Another way to live

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!

Our hosts: Elvira, Greg, Patrick and Mairead

Our hosts: Elvira, Greg, Patrick and Mairead

Common faith

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.

Sustainable living

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!

The Hewson's home from the south side

The Hewson’s home from the south side

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!

The Hewson's pretty girls

The Hewson’s pretty girls

Greg near one of the garlic beds

Greg near one of the garlic beds

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.

On our walk

On our walk

The Hopkins River

The Hopkins River

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!

Common life

Timshell and Shelly's beautiful straw bale home

Timshell and Shelly’s beautiful straw bale home

Inside Timshell and Shelly's home

Inside Timshell and Shelly’s home

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.

Beyond themselves

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.

Thank you

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.

Cudgee

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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!