Category Archives: Nature

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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…

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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…

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“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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blossom-web

The Community in Gardening

I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.

On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.

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Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.

When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.

We need Nature.

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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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Caganer-traditional-web

Barcelona? Poo!

On top of the Restaurante Salamanca, the temperature says 22 degrees. In the beachside cafe, tourists sit with a jugo de naranja y cafe con leche, carefully guarding their wheelies against opportunistic thieves, but the real action is taking place down underneath the promenade. For the Barcelona retired community, this sunny wednesday morning in early December is perfect for gathering to play dominos and sink a cerveza or two.  The mood is upbeat, and why not? The sun is warm, the sea is sparkling and life expects nothing more from them than this. We, as newcomers and foreigners, are still trying to attune to it.

Barcelona-beach

Yesterday was a holiday. A holy day. Unlike in Melbourne, our last adopted home, where the religion is sport and the public holidays coincide with major sporting events, this is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which celebrates the moment that Mary, Jesus’s mother, was conceived. Husband is still wondering whether to take his allotted day off work, or whether to go in anyway, when a drumming outside our window takes us to the balcony. Outside, a procession is snaking its way through the narrow Gotico street and has paused outside the tiny Capella de Sant Cristòfol de Regomir.

Capella-de-sant-cristofol

This chapel honouring the patron saint of travellers has been there since the 15th century, built at the gate in this Roman city wall to which people would bring their prayers before setting sail from the nearby port.  On St. Christopher’s day in 1907, the first cars were brought here to be blessed and the tradition remains to this day, although it still amazes me that cars continue to squeeze through these passageways at all. Today,  cars have given way to humans and the procession brings church elders, children, a cohort of trumpeters and finally, majestically, the Virgin Mary herself, teetering down the street hoisted upon a wobbling litter. The porters wear white gloves, but their wrists show strain as the weight of huge carriage shifts from side to side with their gait. Adorned with flowers , the Virgin seems precarious, but the followers follow anyway, tapping their way down the rough pavings with tall, silver-topped staffs. All around, church bells ring out to welcome them, as they must have done for centuries in this ancient city.

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“Shall we go out for breakfast then?” asks Husband, still undecided about whether to go to work at some time. “Sure” I say. It feels like a party out there.”

December 8th is the beginning of Christmas in Spain. The markets are already flourishing, selling all manner of Christmas gifts and decorations, but most significantly, offering rows and rows of caganers, the traditional  figures of a little pooping Catalan peasant boy. We first encountered this phenomenon when on a visit to Barcelona a few years ago. In a shopping centre, a huge statue of Santa Claus squatted, his trousers around his ankles and a giant turd on the ground underneath him. We were amazed, not to say confused, and didn’t understand until now that it is a symbol of good fortune. That it represents the fertilisation of crops for a good harvest in the year to come. On the market stalls, it also seems to represent a symbol of equality, as now one can buy a pooping statuette of any famous figure, from Queen Elizabeth to David Beckham to the Pope himself. We all do it, of course, and we all need to eat in order to keep doing it. It’s the circle of life and a reminder of what is important to all of us, regardless of our supposed status.

Caganer-celebs-web

I don’t know how many compost toilets are in operation in Barcelona city. The waft of sewer-smell that drifts past my nostrils from time to time suggests not many, but who knows, with this symbol so widespread in the popular imagination, perhaps there is room here for a humanure revolution. The collected waste could be transported out to the Catalonian countryside and used to grow nutrient-rich soil. As floods rage in the UK and bushfires rampage through Australia, climate change is most likely to effect Spain by way of drought. Perhaps, by turning towards dry composting toilets, we also could stop needlessly flushing drinking water away and the pressure on Barcelona’s sewage system would be – ahem – relieved.

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Contemplating the dharma in climate change

Lately, I’ve been listening to talks from Buddhist teachers exploring a response to climate change. There is much discussion of grief. The sense of loss and despair which can arise when we truly connect with what we humans have done – are doing – to the natural world. Joanna Macy is famous for exploring this phenomenon in her “Work that Reconnects”, where she encourages us to go deep and face the truth of what is. But so many of us are caught in inaction, in not knowing what we can possibly DO that will make a difference. At the Local Lives, Local Matters Conference in Castlemaine last weekend, Zen teacher and author Susan Murphy told us “You don’t solve a koan, it resolves you. Shows you how to respond.” “Not knowing”, she said, “is the most intimate state of awareness.”

Although the wisdom of this statement hit me immediately, in order to give it due consideration I had to wait until I had time to sit with it, to turn it over in my mind, to meditate on it. A common response to climate change is a sense of overwhelm, of disempowerment. No wonder, then, that what so often emerges is denial. While climate-deniers are slammed as being ignorant and dangerous, it’s useful to consider that in her seminal book “On Death and Dying”, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first stage of grief. Denial, then, is entirely appropriate, given the enormity of what we are facing.

But denial is not an appropriate place to linger. As the inevitable approaches, we need to develop tools which will help us negotiate the rocky path ahead. We need to move on. Susan spoke of the need to stay with what is in order to know it deeply and how this is what we do in meditation practice. We stay with what is.

When I lived in my wooden house in Wales, I knew each night where the moon rose. In fullness, her silvery glow woke me, steeping my bedroom in cool luminescence. Beckoned, I would creep out under her gaze and gaze back. Her face to mine. I would walk in the woodland garden, watching the leaves light up under her brilliant blue-white light.

Since living in the city, I feel the lack of moonlight keenly. Sometimes, I see her peek from between the tall buildings as if to say “Here I am!” But then she is gone, ducked behind an edifice of concrete and glass and I, in any case, have little time to linger.

When I first left Wales to come to live in Melbourne, I felt the loss of nature acutely. I mourned the roar and crash of waves on the beach, the chaotic crescendo of chattering wildlife on a spring morning, the broad sky above me. But over time, I came to love the leaves in the park across the road from my inner city home. I saw the seasons turn in sunlight and shadow. I stretched on the grass and let the swirling plane seeds alight in my hair and clothes.

Nature persists. She seeps between the cracks in the pavement and speaks to us of impermanence and perseverance. She hums through the corridors of commerce and reminds us of what is necessary and true. She is unyielding, relentless and bold. In the face of our own destruction, we, too, must find this insistence. We must return again and again to the source of ourselves in order to learn to love her.  Because only what we love, will we be moved to protect. Connecting with nature is to connect with the nature of ourselves and the nature of each other. It is to come home to the fact that we are one with everything, and everyone, else.

This great Buddhist truth emerges under the scrutiny of our gaze. We don’t need to be Buddhist to know the interconnection of all beings. Science will tell us how trees process our waste and produce oxygen for us to breathe. But just as a lover needs to be touched, this knowledge needs to be known, to be embodied, to be FELT.  We need to make a deep and personal connection with nature so that we might know her. So that we might be moved to act in accordance with her needs. As Susan said, “Intimacy reveals mutuality.”

I am intrigued with the current movement towards re-wilding – not just the earth, but ourselves. There is an urgent need to re-learn, to re-know, to re-love the natural world. Spending time with our loved one, with the earth, might provoke movement through the other – equally uncomfortable stages of grief – anger, bargaining and depression. But only by reaching acceptance will we reach the steady heart from which our own personal response can emerge.

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Night view of fire in shelter-crop

Rewilding the Feminine

A Review of “My Year Without Matches” by Claire Dunn

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At what cost? At what cost does a woman pursue “the path less travelled” and focus on her inner life? Although the subject of women’s spiritual journeys has been habitually scrubbed from history, can it be true that lately, we are witnessing an unearthing of the divine feminine?
In these times of great challenge for our world, there is a need to balance the strong, extrovert, “doing” masculine energy which dominates the western culture with something that is more gentle, more yielding, more “being”. This is just the re-balancing that Claire Dunn is undertaking in her book “My Year Without Matches”.

Blowing on coal-web

Australia, surely, is a land made for men. Tough and unforgiving, the landscape reveals how humans are vulnerable to nature. Lethal snakes, poisonous spiders, a harsh and deadly sun. This is the landscape that Claire is encountering. She intuits a need to connect with the land. A need to learn nature’s ways and fall into step with Her rhythm. With the rhythm of herself. And in the process, she awakens to the feminine within.
As I turn the pages, Claire Dunn’s voice changes from young, scared girl to mature, wise woman. Leaving the comfort of suburban society, she enrols in a bush programme and takes to the wild for a year. Schooled in the basic skills of shelter-building, fire-starting, tracking and trapping, she makes a place for herself in the landscape. She sets strong boundaries, sometimes too strong, and learns what it is to both stick to her principles and to go with the flow.
Although firmly set in the outer world of survival, the strength of the story, for me, is in the depiction of Claire’s inner world. We watch as she revisits her relationship with her parents, enlisting their help but noticing her reluctance to gracefully receive it. The surly teenager grows up. We see her wrestle with the need for, and rejection of companionship. Walking the line between loneliness and solitude, she discovers the push and pull of neediness and interdependence.
Claire’s self-imposed celibacy and fasting resonates strongly with a path of renunciation, which has come to mean self-denial but more traditionally, was a way to find your edges. Spiritual traditions have a way of testing you, so that you come to know yourself fully. So that your actions, where once they were mechanical or driven by habit, become full of purpose and intent. And this is Claire’s striving. To find meaning in her life. To be able to walk a road which makes sense to her, to her fellows and to the earth herself.

The courage with which she undertakes this task inspires awe. Awesome is a word somewhat overused in Australia, but Claire’s journey, and the book which emerges from it, deserve the phrase. Awesome.

Wide shot of shelter spot-web

After reading “My Year Without Matches”, I’m raving to my husband about it and he picks up the book. “She lives in Newcastle”, he says. ”So you won’t be able to add her to your signed book collection.”
“Mmm”, I respond. “You never know.”
The book is still sitting on the coffee table when I am invited to attend a gathering at the Urban Temple – a small shared-house community in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s trendy inner North. I’m circling the laden pot-luck table when I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a woman chatting. I wonder, thinking that I recognise her. The man speaking with her mentions “Newcastle” and I know that it is her. “Are you Claire?” I ask, shyly.
We chat over dinner and I ask if I may interview her. She agrees good naturedly. When I get home, I thrust the book into my husband’s hands, pointing to the image of Claire on the back cover. “Guess who I met this evening!”
A couple of weeks later, Claire and I are sitting in my apartment in Fitzroy, drinking tea. She has only recently moved to Melbourne. After finishing her book a year ago, she has been engaged in the world of promotion.
“I’m still enjoying this part of the process”, she says. “It’s kind of ‘out from under a rock’. It’s why I’ve come to Melbourne. It feels like there’s a community down here that’s very interested in this work. Earth-connectedness and personal transformation through that doorway. It feels much stronger down here than anywhere else I’ve been. I always thought it was an urban myth that Sydney and Melbourne were so different, but they feel like very different beasts. Very different jungles.”

I can only agree. Not having lived in Sydney, I don’t know what that’s like, but the Melbourne community – especially the inner North, has responded very well to my own work on conscious communities. I ask her if she is making any money from the book, given that it has just gone into its second edition.
“I’ve just been given my first royalty cheque after my advance. So it was the first money I’ve been given since 18 months ago for my book. I’m making my living doing freelance journalism for Fairfax – Sydney Morning Herald and the Newcastle Herald. I think there’s only a handful of writers in Australia – novelists or non-fiction – who make a living from their writing – writing books, anyway.”

If it’s not the money keeping her going, why does she do it? I ask.

It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.” says Claire. “When I finished writing that book I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m writing another book’. I can see how easily you could get caught up in ‘well I’ve written a book, everyone’s expecting the next one, ok, I’ll just do something’. But I can really see how it could become a case of not really embodying what I’m passionate about because I’m too busy talking about it or writing about it.”

And embodying it – walking her talk – is important to Claire. She’s started running “Earth Wisdom” courses and gets invitations to collaborate with other people doing the same kind of work. It was a determination she arrived at in the final pages of “My Year Without Matches”. That she wanted to work as a “bridge builder” between mainstream society and the natural world.
“I’m feeling the call back to the earth.” she says. “Back to the land. Back to what inspired me on this journey in the first place. It’s like a spiralling back.”

Spinning fire, shelter background-web

It wasn’t until I actually sat down to write the review that I fully realised what a spiritual book “My Year Without Matches” is. I ask Claire how that spiritual journey is unfolding, now that she has left the forest.
““Well, it feels like all the stuff I wrote about in the book I’m absolutely needing to embody and trust in a new way. It’s almost like that year in the bush gave me that first insight, and those first new, very powerful experiences of this new way of being, which at the time I referred to as the feminine way. I was discovering this much more feminine way of showing up in the world, which was much more motivated and moved by desire, impulse, intuition and feeling, than by thought, and rationality and logic. And so the last few years I’ve been given the opportunity to practice that, both with the uncertainty of choosing to write a book with no publisher confirmed, and also the way that I’ve chosen to live my life, which is moving around a lot, and not having a stable job as such, and feeling the fear in that, but also the deeper desire to walk the talk, to really live from that place. My old identity fell away. All the certainties and the youthful idealism or ‘this is the way life will unfold’ – that’s all dissolved.  It’s much more about inhabiting that fluid space of ‘where am i drawn, where do I feel that I want to contribute. what wants to come through me? What stories, what gifts to I have to bring right now? Is it a learning time or a teaching time? Is it a giving time or a receiving time?’ Knowing that life is seasonal and cyclical and and flowing with that. So it feels to me that living from that place, embodying that feminine pattern of energy which is all about receptivity, intuition, really puts into practice all the concepts that i’ve learnt about a spiritual life. It’s easy to just agree with them when you hear about them – uncertainty, unknowing, emptiness, fullness, but living from this place is putting it into practice for me.”

I can only agree.
Further information
My Year Without Matches has just gone into its second edition :
http://www.claire-dunn.com/the-book/

Contact Claire for speaking engagements, writers festivals and earth wisdom retreats around Australia.

photographs by Australian Geographic – see a sample of Claire’s writing on their website

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River-Group-web

Cultural Connections in the Northern Territory

A group of people – adults and children – gather around elder Miriam Ungunmerr-Baumann as she sits by the side of the mighty Daly River in the Northern Territory community of Nauiyu. She is explaining to them about the Aboriginal way of being she calls dadirri, which can be translated as a deep, respectful listening to self, other and to land. “The way that we talk about nature, the universe, it’s kind of poetic and creative way of describing something, because it sustains us as well. When you read a book, you don’t just read the words, you read the meaning of it. What the story’s about. And that gets you really worked up and excited about it. And that’s what the bush is like for us. We read it in detail.”

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The group has gathered as part of the first ever Cultural Connections Tour to the Nauiyu community, initiated by the Miriam-Rose Foundation, an organisation established to further the well-being of the community and especially their young people. Tour organisers Pip Gordon and Nicole Kinnaird were asked to invite people to come and get to know Aboriginal people, to sit with them and learn their ways. Twelve people responded and brought themselves and their families to take part in a week-long experience which included traditional welcome and cleansing ceremonies, dance performances, art-making and weaving. Participant Alyson Goff says has found it life-changing. “I decided to come on the Cultural Connection Tour mainly to immerse our family in the culture of the traditional owners because I think it’s important for every Australian – or anyone – to understand where they come from and to experience the world before us. What I actually ended up getting out of this was more than that. To me, what I take away is that it’s really about your ancestry. Where you come from forms the essence of who you are.”

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“Knowing who you are” is one of the main themes of the week. As Miriam and the other elders initiate the group into some traditional Aboriginal culture, they emphasise how important it is that their young people grow up with a firm grasp of their place in the order of things. One of the highlights is a demonstration of traditional dancing. Children from the local school gather excitedly, dressed in red loincloths and with faces, body and legs smeared with white ochre. They perform dance they only recently learned, faces wide with grins and clearly enjoying themselves. A group of men, also painted, provide music and rhythm on clapsticks and didge and members of the community gather to watch, whooping and clapping their appreciation.

“There hadn’t been any dancing for the last 15 years and I’m starting to do this for the young ones”, says Miriam. The Tour group also takes part in a welcome ceremony, something the Aboriginal people have done for centuries to alert the ancestors to the presence of strangers. “We let them know we have visitors, “ explains Miriam, “And ask they might have safe passage through our country.” Despite the stories people love to tell about crocodiles who live in the river, two community members wade into the shallows and one by one, we line up to receive a sprinkle river water onto our heads. This, it is said, carries the scent of each person to mingle with the water, so that part of us is now immersed in the nature of the place.

Participant Andrew Lindsay feels that the trip has begun to answer life-long questions about the country in which he has always lived. “Growing up in this country and identifying as an Australian. Knowing that we’ve only been here a couple of hundred years…and always wondering what was the Aboriginal relationship to the land. To be beginning a personal relationship with someone who embodies that is a really special thing.” This kind of tour is a way for communities like this to earn an income. Miriam feels it’s important to recognise that knowledge exchange is now a currency and that elders should be recompensed for their wisdom. “Our elders are like our consultants. They’re like our encyclopaedias and anything we want to know we ask them. But we’re in the era now of keeping things going, and to keep (our elders) interested in giving that information we have to pay them.”

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Art, too, is a commodity understood by the community. The Merrepen Arts Centre, established on the community over 25 years ago and now a thriving social enterprise, is known all over Australia for its quality art work. This career path is being opened to the young people and an art sale set up by the school, children exhibit paintings accompanied by a professional-looking certificate of authenticity with an artist bio for each of them. The paintings, of turtles, lizards, waterlilies and butterflies, reflect the local landscape and and are well worth the $10-20 dollar price tags. Between the art and the tours, Aboriginal communities like this are striving to overcome the difficulties associated not only with their remote location, but with poor health and high rates of suicide, particularly amongst the young.

Elder Agnes Page, a trained tour operator, has been working with Miriam to educate young people coming up from the South in the ways of traditional bush craft and medicine that has so often been lost in from tribes in Australia’s south. She tells me that for her, hosting these groups has been an effort to establish something for the next generation. “I want to do it for my children”, she says. “To leave them something they can continue.”

Kristy Pursch, a Tour participant and descendent of the Butchulla trible of Fraser Island, grew up estranged from her culture and although she now works on health projects in Aboriginal communities, saw the Cultural Connections Tour as a way to deepen her understanding of and connection to,  Aboriginal people. Kristy has heard the call of the elders for support for their young people and has arranged to take a young student from the community on a Homestay with her own family back in Coff’s Harbour. On her return from the trip, Kristy wrote down some of her impressions, which I quote here without editing. It seems to me to be a fitting tribute to the elders who so kindly welcomed the Cultural Connections Tour group into their lives.

“A quietness and completeness. Born of love and acceptance.  To sit in the inner stillness of my being. And trust all as it should be. My old ones guide and love me.  And will support me to mother my babies as they… Create their own identity.” Kristy Pursch. 2015.

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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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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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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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