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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I am allowed to live like this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

“Danthonia” of Bruderhof: a sacrificial commitment

~ DESTINATION TWO: ELSMORE, NSW ~

Serving Jesus to the max

It’s been two days since we left Bruderhof’s “Danthonia” community near Inverell, about 3 hours west of Coffs Harbour in New South Wales. In that time, Heidi and I have had numerous conversations and debates about the place: challenges, opinions and comparisons. bruder-logoThe reason for all this ruminating is due to the depth and complexity that makes up this most intense community. While the point of this blog is to try and explore communities from a non-judgemental and objective perspective, Danthonia struck a chord with us in a variety of deep and personal ways.

Bruderhof is an umbrella organisation for a whole global network of intentional communities whose members live as if they are a single entity – despite being spread across vast distances. From beginnings in Germany in the early 20th century, they moved the community to England, were politely forced out and then found their way to Paraguay, eventually moving to eastern USA and more recently expanding to Australia. They now have communities in each of these regions with members routinely being relocated within the system. One odd feature: most individuals have an west coast American-styled accent, which was a bit bewildering (someone referred to it as the “Bruderhof accent” as it isn’t really specific to a particular part of the US).

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Bruderhof is not easily defined as there is a lot of stuff happening on many layers. But at its core, it is a Christ-centred community, a point which they take very seriously (as in, literally commit their life to). The basis of their faith is largely around following Jesus in the way of early Christians, being people of immense faith, simple living, and “united in a bond of solidarity and equality in which each one says: Whatever I have belongs to the others, and if I am ever in need, they will help me.”

A major stipulation of being a member of Bruderhof is that you dissolve all assets and personal possessions and give them away. That sentence is worth re-reading and thinking about as it is easily one of the biggest commitments that anyone, anywhere will voluntarily make (consider: prospective members who are home owners will sell property, car and furniture, drain bank accounts, sell shares and relinquish pensions. All of it is donated to charity (or to Bruderhof if you desire, but they are quick to say that this is not a requisite. They would prefer that you sort out your affairs before joining)). The reason for this is that in order to fully and completely follow Jesus, the members of the “brotherhood” believe that this is only possible without a way to back out or with potential expressions of individuality becoming a distraction.

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IMG_8538In terms of “authentic community”, Bruderhof takes the concept of sharing to the only logical conclusion given their beliefs, and it is truly impressive. Most dwellings are homes which are shared between several couples, singles and families with shared kitchens and bathrooms as well as modest-sized personal space. Homes are somewhat utilitarian (almost institutional) in their design, outfitted with all the basic needs but not much more than a handful of members’ personal ornaments, books or pictures on the walls. A dining hall furnishes members with at least one shared meal a day. Doors are not locked and money is never exchanged so keys and wallets are unnecessary. IMG_8543-2All clothing is supplied as required and they have largely settled on a “uniform” of sorts: blue jeans and checkered shirts for men, somewhat formless Amish-style long dresses with head scarves for women. Rather than see these as sacrifices, Members embrace them as gifts: a way to keep them focused and pure; a way to keep life simple and sustainable; a way to dispense of the frivolities and unnecessary intrusions of modern life; and especially a way to keep their mind on the task of serving Jesus.

There is a co-operative business that helps pay for ongoing costs called Danthonia Designs, a commercial sign-making shop that does very high-quality products which you can see throughout the region. From a community-and-business perspective, they have nailed this one on the head: the product is competitive in every way with no corners in durability, design or service; it can be staffed by nearly anyone in the community

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Me getting into some sign work

(Heidi and I both paid our way by working there), and that staff doesn’t require a wage; the building is on-site so no rent need be paid, meaning that all profits from very low overhead goes back into maintaining the community. Brilliant.

Initially, I had some real concerns as soon as we entered into this community. I was a real fish-out-of-water in my inability to talk-the-talk biblically-speaking, which can be intimidating in a 300-person community who are all deeply committed to God. Then, upon arrival, when our friendly neighbour suggested that Kito would be fine staying outside in a meter-square cage, I was concerned that dogs were not going to welcomed warmly and our pup might have a terrible week (to their credit, they quickly welcomed Kito into the house when we balked at that, and he stayed in our cozy room most of the time). Concerns increased still as the entire community seemed to be 100% meat-eaters (not so convenient given we are mostly vegan; also a bit hard to understand why the compassion they show through their faith doesn’t extend to animals), although IMG_8547I give full credit for the whole community making a valiant attempt to accommodate us with a vegetarian diet instead (sidebar story: there was a funny moment when a “Tyrolean folk song” about the harvest was sung that featured the lines: “If we raised nothing for people to eat // Then what would they live on if there were no meat? // No roast and no dumplings, for coffee and cream // No eggs and no chickens – Oh what a bad dream!” which had people around us giggling. Heidi and I sang the ending “oh what a good dream!” instead 😀 )

We quickly came to appreciate how hospitality is central to how Bruderhof residents operate, although my fears about acceptance due to my “different” faith were always present.

The Bruderhof has an open-door policy. No matter who you are, we are delighted to meet and spend time with you.

As with most dedicated followers of Christ, hospitality plays a very large part of their lives and Danthonia’s members were certainly no different. Indeed, we were shown SO much hospitality over our 6 days there that we were fairly exhausted by the end of it. Some days, we had appointments for every meal plus afternoon tea, and this was besides the likelihood that most people we came across while walking through the village would stop and chat. IMG_8510Most people that we met started their day before sun-up, so breakfast invitations were a constant source of struggle for me to be ready to talk at 6am. And this wasn’t idle chit-chat; in nearly every circumstance, some deep-down faith discussions were the topic on hand. As I mentioned above, this was something I wrestled with as my spirituality is a complicated mix of things that doesn’t fit neatly into a box. It might seem petty to mention given the extreme hospitality we experienced, but the only thing that bothered me was the level of evangelism that seemed to be happening in numerous visits. I fully understand that if you are committed to your faith and it is supposed to be a joyful centre of your existence then you want to share that, but I certainly felt like we were being challenged and preached to (and me, a little judged perhaps) at times.

sign shop

I don’t want to sound as though I am being too critical though; this community was the most well-formed, connected, cooperative and smooth-running as you’ll find anywhere. In fact, I suspect that by experiencing this before others on this trip, we’ll be seeing nothing like it and will possibly be disappointed if similar unity is not achieved. Members worked side-by-side with ease, played and prayed together, co-existed freely from young to old, broke bread en masse and planned to spend life with one another for now and the hereafter.

Some more stuff we learned and experienced at this unique community:

  • people sing regularly: in the morning, singing can be heard from any window as families gather and sing before a meal or elsewhere on campus. There were never sounds of television or canned music playing (in public spaces)
  • there’s no eye-contact avoidance that you expect in mainstream society these days; people all say hello and will stop and talk. IMG_8540This wasn’t just because we were new; I saw everyone doing the same
  • the system cares for all people: single, families, disabled or elderly.
  • quality education seems to be of high importance (as it should be) with mainstream groups starting to take note at the results coming out of Bruderhof’s own schooling system. The overall impression I got of students and kids in general were a well-behaved, respectful, and intelligent group.
  • At 18 years old, teens leave the community for a “gap year” of sorts, but are usually placed in another community to experience a more independent lifestyle. Many of them stay on and become full members (committing themselves to a life-long arrangement in the community after they turn 21). We met many 2nd and 3rd generation individuals who had never lived outside the Bruderhof system!
  • Aboriginal elders have been very taken with Bruderhof and our hosts spoke of how they have a permanent invitation to Aboriginal lands
  • IMG_8544speaking of our hosts – Bill and Grace Anna – they were incredibly helpful, accommodating and forthcoming with their desire to make sure our stay went smoothly. Bill is soft-spoken with a wry sense of humour and gave us lots of reading material to take with us; Grace Anna was kind and fed us numerous times as well as provided guidance on campus. We are very thankful for both of them and the dozens of others we met and whom welcomed us in
  • permaculture and rejuvenation of the former pasture lands are moving in full-force with widespread tree-planting, soil improvement, cattle pasture rotation techniques resulting in return of birdlife and other improvements
  • the community reaches out to different degrees, from local support for people in crisis or globally with a particularly tight connection with World Vision, among others.

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Overall, you can tell that Jesus is central and community followed in and around that. Most members were happy to tell us that and I believe that this is the only way a community like this can work. People were quick to say that this life isn’t for everyone and that community life is never perfect and can be terrifically difficult at times, but that it was all worth it. Heidi’s faith is more aligned with theirs, but she admitted that she would struggle with a few elements despite the benefits of an immersive Christ-centred community (she can tell you about her impressions in her blog. Her thoughts are far less critical than mine 🙂 ). For me, there are some powerfully unifying things that make this community one of the tighter ones I may ever come across, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have a level of faith that is required to personally commit to this community. Despite this, the people were wonderful and hopefully we’ll be able to keep in touch and visit sometime in the future.

 

For more on the Foundations of the Bruderhof community, check out their informative website.

Bruderhof also has its own publishing house, Plough, which produces a wide range of spiritually-focused print and e-books but that also cover a broad range of topics as well (while there, I was reading an interesting, non-faith-specific book called “Why Forgive?” which was very good). Visit their online bookstore.

As I mentioned earlier, Heidi’s impressions of this community can be found on her blog.

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??).

Avoca-beach-theatre

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.”

narara-dam

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.

narara-bldgs

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.