Dja Willam

As mentioned in my intro, part of our purpose during this roadtrip is to see how others are striving to live more sustainably. So we’ve signed up with WWOOF – Willing Workers On Organic Farms – as a means of gaining some knowledge and experience in this area.

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Walking gently

When we lined up a week with Sue and Don on their property near Daylesford, we were expecting to learn the practicalities of building with straw bales and living off-grid, but what we experienced was so much richer – it was as much about spending time with our hosts and getting to know them as anything else. And our hosts turned out to be incredibly interesting, caring and spiritually-minded people. I feel like we struck gold.

The beautiful property of Sue and Don's, known as Dja Willam

On the beautiful property of Sue and Don’s, known as Dja Willam

Sue and Don have been living on their 40 acre property, Dja Willam, for 17 years. If you’re a country girl at heart, like me, it’s a little slice of heaven. Towering gums, abundant bird life, native animals, pristine creek encircling part of the property and playing home to platypi, all contribute to a pretty peaceful and special place.

When it came to naming their property, Sue and Don wanted to chose a name that respected the traditional custodians of the land. Through the local cultural officer, they approached the Aboriginal elders with their request. After numerous visits (the elders had never had a white person request this before) the elders finally told Sue and Don that they need to sit and listen to the land and ask it what it’s saying to them; what it wants to be called. Don and Sue came back with the same sense they had before: that it’s to be a safe place; a place where people can come and be nurtured. An expert in the Dja Dja Wurrung language said the closest to this meaning he could find was Dja Willam, which means “earth nest”. I think this beautifully encapsulates who they are as well as their place.

The cosy home that Sue and Don lovingly constructed with their own hands

The home that Sue and Don have lovingly constructed with their own hands

Mike placing the first coat of mud on the straw bales

Mike placing the first coat of mud

The finished result after several days and a couple of coats of render

The finished result after several days and a couple of coats of render

Sue and Don have constructed their cosy two-story home and other buildings on the property out of straw bales and mud-brick. It was great chatting with them about the attributes of using these materials: low cost, quick to build, high level of insulation throughout the year, fire proof, versatile, environmentally sustainable and most importantly, aesthetically pleasing! Mike and I would love to build our own home this way one day, so we jumped at the opportunity while staying with Sue and Don to get some first-hand experience rendering a straw bale wall. I really enjoyed it – there’s nothing quite like playing with mud! And I was quite impressed by how well it stuck to the straw. Even though we didn’t have enough time to do the final layers, we were really pleased with the results – the natural finish and lovely ochre colouring.

Our hosts tread lightly on the earth in numerous other ways: they have on-site solar panels (backed-up by a generator) which provide all their electricity, rain and creek water, a veggie garden, a compost toilet which saves water and provides fertiliser for the garden, a bush shower which is heated by a wood fire, a reed bed to treat and recycle waste water… I could go on!

One of the ways in which Sue and Don make a living is their tipi-making business, under the name Gentle Earth Walking. I became very interested in North American First Nations cultures when I was in Canada so the idea of staying in a tipi really appealed to me. It’s much like camping except that you get to have a fire inside your tent which is great for warmth! Mike and I still have to learn the art of preventing the fire from smoking you out at the end of the night however! In Native American culture, when a tipi is erected special prayers are prayed to protect those within, and I have to say I did sleep well during those cold nights.

Our fantastic accommodation for the week!

Our fantastic accommodation for the week!

Earthy spirituality

It is evident that Sue and Don’s earthy spirituality has greatly contributed to their conscientious lifestyle, and during the course of the week we had many fascinating conversations surrounding their beliefs. Sue and Don have come to deeply appreciate the traditional beliefs and practices of both Native Americans and Indigenous Australians. I loved hearing about all their travels and experiences, and the way in which they have built relationships of mutual respect with elders and members from both cultures. I also appreciated the prayers they said at meal times, giving thanks to the Creator, Great Spirit and acknowledging the divine source of energy that lies within the earth, the rocks, the trees and the animals.

Our hosts earthy spirituality reminds me of Celtic spirituality. Interestingly, Don has Irish heritage, and although he barely touched on this, perhaps the Celtic approach to life and spirituality which is in his blood has influenced him more than he realises, or at least shared with us. I recently heard the following by John O’Donohue, the late Celtic poet and philosopher, “…for the Celtic people, nature wasn’t matter, but it was luminous and numinous presence which had depth and possibility and beauty within it.” I think this appreciation for creation is what’s sorely lacking, yet needed in our society today.

The end of another enriching day

The end of another enriching day at Dja Willam

In all our conversations with Sue and Don, they expressed their beliefs with humility, graciousness and love. I felt safe to explore and open to possibility. And although we come from different spheres of faith (mine Christ-centred, theirs earth-based and indigenous), there is commonality amongst us. I came to really respect their beliefs which they live out with much integrity.

Genuine hospitality

Don has had many interesting and challenging life experiences, including living in an intentional farm community and raising four boys, to becoming the only commercial timber benders in Australia (click here to see Mike’s brilliant short video on The Timber Benders). It was privilege to hear both Sue and Don’s stories, especially the hardships they’ve faced. I’m sure that’s what’s made them into the compassionate people they are today.

Don and his cheeky smile

Don and his cheeky smile

Don bottling his own home-made beer – yum!

Don bottling his own home-made beer – yum!

I felt particularly drawn to Don, but I can’t quite put my finger on it… maybe it was the way he reminded me of my own father at times – practical yet spiritual, maybe it was his encouraging style of teaching, maybe it was his quick and cheeky wit, or maybe it was that my spirit recognised in him a kindred spirit. He contained depth, inner peace and real joy.

Sue also had a lovely quality about her, expressed in her care for people and her interest in natural healing and medicine. I often heard her encouraging someone on the phone, or praying for the healing of individual family members and friends.

There is so much more I could share about this beautiful couple and their incredible warmth, friendship and hospitality, but suffice to say, they made our first WWOOFing experience one I will never forget.

Mike and I, Don and Sue, and Don's sons Tim and Jason who have been helping him with the timber bending

Mike and I, Don and Sue, and Don’s sons Tim and Jason who have been helping him with the timber bending

Read Mike’s blog to get a fuller picture of our time with Sue and Don – he’s shared some great things that I haven’t mentioned!

 

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Wasting time together

Cornerstone, Bendigo

I didn’t know much about this community before visiting, apart from a short video clip. What drew me was their evident love for Jesus and others, but I was completely blown away by what I discovered in person… and I have a strong feeling that Mike and I will be back one day – two days just wasn’t enough.

Andy and Rose in their garden.

Andy and Rose in their garden.

Rose and Andy’s house in Bendigo is colourful and cosy, brimming with Mexican art and pottery (Rose’s heritage). I loved it the moment we stepped in! But as we started chatting with Rose I could see the real reason why people love being here – it’s a place where you are offered genuine hospitality and friendship, a place where you can ask searching questions without fear of judgement, a place where you are accepted as you are. And I discovered that this loving environment is a reflection of their whole intentional community.

What started as a few families trying to immerse themselves in the local neighbourhood has grown into a vibrant, thriving community of people engaging in all sorts of activities involving the young, the old, single mums, families, uni students, refugees and many others. There seems to be a place for everyone, in fact I could definitely see myself getting dirty in the community garden or getting involved in some “yarn bombing”* with the craft group if I lived here!

What impresses me though is not simply the scope of activities that have popped up, but rather the way in which these activities have organically grown and taken on a life of their own. Rose, Andy and their friends seem to have learnt the art of connecting with individuals, getting to know their needs or desires, and then helping them to connect with others who are in a similar place or share similar interests. It seems to be working – people are taking ownership.

Two days doesn’t sound long enough to get a true taste of a place (and probably isn’t), but as we were shown around the neighbourhood, shared evenings with different hosts and heard many, many stories, I really sensed that this is a pretty special place.

Some background…

Cornerstone, Bendigo started 8 years ago when several families belonging to the broader Cornerstone network were looking for a place to live and get involved. Their desire was to extend themselves into the life of the local community, establish friendships and help bring about positive change, particularly amongst the marginalised. Initially, all signs seemed to point to Geelong as their new home – it met their basic criteria and everything was falling into place, with financial and housing support being offered, as well as the blessing of the local churches. They had almost decided that Geelong was it when they arrived in Bendigo to take a look. In contrast, things didn’t fall into place straight away and Bendigo didn’t quite tick all the boxes, but gradually, through what Rose describes as a series of “small miracles”, they all felt this is where they were meant to be.

One aspect of this story that I really admire is their letting go of financial and material security. Even though one family held property in another regional city and it was very difficult to find rental properties in Bendigo at the time, they trusted God and where they felt he was leading them. And it seems he hasn’t let them down.

Rose and Andy's house where lots of food, conversation and friendship happens.

Rose and Andy’s house where lots of food, conversation and friendship happens

The Committed Company (core group) of the Cornerstone community in Bendigo currently consists of two families, a retired couple and a single dad. This core group are deeply committed to each other and their values of simplicity, authenticity and community. Part of this commitment involves a common purse whereby everyone works part-time and what they earn goes into a common bank account from which rent and utilities are paid. (The common purse doesn’t include assets that people may come with). Rose said that it’s working well for their group. It helps them to remain true to their purpose of building relationships and community, as opposed to being tempted to take on more work and go the way of the dominant culture. Although challenging (and no doubt imperfect), this commitment to each other and lifestyle choice really appeals to me.

Over the years a wider Missional Community who share Cornerstone’s ethos has grown. This consists of about 40 people. All core members and some of the Missional members deliberately live within 1km walking distance of one another. This proximity enables them to share daily life with each other and their neighbours. Being local and available is important.

The Old Church on the Hill

With a primary focus on building relationships within the community, Cornerstone knew they wouldn’t have time to become involved in a local church. They also knew their association with a local church (and the stigma attached to Christianity) could undermine the work they were trying to do, so it seems somewhat ironic and amusing that many of their activities ended up being run from an old disused Uniting Church just a few blocks away. The story of how this space became available for them to rent at an affordable price is inspiring in itself – many little miracles, as Rose puts it, took place. But what I love is the fact that God seems to be redeeming the old and making it new – bringing life to a community in fresh ways.

Inside The Old Church on the Hill

Inside The Old Church on the Hill

We got to spend a little time at The Old Church and fall in love with its character – not only it’s charming wooden interior, but the way members of the community have lovingly decked it out in old couches flung with crocheted rugs and doily bunting hanging from the ceiling. Groups meet, musicians play and many activities take place here. Is the gospel preached? Perhaps not in the traditional way, but I’m pretty sure many individuals are experiencing the love of Jesus in The Old Church without even realising that they’re actually in a church. I love it.

The community garden at The Old Church on the Hill

The community garden at The Old Church on the Hill

The community surrounding The Old Church is now in the process of developing their “feast space” and adjoining community kitchen. I enjoyed going along to a gathering of women and nutting out what this kitchen might look like (I’m not sure why the men weren’t also invited but I reckon we did pretty well on our own!). Some of these women are part of the missional community, others aren’t and don’t consider themselves followers of Jesus. But it’s friendship and a common love for this community life that unites them. I also enjoyed seeing the community garden just out the back of the church. Rose has had a large part to play in this and many of her stories involve the sharing of food. Yep, time and time again I’m reminded that food has a central roll to play in building community.

Wasting time together

The more Rose and Andy shared about their community, the more their approach resonated with me. They’re not about trying to attract people to programs and control the outcomes. They’re simply about engaging with people and genuinely loving them where they’re at. Rose said with a smile, it’s about wasting time together, doing what you love to do and inviting others to join you. It’s about sharing life together. I can see that Rose and her friends deeply love Jesus and desire other people to find the same freedom and life in him, but they don’t push this agenda. However after several years of friendship, people are coming to them and saying “we want to have a conversation with you about Jesus”!

Mike and I with Rose and Andy in their garden.

There’s so much more I could say about this amazing little community. Every time we had a conversation with Rose or Andy I was inspired again by who they are and the lives they are leading… whether it’s befriending a grumpy old woman and helping her to reconnect with her estranged daughters, learning permaculture to implement in their community garden, practising good ethics when it comes to food and shopping, or offering hospitality towards strangers and travelers like ourselves. These guys seem to consider every aspect of their lives and strive to follow Jesus and usher in his kingdom in a holistic way. But they don’t come across as legalistic or preachy, rather, their ethical practices flow out of their celebration of life. And their love for others trumps all.

Finally, I just want to mention two things that I believe keep this community flourishing: 1) prayer, which is an essential ingredient to the lives of the Committed Company in particular, and 2) a missional focus. Rose mentioned that “intentional” and “missional” communities are two different things. Their’s is a missional one – it doesn’t just exist for the wellbeing of it’s members. For a long time I have believed that an outward focus is what keeps a community thriving – Cornerstone seem to be proving it.

Despite all the positive stuff I’ve shared, this little community does have it’s challenges and hardships. Still, they seem to be on the right track. I don’t use the word awesome very often, but in this case of this community I’d definitely say it applies!

* beautifying the neighbourhood by knitting cosies on trees, sign posts, trams and the like! (Usually done at night as it’s technically illegal, but everyone loves it.)

If you’d like to Mike’s perspective on this experience, go to: clevercreatures.wordpress.com/cornerstone-community-101/

A great start…

Heidi, Di and Mike

Heidi, Di and Mike in Strathalbyn

 

I can’t think of a better way to start this adventure than in the home of my friend and spiritual director Di. After such a busy time of trip preparation, it was so wonderful to soak in this welcoming and peace-filled space. I relished it.

Di and her friend Ruth (who lives right next door with no fence between them) have had their own experiences of intentional community over the years and continue to show hospitality to many friends, acquaintances and strangers as they pass through the town of Strathalbyn. On the first night, a guy named Michael joined us for dinner (Di happened to cross paths with him in town that afternoon). Coincidentally, he has done his own travels throughout Victoria and New South Wales, spending time in intentional communities, and was able to offer us some useful insights. Hmm… we might well learn more about ourselves than anything else!

Thanks Di and Ruth for your delicious meals, hearty conversation, open-mindedness, humour, card-playing skills, and appreciation of good wine! We thoroughly enjoyed our few days of rest in your delightful part of the world. Strath is so pretty! (Don’t worry, we’ll keep that a secret).