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!

inside house

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!

Cornerstone: Community 101

~ DESTINATION TWO: BENDIGO ~

How many times can I think: “wow”

So we’ve certainly started on the right foot with our community education! Cornerstone in Bendigo is pretty great and an awesome model of caring and committed intentional community. Now, you might say we lack context for comparison to other communities given that it is the first intentional community on this trip (possibly second ever next to Waiters Union in Brisbane), but I think with everything I’ve read about IC’s and our my own personal experience with community of different forms, I can honestly say that these guys are doing an amazing job on a number of levels.

One part that I can compare to is with our friends back in Adelaide. I recognise more clearly now what some of our friends are doing there to create a true atmosphere of servitude (in the “following-Jesus” sense), plus hospitality and relationships with disadvantaged and outcasts like refugees. What I have always found frustrating about doing community in Adelaide though (which has been further emphasised since visiting Cornerstone) is the direct proximity of homes to one another. In Adelaide, we just simply all live too far from each other and it makes a HUGE difference in my opinion. I can see the heart and intent in Adelaide but we need to find a way to live more in physical community as well as intent.

Andrew and Rose

Andrew and Rose, Cornerstone’s co-founders, and our hosts

What has been a joy in Cornerstone is that everyone lives within walking distance from one another and the local converted church-cum-community centre and shared garden is just up the street and is proving itself to be a true hub for bringing everyone together. Schools are close by; shops, cafes and town centre all close too. The idea of popping into a neighbor’s home to not only share a cuppa but discuss a community project or other communal activity is what is great and wouldn’t have the organic and dynamic effect that it does if distances were stretched.

Besides this, Cornerstone was a joy to be a part of immediately upon arrival due largely to our hosts Rose and Andrew who practice warm hospitality with ease. We felt instantly welcomed; and while they explained that their house has been constantly used as a place to stay over the years by families, uni students, refugees and travelers like us, we never felt like they were put out by us being there. Quite the opposite in fact: we were given a generous amount of their time to tell us their story, share meals together, tour the community and introduce us to other members. Being that their lives are driven largely by their faith as followers of Jesus played a part in this I suppose, but Rose often indicated that the community consisted of people from all walks of life and levels of belief (or not) so there was absolutely no bias about how they treated others despite sometimes very different perspectives on life.

Rose, of Mexican descent, in her beautiful Mexican-inspired kitchen

Rose, of Mexican descent, in her beautiful Mexican-inspired kitchen

The way I’d describe Cornerstone is true intentional community from the heart and soul: followers of Jesus who manage to strike a balance between discipling, community living, organic development of relationships, grace, authenticity and generosity. While my spiritual beliefs and journey are sometimes in a far different place to these folks, I never felt ostracised, belittled, scorned or unwelcome to share opinions. Andrew invited me to sit with a weekly men’s group and again I was freely encouraged to contribute and didn’t feel out of place when they discussed biblical passages or other things foreign to me. To me, there’s a true generosity of spirit in play that runs deep inside this community. You feel like they have no reason to hide feelings or fake acceptance just to be polite: it comes from the heart.

Going into this experience, my pre-visit expectations were that Cornerstone would be a close-knit set of homes on a quiet street and that the main house might be a share-house feel, with lots of people coming and going. I figured that there would be a slate of programs going on it would possibly be hectic with people of different socio-economic and physically/mentally disadvantaged hanging out in a community room, sort of like we experienced in our brief visit to Servants in Vancouver. Hosts are certainly difficult to predict but my pre-disposition is to assume some level of eccentricity (although not in a bad way, just refreshingly un-mainstream 😀 ). The reality was different, but the reason is not so much the superficial stuff but the joyful, authentic and committed devotion to community that we experienced. While everyone worked hard, life didn’t revolve around careers, money and day-in-day-out drudgery but rather a variety of new and exciting challenges revolving around people and relationships. And just enjoying life! It’s amazing how much you free yourself up from self-imposed pressure in life that revolves around acquiring and just instead living simply, relying on trust, sharing and neighbors who have the same ethos that you do.

There’s so much more I could say about the nuts and bolts of their community but it would take an essay not a simple blog entry (which is already long enough!). Of course, I think Heidi and I will take comprehensive notes for future reference as – even after only 3 days there – the immediately feeling that these guys were nailing the genuine feeling of how to do community well was abundantly clear. We both agreed that they might be tough to top on this journey! We shall see as the trip unfolds but Cornerstone illustrates exactly what we were hoping to experience on this adventure of discovery! 🙂

(Have a look at Heidi’s excellent blog on her Cornerstone experience as well)

Cornerstone's community hub

Cornerstone’s community hub

Community hub - cool knitted stuff

Community hub – cool knitted stuff

Di and Ruth: compact community

~ DESTINATION ONE: STRATHALBYN ~

Community can come in small packages.

In our planning leading up to this little adventure of ours we’ve gone and chosen some communities to visit solely based on a paragraph or two of information via the ic.org website, our WWOOFing book or a brief phone call. Reducing the decision to a small set of “highlights” based on some preconceived ideas of what community is all about will undoubtedly reveal some surprising realities once we arrive, but I’m beginning to believe that this will be the joy of the experience – if we allow it to be that way. Our first community experience has already been that way: before arriving, I had conjured an image of what sort of “true” community could possibly exist between two people, but it has already proven to be an unexpected learning experience.

Heidi, Di and Mike

Heidi, Di and Mike

The baby steps of our 2-month trip took us to the homes of Heidi’s spiritual director Di and her friend Ruth. From the start, Di was comfortable using the term community to describe her and Ruth’s setup: conjoined properties consisting of two houses with no dividing fence and a shared backyard. Ruth and Di, who have been friends for 40 years, move between the two buildings freely but that divide is enough to provide some individual expression and some personal space to be able to retire to whenever they each want it.

So, looking at the way I perceive “community” to mean, I see it as:

  • a group of people sharing resources to reduce their collective environmental impact and save some redundant expenses;
  • living in close proximity with one another so that regular interactions are encouraged;
  • some common interests that connect everyone;
  • an overall care for one another’s well-being;
  • having shared experiences with like-minded people that enhance life’s journey

In this context, Di and Ruth are easily covering many of these points, but are simply doing it (at the moment) between the two of them. Their focus might not be so much on environmental concerns, plus having only two people to do everything can have its downsides, but their positive outlook, ease of lifestyle and welcoming hospitality definitely made it feel like they were creating a larger community than just the two of them. I definitely felt like a big warm hug was embracing us while we were there 😀

In planning this trip, we had broken it into roughly two parts: intentional communities and WWOOFing stops. However, I’m now beginning to think that the line is blurred with solid community likely existing in the WWOOFing stops as well. If Di and Ruth are an example of how it can be with just a small community then the places we are looking at who are often connecting with families, other like-minded individuals or the wider community will possibly have a similar feel. In other words, I will try to not place everyone in a tidy box before I experience what their version of community has to offer!

Go forth with an open mind.

Our preconceptions of what we expect to encounter on this trip will certainly colour how we actually experience it, as it was pointed out to us by Michael, a guest at dinner the other night at Di’s home. Michael had traveled extensively through Australia and abroad living communally and was a valuable addition to the conversation. His arrival at this meal was particularly fortuitous as our host Di had happened to bump into him the day that we were visiting and so we could pick his brain a bit regarding our own travels.

The advice Michael provided was useful but was one of the few things he actually told us (as not to contradict his own advice) was: the less we impose our own biases onto an upcoming visit to a community, the more we’ll get out of it. Upon arrival, it’s too easy to initially judge the way things are done by others if they don’t sync with our own methods, but if we wait, listen, learn and absorb, in due time we’ll get a more authentic view of how the community ticks. That’s not to say that our own perspective isn’t valid but it’s easy to arrive somewhere and think “why would they do that like this?” or “this community is broken here and here and I could do it better”.

Saying this, I think I’d like to experiment with my own bias and I plan to write a short paragraph before my forthcoming community visits in which I explain my own expectations and predictions of what the place will be like. I will be basing it solely on what I have read about the place, the vibe I get from any contact I’ve had with them, and my own biases like judgments about animal rearing/eating or lifestyle decisions. Hopefully this will help me examine my own reasons for thinking the way I do and see if I am putting too much emphasis on what’s in my head rather than what I am experiencing with an open mind! More to come…! 🙂

PS. Sorry for the analytical ramble: at this stage things are less about experiences and more about theory!

You can also view Heidi’s take on this visit to Di and Ruth in her blog at Miss Roo’s Adventures

 

Strathalbyn

The beautiful town centre of Strathalbyn

 

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. ☺️

Preparations & expectations

I’m homeless, jobless and about to hit the road with only a Honda Civic filled with the basics needed to get by. The aim is that it’ll be a two-month escapade of trip-carcommunity living, WWOOFing*, meeting like-minded individuals,  learning new skills and awakening the creative part of my brain that feels like it has been dormant for awhile. I can’t wait.

Having become a nomadic person over time, I feel the sense that I am about to get back into my element soon. My wife, Heidi, and I along with our shiba inu, Kito, are about to embark on a (cue Troy McClure type voice) a wacky journey of discoveryness! as we explore the a range of interests close to our hearts: intentional community living**; connecting with folks who are keen on treading lightly on this planet; sustainable practices such as organic farming, off-grid*** living and reuse/recycle/repair philosophies; meeting people who strive to explore and grow in their creative interests, personal, community and spiritual well-being; and anyone who chooses to live an alternative life off the mainstream path. As far as we reckon, those original 60’s far-out-dude hippies were onto something after all! We’ll see if growing my hair out, weaving my own shapeless hemp clothing and foregoing bathing ends up being the “new Mike” upon our return 😛

Truth be told, the traveler, explorer and generally curious information-seeker in me resonates with this type of trip, however the introvert and day-to-day homebody will struggle with aspects of it. I suspect that some of the personal growth I will look to gain could be in improving patience when I feel “people-grumpy”. Also, as Heidi will likely attest in her own blog writings (which I will link from here once she has her blog live, so you can have an alternate perspective of this journey!), a large component of this trip for her is the connecting with people in community, particularly if they are living out a Christ-centred spirituality in that community. kito-ponderingShe too is interested in environmentally-focused teachings but Heidi is more of a people-person than me. And for little Kito, this will either be the doggie adventure of a lifetime (Kito is extremely gregarious and will lap up the attention) or it will be a struggle for him as – like with many dogs – they like home and some regularity –something he won’t be getting much of with all of our moving around. Still, it’ll be great to be able to share the adventure with him and it’ll give him some great stories for sharing with the other dogs around the water bowl at the park.

For now, there is a bit more prep as we shift our lives of relative comfort (where we are house-sitting at the moment has a giant HDTV, all the mod-cons you get with houses these days, is close to North Adelaide’s shops and abundant restaurants, and is great for “lifestyle living”), to bringing only enough to get by, while the rest of everything we own is crammed into a storage locker. It’s a healthy thing to do…I recommend it to anyone. It certainly forces you out of your comfort zone, forces you to assess all the accumulated “stuff” in your life and purge, and gets you realising that life should be about the people (or animals) and experiences that you care about, and not really about how much you have accumulated. You’ll be remembered for what you said and did, not what you bought. In my opinion, life should definitely be about exploring, learning, creating, connecting and sharing….with a freedom from the shackles that either society, government or advertisers would like to lead you to believe you should be living.

So, starting in early April, I’ll be aiming to jot down experiences and share some photos from each of the dozen or so places we intend on visiting. Some places will be day visits and some will be week-long journeys embedding ourselves into an existing community. Follow this blog by subscribing >> or through Facebook with links to entries when I post them!

 

Glossary:
Here’s a couple of the terms I mentioned above; some of you will be well-acquainted with these already, but I have had a fair number of quizzical expressions with WWOOFing and intentional communities, so I thought I’d put my definition of them here!

* WWOOFing – technically comes from “Willing Workers on Organic Farms” which really means that this is a pure trade of skills/labour for food and accommodation. We’ll help folks out with whatever they need on their property and they’ll put us up. Good deal for everyone!

** intentional communities: a group of people or families who often have a like-minded series of beliefs or interests often to do with living simply, sharing resources, spiritual orientation or other lifestyle desires. Many times they are seeking for “true” community which is something that has often been lost in modern society. I wrote this previous full-length entry on intentional living as well.

*** off-grid refers to complete disconnect from city/council services (which are often tied to environmentally-damaging or expensive services that don’t take advantage of natural alternatives). Someone off-grid would have a total reliance on things like the sun, wind, hydro-power, etc. to provide power, composting toilets, harvested rainwater or other freshwater source and would ultimately be a very thrifty user of resources.

 

heidi-mike
Mike and Heidi, as seen before embarking on this journey ~ Mar 2015