Between forest and farm

Well you can’t go on a roadtrip like ours and not visit the Northern Rivers region of NSW – arguably the highest concentration of intentional communities, co-operatives, multiple occupancies and people living alternative lifestyles in Australia. I didn’t really know what to expect from these communities and felt slightly apprehensive given their history and reputation – many of them originated out of the counter-cultural Aquarius Festival in 1973 and have been infamous for growing cannabis. However what I discovered was very inspiring and didn’t conform to the stereotype.

Dharmananda, The Channon NSW

Driving along ridges with stunning vistas of rolling green hills and distant mountains, admiring perfectly straight rows of dense macadamia orchards, and passing through quaint villages, you can see why this area attracts artists, growers and people simply wanting to escape the city life. This was our approach to the village of The Channon late one Monday afternoon. A bit further north, after negotiating potholes and bumps, we reached our destination.

I’m not sure why we chose to visit Dharmananda out of all the options, but I feel really blessed to have stumbled upon one of the oldest – over forty years – and most close-knit intentional communities in the district. And after two weeks in this community, I can see why people leave gushing comments in the visitor’s book, make return visits, or are inspired to start up their own organic farm or intentional community.

A view of the main house

I loved to sit on the verandah of the Main House in the morning with my coffee

The beginnings

Original member, carol

Original member, Carol

In the late 60s and early 70s, people were starting to think about alternative forms of living. Carol and Dudley were one such couple. In 1972, after looking at possible locations in NSW and QLD, they finally bought land in a narrow valley just east of Nimbin with a view to establishing an intentional community there.

As you cross the continuously babbling Terania Creek which flows along the bottom edge of the property, pass lush cow pastures and the extensive community garden, and look up towards the houses on the western side of the valley which is covered in tall trees, it’s hard to imagine this land was once completely bald and highly degraded. Progressive clearing for dairy farming and then neglect had left the land devastated by the time Carol and Dudley arrived. However since those early days, a huge amount of work has gone into both restoring the native vegetation as well as establishing a flourishing small-scale farm. This is Dharmananda.

Dharmananda currently has 15 adults and 5 kids. Each individual, couple or family enjoys their own home which is situated in one of 3 clusters. Many of the houses have been built on steep inclines, saving the flats for growing food.

Stunning Dharmananda

Stunning Dharmananda

Sights and sounds of the forest

The Bunkhouse

The Asian-influenced Bunkhouse

The beautiful view from our window.

The beautiful view from our window

The Bunkhouse, perched on a steep slope behind the Main House, was our accommodation for the fortnight. It was soul-stirring to awaken to birdsong and the distant sound of the rushing creek echoing through an otherwise quiet valley. Occasionally an early morning mist would hang amongst the trees, adding to the sense of peace and mystery.

Something I wasn’t prepared for were all the creatures who came to greet us – huge cockroaches and spiders, a brown tree snake in our rafters, micro-bats, leeches, and of course, ticks (annoying little buggers!). It made me think twice about living in the sub-tropics, but I guess you’d get used to it!

A desire to be self-sufficient

At Dharmananda, the farm is central to their identity and purpose. It’s an expression of their desire to live in harmony with the planet and each other. The work can sometimes be demanding, but it’s also what unites them. Additionally, it’s a means of relating to the wider community. People come from near and far to learn how to farm organically and live sustainably.

Leigh, the farm expert

Leigh, the farm expert

Multiple times a day the sound of Leigh’s tractor can be heard as he comes down one ridge and goes up another, always a task to do. Eight plots of five hundred square metres are worked to provide seasonal, organic veggies to the whole community. These plots are divided into rows and each row is managed by a different community member who focuses on growing one type of vegetable.

Maggie and her cheese

Maggie, the resident cheese-maker

The storeroom

The storeroom

Another significant part of life at Dharmananda are the dozen or so jersey cows. Every day at the crack of dawn, the “girls” are called in for milking. Like most jobs on the farm, there are a whole range of tasks that surround this job. Each week the community produces two large rounds of cheese and consumes two. On a Wednesday or Saturday morning you’ll find Maggie sitting on a little stool in the kitchen, stirring and chopping as she separates the curds from the whey. I enjoyed chatting and sharing a pot of coffee with her on these mornings. Butter, yoghurt and fetta cheese are also regularly made.

You can’t help but be impressed by Dharmananda’s commitment to be as self-sufficient as possible. They can only achieve this by working together.

Ray, one of the original members

Ray, who came to Dharmananda soon after Carol and Dudley

Keeping cows

Having greatly reduced our dairy intake in recent years (we observe a vegan diet at home but are more relaxed when receiving the hospitality of others), the cow and dairy component of Dharmananda was challenging for us.

Leigh is one of the original members of the community and has been researching and applying organic and biodynamic farming methods for forty years. He shared with us that throughout history responsible, small-scale farming has always included animals. What they add to the soil (through manure) as well as the food they provide is all part of the system. But are they absolutely necessary, we wondered? We know that humans can live (indeed thrive) off a purely plant-based diet, but can an organic farm be just as productive without the input of animals?

I also wondered about growing soy beans (or similar crop) for protein instead of producing dairy products, but very little of Dharmananda’s land is suitable for growing food – just the small area on the flood plane, which is dedicated to veggies. The surrounding area is too swampy and the rest of the property is too steep, but its fertile nature makes it perfect for milking cows.

Of course having milking cows means keeping them lactating by getting them in calf regularly. And the fallout of that is needing to separate the calves from their mothers, as well as dispose of the males which aren’t useful unless you eat meat. One day during our stay it was time for the calves to be separated from their mothers. It’s a very difficult and stressful task. It can take all day and is physically and emotionally exhausting. And for the next couple of days I found it disconcerting to hear the calves and their mothers mooing to each other in distress at being separated.

Having said all that, the cows are clearly loved at Dharmananda with each being known by name. A calf will even be given physio treatment if born with a weak leg! The chickens are also well treated with plenty of room to roam. This is certainly a far cry from factory farming, and I really respect them for that.

One of the bovine beauties

One of the bovine beauties

Restoring the natural landscape

One of our tasks during our stay was to help with bush regeneration – pulling out weeds such as lantana and crofton so that native plants have a chance to grow. It was enlightening to see the difference between a hillside that was covered in crofton weed and another where beautiful and diverse, sub-tropical rainforest plants and trees were thriving.

Where others might see it as a chore, Leigh genuinely sees bush regeneration as an enjoyable pastime: “I relax by pulling out lantana”! He achieves a great deal of satisfaction by allowing nature to rejuvenate itself and flourish once again. And after ripping out hillsides of crofton weed myself to uncover handfuls of small and delicate red cedars, straining towards the light, I’m beginning to understand his love for this “work”. It’s elemental. It’s spiritual.

Contribution and connection

Darmananda has always had a strong work ethic, with a policy of “no dope and no dole”. This was especially important in the early days when there was an enormous amount of work to be done in establishing the place.

Me, preparing the soil for the next beetroot crop

Preparing the soil for the next beetroot crop

Every Friday morning, individuals work on different tasks that benefit the community. Then on Saturday morning, everyone dons their boots, hats and gloves and heads down to the veggie garden to get their hands dirty. At 11am, the gong strikes for morning tea and everyone stops to enjoy Maggie’s fresh pikelets (so delicious!) with a cuppa on the Main House verandah. It’s a lovely time to connect and catch up with each other.

An evening meal in the Main House

An evening meal in the Main House

Each person is also rostered on for two weekly tasks, such as milking the cows, making cheese, or preparing the evening meal. This shared meal takes place six nights a week in the Main House and is an opportunity for members to come together, enjoy their own produce and celebrate communal life. All these routines keep the farm going as well as strengthen community spirit.

In addition to community commitments, many members work part time in one of the neighbouring towns, some have children to raise, and all of them have their own houses to take care of. Life at Dharmananda is full. This was an important revelation to us. It challenged us to think about whether living in intentional community and sharing tasks and resources would actually allow more time to pursue our own personal creative projects, which is part of the dream for Mike and I.

Our tiny sleeping hut in the Forest Meditation Centre

Our tiny sleeping hut in the forest

Another, perhaps less obvious, aspect to life at Dharmananda is spirituality. Original members came with Buddhist values and practised meditation, and they seem to have attracted like-minded individuals over the years. No doubt this shared philosophy contributes to their unity. Incidentally, it was a real treat to spend a night in The Forest Meditation Centre which they share with a neighbouring community. Whilst we didn’t participate in an organised retreat, simply being there was soul-nourishing. I loved the simplicity of the place – a tiny hut to sleep in, a bush shower, a basic kitchen and a fire pit. And the rainforest itself was sublime – a stunning canopy pierced by sun rays during the day and then punctured by stars at night. It was magical.

A sublime place

The Forest Meditation Centre – a sublime place

Communication

Compassionate (or Non-Violent) Communication seems to be an important part of understanding and relating to each other at Dharmananda. Part of this involves taking responsibility for your own feelings rather than blaming the other person. This feeds into their strategy for resolving conflict: if you have a problem with someone, you can go to another person (just one) and ask for their feedback, eg “Am I being too emotional? Should I let this go or should I speak to the person?” I like this idea – it seems like a mature approach and doesn’t support the potential for gossip. One member in particular has put a lot of effort into researching and implementing good communication skills. No doubt this has greatly improved the interdependency within the community.

I really enjoyed the sense of community at Dharmananda – it felt like extended family. Socially speaking, this is my type of community.

Dullah and Mohana

Dullah and Mohana

Membership and the changing of the guard

The lovely and witty Maggie

The lovely and witty Maggie

At Dharmananda, it takes a trial period of twelve months to become a member, and often this official process only commences after the applicant has already spent some time in the community. Just like other healthy, long-lasting communities, Dharmananda’s intent is to ensure that newcomers are compatible and that the community has continuity.

Once approved, new members are required to buy a share (small non-refundable amount) in the community, as well as pay a more significant “loan” to the co-operative which is refundable if they leave. They may also need to purchase one of the existing houses. The only ongoing cost is a small weekly contribution towards the kitty. Everything comes out of this, from additional food items to farm equipment. Needless to say, living here is far more affordable than the mainstream alternative.

I appreciated chatting with one of the original members one day. She explained that Dharmananda is changing, with the younger and more recent members having a different set of skills and outlook. It must be hard to let go of the old, but her attitude was positive and realistic, acknowledging that you can’t hold onto the same set of people and dynamics forever. New people will do new things, which can be very good of course. “As long as they look after the land – that’s all I hope for” she said.

We also talked about growing older. In mainstream western society, an elder might move in with their child’s family for a time, but then the task of caring for the elder becomes too much and they are sent to a nursing home. Alternatively, in a place like Dharmananda, people can share the task of caring for an elder. What’s more, the elder can continue to contribute to community life, offer wisdom gained from life experience and participate in rich intergenerational relationships. I know where I’d rather be! And the member we spoke to is absolutely certain her family at Dharmananda will look after her in her twilight years – it’s a given.

Dharmananda at first light

Dharmananda at first light

Last thoughts

I highly recommend paying a visit to Dharmananda! What I particularly appreciated was being assigned to different community members and gaining a unique perspective from each of them. It felt like we were getting a more accurate and rounded picture of community here than we had anywhere else.

There’s a lot to love about Dharmananda and reason to consider joining – the natural environment, the close-knit nature of the group, the desire to be self-sufficient, the care of the land, the strong work ethic, the deep commitment to people and place. However, as well as the dairy component, I think I’d struggle with Dharmananda’s distance from any major city, making it more difficult to visit existing family and friends, as well as attend events. Finally, I’ve realised that whilst I’m happy to contribute to some farm work, this isn’t my passion.

So for now, we’ll keep looking and keep dreaming. Whether we join an existing community or start something new, the jury’s still out.

See Mike’s photo gallery and read his version of our stay at Dharmananda.

Some other Dharmananda residents

Some of the other Dharmananda residents

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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.

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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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A truly radical and authentic community

Danthonia – a Bruderhof community, Elsmore NSW

We almost didn’t visit Danthonia. Ashamedly, I admit I was initially put-off by images of women in headscarfs and long skirts. I envisaged a closed community, steeped in religious tradition and conservative values. But our brief stay in Danthonia has touched me deeply – more than I could have imagined – and I wonder if I will ever find another community more committed to Jesus and each other.

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It was after dark when we turned off the highway and drove down the long driveway. Our hosts, Bill and Grace Anna, greeted us in the carpark. I immediately noticed the pervading peace – stars above and the sound of crickets. Sigh.

From then on, we experienced incredible welcome and friendship from the members of this 200 person community. Each day, as we walked the paths Danthonia, individuals went out of their way to shake hands and introduce themselves. And we received invitations to join a different family for almost every breakfast, lunch and dinner we were there!

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A brief history

The history of the Bruderhof movement as well as individuals’ stories has been so fascinating and inspiring to me.

The movement began in 1920 in Germany when Protestant theologian Eberhard Arnold, his wife and her sister, appalled by mounting social injustice and the horrors of World War I, sought answers in Jesus’ teachings, especially his Sermon on the Mount. Through this search they felt a call to radical discipleship: to give up everything for Christ. A small community of like-minded seekers joined them.*

Since then the movement has grown to over 2700 people world-wide with communities in Germany, the United Kingdom, Paraguay, the United States and Australia. The community in Australia, known as Danthonia, was started 16 years ago.

Many people came to the Bruderhof as war veterans or conscientious objectors, searching for a different, more peaceful and authentic way to live. I highly regard the Bruderhof’s pacifist principles. And now, when I read the gospels, I wonder how Christians can come to any other conclusion.

So many members told me a very similar story: they / their parents / their grandparents were atheists, searching for something real, came across the Bruderhof and immediately knew they were home.

Fun fact: due to their heritage, almost every adult at Danthonia has been born overseas and speaks with an American accent! (Sometimes there’s a bit of English or German mixed in too.)

*Source: www.bruderhof.com

Daily life

IMG_8539_newThe day starts at 6am with each family gathered around the table for breakfast. The Bruderhof love to sing and know several hundred spiritual and folk songs off by heart. It was a little strange at first, but also lovely to hear beautiful harmonies emanating from numerous households at the crack of dawn.

Every house contains two or three families, each of whom have a couple of rooms to themselves, plus a kitchen and bathrooms shared amongst all. Singles – young and old – are placed with families.

After breakfast, members go off to their various tasks, whether it be in the sign shop, school (children and teenagers are home-schooled), kitchen, laundry, community garden, or out in the paddocks.

The Bruderhof don’t have church services but regularly meet for bodily and spiritual nourishment. Twice a day we all gathered – once during lunch or dinner, and again to sing, share words of encouragement and pray. Being outdoors is their preferred option and I loved being gathered in a circle, sitting in the shade of large trees, or under the stars around beautiful hand-made lanterns. It was real and meaningful.

Everything in common

As Bill said, how can we love one another if we only see each other for a couple of hours, one day a week and most of that time is spent listening to a sermon?! When we live and work together we get to really see what each other is like and practice true love which forgives, is patient and kind (you know the rest!).

The Bruderhof take Jesus’ command to “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” very seriously. They believe in living in the spirit of the first Christians who “were united and shared everything with one another.” Therefore they renounce private ownership and share everything in common. What really stood out to me, and has stuck with me, is what they have gained through this life of sacrifice…

They have given up private ownership and financial independence, but gained freedom from greed, materialism and debt.

They have given up a life of independence, but gained enormous benefits from living in close-knit, committed-for-life community. They experience deep relationships, share each others burdens, and remain cared for in-community when they get old.

They have largely given up the opportunity to pursue personal dreams and goals, but gained reward in working together for the greater good.

The business that sustains their common life

The business that sustains their common life

They have given up self-expression in the form of uniform, modest clothing, but gained liberty from fashion slavery, competition, superficiality and objectification. The more time I spent with members, the more their individual personalities shone through and clothing became irrelevant – as with any friends I have.

Read an excellent blog post by one of the members here where she joyfully explains the freedom she finds in dressing as her and her sisters do.

As we chatted with various members of Danthonia they admitted this life isn’t easy. They have different personalities and opinions which often clash, requiring regular forgiveness. But facing and overcoming these challenges only draws them closer.

I think the important thing to know is that each member has freely chosen to live in joyful submission to Jesus and each other – their commitment is not done under duress. Nor is their life a legalistic one, for example, if there is something you’d particularly like to have or do, you simply put in a request.

As they are guided by love, the only real “rule” they have is not to gossip. If you have a problem with someone you go directly to them and only seek the advice of another if necessary. Gossip will quickly tear a community apart, several people told us. It makes sense.

Taking the vow

As you can imagine, joining the Bruderhof is not to be taken lightly. It requires complete surrender to Jesus and certainty that this is the life you have been called to.

Children born into community aren’t automatically members, they have to make the decision for themselves once they have matured and reached 21. They are then free to leave and seek a life of meaning in the wider world, or commit to community for life.

The life-long vow that members make seems somewhat daunting, but I appreciate that without such a commitment people would leave when the going gets tough and the community would fall apart – just like marriage really!

Involvement in the world

There are many opportunities to engage with the wider community, both before and after becoming a member. The community is by no means cut-off nor closed.

Justice and acts of mercy are an important part of their calling. They support various marginalised groups and other organisations working for social change, including many that I have connections with. I found this really encouraging.

Their authentic expression of community, as well as their respect for the land, is having an impact. They’ve established a significant connection with local Aboriginals who have said to them, “you are permanently welcome here.”

They also run a business that specialises in creating hand-carved signs as a means of sustaining themselves financially. “The shop”, located on site, buzzes with activity from design and sales, to carving, painting, finishing and more. I was really impressed with the quality and professionalism. And I love how men and women, young and old, work side by side. It was a real highlight to participate in this work and learn about the lives of my co-workers at the same time.

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Treading lightly on the earth

Stemming from their desire to see God’s kingdom come, Danthonia are working to restore and protect the earth through tree planting, cutting-edge sustainable farming, organic gardening, seed saving and other activities. One outcome is a 27% increase in bird species!

I found it interesting that they didn’t really draw attention to their environmental practices. Clearly, the community’s primary focus is to love and serve others, but obviously you can’t genuinely care for people if you aren’t also caring for the planet on which they depend.

Aspects I would struggle with

The Bruderhof seem to hold some fairy traditional views which I don’t necessarily agree with, particularly regarding women in leadership, gender roles and homosexuality. I would probably struggle with these as equality is an important value of mine, but I respect their convictions. What’s more, they greatly value the wisdom of their founder Eberhard who said they must always seek Christ and be willing to change should the Spirit guide them to.

To finish

Members of the Bruderhof are the first to acknowledge that their lifestyle is not the only way to follow Jesus. They are well aware of others who are doing great things for the kingdom and are eager to build relationships with them. They can also recognise God working through those who don’t profess any faith – were there is love there is God. I love their humility and grace. I have to say though, it doesn’t surprise me that individuals find Jesus here – their authenticity is very tangible and attractive.

I almost envy those who have been born into this way of life, surely it comes more naturally and easily to them. However, no doubt if the Spirit moves you to join them, you will also be given the strength to overcome the hurdles.

One thing left ringing in my ears is: don’t search for community, just seek Jesus and the kingdom of God and the rest will fall into place.

It was an amazing experience to be with our brothers and sisters at Danthonia. I’m so so glad we went and I hope to see them again one day!

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PS. If you plan to visit Danthonia you will be welcomed with open arms. Our time with them was quite brief (four and a half days) and intense so I recommend staying longer and spacing out your invitations to meet with couples and families. And be prepared to delve into conversations of faith numerous times – their favourite topic it seems!

Check out the Bruderhof’s excellent website: www.bruderhof.com
Read Mike’s perspective on our time with this community

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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

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

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.