Tag Archives: Australia

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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Christie Walk Co-Housing Adelaide

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

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

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

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

Christie-Walk-Garden-seat

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

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

Christie-Walk-Helen-Sue

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

Christie-Walk-balcony

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

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Live

Live. or Live. How do you say it? It depends. When your crowd fund goes “live”, how does it feel? I feel relieved. It’s been two and a half years of film-making. Five months of screening, feedback, re-edits and, quite frankily, stress. It’s time to let this baby go.

Will you help her stand alone?

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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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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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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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Great Barrier Reef

In the south of Australia, Queenslanders have a reputation for being a bit thick, a bit dim, a few snags short of a barbie. I don’t know if that’s true, but according to Jon, the guy that drove our boat out to the Great Barrier Reef last week, not many people up there seem to realise the degree to which they all rely on the reef for their livelihoods. It’s not hard really. Drive into Cairns and you’ll notice an array of high rise apartments along the shore. The shiny new marina is packed with shiny new boats, all advertising trips to the reef. Daybreak tours. Sunset tours. Fishing, diving, snorkeling. You name it.
Further up the coast in Port Douglas, another row of resort hotels, day spas, camp grounds, and another shiny new marina, plus a shopping centre, all selling trips, or t-shirts, or fluffy turtle toys – essentially, selling the Great Barrier Reef.

The reef is a delicate, but prolific ecosystem. Snorkelling, immersed in that underwater world, it’s not hard to see why people flock to experience it. Coral blooms floral on the sea bed in columns which have taken thousand of years to form. Colonies of boulders or brains; branches like staghorns protruding up into the clear water.  Angels, butterflies, clowns – so many varied, multi-coloured fish dart about, nibbling on the edges of coral. A green turtle pushes his face into a coral flower bed and comes out chomping. The coral is the bedrock of life here.

So it is good news that the Queensland government has just backed down and said that it is NOT going to dump dredging spoil into the marine park which encompasses the Great Barrier Reef. The question remains whether the coal they want to transport out of Queensland is worth the extra expense of dumping the spoil inland – and whether the taxpayers will wear it.

Latest figures suggest that the Great Barrier Reef generates 6 billion dollars every year, with an estimated 63,000 jobs, but when Jon takes his boat for some repairs, he asks the guy doing the welding at the boatyard about his thoughts on the health of the reef. “Well, it would be a shame to lose it” he says. “But life would go on”. “Would it?” asks Jon. “You’d be out of business, for a start!”. “How come?” says the welder. “Look around you” says Jon. “Where does your business come from? None of these boats would be here if the reef didn’t exist. None of the businesses which take tourists out would survive.”
“Ah.” says the welder. “I see what you mean”.

The same is true for every bar, restaurant, cleaning service, plumber, and retailer. Everyone up here relies on the reef. And if everyone up here relies on the reef, then think of the businesses in other places which benefit from the “also ran” effect. People come to Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef, but then they go on to Uluru, to Sydney, or to Kakadu. But it might just be the reef which is the star attraction.

Plans to build the world’s largest coal port at Abbot Point, just 50 km from the Great Barrier Reef can never be a good idea. The risk to this, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, from prolonged dredging and increased shipping far outweighs any financial benefit.  Australia seems to be hell bent on stripping the land of all its natural beauty and resources. Soon, all that will be left is a vast wasteland fringed by a skirt of caravan parks staring at a gray, lifeless ocean.

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Solstice

It’s 21st June. That’s mid-summer, right? Well, not here in Australia.  After a long, warm Autumn, the trees are finally starting to look a bit bare and the days have started to begin and end with a chill. Sure, we still get hours of sunshine, but there’s a blanket in the bed and from time to time, I even put the heater on.

Last Sunday, I spent some time at Murundaka housing co-op.  We shared a meal and sat around a fire in the garden. When I came home, my clothes smelt of wood smoke and I knew that for me, this is what winter solstice conjures up. Fire and friendship. A paradigm-shift away from the commercialism of christmas, solstice is a pagan festival which links us firmly to the land, to the seasons and to each other.

At home in Wales, we needed a fire in winter to keep warm. To be honest, we often needed it in summer, too! My little forest hut in HoltsField relies on a wood burning stove for both radiators and hot water and it slaves away for more than six months a year. When my husband recently noticed chestnuts here in the shops, I hesitated to buy them. “We don’t have an open fire to cook them on!” “We could barbecue them?” he suggested.

Winter is short in Melbourne, but they like to “rug up” in scarves and woollens. They like to serve mulled wine in the bars and to complain about the cold. There are even ski resorts in the mountains and although it’s been slow coming this year, there are reports that the snow has finally arrived. In the weekend “Age” newspaper, there is an article on people who pack up their Melbourne homes and spend the season in the snow, where the local school opens just for the winter term to accommodate city children.

While we get ready for winter, my friends in the UK are basking in an early summer heat wave. “Scorchio!” says Jane at Lammas ecovillage in West Wales. When I Skype with the people who are living in my house, I see that the doors are flung wide open and, what’s that? Yes, the sky appears to be a beautiful shade of blue. I’m heading home for a holiday in a few weeks and I’ve asked them to save some Welsh sunshine for me. I’ll be swimming at beautiful Caswell Bay and I’m hoping to go and see my friend Xenia play fiddle in her band at the Green Man Festival in Glanusk. When I get back to Australia, Spring will already be starting to bloom and the scent of jasmine will waft through the streets as the sun creeps higher in the sky.

So I’m making the most of winter. I’m celebrating the solstice Melbourne-style. At Collingwood children’s farm, 4,000 people turn up to enjoy a lantern parade, hot chips and a huge bonfire. I sit happily in a muddy field and listen to the sound of drummers, a crackling fire and a thousand young children kept up past their bedtime. As the first stars appear in the darkened night sky,  I find a moment to marvel at the balance of life, the wisdom of nature and the miracle of the returning seasons. Happy Solstice everyone.

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Glen Ochre

I’ve been to a funeral. Not unusual, you say, but this one was. This one was for one of the founders of Commonground, an intentional community outside of Melbourne established in 1984. So as they celebrate their thirtieth anniversary, they lose one of their “dinosaurs”, as they call them. Their pillars.

Glen Ochre was a remarkable woman. She spent most of her adult life challenging the status quo in one way or another. She left home under violent circumstances, faking her birth certificate to become a nurse at age 15. She married young, and nursed a dying child at home, long before it was popular to do so. She was a feminist, and during the seventies, before there was such a thing as a refuge, hid women from their violent partners in her own home.

Glen had faith in the power of collaboration and qualified as a social worker, training especially in group work. This came to define her later life.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working with Glen to tell her life story. It has been such a privilege. Our work together has been interrupted. By hospital visits to try to get the pain under control. By last-time trips to the wilds of Australia to see her beloved red earth.

Some of that which we intended to do is left unfinished. But perhaps that was inevitable. With Glen, the work never stopped.

Together with her four co-founders – Phil Bourne, Kate Lewer, Ed McKinley and Terry Melvin, Glen set up Commonground Co-operative as both an intentional community and a space where groups could come and do their own work together. The house was build by hand and is a maze of mud brick corridors, with huge rooms as communal spaces; big, well-equipped kitchen and dining areas and lots of toilets fed with water from their own dam. They seem to have thought of everything. An outside area to play and let off steam. A garden packed with fresh home grown veggies. Big fireplaces inside and out, to keep you warm on those chilly winter nights.

The space is well-designed for parties and they hold a festival here most years. Some people remarked how Glen’s funeral was a lot like a festival. The bathtubs held ice for beer and soft drinks. The bar was set up by the pizza oven with rows and rows of glasses. Lines of chairs encircled a stage area, where tall speakers and tv screens prepared to broadcast the proceedings.

But one thing was different. Glen lay in an open coffin in the Great Room and people wandered up to say their tearful goodbyes. To the last, Glen challenged the “normal” way of doing things, as we were all invited to speak at the microphone and all invited to place a leaf in her coffin as a final ritual.

As well as the amazing space which is Commonground, Glen set up and ran the Groupwork Institute. Together with her partner Ed, she wrote the world’s first nationally accredited course for facilitation training, teaching a skillset for working with groups of all kinds for improved communication, better teamwork, efficient decision-making and happier individuals.

The skills which Glen taught are key to the success of communities. The book she wrote called “Getting Our Act Together” encompasses the range of tools Glen developed over years of working with groups. Her wisdom and clarity has helped to guide the story in the latest Living in the Future documentary, which is all about how communities in Australia have survived over time. In fact, Glen’s life has embodied so many of the ways in which we can all take back some of the power we have given away and live from a place of connection and harmony – both with ourselves, with each other and with Nature.

Go well, Glen.

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