Month: February 2015

A Story Shared

a sunday walk
Every sunday at Crystal Waters Eco Village Peter Van, and anybody wishing to join him, does a walk. It started off as showing a few of the newer locals around, getting to know the land. He still does the same today but with more followers, and to more places. I joined the walk today in a not too far away patch of nameless national forest.
It was beautiful bush/forest with a surprising water hole at the end. Being from South Australia (driest state in the driest country for the more foreign among you), It looked perfectly full and flowing, but the locals assured me it was very low and dry (perspective is all relative you see..). Not to make too light of the situation though – they really are in their worst drought for a long time. And much to my surprise many of the locals had come prepared with bathers, or failing that, just underpants. One by one, many jumped or shuffled in. The sight of an apprehensive young man climbing the bank only to let go and launch himself in was so much fun, the locals clapping and cheering for the feat.
waterhole jump
We walked and talked, stopping often to marvel at something unseen or a new tree in flower. I stopped to touch a magnificent log that had been abandoned long ago – left to be shrouded in it’s green moss and plant life, carpety soft to touch. Amongst it all I met lots of new village locals. I happily chatted and listened on all manner of things including the plants, travelling, religion, the environment, politics, the local birds and their calls.
moss log
I loved the way that nature was part and parcel of normal conversation. It’s something I have noticed amongst lots of people living here – they are inherently observant of nature. They are in it, they see it, they live it – for some it’s not necessarily by intention either, but just by being immersed in it they naturally absorb it (indeed that’s the best way to learn, is it not?). So these people know things like when plants are (are should be) in flower and what weather is coming and thus how it relates to them. The cycles of nature are therefore more naturally noticed, accounted for and integrated (or used to mould) their lives. By living the way they do, it simply becomes part of their everyday. Amazing how little effort it takes to connect to important things if the lifestyle is set up to do so in the first place.
One of the couples I met, Peter & Lizzie, invited me back to their house for a cuppa and to see some of the things they were doing there. I first pegged Peter as an interesting character when he made a reference to there being “too many hippies” in the early stages of Crystal Waters. It struck me that not only does he not identify with hippies but actively dissociates himself from them, contrary to what most might expect of someone living in the village.
It’s so interesting to observe the lifecycle of my own impressions – I came with ,unconsciously, preconceived notions about what people were like, I met them and it changed. And then find myself in some of those wonderful conversations – where and how they came to be unfolds in front of me – changing my impression of them yet again. Humans are intricate creatures I think. Seems Shrek (yes, kid movie reference) was right – we are layered like onions. I love seeing those layers shed and getting to know more about who people are and where they are coming from.
This meeting was no exception, we had a lovely chat about lots of things. We talked about the walk, and the village, the birds that come to feed on their front verandah and how we all came to be here. Lizzie, it turns out is a great storyteller and very entertaining. I listened avidly while she recounted the story of her and Peter.
First loves, they soon separated when Lizzie went off to the Navy to become a nurse. She apparently had loads of fun and forgot all about poor Peter at home. They grew into life, as people do – they moved on, married others and had children. Eventually both divorced and got on with life as singles, happily. Then a magazine ad caught the eye of Lizzie – an advert for the new “friends untied” website. Before the days of Facebook, it helped people locate old friends based on which school they went to. Lizzie found loads of her old friends. Apparently she had always felt bad about the way she treated Peter and wished to apologise to him. Thinking this might be her chance, she looked him up to see if he was doing ok. She found him divorced with grown up children and living alone in this permaculture village he helped to create. She took her chance to apologise and wrote him the letter that was always in the back of her mind. Not looking for anything more, and having finally got her life to herself in a place she was enjoying, it came as a shock when, within three days of that letter and talking to Peter, it was clear they were meant to be together again. What to do? Lizzie was in England, Peter in Australia. Come and see this place Peter said, but Lizzie had just spent all her savings on fixing up a the roof for her house – it seemed improbable at the least. Except for the phone call from the local newsagent that came not long after – “come around, we have something to show you”. It was a little competition that Lizzie had won first prize in – 1000 pounds. Woo! Guess how much the fare to Australia was? 950 pounds. And the taxi cab to the airport? 50 pounds. The parting of the red seas, as Lizzie described it, set her forth to Australia where she stayed for 3 weeks. When she returned she called in through the real estate agent to put her house on the market – she sold it the very next day. Signs, what signs? I don’t see any signs – just this giant cloud of something called serendipity.
That was 12 years ago – she’s been here all that time. She accepted the fact that she was obviously meant to go off and have those experiences in-between. Including the two less than perfect marriages, which seemingly woke her up to something. When she was young, in her teens, she just expected to bat an eyelid for men to fall at her feet, as they evidently did. The clincher though was this: she expected them to all love her the way Peter did. He adored her, and clearly still does – given his currently misty eyes and temporary cessation of joking. Over her life she learnt to appreciate the love he had given her, and then return to it. How wonderful to come full circle in that opportunity.
The unsolicited telling of this love story was quite apt given that earlier out on the walk I had surreptisiously taken photos of this couple because they were just so gorgeous – walking up the track hand-in-hand.
peter and lizzie
Lizzie then made something else clear that I had not yet realised – unlike many people, she hadn’t come for the environment, or any other similar reasoning – it was for love. So what an interesting perspective to therefore have on crystal waters and life here. She told me about some of the lively times she had when first here, meeting the wildlife. A self-confessed townie, she once called her daughter across town to come and remove a rather small frog that had perched itself upon her front step. To see her sitting comfortably in one of the most creature inhabited settlements I’ve ever visited tells me she has gone though some serious learning and adjustment.
It’s true she says, and one such ‘learning experience’ came when having a quiet day at home. Peter was off at work so Lizzie went for a rest on the swing chair. She awoke to find a black snake curled up on her hip – also asleep. Following advice to stay still until it moved on, she stayed as still as she could – all except for her toes which would not stop channeling her inner terror in the form of trembling. Apparently it was enough to wake the snake and attract its attention. As it headed feet-ward she thought that’s it, i’m going to die – via a black venomous snake. After an acceptance that there was nothing else she could do, a wave of beautiful peace washed over her. In the end the snake escaped up a tree, revealing its  tell-tale non-venemous coloured belly. A black tree snake, no harm at all! Relief and profanities propelled her back to the house before realising the washing was still out and needed collecting. So she ran up again and jumped down to the platform only to awaken another sleeping snake – this time it really was a venomous black snake. It awoke with such a fright it shot up into the air and vanished. It was so quick she had no idea where it went. Naturally she checked down her pants, just to make sure.
Well, you can imagine just how much my mouth hurt by now from smiling and laughing – it was wonderful. I loved chatting and listening. And seeing around their lot, where more passion obviously lies in things like Peter’s ‘eco-ponics’ (think aquaponics meets hydroponics) and ‘fruit jungle’ (the rambling fruit-filled food forest surrounding their house).
I really felt uplifted and enriched for having spent time there – when I returned home I found it hard to convey just how great it had been and why. Not because it wasn’t, but rather because it was something more than just a cuppa and chat which, I couldn’t explain. Later, I pondered what it was. I still can’t say for sure but one thing did flash in my mind: Stories. It was the stories.
I’ve come to realise I just love listening to other people’s stories. But only when they are genuine or passionate – they have a different energy about them. It is only the real feelings which evoke a response. What a privilege it is to witness people reconnect with the joy, excitement or fear of events that shaped them and linger in their memory.
But there was more to it as well, more than just the story. It was the sharing of the story. My mind repeated: “a story shared”.  Ah – now I understood – it took me back to a passage in a book I had read (and quoted in a previous post too – ‘my year without matches’ by Claire Dunn). This is how Claire described it:
“That’s why this (sharing our story) is important, I realise. Kept to ourselves, a story is too fragile, liable to whither or blow away. The story is not truly lived until told. It’s only through the telling that the story can mature, can ripen and claim a life larger than its own – a gift for others.”
I think she was right – I certainly experienced it as a gift. Perhaps it is like the breath of life to a fading ember – reigniting an energy, emotion or experience within our own minds. And to bear witness to the story of others broadens our understanding of them, and humanity as a whole.
And so, what would appear outwardly as a cuppa and chat with strangers, left me feeling more whole and inspired than before. This is where I will finish – despite all the other intriguing tid bits and tangents i’m tempted to wander through. What I will say though, is how grateful I am to witness more and more of these types of people who are open, welcoming, willing to share, very generous and with a view broader than their own interests. Thank you for all those things. And thank you, for a story shared.



WWOOF round 2 – with a side order of village, permaculture style

village hill view


Next stop: Crystal Waters Eco Village in the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland of Queensland.

For us, this was to be round 2 of WWOOFing, and a chance to visit family just down the road – my Dad, Step-mum and two sisters. Actually, they are the whole reason we went to Queensland. And why we even thought of taking the car and some extra time to see Australia on our way out – cheers to that!

It was also round 2 of seeing community life, though this time we could settle in and experience it ourselves for a while. For the first week however, we stayed alone on the property (dejavu!) as our hosts, Max & Trudi, were away for birthday celebrations. Max gave us some excellent instructions so we set to work on those jobs.  Despite this, and that there are always jobs around, it’s still a little harder to get into the swing of a place and its work without the owner there to point you in a particular direction. or mention how they do things – at least to begin with anyway. Nevertheless we managed to find our way around and make ourselves useful. When all else failed we had a weeding bonanza – it may have been a little more than necessary but, a good old weeding blitz every now and then is a good thing 🙂

In the topographically endowed plot they have two garden areas, plus various plantings of useful trees for bees, birds and humans alike (such as the freaky but fun – and yummy – Jaboticaba). One garden is up high and close to the house with crops that require more frequent care, as in the permaculture idea of zoning (highest maintenance areas are placed close to where the labour is). Think greens and such: lettuces, herbs, spinach, onions, cucumbers, salad greens, tomatoes and flowers for companions. It was a good sized area with about 6 large raised beds sitting over a sandy base and plantings around the edge (another permaculture principle; value and use the edge – in this example it is taken literally in terms of space but one could also consider it more laterally in valuing ideas, people or products that are on the fringe). And just like at home, cherry tomatoes were proving to be troopers so we foraged lots from stray bushes to make many a tabouli bowl with the abundant parsley.

mic emma upper garden


Then the other ‘lower’ garden, as per its name, was located down the hill a bit. As you might guess, the less frequently visited crops were down here. At this end of spring it included the last of plants like broccoli, kale, cabbage and more onions and parsley.  We partook in these too, then helped prep for new plantings in the five super long beds with some home grown chook poo and worm castings (aka, you guessed it – poo) for fertiliser. Turns out, moving wheelbarrows up and down the slopes was, deceptively, much harder than I expected – gardening on a hillside will keep you fit! Then we topped em’ off with locally abundant shredded bamboo for mulch and they were ready for the next planting – some of which we got to do before we left. We sowed peas and beans in time to see them raise their little heads and stretch leafy wings – I love seeing the birth of seedlings!

upper garden


Emma was prospering in the setting and lifestyle here too. While on our own, she quickly settled into a routine of looking after the chickens by herself – ushering them in and out; checking water, grain and eggs; and dragging over spent broccoli. I say ‘dragging’ because, by this time, the broccoli stalks had grown to be pretty much bigger than her.

collage em food

em chicken chillinWe often found her taking solace in the hen house, just hanging out with the ladies. She really enjoyed having that responsibility – I think the morning and night animal chores punctuated her day.

She also took to playing hospitality – ‘the tea party hotel’ as she liked to call it. She set up tables, took our orders,  made food for real and even sometimes did the dishes after packing it all up! True to her independent ways, she was completely adamant that she must do it all. Well, it was her hotel I guess. In light of her enjoying this kind of service role, we took the opportunity to add a related responsibility – doing the breakfast dishes while Michael and I went out for another couple of hours work in the morning. Despite not being over the moon about it, she agreed, then volunteered to make the breakfast too, go figure! Seems the freedom to take responsibility and feel strong brings on a flourishing in her.

I’ve yet to mention our accommodation – a beautiful swiss style chalet. And when I say Swiss chalet, in sunny Queensland, I don’t think its a joke. Max is actually Swiss. Picture a wooden cabin with two bedrooms, decks, central lounge and kitchen, viewing the Northern woods and dam. We certainly felt spoiled – even Ruby got a bed!

collage cabin


And as for the village’s landscape, Max & Trudi’s lot sits within the 640 acre bush property – 14% of which is allocated to residential land. The rest is owned in common – as preserved bushland mostly, plus commercial land (the village green, commercial kitchen & deck venue, other business space/ventures, paddocks and an eco caravan park).  A body corporate, community co-operative and sub committees manage the public facilities and village green activities. The property is a wildlife refuge and so a no dog/cat policy is in place to protect the diversity there. And diversity abounds – as do the kangaroos and wallabies that frequented our cabin and the gardens every day. Literally. Plus deer – not as often or as close, but not far enough away for a gardener, hence the wildlife-proof fences which surround the edible plantings. Birds, frogs, butterflies and snakes also visited us. And spiders, lots of spiders. But after daily clearing of webs, and nightly refilling, you just let it go and get used to it. Throughout the village are dams, ponds and a sparkling, rocky creek – containing fish and even platypus. It certainly is a beautiful slice of bush that seems to succeed at incorporating refreshing environments for humans and wildlife alike.

collage animals small


Then early one morning we met Max – up with the sun, as he is everyday. I think he was a little surprised to see some WWOOFers doing the same. Lovely man – matter of fact and warm. Not long after we met Trudi – working diligently in the bee house and equally lovely, exuding what I think of as a typically wonderful country disposition: equal parts down-to-earth frankness and friendly hospitality.

Then, the bees – oh the bees! This was our first introduction into bees and beekeeping. Scary and captivating is how I want to describe the experience. The gentle calmness Max demonstrated seemed an essential qualification for checking the hives and collecting honey. For that reason I donned a bee suit but mostly watched while the born-calm Michael learnt the ropes. Fascinating – I would love to have a go one day. For now though, I headed in to help Trudi with the processing. Sticky fun sees waxy caps of the honeycomb taken off frames with a heated knife, followed by spinning to release the honey. Then it just goes through a series of mesh filters and into a bucket. Voila! Simple, and such a bonus that honey keeps just fine at room temperature and is naturally anti-bacterial – great product to work with.

collage honey processing


While Max and Trudi keep bees and sell honey as a business (Crystal Waters Raw Honey), I suspect that for them, as for others, its about more than just honey and money. Watching Max with the bees was like watching someone in pleasant ritual. In mediation. Not to mention the importance of helping to sustain a healthy bee population – both for their own sake and ours.

collage max bees 2

In case you’re uninitiated, bees are responsible for pollinating, and therefore producing, a significant chunk of our food. As well as who-knows-what other valuable roles in the eco-system. Seems they are having ever-more trouble from disease, habitat/food loss and our increasing use of chemicals in agriculture. The American (aka Californian) almond industry is a great case in point. The sect has turned over massive tracts of land to almond trees – and usually only almond trees = massive monoculture. They rely solely on bees to pollinate their crop and turn blossoms into almonds, but there aren’t enough bees around naturally, (i’m thinking it’s pretty hard to live in a place with only one food at one time of year), and so they truck them in seasonally from all over the country. Increasingly though, more bee deaths are occurring after the event and across the country in general (the mysterious, cause-unknown, syndrome is being called ‘colony collapse disorder’). And it looks like the chemicals the growers are using are also a contributing cause. It got so bad that they had to ship bees in from Australia! Can you believe it? I was shocked, having no idea they did that. I know what we’re like after such a long trip – I can’t imagine it does the bees any good either, never mind the resources that go into the transportation and quarantine issues. Turns out quarantine issues did emerge and the risk of foreign disease/parasites from our bees caused the US to put the Kibosh on that option. Looks to me like plugging a badly designed boat with ever-growing wads of bubblegum. As for a solution, well in my opinion, it seems it might just be the same as what we need – diversity of clean food. We don’t do well eating the same thing endlessly, nor living in a food desert or consuming processed/chemicalised (yes, I’ve now made that a word) food. Neither do they. So plant something else with the almonds, its not hard (unless the system is set up to be a large scale mechanised factory in a field…). It’s just another reason to support the growers using more responsible and sustainable practices – i.e. without the chemicals and mass-scale.

Ok, I’m back from ranty-town. Shall we continue?

Max & Trudi also run cows – on some of the communal land the village holds. Residents have the opportunity to lease land from the Co-op and now it’s free to do so, provided you agree to look after the parcel of land in whatever venture you are using it for. So Max and Trudi have several paddocks to run the cows through, including their orchard of pecan trees. They break up the land with the portable electric fencing that was a game changer for sustainable farming,  letting farmers run stock using cell grazing techniques (see the start of this article). A higher density of animals in the smaller area, for a shorter period of time, mimics nature more closely. Thus producing a myriad of advantages like more complete grazing, quicker recovery and higher quality pasture. The better management creates a healthier environment which translates into more nutritious products. They ran four beautiful black lowline cows – these girls don’t grow horns and are shorter than your average cow, but still rather hefty. So much so that when we first met them, Emma stuck herself firmly to my side and said:

“Mummy, will they eat me?”

Snigger. A lesson followed on the, suddenly relevant and contextualised, meaning of a  ‘herbivore’.

collage cows


In addition, Max & Trudi also have an orchard of kaffir lime trees and work on their other business in environmental consulting as well as a non-profit which encourages and educates in the area of communities and eco-villages. So a day’s work on such a property can cover tasks in many areas. To paint a picture of our WWOOFing days though, think of time spent in garden beds working the soil with natural amendments, weeding, planting and watering, as well as tying cucumbers and putting the ingeniously simple shade cloth covers in an infinite number of configurations, according to the days weather. Then other tasks were decidedly bee orientated – helping to check, clean and collect from hives and process the honey. Emma enjoyed watching and helping with the bottle labelling too. And I think we all enjoyed getting a good dose of woodworking when drilling, hammering, nailing, gluing and wiring up new bee frames was required. While Emma was busy learning to use the electric drill and hammer in eyelets, I made a comment about this being a woodworking lesson for her, but despite my best efforts she didn’t believe me. Oh well, apparently those skills belong in some other category!

collage em drill


We also went to one of the local markets at Witta to help set up Max & Trudi’s stall, which adjoins that of Pat and Johns – they recently bought the Lindegger’s long held seedling business. They were a great couple of stalls in what was a lovely example of a country market, selling lots of great local, sustainable produce.

In amongst the work hours – which can be a flexible arrangement by the way – we tried to get involved with some of the many activities going on. Most days we would wake up early to do a couple of hours then do another couple after breakfast or leave it until the afternoon. We also did more on some days so we could organise larger allotments of free to time for excursions. The type of work schedule depends upon the host and the work they have going – but from what we have seen and heard, most hosts are more than happy to be flexible and give WWOOFers encouragement, time and help in getting to know the area and people. It’s a sharing platform after all.

Well, at Crystal Waters there is so much to see, do and join in with that we tried our best to take advantage of what we could. For example, Every Saturday in the village green their organic, handmade sourdough bakery opens up to serve it’s bready delights, plus morning sweet treats and coffee. The second hand shop located across the way also opens and people can mill around, sit on the outdoor tables and chairs or shelter up on the deck. People come down for their weekly bread, some stay for a cuppa and chat, or many with kids come down to socialise while the children amuse themselves with the play equipment and each other’s company. Its a lovely, relaxed atmosphere where people are happy to linger and socialise. In contrast, on the first Saturday of each month it grows into the Crystal Waters Market where you find a busier, lively atmosphere. In addition to the bakery and second hand shop, there is live music and vendors selling an array of things like second hand goods and foodie items (ranging from fresh produce and ready to eat yummies – think home made pies, curry, sorbet, real lemonade and juices – to more specialty stuff like kombucha). And the commercial kitchen and communal cafe on the big deck opens up too.

collage market


Thats just the tip of the iceberg though. Every friday night there is a movie on in the Eco Centre, followed by the bakery saturday-moning-social (as i’m calling it) and then usually a saturday night show of some sort – we caught a comedy performance when were there, great fun. Then on Sunday morning they shake it all off with a bush walk in the property or surrounding area. After the bush walk I joined in some of the other happenings during the week – like taking Emma to the community choir (thought she might find it fun) only to have her abandon me for a new friend  – well! It now seemed I was there to join the choir – nothing left to do but try and sing. Not to worry though, I found it was so much fun I went back the next week! And it was of course great for Emma – she and Ellenie had a wonderful time. We even organised to come back for another play date.  Then we all went along to watch the Marimba band practice. If you’re not familiar with the marimba, imagine a mutated wooden xylophone-like creature big enough to have its own legs and stand at an adults waist. Now imagine several of them in one room with players beating in time and tune. On arrival we were given instruments and an apologetic forewarning that they may not be right on top of things – it had been a little while. The instruments were great fun, the sounds jubilant and the warnings unnecessary – we enjoyed every minute of it, especially emma who surprisingly found a comfortable home and rhythm upon the drum.

So the activities were great and we had a blast, but what we enjoyed most was meeting the people. The chance to meet, chat and connect was invigorating and I enjoyed hearing other’s perspectives on all sorts of topics, including the village. We spent the rest of our free time visiting our family, relaxing in the cabin, chillin down at the creek or exploring places outside like nearby Maleny, Ananda Marga River School, Manduka Coop Community and Chenrezig Institute Budhist Retreat (all of which, were very rich and interesting in their own ways).

collage emcreek chilling collage CW spare time


Looking back, I think of the mixed messages we got about this place. It’s reputation as a worthy model is based on the fact that it’s been around for about 30 years, is still going and was the first permaculture eco-village ever designed in the world – not to mention the leading examples of sustainable buildings which can be seen there. Yet, the village seems to suffer from a different reputation in some parts of the greater area – with negative hippie-type stigma or insinuations that things there aren’t working. When we talked about going there to see an illustration of a good intentional community, we received discouragement – the source of which I suspect lay in mismatches of expectations or the natural frustrations & challenges which are present in managing that amount of land and people.

Later on, Max (who also co-designed the village) chatted to us about the issue too, saying people often expect the village to be one way or another. For instance, everyone getting along or thinking the same way, all being into some healing or spirituality, or that the place would be dripping with food. He added that in reality, expectations are often wrong and the village just is what it is – about 200 people co-living in an area with the accompanying diversity one might expect of a group that size.

But in the face of the initial contradictions, we decided that whatever the actual situation was, we could learn from it. Examples to emulate are just as powerful as examples to avoid. And I’m so glad we did – what a rich experience we had.

While we may not know all there is to know after seeing it for a few weeks, it’s still true that we were actually there. We met people, got involved and saw it for ourselves. We saw that there are challenges to be worked through, and trade-offs for the lifestyle – but I think that’s the case anywhere. More importantly, we saw why is the villager’s have decided the up-sides and positives outweigh them – we saw a place where the land and environment are respected, where people come together for activity, joy and in need. And where a healthy lifestyle can flourish.

As a result, we have real admiration and respect for the village and what they have done/are doing there. The continuing journey ahead will be an interesting one that we wish them all the best for, and hope to hear more about.

Lastly, we are grateful to have met the people we did – it was such a pleasure. And particularly to our hosts Max & Trudi for their open and sharing spirit – thank you for the opportunity and conversations. We took a lot away from our time there – we hope we also left a little piece of ourselves behind….