Bundagen IC: serenity by the sea

~ DESTINATION THREE: BUNDAGEN, NSW ~

Proof that hippie communities can evolve beyond simple ideological experiments

Back at our campsite that shares the same beach as Bundagen’s intentional community, I can continue to enjoy the natural haven that is this part of the New South Wales coastline. lush scenery detailAbout 20 minutes drive south of Coffs Harbour and close to the eclectic town of Bellingen which is back-dropped by a stunning Dorrigo National Park, this sub-tropical zone is our first real taste of the more northerly climes of Australia – wetter, more humid, more lush. It is an excellent climate for organic farming, straddling Mediterranean and tropical, and features lush rainforest, picturesque mountains, achingly-beautiful surf beaches and small, inviting towns. Heidi and I felt a lot of external loves and soul-filling elements clicking together here right off the bat.

For 35 years, Bundagen Cooperative has been an off-grid settlement to a group of folks looking to connect more with nature and other like-minded souls in a beautiful part of Australia. Over 110 people – spanning three generations – live and work here, growing organic veggies, meditating, playing and experiencing life mostly off the mainstream treadmill. Theirs is not a utopia, but rather what they aptly describe as “a microcosm of the macrocosm, with all the dramas of the wider world played out on our small stage.” One person we met said that it was originally a ‘social experiment’ to experience the limitations of such a community.

community-morningThis community began in an appropriately activist manner: in the late 70’s, happy hippie folk used the farm land for environmentally joyful pursuits and were friendly with the local farmer who owned it. In 1981, the property came available for sale and Japanese interests swooped in with designs on redeveloping the land into a resort and golf course. The farmer sided with the concerned hippies and chose to sell the land to them which the group managed to do via their “alternative networks”. Hooray! This wily rogue of determined environmentalists defeated the big developers and have since cared very well for the land, even Jo-and-Girihaving part of it deemed a protected national park (Bongil Bongil).

We were originally drawn to this community as it sounded like a nice balance of alternative, sustainable, meditative/spiritual and mature. Having spent two weeks there as WWOOFers with our hosts Jo and Giri (pictured), I think that our initial hopes and assumptions were largely bang-on. From a visual perspective, Bundagen is a beautiful spot; we largely spent our time in one of 12 villages within the community – Bananas village (it was named as it was a former banana plantation, not because the people are crazy and wild like I first thought 😛 ) – and it is green, tropical and well-kept. Cars are “officially” limited in the village and the “roads” are greenways between houses (and one gorgeous path that takes you to an exquisite private stretch of beach).

Our hosts' open-plan home, surrounded by lush rainforest

Our hosts’ open-plan home, surrounded by lush rainforest

In our village, all of the homes are unique with many being hand-built creations using many types of natural materials, plus some caravans, old buses and other interesting structures thrown into the mix. There are no fences which seems obvious in a place that is supposed to promote community and openness, but experiencing it still feels very different than our mainstream suburbs where there are divisions all over the place: bitumen roads and footpaths, council-maintained areas, boundary fences and walls, main housechain-link in public areas, speed and traffic signs and so on. In my opinion, this is still and has always been one of the defining factors of living in community: you live together, trust each other and provide safe, harmonious and attractive common spaces that generally don’t require division or external policing. Going back into these conformist settings once you’ve been in a community like this immediately makes me feel uncomfortable. Mainstream society is largely not natural.

Other than visual appeal, the sustainable aspect is immediately obvious as well. The whole community is off-grid, so most villages have in-home composting toilets (plus a village shared loo), all water is rainwater harvested and electricity is solar. The off-grid stuff is done so well and effortlessly that you hardly notice it such that it is so well-integrated into the operation of the community. Until very recently, shared resources like a communal kitchen were still used, but an ageing population with a bit more saved income has resulted in more members building in-home conveniences and the village kitchen was torn down. There is, however, talk of building a new one, at least for a community hall to meet at. Other resources are still shared however, like tools and equipment, common machinery for maintaining roadways and lawns, and so on.

One of the biggest parts of this community (and of course the intent of all communities) is the relational part, and having spoken to numerous people about it, it seems that 95% of it is all good. Many of the folks we met had been there a long time and that in itself is indicative that members enjoy living there. It was fantastic to see so many healthy-looking 50 and 60-something folks, busy but smiling, and with tons of interesting wisdom to offer. However, of all the people we met, not one didn’t mention the challenges of conflict within a tight-knit community like Bundagen. In fact, not only do they mention their struggles with conflict resolution on their webpage, but we had numerous conversations about it, and witnessed it firsthand.

garden detailConflict resolution and internal politics are things that we have heard about in every community so it is clear to us that it a good system needs to be established early on. Members indicate that this didn’t really happen in Bundagen and this is their only real issue. Clearly they have made it work on some level to last this long, but the potential for fallout came into full illumination with a community member who was causing a rift between villages and individuals for many years. As good stewards of communal-living principles, the community-at-large have employed ongoing attempts at personal support over time, but sterner measures were being discussed. By all counts, this is unusual but it seems like something that has gone on far longer than is needed as the community didn’t have a comprehensive plan on to come down hard on frequent offenders. A further downside that we experienced was gossip, not just from this but from other things, which I suspect could cause other rifts if left unchecked.

Having come here on the heels of our Bruderhof experience was interesting; I am always hesitant to compare communities as they are apples and oranges, but being that they are so different makes it enticing to compare. The stand-out thing about a community like this is the organic nature of everything, which has its pluses and minuses. house-deck day2On the plus side, Bundagen is lush, natural and beautiful with countless birds, monitor lizards, possums and bush turkeys in your garden (and the occasional python living in your rafters!); easygoing smiling folks from different walks of life doing creative and inspirational things with their diverse dwellings, clothing and interests; music/sing-along nights, working bees, clothing-optional bathing at the beach (apparently in the early days, even member meetings were in the nude!), wild organic gardens behind many homes, yoga/meditation sessions run by members; and a relaxed way of organising, administering and “being”. The downside, comparatively, might be what Bruderhof excelled at: structure and order, balanced education, blended multi-generational groups onsite, community unity (with gossip largely “outlawed”) and a central drive (Jesus) that affected every person; all this the kind of stuff that won’t happen without some forethought. Now, I know Bundagen residents would probably argue that some of those things are exactly what they don’t want, and I would personally choose a more organic lifestyle over a heavily constructed one, but there are levels of structure that Bundagen might consider virtues to employ, especially in light of their self-assessment on conflict resolution. And that’s not to say that Bundagen was lacking in a spiritual core; I think most people there felt some affinity with the Spirit, the land or both, they simply didn’t all subscribe to the exact same programme.

One thing that is obvious about community living is the great sense of unity in times of need: during our visit, a friend of our hosts passed away, and the community rushed to help with preparations, personal support and finances. Folks rallied together to give moral support with the troublesome community-member I mentioned above. When a couple of WOOFers last year got stuck in a rip in the surf, a coordinated rescue was quickly set up and the couple would have likely died had it not been for the whole community jumping into action. Of course, emergencies aren’t the norm, and you can see the day-to-day stuff like neighbours dropping in regularly, village get-togethers plus information and skills sharing. It is clearly more dynamic and functional than a typical urban suburb. This generosity of time and spirit extended to temporary folk like us, as everyone had time for a chat with relaxed exchanges and no ulterior agenda.

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caravan inside

We ultimately spent most of our time with our hosts Jo and Giri, who fed us well (food & plenty of wine!) and kept us laughing with entertaining evening chats. They let us stay in their backyard caravan (pictured above) which was cozy and open so we could hear the birds singing and the rain fall (which it did a lot of in our last week there). stone wall-M&HGiri had us help with constructing an artistic stone wall and other manual labour, and Jo was interested in our skilled labour so we helped her with a logo and website for her business. We enjoyed their hand-crafted open-plan mud-brick home which really took advantage of the lush surrounds, and was only a 5 minute walk from the warm ocean where we often started or ended our day with a swim. The sense of peace and serenity that the location and lifestyle offered to the folks in Bananas village was quite memorable, and I could easily see why it would be enticing to live there for decades – despite the occasional conflict – as so many had done. Membership is closed at Bundagen as they are full, which also really says something about the place. Definitely a little slice of heaven!

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As usual, have a look at Heidi’s take on Bundagen on her blog, Miss Roo’s Adventures.

 

 

Narara EcoVillage: A model community

~ DESTINATION ONE: GOSFORD, NSW ~

Developing a village around a community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narara’s vision statement sums up things nicely:

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

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

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

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Existing outbuildings will be very handy to re-use

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

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

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

Community road-tripping, Mark II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kito curled up for the journey

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

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

 

 

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

 

Respecting the earth: permaculture at Fryers Forest

~ DESTINATION EIGHT: FRYERSTOWN ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toby, Tamsin and their two boys

Toby, Tamsin and their two boys

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

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

Wood chopping, stacking and planter task complete

Wood chopping, stacking and planter task complete

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

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

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

The community hall

The community hall

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the groovy fire shelter

Inside the groovy fire shelter

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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!

Lifestyle Report – as of Mar 2013

This is my third Report (since 2011…oops! I’ve been busy) as a way of assessing my successes, targets, improvements and areas I need to be more vigilant with when it comes to simple, ethical, environmentally sustainable and community living.

It might not be an interesting entry to read but it’s a way to keep myself accountable and constantly improving my lifestyle. NEW to this installment is the addition of my recent vegan ways.

I’ve highlighted positive changes in green and backwards steps red. So, as of today:

ETHICAL/SUSTAINABLE LIVING

• grocery shopping (with % of how often I do it)
became a vegan (Feb 2013)
— local green grocer for veg (75%)
— leftover bread free at end of baker business day (10% – eating less bread but not near bakery anymore);
— skip-dipping/dumpster diving (0% – slack but they are hard to find and I’m not really looking)
— major supermarket for all else (80%);
— Fair Trade where possible (tea, chocolate, recent clothing)
— organic where possible/affordable (25% – food, soap & shampoo)
— use Ethical Guide to boycott bad companies, GM food (50% – need more vigilance here);
— boycott food with known cruel processes (100% where known)
— food miles, locally produced (50%)
— meat consumption (0% of meals)
— dairy consumption (5% – just a couple of slips)

• grow own food (5-10% – tomatoes, eggplant, herbs)

• household shopping: I only buy new from store if I can’t get from op shop or build myself;
— purchased new in past year:
—– furniture (0%)
—– clothes (10%)
—–accessories (15%)
—– car (0%)

• home energy:
— electricity:
—– solar/renewable = no
—– aircon/heating (15%)
—– computer (off at night)
—– fridge (2/5 star rating)
—– dryer (0%);
— water:
—– rainwater tank (0% – no longer have one)
—– grey water for garden (15% – washing machine only)
—– shower avg. duration (5 mins)
—– garden (10%)
—– dishwasher (0%)
—– washing machine (top loader 2/5 star rating)

• waste:
— food scraps (100% goes to compost);
— wasted food (5%);
— recyclables like glass, paper, aluminium cans (95% to recycle bin, 5% kept for food/household storage);
— wasted paper (minimal use of printer, kitchen & recycled toilet paper)
— wood (90% saved for building material); haven’t built much now that I have what I need!
— white goods, electronics, equipment (10% – new stereo receiver);

Areas to Improve: fewer food miles; support local; buy organic if it makes sense & affordable; grow more of our own food; continue to consume less energy & town water. As it gets colder, it is tempting to use more heating but I’ll just have to be as resolute as possible and put on more clothes! Press onwards with vegan lifestyle.

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SIMPLE LIVING
• build most of my own furniture (lounge daybeds, coffee table, office desk, outdoor tables & seats)
• other furnishings have been donated (bed, futon, tv & DVD) or secondhand (kitchen table & chairs, office chair, rug);
• buy nothing that isn’t essential to the household or work
had to move stored furniture from Queensland to South Australia
• work less, spend more time connecting with friends & family; (has been a very busy past 3 years. Trying to find that work-life balance again)
• spend money on essentials, friends, charities;

Areas to Improve: connect more with real (not virtual) people

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ENVIRONMENTAL
• approx. annual carbon footprint (avg. based on lifestyle as of today): 7 tonnes of CO2 (Aus avg. 16 tonnes; world avg. 4 tonnes). This is not including my poor flight behavior below 😦
• car usage per month – approx 400kms ; mileage (approx 10kms/L)
• bus instead of drive (15%)
• ride/walk/skate instead of motor transport (10% – 15min walk to shops)
• return flights in past year – domestic (6), international (1); Unfortunately, the past couple of years have been baaad. Last year was mostly the flights during our tour around the country for our documentary film.

Areas to Improve: take fewer flights; walk/skate/bus more rather than car; use less electricity; aim for 7-8 tonnes/yr CO2

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COMMUNITY
• I now live with my wife so no more commuting to see one another; most friends are the same distance or closer now though
• intentional community living (share house or close living) = no
• share property or resources with community (some household items, driving, food with my wife’s best friend; borrow from other friends occasionally)
• collect hard rubbish from neighbourhood
• engage in conversation or help with mentally/physically challenged people in neighbourhood (0%)
• give to charities (monthly to: 1 x global aid, 1 x animal, 1 x activism organisation, 1 x community fund )
• volunteer with some friends’ and charitable projects
community gatherings for shared weekly meals and social activities

Areas to Improve: aim to achieve closer and more intentional community; share more resources; be more accepting of minority/disadvantaged; give more to charities; get more involved with meaningful & helpful projects

MARCH 2013 SUMMARY: overall, doing the right things still but still not socialising much due to workload. Some areas I can still be a bit more green. Would love to get more friends to jump onboard different aspects of sustainable, ethical or green living but am still trying to take the approach of “be the change you want to see in the world” however it is not always easy not to promote/preach, be judgmental or not be hypocritical…

Off the rails…

Oh gosh, this year started so well with my vision, this blog and the wheels have come off in some regards, evidenced even further by my lack of recording this journey here. What started as an attempt to find a proper work-life balance – one where I worked about as much as I did my own personal projects and socialised more – has become one of the busiest years of my life, worsened by massive carbon-usage crimes and moving backwards in my sustainability vigilance.

What happened of course (as I’ve mentioned in my last couple of posts) is that I have been working on a documentary (which tend to be all-consuming of your time if you’ve done one before, especially on a miniscule budget) plus I have gotten engaged to be married. Well, those being the main things, with plenty of other things layered on top to ensure I don’t ever get weekends anymore.

I shouldn’t be totally hard on myself as the documentary I’m working on is intended on saving lives and raising awareness about the very important topic of human sex trafficking, but I’ve had to take two enormous excursions to SE Asia to shoot the movie, one requiring 18 flights between my business partner and I, the other 11 flights plus another 6 for a third person who flew in from the States. I’m guessing this film was responsible for around 80,000 kms flown this year 😦

Take away my eco-friendly, sustainability-conscious human being status….I relinquish my badge… 😦

I’ve been slightly saved by living with a very vigilant eco-warrior friend for the past 5 months. Without her, I surely would’ve gone for the easier routes of spending more, wasting more and living less-simply because I was so busy. And there’s the key I believe, the trap that most people probably fall into: being busy makes you want to take the shortest route to doing things in life, as you’re always trying to gain a few extra precious minutes in your day. If I were still living on my own, I probably would’ve used my aircon more cuz it is easier, I would’ve not been so fussy with composting and recycling and waste water management because all these things take a little extra time. Of course I would’ve known that by taking those spare extra minutes, I’d be contributing to making this world healthier, but when it comes down to it, we’re all self-absorbed and “I” come first. So the planet will just have to suffer a bit so that I have a bit more breathing room in my day.

So I feel a bit bad. Even though getting married doesn’t come around every day (I hope!), and making your first major documentary (on a budget where you have to work on the side in order to make ends meet cuz the film sure ain’t doing that) is something that takes a lot out of you, but then the first one is usually the hardest. Still, I didn’t want to become that person again. I know this busy period will pass, but I hate making excuses because in the end, that’s what everyone does and that’s why the planet is so fucked up in the first place (insert lots of unhappy faces here).

So I simply need to try harder, at risk of overburdening myself. To my credit, I have gone along with most things that my housemate has kept me to task doing, so that means we waste very little, re-use an awful lot, make hard-rubbish runs, eat some veggies she grows in the garden, use very little electricity (she’s a lightswitch Nazi) and read more cuz there’s no tv in this house (I know: unthinkable!). So, not completely blowing the sustainability plan or anything I guess.

In a little over a month, I’ll likely be in my new home, awaiting my wedding and then soon living with my wife who is also eco-minded (though maybe not quite as much as my current housemate). Still, life after the wedding should calm down a bit and we can refocus on restoring that life-work balance that I am aiming for, thus restoring the drive to be more conscious of simple and sustainable living. In the meantime, I’ll get my carbon credits paid, plant some trees, apologise to the Earth (cuz I already know of 3 potential flights I’ll be taking in the first half of 2012! …oh the shame….) and get on with being a good friend to this little fragile planet of ours.