Have you ever said “yes” to something and then, when you realise the amount of work that’s involved, wondered if you’ve done the right thing after all? In the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, I’m sure many ‘Leavers’ are watching the value of their savings/ pensions/ homes/ wage packets plummet and thinking that perhaps they jumped when they should have stayed put. Myself, I’m having the same kind of thoughts about the cottage we just bought in Spain. Before you condemn me as a someone who has abandoned the UK like the other rats from a sinking ship, or grabbed myself a luxury second home, let me explain…
The casita sits on the side of a shady hillside, surrounded by tall pine trees. One of only eight houses in the tiny urbanizacion, it has been empty for more then ten years. The rooms smell of neglect. The water supply has been cut. The garden is unkempt. When we first spot it on the Fotocasa web page in January, we are living amongst the noise and haste of Barcelona city. This small patch of countryside seems a far cry from that and indeed, it takes us an hour’s bus ride and a half-hour walk to get there. Following sketchy directions, we take an unsealed track off the main road and find it sitting there. Is it waiting for us? We clamber over the wall and perch on the abandoned swing, looking at the crumbling facade. The stairs and banisters that lead to the upstairs living space are falling away but when we peer in through the shuttered windows, the space inside seems free from structural damage or damp. It just needs to be loved.
The decision to renovate a house, even a tiny one, can not be taken lightly. We consult a lawyer, talk endlessly around all the options but it appears that the casita already has us in her sights. In the Spanish language, the way you express that you like something is to say that the object likes you. Me gusta means, literally, it likes me. I have to conclude that this house likes us. So we find ourselves saying ‘yes’. One hour from Barcelona, fifteen minutes from the pretty beach town of Sitges and five minutes from the authentic Catalan pueblo of Sant Pere de Ribes, we decide to create not just a home, but a refuge. A refugio. In undertaking the retrofit we intend to be as eco-friendly as possible. Natural and recycled materials, renewable energy, capturing the precious rainwater and re-using the grey waters from our sink and shower. Growing as much food as we can.
As I write this, the thermometer reads thirty degrees, the barometer firmly wedged towards ‘sun’. There’s a cool breeze wafting through the forest and I’ve laid down the hammer and chisel I’ve using to prise the tired tiles from the bathroom walls. Broken shards of sharp ceramic lie in piles on the floor and it strikes me that in order to create the change that’s needed, we sometimes first need to make an unholy mess. Before we can make something new, we need to get rid of the old. As I drift off into my afternoon siesta, it occurs to me that maybe Brexit was a way of doing this, of bringing the old ways crashing down like broken tiles and leaving the space open for a fresh new look. It may look like there’s a lot of work to be done but it seems clear that we can’t go back. It’s time to start imagining what a new Britain might look like and I’m pretty sure what’s needed is more than a fresh coat of paint. I think what’s needed is a complete retrofit.
I am sitting on the back step of my cabin. A shaft of warm sunlight filters through and splashes my foot. In my right hand, I hold a broad sprig of elderflower and with my left, I am plucking the dainty scented petals into a wooden bowl. The memory makes my heart swell, not just because I can feel the peace of that moment, but because behind it in my mind, are a queue of summer-flavoured images and sounds. My grandmother made this sweet, barely alcoholic drink every year and in my favourite scenes, we are sitting in her beloved garden on faded deckchairs, sipping until we are ever so slightly tipsy.
The recipe I am using is her recipe. It was given to me by my Auntie Joan, long after my grandmother had died, and every summer I kept the ritual of sitting and plucking, before stirring in sugar, lemons and a touch of cider vinegar. My friends were wary of my gifts of elderflower champagne. Too often the bottles, expanding through natural fermentation beyond the limits of their fragile glass confines, exploded. The moment of explosion was scary enough but the aftermath – that sticky mess on walls, ceiling and floor, was sometimes more than pleasure of the remaining, intact bottle was worth.
This year, I’m sharing the recipe with the community at Can Masdeu, this anarchist community that has become my haven. The large eldest tree in their courtyard has more than enough flowers. The community likes to dry them for a medicinal tea – a vitamin C-filled curative for coughs and colds. We pick the full blossoms and sit together in the Barcelona spring sunshine, plucking, then stirring, and later tasting. If it’s not too late, head out into the woods, find some elderflower heads and brew your own. But be careful of the explosions!
To make Elderflower Champagne
4 litres hot water
Juice and zest of four lemons
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
About 15 elderflower heads, in full bloom, picked on a sunny day (if you pick them in the rain they smell like dog pee)
A pinch of dried yeast (you may not need this)
1. Sterilise all your equipment. I like to use a few drops of tea tree oil in plenty of water, but it needs a while to air ‘cos it can be a bit smelly. Pluck the flowers from your elderflowers.
2. Dissolve sugar in 1 litre of hot water in a fermenting bucket, then top up with 3 litres cold water. Allow to cool.
3. Add elderflower flowers, lemon juice and zest and vinegar. The elderflowers contain a natural yeast, so you shouldn’t need to add extra. (see below). Leave to ferment.
4. If you did not add yeast and fermentation has not started after 3 days, add a packet of Champagne yeast to get it going.
5. After 6 days of fermentation, strain through boiled muslin into a fresh fermenting bucket, leaving the lees behind. Cover the bucket and leave for a few hours for the dust to settle, then siphon into your bottles of choice. This time I used plastic bottles, for damage limitation, and it worked quite well. We were also able to release a little excess pressure by easing the lids off a little (careful!).
Your champagne is ready to drink after a week. Enjoy!
Place in a fridge or cool place to stop the yeast making any more carbon dioxide and drink. It should keep for up to 3 months, but you may not be able to leave it alone that long!
If the whole popping thing is too scary, try this instead! (Also my grandmother’s recipe).
21/2 il sugar
3 pts water
2oz citric acid
2 lemons chopped
2 oranges chopped
About 20 large elderflower heads
Make syrup by dissolving sugar in water. And simmer for 5 mins.
Pour into deep bowl add citric acid stir.
Putin remaining ingredients. Stir well.
Cover and leave 4 days stir night and morning.
Strain into sterile bottle and keep in cool dark cupboard.
I’ve never thought too much about Earth Day. It seemed like one of those forced opportunities to do something we should perhaps be doing every day, like Valentines Day to show we love someone or Mother’s Day to appreciate our Mum. But then, over coffee the other day, I had a conversation about where the names of the days of the week come from. I was sure I had learned this as a child, and felt it ought not be surprising to hear that they are named for the planets*
I’m living in Spain at the moment, and a lot of my time is spent trying to get my tongue around a foreign language. It often brings up discussion about the meaning of words, so when i heard this, I sat down and went through the days of the week in all the languages I know, to see if the theory fitted. In Spanish, it’s easy to see that Lunes – Monday, is for the moon – la luna. Even in English, Monday – Moonday makes sense, and it follows too in French – Lundi; in Welsh – Dydd Llun; in German – Montag… You get the picture. Martes in Spanish, for Mars; Miercoles for Mercury; Jueves for Jupiter ; Viernes for Venus; Sabado for Saturn and oh, Domingo? Well apparently Domingo was re-named for Our Lord’s Day – Dies Dominica in Latin.
Try this yourself with languages you know. The days of the week are often the first things we learn, so we don’t have to be fluent to know them. It’s interesting that most languages have followed in some way or another, often taking the local name for the god of that planet – Thor (the god of war and thunder) stands in for Jupiter, for instance, which gives us Thorsday in English but also Donnerstag in German, where donner means thunder.
There are a few anomolies. I like the prosaic Mittwoch (Wednesday) in German, meaning literally mid-week. And I love the Scandanavian Lordag (Saturday), which is from Old Norse laugardagr, meaning washing day.
After the fun and games of testing our language knowledge and our grasp of ancient mythology, one thing stood out. Not one country had chosen to name a day of the week after Earth. Somehow, we clever humans have once again neglected to honour the place that gives us life. This amazing, complete eco-system which is right beneath our feet. So suddenly, Earth Day makes sense. If only we could have one every week.
* I later learned this was the Classical line-up of the planets in Hellenic astrology, which was established around …..and includes the moon and the sun.
Arjuna da Silva is someone I have never met, and yet I know we have a lot in common. Arjuna lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina and was one of the most enthusiastic (and generous) supporters of the crowd fund campaign for our latest film – Deep Listening. She is a veteran of intentional community and I thought it would be lovely to get some insight into her world…
When she appears in my Skype window, I see an older woman, framed by silvery hair befitting to her name. In the background, a beautiful archway hugs around a living flame. From my city apartment in Barcelona, I feel an ache for the countryside and for her cosy wood-burning fire. She tells me how her journey toward living in Earthhaven began…
“I have lived in several intentional communities. In the early 1990’s I was living in Florida and I had two close friends – we were friends and housemates – and we were all communitarians. We were a networked, small town extended community of people who didn’t live together but who were very connected through their meditations and social lives. We used to dream about ‘what would we do if we bought a piece of land?” In the 70’s, when everyone was looking at maps of the country and asking ‘where would you go if you wanted to avoid disaster?’ , it always came to western North Carolina or the southern Appalacian mountains. This was the place…
After a couple of years visiting other communities, gathering advice and information, one woman who just had lots of energy put out a message to say that one of the pieces of land they had seen was the best choice and if anyone wanted to do this then now was the time.”
So far, so familiar, right? A networked group of people, a wish to live on some land together, a search for the “right place” and a forward thinking, dynamic individual…It’s a story I must have heard a hundred times whilst making the Living in the Future series! Arjuna tells me that the story told in our Lammas film was the one which resonated most with her, and I can see why…
“There are people here whose homes are totally according to the outside codes. There are some who have very nice homes but didn’t bother with the codes. And then there are lots of buildings here that technically people are not supposed to live in. They don’t have a toilet, for instance. These people are pushing the edge of “what will they let me alone to do?” They see that we’re making no trouble…this is a good thing, not a bad thing…. The plus side of the economic downturn in this county is that officials don’t have the budgets to spend time investigating every nook and cranny of development. The truth is that we who started Earthaven were willing to push the envelope. We could have gone down to the local authority and said “this is what we intend to do and let’s work together.” One day we might just do that, but in the beginning we were following advice Peter Caddy from Findhorn gave us early on when he told us about how Findhorn first developed, and how they decided they would be best off if they would ‘ask forgiveness, not permission.’ We decided we would do that too.”
Deep Listening talks much ore about the way we communicate with each other and how we deal with conflict. What was it about this that spoke to you?
Everyone who comes to Earthaven, comes with a different picture of what they’re coming to and what they want it to be like. We do our best to be clear about what’s going on here, but we could do better atmaking sure people learn what to expect, otherwise they’re going to think whatever they want to think. That’s what I’ve discovered. People with very different values from the foundershave come. They might share the idea that they want to live close to the land or be healthy or this or that or the other. But their feelings, their protectiveness about their investments, especially those who had a much more mainstream lifestyle than many of us…. So in the last few years we have had some very serious twists in the community guts over these issues. I think it’s looking like we’re going to come out of it and people on both sides will still be here and have something to say about what was learned. One beacon or shining light that continues at Earthaven that we started with was relationships and communication. There are a core of people interested in this who learn and then teach, learn and then teach, learn and then teach. We have worked our way through Radical Honesty and Process Work, all kinds of things. It’s maybe 10 years now since people started getting serious about NVC. I’d say it’s had more of an effect on individuals – people who are working on their own needs, but it ripples. When people areaware of what’s going on for themselves inside, the languaging starts to shift in the whole community. Empathy and all the kinds of things in your movie that people are talking about, are part of the conversation.”
I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.
On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.
Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.
When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.
“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.
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:
On top of the Restaurante Salamanca, the temperature says 22 degrees. In the beachside cafe, tourists sit with a jugo de naranja y cafe con leche, carefully guarding their wheelies against opportunistic thieves, but the real action is taking place down underneath the promenade. For the Barcelona retired community, this sunny wednesday morning in early December is perfect for gathering to play dominos and sink a cerveza or two. The mood is upbeat, and why not? The sun is warm, the sea is sparkling and life expects nothing more from them than this. We, as newcomers and foreigners, are still trying to attune to it.
Yesterday was a holiday. A holy day. Unlike in Melbourne, our last adopted home, where the religion is sport and the public holidays coincide with major sporting events, this is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which celebrates the moment that Mary, Jesus’s mother, was conceived. Husband is still wondering whether to take his allotted day off work, or whether to go in anyway, when a drumming outside our window takes us to the balcony. Outside, a procession is snaking its way through the narrow Gotico street and has paused outside the tiny Capella de Sant Cristòfol de Regomir.
This chapel honouring the patron saint of travellers has been there since the 15th century, built at the gate in this Roman city wall to which people would bring their prayers before setting sail from the nearby port. On St. Christopher’s day in 1907, the first cars were brought here to be blessed and the tradition remains to this day, although it still amazes me that cars continue to squeeze through these passageways at all. Today, cars have given way to humans and the procession brings church elders, children, a cohort of trumpeters and finally, majestically, the Virgin Mary herself, teetering down the street hoisted upon a wobbling litter. The porters wear white gloves, but their wrists show strain as the weight of huge carriage shifts from side to side with their gait. Adorned with flowers , the Virgin seems precarious, but the followers follow anyway, tapping their way down the rough pavings with tall, silver-topped staffs. All around, church bells ring out to welcome them, as they must have done for centuries in this ancient city.
“Shall we go out for breakfast then?” asks Husband, still undecided about whether to go to work at some time. “Sure” I say. It feels like a party out there.”
December 8th is the beginning of Christmas in Spain. The markets are already flourishing, selling all manner of Christmas gifts and decorations, but most significantly, offering rows and rows of caganers, the traditional figures of a little pooping Catalan peasant boy. We first encountered this phenomenon when on a visit to Barcelona a few years ago. In a shopping centre, a huge statue of Santa Claus squatted, his trousers around his ankles and a giant turd on the ground underneath him. We were amazed, not to say confused, and didn’t understand until now that it is a symbol of good fortune. That it represents the fertilisation of crops for a good harvest in the year to come. On the market stalls, it also seems to represent a symbol of equality, as now one can buy a pooping statuette of any famous figure, from Queen Elizabeth to David Beckham to the Pope himself. We all do it, of course, and we all need to eat in order to keep doing it. It’s the circle of life and a reminder of what is important to all of us, regardless of our supposed status.
I don’t know how many compost toilets are in operation in Barcelona city. The waft of sewer-smell that drifts past my nostrils from time to time suggests not many, but who knows, with this symbol so widespread in the popular imagination, perhaps there is room here for a humanure revolution. The collected waste could be transported out to the Catalonian countryside and used to grow nutrient-rich soil. As floods rage in the UK and bushfires rampage through Australia, climate change is most likely to effect Spain by way of drought. Perhaps, by turning towards dry composting toilets, we also could stop needlessly flushing drinking water away and the pressure on Barcelona’s sewage system would be – ahem – relieved.
Lately, I’ve been listening to talks from Buddhist teachers exploring a response to climate change. There is much discussion of grief. The sense of loss and despair which can arise when we truly connect with what we humans have done – are doing – to the natural world. Joanna Macy is famous for exploring this phenomenon in her “Work that Reconnects”, where she encourages us to go deep and face the truth of what is. But so many of us are caught in inaction, in not knowing what we can possibly DO that will make a difference. At the Local Lives, Local Matters Conference in Castlemaine last weekend, Zen teacher and author Susan Murphy told us “You don’t solve a koan, it resolves you. Shows you how to respond.” “Not knowing”, she said, “is the most intimate state of awareness.”
Although the wisdom of this statement hit me immediately, in order to give it due consideration I had to wait until I had time to sit with it, to turn it over in my mind, to meditate on it. A common response to climate change is a sense of overwhelm, of disempowerment. No wonder, then, that what so often emerges is denial. While climate-deniers are slammed as being ignorant and dangerous, it’s useful to consider that in her seminal book “On Death and Dying”, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first stage of grief. Denial, then, is entirely appropriate, given the enormity of what we are facing.
But denial is not an appropriate place to linger. As the inevitable approaches, we need to develop tools which will help us negotiate the rocky path ahead. We need to move on. Susan spoke of the need to stay with what is in order to know it deeply and how this is what we do in meditation practice. We stay with what is.
When I lived in my wooden house in Wales, I knew each night where the moon rose. In fullness, her silvery glow woke me, steeping my bedroom in cool luminescence. Beckoned, I would creep out under her gaze and gaze back. Her face to mine. I would walk in the woodland garden, watching the leaves light up under her brilliant blue-white light.
Since living in the city, I feel the lack of moonlight keenly. Sometimes, I see her peek from between the tall buildings as if to say “Here I am!” But then she is gone, ducked behind an edifice of concrete and glass and I, in any case, have little time to linger.
When I first left Wales to come to live in Melbourne, I felt the loss of nature acutely. I mourned the roar and crash of waves on the beach, the chaotic crescendo of chattering wildlife on a spring morning, the broad sky above me. But over time, I came to love the leaves in the park across the road from my inner city home. I saw the seasons turn in sunlight and shadow. I stretched on the grass and let the swirling plane seeds alight in my hair and clothes.
Nature persists. She seeps between the cracks in the pavement and speaks to us of impermanence and perseverance. She hums through the corridors of commerce and reminds us of what is necessary and true. She is unyielding, relentless and bold. In the face of our own destruction, we, too, must find this insistence. We must return again and again to the source of ourselves in order to learn to love her. Because only what we love, will we be moved to protect. Connecting with nature is to connect with the nature of ourselves and the nature of each other. It is to come home to the fact that we are one with everything, and everyone, else.
This great Buddhist truth emerges under the scrutiny of our gaze. We don’t need to be Buddhist to know the interconnection of all beings. Science will tell us how trees process our waste and produce oxygen for us to breathe. But just as a lover needs to be touched, this knowledge needs to be known, to be embodied, to be FELT. We need to make a deep and personal connection with nature so that we might know her. So that we might be moved to act in accordance with her needs. As Susan said, “Intimacy reveals mutuality.”
I am intrigued with the current movement towards re-wilding – not just the earth, but ourselves. There is an urgent need to re-learn, to re-know, to re-love the natural world. Spending time with our loved one, with the earth, might provoke movement through the other – equally uncomfortable stages of grief – anger, bargaining and depression. But only by reaching acceptance will we reach the steady heart from which our own personal response can emerge.
A Review of “My Year Without Matches” by Claire Dunn
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
My Year Without Matches has just gone into its second edition :
Contact Claire for speaking engagements, writers festivals and earth wisdom retreats around Australia.
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.