Category Archives: Natural Building

boodaville-permaculture3web

Boodaville Permaculture in Spain

Boodaville. The name is a play on words, taking itself lightly, but underpinned with intention. This is not a folly. This is wisdom in action. The land is 1.5 hectares of tracks and terraces and trees on the border of Aragon and Catalonia. “Cross the blue bridge and take a left” says Anna Gurney, the permaculture teacher and activist who owns this land and runs the eco-project. Of course we miss the turning, and need to drive ahead some way and turn around.

boodaville-permaculture-catalonia
Boodaville Permaculture Project, Catalonia

All the best places I visit seem to be at the end of a bumpy track. At my home in Holtsfield, we have both a bumpy track (at the front) and a muddy lane at the back. The residents call the back lane “the time tunnel” because it seems, in this tunnel as it does on the track, that time slows down. You slow down. Somewhere between the worlds, a switch is flicked and the magical zone is entered. In this magical zone, anything can, and does happen.

What happens at Boodaville today is a permablitz. A group of enthusiastic people in shorts and sturdy shoes inhabit a newly-landscaped terrace. In huddles of three or four, they crouch, tending the soil, building small hills of compost and thumbing in favas (beans) and small plants of broccoli and spinach. The chatter is multi-lingual, strings of Spanish and English, smatterings of German and Portuguese. A slender woman with an indeterminate accent encourages us, initiates new tasks, and generally keeping things going. Progress is both swift and congenial.

boodaville-permablitz-gardening
Permablitz – a shared permaculture activity

On a higher terrace, a makeshift but functional kitchen is buzzing with life and the aroma of cooking wafts around, making me aware of my hunger. In a sort while, the group will gather to eat a hearty plate of stew and rice with fresh salad leaves and the conversation will crank up into laughter and even song.  But when I mention “hippies” to Anna, her response is dismissive. So where does the inspiration for Boodaville come from?

“It was a silly nickname given to me in my early twenties.” says Anna, a little embarrassed. “The first event we had was a birthday party, which got called Boodaville. Then the next event followed and still got called Boodaville. Then there was the festival…After a few years, it just stuck. So it was unintentional but it sounds a bit like buddha and there are lots of things about buddhas that we like.”

Anna’s modesty is a clue to the ethos behind the project, which is all about community. All of the events, training and workshops are designed to be collaborative and Anna’s long-term plan is that the land will be split between four families, who will live there as an eco-village.
“ With lots of projects, there is one person that is determined to make it happen, and that’s me. I always wanted it to be about permaculture and then I realised how close this community-led approach was to the ethos of permaculture, so it was entirely appropriate. People underestimate how hard it is to get a community project up and running and they often fail before they manage to buy land. Now I feel that having the initial bit done through our courses, activities, buildings, etc, will give the future community a head start.”

On the land, participants drift back to the garden to finish the day’s productivity and I take a look around, walking up the steep hill to admire the view over mountains both near and far. A newly-built cottage in traditional Catalan style will house a floor-full of tired party-goers this evening and the geodesic dome is being prepared for music and dancing.
“We always say that if it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable.” states Anna. It’s important to make sure people enjoy themselves. In order to learn, you have to be emotionally engaged with something – or at least, you learn much better.“

The day’s activities in the garden round off with a small ceremony – a tree planting to honour the life of Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture who has recently died. Bill suggested that if people want to celebrate his life then there could be no action more fitting than to plant a tree, so here we are, holding hands in a circle, moving slowly around so that each of us can splash a symbolic handful of water onto a young almond sapling. I’m amused when the leader of the ceremony invites us to sound an OM together, which we do. Anna, holding hands as part of the circle enjoys the moment as much as anyone, though it somehow runs contrary to her claim of it being a “non-hippy’ environment!

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Planting a tree in memory of Bill Mollison

A couple of weeks after visiting Boodaville, I am inspired to see whether we can pull off a permablitz in our area. I open a Meetup group, which quickly gathers 15 members, some of whom sign up for a day at our property, sharing some activities. The day is even more successful than I could have hoped and we adopt Anna’s model of emphasising a good, long, lunch and plenty of conversation. We get a load of things done and people give each other big hugs when they leave,  talking what they’d like to achieve at the next permablitz! The focus on shared activity, shared food and shared learning makes a container for activity that is permaculture all over. If you haven’t already tried it, my advice is – don’t wait! Find your local permaculture group and pitch in with a project. Time spent collaboratively is good for the soul. You’ll most likely learn something new, share a great lunch and maybe, like me, you might even make some new friends.

permablitz at a property in Spain
Permablitz!
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The all-important long lunch

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mimosa

Retrofit

Have you ever said “yes” to something and then, when you realise the amount of work that’s involved, wondered if you’ve done the right thing after all? In the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, I’m sure many ‘Leavers’ are watching the value of their savings/ pensions/ homes/ wage packets plummet and thinking that perhaps they jumped when they should have stayed put. Myself, I’m having the same kind of thoughts about the cottage we just bought in Spain. Before you condemn me as a someone who has abandoned the UK like the other rats from a sinking ship, or grabbed myself a luxury second home, let me explain…

The casita sits on the side of a shady hillside, surrounded by tall pine trees. One of only eight houses in the tiny urbanizacion, it has been empty for more then ten years. The rooms smell of neglect. The water supply has been cut. The garden is unkempt. When we first spot it on the Fotocasa web page in January, we are living amongst the noise and haste of Barcelona city. This small patch of countryside seems a far cry from that and indeed, it takes us an hour’s bus ride and a half-hour walk to get there. Following sketchy directions, we take an unsealed track off the main road and find it sitting there. Is it waiting for us? We clamber over the wall and perch on the abandoned swing, looking at the crumbling facade. The stairs and banisters that lead to the upstairs living space are falling away but when we peer in through the shuttered windows, the space inside seems free from structural damage or damp. It just needs to be loved.

The decision to renovate a house, even a tiny one, can not be taken lightly. We consult a lawyer, talk endlessly around all the options but it appears that the casita already has us in her sights. In the Spanish language, the way you express that you like something is to say that the object likes you. Me gusta means, literally, it likes me. I have to conclude that this house likes us. So we find ourselves saying ‘yes’. One hour from Barcelona, fifteen minutes from the pretty beach town of Sitges and five minutes from the authentic Catalan pueblo of Sant Pere de Ribes, we decide to create not just a home, but a refuge. A refugio. In undertaking the retrofit we intend to be as eco-friendly as possible. Natural and recycled materials, renewable energy, capturing the precious rainwater and re-using the grey waters from our sink and shower. Growing as much food as we can.

As I write this, the thermometer reads thirty degrees, the barometer firmly wedged towards ‘sun’. There’s a cool breeze wafting through the forest and I’ve laid down the hammer and chisel I’ve using to prise the tired tiles from the bathroom walls. Broken shards of sharp ceramic lie in piles on the floor and it strikes me that in order to create the change that’s needed, we sometimes first need to make an unholy mess. Before we can make something new, we need to get rid of the old. As I drift off into my afternoon siesta, it occurs to me that maybe Brexit was a way of doing this, of bringing the old ways crashing down like broken tiles and leaving the space open for a fresh new look. It may look like there’s a lot of work to be done but it seems clear that we can’t go back. It’s time to start imagining what a new Britain might look like and I’m pretty sure what’s needed is more than a fresh coat of paint. I think what’s needed is a complete retrofit.

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earthaven-home

Earthaven Ecovillage

Arjuna da Silva is someone I have never met, and yet I know we have a lot in common. Arjuna lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina and was one of the most enthusiastic (and generous) supporters of the crowd fund campaign for our latest film – Deep Listening. She is a veteran of intentional community and I thought it would be lovely to get some insight into her world…

earthaven-garden

When she appears in my Skype window, I see an older woman, framed by silvery hair befitting to her name. In the background, a beautiful archway hugs around a living flame. From my city apartment in Barcelona, I feel an ache for the countryside and for her cosy wood-burning fire. She tells me how her journey toward living in Earthhaven began…

arjuna

“I have lived in several intentional communities.  In the early 1990’s I was living in Florida and I had two close friends – we were friends and housemates – and we were all communitarians. We were a networked, small town extended community of people who didn’t live together but who were very connected through their meditations and social lives. We used to dream about ‘what would we do if we bought a piece of land?” In the 70’s, when everyone was looking at maps of the country and asking ‘where would you go if you wanted to avoid disaster?’ , it always came to western North Carolina or the southern Appalacian mountains. This was the place…

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After a couple of years visiting other communities, gathering advice and information, one woman who just had lots of energy put out a message to say that one of the pieces of land they had seen was the best choice and if anyone wanted to do this then now was the time.”

So far, so familiar, right? A networked group of people, a wish to live on some land together, a search for the “right place” and a forward thinking, dynamic individual…It’s a story I must have heard a hundred times whilst making the Living in the Future series! Arjuna tells me that the story told in our Lammas film was the one which resonated most with her, and I can see why…

earthaven-build

“There are people here whose homes are totally according to the outside codes. There are some who have very nice homes but didn’t bother with the codes. And then there are lots of buildings here that technically people are not supposed to live in. They don’t have a toilet, for instance. These people are pushing the edge of “what will they let me alone to do?” They see that we’re making no trouble…this is a good thing, not a bad thing…. The plus side of the economic downturn in this county is that officials don’t have the budgets to spend time investigating every nook and cranny of development. The truth is that we who started Earthaven were willing to push the envelope. We could have gone down to the local authority and said “this is what we intend to do and let’s work together.” One day we might just do that, but in the beginning we were following advice Peter Caddy from Findhorn gave us early on when he told us about how Findhorn first developed, and how they decided they would be best off if they would  ‘ask forgiveness, not permission.’ We decided we would do that too.”

Deep Listening talks much ore about the way we communicate with each other and how we deal with conflict. What was it about this that spoke to you?

Everyone who comes to Earthaven, comes with a different picture of what they’re coming to and what they want it to be like. We do our best to be clear about what’s going on here, but we could do better at making sure people learn what to expect, otherwise they’re going to think whatever they want to think. That’s what I’ve discovered. People with very different values from the founders have come. They might share the idea that they want to live close to the land or be healthy or this or that or the other. But their feelings, their protectiveness about their investments, especially those who had a much more mainstream lifestyle than many of us…. So in the last few years we have had some very serious twists in the community guts over these issues. I think it’s looking like we’re going to come out of it and people on both sides will still be here and have something to say about what was learned. One beacon or shining light that continues at Earthaven that we started with was relationships and communication. There are a core of people interested in this who learn and then teach, learn and then teach, learn and then teach. We have worked our way through Radical Honesty and Process Work, all kinds of things. It’s maybe 10 years now since people started getting serious about NVC. I’d say it’s had more of an effect on individuals – people who are working on their own needs, but it ripples. When people are aware of what’s going on for themselves inside, the languaging starts to shift in the whole community. Empathy and all the kinds of things in your movie that people are talking about, are part of the conversation.”

 

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steward-woodland

Save Steward Wood Community

“I’d never built anything before I came here. I was Mr Bean with a power tool.”

This was John, speaking to me on my visit to Steward Wood, many years ago. He had just given me a tour of their project – a co-operatively owned woodland in the Dartmoor National Park in Devon. It was green and lush, and very quiet. They had communal gardens where they were growing vegetables and a tumble of shacks and chalets which clung to the side of a steep hill.

steward-wood-community

This kind of settlement was not new to me. As part of the Living in the Future series, I was used to visiting people who lived in fields or in the woods, in homes they had built themselves from found materials. I was familiar with compost toilets, solar panels and 12 volt inverters that turned sunlight and running water into energy for lights and small electrical appliances. I was used to a warm welcome, too. A lot of the time, the attention such people receive is negative, even hostile. But I was trying to document the importance of low impact projects. I was trying to show that on a personal level, there is an alternative to a large mortgage and a lifelong nine-to-five; and that on a planetary level,  something other than fossil fuel guzzling mansions is not only possible, but viable and yes, even enjoyable!

After my tour, we gathered in their small community shelter and used some of their solar-made electricity to power a tiny projector and show one of my documentaries – Ecovillage Pioneers. People were inspired to see others like them, carving out an alternative, which was entirely the point of me making the film.

Now I hear that Steward Woodland is under threat of eviction. That the National Park has decided, in their wisdom, that their project is not longer something they want on their patch of land. In Wales, the planning laws have moved on a little, and projects such as this can apply under a ground-breaking  policy known as One Planet Development. In England, the planners have no such document to guide their decisions,  but that doesn’t mean they can’t allow the project to remain. They just need a little more help to see the advantages and to figure out the reasons why projects like this are important. Steward Wood have a great lawyer who is helping to take their case to court, but they do need your help. This is what you can do:

1. Take 4 minutes to watch this great little crowdfunding film.
2. Donate what you can afford to their campaign to save their woodland home.
3. Share widely.

Thanks and good luck to Steward Wood! The world needs more, not less of you.

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Christie-Walk-Frontage

Christie Walk Co-Housing Adelaide

It’s a cold winter day in Adelaide when we take a ten minute stroll from the central market to keep our appointment at Christie Walk. It feels colder still for us, because we’ve just come from Alice Springs, where it’s cold at night but in the day, the temperate is a balmy twenty-two degrees. We came down to Adelaide on the Ghan – the famous locomotive which began as a camel train and takes its name from the Afghan cameleers who were the first to carry supplies from Adelaide to the desert interior of Australia.

Adelaide is not much known for its innovations. It has a reputation in Australia as a sleepy little place – more village than city – where everyone knows everyone else. Perhaps that cosy vibe is why it has now become home to an innovation in community living – a co-housing settlement slap bang in the city centre.
Christie Walk embodies much that is revolutionary about the co-housing movement. As resident Sue Gilbey tells me as we walk around – “ You have an intention to have a community first and you build around that intention. So you begin with the end in mind.” Architect Paul Downton certainly had a vision. His vision included not only community, but sustainability, taking into account elements such as the embodied energy and energy usage; retention and recycling of water; land health and soil fertility through restoration and encouragement of biodiversity and promotion of human and environmental health through limiting use of polluting or damaging products.

The result is a compact settlement of 27 homes on half an acre, including two apartment blocks, four individual cottages, a community room and shared laundry facility. We approach from Sturt street through an covered passageway decorated with a mural on one wall. Sue explains that the mural has been created by the residents and tells the story of the building and all the people who have lived here, including a reference to the traditional owners by the presence of the Rainbow Serpent. It gives a friendly flavour to the entrance way.

We then wind down a narrow alleyway past a row of tall, colourful buildings, two of which are made from straw bale. “They’re possibly the only straw bale buildings in the world that are built in the inner city and in an intention community”, says Sue. “It’s one of the best building materials because of its insulating factors but also, providing it’s rendered properly, it’s one of the safest. It’s vermin proof and fire proof and it allows for minor movement, where most houses would crack.”

Christie-Walk-Garden-seat

Sue points out a circular area with a seat where people tend to pause for a chat. “One of the really beautiful things about it here is when you get to the centre, you don’t know that you’re in the city. You’re surrounded by bird life and there’s a sense of serenity about it that you just don’t get in the city.”
Another unique feature is the community room, which has a fully functioning kitchen. Every month the community meets for a shared meal. Meetings are all held there. There is a piano. They have film nights and talks. And if Sue wants to host a dinner party, she can bring people here. So as well as supporting the sharing economy, it helps people live with less. Sue’s apartment is just 55 square metres, smaller than the average suburban home but with all the advantages of space afforded by a much bigger home.

The population of Christie Walk varies between 42 and 48 and 30% of the properties are rentals, where people have bought as an investment, or moved on and rented their house out. Sue says this helps to maintain diversity. “The good thing about it is that we have just about every age group. I was always fearful that it was going to end up like a retirement village. and it might still do, because we are all ageing.”

Christie-Walk-Helen-Sue

As Sue tells me about the decision-making process, which is based on democratic voting, I ask Sue how she finds living in community.
“When I first moved here, i moved here for the environmental credentials, not the community. I was used to living with family or on my own or with people that I chose to live with not people who just happened to be there. It took me a long time to get to grips with the fact that there were people who I wouldn’t normally have in my circle that were living close. You examine yourself and the way that you react to things and that’s a good thing. That’s a really healthy thing to do.”

Christie-Walk-balcony

Climbing up to the communal roof top garden, Sue plucks a handful of kumquats and we survey the view over the city towards the Adelaide hills. For a city centre apartment block, Christie Walk does seem to offer the best of everything.

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Fryer’s Forest

Fryer’s Forest is a small ecovillage about an hour and a half from Melbourne in rural Victoria. To get there on this January morning, I leave the house at 6.30 am. It is already warm, and before I reach the tram stop, I have removed my cardigan.

The train edges out of the city, passing a series of old factories that no doubt Melbourne was built upon. It was the fashion, back then, to erect huge images on top of the building and I watch as  “Uncle Toby”, his round-bellied image twenty feet tall, sweeps by.
Through the mottled  sky, a plane ascends gracefully. A glint of bright morning sunlight catches its length, making it shine like a bright bullet.
We roll out of the city and the landscape turns from uniform gray to shades of yellow-brown and green. Parcels of property flash by. Homesteads with fenced paddocks. A lone donkey lifts its head, mouth open in song. I can only imagine the sound. A ring of goats stands in a scrubby field. A duck house, complete with moat and a drawbridge. A stand of olive trees. Camels!

How much is it likely to be?” I ask the taxi driver, when he turns up outside the station at Castlemaine. “Oh, about twenty, thirty, forty dollars”, he says, cryptically. He settles on about thirty, after we discuss exactly where I’m going. “It’s that little community up in the bush, right?” he confirms. We career up the winding unsealed road and I can see him checking the meter. As it clicks over thirty, he slows down, pulls up. “Just about on budget!” he says.
Stewart is already coming towards the car and he takes my backpack. “You’re travelling light!” He comments. “Couldn’t have done that twenty years ago!”
Stewart is a long-time film maker like me. He and his partner Cath are two of the first residents here. Together with another family, they built a large wooden house on two storeys, facing out across the dry woodland. This whole area was settled during the gold rush, which brought prospectors from all over the world in the 1850’s. Remnants of the mining still remain, but the most significant legacy is the decimation of native forest, something that the Fryer’s Forest community is working to put right.

After a quick tour, we gather at the communal house for their Wednesday coffee morning. There is a real coffee machine and Stewart turns out flat whites frothy with steamed milk.
The conversation gathers in corners, where some women sit in comfy chairs; and around the table, where a couple of older men share magazines on miniature railways.
“The coffee morning is not just for Fryer’s Forest, but for the wider community as well. We have a few members who are in the local Community Fire Service and this is a chance for them to catch up with some of the volunteers from the local town. Fire is a big risk up here.”

The room quickly fills with people. It’s still the school holidays and there are teenagers here, as well as littlies and young parents. Everyone seems at ease with each other and the noise level rises with chatter and laughter.

The day is hotting up. Deep blue sky stretches high and on the pathway, shiny blocks of quartz glare back to my squinting eyes. I make my way up the hill to Tamsin’s place, accompanied by her husband, Toby, whose only resemblance to the icon I passed on the train is a solid stature and a friendly smile. “This is for Toby’s home brew” says Tamsin, pushing open the door to a cave-like space. The temperature inside makes the hairs on my arms stand up and I feel the sweat under my armpits pause. The walls are constructed from thick, local stone, which, on a day like today, makes its secondary use even more poignant. “It’ll serve as a fire shelter, too.”
In a spark of ingenious design, (along with load-bearing floor-to-ceiling bookcases and double-skin mud brick walls) there is a cool cupboard which goes underground and draws cool air up into the kitchen. And indeed, the kitchen is cool. I sip gratefully on a china teacup filled with chamomile tea. It feels like a gentle moment after the high of the coffee and chatter, the heat of the day outside. Tamsin is slight, with a tangle of carefree hair over twinkling eyes. Her gentle voice rises as she gets passionate.

“We bought in when we were 23 and we’re 41 and 42 now.  I still remember that we joined for the sake of fences. We recognised the artificial nature of saying, “Right, there’s a fence there. This is my bit and that’s your bit so whatever you’re doing over there is none of my business and vice versa. We wanted accountability to our neighbours of what we were doing on our land and we expected accountability from other people as well…. “ She grins wryly. “We actually found we had to put up lots of fences to keep the wallabies out, but we’ve tried to keep it more as a way of protecting veggie gardens than separating ourselves from each other.” she says.

Tamsin takes me on a tour inside the house. She shows me the mudbrick walls washed with lime and stained with organic colours. The shower room is warm lichen green and the bedroom is a cheery sunflower yellow. “It’s a natural protector against mould” she tells me.

I ask about how the ecovillage works. “It’s an owner’s corporation, which can involve voting to get things done. But we don’t vote, we rely on very deliberate consensus decision-making and we talk through needs, wants and concerns until we’ve found out what people want from decisions, and what they’re afraid of, and what people don’t want. And there have been occasions where we’ve talked for eight months to get to the bottom of particular obstructions that people had about making decisions.”
After my interview with Tamsin, I head back down the hill. Although there are only 11 plots here, I feel a bit disoriented. I think it’s the sun. It’s two o’clock and I walk slowly, enjoying the feeling of the breeze on my ankles. I think about the shots I need and spend some time just filming the environment. Dry, cracked earth at the edge of the diminishing pond. Brown, spare eucalypts standing patiently in the parched ground. The houses are like little oases, where green shrubbery and bright flowers nestle close and keep the occupants from shrivelling up.

The communal house offers a brief respite. I put my flask to my lips and the warm water slides down my parched throat. I guzzle, and refill. When I lift my arms, the scent of fresh sweat rises to meet my nostrils and I run a wet hand under the water once, twice, hoping to lift any smell which might be offensive to others. It’s refreshing. I plonk my hat back on my head and return to the day.

When I arrive at plot 4, Hamish is pleased to take the opportunity for a rest from digging. This is the plot which was allocated to David Holmgren and Su Dennett when they helped establish the ecovillage, but they had their hands full at their own place Melliodora, and never developed the site. Now, Hamish and his family will be sharing the land.

“We didn’t have the capital to be able to undertake this project on our own and so we were looking for the opportunity to work with someone. When David and Su came along, that was a fantastic opportunity for us.”

Hamish shows me two huge concrete-sprayed water tanks, which they have dug into the hillside. The tanks store water not just for domestic use, but for use in case of fire and what’s more , they’ve managed to design them so that they create the front of a fire shelter. Hamish walks me between the monster tanks an immediately, I get that same cool relief that I got in Tamsin’s cellar. If I lived up here, I’d want a space like that as well!

On my way down again, I bump into Stewart and Hazel as they leave their house. Hazel is wearing a swimsuit and straddling her bike. At the lake, a gentle breeze strokes my skin. I watch as Stewart rows out a boat, with Hazel swimming ahead. The scene has an element of ritual and of serenity. It’s not everyone who has their own private lake to swim in at the end of a scorching day.
When they are done, Hazel heads back to the house and Stewart sets off for a walk with the dog. I undress furtively and slide off the slippery step into the dark water. I swim out into the centre, where patches of cold water swirl amongst the warm. Emerging refreshed, I set my damp underwear on a stone to dry. Even now, at six o’clock in the evening, within half an hour, it is bone dry.

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Commonground_festival

A Change is Gonna Come

“I’ve never been to a festival like this before”, says Sarah-Jane, her blue eyes twinkling. “Where you start from an assumption that everyone is your friend”.
And it’s true. What is extraordinary about the Commonground Festival in Seymour, near Melbourne, is not the beautiful red gum landscape; not the soul-scoring music; not the delicious home-grown, home-cooked food; not the inevitable problems with blocked toilets… All these are already festival favourites. What is extraordinary here is the intense feeling of connection; the strong sense of purpose; the deep, meaningful conversation; the sparkly, convivial atmosphere. It’s like a huge family party, without the starched formalities which often accompany such events.

The festival is opened by indigenous elder Uncle Larry Walsh, who welcomes us to country in the lyrical language of the Taungurung people. “Wominjeka. Pallian beek.” He explains that the words are a welcome from his tribe, which stretches from East to West across this part of the Kulin nation. In my volunteer role documenting the weekend, I film him, my camera on a borrowed tripod, since I managed, somehow, to leave my tripod on the tram on the way here.

Uncle Larry, his grey hair flowing free like the  many rivers in his part of the world, congratulates Commonground on their thirtieth birthday. Thirty years since a small group of radical, like-minded health professionals pooled their resources to buy this block of land. Thirty years since they camped out, small children and all, and began to cook up a dream. They wanted to both create an intentional community and to support social change makers in their work for a more just and sustainable world. They hand built a rambling rabbit-warren of a building to house not only themselves, but groups who wanted a space to come together in. Fashioned from mud brick and recycled materials, it sits comfortably in the hillside overlooking hills and bushland. A tour takes us around the property, taking in the abundant veggie gardens, the apple orchard and the quirky octagonal structure which was their first attempt at construction.

It’s ironic that this Festival takes place the same weekend as our appointed world leaders take the stage for the G20 summit in Brisbane. Despite Tony Abbott’s encouragement for them all to be in first name terms, there are few genuine friendships there. How different might the world look if power was in the hands of those who really cared? If all our governments were working for a more just and sustainable world? Instead, Abbott is calling for focus to be kept on economic growth – a concept which has long since proved itself to be out of step with the needs of both people and planet.

Uncle Larry shares the stage with Kate Lewer, one of that small group of founders. Kate glows as he reminisces with her about the collaborations between Commonground and the Aboriginal community to decide how they could best work together to manage the land. It’s clear that he holds a fondness for these people and he stays around all night and all the next day – enjoying a yarn around the smoky fire as the music from the bands sings out across the tall gums. Whilst it’s true that this is a mostly white-face festival, there’s a general feeling that we are all on the same page when it comes to how to get along. And if we want some help with that, the workshops run by Commonground’s sister organisation, the Groupwork Institute on “Emotional Resilience” and “Working Collaboratively”, give us ideas and skills to take away.

Part of my job here is to talk to a few of the musicians about the role they feel music has in social change. I take them up onto the stony hill overlooking the festival site and frame them with the stage in the background. Mandy Connell is a singer-songwriter from Melbourne. She sits on a log and plays me a plaintive folk song which questions the suspension of human rights for the Northern Territory Intervention and asks who might be next under “Abbott’s Inquisition.” Her voice is clear and strong and those nearby lean in to listen. “Last time I read about the NT Intervention, I figured when they finished, they’d be comin’ for the nation…”

Robbie Bundle is an indigenous musician from West Footscray. He strums a song called “My Sacred Place” and it’s clear that for him, land rights and sense of belonging is one of the important social issues that music can help to articulate. “Take me back to my sacred place, take me home…”

Lying in my tent and listening to the rain on Sunday morning, I switch on my phone and pick up some news about how the G20 is going. Tony Abbott has embarrassed himself once more by boasting about his regressive policies on carbon emissions, on asylum seekers and on health care. Vladimir Putin, although not shirt fronted, leaves the gathering early. Here at Commonground, though, we are reluctant to leave. We want to live always in this warm bubble of possibility. Weekends like this show us a way to be which is inclusive, considerate and conscious.

As if to prove the theory, when I call Yarra trams to see if my tripod has been handed in, the man in the phone is delighted to tell me that they have it there waiting for me. Perhaps the bubble of possibility is, after all, for more than just a weekend.

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Sustainable Living

In February each year, Melbourne hosts its Sustainable Living Festival. It’s a celebration, an education and an invitation. We celebrate innovative ideas which bring the possibility of a sustainable future into focus. Films, speakers, presentations, exhibitions, installations, gatherings, debates and demonstrations educate on the theme of living with a more aware, conscious and environmentally friendly approach. We are invited to be inspired.

Last year, I was very new to the city. We arrived only 2 weeks before the Festival began and although I went to several events, I felt very much like a tourist. I wandered the Green Market, popped my head into a few tents and watched a film or two in Fed Square. As a newcomer to Australia, what impressed me most was that it was baking hot, but that wasn’t really the point!

This year was different. For one thing, I’ve managed to arrange a screening of one of my own films as part of the Festival, so I’m not just a spectator. When I arrive on Friday to drop off some flyers, I am struck by how different this feels. On the stalls are people I know. On the Simplicity Institute stall sits Sophie, who rode across Australia with her partner, Greg, who wrote a book about “Changing Gears” and how to downsize our carbon footprint. On the Co-Housing stall sit Urban Coup members Janice and Yesvira and I bump into Iain from Murandaka. They are here to promote shared living in the suburbs – a great way to reduce our use of energy and resources whilst gaining all the benefits of community life.

A little further on I find Karen, from Tasman Ecovillage, which I visited last Easter. The ecovillage is a new venture down on the beautiful Tasman Peninsular. In a perfect example of re-purposing, this project has taken an existing motel site, sold the chalets to members and have created a community. They grow their own veggies and are planning a range of natural homes on the site, which nestles cosily between the hills and the sea.

In a talk on permaculture economics at Under the Gum I find that I know the person sitting next to me – something which never happened last year – and I realise that after a year of homesickness, disconnection and struggle with city life, I live here now. Before I came, people told me it would take a year to “find my feet” and they were right. When it comes to making friends and feeling like you have a place somewhere, it takes time.
The comfort I feel in my home town of Swansea is because I have lived there so long. I can’t walk down the street without meeting people I know and if I need something, I know exactly where to go.

At the Sustainable Living Festival, I started to feel like I have a place here in Melbourne. Although it is a huge, sprawling city, there are pockets of people who are working towards a more connected and caring lifestyle and I’m pleased to count myself amongst them.

Later that night, we are able to take part in the projector bike ride, which we missed last year because we didn’t yet have bikes. A huge swarm of people on bicycles rode en masse through the heart of Melbourne. It was the biggest Critical Mass I’ve ever taken part in and it was great to know that it was in the name of art, not politics! Imagine if the morning rush hour looked like this, not a crush of cars bumper to bumper.

We landed at Argyle Square off Lygon street, where the Italians of the area were taking an evening stroll and enjoying some of the amazing ice cream sold in this part of town. The films were projected from a converted bicycle and we sat and ate our picnic supper in the warm evening air. Is this how life could be all the time?

 

 

 

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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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Eltham Mudbrick House Tour

Mudbrick Houses of Eltham

Last weekend we had a surprise insight into the mud brick world of Melbourne. The district of Eltham (that’s El- tham, not Elt-ham) was hosting a “Practically Green” environmental festival, but we got much more than we bargained for when we ended up on an organised tour of local mudbrick houses.

Now I know nothing about mudbrick, as it’s a technique not really used in the UK, or in Europe for that matter. I’ve come across lots of cob and rammed earth, of course, but this is a bit different, since the mud/straw mixture is actually shaped into bricks before its used. Maybe it needs a warmer climate to dry the bricks?

The Tour started at Montsalvat, an artist community founded by Justus Jorgenson,  who designed and built the Great Hall using pis-de-terre (rammed earth) and mudbrick techniques.  Montsalvat was also home to Alistair Knox , who inspired several of the houses on the tour. In fact, one of the houses was his own which was built in the early 1960’s and continued to be his home until his death in 1986.

Even though the technique itself was unfamiliar to me, what did seem to resonate was the the beautiful gardens and the way the outside was invited in by way of large window openings. I also the appreciated the way the houses sit snugly in the landscape – often dug into the side of a hill. Huge round timbers held up decorated gables and coloured glass in the roof let in sunlight to warm and brighten the rooms. Knox was obviously pioneering an environmental design which we can see in many natural homes today, like those built by Tony Wrench or Simon Dale in Wales.

A Veteran of over 1000 house builds, Knox was not an architect by trade, in fact, his first job was in a bank. On his release from the navy in 1945, he began a course in building construction and at the same time, started work on two houses. At that time, materials were in short supply, but Knox was interested in trying out new techniques and had a particular theory about “bringing the building and the natural environment together into one indivisible whole”. Ah yes, that makes sense now. Knox even got the banks to finance one of his builds, by quoting an academic study submitted to the Commonwealth Experimental Building Station which vouched for the safety of mudbrick walls.

At Alistair’s house, we bumped into a student of Knox, Bohdan Kuzyk, who designed another of the houses, home of artist Jenni Mitchell. Jenni’s home sits in a mature orchard garden. The scent of citrus blossom alone makes it feel tropical. The house is home not only her and her partner, but also her luminous paintings. These homes definitely invite one to live with soul inside them.

The Eltham Mudbrick Tour has been going since 1964 and so far, it has only been cancelled once, following the fatal Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 in Kinglake, Victoria. At present, it is organised by the Nillumbick Music Support group, and promoted by the Nullumbick Mudbrick Association, who promote mudbrick building, particularly in the Eltham area.

Because we got caught up in the Tour, we missed the demonstration of mudbrick making which was happening at the “Practically Green” environmental festival. I’ll try to find someone to show me and make a little film about it soon for the Living in the Future series.

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