San Fran to Portland, and the trees in-between.

freeway 101 sign

It didn’t take long after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to hit highway and countryside (in unison). Alas, between one mother and one small person, the need to take toilet stops is ever-present. I was surprised to find how difficult it proved to locate a toilet sometimes – we stopped at a group of shops but found no public options. A kind waiter in the restaurant allowed us to use the bathroom, despite the large “no public restrooms” sign posted in the window (a common sight on our trip). It was also a pleasant surprise to find some tiny houses moored in the nearby water.

 

floating houses santa rosa

 

The first night on the road approached and we spent it at a ‘rest stop’. It was incredibly well appointed with large clean toilets, lots of car parks and lush green space to run around on or picnic in. It also had an on-site ranger patrolling the place. We couldn’t believe it, after having come from staying in Australian ‘rest stops’ which were more like code for ‘patch-of-dirt-on side-of-road’ – and where you were lucky if you weren’t kicked out after night hours struck. To be fair we did also stay at an Australian rest stop that provided a toilet and parking space, but it was a stark contrast to this. Indeed this was an example of how much America is geared up for driving holidays. And to boot, petrol was incredibly cheap at the time – about $2USD/gallon. Thats around 70 cents Australian per litre – certainly no discouragement there.

Back on the road again, we followed highway 101 Northward. Our first planned destination of the trip was the Redwoods but we stopped in at a number of the small towns along the way, like Garberville which had an interesting alternative vibe to it. It also had a frozen yogurt place that made the waffle cones right there in front of you – customising the level of crunchy vs chewy quality if you had such a degree of preference. Yes, we quality tested them. Not bad.

collage yoghurt at garberville

 

Next we made a beeline for the toilet in little Miranda, which incidentally, wound up being the worst we encountered. Nevertheless, undeterred Michael found a dinky little booth serving organic coffee and baked items while I wandered up the road to a woodworking shop.

collage woodwork shop miranda CA

After striking up a conversation, we discovered Mr Korbly had been in business 45 years. After unwittingly learning from one of the great woodworkers of his time, he used his skills to steadily build a livelihood. Deceptively, what looked like an inconspicuous, small operation was actually home to the much sought after skills and products of Korbly and his team. So much so that they now took orders 5 years in advance, turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work a year and have regularly serviced clients such as Dianna Ross and Clint Eastwood. Wow.

It was really interesting to hear him espouse the lessons which were seeming repetitively clear of good operations and good lives: start young, do what you love, don’t get into debt, work hard and don’t compromise on what is important to you.

Oh, and he just happened to have been eating a local and organic diet for the last 45 years. Not in a ‘rebellion to the food industry’ kind of way but rather the old-fashioned, ‘this is just how we do it in the country’ scenario. He mentioned this point like it was nothing but it struck me as something perhaps not many people can claim anymore – a healthy, chemical and processed free diet for over 4 decades. I suspect it contributed a lot to this man’s vigour and health – we were astounded to learn he was much, much older than we had guessed, and evidently he was only just starting to slow down. Mind you, it often happens this way in the country, something in the air perhaps… Regardless, it was an honour to meet and chat with him.

Onwards and we came to the start of the Redwoods – which is not ‘one place’ per se but more like a series of preserved areas in state, national and private parks/landholdings. We tried to stop in at the ‘drive-thru tree’ – the one you can literally squeeze a car through. However I had seen a sedan scrape through within a whisker on youtube so didn’t hold high hopes for our people-mover. It was also shut and so we could neither try the car, nor see it. So the challenge was not taken up!

collage redwood signs

We moved on and hit ‘The Avenue of Giants’ and Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We didn’t do any official hiking or such but instead stopped off in random places, strolling in and out of the groves – there are so many interesting things to see at each turn. We walked a small loop track in one area and crossed a creek on a fallen trunk at another.

emma mic loop walk redwoods

 

girl in the forest fallen tree creek crossing 2

 

The experience was something else. An immediate sense of wonder and calm washed over me.

We describe the visit as having ‘seen’ the Redwoods, when in reality it would be more accurate to say we have ‘felt’ them. Wandering through the groves felt like walking with elders. It makes sense really – these living beings have been alive for hundreds of years – right there in the same place seeing change that encompassed indigenous habitation, invasion, settlement, wars, farming, houses, industry, television, man on the moon, logging, factory farming and a tech boom borne of the second biggest network going – the internet. I say second biggest because it seems to me that the world’s soils and ecosystems are the largest (have you ever seen the web of soil fungus going on?). As an aside there is some really interesting research and discoveries going on in this area – check out this BBC article.

Indeed we all loved it there amid the beautiful, amazing giants – what a way to invoke reverence.

mic mel emma hug tree redwoods emma hug tree redwoods
Perhaps, it was an apt time for me to ponder the ‘bigness’ of things in the States – in this case the trees, but also other things like bigger shops, bigger food, bigger roads…
Carrying on, we hit another example of the States’ driving culture – a sign that said “No services for 1/2 mile”. That’s less than a kilometre – as Australians we responded with hearty laughter. Coming from a country where interstate travel can involve large tracts of land and sparse towns, the prospect of notifying people they would have to travel less than a km without access to food, water or gas was nothing short of hilarious.
In the night we crossed the border from California into Oregon – woo! We planned a pit stop in the college town of Eugene. It was a nice feeling town, rich in the coffee shops and well-to-do looking people/students that were presumably attracted by/or a result of, the college. We met a homeless man who said if we picked 5 words, he could make a rap on the spot for us and we’d be “helping a homeless boy get by”. We had seen lots of homeless with cardboard signs detailing their plight or needs – this was a new one. Impressed by the man’s willingness to work for help, Michael quickly said yes to paying for a one-off spontaneous rap. Homeless or not, he was awesome – conjuring up a great rhyme about things coming in circles, like the seasons and “even though November brings cold it also brings warmth through the family”. His creativity was testament to his spirit.
We carried on watching the world blur by – which I love. Sometimes I am happiest just seeing what is, watching the landscape, buildings and people go past. I find it’s like meditating – resting yet absorbing your surroundings at the same time, and all while you are productively getting somewhere. It ticks a lot of boxes for someone who doesn’t like to be idle or sit still!
mic mel riverside
on road portland sign
Approaching night again, we found yet another wonderful spot hidden in a random unmarked path off the road. We had dinner here and carried on.
 mel and emma dinner by river and mountain
As we headed on, I considered one more musing which crystallised into thought – maybe it was all that forest air. There appeared to be a kind of common trait in the attitude of Americans. It was something I had perceived even back in Australia during conversations with American friends. There is some kind of inbuilt confidence they acquire here – a cultural normity where one is not afraid to say hello and express their opinions forthrightly, nor to contradict another, but in a way which gives space for everyone to own their views.
An interesting cultural mannerism – one that I would like to take a little of and add to my own…
Next stop, Portland!
forest dinner sunset

 

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Roadtrippin’ begins

 

drive blur

 

Today was the day to pick up our rental car so we bussed into downtown San Fran – bang on the right stop this time, woo! We were early and so took a walk down to the Ferry Building area. It was a bustling little place with the beautiful and historic Ferry Building itself, the nearby piers and trolley cars coming and going. There were also vendors setting up lots of stalls with tourist trinkety plus some decent photography.

 

collage ferry building

 

We also saw many homeless here – not unlike the rest of San Fran – it is very visible. It proved a good conversation starter though for the issue which Emma took in – I think perhaps realising for the first time that not all people have a house to sleep in.

After some more wandering we found the car hire office. We had booked it earlier in the year, while still in Australia. Initially it was looking to be a horrendously expensive exercise once you added milage and insurance to the price tags. We also investigated the “car moving” companies who get paid to move cars for dealers or the wealthy retired population that migrate south to Florida each winter. Seems like an ok deal for a traveller, very economical but you do give up some freedom in how long you can meander for.

Luckily for us we eventually came across a couple of sites set up specifically for renting cars to foreigners. They act as a third party, offering deals on behalf of most providers and usually all the requirements are included – i.e. our’s included unlimited milage, all insurances and no fee for pick up at a ‘special’ place (like the airport). For some unknown reason, this ‘all-inclusive’ option for tourists is way cheaper than booking directly. So with all the fine print and finances agreed upon, we took the deal. When we got there it was as easy as present your printed third party voucher, sign the register and “here are your keys” – sweet!

And even sweeter was the unexpectedly fancy-pants example of a car we got – a minivan type vehicle: the Chrysler Town & Country. It was bright shiny new in flashy red with electric everything – windows, sliding doors and seats. It had fold-flat-in-the-floor capable seats and cup holders everywhere. Oh, and even usb and standard electrical outlet charging points – we could charge our phone and computer on the road. Whoa – it was all a bit much for us budget travellers to take in. It sure was appreciated though, particularly the flexibility and comfort as we were using this for part-time accommodation.

collage car

 

We discovered a Whole Foods Market was nearby (a very large organic/fair trade supermarket chain all over the US). We stopped in to stock up for the drive – and got lost in the world that is Whole. After the lengthy diversion we set off, dropping Michael in the absolute deep end of driving on the wrong side of the road amongst downtown traffic of a busy US city. But, as with most things, he took it in his stride and did a fantastic job.

Contrary to our map’s suggestion, we opted to exit the city via the Golden Gate Bridge – how could we not? It took us past the pier district which was alive and interesting. We could tell we were getting closer to the bridge by the proportionate increase in traffic congestion. But before long, there it was – a stunning red icon to drive along. While we missed out on a car park to stop and admire it better, driving through it was a picture to remember.


golden gate bridge

Now, we looked forward to some country driving en route to California’s famous elderly – the giant trees in the Redwood State and National Parks.

 

rainbow tunnel coastal road

Onto the trees!

 

STATES ahoy!

P1040970 small

 

By chance, rather than design, our flight from Brisbane to San Francisco went through Honolulu. Oooh, we’re going to Hawaii!
Well, not really, but we were scheduled for a 6 hour layover. Surely long enough to duck out and see something nearby. We went outside, circled the terminals several times in an effort to find a bus that went into town. Nothing was really working and apparently we were all tired grumpy So with that, the new plan was to just wait for our next flight. We were clearly incapable of making it happen in our current states, but I was still bitterly disappointed. Begrudgingly I joined the others back in the terminal – where we all promptly fell asleep.
Some time later we woke up and wondered out through a different door to find a little courtyard and garden – perfect for streching out and letting Em have a run around. After recharging in the fresh air and sunlight we strolled over to the domestic terminal. Strangely, I found the surrounds and decor much more kitsch than I expected. A 70’s looking facade of browns, oranges and carved wood, . The culture of Hawaii seemed also characatured – it was also this way elsewhere in the USA. I would have liked to stay and experience some tradition of the islands.
em hawaii 2
Upon the next plane, we headed for San Fran(cisco). Getting in late at night, we had summoned the forethought and investment to book a hotel room close by for the night. Boy, was that a good plan. We landed, stumbled upon the free airport shuttle bus (which arrived within minutes), ate at the 24 hour restaurant attached to the hotel then crashed into bed. While Michael and I woke up at a sprightly 7am, we had to wake Emma because she was getting close to missing our checkout deadline of 12 noon! 11 hours of sleep for a child that has never, ever, been a long sleeper = great start. Despite the rest, our stomachs were still in a strange place – thus our lovechild of a breakfast was born – pancakes and fried rice (eaten separately, not together – just so you know).
Fueled up and ready to go, we began the first – of what would be many – adventures in negotiating the local transit systems. A bus took us into town where we tried to find the first of our American food and outdoor gear. After all that, the sun was threatening to set so we got onto finding the next bus to our next destination – an Air bnb room that would be our home for a few days while we explored San Fran. We had successfully identified on our tourist map where to pick up the bus – but I have to say the walk there was unnerving, which crossed through a few different neighbourhoods of downtown San Fran. It wasn’t the homeless – although we did see lots of them and of course seeing others in such a predicament calls into question your own comfort. It was more the array of shifty looking characters just hanging around on the street with apparently nothing better to do. Anyway we made it, albeit edgy and irritable with each other, only to find when we jumped off we miss calculated the stop – we still had a long walk ahead of us. Much whining later from Emma, and maybe me – ok mostly me – we found our way to a charmingly quiet friendly neighbourhood and main street. We followed the air bnb host’s instructions and hey presto, the door unlocked – woop! We had a home 🙂
After failing to recognise the coloured tape system inside the strangely empty but partially lived in house, we relocated to what seemed the right room. It was with relief too – this one had a real bed, rather than one of those double blow up mattresses which suddenly turn into a catapult every time someone gets on or off. For the couple of days we were there, we didn’t see anybody. It felt awkward and wasn’t what we had expected. I think we pictured hanging out with some locals who could tell us about town and share dinners with. Neverthless, it was a lovely room, clean and well located for us to explore. We checked out the local main street – Clement street in Inner Richmond – which was healthily populated with Asian nationals, resulting in a wonderful selection of food and little supermarket offerings. However we skipped those for the first nights dinner – ironically had at a place specialising in dessert: sandwiches and chilli at the ‘Toy Boat Dessert Cafe’ – they were good. Then for some unknown reason we forewent dessert there and ended up with donuts from an asian bakery.
Having selected a rental nearby Golden Gate Park, (in another freak stroke of forethought), we walked on down, coming in from what felt like the back entrance on the northern side. We marvelled at a public park big enough to contain roads. Not only did they service cars and the local buses, but there were lanes for runners too – ha! We wondered through some manicured lawns to find the Koret Children’s Quarter playground and carousel.. The day we picked happened to be thanksgiving and so lots of families were out playing. The carousel however was closed, but Emma didn’t dwell on that for long – relishing the chance to hop on a playground full of kids. She meandered through some beach shaped climbing items, the expansive playground and concrete slide – Michael had a go too of course.
After another wonder down Clement Street yielded some yummy dahl ingredients, we cooked them back in the home kitchen and prepared ourselves to leave the next day. We used our last foggy morning to head downtown and explore the pier and ferry building areas, taking in a great walk and sights.
pier edited
collage san fran 1
 san fran  bridge
Next, we would pick up a rental care and take off on a road trip through Northern California to Oregon (and back again)…
Bye for now San Fran – see you again soon 🙂

Bris-vegas (also sometimes referred to as Brisbane)

family river boats

 

As I look back on this last period of time before we left Oz, I am struck by how little I wrote in the way of diary entries. In fact, this one pretty much sums it up:

Sunday November 23, 2014 – Words are sticky and elusive right now. Heavy and too energy consuming.

I think I was suffering ‘catch-up’ from all the new places and people we had met – taking it all in still. That, and we were in a comfortable safe place to do so: spending our last few days in lovely Brisbane with Mum W, who flew all the way up from Adelaide to spend some more time with us before we left. Naw!

So here is a brief little ditty on our last days in Oz….

Started the week off by meeting Mum W – aka, Grandma – in Maleny. Some lunch and a mozy in the area was followed by a tour back at Crystal Waters. It was great to show just where we had been, what we had been doing and who with (sometimes it can all feel a bit surreal, doing things like this away from those you would normally share it with).

collage grandma arrives

 

After meeting and greeting with our hosts, Max & Trudi, we said our final goodbyes and headed down to Brissy town. While we were sad to leave a place we had settled so comfortably into, I think we all got a little bit excited seeing a big city again.

collage mic em apartment view

 

Not to mention the apartment we were lucky enough to stay in – lovely, and just a stroll away from the city centre. Turns out, it was New York-themed. How very appropriate to have a preview of the real thing we’d be seeing so soon.

collage brissy NY apartment

 

We spent the next few days relaxing and exploring around town. If Australian cities are your thing, or will be part of your next travel itinerary, Brissy is worth your time. It has a different vibe to Sydney or Melbourne – more relaxed and easy going (with better weather too – I reckon). As an Adelaidean, and Queenslander by birth, I think of Brisbane fondly – like a big sister to Adelaide. She is warm and fun, casual but cool. The usual city stuff like shopping, eating, museums, galleries, shows and social spots are all present and accounted for, in lovely sprawling landscaped style. Perfect for strolling – South Bank being a good example. I took the footbridge over there and admired the new ‘Brisbane’ installation.

brisbane sign

 

We also checked out the well stocked Queen Street Mall; a green and bustling Botanic Garden and playground, plus the three floor cushy and comfortable Brisbane Square Library.

brissy mall nightbrissy botanic peace garden brissy peace garden brissy playground library market

Interestingly, I took one door into the library and when I came out the other side, this second hand market had popped up in the square!

 

We also saw the first, of many on our trip, city bike rental scheme – nice!

collage city cycle 2 collage rental bike

 

I love the playful, colourful nature of Brisbane – they even give their electrical boxes the community artist treatment:

collage Brissy Painted Boxes

 

Of course, everyone loves a pool so we made good use of that – and the chance to chill out in our room.

collage brissy pool brissy office apartment room

 

Pop-quiz – name one of the bonuses of being with family when travelling.

Having someone to take photos of all three of us? Yes!

What’s another?

Date night – yes! Woo! And in some far off location from home – double woo!

Thanks to Grandma, Michael and I got to wonder the city in search of dinner and sights…

brissy sky bridge 1

 

brissy sculpture fox man

collage mic climb wall brissyAfter Michael got his fix of climbing for the day, we found our way to China Town down in the valley (Fortitude Valley), and had what was the top contender for ‘best meal we’ve ever stumbled across’Red Lotus offered Vietnamese dishes through the most outstanding example of an Asian, or any, menu I’ve seen – gorgeous delicious photos and fun descriptions, elaborate enough to really inform a Western audience. Some dishes even had their own story – like Duck Doggy Style. Yes that’s right, and we ordered it too. What? They’re just referring to duck cooked in the traditional way of dog meat – what did you think they meant?…..

Reading the menu became a fun activity all of it’s own!

By the way, I thought I didn’t like duck.

I was wrong.

So, so wrong….

collage date night 2

 

We wrapped up our last afternoon with a lovely meal up high in the middle of Queen Street Mall – at the recently reopened outdoor ‘Jimmy’s on the Mall‘.

em grandma mall dinner

 

 

brissy puzzle

On the day of departure, we completed a puzzle – both for fun and to check where we were going. Then, inevitably, it was time to pack up and ship out.  That was quickly followed by me upgrading our travel insurance in a flurry of last minute panic – if that’s not a window into my default nature I don’t know what is.

I love how laughable I am sometimes….

We checked out and made our way to the airport – having planned our flights out of the country and Grandma’s back to Adelaide within short timing of each other. But they were, of course, in different terminals – quite a foreign concept for us Adelaideans, where the air traffic fits happily in just one. So we negotiated the terminals and their connecting bus – complete with a bewildered driver who couldn’t seem to wrap his head around us paying to use the service – apparently it’s normally used by those with a free pass from Virgin Airlines. And so after the confusion cleared and all parties had checked in, there was precious little time to sit before Grandma departed.

farewell em grandma

 

I have to say, it was really nice to be able to say goodbye to Mum W before departing the country for a year. How grateful we were for that, and having had an opportunity for time together beforehand.

We continued back to the international terminal, via the same bewildered driver, and prepped ourselves to leave Australia behind……..

to the plane

 

So long – we’ll be seein’ ya!

xxx

 

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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….

 

Guest Post – Fires & Friendship

It’s been surreal to hear about the bush fires that happened back home earlier this month. In fact there is even a wiki article on it already, making it feel oddly like a historical relic only weeks after its occurrence – indeed while people are still in the midst of grappling with how to recover. Nevertheless, if you want to see the article and the details, find it here.

Closer to the proverbial home, we heard about one of my fellow PDC’ers (permaculture design certificate classmate) Daniel, who tragically had nearly all of his 80 acre property burnt, but luckily escaped injury and retained his house. The word was sent for help and the permaculture and friends network did it’s stuff – organising a ‘Permablitz’ at the property – think good old Backyard Blitz using permaculture enthusiasts and principles!

Our PDC teacher and all round good fella Graham Brookman, summed up the story for everyone – the example of community coming together warmed my heart to and so I wanted to share it here too.

Thus, please enjoy a guest story from Graham Brookman at The Food Forest:

Race to save Daniel’s orchard

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Daniel was away from  his property when the Hills Fire started, but managed
to get home to defend his property. Unseen windblown embers landed west of
his land and ignited a fire that quickly burned east toward his home and
engulfed his agroforestry plantings, developing explosive heat that simply
killed many of his sheep.

The fire was now burning down a steep hill toward his house and fire
response crews were arriving. Despite their efforts the fire went through
Daniel’s precious orchard with many heritage fruit and nut varieties. But
the grass in the orchard was cropped short and deciduous trees don’t burn
well; dripper line does, and it was present as little lines of ash or
disfigured, bubbled black plastic. On the whole the trees still  had bits of
green and the bark wasn’t completely blackened, they were like patients who
had been badly burned and needed a drip and lots of care.

Daniel was devastated but concentrated on the job of putting down his
severely burned sheep and burying them with those that died in the fire. His
fiancee Lynne injured her knee helping to get injured sheep down from the
hills. Things were at breaking point  but the question kept going around in
his head “Could the orchard be saved?”

He didn’t have the ready cash to replace the entire irrigation system and he
didn’t physically or emotionally have the strength to tackle the job of
saving the trees, so emailed friends to let them know his predicament. The
response was rapid and practical. A number of close friends simply said they
would come a help him and would chuck in some cash for a roll of dripper
line each.

They networked others and soon a whole group of his fellow participants in a
recent permaculture course were copied-in. Daniel had been listening to ABC
891 (radio) for fire information and rang the Talkback Gardening show to
see what suggestions they had for care of fire-affected trees. He was
staggered when a listener rang him with an offer of $500 and a day’s
physical help. This bolstered his confidence; Daniel was now organising a
‘Permablitz’, a working bee with close friends and a whole lot of people who
care for plants and have gardening skills.

Someone was picking up irrigation supplies, everyone was bringing tools,
cakes were baked by perfect strangers, salads prepared, replacement trees
were selected from home nurseries, trailers were hooked onto 4WDs and
Hollands Creek rd , Cudlee Creek suffered its first-ever traffic jam as
everyone converged on Daniel’s steep, sad-looking orchard last Saturday.

Kilometres of 19mm dripper line were rolled out, hundreds of drippers were
inserted, the north and west face of each tree was whitewashed to reflect
solar radiation.

Every tree got a dose of vermipost and ‘worm wee’ that someone had brought
to help revive the trees and each was mulched with straw.

Everyone was well fed and well exercised (someone brought a monitor that
revealed that he covered 14 kilometres climbing up and down the steep
terrain of the orchard!).

collage permablitz daniels place

A productive orchard watering system was rebuilt, new friends were made,
skills learned, networks formed and children presented with a powerful role
model. As  someone said, “This is what Permaculture is all about”.

A message from Daniel and Lynne:

‘The dripper system is working and the trees have had a good soak. I worked
out that it would have taken us 5 months to complete what you did in One
Fantastic Day.

Thankyou so much for your kind help and donations

Cheers to the permaculture spirit!

Daniel & Lynne’

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WWOOF WWOOF – the first foray


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When we talk to people about our interest in farming or growing things, a lot ask if we come from that kind of background. The answer is no, we don’t. While there may be some historical farming further down the generational line, our interest is born out of exploration, rather than upbringing. As well as what we feel the world needs today – responsible farmers and real food. These farm warriors are already out there  – we just want to see more.

Oh, and the idea of growing something as simple and necessary as food fits in well with the capitalist/entrepreneur/opportunist in me (yup, that’s all in there too…). Maybe we can make a living out of this – after all, it’s not like eating is going out of fashion anytime soon.

Seems as good a livelihood as any in which to place our bets….

But back to the original point – we don’t come from farming and so arriving at our first WWOOF stop (willing/worlwide workers on organic farms), Sat Chit Ananda, was the first time for any of us living on a farm.

 

 

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I feel like I’ve written about the concept of WWOOFing already so for those who have missed it, or in case I was just hallucinating, here is a link to a quick wiki explanation, or see here for the international website.

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While this would only be a two week stay, and it can take a lifetime to read land or perfect farming craft, it was long enough to get a good feel for the farm’s routine and lifestyle in that particular season. It was also the longest we had been in one place since starting our travels.

Getting used to life here was hard for me at first. I think I came unconsciously with expectations of what would happen on a ‘farm’ and what might be expected of a WWOOFer – like so many hours per day of work and structured job lists, etc. Indeed, I’m sure there are places like that out there, but it was different here. In fact, I came to realise that like anything, the deeper we delve the more variation we find – farms come in all different shapes and sizes. And motivations.

Sat Chit Ananda is not a commercial farm. And so that is not what drives the activity here. Kerrie and Paul are building themselves a sustainable refuge from the world. And one that they want to also be an example for others. I admire their aspirations in what they are wanting to do here – in fact what they have already done here. We arrived near the end of Spring, to a land parched and desperately waiting for summer rains, so at first it was hard for us to see easily what was happening here. But soon enough we realised just how much they had accomplished.

Taking old cattle land that had seen much degradation and little water, they set about transforming it towards self-sufficiency. While it isn’t there yet (what ever is, really?) Paul and Kerrie have made long headways into a food forest, water collection, solar power and composting toilets. They have farmed food and animals for veg, meat, milk and eggs – even producing their own cheese. They’ve also delved into alternative farm transportation with miniature horses and built the most magnificent ode to sustainable housing in the form of a 2 storey geodesic dome – a sight to behold, which even greets you from the roadside.

 

collage Sat Chit Ananda trees

 

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All of this, amongst life and its setbacks. Certainly, Paul and Kerrie showed us a down-to-earth attitude and acceptance of life’s realities that I hadn’t seen before. They were great examples of how to operate positively while living in the truth of our own limitations, which we rarely stop to acknowledge. Seeing our resources, like time, energy and money, as they actually are rather than what we want them to be, is a healthy habit I want to take on. Acceptance of how things are, and what we really have control over, seems tantamount to freedom.

One example of which is Paul. After having a stroke some years ago, there are limitations on when or how much he can do in a day. As a result of this, and just life’s limitations in general, the work here often follows opportunity, rather than schedule – taking advantage of the times when resource planets align and going for it.

As it happened though, most of our first week was to be self driven, while our hosts were away on a much needed vacation. So for someone who’s strength is not self-discipline, battling the pre-conceived ideas, self starting and an energy-draining intense heat was: tough. Having said that though, those same conditions meant it was a really good place to dip my proverbial toe and inch into the new experience of living on a farm and being a WOOFer.

In that first week, we really appreciated and enjoyed the trust and freedom which comes with looking after someone else’s farm. We worked with their daughters to keep things going and tried to be newbie helpers rather than a hindrance. We managed pretty well I reckon – Michael in his element with fix-it jobs, Emma taking to the animals and me tackling a shed full of sorting. In fact, I like to joke that we had farm life pegged by the end of the first day – we spent it chasing escapee animals and fixing fences!

 

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We fell into a daily schedule more easily than I expected, centred around the animals:

Wake early, do some work, drink tea. Milk the goat, feed and move the animals, eat breakfast. Maybe some more work, let the chooks out. Swelter in the heat. Maybe some late afternoon work, round up chooks, feed and move animals. Have dinner, sleep, repeat.

It was good – there was enough routine work to structure the day with predictability, yet plenty of free time for personal activities or getting to know our hosts. We really enjoyed that aspect – Paul and Kerrie were very welcoming and inclusive, we shared meals and social time most days, Working, chatting and getting to know people in this way is really rewarding.

And in a wider sense, its been incredible for us to try out so many different sharing experiences (WWOOFing, couch surfing, out of the blue visiting, and the random occurrences that come from travelling overall). It has allowed us to explore the things we are interested in such a rich and varied way.

What I love most about these kind of platforms, or any groups that come together over some common interest, is the infinite number of angles to come at it from – so there is always a new experience, perspective or approach to be discovered. I have done it time and time again: come to a group assuming the people there will be of a particular mindset because of the common interest – but invariably I get surprised by those who differ from me in some way I had not expected. I fall into the trap of assuming these people must think and believe in the same things as me because of this one common point.

It was like seeing them as identical shapes which could overlap and stack on top of each other, fitting nicely and neatly into some vertical tower of understanding. Now it seems more accurate to view them as shapes on a horizontal plane, (or perhaps three dimensional space), that meet and overlap in just one part of themselves, not the whole.

More like a connected system of floating spheres – a network, not silos. Probably more like nature itself, eco systems are linked webs – creatures meet and cross paths at different points of commonality, morphing through time and space. And they change as a result of the meeting or missing of others.

Anyway, regardless of how I describe it, these experiences are always valuable reminders to step back and check on the narrowing of my own perspective.

So it was great to experience life here, and grow to know our hosts more. And that spirit of curiosity and sharing was certainly alive and well. Actually, it brings me to think of an advantage of WWOOFing in your own country – the absence of a cultural and/or language barrier. While you may not experience a new culture, it does allow you to get a deeper understanding of the people or processes you are meeting. For that reason, I would recommend WWOOFing both in your own country and abroad – getting the best of skill sharing, making friends and novel cultural exchange.
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When it came time to leave, it was hard. Particularly for Emma, who so quickly connected to the life, people and animals here. I’m really grateful for this experience, and to Paul, Kerrie, Janine and Tegan for letting us join their lives – we wish you all the best, and would love to cross paths again some day, thank you!

 

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The Famunity

famunity gum tree
You may have noticed I’ve been quiet for a while. True to my battle with doing things in an orderly fashion, I have been holding off writing anything until I finish the next item in line (chronologically speaking) – a little intentional community in Qld.
Trying to do it justice has been stifling my ability to do anything at all – ironic isn’t it? Some related advice came my way from the book I’m reading, Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. “The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom”. I think that’s pretty true – do you know that paralysing sensation of being overwhelmed when you are free to do anything? Suddenly swimming in a sea of possibility, there are so many options it is impossible to choose. Just something is needed to provide a starting point, hence the necessity for a constraint. It provides the framework for choosing a path, and the impetus to start walking.
That’s where I am today – having held off for so long, there is now an entire highway of ideas and happenings backed up behind me. So I’m chalking it up to another learning experience and moving on – let’s pick a path and  start walking….
Our couch surfing hosts in Mullum were overflowing with good suggestions, including the one to stop on our way out and visit ‘The Famunity’. After several failed attempts at comprehending the language they were speaking, further explanation ensued. The name, it turned out, was a combination of ‘family’ and ‘community’. Ah – yes, that made sense, and also highlighted some key points of their vision. Benny & Sophia were kind enough to put us in contact with the Famunity and they gave us the ok to come for a look-see.
The Famunity sits just North of the NSW border in the Gold Coast hinterland – on a property which appears no different to its neighbours, save the small whimsical cow on the front gate. We met with Andrea, Danielle, Mel & Linda who were all generous in sharing their experiences and showing us around. One of my first questions was going to be “why here?” but it became redundant as soon as I walked through the house and caught sight of the view – panoramic vision of their land with beautifully interesting topography melding into the adjacent national park – you would think you were a million miles from anywhere. It’s a shame my photos don’t do it complete justice.
the famunity view 1
As the name suggests, one of their foundations is operating as an extended family – what they consider to be true “community”, as opposed to ‘multiple occupancy’ (or co-living, or a village). This distinction was something I wouldn’t appreciate until down the track – becoming clear with the differences at the next place we visited – Crystal Waters Permaculture Village. It was obvious once we knew – they even state it in their name – ‘village’, not ‘community’. While to some it may just be semantics, to me it raises an interesting difference of intention. I and many others assume they are the same thing – which is no surprise really, given the general concept of ‘intentional communities’ isn’t on the radar for your average person, let alone the intricacies. In the beginning, I was expecting all intentional communities & villages to have everyone interacting on a very personal level, which isn’t necessarily the case. For example, in Crystal Waters the people live together on 250 acres of bush but within their own allocated block of land, and choose the degree to which they participate in group activities or business. By contrast, Famunity members live more communally in many facets of life – residing more closely and/or sharing living spaces, actively contributing to common areas and workload plus the formalised communications which all members are expected to participate in.
the famunity view 2 and green house
I want to explore the Famunity’s communication model a little more because it seems a key element of good cohesion. It starts with a pledge the existing group has come up with and committed to. Printed and visible on the wall, it acts as a reminder (not unlike the vision or value statement of a business, don’t you think?) as well as a clear guide to any person wishing to become a new member. In a similar vein to the probationary period for a new employee, if the person decides they want to join, they start a three month trial set out for newbies to make sure it works for everyone. The importance of the pledge of values and conduct is substantial and reiterates another consistent lesson: be clear in what you are about, and set expectations.
the famunity mic andrea walk
The parallels with business surprised me, but they probably shouldn’t have. Like any organisation, (be it a business, project, non-profit, sporting team or whatever) they work best when there are some good policies, practices and communication in place. After the initial set up, I suspect the hard work lies in maintaining it, or rather maintaining the relationships.
This is where I think The Famunity impressed me most – their approach to communication, in aid of those relationships. When we spoke, members were meeting together three times a week – once to talk business & organisational type stuff, once to check in with how everyone was feeling on a personal level and once to do an activity purely for fun – building and maintaining those bonds. I was really taken by that model, clever to formally address all those aspects on a regular basis. And clever to do it separately, minimising the risk of getting it all mixed up in a giant jumble of heartache & urgency that doesn’t go anywhere (I think it’s much easier to hold your tongue if you know you have a guaranteed opportunity to get it off your chest later in the week – or if, in fact, it is irrelevant to the particular meeting at hand).
the famunity pond and gumtree ducks
I’ll take the liberty of assuming a process in tackling a fun activity is pretty straight forward, and there is plenty out there about facilitating a productive business meeting. What may be less common knowledge is their technique in keeping everyone open and settled on a personal level. They call the meeting ‘heart circle’ – from what I can tell it is like a general speaking/listening circle. You may be familiar with the idea if you have ever had the fortune to experience one (I have – just the once but it was a revelatory example in how we can communicate and be heard).
Picture people coming together in a circle, encouraged to share whatever is on their mind. The key is it must be about them and how they are feeling, rather than pointing the finger or complaining about somebody else & their conduct. It’s a bit reminiscent of passive vs aggressive language use – passive communication can follow a pattern like ‘when X happened, it made me feel Y’. There’s more to it but let’s just say it’s about releasing your perspective, not blaming others. In the circle I took part in, a ‘talking stick’ was used – some item placed inside the circle that one must pick up in order to speak. While they have it, they are the only person to be speaking and others listen. When they feel they are finished, it goes back in the centre and somebody else can have a say. How much detail one goes into during their turn and the degree to which boundaries are pushed is something I guess you get a feel for. And with the aid of someone acting as facilitator to guide things back on track when they go astray, which I would imagine is very likely if members aren’t accustomed to talking in this way. It did, as you might think, feel pretty funny to start with but soon became familiar.
the famunity duck pond
The Famunity is a community wishing to embrace children & families, and raise them in a largely self-reliant environment. Encourganing things like home-schooling together where all members are expected to take a turn in contributing to this communal education. Building on the close-knit design is a conscious effort to also actively engage in the wider community. For example, there are plans to start a playgroup in the nearest town. This and other interaction helps to alleviate some of the alienation that can occur when people haven’t knowledge or connection with something like an intentional community. Fear and apprehension can often follow. As one of the members Danielle said, the more you build relationships (with external community), the less freaky it seems. She also recounted a story of someone speaking their mind freely in her presence without realising she lived there – it was a good opportunity to start the conversation about what actually happens. And so she did, telling the more-boring-than-expected truth – people living together – just doing more activities together, and do they want to rely less on the government? Yes – ok cool. Presto – it’s not that foreign anymore – a bit of “community immunity” as they put it (love that term, by the way).
Danielle’s own story seemed somewhat of a bridge – an average family living in mainstream society but with a long held wish for community (20 years in fact). They got all geared up to travel and find a place, then ended up just a half hour from where they started! While they may have wished for more travel, it appears to have been a joy to find a place they feel home in. For them, as with others others, showing people is powerful. They had talked about the idea for a long time, and met with their fair share of fear and apprehension. Now that they have done it and have something tangible to show people, everyone wants to visit!
the famunity mic emma view
I set out to say a lot more, but for now I will just add that we have much gratitude for this and all the other wonderful stories we heard from the members that day. Indeed I felt spoilt because this was our first ‘intentional community’ visit and what an inspiring example. There were lots of aspects I found interesting, and many I would like to see in our own future community like growing food, structured communication/interaction and a drive to increase self-reliance.
the famunity garlic swale
the famunity banana swale 2
the famunity veg swale
Lastly, while I’m no expert on intentional communities, what I have picked up leads me to say this: communities are like people – they each have their own personality. Even when you find the common threads between them in their goals, philosophy or governance, chances are the who, how, why or when will differ – like similar flavours used to blend a different & unique dish. So regardless of what your favourite people, food or communities are like, it’s good to get out there and meet/eat/see new ones!
If you are interested in knowing more about the Famunity they hold regular ‘open gate’ days where you can come camp overnight and get to know the place and people. You can contact them on their Facebook page here.
the famunity strawberries