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.

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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.

Gratitude and choosing a different path

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

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

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

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Campsite living 🙂

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

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

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The view from my workplace

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

Community road-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
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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.

 

Community road-trip 2016: an intro

To date, this blog has been a perpetual Work In Progress as I write about living simply, sustainability and choosing an ethical lifestyle.

In April and May 2015, my wife Heidi and I explored Victoria, Australia in search of alternative ways to do life separate from the mainstream. Throughout the journey, I wrote a regular series of entries which documented our experiences and can be read under the menu heading “Intentional Community Travels  >> Road trip 2015“.

This first stage road-trip around Victoria, Australia had us seeking to discover what various intentional communities, groups, individuals and families are doing in terms of living more creatively, sustainably and compassionately. We decided that this country was just too big and interesting to stop at Victoria, especially since we hadn’t visited the intentional community epicentre of Australia around NE New South Wales and SE Queensland.

Here are some quick-links of the journey as it happens:

  1. Community road-tripping, Mark II
  2. Gratitude and choosing a different path
  3. Destination 1: Narara EcoVillage: A model community
  4. Destination 2: Bruderhof “Danthonia”: A sacrificial commitment
  5. Destination 3: Bundagen: Serenity by the Sea
  6. I am allowed to live like this
  7. Destination 4: Dharmananda: On the farm with the Dharm
  8. Destination 4: photo gallery
  9. Queensland Communities and roadtrip wrap

Ultimately, our aim is to further connect with like-minded people and find security in community, not finances; share resources and ownership so as to reduce our negative impact on the planet; participate in non-violent actions to bring about a more just world; use the arts to bring people together, communicate the challenges that humanity faces, and promote positive stories and alternative ways of living; work with the land and protect/respect this Earth.

We have a lot to learn and a long way to go, hence our desire to see what other people are doing and what wisdom we can gain from and share with them. I am looking forward to what the east coast region of Australia has to offer as we forge ahead with Part 2 of our education/adventure!

~ Mike Crowhurst, March 2016

Community road-trip 2015: an intro

As of June 2015, I have completed travels with my wife, Heidi, as we explored southeastern Australia in search of alternative ways to do life separate from the mainstream. Throughout the journey, I wrote a regular series of entries which documented our experiences and can be read under the menu heading “Intentional community trip 2015“. Here are quick links to all the entries on this trip (in chronological order):

  1. Preparations & expectations
  2. On the cusp of departure…and adventure!
  3. Destination One: Di and Ruth: compact community
  4. Destination Two: Cornerstone: Community 101
  5. Destination Three: Strawbales and tipis, native spirituality and hospitality
  6. Destination Four: Working on the margins of society
  7. Destination Five: Discovering a lot of common ground
  8. Destination Six: Intentional community beginnings: Moora Moora
  9. Destination Seven: Time to reflect and heal
  10. Destination Eight: Respecting the earth: permaculture at Fryers Forest
  11. Destination Nine: Urban Seed part 2: Working on the margins in suburbia

This first stage road-trip around Victoria, Australia had us seeking to discover what various intentional communities, groups, individuals and families are doing in terms of living more creatively, sustainably and compassionately. We are considering another journey later this year to build on this first trip.

Our aim is to further connect with like-minded people and find security in community, not finances; share resources and ownership so as to reduce our negative impact on the planet; participate in non-violent actions to bring about a more just world; use the arts to bring people together, communicate the challenges that humanity faces, and promote positive stories and alternative ways of living; work with the land and protect/respect this Earth.

We have a lot to learn and a long way to go, hence our desire to see what other people are doing and what wisdom we can gain from and share with them. So far it has been an amazing exploration.

~ Mike Crowhurst, June 2015

Urban Seed part 2: Working on the margins in suburbia

~ DESTINATION NINE: NORLANE ~

Urban Seed seeks to connect wherever there is need, and Geelong’s Norlane is what they have found

pics-745As our exploratory trip of experiencing intentional communities nears its end, I am thankful that things worked out the way they have in terms of travel planning. Our last couple of communities are both very short stopovers, and while this leaves us with little more than a superficial glance into the lives of those who have often sweat blood and tears to be a part of their unique lifestyle, it comes at the right time for us when our information/road-weary selves are willing to forego “immersive experience” for “highlight version”. We are the first to admit that we feel that we are missing an opportunity with these last two groups, but perhaps it was the failure in our planning of doing too much for too long. Regardless, even experiencing a couple of days at a place like Urban Seed’s Norlane community in Geelong gives us 1000 times more value than simply reading about it.

pics-750If you have been reading previous blog entries of mine, you’d know about our (also) short visit to Urban Seed city outfit in Melbourne’s CBD. There, the focus was on working within a difficult urban space to support homeless folks doing it tough. In Geelong, Norlane is that type of infamous suburb that all cities have, where much of the crime takes place and the rest of the city’s inhabitants likely take efforts to avoid. Being a Christ-centred faith community, Urban Seed’s natural place to exist in this place on the margin of society, living in amongst the Norlane families who have experienced generational poverty and have given up feeling included in “normal” society.

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The young and exuberant Urban Seeders of Norlane

pics-757The Norlane crew is a young bunch who occupy an old Baptist church as well as the attached hall and house. Moreso than the Melbourne group, they make me feel rather old! With everyone floating around their 20-somethings, it still never fails to impress me how people at their age have taken on such “mature” tasks like volunteering without pay to care for others, raising families in very challenging environments (and seemingly succeeding), managing difficult situations with violent locals and crime issues, plus counselling and supporting a wide cross-section of people including those with mental and physical disabilities. Like my own life, I still see one’s 20s as a time to explore, mess around and not be too serious, getting my act together once I hit my 30s. And by 30s, I really mean 40s.

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Anyway, I digress… the space that the Norlaners occupy is an encouraging community gathering place, very loosely holding onto its “church” look and feel in favour of something that allows anyone from the community – faith-based or not – to feel comfortable and welcome. Groups stage meetings here, there’s a weekly food exchange (the “People’s Pantry” where locals pay a nominal semi-annual fee to stock up on donated food) pics-747plus lots of sharing feasting opportunities where many people from the community come for a free feed and a chat. Like in the CBD location, all “staff” are live-in volunteers who are 1,2 or 3-year internships, with the four people (I almost called them “kids”…gosh, I am getting old) currently residing in the intern house managing the programs and reaching out to the community when they can. Many of the programs revolve around food, and wherever possible, the intern group – Steve, Cherie, Sarah and David – coordinate the meals, etc. while bringing community members in as much as possible to “own” the administering of the event, again eliminating the “hand-out” mentality. Beyond the interns there is Simon and Kaylene pics-752who would be the other “official” Urban Seed staff (for lack of a better word as they are encouraging the lines being blurred between them and there rest of the community) who are the “elders” of Norlane’s outfit (in their 30’s I suspect, but the term elders is not meant to be disrespectful as they come in with considerable knowledge and wisdom of how to do and not to do community based on their own lengthy experiments).

Many other households contribute a great deal to the community hub as they gain acceptance with existing residents, plus – most encouragingly – former Urban Seed interns who finished their residency but felt compelled to continue the work they were part of despite being a fairly challenged neighbourhood in terms of crime, poverty and violence. Interns Sarah and David grimly regaled us in the various unsavoury encounters the community have been victim to such as: two of the interns’ cars being stolen, the continual (even mid-day) risk of physical attack when pics-758walking to the train station, the marking of houses with dogs in the yards so that they might steal them, shops that could no longer service the area after being repeatedly robbed, and so on. On my second afternoon there, I was walking the dog (keeping him close!) and two plain-clothed police (I presume? They had guns) came busting out of a yard straight towards me before veering a few metres to my left to leap onto a young lad in baggy trousers who was promptly handcuffed and shoved into an unmarked car. There was lots of yelling and other people beating a hasty retreat from the house I was now in front of as Kito and I continued along, agog at the front-row-seat activity before us. Not something we had come across in the comparatively closed communities we had been visiting to date! Despite all this, we were also told of encouraging changes within the community since they’ve been there, and a sense that they are helping bridge the divide between different groups of people here.

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pics-781There is something appealing about being a part of a close-knit community who are trying to do something good and important to truly improve the lives of people who have had a pretty shit time of it and need a glimmer of hope to get them through life. On top of it for them, their unified Christian faith further binds them close as they journey together. I would struggle being part of this potentially powerful experience as the downside for me is the “social worker” aspect of people care for which I am not interested or cut out for, plus their spirituality isn’t where I am personally at, something I imagine that would be fairly integral to both this particular community and their ability to fight through the challenges they face. In that regard, I am thankful, humbled and awed by people like the Norlane Urban Seeders, who embody the servant-hearted characteristics of Jesus, plus epic fortitude, patience, grace and good-humour. I will continue to do my part in different ways to hopefully have a positive impact on this world, and I am glad there’s folks like the Urban Seeders to play their vital role!

Find out more about Urban Seed at their website.

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