“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).

IMG_8550

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.

IMG_8513

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

IMG_8533

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.

IMG_8554

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.

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

IMG_5649

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.

pics-786

pics-780

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.

pics-744

pics-768

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.

pics-735

pics-777

Time to reflect and heal

~ DESTINATION SEVEN: LAUNCHING PLACE ~

Natural beauty and deep listening at Sunnyside Farm

This week since leaving Moora Moora has been an interesting one but not necessarily because it was part of the regularly scheduled program. With no intentional communities on tap while we have a WWOOFing stint, pics-507it has been a good time to reflect on things and where we are at on this journey.

I’ve just left Sunnyside Farm aka Natural Healing Place which is located in the beautiful hills south of the uniquely-named Launching Place, Victoria, about an hour east of Melbourne. As Heidi and I explore how different people do “Community,” we keep finding ways to redefine the word; Sunnyside is comprised of 32 year-old Nathan Thurlow and his 3 year-old son, with his extended family living further down the road on a large property. Nathan prefers to refer to WWOOFers as new “friends” and creates a welcoming atmosphere that encourages people to want to stay for awhile in his hand-made spa retreat-like home. The space is broken into pods connected by vine-laced outdoor paths, with accommodation that includes: a couple of pics-523bedrooms plus a loft bedroom/office (our room) as part of the main building; a caravan trailer; a luxury tent; and a tiny caravan-like shelter. The lounge-dining-kitchen area is considered communal, not unlike the crossroads that is often created by intentional communities to enourage chance meetings and conversations. Among the other unique elements around the house area are a newly minted sauna (which looks like a pizza oven that you sit inside),

The loo with a view

The loo with a view

outdoor bath and shower (the only bathing facilities, actually), a “loo with a view” which is one of two composting toilets and this one is situated on a covered outdoor throne with a beguiling view of the foggy hillsides, tin chook shed with happy scratching chickens and a productive veggie garden. Heidi and I took advantage of the outdoor bathtub which was very refreshing (especially in the very cool wet weather here!) as well as soulfully enriching as we sat looking at the trees, steam rising from the hot water as the rain fell and listening to the kookaburras sing.

pics-504

The luxury tent we would sleep in if it were summertime

pics-522

Nathan and fellow WWOOFer Mel

Nathan is a dedicated host, keen to share his learned wisdom about inner health through yoga, meditation, healthy living and positive thinking. Ironically, both Heidi and I arrived a bit burnt out, harbouring colds and probably needing to be guests at a place like this rather than as WWOOFers. As it happened, two days in, Heidi left to stay with her sister in Melbourne to get some down time, and I have taken a day off here to recover from my illness. Rather than be perturbed by the lost labour we were to have provided, Nathan has graciously taken it in stride and continues to offer his expensive organic wellness supplements, fresh ginger or chai tea, delicious fresh foods, helpful natural remedy advice and positive reading material for me while on the mend and leaning on his generosity. He lives a thrifty existence, so it is not with extravagence that he offers these things but through true kindness. I would go as far as saying he is quite servant-hearted, and his years of living an alternative lifestyle plus his self-education on different types of spirituality certainly show in his hospitality and deep caring for others. As he would say, perhaps in our current health/mental state, we were meant to come to him at this time; everything has its place and meaning for needing to happen when it does.

Mel doing some yoga

Mel doing some yoga

He could well be right about that.

In light of a bad cough and illness, it was perhaps not too wise for us to head on a little trip into the city on Wednesday (just prior to Heidi’s departure), with the two of us plus Mel (a WWOOFer who has been at Nathan’s for a month) and Kito. Our mission was to do some errands but mainly to watch a documentary called Dadirri: Deep Listening by filmmaker Helen Iles that we’d heard about at Commonground. The timing was impeccable as it was only the third small screening of this indie production whose theme revolves around the relationships within intentional communities, plus it featured places on our intinerary for this road trip (Commonground and Moora Moora, and the forthcoming Fryers Forest).

Best.Organic.Shop.Ever. - Terra Madre

Best.Organic.Shop.Ever. – Terra Madre

After visiting the Best.Organic.Shop.Ever. on High Street in Northcote and scarfing down another vegan meal at Vegie Bar in Fitzroy, we went up the road to a little bar called LongPlay which has a cute little 30-seat mini-cinema out back. The film was attended by a crowd of community-minded folks and there was a palpable buzz to being amongst others like ourselves. Helen is British but spent time traveling and filming around Australia for 2 years making this film, with two others in the intentional community “series” that were made in the UK. The film, while technically a bit sloppy (IMO), was an interesting examination on the relationship side to living communally and conflict-resolution, with lots of appearances by places and people we had literally just seen like Peter and Sandra (Moora Moora) and Kate (Commonground), which was all a bit trippy! I met with Helen afterwards to express an interest in working with her on future projects of similar content, but she was quite exhausted from the experience being that she shot, edited and directed it all herself. Shame we didn’t cross paths sooner!

Yummy outdoor spa bath for soaking under the stars

Yummy outdoor spa bath for soaking under the trees

Our loft room at Nathan's quirky but cool spa-like pad

Our loft room at Nathan’s quirky but cool spa-like pad

So, a few things to consider from this mixed-bag week, which was good. Moving forward, I think we’re currently at a bump in the road which is probably natural in a journey such as this: we have filled our brains with plenty of information and experiences; we have not been able to retire to a familiar home where we can periodically recharge and relax; we’ve been brought down a bit by illness and miserable weather; and we are generally feeling the grind of being constantly on the move. With a break in the weather this weekend (yay, sun!) and our final significant week-long stay at an intentional community (Fryer’s Forest, then we just have a couple of short stays afterwards), I’m hoping that we will get our second-wind to carry us through to June when we arrive back in Adelaide. It will be interesting to see where we sit with all this once we get back to a familiar place with familiar faces; my feelings about community have wavered with what we have learned, but it has likely been tempered with other circumstances related to travel and fatigue. Once we’ve had some time to properly reflect in a month from now, we’ll see what ideas and thoughts emerge!

IMG_5436

Strawbales and tipis, native spirituality and hospitality

~ DESTINATION THREE: DAYLESFORD ~

I love being pleasantly surprised…

My initial impression was that this was going to be a very different experience than our last stop at Cornerstone in Bendigo. When researching for the trip, Gentle Earth Walking sounded interesting primarily for the potential for strawbale building (something we were keen on trying) and staying in a tipi. Now that we have left, I am re-reading the entry in the WWOOFing guide about this spot, and while it describes everything that was there in a practical sense, we in no way could have been prepared for the things that actually made it such a rich visit. property wildernessFrom the effortless hospitality of our hosts Sue and Don to the peaceful rhythms of nature on their 40 acre property, we felt welcomed as part of the family with nothing being too much trouble. From the authentic incarnation of indigenous Australian and American spirituality that they practiced to the abundance of interesting ideas and projects around the property, their sense of dedication and care for the Earth and its peoples was clear. And while we weren’t expecting it to have an obvious community element, the outreach to community through creative and intelligent means made us realise that Sue and Don were dedicated to living out their beliefs and lifestyle goals as thoroughly as possible.

A feature of the stay that we quickly discovered was that Sue and Don love to tell stories. We heard a broad array of tales from their lives – learning that they were very well traveled, have had colourful and complex family lives, have experienced some amazing and unusual spiritual events, and are willing to throw themselves into any situation with vigour – all told with humour, trust and openness as if we had known them for years. Granted, at times we felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stories and retreated to our tipi at the end of the night with explodingly full brains, but we continually found ourselves returning and increasingly engaged in their intriguing lives. Given how many dozens of WWOOFers they’ve had over the years, you have to wonder how they tell these stories with enduring freshness!

inside house

Often our conversations were around their dining table which is the centre of a very full and cluttered room that houses all of Sue’s office and computer, the lounge room and tv, the kitchen and pantry, dining table, and inventive clothes and pot racks made from ladders hanging from the high ceiling. In the midst of it all is a pot-bellied stove, continually roaring with flames as the weather was cold these nights (even down to -2ºC one night) while we were there. The room is jammed full as the strawbale house they live in isn’t complete and they have had to pile everything into this one room until another area is ready. Mashing everything and everyone in one place meant it was a cozy place to retreat to at the end of the day, and there would always be something going on like a spirited conversation, visiting family popping in, Don bottling some ginger beer, chooks trying to run inside the back door, Sue digging through boxes to find us books on strawbale building, endless cups or tea and coffee boiling on the ancient stove or Don doing his back exercises on the floor. Part of feeling at home there as well was that they weren’t at all precious about anything: there were no locks on doors, car keys always left in their old cars which we could use whenever we needed to, and nearly everything was a found object or had been reused, recycled or repaired.

group shotThe house is a very solid place filled with touches that indicate that this is a house made lovingly by hand. The bales offer amazing insulation and sound-proofing, looking great in an organic, hand-made kind of way. At about 200 square meters (2000 sq ft), it is a big place, and with the wonders of strawbale building (cheap materials and often free labour or simply less than a typical build), it only cost them about $30K. For those uninitiated with strawbale building, it offers so many advantages over brick or timber construction (cheaper to build, less labour, superior insulation, superior fireproofness, longevity), it’s a wonder why more houses aren’t built this way. Sue and Don have clearly been educating and enticing locals as well, as they are directly responsible for teaching or helping 50 buildings be built in the Daylesford area.Mike rendering

My dreams of building such a home were only increasing in intensity as we began seeing all the potential of the various strawbale projects around the property. And sure enough, they put us to work on a wall that had been half-sealed and needed rendering and repair. We spent the better part of a week working on the wall and it was fantastic getting our hands dirty learning about the craft. Both Heidi and I really appreciated doing the work and didn’t get tired of the labour; there’s something invigorating about working on a project like this, particularly if you are typically used to sitting in front of a computer all day like we are.

tipi at night

tipi in morningA unique part of this experience was staying in a Native American-styled tipi which was as genuine as the original ones found in North America. Ours was a 16 foot style (base diameter, about 5 meters) and about 30 foot high (10 meters) at the peak. The cool thing about a tipi is that, like the original ones, you have a fire pit within. Special wind-control flaps on the outside plus an inner sleeve help control air flow so smoke from the fire is drawn up and out the top of the tipi. We had mixed luck with keeping the tipi from becoming choked with smoke, but when we did get it to work it was a great way to warm it up. And warmth we needed as we happened to hit frigid temps a few nights! I was a bit over the tipi experience by the end mainly because of Kito who was never at ease there and had worked out ways to escape the tipi Kito in tipiwhich was a problem if we were off working. So poor Kito was stuck lashed to a pole with his leash inside the tipi and I felt either bad for him or annoyed as he tried so hard to make life difficult for both of us!

inside tipi

At the end of all the work and life on the property there was Sue and Don, two very interesting, inspiring, slightly eccentric (but wonderfully so!), gracious, trusting, open and hospitable folks. We particularly found Don to be a rare wise soul, someone who projects a feeling of goodwill and joy whenever you speak with him. Nothing is too much trouble for Don and he will embrace the opportunity to discuss a situation or have a laugh. Don steaming woodWe undoubtably asked too many questions as Heidi and I are prone to doing, but neither of them appeared to be put out by it. I aspire to that level of patience – serenity now! With Don, his spiritual journey seems to have led him to a place where he has an easy relationship with whatever life throws at him, with a gentleness, grace and wisdom that is difficult to find these days. We had many laughs at the various stories of people thinking he was a bikie or a vagrant, which again reminded me – as with many times on this trip already – that judging someone solely on their looks will almost always get you into trouble. Finally, they are creative and open to try anything – as their lengthy history of jobs and experiences attest – and for the last 15 years, Don has invested his time into bending timber using 150 year-old equipment and positioning himself as the only timber bending business left in Australia. I spent a day filming and editing the following short video on Don and his work and I think you can get a sense of Don’s passion for the work and how it extends from his passion for the earth as he discusses working with the 4 elementals of life.

What a wondrous and rich exploration this trip is turning out to be!

Also make sure you see another perspective of this experience on Heidi’s blog!