Dharmananda in photos

If you haven’t read about our journey visiting Australian intentional communities, check out either my 2015 or 2016 introductions. This gallery features some of the photos from our visit to Dharmananda in northeastern New South Wales, a lush rainforested region of incredible beauty.

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The community house just after sunrise

 

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The bunkhouse – our home during our stay

 

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Leigh preparing a field with his trusty tractor

 

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Creative owner-built homes

 

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The cows doing their morning routine

 

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Lots of healthy grazing country for these cows

 

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The community kitchen

 

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You can’t get fresher bananas than this!

 

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Maggie is making cheese

 

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Stunning light through the meditation forest

 

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The community kitchen in the forest

 

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Thank you guerrilla artists who decorate the brutal potholes around here!!

 

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The Channon’s famous monthly markets

 

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Musicians at The Channon market

 

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Folks selling stuff at The Channon market

 

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Amazing plants at Dharmananda

 

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Wildlife taking refuge in this healthy wilderness

 

 

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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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.

Discovering a lot of common ground

~ DESTINATION FIVE: SEYMOUR ~

Serenity, companionship and social change

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

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

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

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

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

Kate and Phil, two of the original founding members

Kate and Phil, two of the original founding members

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

Wedge backyard

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

 

dinner time

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

Carl with produce

Carl with some fresh garden produce

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

Brian beehives1

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

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

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

sunrise clouds

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

 

Preparations & expectations

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Trading fairly is easier than ever

Fair Trade – the acquisition of goods from sources where people have been paid a fair wage for their work in a sustainable way – is an idea that has been around for 50 years but has become an organised movement over the past 20 years. fair trade woman2

When it comes to certain products like coffee, tea and chocolate there is no excuse for everyone to be reaching to pick up anything but Fair Trade-produced goods these days as there are many options. It only takes a slight bit more effort to seek these options out and then you can feel good about your purchase.

Other than these items, there are heaps of fair trade options for clothing, health & beauty products, rice, oils, sweets, sugar and many more items. When combined with organic farming practices and even animal-free ingredients, then you really know that what you’re eating/using is truly healthy and cruelty-free.

Here’s a good service called TradeAsOne.com to help you out. I think it’s a clever video and they offer quite a selection of goods:

We have to be aware that the products we purchase from big corporations often come at the expense of someone else’s well-being so to start using a bit more care when buying items we commonly use, we will all be able to reduce the amount of people enslaved or farmers being bullied into providing their goods at below reasonable rates.