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.