

We quickly came to appreciate how hospitality is central to how Bruderhof residents operate, although my fears about acceptance due to my “different” faith were always present.

The Bruderhof has an open-door policy. No matter who you are, we are delighted to meet and spend time with you.

As with most dedicated followers of Christ, hospitality plays a very large part of their lives and Danthonia’s members were certainly no different. Indeed, we were shown SO much hospitality over our 6 days there that we were fairly exhausted by the end of it. Some days, we had appointments for every meal plus afternoon tea, and this was besides the likelihood that most people we came across while walking through the village would stop and chat. IMG_8510Most people that we met started their day before sun-up, so breakfast invitations were a constant source of struggle for me to be ready to talk at 6am. And this wasn’t idle chit-chat; in nearly every circumstance, some deep-down faith discussions were the topic on hand. As I mentioned above, this was something I wrestled with as my spirituality is a complicated mix of things that doesn’t fit neatly into a box. It might seem petty to mention given the extreme hospitality we experienced, but the only thing that bothered me was the level of evangelism that seemed to be happening in numerous visits. I fully understand that if you are committed to your faith and it is supposed to be a joyful centre of your existence then you want to share that, but I certainly felt like we were being challenged and preached to (and me, a little judged perhaps) at times.

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I don’t want to sound as though I am being too critical though; this community was the most well-formed, connected, cooperative and smooth-running as you’ll find anywhere. In fact, I suspect that by experiencing this before others on this trip, we’ll be seeing nothing like it and will possibly be disappointed if similar unity is not achieved. Members worked side-by-side with ease, played and prayed together, co-existed freely from young to old, broke bread en masse and planned to spend life with one another for now and the hereafter.

Some more stuff we learned and experienced at this unique community:

  • people sing regularly: in the morning, singing can be heard from any window as families gather and sing before a meal or elsewhere on campus. There were never sounds of television or canned music playing (in public spaces)
  • there’s no eye-contact avoidance that you expect in mainstream society these days; people all say hello and will stop and talk. IMG_8540This wasn’t just because we were new; I saw everyone doing the same
  • the system cares for all people: single, families, disabled or elderly.
  • quality education seems to be of high importance (as it should be) with mainstream groups starting to take note at the results coming out of Bruderhof’s own schooling system. The overall impression I got of students and kids in general were a well-behaved, respectful, and intelligent group.
  • At 18 years old, teens leave the community for a “gap year” of sorts, but are usually placed in another community to experience a more independent lifestyle. Many of them stay on and become full members (committing themselves to a life-long arrangement in the community after they turn 21). We met many 2nd and 3rd generation individuals who had never lived outside the Bruderhof system!
  • Aboriginal elders have been very taken with Bruderhof and our hosts spoke of how they have a permanent invitation to Aboriginal lands
  • IMG_8544speaking of our hosts – Bill and Grace Anna – they were incredibly helpful, accommodating and forthcoming with their desire to make sure our stay went smoothly. Bill is soft-spoken with a wry sense of humour and gave us lots of reading material to take with us; Grace Anna was kind and fed us numerous times as well as provided guidance on campus. We are very thankful for both of them and the dozens of others we met and whom welcomed us in
  • permaculture and rejuvenation of the former pasture lands are moving in full-force with widespread tree-planting, soil improvement, cattle pasture rotation techniques resulting in return of birdlife and other improvements
  • the community reaches out to different degrees, from local support for people in crisis or globally with a particularly tight connection with World Vision, among others.

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Overall, you can tell that Jesus is central and community followed in and around that. Most members were happy to tell us that and I believe that this is the only way a community like this can work. People were quick to say that this life isn’t for everyone and that community life is never perfect and can be terrifically difficult at times, but that it was all worth it. Heidi’s faith is more aligned with theirs, but she admitted that she would struggle with a few elements despite the benefits of an immersive Christ-centred community (she can tell you about her impressions in her blog. Her thoughts are far less critical than mine 🙂 ). For me, there are some powerfully unifying things that make this community one of the tighter ones I may ever come across, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have a level of faith that is required to personally commit to this community. Despite this, the people were wonderful and hopefully we’ll be able to keep in touch and visit sometime in the future.

 

For more on the Foundations of the Bruderhof community, check out their informative website.

Bruderhof also has its own publishing house, Plough, which produces a wide range of spiritually-focused print and e-books but that also cover a broad range of topics as well (while there, I was reading an interesting, non-faith-specific book called “Why Forgive?” which was very good). Visit their online bookstore.

As I mentioned earlier, Heidi’s impressions of this community can be found on her blog.

Narara EcoVillage: A model community

~ DESTINATION ONE: GOSFORD, NSW ~

Developing a village around a community

In case you’re wondering, we don’t necessarily delve into deep research before deciding places to visit. The journey was largely cobbled together by random events or coincidences (some might say this is fate or chosen for us for a reason??).

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This first instance is the result of getting newsletters for the past couple of years from Narara EcoVillage after a Google search presented it to me (Google = divine intervention) and I liked what they were offering. Following this was a combination of wanting to show Heidi this heritage theatre down at Avoca Beach plus a desire to visit friends who lived at Berowra, all of which put us in close proximity to Gosford at Narara’s property. So, with all that clicking, we thought we’d pop by for their monthly “open day” (fateful timing??)! 🙂

In all this, the only thing that may have benefitted from a bit more research may have been the fact that Narara EcoVillage doesn’t actually exist yet.

Narara, located at the outer rim of a suburb of Gosford, New South Wales, was formerly a government CSIRO horticulture site and was purchased just 4 years ago by a group of visionaries who knew right away that this was the site for their village. Upon arrival along this rambling dirt road, we were greeted by various permanent structures and a cute community house with large eaves. In and around this space, we were greeted by numerous members of the community who expertly whisked us away on a tour of the (unbeknownst to us at the time) “proposed” village.

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Essentially, this is a large-ish property (150 acres) with numerous buildings on it from the time that the government used it for growing plants, testing water and so forth. The cooperative entity that they created bought the land for a bargain $5 million (down from $9 million offered before the GFC) and once the council approves the common infrastructure and rezoning applications, the members will be issued their titles to start building houses (end of 2016).

The tour took us through the dirt roads nestled in lush forest as Lincoln, our guide, provided a mountain of great info about things like the “Phase 1 development” and “cluster housing” and “proposed arts zone” and “village commercial precinct”. A great deal of thought had gone into planning the space and once we’d heard that they had been organising and waiting for nearly 5 years, it was easy to see why they were chomping at the bit to get started. The only thing holding them up was the typically sluggish and dreaded council approvals which every community with freehold lots that we’ve come across has been slowed down by.

It’s especially frustrating that positively-charged projects like this actually get held up by bureaucracy more than regular urban development when you see the menu of items that these guys are proposing: community-minded construction, safety and sustainability elements; off-grid capabilities; true community-oriented ideals; organic food growing; holistic health and work-life balance; a showcase and teaching ground for other eco-villages. In other words, a Model Community (this article about 9-star rated homes gives you a sense of what is required to be an eco-rated home). But for some reason, there are more hoops to jump through than a typical zombie-making suburb.

Narara’s vision statement sums up things nicely:

“We will research, design and build a stylish, inter-generational, friendly demonstration Ecovillage at Narara, blending the principles of eco and social sustainability, good health, business, caring and other options that may evolve for our wellbeing.”

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A visit to the dam that they will draw water from to treat and supply the community over and above rainwater capture. The dam has enough water to supply the community for 5 years even if no rain fell during that period.

There are many ways to “do community” and the folks at Narara EcoVillage are trying hard to offer a different look to not only mainstream society, but also other eco-villages as well. The feeling I got from these folks was that there is true community spirit at work, and the hospitality they showed was tremendous from a group who don’t even have a physical collection of dwellings yet in place to call home(s). Developing a sense of community amongst the growing number of members (150 adults + 35 kids) was very important to them and I heard that repeated to me by various people as we watched a couple of presentations and chatted in between with the friendly future-residents. On top of that, the wide range of extremely valuable skill-sets that are employed by members of the community is enviable; they are have all the right tools to build innovative homes, take care of all ages from kids to the elderly, create lasting relationships and be economically viable.

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Existing outbuildings will be very handy to re-use

The wellbeing of the group was clearly a priority and this is what started making me wonder if calling Narara an “eco-village” was accurate; from my perspective, an eco-village focuses on the land and homes with an aim to provide low-impact living from an environmental point of view. Beyond that, it operates much like a regular suburb (or, in some cases, a country club or gated community). I personally think they are firmly in the realm of a community-with-intent to provide a socially caring, burgeoning spiritual, self-sustaining village with cooperative commerce opportunities and lifestyle elements like permaculture that extend well beyond simply providing environmentally-friendly homes for folks to live in. The term “eco-village” runs along the same broad lines as “free-range” to me, and is possibly doing them a disservice IMO.

After witnessing the breadth of opportunity that the land holds, the spirit and sharing amongst the residents, and the ambitious but realistically achievable plans to transform this corner of Gosford into a shining example of a engaging and modern sustainable community, I was very impressed and excited by it. The location for me was a slight downside but an upside to others: I thought Gosford was positioned too close to Sydney insofar as real estate is still very expensive. It’s also a pretty busy place. Folks from Sydney saw it as more affordable (less outrageous than Sydney) plus it is close to beaches, the north coast and accessible by train. With land starting at $300K without a home on it, it is already too steep for people like Heidi and I. They offer a townhome idea for about $300K for a one bedroom unit, but it’s still not addressing the broader demographic of folks with low incomes. Overall, it looks like it will succeed magnificently, and we’ll certainly have to pay it a visit in a couple of years and see what it has shaped into.

Be sure to check out Heidi’s blog for an in-depth look at the social structures of Narara.

Community road-tripping, Mark II

Just a few days ago, I was in the dark, seam-sealing our tent at Heidi’s folks’ house, trying to do the last couple of chores before we officially headed out on our 2016 Intentional Community road trip. IMG_8293A few days before that, I indiscriminately grabbed boxes of camping gear from our long-term storage, and packed them into our car without even looking inside them to check everything was there. Thinking of this now confirms to me the somewhat blasé nature of this current expedition we are embarking on compared to the “fanfare” of last year’s first trip. That’s not to say I am treating this trip lightly, but perhaps I am approaching it with a bit more knowledge and confidence in this life direction we’re learning about.

As we wrapped up our first trip through Victoria last year, we essentially just rolled on with our world packed on our backs, hopping around Adelaide house-sitting for the next 9 months. That sense of exploration continued as we left the possibility wide open to continue our journey where we left off, hoping to cement the feeling that intentional community living was indeed our Preferred Future Lifestyle.aquarius

While Victoria offered an amazing variety of communities, we felt that we would be remiss if we didn’t investigate the glory that is the north-east of NSW and SE of Queensland. Nimbin’s famous Aquarius festival of 1973 spawned numerous “hippie” communities in these regions, with the most resilient (and presumably most successful) of these still pushing along after over 40 years. There has to be some valuable lessons to be had in these places.

A fortuitous sequence of events brought us together with a new friend, Ed Wilby, who is a founder of the Alliance of Intentional Communities Australia (AICA) and let us stay at his home (in the middle of an amazing national park) prior to this trip. It was a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time and discussion with someone who is passionate about intentional community living and development, and who may well figure into our future more prominently as I hope to help the AICA out in their fledgling developmental stages.

It feels like all roads are heading towards our intentional community dreams, which is exciting to acknowledge. In the month or so leading up to our trip, we had a selection of positively-charged community-related experiences:

  • a good friend came across a piece of property that could be used for a communal village and opened a dialogue about that potential
  • I attended a talk from a resident at 700-member Findhorn community in Scotland who introduced all sorts of interesting possibilities
  • had opportunities to meet some great people through Ed (mentioned above) who are in the process of going down the road of starting a community in Adelaide
  • stopped in for a very inspired visit at Rose and Andy’s place (Cornerstone community we visited last year) in Bendigo, Victoria who continue to blow us away with their easy spirituality and positive affect on their community
  • encouraging enquiries from friends we’re visiting who are taking an active interest in our journey
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Kito curled up for the journey

As of this writing, we have an eco-village, an Amish-like Christian village, a seaside all-rounder community and artistic/spiritual co-op in post-Aquarius Nimbin lined up over the next month to kick off our trip, so it should be very enlightening! By some people’s standards this might all seem a bit mad, but for me this colourful list of places only serves to engage my imagination of what is possible when we break away from the structures imposed by the mainstream.

And so we embark on the next chapter of our Intentional Community Adventure; we hope you will be coming along for the ride!

 

 

You can see Heidi’s first blog post for our journey here.

 

Community road-trip 2016: an intro

To date, this blog has been a perpetual Work In Progress as I write about living simply, sustainability and choosing an ethical lifestyle.

In April and May 2015, my wife Heidi and I explored Victoria, Australia in search of alternative ways to do life separate from the mainstream. Throughout the journey, I wrote a regular series of entries which documented our experiences and can be read under the menu heading “Intentional Community Travels  >> Road trip 2015“.

This first stage road-trip around Victoria, Australia had us seeking to discover what various intentional communities, groups, individuals and families are doing in terms of living more creatively, sustainably and compassionately. We decided that this country was just too big and interesting to stop at Victoria, especially since we hadn’t visited the intentional community epicentre of Australia around NE New South Wales and SE Queensland.

Here are some quick-links of the journey as it happens:

  1. Community road-tripping, Mark II
  2. Gratitude and choosing a different path
  3. Destination 1: Narara EcoVillage: A model community
  4. Destination 2: Bruderhof “Danthonia”: A sacrificial commitment
  5. Destination 3: Bundagen: Serenity by the Sea
  6. I am allowed to live like this
  7. Destination 4: Dharmananda: On the farm with the Dharm
  8. Destination 4: photo gallery
  9. Queensland Communities and roadtrip wrap

Ultimately, our aim is to further connect with like-minded people and find security in community, not finances; share resources and ownership so as to reduce our negative impact on the planet; participate in non-violent actions to bring about a more just world; use the arts to bring people together, communicate the challenges that humanity faces, and promote positive stories and alternative ways of living; work with the land and protect/respect this Earth.

We have a lot to learn and a long way to go, hence our desire to see what other people are doing and what wisdom we can gain from and share with them. I am looking forward to what the east coast region of Australia has to offer as we forge ahead with Part 2 of our education/adventure!

~ Mike Crowhurst, March 2016

Community road-trip 2015: an intro

As of June 2015, I have completed travels with my wife, Heidi, as we explored southeastern Australia in search of alternative ways to do life separate from the mainstream. Throughout the journey, I wrote a regular series of entries which documented our experiences and can be read under the menu heading “Intentional community trip 2015“. Here are quick links to all the entries on this trip (in chronological order):

  1. Preparations & expectations
  2. On the cusp of departure…and adventure!
  3. Destination One: Di and Ruth: compact community
  4. Destination Two: Cornerstone: Community 101
  5. Destination Three: Strawbales and tipis, native spirituality and hospitality
  6. Destination Four: Working on the margins of society
  7. Destination Five: Discovering a lot of common ground
  8. Destination Six: Intentional community beginnings: Moora Moora
  9. Destination Seven: Time to reflect and heal
  10. Destination Eight: Respecting the earth: permaculture at Fryers Forest
  11. Destination Nine: Urban Seed part 2: Working on the margins in suburbia

This first stage road-trip around Victoria, Australia had us seeking to discover what various intentional communities, groups, individuals and families are doing in terms of living more creatively, sustainably and compassionately. We are considering another journey later this year to build on this first trip.

Our aim is to further connect with like-minded people and find security in community, not finances; share resources and ownership so as to reduce our negative impact on the planet; participate in non-violent actions to bring about a more just world; use the arts to bring people together, communicate the challenges that humanity faces, and promote positive stories and alternative ways of living; work with the land and protect/respect this Earth.

We have a lot to learn and a long way to go, hence our desire to see what other people are doing and what wisdom we can gain from and share with them. So far it has been an amazing exploration.

~ Mike Crowhurst, June 2015

Respecting the earth: permaculture at Fryers Forest

~ DESTINATION EIGHT: FRYERSTOWN ~

Built on pioneer David Holmgren’s principles, Fryers Forest is an eco-haven in Central Victoria

At the outset of this trip, I thought that we might be seeing a community “blueprint” that was repeated in each place we visited, with perhaps different variations on the theme. However, as I mentioned in my previous blog entry, not only does the term “community” carry so many different possible meanings, but the look and feel of each one is so varied that the only thing they all have in common is an intent to live together in some sort of deliberate way. Beyond this, the personalities and temperaments, village characteristics, geographical features, group focus, lifestyle choices, governance, spirituality and long-term vision have come in every flavour, shape, size and colour.

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If our trip was actually about seeking a place for us to call home (which it may or may not be – we don’t know yet!), it might be a bit like deciding on what take-away food to get for the evening: for example, if I were trying to choose between Indian, Pizza, Thai, Middle Eastern and fish n’ chips (all delicious types of foods I love), other than rudimentary differences (starches, certain vegetables, etc.) all are very unique and difficult to compare directly. It’s not a bad situation to be in – picking from a great collection of options – but it begs the question of whether you just need to settle with a community that offers many things you want and others you don’t, or, cherry-picking ideas and putting the hard-yards in to build our own community. The trouble with the latter is threefold (at least):

  • most of these communities were started by people in their 20’s, bubbling with passion, energy and physically in their prime (we’re in that 40’s zone)
  • we need a significant financial base to start with (we have no Savings)
  • there is a staggering amount of research and paperwork – legal and political – to set it up and manage it, even if you want a basic and organic type of community (I’m not unwilling to do research, etc. but the legal/financial/policy stuff is a deterrent)

pics-589Beyond this, of course, is finding people who wish to share in your vision and are keen to see it through. The more communities I see, the more I have personally honed a vision compiling the best elements of all of them into my own community ideas, but have been equally tempered by my increasingly reluctance to have to go through the many years required to get the community off the ground having heard what is involved from those who have done it.

Enter Fryer’s Forest, a pleasant village consisting of 11 freehold plots on a shared 300-acre gumtree-covered property, 20 minutes drive south-east of Castlemaine, Victoria. Having completed another WWOOFing stretch of physical labour here this week, it reminds me just how much work is involved in keeping up and evolving a community. Of course, that’s just the physical maintenance; there’s also the people management which can be much trickier. Our hosts here at Fryers, Tamsin and Toby, have possibly found one of the loopholes to my DIY community conundrum though: they moved to this community shortly after its inception and have been able to ride the benefits of being an original (if not “founding”) member, helping shape the evolution of the village and feel that they have been involved since the beginning yet without having to go through the several years of starting the process, acquiring the land, council negotiations, etc. While I am personally attracted to having a say in the layout and design of the community, perhaps this can still happen on some level if I were to get in early enough but not too early.

Toby, Tamsin and their two boys

Toby, Tamsin and their two boys

My own creation desires aside, Fryers Forest is an interesting place and I’m starting to see the virtues of their way of doing community, even if I wasn’t feeling the love as much initially. The closest town is Fryerstown, a hamlet consisting of about 400 people (which likely includes the 35+ folks of Fryers Forest), but the land was formerly a part of the Victorian gold rush 160-odd years ago when around 15,000 people would have lived in the area. pics-570Surrounded by thick forest and a peace and quiet we don’t often experience in our urban world, it is difficult to imagine it with gold diggers at every turn. The town was built back in the early 1990’s on permaculture roots with pioneer David Holmgren contributing heavily to Fryers’ original design. As our host Tamsin showed us on a tour of the property, there are permaculture considerations at every turn: tree thinning, top soil catchments (swales), building placements for sun orientation, water capture and transfer, low waste yields, the encouraging of fauna diversity on the property and many more things. For those not familiar with permaculture’s principles, they are essentially: take care of the Earth; take care of the people; and set limits for population and consumption. From what we could see, Fryers’ members took these principles seriously.

Our time was largely spent labouring for our hosts with wood chopping, tidying up the remains of three huge felled 100-year old trees, cleaning gutters and helping around the property. We came at a time where they were exhaustedly managing energetic 4 year-old twins while still helping neighbours with their needs: helping shift wood from the felled trees to use as a neighbour’s new home-building material, a working bee digging rain gutters on the roads, “taking care” of a nasty rooster for a friend, looking after friends’ kids while they were busy, and so on. It became increasingly apparent that the “community” part of their intentional living arrangement was quite active and involved. Tamsin and Toby both admitted that if they were unable to continue living at Fryers, they wouldn’t know what to do as they loved living there so much.

Wood chopping, stacking and planter task complete

Wood chopping, stacking and planter task complete

    The "office", a cozy little mudbrick loft hut we stayed in while at Tamsin and Toby's place

The “office”, a cozy little mudbrick loft hut we stayed in while at Tamsin and Toby’s place

On the surface, Fryers wasn’t all that different from Moora Moora in that people could buy and sell their own land (though MM was as a cooperative arrangement and FF was completely freehold strata style), they lived in a loose village layout with a limited-use central “hub”, they both began using permaculture principles and were both off-grid on an isolated property about 20 minutes drive from a regional town. Interestingly, whereas other places we have visited have either their spirituality and/or social conscience to unify the community members, both of these communities only share their environmental interests (and separation from mainstream society) as the glue that keeps them together. A key difference separating Fryers from Moora Moora though was that the overall community was smaller and the houses were clustered much closer together. I reckon this contributes a great deal to the active interaction between groups. It is of course unfair to directly compare any of the communities as the personalities, planning specifics and overall history have simply made things the way they are, but physical proximity still feels like something that I imagine helps connect people better.

The community hall

The community hall

The first four days at Fryers Forest were all about the work around their hand-designed and built home, and even our hosts kept apologising for not taking us into the community-at-large proving that other people do actually live here. Opportunities arose when Toby’s weekly men’s night arrived and I spent a couple of hours with the boys at their community space (an old fibro school house that was transported from nearby Fryerstown) to have some drinks, chats, smokes (not I of course 😀 ) and backgammon. Granted, not everyone was from Fryers itself, but I was able to see the centralised facilities at work plus the bonding between the lads. Heidi had a similar “Happy Hour” experience the following night with the girls playing scrabble in Fryerstown, and we further got to know various people in the village through work we did and via roadside conversations. Further to the idea of member interaction, Tamsin recounted many other aspects of community life she had experienced over the years – particularly with difficult parenting times – like when she would call out on their walkie-talkie system (each house is on the same channel and all have a walkie) that she desperately needed someone to take the kids off her hands, and someone would always immediately arrive to help. Or how the group bus brings the village kids to schools, pics-609how people help one another with their home building projects, how on one year together they built a pedal-powered machine to crush tomatoes to make organic pasta sauce for the village, or how the group holds barbecue events where dancing and carrying-on ensues on the foreshore of their man-made lake/dam on warm summer evenings. The more they thought of it, the more great memories began to flow.

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Despite being more of a middle-class suburb of folks wanting to live outside the anonymity of the city with no external bond seemingly joining them, Fryers Forest seems to be doing pretty well. They just had all of their eleven property sites purchased now and on the way to be occupied for the first time in years, so there is reason to feel optimistic about their future. When I first arrived, I wasn’t feeling the community vibe: the forest was dry and the land was hard; but pushing past the superficial aesthetics and getting to know Tamsin and Toby’s family and their neighbours, I started to warm to what they had achieved here. It certainly has a lot of intriguing elements to look if we were thinking of setting up a new community, and I suspect with a longer evaluation, Fryers Forest itself could be a place that could be spent enjoying for many years.

As usual, Heidi’s own perspective and thorough write-up about our visit can be read on her blog!

Fire safe-slash-wine cellar. Complete with oven door.

Fire safe-slash-wine cellar. Complete with oven door.

Inside the groovy fire shelter

Inside the groovy fire shelter

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Time to reflect and heal

~ DESTINATION SEVEN: LAUNCHING PLACE ~

Natural beauty and deep listening at Sunnyside Farm

This week since leaving Moora Moora has been an interesting one but not necessarily because it was part of the regularly scheduled program. With no intentional communities on tap while we have a WWOOFing stint, pics-507it has been a good time to reflect on things and where we are at on this journey.

I’ve just left Sunnyside Farm aka Natural Healing Place which is located in the beautiful hills south of the uniquely-named Launching Place, Victoria, about an hour east of Melbourne. As Heidi and I explore how different people do “Community,” we keep finding ways to redefine the word; Sunnyside is comprised of 32 year-old Nathan Thurlow and his 3 year-old son, with his extended family living further down the road on a large property. Nathan prefers to refer to WWOOFers as new “friends” and creates a welcoming atmosphere that encourages people to want to stay for awhile in his hand-made spa retreat-like home. The space is broken into pods connected by vine-laced outdoor paths, with accommodation that includes: a couple of pics-523bedrooms plus a loft bedroom/office (our room) as part of the main building; a caravan trailer; a luxury tent; and a tiny caravan-like shelter. The lounge-dining-kitchen area is considered communal, not unlike the crossroads that is often created by intentional communities to enourage chance meetings and conversations. Among the other unique elements around the house area are a newly minted sauna (which looks like a pizza oven that you sit inside),

The loo with a view

The loo with a view

outdoor bath and shower (the only bathing facilities, actually), a “loo with a view” which is one of two composting toilets and this one is situated on a covered outdoor throne with a beguiling view of the foggy hillsides, tin chook shed with happy scratching chickens and a productive veggie garden. Heidi and I took advantage of the outdoor bathtub which was very refreshing (especially in the very cool wet weather here!) as well as soulfully enriching as we sat looking at the trees, steam rising from the hot water as the rain fell and listening to the kookaburras sing.

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The luxury tent we would sleep in if it were summertime

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Nathan and fellow WWOOFer Mel

Nathan is a dedicated host, keen to share his learned wisdom about inner health through yoga, meditation, healthy living and positive thinking. Ironically, both Heidi and I arrived a bit burnt out, harbouring colds and probably needing to be guests at a place like this rather than as WWOOFers. As it happened, two days in, Heidi left to stay with her sister in Melbourne to get some down time, and I have taken a day off here to recover from my illness. Rather than be perturbed by the lost labour we were to have provided, Nathan has graciously taken it in stride and continues to offer his expensive organic wellness supplements, fresh ginger or chai tea, delicious fresh foods, helpful natural remedy advice and positive reading material for me while on the mend and leaning on his generosity. He lives a thrifty existence, so it is not with extravagence that he offers these things but through true kindness. I would go as far as saying he is quite servant-hearted, and his years of living an alternative lifestyle plus his self-education on different types of spirituality certainly show in his hospitality and deep caring for others. As he would say, perhaps in our current health/mental state, we were meant to come to him at this time; everything has its place and meaning for needing to happen when it does.

Mel doing some yoga

Mel doing some yoga

He could well be right about that.

In light of a bad cough and illness, it was perhaps not too wise for us to head on a little trip into the city on Wednesday (just prior to Heidi’s departure), with the two of us plus Mel (a WWOOFer who has been at Nathan’s for a month) and Kito. Our mission was to do some errands but mainly to watch a documentary called Dadirri: Deep Listening by filmmaker Helen Iles that we’d heard about at Commonground. The timing was impeccable as it was only the third small screening of this indie production whose theme revolves around the relationships within intentional communities, plus it featured places on our intinerary for this road trip (Commonground and Moora Moora, and the forthcoming Fryers Forest).

Best.Organic.Shop.Ever. - Terra Madre

Best.Organic.Shop.Ever. – Terra Madre

After visiting the Best.Organic.Shop.Ever. on High Street in Northcote and scarfing down another vegan meal at Vegie Bar in Fitzroy, we went up the road to a little bar called LongPlay which has a cute little 30-seat mini-cinema out back. The film was attended by a crowd of community-minded folks and there was a palpable buzz to being amongst others like ourselves. Helen is British but spent time traveling and filming around Australia for 2 years making this film, with two others in the intentional community “series” that were made in the UK. The film, while technically a bit sloppy (IMO), was an interesting examination on the relationship side to living communally and conflict-resolution, with lots of appearances by places and people we had literally just seen like Peter and Sandra (Moora Moora) and Kate (Commonground), which was all a bit trippy! I met with Helen afterwards to express an interest in working with her on future projects of similar content, but she was quite exhausted from the experience being that she shot, edited and directed it all herself. Shame we didn’t cross paths sooner!

Yummy outdoor spa bath for soaking under the stars

Yummy outdoor spa bath for soaking under the trees

Our loft room at Nathan's quirky but cool spa-like pad

Our loft room at Nathan’s quirky but cool spa-like pad

So, a few things to consider from this mixed-bag week, which was good. Moving forward, I think we’re currently at a bump in the road which is probably natural in a journey such as this: we have filled our brains with plenty of information and experiences; we have not been able to retire to a familiar home where we can periodically recharge and relax; we’ve been brought down a bit by illness and miserable weather; and we are generally feeling the grind of being constantly on the move. With a break in the weather this weekend (yay, sun!) and our final significant week-long stay at an intentional community (Fryer’s Forest, then we just have a couple of short stays afterwards), I’m hoping that we will get our second-wind to carry us through to June when we arrive back in Adelaide. It will be interesting to see where we sit with all this once we get back to a familiar place with familiar faces; my feelings about community have wavered with what we have learned, but it has likely been tempered with other circumstances related to travel and fatigue. Once we’ve had some time to properly reflect in a month from now, we’ll see what ideas and thoughts emerge!

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Intentional community beginnings: Moora Moora

~ DESTINATION SIX: HEALESVILLE ~

Terrific folks at the top of the mountain

Sometimes this trip feels like a slow-moving and expansive journey, winding its way increasingly further from our previous life.  When I think about how it’s been 2 1/2 months since we left our Adelaide house and starting living in borrowed accommodation, it seems like we’ve been on the move for quite some, and we still have over 3 roadtrip weeks to go until we settle in with another 2 1/2 months of house sitting. Other times, like now, this journey feels like a whirling dervish with the experience seemingly just flying by. With our recently completed stay at Moora Moora, this pics-442latter feeling certainly prevails as we only had a scant 4 night stay there and now a new WWOOFing assignment is hot on its heels – barely time to catch our breath!

Moora Moora is a “celebrity” intentional community amongst some of the others on our trip, having been featured in many articles, news and tv programs since it was developed back in the 1970’s following the Aquarius festival in NSW (which apparently jump-started a number of such communities). As one of the longest-standing cooperatives still in existence in Australia, it was appealing to see if this developed, larger-scale and presumably robust community was continuing to go strong and what was its secret for success.

pics-450 Apparently our diligent pre-trip planning had paid off, as all of our communities at the moment are within a few kms of each other, so we dropped Kito off at another kennel (no dogs, cats or animals for slaughter allowed at Moora Moora) and drove 15min to the top pics-451Mt. Toolebewong to their property. The first impression before even arriving to the front gate is the enchanting gum tree and fern rainforest for the first couple of kms leading to their gate. Once onto their property, it’s obvious that this isn’t a densely-packed community, but rather a private rural retreat at the top of the mountain. Despite the wilderness feel, it’s still only an hour drive to Melbourne CBD, whose city centre is clearly visible from the village. Amongst the first things we see are a giant wind turbine-slash-sculpture (we later learn that it actually was an innovative wind machine that never really worked, but when the press arrived for its launch, two people were hidden inside the base turning the sail on cue for the cameras), plus a couple of dwellings, lots of hand-carved directional signs and a heap of open space. pics-447Once you learn that the property is set on over 600 acres and the residential living area is spread amongst 6 clusters of 5 houses each over 13 acres, then it is clear why we’re not rolling up and seeing much yet. Later, when we did a tour of the residential areas, we were able to see how spread out the village is with all the houses nestled in amongst the dense forest. In fact, 2/3s of the whole property is to be left as native forest and never to be developed.

pics-479With a nice stroke of luck our hosts turn out to be Sandra and Peter Cock, not only two of the original founders but the visionaries of the whole Moora Moora idea. Having traveled around Australia and beyond looking at 50 alternative communities for Peter’s PhD thesis (creating a book on the topic in the process), plans begun for Moora Moora. A core group of energetic young professionals planned what they hoped would be a communal-living settlement where individuals owned their owns house but the Cooperative owned and governed the land. Through his research, Peter felt that this structure would be best suited for a community that hoped to endure the test of time. Forty years on, Sandra and Peter have grown into parents and then grandparents, have watched members move or pass away, have withstood a variety of personal, legal, local government and environmental challenges, and experienced the majority of their adult life from within an intentional community. From what we can see, they have come through very well, with the usual number of regrets consistent with a project of this scale and complexity, but still smiles on their face. In terms of regrets, Peter feels that the shared community elements and the true spirit of what an intentional community is all about – the relationships – are what could be improved as many people are content to withdraw into their individual lives if let be. Overall though it is clear that they have been part of an impressive community-building project.

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Our actual stay was part Intentional Community Education and part working holiday (WWOOF). Peter, a tall and slim 60-something chap with a cheeky glint in his eyes and quick wit, was not shy at getting us in the thick of the work, though he vigorously participated in it as well. IMG_5388Despite of persistent threat of rain (it was constantly wet, foggy and windy up there, plus 4 degrees colder on average than the town at the foot of the mountain), we spent as much of our 3+ days there outdoors. Whereas food preserving was the call to order at Commonground, here it was preparing firewood for the quickly advancing winter season. We sourced previously felled trees from a clearing in the woods, shifting a tonne of wood (quite literally) numerous times onto the back of the IMG_5390Moora Moora shared tractor’s trailer, and then power-split the pieces (using a diesel-powered splitter I named “The Beast” for its awe-inspiring wood-smashing abilities) and stacked it all. When the weather finally impeded our best intentions with wild wind and lashing rain, Heidi worked the apple peeler and nutcracker while I provided some video recording and computer training to our hosts. As with every day, Sandra would provide us with warm soups and tasty homebaked snacks through the day and a delicious dinner each night – mostly vegetarian or vegan to her credit!

In the end, what was different with Moora Moora than we might have expected was the more isolated experience from other members of the community. With the exception of a couple of chance encounters on the village roadsides and a movie night where we got to see some good group bonding, there wasn’t too much obvious regular interaction between members of the community. IMG_5377Of course, in 4 days (and cold, wet ones at that), we weren’t getting any kind of typical gauge to work with, but my guess is I’d still feel that we were getting a fairly accurate sense of the place. Peter himself mentioned that if he could do it again, he’d make all the house clusters closer to the central hub (where their share facilities were) to encourage more regular interaction between members. In terms of my own community village design ideas, the thing I would take away from Moora Moora is the cluster idea, even in a small community village setup. The main reason is conflict; Peter says that one of the reasons they have survived is that when a cluster has its own problems or goes bad, it doesn’t bring the whole place down.

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Peter and Sandra’s cluster shares this solar array amongst the 4 houses

We became quite fond of Sandra and Peter during our stay, as well as with Mark – a long time resident and friend of Peter’s – who was living in Peter and Sandra’s house while we visited. Mark has tremendous knowledge, ideas and insight as well having been connected with local government and councils for years, plus a member who’s been involved in the journey of Moora Moora for a long time as well. Despite the short stay, we were once again treated with warm hospitality, engaged in plenty of quality conversations about everything, gleaned amazing wisdom and advice about communities, and made a great connection for future visits or more. We’ll aim for spring or summer next time perhaps though! 😀

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Mt. Toolebewong from the valley. Still enshrouded in clouds

Mt. Toolebewong from the valley. Still enshrouded in clouds

I found this guy sitting at the back door

I found this guy sitting at the back door

Strawbales and tipis, native spirituality and hospitality

~ DESTINATION THREE: DAYLESFORD ~

I love being pleasantly surprised…

My initial impression was that this was going to be a very different experience than our last stop at Cornerstone in Bendigo. When researching for the trip, Gentle Earth Walking sounded interesting primarily for the potential for strawbale building (something we were keen on trying) and staying in a tipi. Now that we have left, I am re-reading the entry in the WWOOFing guide about this spot, and while it describes everything that was there in a practical sense, we in no way could have been prepared for the things that actually made it such a rich visit. property wildernessFrom the effortless hospitality of our hosts Sue and Don to the peaceful rhythms of nature on their 40 acre property, we felt welcomed as part of the family with nothing being too much trouble. From the authentic incarnation of indigenous Australian and American spirituality that they practiced to the abundance of interesting ideas and projects around the property, their sense of dedication and care for the Earth and its peoples was clear. And while we weren’t expecting it to have an obvious community element, the outreach to community through creative and intelligent means made us realise that Sue and Don were dedicated to living out their beliefs and lifestyle goals as thoroughly as possible.

A feature of the stay that we quickly discovered was that Sue and Don love to tell stories. We heard a broad array of tales from their lives – learning that they were very well traveled, have had colourful and complex family lives, have experienced some amazing and unusual spiritual events, and are willing to throw themselves into any situation with vigour – all told with humour, trust and openness as if we had known them for years. Granted, at times we felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stories and retreated to our tipi at the end of the night with explodingly full brains, but we continually found ourselves returning and increasingly engaged in their intriguing lives. Given how many dozens of WWOOFers they’ve had over the years, you have to wonder how they tell these stories with enduring freshness!

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Often our conversations were around their dining table which is the centre of a very full and cluttered room that houses all of Sue’s office and computer, the lounge room and tv, the kitchen and pantry, dining table, and inventive clothes and pot racks made from ladders hanging from the high ceiling. In the midst of it all is a pot-bellied stove, continually roaring with flames as the weather was cold these nights (even down to -2ºC one night) while we were there. The room is jammed full as the strawbale house they live in isn’t complete and they have had to pile everything into this one room until another area is ready. Mashing everything and everyone in one place meant it was a cozy place to retreat to at the end of the day, and there would always be something going on like a spirited conversation, visiting family popping in, Don bottling some ginger beer, chooks trying to run inside the back door, Sue digging through boxes to find us books on strawbale building, endless cups or tea and coffee boiling on the ancient stove or Don doing his back exercises on the floor. Part of feeling at home there as well was that they weren’t at all precious about anything: there were no locks on doors, car keys always left in their old cars which we could use whenever we needed to, and nearly everything was a found object or had been reused, recycled or repaired.

group shotThe house is a very solid place filled with touches that indicate that this is a house made lovingly by hand. The bales offer amazing insulation and sound-proofing, looking great in an organic, hand-made kind of way. At about 200 square meters (2000 sq ft), it is a big place, and with the wonders of strawbale building (cheap materials and often free labour or simply less than a typical build), it only cost them about $30K. For those uninitiated with strawbale building, it offers so many advantages over brick or timber construction (cheaper to build, less labour, superior insulation, superior fireproofness, longevity), it’s a wonder why more houses aren’t built this way. Sue and Don have clearly been educating and enticing locals as well, as they are directly responsible for teaching or helping 50 buildings be built in the Daylesford area.Mike rendering

My dreams of building such a home were only increasing in intensity as we began seeing all the potential of the various strawbale projects around the property. And sure enough, they put us to work on a wall that had been half-sealed and needed rendering and repair. We spent the better part of a week working on the wall and it was fantastic getting our hands dirty learning about the craft. Both Heidi and I really appreciated doing the work and didn’t get tired of the labour; there’s something invigorating about working on a project like this, particularly if you are typically used to sitting in front of a computer all day like we are.

tipi at night

tipi in morningA unique part of this experience was staying in a Native American-styled tipi which was as genuine as the original ones found in North America. Ours was a 16 foot style (base diameter, about 5 meters) and about 30 foot high (10 meters) at the peak. The cool thing about a tipi is that, like the original ones, you have a fire pit within. Special wind-control flaps on the outside plus an inner sleeve help control air flow so smoke from the fire is drawn up and out the top of the tipi. We had mixed luck with keeping the tipi from becoming choked with smoke, but when we did get it to work it was a great way to warm it up. And warmth we needed as we happened to hit frigid temps a few nights! I was a bit over the tipi experience by the end mainly because of Kito who was never at ease there and had worked out ways to escape the tipi Kito in tipiwhich was a problem if we were off working. So poor Kito was stuck lashed to a pole with his leash inside the tipi and I felt either bad for him or annoyed as he tried so hard to make life difficult for both of us!

inside tipi

At the end of all the work and life on the property there was Sue and Don, two very interesting, inspiring, slightly eccentric (but wonderfully so!), gracious, trusting, open and hospitable folks. We particularly found Don to be a rare wise soul, someone who projects a feeling of goodwill and joy whenever you speak with him. Nothing is too much trouble for Don and he will embrace the opportunity to discuss a situation or have a laugh. Don steaming woodWe undoubtably asked too many questions as Heidi and I are prone to doing, but neither of them appeared to be put out by it. I aspire to that level of patience – serenity now! With Don, his spiritual journey seems to have led him to a place where he has an easy relationship with whatever life throws at him, with a gentleness, grace and wisdom that is difficult to find these days. We had many laughs at the various stories of people thinking he was a bikie or a vagrant, which again reminded me – as with many times on this trip already – that judging someone solely on their looks will almost always get you into trouble. Finally, they are creative and open to try anything – as their lengthy history of jobs and experiences attest – and for the last 15 years, Don has invested his time into bending timber using 150 year-old equipment and positioning himself as the only timber bending business left in Australia. I spent a day filming and editing the following short video on Don and his work and I think you can get a sense of Don’s passion for the work and how it extends from his passion for the earth as he discusses working with the 4 elementals of life.

What a wondrous and rich exploration this trip is turning out to be!

Also make sure you see another perspective of this experience on Heidi’s blog!

On the cusp of departure…and adventure!

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
Henry David Thoreau

Maybe slightly less confidently than Thoreau is coaching us to believe, we’re on the cusp of leaving on our (cue mystic yogi guru voice) journey of discovery in two days’ time. Having spent the past 5 weeks in a well-appointed house in a good part of Adelaide during a festive time with good weather has meant that we have actually positioned ourselves into an easier form of living than we had even before we started house-sitting. We perhaps aren’t “living our dream” of community just yet, with the relatively cushy nature of our situation until now making us a bit lazy and reticent about our forthcoming travels.

That’s not to say we aren’t excited. We’ve worked out most of our trip plans which will include as many different types of education and adventure as we could muster: some straw bale building workshops here, a bit of permaculture appreciation there; intentional community living, big and small; urban development and 91-year old Scottish poets; off-grid, aquaponics, organic farming and yoga; social activists, tipi builders, vegans and non-violent communicators. When we start looking at the variables, it’s an intriguing mix of choices!

(Writing is a bit cathartic, as my earlier lazy apprehension is turning to adventurous hopefulness the further I get into this blog entry.)  ☺️

So we embark on the first stage of our trip on Tuesday morning, invited by our friend Di (she was one of the tandem that married Heidi and I) to experience a version of community with her and her neighbor. From there, we spend Easter with Heidi’s family before heading to Daylesford, Victoria on our first “official” stop on the adventure: a lovely-sounding dog-friendly sustainable property featuring old trees, lots of birds, tipi camping, straw bale building and a couple of friendly folk named Sue and Don.

Mr. Thoreau will then be pleased to hear that by the time we do find our way to Daylesford, I have a feeling that we will be going confidently in the direction of our dream. ☺️