Not your average ecovillage

Narara Ecovillage, Narara Valley

Talk about the unexpected! Even though Mike has been receiving e-newsletters from Narara Ecovillage for quite a while, both of us were under the impression the village was already built and fully functioning… um, not quite! But we weren’t disappointed – far from it!

As soon as we stepped out of the car to participate in Narara Ecovillage’s open day, we were greeted with a friendly welcome by one of the village members. We were then given a brief rundown of the day, issued name tags, and introduced to our tour guide, Lincoln. (I was already starting to sense how organised these guys are!) For the next 45 minutes or so, Lincoln led half a dozen of us on a walking tour of the property.

Location, location

Narara Ecovillage is situated in the Narara Valley just north of Gosford on the Central Coast of NSW. It consists of 64 hectares – 12 zoned for residential development, another 12 for agriculture and community gardens, and the remaining hectares of native forest dedicated to conservation.* As we meandered along tracks, we were able to appreciate the property’s natural beauty: gently sloping land on which to build homes with a view, a dam, a creek, and several large grassy areas –  ideal for camping, festivals, or meditation. Lovely.

Open spaces – ideal for festivals and the like

Open spaces – ideal for festivals and the like

But what makes this property especially unique is it’s history and legacy. For 100 years it was the home of the Gosford Horticultural Institute. As a result, there are over 50 existing structures and buildings, including greenhouses, outbuildings and workshops – perfect for the Ecovillage’s food production and cottage industries.* I was particularly attracted to a group of buildings nestled in the hillside that would make fantastic workshops for glassblowers, carpenters and many other artisans. What an inspiring place to practice your craft!

The Institute has also left behind a number of residential dwellings, offices and other buildings ideally suited for community facilities. The members of this future village have a great head-start!

*Source: www.nararaecovillage.com

Existing hot houses – perfect for food production and propagating native plants

Existing hot houses – perfect for food production and propagating native plants

Vision and values

After the tour we were given afternoon tea on a verandah overlooking lush vegetation, before being ushered inside to hear a couple of presentations on the ecovillage.

It was hard not to be impressed by everything these folks have thought of and are working towards, such as their “smart grid” energy system whereby all houses will be supplied with energy from their own solar panels with any excess fed into the village grid, leaving no need to be connected to the outside grid, and their means of supplying the whole community with water by obtaining a wica license (the first community to do this) to treat and use water from the large on-site dam.

In line with permaculture principles, the members hope to reuse existing infrastructure as much as possible, eg the green houses and hot houses for food production, the heritage house as a community space, and the old science labs and offices as potential guest rooms. They also plan to have a mill on site to make use of the trees they fell (to provide room for housing and roads), turn the excavated earth (when installing civil infrastructure) into building material, and of course create community gardens.

On the walking tour

On the walking tour

All these things are great, but what really caught my attention was their emphasis on community and social cohesion, which I didn’t expect. From the little I know, an ecovillage often focuses solely on environmental sustainability, with little thought given to establishing a strong sense of community. It is possible to live in an ecovillage but have very little to do with one another. Not here. Narara is also an intentional community.

Lyndall Parris, the primary founder of Narara, spent several years traveling the world, researching many ecovillages and intentional communities. As a result, this community is deeply committed to the idea of “people before houses” – a theme we heard repeated numerous times in different forms throughout the day.

The members have thought of many ways they can encourage social interaction, from making pedestrian access a priority and having no fences between houses, to establishing a library, cafe and other social spaces. They want Narara to be more like a traditional village – a place where you live, work and play, a place where all of life can happen.

It has taken the community five years to get to where they are today – ready to start putting in civil infrastructure and start building their homes. During this time they’ve held many events (open days, community dinners, film nights etc), worked through difficulties, established how to make decisions and resolve conflicts, all with the aim of building and strengthening community.

With regards to governance, as a means of ensuring no individual is left feeling disgruntled by a decision, Narara employs sociocracy. I am yet to fully understand this concept, but suffice to say, decisions are worked through until there is complete consensus. I appreciate this process can often be arduous, but it totally resinates with my value of fairness.

I’m so glad Narara have put community first, rather than simply building smart houses. I have every confidence that they will succeed and not fall by the wayside as so many ecovillages do.

All aboard

Throughout the course of the day, from both speakers and individual chats we had with members, it became clear that this community wants to be an example to others – not in a superior way, but in a very encouraging, down-to-earth “you can create this type of community too” way.

Narara is situated right on the edge of suburbia where they can more readily interact with and inspire others, and one way they are doing this is through their Ecoburbia Festival. This annual festival, held at the local high school, is a means of both educating the broader community about living sustainably and strengthening ties with them. It has attracted stalls from all over the region and become a huge success in just two years.

Richard shared how they want everyone to feel welcome and respected at this festival, including those in the broader community who may hold different views. He spoke very inclusively, acknowledging that just as “we have things to offer them, they have things to offer us.” I love their desire to connect and work with others.

“It’s all about being positive, especially regarding what’s happening locally, whilst not forgetting what’s happening in the world.” Richard said. And in the words of Socrates:

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

Stay engaged

The community meal that evening was a great opportunity for us to further our conversations with different members and hear their thoughts on the advantages of establishing this type of community.

As Tony pointed out, some individuals and communities become so disillusioned with mainstream society and the state of the world that they disengage with the wider community, often physically distancing themselves. Narara, however, has chosen to operate with a positive mindset and remain engaged. I admire this stance as I know how tempting it is to simply walk away and do your own thing.

Room for growth?

I noticed during one of the presentations that spirituality wasn’t mentioned as an important aspect of community life. And in a personal conversation, there seemed to be a slight uneasiness when we mentioned being impressed with another community that happened to be faith-based. I found this surprising considering every other community we’ve visited, including both non-religious and faith-based, acknowledges the importance of spirituality in some form. Perhaps Narara has some growth to do in this area? To be fair we weren’t really with them long enough to say.

Providing affordable housing to those on a low income has always been part of Narara’s vision, hence their plan to build a number of co-housing clusters. However, a couple like Mike and I will never be able to afford even their cheapest option – a one bedroom flat starting at $270,000. Is Narara really a model for all demographics in Australia?

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Overall, we had such a positive experience of Narara during our brief visit. The community members were extremely friendly and welcoming (okay, I guess they may have had their recruiting hats on at times, but still!) and they seem to be taking the right approach with most things. It was great to enter their space at the beginning stages and I look forward to returning one day to see all their dreams manifested!

Click here to read Mike’s perspective on our visit to Narara.

Me enjoying the lush environment

Me enjoying the lush environment of Narara

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The rawness of humanity and the richness of community

The Longroom Community, Norlane

Geelong, in the few times that I’ve passed through, has always struck me as rather industrial and bleak. So this time I was looking forward to lingering a bit longer and having my perception redeemed. Destination: Norlane. Hmm, perhaps not the first place you’d think of exploring if you want to experience the city’s cultural and natural beauty. However, down a pretty ordinary suburban street lies an extraordinary little community which is bringing forth life and beauty in all sorts of small yet significant ways.

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The Longroom Community is based at Norlane Baptist Church. It is a project of Urban Seed whose vision is to create communities of hope, healing, and justice – in this case, within a suburban setting. (See also my post about Credo Community in Melbourne City’s laneways: A place to call home.) Community life is centred around various weekly activities where those needing a nutritious meal, purposeful work or simply connection with others can come and be involved.

The residential chapel with veggie plots in front

The residential chapel with veggie plots in front

Apart from the sign near the entrance, you wouldn’t necessarily know this is a church. Veggie plots, outdoor seating areas, chooks and space set aside for a future food forest surround the small carpark. A charming, converted chapel houses residents. Inside this building, a door leads directly to The Longroom and kitchen where community meals are prepared and enjoyed. Connected to this, the church makes a very welcoming and homely space with its couches and artwork. I love how this place seems to be naturally evolving and growing over time, and how individuals have left their mark.

Essential to the life of the Longroom Community is a group of residents living at the church and in the surrounding streets. Sarah, Dave, Cherie, Steve and two year old Charlie live in the chapel and are committed to spending at least 1–2 years being part of this neighbourhood. They were our wonderful hosts for a few days.

The Urban Seed residents who are humbly helping to bring about positive change

Some of the Urban Seed residents who are  helping to bring about positive change

Brokenness and hope

On the first afternoon, Sarah and Dave took us on a walking tour of the local area and shared some sobering information with us. In the 1970s, the demise of the nearby Ford factory caused hundreds of residents to lose their jobs. As a result, many people in Norlane now experience long-term unemployment and generational poverty (www.urbanseed.org/norlane). No doubt this also contributes to the high incidents of crime and drug use in Norlane.

Cherie and Steve, as well as Sarah, have all experienced the frustration of having their cars stolen by teenagers, often just for hooning around. But they’ve also come to appreciate the boredom and disadvantage these teenagers face. Sarah, who is wise beyond her years, said that their response must be to “fight fire with water – that’s the only way to break the cycle”. Responding with unexpected words and acts of grace are one way these folk are helping to bring about positive change in the streets.

An artist and former resident of the community has left her mark on the neighbourhood

An artist and former resident of the community has left her mark on the neighbourhood

The wall of Norlane Baptist Church

The wall of Norlane Baptist Church

Later, as we were weeding the garden together, Sarah told me about some of the individuals who’ve become part of the Longroom Community. I heard stories of accidents and physical suffering, theft and homelessness, and incredible challenges such as raising 6 kids on your own. I could tell as she spoke that the brokenness and needs are often overwhelming. “What can you do but pray” she said, and then added, “What’s required is for the church to walk alongside them, hear their stories and love them.” And that’s exactly what these followers of Jesus are doing – nothing fancy, simply offering their presence. One man in particular has found welcome, love and Jesus after stumbling across Urban Seed in Norlane. He now has such a positive outlook on life and is very quick to compliment and encourage others. I loved how Sarah summed things up: “There’s darkness here, but there’s light too; you see the rawness of humanity, but you also see the richness of community.” So true.

Sarah’s stories and reflections got me thinking… if each one of us opened our hearts to one broken individual or family, and walked alongside them, admitting that we’re not that different from each other in terms of our mutual needs for understanding, love and companionship, this world would soon become a very different place.

A hive of activity

Wednesdays are a busy day for the Longroom Community. People come together to cook, garden, eat, hang out and participate in The People’s Pantry.

Simon

Simon

That day, amidst the hive of activity, it was great to sit down with Simon who along with his wife Kaylene heads the Urban Seed community in Norlane. He told us about the history of the Longroom Community, as well as the exciting future possibilities and connections with the broader community they are working towards.

Simon also graciously shared with us his previous experience of establishing an intentional community. He sounded somewhat regretful about the mistakes they had made, but it was clear those mistakes brought with them very valuable lessons. He said “Don’t start an intentional community on your own. Establish a partnership first, whether it’s with a church or a community organisation, because when things get tough you need accountability partners, mentors, and support”. Very good advice.

A spirit of generosity

A spirit of generosity

Community lunch that day was a lovely experience. Autumn sunlight streamed in through the windows at one end of The Longroom, warming our bodies, and good conversation with local characters warmed our hearts. Any left over food from community meals goes in the Share Corner where people can take whatever they need, no questions asked. People are also invited to drop other items in the corner, such as clothing. I rather like their motto: Share what you can, take only what you need. But The People’s Pantry seemed to be the main event of the day…

The People’s Pantry redistributes food from Foodbank Victoria and SecondBite, enabling local families on low incomes to access nutritious food. In exchange for a regular supply of quality food, individuals are simply required to pay a $10 membership fee and volunteer a few times every 6 months. Sounds great! And it was. People cheerfully took charge; setting up tables, displaying goods and carrying out other tasks. Individuals waited patiently for their number to be called and then made their selections from the tables. The place had a very positive buzz to it.

The People's Pantry

The People’s Pantry

Working together towards food security

The veggie plots

The veggie plots

The last fruits of the summer crops

The last fruits of the summer crops

Much of the Longroom Community’s activities revolve around food and nutrition, in line with the needs of the local community. This is not only seen in the number of shared meals provided each week, but also in the growing of veggies, keeping of chooks and plans for a food forest. Steve took us for a tour of the community garden and outdoor area. It’s not a huge space to work with, but is being used really well. And ideas for further development are in the works with a course in permaculture being next on the list. It was great to hear of the broader community getting involved too, such as a local school group who donated some soil and their time.

A vision of the kingdom of God

the Longroom CommunityThe community at Norlane Baptist Church gave me a vision of how other churches and faith communities could look: a place where people can truly experience the unconditional love and acceptance of God, without any judgement or feeling like a misfit due to their appearance, education, background or beliefs; a place where Christ-like love is not only discussed, it’s also demonstrated.

It was a delight to stay with the Longroom Community for a few days and be able to witness a bunch of people who are humbly going about their lives, quietly ushering in the kingdom of God. I was reminded that the kingdom of God is often hidden, and can be found in very ordinary and unexpected places, like in the graffitied laneways of Melbourne’s CBD or the rough streets of Norlane. It’s not showy and triumphant, but slowly works it’s way into hearts and lives, eventually transforming whole communities.

Read about Mike’s experience of the Longroom Community here.

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!

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.