Here we are in Healesville, holed up in a little cottage on a wild, wet and windy day. The sudden change of weather – we’ve had nothing but glorious sunshine for the last week – along with our first trip to the supermarket after a week of picking fresh fruit and veg straight from the orchard and veggie patch at Commonground, has left me feeling a little forlorn, yet grateful too.
If you’ve been reading my previous posts I know you might want to roll your eyes when I tell you about another amazing community we’ve just visited, but seriously, there’s something really special going on here. In fact, in many ways, Commonground is the type of community I’ve been dreaming of.
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Having spent the second half of my life living in the city, I’ve become pretty used to city life; access to great cafes, pubs, galleries, festivals and more. But what I really love is the proximity of friends, most of whom only live a few suburbs away. The country, as much as it refreshes my soul during visits, seems a little too lonely in which to live long-term.
But what if there was a place that satisfied my yearning to be immersed in nature as well as fulfilled my desire for regular interaction with people; where the frequent comings and goings of different individuals caused me to feel truly connected and alive? What if there was a place where I could contribute to a better world in all sorts of creative ways, using skills I already have and finding opportunities to learn new ones? I’m not saying I’ve found my new home, but I am saying I’ve found something deeply inspirational and hopeful.
Founded on social change
Before visiting, I had read that Commonground was an intentional community founded on the value of social change. This set it apart from others and greatly attracted me. I was also intrigued by the notion of community members living under the one roof – could this actually work? I was excited to find out.
Commonground is nestled between rolling hills on 95 acres of land, not far from the township of Seymour, about an hour north of Melbourne. There are a couple of buildings for common use, several private dwellings, two large veggie gardens, an orchard and a dam on the property. Open patches of grass and surrounding bush provide the perfect home for dozens of kangaroos and other wildlife, or an ideal spot for one to sit, contemplate and recharge.
When we arrived, Phil, who is one of the founding members, gave us a tour of the main building known as The Wedge and began to provide us with a brief history of the community.
In 1980, a small group of social activists recognised a need: various organisations and groups working for social change were poorly resourced and struggling to reach their potential. So a resource centre and support services were established. At the same time, the need to live more cooperatively and sustainably became apparent so resources were pooled, land was bought and the intentional community known as Commonground began. [www.groupwork.com.au/commonground]
The Wedge itself is an interesting building. It gradually climbs up the hillside, containing several split levels, winding hallways and odd shaped rooms. It has a lovely rambling and organic feel about it, especially as it’s comprised of recycled and on-site materials. The building was designed by an architect and built by the founding members themselves – men, women and children all getting their hands dirty – a great way to deepen relationships, strengthen community and establish a sense of shared ownership.
Half of The Wedge is used by the Commonground community. It contains their bedrooms and common living spaces. The other half is used by outside groups who hire the venue to run training, workshops and retreats. Commonground only takes in groups who are aligned to their philosophy of social change. These are often minority groups such as Aboriginals or refugees. Sometimes groups can’t afford to pay, but it’s important that they don’t miss out, so Commonground operates on a on a principal of “cross subsidy” whereby groups who can secure funding help to pay for others who can’t. For Commonground, managing funds in this way and meeting expenses can often be tricky (and no doubt stressful), but I think it is a beautiful model of compassionate and generous living.
I love Commonground’s unique history; that they are founded on the outward vision of supporting and equipping others, particularly marginalised and community based groups and organisations who are working for positive, nonviolent social change. And I love that they are still carrying out this vision today, 35 years later. As Kate (Phil’s partner and founding member) said, they are more than simply a “lifestyle community”.
The shared life
There were many things about Commonground that impressed me, including the lush, organic vegetable gardens, full of so much variety. Most of the produce goes to Commonground’s kitchen, but sometimes excess is sold to groups hiring the venue, at farmers’ markets, or to local pubs and restaurants. Equally impressive were the surrounding activities and enterprises: several worm farms, bee hives, and flowers for market. It was great to see and appreciate some of the virtues to practising permaculture (of which I still have SO much to learn!).
About 9 adults currently live at Commonground full time, but there are always others popping in for the day or staying over, including non-resident members, visitors and volunteers like ourselves. I love the dynamic this creates – things are always fresh and happening. Approximately 20 non-resident members live close by or further afield in places such as Melbourne. Occasional “all in” gatherings bring resident and non-resident members together and help to strengthen community spirit.
Currently, it costs only $100 to become a member of Commonground. A resident member also pays a base amount of $30 a week for food (maybe more depending on their income level) and contributes at least 10 hours of work to cover other expenses. This makes Commonground very accessible to everyone, including those on a low income, which is an important value of the community.
Being that Commonground is a cooperative and nothing is privately owned, if an individual chooses to build a dwelling on the property, they can’t sell it or rent it out when they leave. Obviously, this contrasts hugely with our western way of life – the need to privately own everything. Most of us are likely to see this shared lifestyle as too challenging and undesirable. But I think it’s one we each need to seriously consider, for the sake of the planet as well as our own wellbeing. It’s certainly got me thinking again about what’s important and where I find my identity.
I’m really attracted to the accessibility and generosity of the co-op structure. It makes sense on so many levels: economically, environmentally and socially. And it reminds me of the first followers of Jesus who “met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.” (Acts 2:44–45)
Of course living together like this isn’t easy and I asked Kate whether she had ever experienced moments when she wanted to give up and leave. “Oh yeah” was her immediate response. “Conflict is unavoidable and can be very difficult, but if you have a common purpose (beyond simply creating a lovely place to live), you have a reason to push through. It’s the “glue” that holds everyone and everything together.”
Part of the family
During our week stay, Mike and I contributed wherever there was need. Apart from pruning a very unruly vine which was taking over the outside compost toilet (quite a satisfying job actually!), most of our time involved dealing with an abundance of produce needing attention, especially apples and cantaloupe (rock melon). I loved the opportunity and freedom we were given to be creative and find as many uses for the fruit as possible. Their overarching philosophy: “it’s all an experiment!” (Note: I’m proud to say that our sorbet, juice, and fruit-pulp loaf did work out.)
But for me, as always, the best part of our stay at Commonground was the people. The first time we sat down to the evening meal, I felt like I was entering an intimate family space. We all held hands while words of thanks and gratitude were given for the good work being done and the blessings in our lives. Then we enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by one of the members. This beautiful gathering occurred every evening and I was humbled by the gracious hospitality shown to every stranger – quick to become friend – who arrived at Commonground.
Some of the unique individuals I enjoyed getting to know a little were: Phil, whom I’ll remember for his wealth of knowledge, heart for the disadvantaged, and great laugh; Kate, whom I’ll remember for her nurture, kindness and love; and Kasia, whom I’ll remember for her creativity (couch grass beer – why not?!), sweetness and companionship.
I was curious to know whether the members of Commonground shared a common spirituality. Ed, one of the founding members who joined us one evening said, “we simply believe we are connected to each other and to the earth. It’s all about love – love for each other and for the earth.”
On our last evening, just before dinner, Mike and I went for a walk in the moonlight. As we stood by the dam, looking up at the glowing lights and warmth emanating from The Wedge, reflecting on our time in this wonderful community, I said it is absolutely evident to me that true Light and Love resides in this place. No. Doubt. About. It.
Make sure you also have a read of Mike’s reflection on our time at Commonground.