We’re nearing the end of our roadtrip and travel weariness is beginning to set in – the regular moving and packing, as well the energy required to meet new people and engage with them. I’m finding my enthusiasm waning and questions coming to the surface like: how different can this next community be – will there really be much new stuff to learn? But time and time again, Mike and I have left feeling freshly inspired and more than a little educated by our visit. Each place has a unique history, philosophy and vision, structure, location, appearance, and the thing which makes all the difference – a unique set of people.
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Fryers Forest, Fryerstown
Hidden away in a little valley, about 13 kilometers south of Castlemaine, lies the intentional community of Fryers Forest. It all started about 20 years ago when Sam and Haridas, a couple who couldn’t bare the thought of this pristine piece of native forest being cleared for development and covered in brick veneers (I sense their horror!), bought the land. This couple teamed up with Dave Holmgren (the co-originator of permaculture) and his partner Su to develop plans for the property and establish a community that would live in harmony with the natural environment. Negotiations with the council eventually led to the eco-village that exists today.
Tamsin and Toby, our hosts for the week, were some of the first people to buy into Fryers Forest. They own one of the 11 residential lots (1 acre each) and share in 290 acres of common native forest. Tamsin came out to greet us as soon as we arrived and I immediately took a liking to this expressive woman with her command of words and wit. She introduced us to Toby, a strong, bearded woodsman-type (he was often sharpening his axe and chopping wood), and their four year old twin boys, Gryphon and Tyco. Such characters!
“We care for and nurture the earth”, “We care for and nurture the group”, “We care for and nurture the self” (The values of Fryers Forest)
Caring for the earth
Toby is a building designer specialising in sustainable housing. He designed and built their home using passive solar principles. The double-mud brick walls have a gap down the center containing a sheet of foil which acts as a reflector of heat. According to Toby, these walls have just as good insulating properties as straw bale, as well as a high thermal mass. Something to consider when it comes to our future dream build perhaps?
Later, as we walked through the village and passed other houses, I noticed the variety of building materials and techniques employed in passive solar design. We saw rammed earth, straw bale, timber… even a yurt! (Okay, maybe the latter doesn’t have such great natural heating and cooling qualities.) Some houses had a heavier focus on thermal mass, others on insulation, and others on ventilation. It was inspiring to see the possibilities.
Our abode for the week was a cosy, rendered-mud brick hut, up behind Tamsin and Toby’s house. It had its own living area, kitchenette, wood fire and sleeping loft. It was nice to have our own space and we were pretty toasty on those chilly nights.
But I’d have to say, what I found most impressive about our hosts’ home was the toilet! Up to this point I had associated compost loos with outside long-drops. But this one was inside, up a flight of stairs and in a cute little room with lovely stonework. I realised that you don’t have to compromise on comfort and aesthetics while striving for environmental sustainability. I was impressed – apart from saving water and providing compost for the garden, this Nature Loo is clean, odourless and easy to use.
For most of our stay we worked outdoors. A few large trees that were close to the house needed removing so a fair amount of time was spent in relation to this. The felled trunks were dragged to Hamish’s property (the neighbour) to use in the construction of his house, large branches were set aside for fire wood, and small branches were used to create swales (long rows of interlocking branches which form a wall) in order to catch topsoil which washes down the slope – a permaculture technique.
A definition of permaculture: Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture. (www.holmgren.com.au/about-permaculture)
As Tamsin walked us through the forest one morning, she explained the methods they use for managing the bushland sustainably. By selectively thinning trees and coppicing in rotating sections of forest they encourage biodiversity (the different-aged trees provide a variety of habitats), help reduce fire risk and secure fuel for wood fires. Indigenous people carried out these practices. If only such wisdom was recognised and applied more widely!
We were shown the artificial dams and lake – an integrated water storage system which is a key feature of this permaculture property, the lovely picnic spots including two huge oak trees marking the site of an old pioneer cottage, a beautiful view of the whole tree-covered property from it’s highest point, creeks, camping spots, the orchard, the village green and two old school rooms from Kyneton which had been relocated to serve as the Fryer Forest community buildings – a good example of repurposing.
We heard stories about the community’s history as well as the goldrush era which has left permanent marks on the landscape. It was interesting to learn how the villagers have tried to use the latter to their advantage.
Caring for each other
With their strong interest in permaculture and sustainability, Tamsin and Toby were quite excited about the potential of this community when they first joined. However they’ve since learned that Fryers Forest is first and foremost about the people.
On Friday night Tamsin, Holly, Emma and I walked into the nearby village of Fryerstown for their weekly game of wine and scrabble. I loved the atmosphere in the old wooden school house-turned pub as we played games, chatted and enjoyed classic tunes from the 50s, along with other local folk. The walk back was just as memorable as we looked up at the stars and discussed the significance of death and our individual souls (as you do!). Cars frequently stopped to ask if we would like a lift home and it seemed I met the rest of Fryers Forest on the road that night!
36 adults and children currently live in the community, with ages ranging from under 5 to over 80. A weekly morning tea and monthly community meeting, followed by a working bee, helps keep people connected. However the general level of interaction is not as high as some people would like. I think the shared life requires much awareness and effort because the influence of western culture is always trying to pull us away from interdependence towards self-sufficiency.
Due to most of our time being spent with one family, it was hard to get a true sense of how close-knit this community is. Still, it was lovely to hear that whenever Tamsin sees a fellow forester outside the community, even if she doesn’t know them so well, she feels a loyalty to them – a bond akin to family.
Being that Fryers Forest is not a cooperative – it consists of 11 freehold titles – buying and selling is much easier. But it also means that current members of the community don’t have much control over who joins Fryers Forest and can’t ensure that new members will share their vision. Perhaps this isn’t as significant as it seems. A new person with different ideas can create an opportunity for mutual learning and growth, and being a minority, shouldn’t be a threat to the the overall vision.
Finally, one thing I particularly appreciated about our host family is how ordinary and achievable they made non-mainstream life – that is, being part of a sustainably-based intentional community – seem. It really is quite natural and normal to live this way.
Mike has some wonderful insights regarding our time in Fryers Forest so make sure you have a read here!