Category Archives: Nature

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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.

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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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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.”

Miriam-Agnes-web

“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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Dandelionweb

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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Holmgren_Lunchweb

Permaculture and the home economy

When I was in school, the girls studied Home Economics. It was mostly cookery, baking apple crumble, rhubarb pie, scones, and on Shrove Tuesday – pancakes. I remember the mad scramble to get the ingredients together the night before. My Mum worked, so it was often late when we ransacked the kitchen cupboards for basic ingredients. A visit to the shop in the morning was often necessary. That evening, I bestowed my valiant effort upon the household, where my offering took pride of place at the tea table.

Although we baked at home, it was probably in school that I learnt the technique for making pastry, for “rubbing in” the hard fat into the fingertip-soft, always-white flour, adding just a pinch of salt. It was certainly there that I mastered rock cakes and developed my gift for creating sweet, sticky, oaty flapjack remains to this day.

I never gave much thought to the term “Home Economics”. To me, it was a cookery class and as I progressed through school, it became obvious that this was simply a ruse to keep women in the home. They even taught us how to wash up, first taking the glasses through the hot, soapy hot water, then the cutlery, then the plates, and finally the pots and pans. It’s a lesson I learned well and I still wash up in that order today. Why did boys not learn to cook and wash up? While we were “slaving over a hot stove”, they got to play with wood. When I was thirteen, I challenged the system and demanded to be accepted into the metalwork class. I wanted to do woodwork, but as it happened, they were doing metalwork that term. I gritted my teeth and took the teasing which went along with my presence at the workbench. I can’t say that my ashtray was the best in the class, but I got some satisfaction from finishing the exams in third place! Of course, this has now become the norm, with boys everywhere making pizzas and girls turning bowls, but then, I caused quite a storm.

I recently visited the small holding of David Holmgren, co-founder of permaculture, and his partner Su Dennett. They live in rural Victoria, near the sprawling city of Melbourne in Australia. Su and David walk the talk. Committed to a life of organic homesteading, they grow vegetables, keep goats and recycle their waste products (including humanure). They live a life which to some, might look frugal, but which is in fact, abundant. Su calls herself a radical homemaker and takes care of the food creation. Using the natural glut of the land, she bottles fruit, which she stores in her underground larder. Down there in the darkness, rich red succulence lurks under tightly screwed lids. Pears, nectarines, cherries. All preserved under her intrepid care. Bottles of cold pressed apple juice sit waiting patiently and pickles and chutneys of onion, beetroot and artichoke glisten lustily.

The business of Home Economics is, for Su, a reality. “I like making food. I love the sense of where the food comes from, that you’re getting everything that you eat locally…Food is a connection. It’s the centre of life, really.”

We share lunch out in the cool of a veranda shaded by curling grape vines, their fruit hanging temptingly in neat, tight bunches. We are joined by Su and David’s son, Oliver, and a pal of his and soon the conversation is flowing merrily as we pass around fresh goat cheese, home-baked bread and salad grown not six feet away.
“If you’ve got friends, you will often invite them around to dinner and what better than to offer them something that you’ve grown yourself, or that’s come from your local community.” says Su.
“I’m very happy to be the main cook and bottle washer and I think that the household arts have actually been maligned and that the place of the woman in the home has also been very badly maligned. It’s not that the woman should do this and nothing else, that’s not the case, but to take away the value of the household economy is very sad.”

David speaks even more vehemently about these ideas. In an essay published in 2010, he writes about what happened to the home economy after the industrial revolution.
“Women joined the workforce to help pay rising mortgage debts and support expanding personal consumption habits. The almost total collapse of the household economy followed. Much of the growth in fast food, home services, child care and entertainment industries simply reflected this shift of activity from non-monetary household self-reliance to the formal taxable economies dominated by corporations. Mounting psychosocial dysfunction expanded the need for the helping professions of health, social welfare and education as well as those of control from police and security services to deal with addiction, family violence and social fragmentation, both real and imagined.”

In these times when sauerkraut is the new pavlova, and “home-made” seems to be the ultimate hipster prerequisite. And at a time when social isolation is almost the norm, perhaps the Home Economy has something to teach us about a new (old) way of being.

NOTE : David Holmgren is a contributor in the new Living in the Future documentary Deep Listening:Dadirri, to be launched in Melbourne March 1st 2015.

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Shearwater Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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