Category Archives: Politics

dragon-catalonia

Here be Dragons – Meditation on Uncertainty

Yesterday, as we sailed into the uncharted waters of Trumpdom, an artist came into my Catalan class to give a presentation. It was a workshop in emotional intelligence, using the dragon as a symbol of fear, though it might easily have been a signifier for Trump himself.  The artist, who sported a blue beard (for what reason we never knew) led us in a game. We stood in a circle and threw a length of cord between us, stating each our name, where we come from and where we now live. It is an exercise I have led myself, during workshops in film-making. “Em dic Helen. Soc de Gales. Visc en Sant Pere de Ribes.” Simple stuff,  but looking around at my classmates, I see what a multicultural world I live in. People from from Gambia, China and Pakistan, from Morocco and Ecuador, Andalucia, and Portugal. All making an effort to get their tongue around the native language.  I also see how the Catalan people, at least, are embracing those of many different cultures. As Trump closes US borders to Mexicans and Muslims; as Britain winds up the drawbridge to their tiny island and hopes to weather the storm alone; as Australia turns back the boats bringing refugees from Sri Lanka and Indonesia, I look around at these different faces, with different dress codes and different accents and I feel a certain warmth. I, too, am an immigrant here. In a recent exercise discussing whether our eyes are fosc or clar, I was the only member of the group with blue eyes.

The artist talks about maps, and how cartographers used to label uncharted territories with a drac. A dragon. For some, he said, the symbol of a dragon would instill fear and be a sign never to go there. For others, it would be an invitation to explore. In our own uncharted territories, the  outer and inner worlds we inhabit and traverse, there are also times when we encounter fear. Our dragons breathe fire and make loud noises, as if to scare us from ever going to that place. The dragon is both guard and protector. It warns us that it might be painful to go there. That we might need to prepare ourselves for disappointment, failure, or loss. But does that mean that we should not go? Coming face to face with our dragons is what makes us heroes. It helps us develop courage and strength. When our eyes (and hearts) are opened to new experiences, new people, new worlds, new challenges, this is when we tend to grow.
Sant Jordi – Saint George – is an important figure in Catalan culture. He is the dragon-slayer that we know from English stories but he has a special purpose here. El Dia de Sant Jordi is celebrated with two special customs. Men present women with a rose and women make men the gift of a book, bringing together the heart and the head – the organs of feeling and of reason. We can take this symbology as an object of meditation as we travel into unfamiliar waters. Whilst it would be foolish to completely ignore the warnings pointed out to us by the mind, it is unlikely that we will survive, let alone thrive, without the unique tool provided for us by the heart. If the times ahead are to be challenging, let us rely on the intelligence of the mind and the care of the heart, for one without the other will fall short, delivering us headlong into the teeth of the threefold ‘dragons’ of fear, hatred and delusion. The Buddha advised that our main practice is to develop the two ‘wings’ of wisdom and compassion. In times of uncertainty, we need them more than ever.

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frack-free-lancashire

Average, Normal People

The recent revelation that Theresa May’s UK government is set to override the wishes of folk in Lancashire and pave the way for fracking in their county. Locals petitioned their council to bar the practice on the grounds that it is potentially environmentally damaging and dangerous and the council agreed. Now the government have overturned that decision and given the go-ahead for exploratory exploration of coal seam gas in Lancashire. This authoritarian, dismissive act started me thinking about a discussion I was having the other day about “average, normal people”

It was early on a Saturday morning after a wedding party and we were having a fry-up in a seafront cafe. I had picked up a newspaper from the ones available at the cafe and it started there. The paper was one I wouldn’t usually read. Its views are pretty much diametrically opposed to mine, but as it turns out, so were my friend’s.

My habit with a weekend paper is to read out an article which has caught my eye and offer my opinion. “Hey!” I say. “Listen to this!” On this occasion, the exchange began with a journalist who thought that offering a help-line after the Archers’ storyline of domestic abuse was namby-pamby. “Who could possibly be upset by that?” he asked. “Surely there are more noble recipients of our sympathy, like soldiers, for instance?” Well I don’t wish to take anything from soldiers, of course, PTSD is a real thing and they could do with more recognition for it, not less. However…

The latest figures show that seven women a month are killed by their partners in England and Wales. 1.4 million women will suffer domestic abuse in the UK this year, mostly at the hands of their (male) partners. if that were a virus, it would be an epidemic. It follows that there must be a huge number of women affected by trauma, sometimes after years of emotional and physical abuse which too often ends in hospitalisation and in many cases, death. I pointed out that the author of the piece was a white middle aged man. I thought it relevant. White, middle-aged men hold a lot of power in the world. Their collective voice is pretty loud. In contrast, the voices of abused women are small and easy to drown out. Like I say, I thought it relevant.

My friend disagreed and took offence. Or rather defence. My feminist analysis clearly touched a nerve and he rejected the idea that patriarchy was a force for the oppression of women. “Patriarchy is an historical fact”. I argued, admittedly taking the bait. I treated him to a brief outline of the ways that patriarchy was evident in modern society – in the system of patrilineage that had rubbed out generations of women from the records and robbed millions of their inheritances; in the fact that men sit at the top of a vast majority of global organisations, hold power in the media, in education, in politics. He argued that we have a female prime minister. I countered that in order for women to hold such a role, they had to play a game of politics defined by machismo and strength. He said he’d rather have a leader strong in negotiations than a wimp.

This week, journalist Zoe Williams said it better than I could when commenting on Donald Trump’s boasting about assaulting women. Although loathe to argue that a female point of view exists in politics, Zoe suggests starting with freedom from violence and reproductive autonomy as good “muster points”. She goes on to point out “A constant eye on the future, a calm assurance that not everything of value can be counted, a love of international co-operation and respect for the institutions it has created, a knowledge that some things are too important to be left to the market, an empathy with the dispossessed : there is nothing essentially feminine about these ideas, yet where no women are, you never hear them.” I wished she had been there to put those ideas before my friend.
Our argument, for argument it was by now, lurched on, until my friend came out with the phrase “Average normal people”. That was it. The voice of Nigel Farage and his Brexit crowing ringing in my ears, I got up and left the cafe.
Outside in the early autumn sunshine, locals and tourists wandered up and down the promenade, enjoying their weekend stroll. I all but collapsed into one of the seafront seats. Tears came. If even my friends think like this, what hope is there? I moaned inwardly. I re-ran the discussion in my mind, trying to come to a place of peace and trying to understand what on earth he, and Nigel Farage meant by the phrase “Average normal people”.

This conversation mattered little. It was just a weekend morning chat in a lazy cafe in Wales, but when the words are uttered by a politician, they matter a lot. By uttering these words, a politician is inferring that you and s/he are the same, which, merely by virtue of their privileged position, let alone the opportunities that probably came about to help them get there, is rarely the case. (I acknowledge there are some notable exceptions to this but they are the exceptions that prove the rule). The language of politicians is designed to make us feel that we are all in the same boat, but we’re not. At least, we might be, but it is only they who have access to the first class suite and the life rafts.

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carrefoc8

Midsummer Madness

It’s midsummer and my world is the right way up. Well, sort of.  When I lived in Australia, I could never get used to the seasons being out of place. Christmas on the beach, my September birthday in Spring and yes, June being the middle of winter. It just felt wrong. Now I’ve moved back to Europe the seasons are back in the right place, but in the aftermath of the recent UK referendum, the world seems to have gone stark raving mad. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters are victims of a mischievous energy that confuses lovers and makes an ass of an ordinary man.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is related to Old Norse puki (devil) and Welsh pwca (imp), but also has links to ‘unsettled’, like puke. Upon leaving the ‘civilised’ city and entering nature’s wilderness, our characters become disoriented and things appear not to be as they ought to be. The feeling is a little similar in this post-Brexit world. Somehow, the world has been changed, but nobody is yet sure exactly how. We only know that there is mischief afoot.
My midsummer celebrations began in Wales, where the weather was as un-Welsh as it is possible to be. I spent long, warm, sunny days in the beach with my friends and woke every day to blue skies. Bizarre.  I was grateful for the opportunity to get out and walk in the cliffs, to swim in the chilly Bristol Channel and to partake of the odd barbecue, but it couldn’t last, of course, and by the time I was on my way north to visit an old school friend, it was cold and rainy. This did not dampen the spirits in Flash, where the residents of the highest town in England celebrated mid summer with a traditional blessing of the well.

Flash-well-dressing
Well-dressing at Flash, the highest town in England

A custom from medieval times which is said to be associated with the spread of the Black Death, it marks an acknowledgement of the importance of pure water and honours the local source. In Flash, the well was painstakingly decorated with flowers and following the small well-side ceremony, the village takes to the streets in the ‘teapot parade‘. Waving banners and marching alongside a giant papier-mâché teapot, the parade remembers the custom of helping those in need by sequestering funds in the household teapot. As I stood back to take a photograph of the whole scene, a woman spectator reminisced about watching this same spectacle as a child. Her family, she said, could be traced back 700 years in her father’s side and 300 years on her mother’s. Her strong Peak District accent dragged vowels long and clipped consonants short, making disappointed claims that the parade was not as it used to be, when it was an excuse to dress up and for women to get a new hat. I looked down at my jeans, still muddy from the morning’s yomp across muddy moors, and countered that it was great that they still kept the custom at all.

Flash-teapot-parade
Residents of Flash celebrate the annual well-dressing and ‘teapot’ parade

In the church, we sang hymns and listened as the vicar gave a reading. He chose the parable of the Good Samaritan where, if you have not heard it, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by first a priest and then a Levite. The third passer-by, a Samaritan, stops and helps the man, sequestering him at an inn at his personal expense. I had not heard the story read since my childhood, but I remembered being told that the Levite would have been a local person of the same Jewish faith, but that the word Samaritan meant that the person was an enemy, as the Jews and the Samaritans were not on good terms. In the light of the current refugee crisis and the recent violent death of Jo Cox, the tale gained a new poignant meaning, as parables are wont to do, having a timeless moral code embedded in their codex. Even the giant teapot seemed significant, being a symbol of friendliness and neighbourliness in this land where people love nothing better than a nice cup of tea and who rush to provide one at the slightest suggestion of distress. The vicar did not spell it out, but he did take the time to bless those who would be voting in the upcoming referendum.

Back in Spain, I joined in more mid-summer celebrations, but occasionally, the air fell sour with the shock and disbelief of Brits, Europeans, Australians and US citizens. In this atmosphere of multiculturalism and warm abrazos, no-one could understand why the UK wanted a divorce. In my local village of Sant Pere de Ribes, they gathered for the Ball de Diables, where children young and old dress up in devil costumes and hold aloft screaming fireworks in a crazy display of anarchic energy known as a correfoc. Their carnival re-animates the eternal dance between light and dark, between good and evil. Embedded in these ancient traditions is the knowledge that at certain times, we need to be mindful of the uncertainty of our world and of the possibility, always, that mischief will win us over if we only open the door for long enough to let it in.

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jocox

Brexit? No Thanks

For the past three weeks, I’ve been in the UK. It feels like longer than that, with long sunny days spent on the beach with friends, magnificent hikes along the cliff path near my home and cosy nights in my little wooden chalet. When Summer finally arrives here, there’s no better place in the world to be.
I arrived in Britain from Spain, passing through the passport control as a citizen of the European Union. I’ll travel back that way too, but for how much longer? Throughout these three weeks, whilst I’ve been swimming in the calm blue seas of Wales and listening to the chatter of morning birdsong, the rumble of something sinister has been a constant background noise. Whether it’s from newspapers, radio, or just listening to conversations, it’s been hard to avoid the mutterings of Brexit talk. Brexit. What a simplistic, inane word to describe such an important decision. It sounds like a new chocolate bar or a sugary breakfast cereal. The chatter is just as inane, as major political figures try to scaremonger the public into voting this way or that, based on arguments that are about as substantial as the candy floss in the beachfront kiosk. I’ve seen two other recent referendums in recent years – one to decide whether Britain should switch to proportional representation and one to vote whether Scotland should stay part of the UK. Both failed to budge a recalcitrant public out of their comfort zone. We humans, especially Brits, generally like things to stay the same. The trouble with Brexit is that the argument to leave the EU is like an offer to return to some hazy, nostalgic past that even its proponents can’t be sure ever existed.

When I was growing up, one of the popular slogans was “Nuclear Power? No Thanks”. It was such a polite way to decline a technology that threatened to hover its toxic future over our country for generations. So British! Today, as an activists blockade of a nuclear bomb factory turns into a new peace camp, we’re reminded that these threats don’t go away just because we ask them too. Those in charge will keep pushing for what they want and it’s our job, as busy, preoccupied, struggling-just-to-survive citizens, to try to keep one eye on what they’re doing so we can still try and head them off at the pass. Whilst the lies and deceit peddled from Westminster and via the national papers is not hard to see through, it takes some time to arrive at some clarity as to what the story really is. It’s a constant sleight of hand, where the left hand is dealing arms whilst the right hand is waving poppies, or beating a war drum, or pointing a finger at somebody else to distract us. “Look over here!” they scream, and we do, whilst deals are made to dismantle the National Health Service, privatise the woodlands, or sell all remaining national industry to China.

Which is why we need to treasure the few progressive voices in the political area. The ones that challenge the dominant messages defending hatred and war and speak instead of tolerance, compassion and a more egalitarian society. The ones that help us navigate our way through the minefield of shameless politicking and speak from the heart. I was living in Australia when I heard Mhairi Black’s maiden speech in July 2015. I was moved to tears to think that finally, finally, someone was speaking with a reasonable tone about things that mattered. As I hit ‘replay’ to listen again, it crossed my mind that her courage may not be allowed to stand. That her passion may yet be her downfall and that maybe, just maybe, some one would find a way to silence her.

How was I to know just how close that fleeting thought would fly to the truth? The murder of Jo Cox, just a week before the EU referendum, is almost certainly the outcome of her brave stance against racism, her support for Syrian refugees and her campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU. In basing their arguments on immigration and trade, the Brexit campaigners have missed a vital purpose of the EU. Following the horrors of World War Two, it was thought that bringing countries together as trading partners would foster trust and help prevent future wars. It turns out they were right. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in promoting reconciliation, democracy and human rights. Since the EU was established, there have been no wars between European member nations. Yes, that’s right. No wars. Throughout a region that has historically been in almost constant conflict, there have been no inter-national wars. That’s seventy years of peace and counting and to me, that’s worth a lot of trade, whether in Euros, Pounds or Drachma. In those seventy years, a lot of tomatoes, cheese and wine has flowed between us, but only because we have been at peace.
In the wake of this tragedy, I would prefer the EU referendum to be postponed, but if it does go ahead, a vote to Remain will serve to honour the maintenance of peace in our region, the tradition of sincere, heartfelt politics and the memory of Jo Cox.

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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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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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Changing Gears

I’ve been reflecting on how many authors I seem to have met since coming to Melbourne. When we moved here, knowing that we would eventually have to pack up and leave again, I made a pact with myself not to buy any books unless I knew the author. That way, I wouldn’t have so many new things to ship back across the planet. It worked, sort of.

My local library in Fitzroy is a vibrant hub of activity and has loaned me a wealth of reading matter – both fiction and non-fiction, to educate, inform and entertain me during my stay in Australia. But all the same, I have acquired a teetering case-full of new books.

How come?

Is Melbourne really such a ripe place for writers, or is it that I am mixing with particularly creative company? Either way, it occurs to me that I could share some of these gems with you all, rather than keeping them to myself.

So I’m going to start reviewing some of the new books on my over-crowded shelf, and then you’ll see what talented people I get to hang out with!

First up is Greg Foyster, and his book “Changing Gears“. I first met Greg when I went over to Murundaka Housing Co-op in Heidelberg, a suburb of Melbourne. I was interested to include an urban example of community living in my new documentary, and so one rainy winter afternoon, we rode out to meet the residents.
Huddled around the wood burning fire in the common house were two people who, at the time, were not residents. Greg and Sophie were house sitting for a couple who were away for a while and we got chatting about their bike ride around Australia in search of a more simple way of livening. As they mentioned Commonground, Moora Moora and then David Holmgren and Fryer’s Forest, a penny dropped and I realised that I had been using Greg’s “Simple Lives” blog for my own research!

Greg was very generous with his contacts and helped me get in touch with a few people who turned out to be key characters in the doco, so let me take this opportunity to thank him. Murundaka, also, became a character in its own right and not too long after, Greg and Sophie got their own place there. They are now an active part of what is a vibrant and healthful community, and you can see them in action as part of the finished documentary Deep Listening: Dadirri.

Greg’s book is an inspiring tour from Melbourne to Queensland (via Tasmania) and in the future, will be a wonderful reminder of why we loved our time, and the people here in the land down under.
In “Changing Gears”, Greg comes across as a bit of a wimp. In a funny way. He bungles his way through setting up a tent; campfire cooking and directions, all the while giving the impression that it is Sophie who is the brains behind the team. Sophie, it must be said, is a formidable woman. She handles whatever the trip, and life, throws at her with grace and ease. She has a steady, frank gaze which seems not to suffer fools, and I can well imagine some of the eye-rolling that goes on at Greg’s buffoonery. But together, they tackle the adventure with focus and determination. They have experienced the disconnect of a society plunging towards an uncertain future and they want to make a difference.

After visiting the intentional communities in Victoria, they start to have an idea of what changes can be made to make a life more sustainable. Off grid, small scale solar electricity; tiny homes instead of great sprawling mansions; shared resources rather than each household having their own washing machine/ lawn mower/power drill/car; home offices versus long commutes. The people they meet along their way demonstrate that there are other ways of doing things. That perhaps there is hope for us yet.

As they travel up the East Coast to Northern New South Wales, Greg and Sophie meet the  old school hippies of the Rainbow Region. Many of the communes which began here in the seventies fell victim to internal conflict, or just fell apart. But several still remain. The pair look closely at the contrast between the downscaled, rural lifestyles of these people and the high-rised bling of the Gold Coast and start to seriously ask themselves – what now for us?

A cathartic meeting with indigenous representatives on the far north coast convinces the intrepid travellers that they want to pursue a way of living which is easier on the planet and they return to Melbourne armed with a lot of information and a new resolve.
The rest, as they say, is history.

For an inspiring, humorous and informative whizz through the alternative-lifestylers of Australia, I thoroughly recommend Greg Foyster’s book. You can get it on Amazon, or if you’re in Australia, via the Readings website.

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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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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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David_Bridie_Frank_Yamma

David Bridie & Frank Yamma

Sometimes, knowledge of an artist or musician sidles slowly into your peripheral vision. A friend mentions him or her; a gig or an exhibition shows up; you buy a CD, take it home. It grows on you. And sometimes, the artist arrives with a bang. You see or hear something and you are instantly intrigued. Beguiled, even. It was this way with David Bridie and Frank Yamma, two Australian musicians who have worked together on a series of projects. The one which caught my eye first was the film Satellite Boy.

Satellite Boy is a charming, yet haunting parable about a young Aboriginal growing up in remote Western Australia. The film paints a bleak picture of his life and community, scrabbling in the red dirt for a living, for a hope and a dream.  The Satellite Boy himself has a special relationship with his grandfather, who tries, but does not quite take the place of his absent mother. The story takes us deep into dreamtime, where the boy learns to understand, appreciate and to practice the ways of Country.

David Bridie created the score and performed the soundtrack with several other artists, including Frank Yamma. It moves between nursery jingle and folk lore to emotional yearning and spiritual calling. All together, it’s a dark and light package of Australian-ness. Straight from the kangaroo’s tail.

I watched the film in Melbourne, all the way down South, but with its own form of native resonances. I was new to Australia, eager to learn about its First Peoples and finding it difficult to access authentic expressions of Aboriginal culture. I probably just didn’t know where to look, which is why it was so nice to find this in my local cinema. An accessible format and an accessible tale, but still rich with the colour and sound of Australia. The movie has been followed recently with a beautiful story also starring veteran indigenous actor David Gulpilil. Charlie’s Country follows the fortunes of an aging blackfella who is still struggling to find his place in a world which romanticises ‘the old ways’ of his ancestors, but in which the ‘new ways’ of the whitefellas are equally alien to him. Both these projects are a collaboration between Aboriginal and white artists and to me, are all the more compelling for it, as it seems to shine a message of hope that co-habitation and mutual understanding are possible in this vast, magical land.

The soundtrack to Satellite Boy was a favourite in our house after that visit to the cinema, and we started to explore other music by the artists involved. We also stumbled across The Circuit, a TV series directed by the the same woman who wrote and directed Satellite Boy – Catriona Mackenzie. This series is set in the same part of Australia, Broome and The Kimberley and benefits from a great soundtrack of Aboriginal anthems. We took the soundtracks with us on our own adventures to that region and they seemed to help us connect with the red highways, the flat grassy plains and the strange boab trees.

After months of listening to the soundtracks, we were pleased to see that David Bridie and Frank Yamma were playing a set of gigs in Melbourne area. The first two, Husband had to attend alone, as I was out of town. I had to endure his excited texts and experience the gigs vicariously, but for the third gig, we went together to see them – all the way down to the ocean at Torquay. It was a lovely warm spring afternoon and the colourful market on the sea front made us both feel very welcome. The sea was doing a deep blue blush and it felt like people were out to relax and enjoy a great Sunday on the coast. The mood at the Bowls Club was buoyant and David, Frank and guitarist Phil Wales received a warm seaside welcome. They joked that the Bowls Club followed gigs at Trades Hall and a Working Men’s club in Elsternwick, but their wry self-depreciation only made us appreciate our luck. What a treat, to be with such distinguished musicians in an intimate venue on a fine Sunday afternoon!

David is a tall, fine boned man who looks a little uncomfortable as he folds himself behind his keyboard. I’ve recently been reading a book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain. The book analyses the modern Western trend for extroverts and asks why we no longer value the introverted natures which often produce artists, musicians and poets? David, both poet and musician, appears altogether the introvert, singing plaintive, thoughtful lyrics to swooping melodies. He is clearly thinks about things deeply. Frank, too, looks like he’d rather be anywhere but on stage. He mumbles a few lines to the crowd, who lap up every word, revelling in the sound of his crystallised honey, care worn voice. When he opens his mouth to sing the weight of his race tumbles forth. He sings in tongue, in Pitjantjatjara. It’s one of around 60 Aboriginal languages still in use today and we can’t understand, but in a sense, we don’t need to. The way he sings tells us all we need to know.
These three, David, Frank and Phil, are old buddies. For one track, Phil brings out a squarish mandolin-type instrument and plucks its three strings meaningfully. “Old, ancient instruments for old, ancient musicians”, he jests.
And in some ways, it’s true, these guys are not the young crowd. And yet their music speaks of life and experience and there’s no way the young folk can argue with that.

At the end of the gig, when the Quiet book says that introvert performers would rather be hiding in the toilets, David is kind enough to give us a few minute of his time. He tells me he went to Wales years ago. He wrote a song about Aberystwyth, which turns out to be a homesick lament with a political twist. What strikes him about my home are the big winds, pale blue skies, and the English holiday homes being burned by Welsh nationalists. Land and Freedom. Maybe you can’t separate them.

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