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.

pics-605

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.

pics-583

pics-597

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

pics-592

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.

IMG_5383

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.

pics-465

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! 😀

pics-439

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

Discovering a lot of common ground

~ DESTINATION FIVE: SEYMOUR ~

Serenity, companionship and social change

What an interesting trip this has been! We’re so very fortunate to have been welcomed into some beautiful communities, with memories that will stick with us for a long time. When we hit our first highlight spots early on, I though that maybe we’d be tailing off a bit from there. But then along comes Commonground, and the goal posts get moved again. CG logoWith lots of laughs, freely offered information, engaging backgrounds, varying journeys, open minds, good work ethics, shared ethos, and different reasons for ending up in this community, our week here with these great people was delightful and, frankly, difficult to leave.

Going into this experience, we already knew about how Commonground had been around since the mid-80’s and were more than just an intentional community, so we felt confident that we’d see a well-established place that couldn’t have lasted this long without having a solid foundation. Interestingly, whereas everywhere else we’d visited so far had an obvious spirituality at its core, Commonground is instead centred around social change. However, there was a palpable “spirit” to this place which transcended a prescribed doctrine.

main garden

What makes them different is that the intentional community aspect – while integral to the whole – forms one part of a system of elements that help bring about social change in our world. Briefly, their three aims as an organisation are:

  • To provide a conference and retreat venue for the social change movement at the Commonground property
  • To provide collaborative workplace education and training to help people work effectively together for social change
  • To develop a vibrant Intentional Community of people living and working together at Commonground.

On their website, they talk about the early days of why the community was started: “We often talked late into the night about everything from economics and its relationship to global

Kate and Phil, two of the original founding members

Kate and Phil, two of the original founding members

poverty and injustices, the grossly unequal sharing of the worlds resources, the nuclear family, women’s issues, indigenous issues and the state of planet Earth!”  Given their wide range of skills and backgrounds, they began to shape their focus: “At some level we did not want to just keep fighting against the structures and problems we saw.  We felt it must be possible to create other ways for us humans to live more collaboratively on the planet.”  Being that they wanted this community to be built on on ongoing movement and not just individual owner/share collective, they opted to be a non-for-profit to ensure that the community continued well past the original owners’ lifetimes there. Two of the original members we hung out with most while there were Phil and Kate; 30 years on and they both seem keen on keeping the original plan on track and intact.

Wedge backyard

Kasia in kitchenThe property at Commonground is set up with numerous buildings, the main one being “The Wedge” (pictured above) where we stayed and which also houses the conference centre and guest accommodation. There are currently about 6 people who live full/part-time at The Wedge with another 7 at other hand-built homes around the 95-acre property. On a given day, nearly everyone living on-site will pass through the Wedge to cook or share a meal, do some work, have a chat or rest. The cooking roster involves everyone and all dinners are shared so the dining room ended up being a great place to catch up on the day and keep the Commonground family close. We never felt uncomfortable being brought into this fold as everyone was quick to engage in conversation, answer our questions or help us out in some way. Heidi and I were given a room in the conference quarters (and later moved when a group rolled in); the whole Wedge building is filled with a myriad of mud-brick walled bedrooms and bathrooms, each with their own character and outlook to the uninterrupted bushland surrounding it. Wedge wallsWhile not built entirely for off-grid living (no solar due to prohibitive cost when it was built, and the need for reliable power during conferences; one outdoor composting toilet but rainwater and dam water within), the innovative acquisition of building materials and recycled pieces that make up the building coupled with a reuse & repair philosophy and zero-waste gardening makes for a very sustainable contribution to the community.

 

dinner time

Dinner is always a shared experience filled with great chats, catching up from the day and amazing (mostly vegan!) food

Carl with produce

Carl with some fresh garden produce

Even though we had eyes on Commonground for the intentional living angle, we were visiting as working holidaymakers and were given extracurricular tasks on a daily basis to help out the local residents who might not get to them as often. Our tasks tended towards food-related and preserves as a few items were ready to be harvested. Picking, cutting, juicing and bottling was the core of our labour, lettucebut being that the kitchen is a cross-roads that everyone passes though, it was a good spot for interaction and conversation. To our delight, all this food prep meant we were able to take advantage of the extensive gardens kept up largely by Brian and Carl, with a green-grocer level of variety to choose from! There’s nothing nicer than creating an entire meal out of ingredients pulled from the ground as we did for our lunches many days. Brian had also been keeping bees for the past couple of years, so delicious fresh honey was also always available.

Brian beehives1

Brian beehives2I was beginning to think that places like Commonground were an amazing secret with their balance of low-intensity work life, bountiful social interactions, beneficial child-rearing opportunity with co-parenting, constant fresh and healthy foods, low-enviro-impact lifestyle and serenity only an hour out from Melbourne. But I think the word is getting out indirectly through things like their near-weekly groups that use the facilities as a group-work facility, the representation they have in Melbourne, the connection with local town Seymour and the recently-minted boutique music festival which brings in a limited number of punters who are as interested in the workshops as in the music.

Not everyone is rushing to be part of this intentional community despite these inroads, but they seem to get a regular stream of devoted workers/members which continue to keep things afloat. Still, Kate and Phil told us about how they are currently tweaking some of the core membership attributes to ensure that the community lives on well past their own ability to live here which might entice more folks. Kasia and HeidiCommonground takes a certain type of attitude to be part of: living with a close-knit group plus a willingness to hold lightly to money insofar that you are working to contribute to the health of the community but you can’t just walk away with a lump sum if you decide to leave. In my current state of mind, this seems ok to me: with a one-time membership cost of $100, a very modest $30 weekly contribution to the food and bill kitty and 10 hours of expected weekly work for the community in exchange for comfortable on-site accommodation, delicious freshly-grown food, the responsibility of cooking for the household only once a week and the rest of the time spent doing your own work or learning new skills with some of the many projects on the property….well, it seems to me like a great deal. To cap it off, the people you’re living and working with are exceptional, friendly and like-minded folks. To say that we aren’t tempted by what Commonground offers would be an understatement. But this lifestyle still doesn’t seem to be a likelihood for many in mainstream society and I think it all comes down to assets: we cannot acquire anything at Commonground and thus all your work there won’t help you buy anything “in the real world”. Again, I’m not bothered by this, as long as you are willing to concede to living the rest of your life in this or a similar community. Of course, there is time to bank up savings and then move on but I see this type of community as one that you don’t want to leave because it provides you with most of the things we really desire out of life…things you can’t buy.

Mike and Heidi with NgaluThere are heaps of things I could talk about from our week at Commonground like excess cantaloupe (we spent hours making cake, juice and sorbet), the creation and naming of cooch grass beer (Carl came up with “Cooch Hooch”), Kasia’s obsession with psycho-drama to help sell items around the property (none of us could really figure out what a psycho-drama was), Greg’s deftly-placed one-liners at meal times and talk about his recently purchased cigar-box guitar, Phil’s wry sense of humour and helpful direction, Ed’s direct-questioning and foul-mouthed hilarity, Izzy & Carl’s foozball fixation and much more. Overall, it was such a rich week of enjoyment, learning and experiencing community that we are forced to once again re-think what we want out of a community and what could be a good fit for us, even in a shorter term. As usual with this trip, things are getting very exciting!

sunrise clouds

As usual, Heidi’s take on Commonground is filled with some beautiful thoughts and a unique perspective from mine. Make sure you have a look.

 

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!

Inhabit – new documentary film

. . .

This looks like it could be a great film and especially relevant to the trip we are currently engaging in. In this four minute trailer, there are already some great takeaway quotes and things to ponder about the future of our planet and how permaculture principles are vital to our survival.

It looks like film aims to be ready for viewing on Earth Day which is the 22nd of this month so keep an eye out for it (dates/venues at the link): http://inhabitfilm.com

Have yourself an ethical little Christmas…

christmas pig

As Christmas approaches, I am feeling very passionate about reducing the amount of cruelty-created products in my life and the lives around me, so I’m hoping you’ll take a PLEDGE to try to do this yourself this season.

Christmas represents a time when people gather for meals, share gifts and eat too much chocolate. All I am hoping is that you’ll consider reducing your intake of animal products and if you do, then source Fair Trade or ethical/humane options (see options below). And with the gifts you purchase, please consider where it came from and reduce the likelihood that it was procured using slave labour.

Some suggestions:

— chocolate: please avoid milk chocolate as the milk comes from antibiotic-filled, tortured animals. Especially the cheaper chocolate which will also be using cocoa beans picked by slave labour. With cheap chocolate, you are usually also supporting a multinational company that cares nothing about welfare and only about bottom-line earnings. Aim for dark chocolate with the Fair Trade logo on it http://fairtrade.com.au/  If you think you can’t afford to pay a bit more, chances are you should just save your money altogether and not buy ANY chocolate as neither you, nor the planet, can afford the cost of this luxury!

— meat: try to find alternative options to meat altogether. With everyone ramping up with their traditional of consuming a bounty of meat they usually eat this time of year, the number of animals slaughtered reaches an epic and horrifying high (Kill Counter: the moment you open the following web page, it tells you how many creatures have been killed from that moment on to deliver you the range of foods that humans have come to expect. I challenge you to watch it for 1 minute and then honestly assess how you feel about the totals you see: http://www.adaptt.org/killcounter.html )

If you MUST have some meat, please don’t buy the cheapest cuts which will definitely come from abusive factories. It’s not just how MANY animals are consumed, it’s how miserable they lived their lives. Why would you want to eat something that was terrified, miserable, orphaned and murdered? Look at the Humane Choice website ( http://www.humanechoice.com.au/ ) as an example of where to get ethical meat and eggs. Remember: every creature on this planet has the SAME RIGHT to be on this planet as YOU DO.

— consumer products: here’s a great guide to why it’s important and what/where you can buy to ensure a better chance that you’ll be getting stuff not made by slaves: http://www.ethical.org.au/consumer/christmas/christmas-gifts.htm There are also lots of charitable organisations like TEAR’s Useful Gift catalogue ( http://www.usefulgifts.org/ ) where you get to give something that actually helps someone else in a life-changing kind of way. It is after all the season for GIVING, right? 🙂

I try to live by these examples but none of us are perfect. However, if we all pledge to try to eat 50% less dairy, 50% less meat and be wary of where are other ‘stuff’ is coming from, that will already represent a positive change.

Will you take this pledge?