Category Archives: Meditation, Yoga and Spirituality

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Deep Listening: Dadirri – Film Review by Melissa Coffey

How do we listen more deeply to one another? How do we do this in community even when our opinions conflict, in order to agree on a path of action that moves a community forward?
In this powerfully reflective documentary film, director Helen Iles visits with seven “intentional communities” across Australia. Through a series of interviews and other footage, the film gently draws out common themes between diverse approaches to create a more authentic sense of community than what our contemporary, increasingly urban consumerist-driven society often offers.
Despite differences, what underpins all seven of these communities, in their individual visions, is a connection to and concern for the natural environment they have built their communities within. Iles draws this theme out through capturing evocative glimpses of surrounding nature, their permaculture sites, and documenting some of the history of environmental activism, initiated by of some of these intentional communities in their formative years. The film’s attention to history makes it clear – intentional communities are not merely some ephemeral eco-trend – some of the featured communities have been going for 40 years.
The film’s name, dadirri is an indigenous word from the area of the Daly River, Northern Territory. Meaning “deep listening”, it entails a way of respectful listening, not just with our ears, but with our eyes and our heart. Developing dadirri, like the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, allows one to tune into oneself, to other people and to environment. Although these communities are not necessarily adopting dadirri with deliberate awareness of it as an indigenous practice, what the film highlights is that any community that desires to care for the surrounding natural environment, and to develop more inclusive decision-making for its members, inevitably embodies this principle.
As one of the interviewees reminds us, the indigenous people of Australia did not consider this land a “wilderness” – it was their home. Like any home, it required care and management. To do this, as indigenous elder Aunty Doris Paton says, the concept of dadirri was essential. In knowing “when the birds come, the flowers blossom, the rivers flow”, tribes could not only serve the land, but also let the land serve them, making better decisions for their communities about when to hunt, where to set up camp, when to move on.
These intentional communities all shared this similar commitment to the environment and to each other which I found extremely moving – often with humility and humour. They do not say it is easy. They do, unfailingly, say it is worthwhile.
Dadirri presents many ideas and insights that are pertinent to any community-building initiative – be that in schools, neighbourhoods, or organizations, as well as showing a way of living that is an antidote to many of the ills of contemporary life.  Managing to avoid the obviously didactic, Dadirri is instead thoughtful, gently provocative and insightful.
As the viewer journeys with this film, stepping into a number of homes and communal spaces, the theme of listening gradually emerges as a compelling motif. The more the viewer listens, the more one hears about the importance of active and authentic listening. Deep listening: to each other and to the land.

This article first appeared in Eigana, The Magazine of the Victorian Association of Environmental Education. April 2015

~ Melissa Coffey
A freelance writer and published author, Melissa writes across several genres around themes of feminism, sexuality, wellbeing and spirituality. She writes online for Stress Panda. Her work has featured in literary journal Etchings (“Visual Eyes” #12), and her short story Motherlines was published in Australian anthology Stew and Sinkers (2013).
Find her on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/MelissaCoffey.CuriousSeeds.Comms

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The Impermanence of Film making

It’s Saturday morning and the rain is coming down through the gray of Melbourne’s wintery sky. I’m hazy, having been awake in the early hours, wired after our latest booked-out screening event for our new film Deep Listening: Dadirri. After the buzz of last night, I feel deflated, coming down from the energy solidly. I wonder how performers manage with the highs and lows of their workaday lives. Thankfully, screenings are only a small part of a film maker’s world.

I’ve spent two years making this film and for most of the production time, I’ve been alone. Whether researching the histories of Australia in the majestic domed room of the State Library; sending and responding to emails from contributors; copying files; editing trailers; uploading films or updating the website. Mostly, I’m alone. And then there’s editing the film itself. Days, nights, weeks and months in front of my faithful computer. Yep, most of the time, I’m alone.

Of course, when I’m filming I’m not alone. I’m travelling; wandering; meeting; mingling; interviewing. I’m visiting amazing places and even more amazing people. I’m staying up late and drinking wine and eating hearty communal meals. I’m sitting around fires with dark skies and brilliant stars. I’m partaking in community.

Which of these states do I prefer? I really can’t say. What I love is the melange of it. I like the fact that no two days are the same. Whilst I sometimes, on the dark days, long for a job where I get paid “just to hang my coat on the back of the chair”, I know that in fact, I would get bored quickly.

One of the audience last night asked the panel what was great about being in community. Amongst the usual answers of “it’s an amazing place to bring up children” and “I love the contact with nature/other people”, our guest Carl Freeman said that he loved the sense of freedom. Since moving to Commonground, he has only had to work three days a week and the rest of the time he gets to grow veggies and organise his own time. I had to agree. The ability to live in rhythm with myself, with nature, the seasons and vicissitudes of weather and energy, determines a lifestyle choice for me.

At a recent event as part of Transitions Film Festival, a film maker friend of mine, Heidi Douglas, came to show her latest film – Defendant 5 – at the Nova cinema in Carlton. I knew Heidi from Wales, where I used to co-host an activist film festival. called BeyondTV. You can still see clips from it online. Heidi had come all the way to Wales to show her brilliant film about the logging of Tasmanian forests. Now, she has travelled from Sydney. Gathered with other film makers and producers in the bar after her screening, Heidi confides that she never feels more at home then when she is with film makers. Not so for me. I feel most at home amongst the alternative life-stylers who populate my films. The folk living in intentional communities or ecovillages. The yogis, meditators and gardeners who practise ways to stay connected with themselves, with nature and with each other. Perhaps I’m not a proper film maker after all.

I’m in the midst of re-designing the Living in the Future website. Amongst the difficulties of selecting images and writing copy, what I find most challenging is to re-visit questions such as “What do you do? “Why do you do it?”. Often, I just have to confess that I don’t know, or that what I thought I knew yesterday no longer holds true. Art, like life, is an ever-changing dance between energies of people and place. Between this moment and what appears in the next. What propels me through the story of a film is what propels me through life and often, as in life, I don’t really know what or why until years later.

In an amusing article about his latest novel, The Last Pulse, Anson Cameron wrote recently that he hated it when people asked him what his book is about. They were asking him to condense what he had said in the “symphony” of his novel to a “fart-long synopsis”. It was impossible.

As I labour over the latest draft of the latest synopsis of the latest film, I turn his comments over in my mind. Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll have some idea what this film is about. Until then, like any performer, I’ll have to rely on the reviews.

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Let Go

Twice on the long weekend that is known both as Australia Day and Invasion Day, I was urged to “let go”. Once was on Saturday, at a yoga class with my friend Mary, and again on the holiday Monday, in meditation. The teachers could not have been aware how appropriate the lesson is for me, but then, they would not be surprised, either. It is often the way. The yoga teacher put her finger on a query that has been wandering through my head. “Why am I doing this?”

If we ask this, she said, we limit our ability to BE in the moment and thereby limit our ability to seize every opportunity, to be alive to every nuance, to fully be present in the unfolding of our lives. “Let go” she said. “And trust that what you are doing is for a purpose. In time, that purpose will be revealed.”

I walk out of the class smiling. I am in the midst of completing, and launching, a new film. Knee deep in publicity, press releases, flyers, posters and web banners, I am beginning a mission which seemingly has no end. In the first instance, I must sell 120 tickets to the premiere. I feel anxious. When I turn up to the meditation sit, I am carrying my shoulders hooked up to the sky and my stomach is a dense knot of how-will-I-get-through-this. Outwardly, I might look calm, but inwardly, my mind jumps around between designs for flyers, still editing the movie in my head and finding places where it just isn’t good enough. As I take my seat on the cushion, I am making mental lists about what I have to do tomorrow. I am so distracted, I can barely hear the teacher’s instructions.

Gradually, I find my breath and manage to hold my attention there for a short while. I feel my back soften. The teacher’s words float in above the melodic birdsong I have only just noticed. “We want to control everything, but life will have it’s own way and therein lies magic”.  I like magic. I like the feeling that something bigger than me is in charge. Last week, at the same meditation sit, I arrive early and start taking to a woman who is also there early. She Is saying she came straight from work and I ask her what she does. “I’m a film editor” she replies. “Oh! ” I say, surprised. “I’m a film maker too!. “What do you make films about?” She asks. “Communities and sustainability” I say. “Oh, that’s strange.” she says, “I grew up in a community”.

We are both very present now. What began as idle conversation has meaning and significance for us both and we lean in, feasting on the moment. “Bodhi Farm”. She says and I feel my giggle rising. “Then you must know Mitra” I say, astonishment growing by the moment. “She’s my sister!!” shouts Mirabai. Her hands in the air now, her eyes shining. We are both grinning. “Mitra is my next door neighbour!” I yell. “And your Dad’s in my film!”

I am remembering this chance encounter as Jess, the meditation teacher, urges us once again to loosen the grip, so that life might have its way with us. “Of course” she says, “We do need to orchestrate our lives. We need to make plans, organise events. Otherwise none of us would even be here. But we also need to make room for the small things. For the unexpected. And we need to let go of any expectations. It is those that will cause us disappointment.”

The next morning,  when I wake, my hands are folded gently over my heart, in a gesture which happens only when I have slept really soundly and peacefully. I lie comfortably in the cool morning, cosy in my nest and remember a dream I had. It had been snowing, and in the streets, ice and snow had made the pavements slippery. Instead of taking my usual tentative steps, I was hurling myself forward, sliding joyfully along, giving myself up to the ride.

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Shearwater Festival

As we make our way across the empty beach, the sun is giving last light to the bubbling clouds. We climb, a group of twenty or so excited nature-lovers, onto the cliff top. Around us, a babbling is beginning in the grasslands. The birds are coming in to nest.
“Sit down”, says Graeme Burgen, the ranger. He is a tall man. Somewhat imposing in the half-light, he towers above us. “You’ll see why in a minute.”
And we crouch on the sandy path as the shearwater birds flap and flutter and dive overhead, shooting in from their long day at sea to their cosy burrows. The whole show lasts about fifteen minutes. Showering the darkening sky with their busy wings.

The Shearwater Festival is bringing attention to these fascinating seabirds. Now in its third year, it garners the community on tiny Philip Island, near Melbourne, to a show of love and care towards their returning travellers. In winter, the shearwater leave their Island nests and fly North to Alaska, where they find the food they need to survive another year. Now, in mid-November, almost to a predictable day, the shearwater return.

For the Aboriginal locals, this was a feeding season for them, too. Aunty Doris Paton tells me that her people would camp here for months, feasting on “mutton birds”, as they are known and then, like the birds, moving to another landscape when the season demanded it.
Scratching our heads with wonder, we watch as Graeme shows us the flight path of the birds. He tracks them using modern computer technology and we see the cycles of a single male bird. Arriving back on Australian shores in November, the bird finds a mate and they lay a single egg. The parents then take it in turns to fly South, to Antarctica, to fill their bird bellies with protein-rich krill. After she has laid, the male takes first turn in the nest, allowing Mum to re-fuel after her delivery. Then they swap, each spending days in the krill fields, putting on weight and bringing home food for their chick.
When March comes around, the parents take a last visit to Antarctica, before embarking on a 12,000km trip north. We can see their route. Up to Japan, then all the way to the Bering Strait, where they make their second home.

The Shearwater Festival is organised by the Deep Listening Project. Championing a way of being which is rich in Aboriginal tradition, Deep Listening is the underlying concept of the art, song, dance and music in which we are all invited to participate.
Known in some Aboriginal languages as “Dadirri”, this way of knowing relies on listening not only with our ears, but with our eyes; with our hearts; and most importantly, with respect. Aunty Doris tells me that in contrast to our Western needs to “fill the gaps”, Aboriginal people are content to sit in silence. “In our way… we’re very comfortable with silence”, she says. “We can sit, and listen, and not talk”.

One of the highlights for me, alongside music from Kutcha Edwards; Yirrmal and the Yolngu Boys and Archie Roach, we have music from the Deep Listening Band. Ron Murray, a Wamba Wamba man, plays didge with the band. He tells me how he uses Deep Listening to “tune in” to his fellow musicians Michael Jordan and Steve Sedergreen. Each performance is improvised, each different, as the piano and the drums dance around the resonances of the didge, around the stories told by Ron. “It’s meditative”, he says.

Back up on the cliff, it’s 5am in the morning and the shearwater birds line up on the path, using it like a runway to get up speed for a take-off. Their bodies, so graceful in the air, so efficient in the water, waddle awkwardly like slender ducks, until their narrow wings catch the breeze and lift them up to the pre-dawn sky. The bobbling from the surrounding tussocks is frenzied now. The “whoop, whoop, whoop” of their wings as they approach airborne brings to mind the first aeroplanes. Surely we must have watched these birds for inspiration?

As the morning breaks overhead, the last shearwaters lift into the pale blue sky, leaving only a few nesting females behind. The landscape quietens, a swamp wallaby raises his gentle face in the distance and the small group of awestruck humans head off for a hearty breakfast.

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NAIDOC

I’m sitting waiting from a call from Auntie Carolyn Briggs. That’s not MY Auntie Carolyn, but the Boonwurrung elder whom I met last night in Footscray. I am cwtched on the sofa, succumbed at last to the niggly sore throat and runny nose which has been hovering around all week. I feel somewhat gratified. It is, after all, winter and this cold only adds to the authentic experience of it.

It’s the first week in July and that means that NAIDOC* week events are happening all over the country. I knew nothing of NAIDOC until last year, when, sitting peacefully in my apartment much as I am today, I heard a racket in the street outside. I am used to hearing traffic, and trams, because Nicholson is a busy street, but today I hear people. Lots of them. And they are shouting. My interest piqued, I grab my camera and rush outside. Past my front gate, the traffic has ceased and a river of faces passes. “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!“. They shout in that sing song way of protest marches.

I follow the throng of people all the way to the end of the street, where I realise I have not picked up enough batteries or data cards to go very far. “Where is the march headed?” I ask. “Federation Square” is the reply. I rush back home, collect enough camera gear for a long day, and dash out again.

I find them at the top of Bourke street. Another, different protest is staged on the steps to Parliament House. We march straight past and head down into the city. At the junction of Bourke and Swanston, the crowd pauses and forms a large circle. A man stands up and addresses the crowd.

“Our people have been walking this land for thousands of years”. Cheering erupts.

“This place used to be a waterhole, before they came from England, before the concrete.”

I imagine the land without the tall buildings, without the garish shop fronts, without the trams, the pedestrians, the buskers, the quirky sculpture of the three thin city men stopping to cross the road. It looks good.

That was last year, when I followed the march all the way to the edge of the Yarra River, or the Birrarung in the Boonwurrung language. I watched – and filmed – the ‘Welcome to Country‘ traditional dancing and tried to interview some people to find out what it was all about. I felt terribly white and terribly British. The very image of my invading ancestors. It was an uncomfortable feeling.

But I seem to enjoy uncomfortable, because this year, I’m back at a NAIDOC week event, this time in the western suburbs of Footscray. I’ve arranged to meet my friend Pippa at the Arts Centre to listen to some songs and see exhibitions by Aboriginal artists. Now Pippa has bailed on me and I’m left, too early and too white, sitting in the gallery with my camera kit feeling very bulky at my side. Rob Bundle, one of the musicians, greets me warmly. “Hello stranger!”.

I met with him months ago and we talked about him maybe taking part in my film, but to be honest, I’ve never followed up the interviews I was planning. It never felt quite right, or else I’m not sure what I want to ask them. Aboriginal culture is so fraught with opportunities to offend, it seems. I realise again, sitting here, how guilty I feel on behalf of my people. How incredibly sad and hand-wringingly humble I feel before the havoc we have wreaked here. I hate the concrete as much as they must do.

The exhibitions are thought-provoking. In the downstairs gallery, a large possum-skin cloak lies spread-eagled on a central plinth. The furry tails hang cutely over the sides and the markings on the inner smooth hide look familiar. In the traditional way, this cloak bears the markings of a family. Here a wavy river-line, here a spiral water-hole symbol. It strikes me that the practice of making a cloak from possum skins and branding it with family memorabilia is remarkably like making a patchwork quilt, although usually, no beings have to die for one of those. The possum-skin cloak has become one of those things which Aboriginal people regard part of their culture – like spirit dancing and didge -playing. In Australia, possums are now protected, so for pieces like this, they must get their skins from New Zealand, where it is still legal to hunt and kill possums. They are truly works of art and seen as such. Only the other day I saw one on display in a gallery in Echuca, which Sissy, a traditional dancer herself, said her aunts had worked on. Whereas didge-playing is something for men, it seems that creating a possum skin cloak is woman’s work. This one even has digital images of the family, giving it a thoroughly modern aspect.

On the wall in the gallery are a series of photographs of members of that same family wearing the cloak. The background is all white and the people look out from within the cloak. It curls around their heads like a hood, like a shelter, a cave. This part of living culture, this part of a once-living creature. The family wraps itself inside the cloak as if for protection and the culture of the cloak itself offers back something timeless.

It’s always good to read the notes accompanying artefacts in a gallery and in this way, this show is no different. One of the family members, whose face now adorns the inside of the super-soft possum skin, is known as Uncle Roy. He is, to all appearances, a portly, older man, with white hair and a loping gait. He wears shorts and socks and strangely, a possum tail wrapped around his head like a bandana. He looks like a typical Australian red-neck and I can imagine him out on his bush-block sluggin’ back a beer at the end of the day with his cronies. But the story tells me that he is an Aboriginal man. A black fella stolen from his mother during the 1950’s and brought up on a mission. He didn’t know he was Aboriginal until he was 62. A film showing as part of the exhibition re-creates his scattered memories of his mother, whom he only dimly remembers.

In the black and white film, we follow a faceless woman through trees and grassland toward a river. From time to time, she beckons with one expressive brown hand and we almost catch a glimpse of who she is before she turns away again. For Uncle Roy, this is how it must have been. The one thing which seems to stand to alleviate what must be immense pain is that Uncle Roy is clearly now a family man and has embraced his heritage wholeheartedly. In welcome speeches, he is named as a pillar of his community and throughout the evening, he wanders confidently through the crowd in a way I can only envy from my hiding place in the corner.

If you’ve never watched the starkly beautiful film “Rabbit Proof Fence“, you should. Apart from being a testament to the stupidity of the British guy who, it is said, introduced twenty-four rabbits to Australia for sport and caused an epidemic -sized rabbit population, it is the story of the British attempt at genocide. A carefully thought out and followed through plan to exterminate what was left of the Aboriginal race by physically removing children from their families and eradicating all language and culture. These are the actions of a country at war and yet it is never, even today acknowledged that the conflict between the First People of Australia and the invaders was (is?) actually a war. In a country littered with monuments – to war dead, to explorers (however unsuccessful), to politicians and generally dodgy land-grabber types, there remains to monument to a single one of the Aboriginal people who died trying the save their land, their people and their culture.

Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.

* National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee

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Solstice

It’s 21st June. That’s mid-summer, right? Well, not here in Australia.  After a long, warm Autumn, the trees are finally starting to look a bit bare and the days have started to begin and end with a chill. Sure, we still get hours of sunshine, but there’s a blanket in the bed and from time to time, I even put the heater on.

Last Sunday, I spent some time at Murundaka housing co-op.  We shared a meal and sat around a fire in the garden. When I came home, my clothes smelt of wood smoke and I knew that for me, this is what winter solstice conjures up. Fire and friendship. A paradigm-shift away from the commercialism of christmas, solstice is a pagan festival which links us firmly to the land, to the seasons and to each other.

At home in Wales, we needed a fire in winter to keep warm. To be honest, we often needed it in summer, too! My little forest hut in HoltsField relies on a wood burning stove for both radiators and hot water and it slaves away for more than six months a year. When my husband recently noticed chestnuts here in the shops, I hesitated to buy them. “We don’t have an open fire to cook them on!” “We could barbecue them?” he suggested.

Winter is short in Melbourne, but they like to “rug up” in scarves and woollens. They like to serve mulled wine in the bars and to complain about the cold. There are even ski resorts in the mountains and although it’s been slow coming this year, there are reports that the snow has finally arrived. In the weekend “Age” newspaper, there is an article on people who pack up their Melbourne homes and spend the season in the snow, where the local school opens just for the winter term to accommodate city children.

While we get ready for winter, my friends in the UK are basking in an early summer heat wave. “Scorchio!” says Jane at Lammas ecovillage in West Wales. When I Skype with the people who are living in my house, I see that the doors are flung wide open and, what’s that? Yes, the sky appears to be a beautiful shade of blue. I’m heading home for a holiday in a few weeks and I’ve asked them to save some Welsh sunshine for me. I’ll be swimming at beautiful Caswell Bay and I’m hoping to go and see my friend Xenia play fiddle in her band at the Green Man Festival in Glanusk. When I get back to Australia, Spring will already be starting to bloom and the scent of jasmine will waft through the streets as the sun creeps higher in the sky.

So I’m making the most of winter. I’m celebrating the solstice Melbourne-style. At Collingwood children’s farm, 4,000 people turn up to enjoy a lantern parade, hot chips and a huge bonfire. I sit happily in a muddy field and listen to the sound of drummers, a crackling fire and a thousand young children kept up past their bedtime. As the first stars appear in the darkened night sky,  I find a moment to marvel at the balance of life, the wisdom of nature and the miracle of the returning seasons. Happy Solstice everyone.

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Glen Ochre

I’ve been to a funeral. Not unusual, you say, but this one was. This one was for one of the founders of Commonground, an intentional community outside of Melbourne established in 1984. So as they celebrate their thirtieth anniversary, they lose one of their “dinosaurs”, as they call them. Their pillars.

Glen Ochre was a remarkable woman. She spent most of her adult life challenging the status quo in one way or another. She left home under violent circumstances, faking her birth certificate to become a nurse at age 15. She married young, and nursed a dying child at home, long before it was popular to do so. She was a feminist, and during the seventies, before there was such a thing as a refuge, hid women from their violent partners in her own home.

Glen had faith in the power of collaboration and qualified as a social worker, training especially in group work. This came to define her later life.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working with Glen to tell her life story. It has been such a privilege. Our work together has been interrupted. By hospital visits to try to get the pain under control. By last-time trips to the wilds of Australia to see her beloved red earth.

Some of that which we intended to do is left unfinished. But perhaps that was inevitable. With Glen, the work never stopped.

Together with her four co-founders – Phil Bourne, Kate Lewer, Ed McKinley and Terry Melvin, Glen set up Commonground Co-operative as both an intentional community and a space where groups could come and do their own work together. The house was build by hand and is a maze of mud brick corridors, with huge rooms as communal spaces; big, well-equipped kitchen and dining areas and lots of toilets fed with water from their own dam. They seem to have thought of everything. An outside area to play and let off steam. A garden packed with fresh home grown veggies. Big fireplaces inside and out, to keep you warm on those chilly winter nights.

The space is well-designed for parties and they hold a festival here most years. Some people remarked how Glen’s funeral was a lot like a festival. The bathtubs held ice for beer and soft drinks. The bar was set up by the pizza oven with rows and rows of glasses. Lines of chairs encircled a stage area, where tall speakers and tv screens prepared to broadcast the proceedings.

But one thing was different. Glen lay in an open coffin in the Great Room and people wandered up to say their tearful goodbyes. To the last, Glen challenged the “normal” way of doing things, as we were all invited to speak at the microphone and all invited to place a leaf in her coffin as a final ritual.

As well as the amazing space which is Commonground, Glen set up and ran the Groupwork Institute. Together with her partner Ed, she wrote the world’s first nationally accredited course for facilitation training, teaching a skillset for working with groups of all kinds for improved communication, better teamwork, efficient decision-making and happier individuals.

The skills which Glen taught are key to the success of communities. The book she wrote called “Getting Our Act Together” encompasses the range of tools Glen developed over years of working with groups. Her wisdom and clarity has helped to guide the story in the latest Living in the Future documentary, which is all about how communities in Australia have survived over time. In fact, Glen’s life has embodied so many of the ways in which we can all take back some of the power we have given away and live from a place of connection and harmony – both with ourselves, with each other and with Nature.

Go well, Glen.

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Forest Yatra

I’ve spent the last three months dithering. Dithering about whether to book a flight to visit my home in Wales this Summer (ok, Winter, if you’re in Oz). There are so many reasons not to, starting, and perhaps ending, with the reluctance to fly anywhere. In the environmental movement in the UK, it is frowned upon to fly. And with good reason. The overwhelming evidence is that my flight will eat up more than 10 tonnes of carbon emissions – one way! The average British person uses 9.5, and ideally, we would all be cutting our footprint to less than 2 tonnes. How can I justify flying home?

In Australia, this argument against flying has not made it onto the green agenda. Even the most committed amongst my friends thinks nothing of hopping on a plane to Sydney – the fifth most popular route on the planet.  Australia is so big, people get used to driving long distances, but with a flight to Darwin taking  nearly five hours, only the most adventurous (and time-rich) Southerner will choose a more climate-friendly option of driving or train travel. This might account for the average Australian climate footprint being more like 18 tonnes per person. Having lived in Australia a year, am I starting to acclimatise to this flying frenzy? Well, no…and yet…eventually, I have booked a ticket.

As soon as I do, the heavens open. Melbourne experiences the wettest start to April for a decade, catching the tail end of cyclone Ita. It’s like a “told you so” and a “welcome home” all at once.

On Thursday evening, I’m sitting on the train heading up to the Dandenong ranges, where I’m going to house sit for a friend. The rain drizzles down the train window as I stare out into the darkening gloom. It looks like that stretch of Wales between Bridgend and Cardiff on a damp winter evening. Yuck. Fortunately, the house has a cosy wood fire and a friendly cat to welcome me and the next day, despite the drizzle, I venture out for a walk in the forest.

The multitude of greens that is Sherbrooke Forest is the last remaining temperate rainforest in the Dandenong Ranges, to the East of Melbourne. The gum trees here are Mountain Ash (like the village in the Welsh valleys) and are the tallest flowering plant in the world. Today, I can’t see the treetops, as the mist is hovering, almost like smoke, at the level of the treeferns. As my eyes travel from the thick tree trunks skywards, my gaze gets lost and my face is dampened as if with dew. It’s a gentle, soft feeling. Soft on the skin after the harsh summer suns and soft on the eyes, which can’t get a focus on anything. I am walking as if in a dream.

The first time I came here, I was on a Yatra – a silent walk which takes its name from the sanskrit word for pilgrimage. We meet – a group of ten of us – at the Belgrave station of Puffing Billy. Puffing Billy is a steam train originally built to gain access to this hilly region but now run for tourists. It is far more exciting than I expected and the “toot toot” of the whistle follows us as we start into the dense undergrowth…

Through our opening circle, a bird swoops, feathers rustling, wings the sound of air. Nature welcoming us. Layers of bird song create a choir. High above us, cockatoos wheel and cry and the group mind chatters like the crimson rosellas flitting from tree to tree. The business of the world is hard to leave, but our boots on the soft earth make a calming mantra and soon, we soften into the silence.

The walk is punctuated with process taken from Deep Ecology – a way of reconnecting with Nature which was pioneered by Joanna Macy and John Seed. Our walkers are graduates from a Seed workshop and carry the experiences from that weekend into this – creating a comfortable closeness and familiarity. Lunch is in a meadow clearing guarded by forest. We hide in tall grasses, reflect and catch up. As we begin again, we are as gently focussed as the scarab beetle making his own slow pilgrimage across the path. The forest holds wallabies, which peek out from the trees before thumping off, crashing through the leaf litter. There are lyrebirds, too, waddling about trailing long feather-like tails and scratching like chickens at the dirt, in search of tasty grubs. This weekend, we even spot a blue-clawed yabbie – a kind a cray fish which we are surprised to see in the forest until we notice that his hidey-hole bottoms out into a pool of water. No doubt he has been enjoying the recent downpours!

As I’m walking in this beautiful, ancient place, I feel a pang of regret that I succumbed to the other life pressures which have finally made me book a ticket home.  I remember a friend who has started a community energy project in Wales, called Gower Power. One of their recent activities involved planting 1,625 trees in Gower, the place I call home. Maybe, while I’m there, I go and plant a few myself. I’m aware that it can’t make it right, but it can’t harm, either.

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The Nature of Cities

This afternoon I had a filming appointment at a food forest garden nearby. To get there would take a half hour walk or ten minute cycle. It was raining. Hard. I was a bit worried about slipping off my bike and smashing my camera, but by the time I’d finished faffing – looking up directions; making a note of the organiser’s number – it was a bit late to walk.

I rode slowly and carefully, avoiding puddles and tram lines. I got there in plenty of time and as I arrived, I realised I was smiling. My inner mantra had changed from “Oh, it’s raining again” to “I’m so happy” and it only took a moment to work out why. I loved being in the rain.

The food garden was lush and fruitful, with lovingly tended plots abundant with beans, herbs and salads. Since moving to the city, I’ve become a big fan of urban agriculture and I heard that Kevin McCloud, of Grand Designs fame, was recently advocating turning Melbourne’s parks into food gardens. That would be great! Yarra Council is really forward thinking in that respect and has appointed an urban agriculture officer. He’s been responsible for putting planter boxes all around the neighbourhood so that we see herbs and veggies growing on many street corners. Today, the garden shone and twinkled with raindrops. You could almost hear the plants inhaling the fresh moist air.

Only this morning, I was thinking how Nature was enjoyable in any weather. Sunshine is great, obviously, but the beach in winter is wild and when the waves crash the shore, some primal energy is released not only in them, but in me. City life is short on primal energy and I often find myself flatlining in a dullness of being. When you’re used to being stirred by Nature, a caffe latte in a funky cafe and an illicit freewheel through the park at night can only take you so far. Mostly, I find it’s not far enough.

When I got back from my bicycle shower, I went out again. Just for fun. I don’t own an umbrella and I left my hat at home. I wanted to feel the rain on my face, the wind in my hair. I bounced up the street, focused only on the feel of Nature washing me down. My stupid grin could have been mistaken for love, or madness. I just felt so relieved to have found a way to be in Nature, even here, in the depths of the city. Melbourne is known for its “four seasons in a day” but usually, it’s a bit of a pain. Early in our stay here, a friend showed me the contents of her oversized handbag. She routinely carried both leggings and an umbrella, however the day began. “It can change at any time!” she warned.

I wandered up to the post office to send a leisurely letter, strolling lightly as people hurried by, heads down against the weather. I smiled and smiled to myself.
On the way back, I looked up to see a line of pigeons perched on a telegraph wire. They were mostly hunched, like the pedestrians. Heads tucked into their necks, feathers ruffled and damp. The wire hung over the middle of the street. Could they not have chosen a more sheltered spot to huddle? Thirty-one, I counted. Why that wire? And why was there only one single pigeon on the wire next door?

I spent a contented time, in the rain, watching the pigeons and realised that in one lucky afternoon, I had discovered that the city weather could allow me to immerse in Nature and city animals were also wildlife worth watching.

Have you got any tips for city survival?

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Earth Rites

I knew it felt odd to be celebrating Hallowe’en and now I realise why…

This spooky festival is an interpretation of the Celtic festival of Samhain, a time when we mark the end of summer and celebrate the gathering of the harvest. It’s a time to recognise the eternal relationship between life and death – the endless cycle of renewal and decay. At this time, the veil between the worlds is understood to be thin and it’s an appropriate time to remember our departed loved ones and our ancestors. My Mum died at this time of year and it’s always felt right to be thinking of her at this time.

But in the pagan ways, for people in the South this is Beltaine, the fullness of Spring; not Samhain, the end of Summer, beginning of Winter. Instead of turning inward for the long, dark days, we are turning outward for the warm, light evenings!

People in Australia are caught not only in the ways of the “old country”, but in a Christian calendar which has usurped traditional land-based rites and the shenanigans of the media, who promote anything and everything that sells. And Hallowe’en sells, as does Christmas, Easter, Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day and Valentine’s Day.

At Djanbung Gardens, a permaculture training centre in Nimbin, New South Wales, facilitator Robyn Francis has created a new version of the pagan calendar, accounting for the differences in time zone. Thus, Samhain becomes Beltaine and Lammas, which in the North is a celebration of harvest in August, becomes Imbolc, announcing the imminent arrival of Spring. For those of us Northerners living in the South, it can really help us connect to the land if we tune in to these ancient festival times.

Making rituals to mark these occasions can be a simple thing, practised with a group of friends or alone. At Samhain, light a candle and remember your ancestors. Tell a story about your loved ones and prepare warm food to comfort and sustain you and your friends.
Or if your time is Beltaine, take some soil in a container and plant some seeds. Be thankful for the long days returning after the dark Winter nights and rejoice in the light which helps our food grow and all living beings survive. Prepare a simple meal of fresh vegetables and salad and make a wish that all beings need never be hungry.

This mindfulness can help us remember our place in the order of things, as well as develop a compassion to reach out to others. And this is useful because we need to do both in order to live in a healthy, sane and balanced world. Don’t you think?

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