The Hewsons, Cudgee
What a great way to wrap up our intentional communities roadtrip with a visit to Greg and Elvira Hewson’s place in the little hamlet of Cudgee, just east of Warrnambool on the south coast of Victoria. Greg and Elvira, along with their children Patrick and Mairead, belong to a small group of families who live next door to each other and seek to live a different way. Due to the loose structure of their shared life, they’re reluctant to call themselves an intentional community (they don’t have a name), but I think they qualify. In any case, what they’re doing is worth writing about!
It all started about 20 years ago when a visionary couple purchased 14 acres of land in Cudgee with the view to starting an intentional community. But it took another 10 years for others to become interested. Eventually the land was sub-divided and four families, including the Hewsons, each bought a 1 acre block along Manna Lane.
These families already had something in common which continues to be an important part of their lives today: their faith, and in particular, their commitment to the Common Rule. The Common Rule is a Christian response to the unprecedented challenges of our time. It is a simple rule of life for people who are seeking spiritual renewal, and who recognize their need for personal discipline and the support and solidarity of others. (The Common Rule leaflet.) The Common Rule unites Christians from all different denominations across Victoria. Individuals who are living by the Rule commit to daily prayer and reflection as well as acts of worship, service and justice.
Even though the Hewsons are part of a local church, the Common Rule has been an important means for them to connect with others who understand what it is like to have lived in an intentional community (Greg and Elvira began their journey as Urban Seed residents in the heart of Melbourne), or for others who have been missionaries overseas, for example. These unique experiences forever change your perspective on life and faith, and the Common Rule can support those who might otherwise feel isolated and alone.
But it’s not just faith and friendship that unites these families in Manna Lane, it’s also their commitment to live more sustainably and invest in the broader community – values which are informed by their faith.
After being greeted by Elvira and Jindi (the family dog), and allowing the two canines to get acquainted (our dog Kito was with us), we stepped into the warmth of the Hewson’s passive solar home. I was immediately struck by the simple beauty and functionality of this home; it’s wall of north-facing windows, polished concrete and wooden floors, central mud brick wall, corrugated tin ceilings, reclaimed doors and other character details – quite possibly my favourite passive solar home so far! I was further impressed to learn that Greg had done most of the work himself and built the house in only ten months, about 8 years ago. It’s amazing what you can do when you find a budget passive solar home designer who will also guide you in construction. Maybe there’s still hope for us!
A big reason the Hewsons moved to the country was to have space to grow their own food. And can I just say here, I really respect them for taking the plunge to leave the city, which is all they had ever known, to pursue something really important to them… even if it does still feel a bit weird at times!
As Elvira showed us around the garden I enjoyed picking up some more tips. I hadn’t realised that keeping ducks was a natural way to control pests, or that putting chooks on end-of-season veggie plots was one way to fertilise the soil and help prepare it for the next crop! One little enterprise that supplements the Hewson’s income is growing garlic for sale at local markets. It requires little work and grows well in their contrasting climate of very wet winters and hot, dry summers. The Hewsons also belong to a dry foods co-op which is a great way to strengthen community and make food more affordable.
Beyond a personal desire for better quality, affordable food, is Greg and Elvira’s interest in food security within wider society. Elvira has just finished a thesis on this topic. She had been researching the agricultural and food industries in south-west Victoria and in the process discovering that most of the food grown in this area is destined for export. People who live in here are increasingly finding it difficult to feed themselves, with requests for food through welfare programs dramatically increasing during the last 12 months. Clearly something needs to change.
In the afternoon, we went for a lovely walk to a place where two rivers meet in the green and gently rolling landscape. If it wasn’t for the heavily cleared land, right up to the water’s edge, this pretty spot would be even more beautiful. It was sad to hear about the degradation of the land and contamination of natural water sources due to intensive farming. The Hewsons have been part of a revegetation project at a nearby waterfall, but many more volunteers are needed for such projects.
Finally on the subject of living sustainably, once again I have to mention the loo! The Hewsons use a wet compost system. All grey water and waste from the toilet goes to a compost bin outside where worms break it down and eventually turn it into fertiliser for the fruit trees. I had never heard of this system before – I had only ever come across dry compost systems (the long-drop approach). Not a bad way of doing things, I reckon, if you can’t bear to part with your flushing loo!
Every Wednesday, the Hewsons and their friends gather together for a time of prayer and a shared lunch. During our stay, it was a privilege to participate in this weekly rhythm and meet another lovely couple who live just across the road. For a couple of hours we had the pleasure of getting to know Timshell and Shelly a little, and at our request, learn about the construction of their beautiful straw bale home. Shelly has a delightful bubbly nature and I found myself resonating with her in a number of ways, including her concern for refugees as well as her creative talent.
Other shared activities in Manna Lane include Thursday night bible study, baby-sitting, and in the early days, taking turns to prepare an evening meal for another household as well as your own. I love these small examples of lightening the load and sharing life together.
Within this circle of friends, community rhythms appear more organic and less predictable than a more structured intentional community, but their commitment to each other seems strong. I’m sure their solid faith and unique set of values – which aren’t common in general society – is what holds them together.
On our last evening with the Hewsons, Greg and Elvira shared with us their commitment to the broader community. One of their values is to work part-time and exist on a low income in order to have time to build relationships and support activities within the local community. I really admire their integrity.
Elvira talked about helping people find work (paid or unpaid) that is meaningful for them. From what she shared, it seems she desires to see people not just survive through any work or living arrangements, but really thrive and find real purpose to their lives.
The idea of living simply or voluntary poverty is not new to me. For a long time I’ve aspired to live with less in order to free up resources for those in need. And I’ve thought about how this can be an example to others. But somehow Elvira’s words caused me to see things in a slightly different light. She talked about their desire to live at a level that would be accessible for the marginalised of society. I realised that choosing to live simply is not just about redistributing wealth, it’s also about identifying with those who don’t have the choice and discovering together that life can still be lived to the full.
During our time with the Hewsons and their friends, I was really impressed by their humility, wisdom and authenticity. I admire their values and how they are living them out – from their environmentally sensitive homes and gardens, to their care and concern for those in the wider community.
Following Jesus – bringing heaven to earth – is a very narrow and difficult path, so it’s always wonderful when you stumble across like-minded souls with whom you can share and receive encouragement for at least part of the journey. Thank you, new friends, for opening your hearts and homes to us.