Circling in…re-tuning and re-attuning…this is a key foundation for sustainable living.
To keep growing and learning, we all need to find our edge…
Back in 2008, Living in the Future began as a project documenting ecovillages and low impact communities in the UK and beyond. It was hard not to be concerned about the way things were going but as well as saying ‘no’, I wanted something to which I could say ‘yes’! Our team set about recording positive alternatives to mainstream lifestyles and twelve years on, Living in the Future engages in all aspects of this question, from natural building and offgrid living to food, health and nature connection. As well as the physical impact of this way of living, the human context is becoming increasingly evident. Society is facing a collapse in emotional and mental well-being and we find ourselves embracing an eco-spiritual edge. In permaculture, the edge effect describes how there is a greater diversity of life in the region where two adjacent ecosystems overlap, such as land/water, or forest/grassland.
Where is the fertile ground between ecology and spirituality?
Sustainable Living is more than an eco-house, more then a veggie garden, more than planning laws and turf roofs, though all of this is relevant and necessary. Sustainable living has to encompass the whole of it. The soul of it. The way we live includes our humanity, our community and our relationships – with ourselves, with the land and with each other. Filmmaker, writer, environmentalist and human rights advocate, I am also a yoga teacher and a meditation guide and my lifestyle encompasses all of these aspects. Many years ago, I made a commitment to earning my living through Right Livelihood and with your support, the Living in the Future project has helped me do that. Part art, part activism, we endeavour to bring fresh conversations, fresh inspirations and a fresh perspective.
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My feet hurt. You know that kind of “Festival Foot”, when the balls of your feet are sore from tramping through fields all weekend? I peeled off my slightly soggy socks to find four, sore, bright red patches. At least my Festival Foot did provide an excuse to lie around in the unexpected Welsh sunshine, contemplating the incredible weekend I just spent at Off Grid Festival in Devon, England.
I wasn’t planning to go, but for the past five months I’ve been helping to promote the Festival. As I posted news of each fascinating new workshop, speaker or band, I gradually convinced myself what an amazing event it would be! The Off Grid College offered a platform for pioneers to talk about practical sustainability and appropriate technology. Low impact building, solar installation, permaculture and medicinal foraging were just a few of the themes on offer. At Thrive, it was all about all things healing. Massage, mindfulness and yoga, as well as in-depth discussions around activist burnout, trauma and the future of elderly care. At the Community Convergence space, discussions ranged from The Power of Networks to Co-housing to the Economics of Happiness. Plus, of course, there was uplifting, original music from live bands all weekend.
As usual, my Festival experience was filtered through the lens of my camera, which gave me an excuse to grill various inspirational people about their passions. I also learned a lot about the art of podcasting from fellow festival journalist Carl Munson, aka the Barefoot Broadcaster, who set up his “field” studio to interview passers by and had them uploaded within minutes. Unlike my interviews, for which you’ll have to wait a bit, you can hear his exchange with Guy Coxall, Compliance Officer for CBD (cannabidiol, the non-psycho active ingredient in cannabis) right now!
Carl’s Barefoot Broadcasts are a from of alternative media, which, in this time of “fake news” are more important than ever. I spent more than 15 years working as part of the Undercurrents collective, reporting on environmental activism. We trained hundreds of people to create their own media and to get their voices heard, enabled by the revolution in video camera technology which made high quality recordings both accessible, portable and affordable. Now, everyone carries the technology for citizen journalism but instead, what do we use it for? Spruiking ourselves on socal media and pinging selfies around the world in an effort to gain attention. What a waste.
Alternative media relies, more then anything, on an alternative ideology. Offering a fresh view on the world requires contemplation, discussion, a willingness to question and to go against the mainstream. The off-grid culture provides a natural home for alternative media, since it challenges all the mainstream systems and approaches which underpin culture and way of life. Off Grid means a challenge to the growth economy, the religious hierarchy, the mass approach to education. To Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Banking. To top-down government, just-in-time commerce and housing as investment. To prioritising profit over people, humans over animals, and development over nature. An alternative media practitioner needs a strong stomach, a deep curiosity and a fearless attitude.
My involvement with Off Grid Festival, combined with this latest damning report from Reporters Without Borders, has reminded me of the importance of alternative media organisations and of how the people that contribute to them need our support. With this in mind, I’m making this the first in series of blogs featuring journalists and filmmakers who, in the widest sense, are spreading the Off Grid message. I’m beginning with James Light, a talented film maker who gave up his job in television news 8 years ago in order to tell the stories he thought really mattered. James has made some beautiful films for the Off Grid Festival but this year, was unable to attend because of a calamity which put his van off the road and himself into debt. As part of this profile, I’m sharing his crowdfund page, in case you feel like helping him get back into action.
James’ inspiring film “What’s Your Story?” is the true-life documentary about people who are daring to ask life’s ultimate questions. “Through sharing and listening to each other’s stories and experience we not only make everyone feel like a valued member of society, we also help drive innovation, as though sharing our thoughts and ideas we will be able to harvest more wisdom from our collective intelligence. Together we are stronger and through changing our story we can change the world.” To this end, James is a committed supporter of Off Grid Festival.
“The most enjoyable part of Off Grid Festival is feeling part of a strong, resilient community” says James. “What I really love is seeing passionate debate and people talking and the quality of that conversation across the board. Even if they disagree, there’s a way to which they disagree which is really comforting and nourishing and given the current paradigm of arguing across a room, that’s what fills me with hope.”
Hope is a big theme for James, having overcome personal tragedy when his brother died young of epilepsy and going on to pursue his dream of becoming a film maker.
“I now know that I am here to help tell a more compelling, loving and sustainable story of self. I am here to help shift the cultural narrative from unsustainable selfish greed to self-sustaining and sharing freely. The stories I tell are to help us all find or clarify our story, to help everyone discover their gifts and hopefully inspire them to share it.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
By European standards, the Rainbow Serpent Festival is small. By Australian standards, it’s huge – 18,000 people. 3 main music stages, and a central stalls area filled with the usual cheap cotton, studded leather and this year’s essential for the laydees – twerking pants.
Happy Rainbow! is the refrain and it is, in spite of 36 degree sunshine and dust which makes it difficult to breathe and dyes the inside of your nose black.
In the early noughties, Undercurrents Beyond Tv Festival was showing films from Jabiluka uranium mine protests and Woomera detention centre. That footage of the fence coming down and refugees spilling out into the desert is unforgettable. Now, the scene has shifted to the brilliant Lock the Gate campaign against coal seam gas and instead of just the usual suspects, farmers have united with locals to create a united resistence.
We’re led into the discussion by a query about the lack of environmental awareness at this festival. My friend Cara has been flown in from the UK to do a talk on Free Economy and to show a film called Connected. She estimates her audience at 0.025 of the people here. She is camped in the artists quarter and is amazed by the DJs detailing their litany of flights to travel around the world for gigs.
“What’s it all for” she laments. “Just to have a good time?”.
David Holmgren‘s talk, however, is well attended, but then he’s a local. Known as the father of permaculture, he has established a self-sufficient homestead down the road in Hepburn Springs. He and his colleagues set up festivals in Tasmania, back in the day, which they wanted to be living examples of sustainability. They would plant veggies on site 6 months beforehand, so that festival-goers could harvest free food during their stay.
Here at Rainbow, they could take a few lessons from the Green Gathering, who run all of their site on renewable energy. If it’s possible in the UK, with all its rain and mud, it must be possible here, with its 36 degrees of sunshine.
I’ve been on a trip. A big trip. Two big trips, actually. The first one took me away from my lovely home at Holtsfield in Wales and right over to the other side of the world, to Melbourne, Australia. I’ve been living here for seven months now and taken many little trips to explore the area – up to the Grampian mountains in the north, down to the Great Ocean Road in the South and over to Tasmania, too. And then came another big trip.
When I came to Australia, I knew I wanted to make some films about intentional communities here. I have been making films on this subject for almost 15 years – the website tells the story of that. I had made contact with some people even before I landed, but it took six months of living here to gather what the story would be.
During those six months, I have been doing my research. I’ve been sitting in the beautiful domes of the State Library of Victoria and reading about land rights in Australia (shocking), about alternative lives here, about planning laws. I’ve made friends at two of the communities nearest to me. One is Commonground, a co-operative about an hour from the city, where their intention is to hold a space not only for individuals to live and work together, but also to host other groups who are working for social change. The other is Moora Moora, about an hour in a different direction. Their community is bigger, with around 100 people living in small clusters of the top of a mountain.
Visiting and staying at these communities gave me insight into the themes which are particular to Australia and I started to feel ready.
Then came the big trip. While talking to a journalist friend who also writes about living the simple life, it seemed to shout that I should be telling a history – a history of intentional community in Australia. So that is what I have set out to do. The big trip took me north of Brisbane, to Crystal Waters, a permaculture village near the funky little town of Maleny. From there I travelled to Nimbin, where I met, amongst others, a man associated with the Aquarius Festival in 1973, which brought not only a huge number of hippies to the broken-down town, but also the first multiple occupancy planning laws. Some of the communities established then still remain and have loads to teach us about how to live with each other and how to maintain such a project over time.
In Bellingen, further south, there are over 25 intentional communities a hotbed of activity which has spilled out into the surrounding area, including the local council, who have established radical waste collection initiatives.
Narara Ecovillage, an hour north of Sydney, is on the site of a horticultural research facility. This land will now be turned into one of Australia’s newest intentional communities.
I have some great stories to tell you and this is only the beginning. This blog will help me make sense of the film I am making and also of life in Australia, 18,000 km from the place I call home. Will you join me?