Contemplating community by the sea

Bundagen, NSW

Bundagen is an intentional community situated on the mid-north coast of NSW, just south of Coffs Harbour. It is a rural land sharing co-operative and wildlife sanctuary, guided by three main principles: social harmony, environmental responsibility and economic independence. It is bordered by Bongil Bongil National Park on all sides, including the headland and beach. It also includes world heritage rainforest. Yes, I admit, the stunning location was a bit of a draw card for us!

It took us about twenty minutes from the highway, winding through beautiful native forest and Bundagen’s tropical vegetation, to reach our hosts’ home in the The Bananas village. (No prizes for guessing what fruit tree once completely covered this area.) This village is the closest one to the beach (less than a ten minute walk) and at the end of a hard day of labour it was pretty lovely to be able to immerse ourselves in the waves or simply gaze at the ocean and often stormy sky – so restorative.

Bundagen began back in the early 1980s when local environmentalists became concerned about the possible purchase of two farms and bushland for tourist development, and the subsequent loss of valuable forest. A company was formed and individual loans called for in order to save the land. Eventually, enough money was raised and the land bought soon after. The company was then turned into a co-operative and those who had made the loans became the first shareholders.

Now, there are approximately 180 members, of whom about 110 live on site, with their children, in the twelve villages that make up Bundagen. The whole community is independent of mains water, sewerage and electricity. They rely on dams and rain-water tanks and use alternative technology, such as solar power and composting toilets.*

*Source: bundagen.org.au

Hosts of fun

Jo-and-Giri_trimmedOur hosts, Giri and Jo, were great – providing some of the best conversations and laughs we’ve had in a while! Jo is a counselor and specialist in communication and parenting, whilst Giri practises humour therapy. Numerous evenings were spent around the kitchen table, drinking wine and discussing a whole range of topics from non-violent communication to clowning to spirituality. Giri would often softly strum his ukulele in the background and occasionally pull out one of his accordions for a more lively interlude of music! And the humour and jokes flowed freely. We really got along well.

caravan door_trimmedDuring our stay, Mike and I were housed in a cosy 60s-styled caravan not far from the house. Using a “wee” bucket (not small, the other kind) behind a screen that we erected next to the caravan was a new experience for me, but I took it in my stride (quite literally) and I’m sure the citrus and banana trees were thankful for the extra nutrients. Otherwise, there was the compost toilet. Why do flushing loos exist, I found myself asking again. They’re such a silly, wasteful idea.

Thoughtful design and natural beauty

Giri and Jo have a beautiful home, built with their own hands. It’s taken them couple of decades to add a kitchen, bathroom, verandah and outdoor living space to their initial one-room abode (just a tent in the early days), and the bedroom wing is yet to be built, but I sensed pride in the beauty they’ve created through the use of natural and recycled materials, and delayed satisfaction in waiting until they have the finances instead of going into debt.

They have also been mindful of making sure their home is accessible to people in a wheelchair or the elderly, whether it be themselves or others who live here in the future. They see their home as a place for many to enjoy, not just themselves. Their openness and hospitality is obvious with neighbours and friends dropping by each day (which I loved). Friendship and trust amongst neighbours are the norm. What a contrast from typical suburbia where disconnection and fear dominate our lives. Oh to live this way, where instead of yearning for human connection you may need to put up boundaries to occasionally get your work done!

Giri and Jo's creative and attractive home

Giri and Jo’s creative and attractive home

I loved seeing some of the other homes in the village as well. Nestled amongst tropical vegetation, they were modest in size and non-obtrusive within the landscape. One was octagon and featured a loft, another had a series of rooms joined by covered walkways. Natural materials such as wood, stone, and rammed earth were primarily employed – a lovely extension of nature. On the outside, wide verandahs and decks were ideal places to gather in warm weather. On the inside, each home had loads of character and felt very inviting. These low-impact homes were some of the most beautiful and livable ones I’ve ever seen. And their organic gardens only added to the sense of working with nature, not against it.

Doing some “pointing” on the arch in the wall

One of our tasks during the first week was helping Giri build a fire wall made with recycled bricks and river stones. It was a good opportunity to learn some new techniques, such as “pointing” (I imagined I was working on a medieval castle!), as well as appreciate the labour-intensiveness of such a task. It was rewarding to see a beautiful, organic structure emerge at the end of the day and I think I am beginning to let go of the need for perfect symmetry. (I also think I’m a pretty good sorter, stacker and carter of bricks now!)

Striving for social harmony

During our time in Bundagen it was great to participate in a couple of  community events such as a singalong at a neighbours’ house where no one cared if you didn’t have great pitch, and a Saturday morning working bee whereby about 20 of us donned gumboots, sloshed through mud and pulled out a weed on the banks of a dam. Following this, a lunch was provided at neighbour’s place for those who had participated. I love how a simple and not always pleasant task such as pulling weeds can be become light, enjoyable and even community building.

But often, real hardship is what brings people together, as most of us know. Bundagen has certainly had its share of pain and difficulties, including the tragic loss of young lives and court cases with disgruntled members wanting to sell their assigned piece of land (all land is owned by the cooperative and can’t be sold individually), the latter proving that unfortunately people can change over the years and lose sight of original shared values.

In the community, there is an ongoing issue with a member who has caused a huge amount of stress to others. Unfortunately, after many years of attempting to show compassion towards this person and work through conflict, nothing has changed. Still, members are rallying together, discussing what can be done, and where the boundaries need to be drawn for the sake of everyone’s well-being.

Living in intentional community isn’t any easier than living in mainstream society. People have to deal with the same politics and problems as in the wider community. But I do believe that the level of support, the willingness to work through issues and the potential to become better people in the process is greater.

lush scenery_new

Longevity

I think the fact that Bundagen has been going for 35 years and there’s practically a waiting list for people who want to join says a lot. It seems the community is still very committed to social harmony and being caretakers of the land, which is the “glue” that keeps them together and makes them attractive to others. “I feel so blessed to live here” and “We are really happy and regularly grateful” were a few expressions I heard.

House-sitting, when possible, is a great way potential new members as well as the community can get to know each other and see whether both parties are a good fit. And a lengthy and thorough joining process ensures that new members share the same philosophy as the group. All this contributes to the health and sustainability of Bundagen.

Final thoughts

I can see why people would want to live in Bundagen: for the natural beauty, the opportunity to live completely off-grid and tread lightly on the earth, and of course the friendship and support. However even after all these positives, I’m not sure it would be for me… I think I’m looking for something that feels even more close-knit and interdependant, with shared meals and activities happening almost daily. But who’s to say this isn’t happening in some of the villages – we really only saw a small piece of the whole.

Jump on Bundagen’s website if you’d like to know more, including the shared spaces and activities, decision making and membership.

And here’s Mike’s perspective on our time in Bundagen.

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Sustainable living in the forest

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!

Our hosts: Toby, Gryphon, Tyco and Tamsin

Our hosts: Toby, Gryphon, Tyco and Tamsin

“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.

Our little hut – so cosy!

Our little hut – so cosy!

The loo!

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!

Part of the 290 acres of forested common land

Part of the 290 acres of forested common land

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.

Tamsin and I walking by the two old oaks on the edge of the lake – a favourite picnic spot

Tamsin and I walking by the two old oaks on the edge of the lake – a favourite picnic spot

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!

Tyco with his medieval-styled balaclava!

Tyco with his medieval-styled balaclava!

Gryphon

Gryphon

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.

The animated Tamsin and I – a few days before our shared birthday!

The animated Tamsin and I – a few days before our shared birthday!

 

Mike has some wonderful insights regarding our time in Fryers Forest so make sure you have a read here!

More please!

Moora Moora, Healesville

Moora Moora is set high above the rolling green landscape of Healesville and Badger Creek on Mt Toolebewong, about an hour east of Melbourne. Tall gums shedding their skins and lush ferns line the winding road that takes you up. Eventually this opens out to a plateau of several small farms and the Moora Moora cooperative community. It was misty, cold and wet as we approached the cluster of homes in which our hosts live. So a well-stoked wood fire, hot cuppa and warm welcome from Sandra was just the ticket.

Peter and Sandra, along with Mark who boards with them, are some of the original founders of Moora Moora. They’re also some of the most knowledgeable people regarding intentional communities that we’ve met so far. Peter, who is a professor of sociology and environmentalism, and his wife Sandra traveled extensively both home and abroad visiting approximately 50 intentional communities before starting their own. Mark is an expert on cooperative communities. He has also served as a local councillor and understands the complexities and legalities surrounding the purchasing of land and setting up such communities. It was both a privilege and a pleasure to stay with these folk for a few days and glean as much wisdom from them as we can.

Our hosts, Peter and Sandra

Our fantastic hosts, Peter and Sandra

 

The dream

Moora Moora began 40 years ago with the shared dream of 12 adults to provide a positive alternative to the highly pressurised urban lifestyle; a place where you had time to enjoy life; a place that enabled self-determination. The co-op was formed and 245 hectares of picturesque land was purchased. Houses were owner-built in six hamlets – or clusters as they’re known – with the whole community sharing the load by working on one house for one day on a rotational basis. Sandra describes the early years as very busy and intense, but the members were young, idealistic, passionate and full of energy. No doubt their naivety regarding all the work involved also helped!

Life in Moora Moora today

Each cluster now consists of 4 to 5 homes, with approximately 45 adults and 20 children making up the whole community. The common buildings, The Lodge and The Octagon, sit in the center of Moora Moora with three clusters on either side. They provide a space for community get-togethers and meetings, as well as courses and workshops relevant to sustainable community living.

As Peter drove us around the whole community, I was inspired by the creativity shown in the diverse range house styles – everything from whimsical to Swiss chalet! – and materials from which they were built. But I was surprised by the distance between each cluster of homes (approximately 1km) and the community buildings. I expected them to be closer and Peter said this is probably something they would do differently if they had their time again.

Peter and Sandra's cluster name

Peter and Sandra’s cluster name

The solar panels belonging to Nyora

The solar panels belonging to Nyora

Something I admire is the whole community’s commitment to remain off-grid. Most homes have their own solar panels, but Peter and Sandra’s cluster, known as Nyora, have chosen to share energy by drawing from a bank of cluster-owned panels. Naturally, good communication is required between households when energy supply gets low.

It’s up to each cluster to decide how much of their lives they share, whether it’s the practical such as energy and equipment, or the more social such as weekly dinners. Often a cluster will have its own “member dues” which enable the cluster to purchase and share equipment. There are also “community dues” which are compulsory. I like the autonomy of cluster agreements as well as the security of community agreements that this system of governance offers members.

Moora Moora’s on-site CSA – community-supported agriculture – provides subscribers with regular shares in produce. The annual subscription fees pays for two members of the community to run the CSA as their full time job. Sandra thinks this arrangement works better than a community garden. In the latter, the work is meant to be equally shared but all too often it seems to fall on the shoulders of one or two individuals. From what I’ve discovered and generally speaking, CSA seems to operate with quite a degree of involvement between consumers and producers, but I still like the strong social aspect that community gardens can offer.

Not what you can gain, but rather what you can give

Like any cooperative community, when an individual or family expresses interest in becoming a member of Moora Moora, a screening or trial period takes place first. It’s not just a matter of paying the membership fee and being automatically accepted – you need to show that you have an understanding of the community’s philosophy, share their vision and have the willingness and capacity to participate in community life. It shouldn’t be just about what you can gain, but also what you can give.

Having said that, I also observed an attitude of grace and compassion. If someone falls sick, is facing a crisis, or even if a potential new member show signs of neediness and may not have the ability to contribute to the community for a long time, the existing members will try hard to accommodate them.

At Moora Moora, it currently costs about $17.5K to purchase a share of the co-op and officially become a member. Ideally, a member will then buy one of the homes up for sale or build their own. Even though there are currently renters in the community, this isn’t preferable as it creates an unequal society, with home owners and renters having different responsibilities. I respect their desire for an egalitarian community, and I appreciate that the cost of buying into this community is far cheaper than buying property in typical suburbia – in fact, it’s only 1 twentieth – but these purchasing costs can still exclude low income earners who can only afford to rent (like ourselves!).

Peter and Sandra's mountain-top home

Peter and Sandra’s mountain-top home

The challenges

Moora Moora has had a long time, at least as far as intentional communities go, to work through conflict, refine their processes and improve their practices. But of course like any group of relational beings, there are constant challenges to work through in order to sustain the community into the future.

Some of the hardest things for Peter have been the inequality between members’ contributions (some members keep to themselves and rarely participate in community life) and the lack of appreciation for Moora Moora’s ideology (some members don’t seem to share the community’s vision and are simply living there because they think it’s a nice place to live). Naturally, these two challenges are linked. And I imagine these particular challenges to be quite common throughout intentional communities.

Another challenge for Peter and Sandra (and others in the community) is the practicality of staying on the mountain as they approach their twilight years. Their dream is for Moora Moora to be a place where members can grow old and not have to leave due to the lack of support and services. With this is mind, Peter and Sandra are currently renovating part of their house to make it more suitable for them as they get older as well as possibly accommodate a live-in carer.

All too short

Peter and I, gathering the firewood

Peter and I, gathering the firewood

Being outdoors was quite invigorating. For a couple of cold and misty days we carted, split and stacked wood. It was very satisfying to see the ground cleared of logs and wood stacked neatly in piles, ready for coming winters. It was also a great way to keep warm! During a brief moment, as I looked up at the wind-tossed treetops and low-passing clouds, with the biting cold on my face, I appreciated what a wild and “thin”* place nature can be.

Our time in Moora Moora was all too short though – it didn’t really allow us much opportunity to interact with others in the community. And as I’ve mentioned, it was rather wintery. I’d love to come back in spring or summer to participate in different activities and get a more rounded picture of the place. More of Moora Moora please! But I did appreciate what we were able to experience and learn, as well as the warmth, wisdom and humour of our hosts. (I found Peter’s intelligence and tendency to poke fun particularly delightful!)

One question our experience in Moora Moora raised was: would we ever create an intentional community from scratch as Peter and Sandra did, particularly given the age that we are and the amount of dedication and work required. Hmm… that’s a good question!

 

*There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. In a thin place I vividly experience the Divine presence.

 

If you haven’t already done so, have a read of Mike’s version of our time in this community.

A cooperative approach

Commonground, Seymour

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.

A view of The Wedge, the main building at Commonground

A view of The Wedge, the main building at Commonground

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.

One of the regular guests

One of the regular guests

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 from above

The Wedge from above

The hallway and inner courtyard

The hallway and inner courtyard

The dining room for groups who hire the venue

The dining room for groups who hire the venue

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!).

Emily and Jessica harvesting basil leaves

Emily and Jessica harvesting basil leaves

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.)

Kasia and I preparing our couch grass beer!

Kasia and I preparing our couch grass beer!

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.

Kate and Phil, two of Commonground's founding members

Kate and Phil, two of Commonground’s founding members

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.

Twilight at Commonground

Twilight at Commonground

 

Make sure you also have a read of Mike’s reflection on our time at Commonground.

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!