Queensland communities and roadtrip wrap

This blog entry represents the end of our current “road-trip” but I have to remind myself that this past 4 months has simply been part of a larger journey, and not a holiday as many people we meet think that we’re on. It’s difficult to quantify the success of the trip in terms of how far it has moved us along into any definitive results, but we’ve made countless good contacts, gleaned tons of valuable info, IMG_9146got insight into the values of others and how that colours their own dreams, plus the myriad of possibilities out there.

Heidi and I are confronted with mixed emotions about this expedition, as we feel more confident about what interests us and what really doesn’t, but there are particulars that might cause conflict. As a couple, we know that some of our choices don’t align with the other person’s dreams or might end up distancing ourselves from people we know, or may have financial requirements that are beyond our means. We also simply know that we haven’t yet figured out the best first step to take in this new direction and it is a frustrating place to be now with all this new knowledge before us.

Brisbane posed some interesting questions in terms of where we might like to set up shop. We both love the SE Queensland sub-tropical climate and lifestyle, its beaches, Brisbane’s multicultural communities like the West End and both know many great folks there. IMG_9484However, it’s far from the south where the bulk of Heidi’s friends and her family are (including ageing parents), it’s more expensive and Queensland in particular is less friendly to things like co-operative properties and communal living.

Here are some of the people we met and the kinds of things that are happening on the intentional community living front in SE Queensland:

Queensland communities

We visited several groups/couples/individuals who had a variety of styles of community either planned or currently active. A big thanks to everyone who shared with us, listened to our stories and ideas, fed us and are keen to follow a similar path in life. It’s just great to meet like-minded people on this alternative journey! 🙂

  • our first connection in Queensland with Wendy in Caboolture (just north of Brisbane), a friend of a friend whom we were told was in the process of building some sort of community dwelling. It turns out she was quite far along with a unique house build; she had taken an off-the-plan development and was altering it to accommodate numerous groups under one roof, particularly immediate-need people like refugees or homeless as her background was in social work. Her idea was to create a house with moveable partitions to allow for small rooms with individual kitchenettes and some shared facilities to accommodate people for temporary stretches. From a “communal” point of view, she could see this being a more permanent community down the track, but for now it would be a space to help folks get back on their feet
  • next we connected with Mark & Cath and several others who had started an urban community within a huge 4-storey terraced house in Brisbane’s West End. They were woven through the Waiters Union group who lived out their spirituality living amongst the marginalised of society. We really appreciated the combined life experience of the group and their desire to do life together in this vibrant, diverse but sometimes challenging neighborhood. Their model was more share house than we would personally want to do, but in this high density environment, it is really the only option. They openly invited us to start taking steps to be part of their community as I think they could see the shared values that we have, but we’re still not 100% sure if a super-urban lifestyle is what we want.
  • the following day we connected with musician friend Aaron and his wife Christy plus renewed acquaintance with past friend Christel and partner Scott. All of them have been considering a rural piece of property a couple of hours south of Brisbane to start a community. They were in fairly early stages of development and were keen to hear about our IC experiences to that point. This was one of our first experiences of really seeing different personalities playing a role in early decision-making and whom would be good to potentially live with. There were lots of differing directions at play; definitely an early meeting with lots of broad strokes. Cool to be part of and I look forward to that conversation with potential community members when we’re at that place. However, I’m not ruling anyone out at this stage!
  • a trip up to the Sunshine Coast hinterland brought us briefly to three places:
    1. we stopped in for a visit with Catherine and Andrew at a small cluster of houses that was their pseudo-intentional community. It was a tightly laid-out group of homes in a reforested area that was quite beautiful. Most people had some regular communication with one another but no really formal IC structure as such. Lots of potential and we were grateful for our hosts’ time and enthusiasm to show us strangers around on a brief visit;
    2. we decided to camp while up on the Sunny Coast and chose the eco-park at one of Australia’s most famous intentional communities, Crystal Waters. Comprised of hundreds of folks in quirky eco-homes built on freehold plots, CW has a distinct community intention but some people are critical of it just being nothing more than an eco-suburb these days. Since we were camping on the property, we were invited to be part of some weekly gatherings like Friday movie night and Saturday morning coffee & fresh sourdough where we could see a good sense of community togetherness. DSC02536Obviously we were experiencing this community more passively so I can’t be terribly thorough, but on the surface it felt a bit too sprawling, remote and not as intentional as I’d personally like.
    3. finally we visited Manduka Co-op for a brief pop-in visit and were received by the delightful Cara who was a more recent member but that was good for a fresh perspective as we often hear from long-time members. Manduka has all the trappings of being a vibrant community with a good size, great attitude, close-knit cluster of homes, connection with nature and a mindfulness for sharing. There were some internal issues that were being rectified and it seemed that the community was in a bit of a transitional period. Cara seemed to think that an infusion of new and younger members could invigorate things and take them to the next step. The only downside for me was a desire to bring animals for meat onto the community but there was otherwise some appealing elements to Manduka.
  • DSC02661we were grateful to our new friend Brooke to enjoy a “pop-up community” as we like to think of it, as she welcomed us into her home for more than 5 weeks. We met her extended family, learned valuable information about aboriginal Australians and lived in a share-house sense of “community.” She invited us to consider using her home as a community which would have been a fun experiment! Well, no doors are closed in our books…who knows if we might not end up in Queensland at some point in our life journey now that we know all these wonderful folks are there! 😀
  • eventually Heidi and I decided to head south again and give Adelaide some more of our time as we had found an interesting place to stay there in early August (more about that later), so we made a hasty departure for a quick trip down the coast again. We popped in on friends on the way and then connecting briefly with Matt and Ashlee in Sydney who had just put their house up on auction and purchased land a couple of hours out of the city with the intention of building a community on it. They were just starting to work out the details with who was going to be involved (about 6 interested folks so far), what the community will look like, how the community would support itself and so on. They seem interested in the farming side of things which is one thing Heidi and I have deemed ourselves not to be as interested in (plus they are raising animals for meat as well, which isn’t our belief/interest area) but are educating themselves up on permaculture and having bees for honey in preparation for life on the land. They are both young, high-energy and motivated to do this, so will likely be the perfect type of folks to kick-start a community and build it from the ground up.
  • IIMG_9649 encountered an unexpected community when I decided pay a WWOOFing visit to tiny house-builder Rob and his family north of Sunbury, Victoria. Tiny houses have become my fascination of late, to the degree that I am considering training myself in carpentry/design and building some myself or collaboratively. Rob lives with his wife, 3 teenaged kids, his son-in-law and granddaughter, plus there are numerous friends and people attending workshops coming and going regularly. There is also quite the community of animals intermingled wherever you walk making for a very interesting intersection of lifeforms. Not coming from a large family, I always marvel at these groupings of folks all sharing life in a compact space and making it work, but it truly is a form of community. The difference of course is that they are community by necessity not by choice (for the kids I mean). Still, it is interesting to watch the group dynamic at work. In the end, not so much house building took place, but it was an interesting last stop.
The case for Communal Living

findhornDuring our travels, I have been reading Graham Meltzer’s book Findhorn Reflections which, as you might guess, is a series of articles about his 10+ years living at the famous Findhorn intentional community in north Scotland. The book paints the picture of a wonderful and balanced community, with Graham a transformed and joyous-sounding man who is benefitting from all that Findhorn has to offer (and vice versa). I would love to visit this town of 700-ish people and get swept up in the possibilities for successful larger-scale communal living. At the end of his book, Graham summarises communal living in a way that resonates with me and why Heidi and I are seeking this life:

“To my mind, communal living doesn’t need to be justified, defended or even celebrated in terms of its purpose. I see communal living as a default setting i.e. it’s the most natural way for human beings to cohabitate. It should be the norm, and of course it was, up until the Industrial Revolution some 300 years ago. For millennia beforehand, we mostly lived as fully interdependent, mutually supportive members of tribes, hamlets, villages and towns. And we lived sustainably! If present day communal living has a purpose at all, then perhaps it’s to remind us of this now forgotten fact.

Particularly over the last 150 years, a sense of oneself as an integrated member of society has been supplanted with a measure of one’s economic worth, which has in turn been closely associated with status and power. Human values have fundamentally shifted from the social and cultural to the economic and material. Most recently, human need has been dissociated from social satisfaction and cultural meaning; it’s aligned instead with consumption, not only of commodities, but also ‘entertainment’ and substances. Never mind that this trend has fuelled global warming and climate change; it’s more than enough that it has eroded our innate capacity for creativity, service and love.

If we are to regain our basic humanity then the specious satisfaction offered by consumption needs to be replaced by satisfactions that are non-material. Communal settlements are the perfect setting for replacing psychological attachment to material gain with location-based social fulfilment and cultural rejuvenation. Anti-consumerist values are, in fact, common amongst members of intentional communities and axiomatic for many sectarian, egalitarian and alternative lifestyle groups. Intentional communities model a more humane, pro-social, values-based way of life. In so doing, they encourage a return to a more modest, measured and, dare I say, spiritual way of life.” (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25480605-findhorn-reflections)

I love the idea that communal living is a default setting of humans which we need to return to in order to stop the current fracturing of society. My ideal communal structure is the car-free “Villagetown” idea introduced by Claude Lewenz (someone whom I admire a great deal for his progressive ideas and whom I will dedicate a blog post to soon), which is the only major aspect not integrated into Findhorn’s design.

ecovillage view the field ecohouses ©Findhorn Foundation/Eva Ward

Without a doubt, one of the main things this trip has reaffirmed is that communal living is essential: I don’t want to return to suburb living; I don’t want to be part of the current economic system/expectation; even as an introvert I recognise the need to connect with like-minded people, not just shut away those who are on a very different path to me; I need to pursue my new calling even at the expense of shifting away from familiar career and lifestyle paths and not worry about other people’s expectations of how things should be.

Roadtrip reflections

A great finish to this whole trip is that we return to Adelaide with a 2-month stint at the best urban intentional community in Adelaide: Christie Walk. We managed to rent a place there from the tenant who is overseas, so while it isn’t a permanent step into community, it’s a good test-drive! Hopefully we can roll it onward into more community-related living.

The parts of this recent journey where we were engaging with communities were very exciting and valuable glimpses into what is possible, both for our own created community (should we take that path) or what we can expect in that world. From the perspective of creating our own, we realise that there is a lot of work involved. The payoff is developing a dream into a reality, creating a unique version of how community can look. Heidi and I differ in this dream as I am probably in the mindset that I could be involved at the ground level whereas the people and community take precedent for her, however or wherever she feels drawn to get involved. I believe that a curated community can much more deliberately invite like-minded and similarly-valued folks to develop and inhabit it, and I have a desire to live out life with folks with similar outlooks and ambitions.

Beyond this idea of how we might instigate a community or join one in progress, Heidi and I are still feeling out what our roles might be in the community and what the basis of it might be. The parts that have become clearer for me as necessities in my future community are:

  • fundamental shared values of members are important: people who genuinely care about the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants is primary.
  • authenticity and transparency is key; to ones self and each other. Honesty, integrity, compassion, patience, tolerance, trust, respect.
  • creativity in all areas of life: creative thinkers, problem-solvers, visual artists, food producers/preparers, engineers, building, ecologists, musicians, etc
  • celebration and gratitude: finding ways to build in regular moments of thankfulness to keep the joy and passion of life alive and well
  • healthy mind, body and soul: healthy eating, meditation/yoga, exercise/sport, socialising, communication, working together, education, innovation, fun

Those are some of the fundamental elements which may or may not have changed much since before we started visiting communities, but when I write each of these things down now, my mind is directly connecting them to things I either liked or thought were lacking in places we’ve been.

As things stand, the path forward is as wide-open and uncertain as it’s ever been meaning that we will have to strike out in some direction and just start trying something or else we’ll just be thinking about it forever. At least we have a better grasp on options, challenges and locations now to help inform the path we take. Thanks for following our journey and thanks to everyone we’ve met along the way!

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Dharmananda: on the farm with the Dharm.

~ DESTINATION FOUR: THE CHANNON, NSW ~

Cows, creepy-crawlies and communal living.

One of the most common remarks that I have heard by folks who lived at or know the Dharmananda community is that they think it’s one of the best they have come across. For two weeks Heidi and I incorporated ourselves into this community discovering that the quality relationships, good ethos, strong values and beautiful location does indeed support the high esteem that this community is held in.

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Interestingly (well, to me anyway), this trip has consisted of us randomly picking communities that we know nothing about but sound good to visit and then turn out to be historically significant in one way or another. It turns out that communal living on the Dharmananda property actually preceded the 1973 Aquarius festival. Aquarius is largely considered to be the birthplace of most of the communities in Australia that have existed for over 40 years. In this region (and arguably Australia), Dharmananda and Tuntable Falls (our second choice while researching) are considered the best known and well-respected communities, with Bodhi Farm right up there (a place we might visit as we head south in July). It was a privilege therefore to be opportunity to spend time with this group and find out what makes it so unique.IMG_8794

Right off the bat, our day-one first impressions were a mingling of the people, the place, the creatures and the dairy. The people were outgoing and friendly though you could sense that WWOOFers and other visitors were a common occurrence seeing as how well-oiled their guest machine worked! My first thoughts of the place itself are rich with adjectives: densely lush tropical forest; creative open-plan homes made from recycled materials; a homey and cozy community house; buggy, rough, open, remote, quiet. IMG_8772The creatures were quite visible from the outset with the web of a hand-sized spider positioned strategically by the door to the community kitchen, a large huntsman welcoming us to our room, skittling cockroaches in and on everything when we opened the door, and a carpet python living in the rafters above our bed. Welcome to the jungle! Lastly, as we were welcomed by mooing bovines, the fact that this is a working dairy farm wasn’t lost on us during planning (an interesting challenge given our leaning towards veganism), but we decided to look past that initially and focus on the people and relationships before delving more deeply into the state of the cows.

What makes Dharmananda such an intriguing place? Well, a few things: the members of the community are an eclectic mix of personalities, many of whom (particularly the founders and those born into the community) have been here more than half their lives. They care for the land and for each other, their bond with both ensuring ongoing health and unity. There is a good blend of creative, practical and relational skills with everyone participating in their roles with dutiful acceptance. There’s also not too few or too many folks here: at around 20-25 at any given time, a good balance has been struck between in-your-face-all-the-time and I-never-see-some-people. DSC02528There is a shared meal available nearly every night at the community house with most people taking part at some point through the week. Besides the humans, an abundance of wildlife and wildness in general is both a virtue and something that you need to get accustomed to, but for the most part it is stunningly beautiful, tranquil and a wondrous thing to be able to be so close to nature. Credit for this forested and lush environment goes to the founders who rehabilitated barren animal-grazing land and made it what it now is. You’d scarcely believe that it was largely devoid of trees 45 years ago given the current diversity of native flora (and, increasingly, eradication of non-native weeds) plus rich habit for birds and creatures.

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The people and the place. That’s pretty much Dharmananda’s magic ingredients in a nutshell!

For Heidi and I, coming in again under the label of WWOOFers, the deceptively simple idea of “people and place” needed to be experienced first-hand, and it reminds me again of the importance of staying in a community for a little while. As we pulled out weeds for folks like Sho – a Japanese chap who came 15 years ago as a WWOOFer and never left – or Leigh – a fixture since 1979 who is the King of the Cows – we gleaned a great deal of interesting info about the community at different stages. IMG_8825Maggie – a stylish, humorous and feisty 84 year old member – makes cheese during the week and has regaled us with stories of the farm. Carol (pictured) – one of the original founders and a sassy tell-it-like-it-is woman with a beautiful house on the hill – was quite candid about Dharm’s history and her thoughts on her ageing community family. We were also lucky enough to experience the group in social activities together, like Saturday dinner where everyone is looser with wine, laughs and board games, or at their monthly meeting where we got to experience their decision-making and democratic behavior with one another at work.

You might note that above I said pulling “weeds” and not “weed”. Dope. Pot. Ganja. Marijuana: no matter what you call it, it’s not available here. Dharmananda has had a strict “No Dope, No Dole” policy for most of its existence which is probably why it is a tight and focused community still after 44 years. Where other communities have to worry about raids and secretive activity surrounding what their community gets up to, Dharmananda seems pretty clean. According to neighbour Chris, that’s not to say that they haven’t been lumped together with the other communities in the eyes of the police. Chris regaled us with stories of actual gunships that have landed on the property from time-to-time as the Australian Federal Police (AFP) periodically perform drug raids. Apparently the AFP refer to Dharmananda as “Sector 4” while Chris’ place has defiantly actually used their Sector 5 moniker as their official community name – in true rebellious activist spirit. Those early days and the busts of the 80’s and 90’s must have been some wild times in this region!

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Leigh, one of the early members, on his trusty tractor

From a farming point of view, the heart of Dharm is the dairy operation. A number of interesting things transpired to do with this, as I went in as a staunch believer that dairy is part of a cruel industry, somewhat unhealthy and ultimately an unnecessary activity. However, heading onto the farm, I wasn’t wearing my Vegan hat and didn’t feel trepidation about the forthcoming experience, likely due to the fact that I really had no basis for comparison having never spent any time on a dairy farm. IMG_8789On about day 3 at Dharm, however, male calves were just being separated from their mother (and due for slaughter; a cruel by-product of the dairy industry) and had started a two day-long crying out to each other, day and night, which was difficult to experience. That evening, at a dinner table filled with community members who spend hours a week processing the dairy and living off of it, we had a fairly lively conversation about the ethics behind it and Leigh surprised me with taking a firm but compassionate stand about how he struggles with parts of the dairy routine, like separating the calves. A sly reminder to the other members at the table, he commented that “this is all done so we can eat our cheese and butter.” This impressive show of humanity was coming from the man who has carefully tended to the cows 7 days a week for over 30 years. I would learn over the rest of our stay that he treats those cows with diligent care, talking to them and calling them by name. Watching the cows follow him around made me realise that there was a lot of heart invested into what he does. It’s one of those strange hypocrisies that humans are often involved with, and despite my inherent objection to the whole idea of dairy, I could see genuine caring and good intentions behind the way the cows were treated here which says a lot about the type of people who live at Dharmananda. Due to the lengths that they go to to care for the animals, who in turn fertilise the land for their veggies, I could no more condemn them than I could myself for driving a petrol-powered car and contributing to polluting the Earth. It was a healthy thing to experience; I could more clearly separate intensified factory dairy farming done by faceless corporations from this sort of small, bio-dynamic and holistic approach. IMG_8788My feelings about consuming dairy remain the same, but I am not lumping everyone together into one box.

The farming part of life inspired some interesting conversations with community members. From at least 4 separate conversations, I was told that Dharmananda wouldn’t have been someone’s first choice anymore if they knew how centred around the dairy, labour and food production that it is. In fact, each of these people mentioned neighbouring Bodhi Farm as their preferred choice. In their next breath though, all those individuals also said that it was the people that kept them here and they were all family so they endured. It did cause Heidi and I to perk up our ears with interest about Bodhi Farm, however. We are considering visiting there on this trip too; from comments we heard, it sounds like the virtues are that that Bodhi is in the quiet forest, more aesthetically-oriented, more focused on music and creativity and less on farming and labour, less about vehicles and more practising/observing Buddhism. Certainly some of those considerations would likely be shared by Heidi and I as we are interested in arts-centred communities with a spiritual core. It therefore makes Dharmananda even more of an enigma; people are compelled to come and stay despite the lifestyle not necessarily being their first choice. It says something about the vibe or people or location or something deeper….but I also sense that change is in the air. IMG_8833The big question will be: once this particular “constellation” of folks (as Carol calls the founders and current group) moves on, will the next generation maintain this type of farm-centric existence?

Overall, our experience of life in the community was very positive. As WWOOFers, we generally worked 4 hours a day from 9am til about 1 or 2pm with generous morning tea and lunch breaks, after which we could do as we pleased. We probably had our fill of weeding tasks as about 75% of what everyone wanted us to do involved that, but we did learn a lot about native vs non-native plants, prepared the food beds for Dharm’s next crops, participated in the regeneration of the bushland and IMG_8839helped improve the community in general. The downside might be that we also got bitten by ticks, jumping ants and leeches in the process, but we worked alongside a 2 metre carpet python one day, which was pretty exciting. We got to spend most of our days outdoors, chatting with community folks, basking in the unusually warm late-autumn sunshine and soaking up the clean air in the beautiful forest.

One of our exciting WWOOFing assignments was to go up to the meditation centre that was co-built and co-owned by Dharm and Bodhi, on the top of their hilly property in the untouched, ancient rainforest. This retreat was graced by hundreds-of-years-old trees, with little “cootees” (or sleeping/mediation huts) dotted around, a communal kitchen and a large centre for group mediation. I thought the farm was pretty peaceful, but up here there were no human-created sounds except the whip birds and wildlife. DSC02501Even the sun and wind could barely get through the dense trees.  We were very thankful for the invite to come up with Jen and her partner and stay over night as this place clearly illustrated to me one of the reasons that people are so passionate to save these forests and to live in this soul-filling region. (I’ve posted a bunch more photos from this beautiful spot plus the rest of Dharmananda in my photo gallery)

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DSC02485We rounded out our visit with trips to the local village, The Channon, which had a throw-back feel to it, plus we saw their famous monthly market which was all local arts and crafts complete with all the old hippies and other locals walking around there. A must-see on our list was also famous Nimbin and it’s healthy hemp and pot industry, but it had a bit of a seedier feel to it than I expected. Still, it was a very interesting spot and worth a visit. The countryside in the region is impossibly pretty; truly Australia’s Tuscany in my opinion. Without a doubt, we need to explore the area more as it is thick with intentional communities and the exciting community-at-large makes it one of the most interesting parts of the country for like-minded folks, I imagine. Dharmananda was a great introduction to the area and I hope we can experience more of it and learn from the pioneers of communal living in Australia!

There was so many amazing photo opportunities in this region and on the property that I made a separate gallery to show off more pics than what fits in this blog post.

As always, please check out Heidi’s site about this visit as well for her unique insights on our journey.

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I am allowed to live like this

I am sitting on a daybed on the balcony of our hand-built rustic accommodation, overlooking a lush scene of trees in all directions, a simple track and nearby hill that makes up the rainforest valley we’re in. However, it is not the visual setting I’m focused on but rather the melodic sounds of the rainforest – those wet, rich, echoing tones of exotic-sounding birds – chirping, whoooiiip!-ing and trilling – with a distant burble of water from a healthy creek. Down the rambling road, I see two people in aprons carrying big baskets filled with fresh produce walking back from a series of bountyful gardens just beyond. Not only is it a signal to me to take a moment and absorb the healthiness, beauty and tranquility of this location but it is a reminder that this is the norm for this intentional community, and not just some temporary getaway for distant travellers like ourselves.

As a born and bred city-goer, I have in the past convinced myself that I was more “at home” in the city, with the so-called conveniences, the comforting ever-present drone of traffic in the distance, and the neatly partitioned off spaces delineating all facets of life so we know who’s-is-whose and culturally how to behave. These travels to intentional communities are, for now, a temporary peek into the way others live, but ultimately I expect to return to a city, even if there are elements that grate against my being. It is simply what I am used to. DSC02430These communities are just foreign places where a different breed of people live, and I think of the inhabitants as “the lucky few” who are able to get away with this lifestyle while the rest of us muck about in uncreative suburbs and traffic congestion.

However, a tipping point is nearing, I believe. I am also beginning to feel like I speak into the same line of thinking and ideals that the people that we meet in these communities now. I need to stop portraying myself as a wishful dreamer and more of a participant-in-training, transitioning to this new life…not if, but when. When I see so many people with multiple practical skills – some of which may seem to have died out or have become unnecessary in modern life – I feel unqualified to be considering such a move. I don’t know how to grow food very well. What can I build besides furniture out of pallet wood? Could I hook up an off-grid solar system myself? How do I identify all the plants or snakes that could kill me? How do you know when you have to appease local councils with something on your land? Doubts creep in.

Sure, I can go on the internet and learn some of these things over time, but the virtue of a community is that all the many skills needed are often supplied by your community members, or you muddle through as a group and figure things out together. Many of the people we encounter seem like ordinary folks (many who have come from cities too) who have had lots of time to try things out and collectively learn these interesting skills. Plus the welcoming, non-judgemental attitude of members helps soften the worrying like the “will they accept a useless sod like me” thoughts that crop up too. Given that most communities we’ve experienced have a trial period (essential for both parties to feel if they will fit), if you simply come with a positive, respectful and can-do attitude, my guess is that most communities will love to have you in due time.

I can’t speak for what other people’s barriers would be to potentially living in a way that allows you to feel liberated from the constraints and pressures of mainstream society, but mine are: acceptance, expectations and relationships. Returning back to my view of the rainforest and the birds, another barrier might be “am I allowed to live in such a wonderful place? Isn’t life supposed to be busy and stressful with hard edges, like in a city?”. It’s that idea that I am not deserving of this. That voice in the back of your head that suggests that it is “time to grow up and be an adult” which I interpret to mean: “hippies, activists and lay-abouts live in rainforests and aren’t productive members of society.” I am finally starting to dispense of this myth. Sure, we need doctors, engineers and lawyers (wait, do we really need lawyers?) in our world, but more importantly, we need folks of all types that have a greater say in how mainstream life should play out. There is an equitable, respectful and trust-filled existence in community that truly needs to pervade our society and show folks that life can look and work very different than it currently does.

I believe we can all live in cities that resemble rainforests, so that we all can cherish life more than dreading many parts of it.

I believe that intentional communities are the model by which this can happen and in the meantime, I’m excited to say that I feel ready to transition into this brave new world.

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Check out the rest of my journey on our 2016 Intentional Community trip.

“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.

Gratitude and choosing a different path

Before I regale you with tales of our first organised community experience on this journey – Narara EcoVillage (the focus of my next blog post) – I’d like to mention a couple of things that I was reminded of as soon as this trip began.

First, I have a lot of gratitude for the like-minded people that we have met along the way the past couple of years – and that includes our friends in Adelaide – who regularly show genuine hospitality, goodwill and generosity that has opened my eyes to the many different definitions of “community.” Heidi and I have certainly got some ideas of the kind of community dynamics we’d like to end up with (living proximity, outward focus, creativity, sustainability, simple living), but I am realising that community comes in all shapes and sizes, plus in unexpected places. It’s reassuring meeting pockets of folks who share our values and dream of something similar in their lives, if it isn’t already happening for them.

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Our friends, the McPhersons (minus one other daughter/sibling in this pic), who share many of our values and interests and also live life beating to the sound of a different drum.

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Campsite living 🙂

Secondly, I am often struggling to be comfortable with the idea that what we’re doing is just part of our life and not some diversion away from “normal life.” Society’s idea of what Australian life should look like has been drummed into my head (like for many people, I suspect) : own/rent a home in suburbia, one or both of you commuting to work each day, bring the kids to this or that, pay your mortgage, holiday once a year with everyone else, fill your home with lots of stuff, etc. This somewhat conformist vision is what gets sort of baked into our heads and we’re guided down these well-greased paths with ease.

With this journey that Heidi and I are on, I need to remind myself that this is my life and that’s a great thing. I don’t need to feel guilty about not having a 9-to-5 existence nor should I even consider this a finite trip. There is just as good of a chance that we could find some awesome community to live with as there is that we’ll come back to Adelaide. I’m sure Heidi would disagree with me on that as she has close ties with some friends there, but I think it’s healthier (and more fun!) to just roll with the experiences we are having and see what life presents us with. Even though I have been living a somewhat unusual lifestyle for awhile now, I am still only just allowing myself to absorb the idea that I am freeeee….liberated to some degree from those self-fabricated confines of mainstream society. I’m also grateful for having the chance to do it as well; this country still allows a level of freedom of choice, plus I’m healthy and capable which I try not to take for granted. And to this end, the type of community I hope to end up in will hopefully make feel these ways every day.

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The view from my workplace

On that note, let’s have a look at Narara EcoVillage for a combination of both sides of what I’ve just been discussing 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