Clockwise from above: L-R Woody, Zephyr, Patrick and Meg; Home-raised meat; Collecting fallen fuel. Photos by Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman
As a culture we have chosen climate change. We have created it through unbridled desires, our modes of travel, consuming passions and our gluttonous economic form. As a family, on a household income that would be considered below the poverty line, we have chosen another path.
Living With The Seasons
In many ways how we live is a form of neo-peasantry, observing and interacting with the six distinct Jaara seasons (early spring, true spring, early summer, late summer, autumn, winter), drawing on the surviving spirit of the moneyless ecological agrarianism that has existed on Dja Dja Wurrung country, where we live, for millennia.
We spend the autumn preserving food, filling the cellar, collecting fallen wood on foot, and planting alliums, broad beans and brassicas. The winter is a time for collecting mushrooms, dispatching roosters, preparing composts, and drinking plum pip mead and beer made from our hops, honey, dandelion and burdock roots.
We forage weeds and sow vegetable seedlings in early spring, which are planted out in true spring. We snare rabbits and dig up young thistle and salsify roots for roasting in early summer. In late summer we keep the potatoes, pumpkins and bean crops well watered, carry out building and maintenance work, and fish for redfin in Lake Daylesford. We do this both on foot and by bike.
We have the time for all this activity because we are carfree frugalists. The average car in Australia costs $15,000 a year (NRMA, RACV figures) with all costs factored in; registration, depreciation, insurance, petrol, maintenance, etc. According to the ABS, the average household owns more than two cars. As average Australians we no longer have to find over $30,000 a year, which liberates us from time-poverty and enables us to enact our own form of climate conscious, earth-first economy.
Our ancestors were peasants from the UK, Europe and Palestine before they were dispossessed from their land to become working class industrial serfs, boat people, then farmers, publicans, townsfolk and labourers in Australia. They eventually obtained middle-class status by the 1960s, riding waves of post-war affluence triggered by an unprecedented availability of cheap crude oil.
The prefix ‘neo’ certainly locates our digital, middle-class privilege in choosing to be peasant-like. We have arrived at permacultural neo-peasantry as a pragmatic response to the predicaments of our time, wishing to prepare ourselves, our children and others wanting to claim greater resilience, communitarianism, frugality and permacultural life skills for what inevitably lies ahead.
We call our quarter-acre Tree Elbow, but our homeplace is bigger than this tiny parcel of productivity. It includes the walked, swum, climbed, biked, dug, hunted and social domains of public Daylesford.
Tree Elbow sits on the edge of town, the Central Lake Reserve and the Wombat State Forest. When we moved here nearly a decade ago, the vacant swampy block had only two trees: an oak to the north and a willow to the south east. Land was expensive then for young people, but not entirely out of reach like it is now as the wealth divide has widened greatly in this time.
Over the years we have planted close to 150 fruit and nut trees, and many more on public land. We have perennial and annual vegetable growing areas, a large chicken and duck run, and an anti-aviary containing almonds, hazelnuts and a Warr. hive. We catch our own rainwater and once it’s used, recycle it through our garden swales.
The main house is a small modern pre-fab that was constructed in a factory in Melbourne and brought up on a single truck. It unfolded on hinges and we moved in after a few flurried weeks of painting, floorboard laying, deck building, and installing water tanks and a one-kilowatt solar system. We would do it differently next time.
Although the house is north facing, fully insulated and the windows double-glazed, the house lacks thermal mass. However, being on stumps on a sloping block has meant we have been able to build an undercroft on the east side. As we dug up rocks for vegetable production we turned this on-hand material into the walls of a cellar. When our fridge dies we will not replace it. We are already in transition to living without one.
As well as the main house, there are six other dwellings that dot Tree Elbow, constructed from mainly discarded and salvaged materials. There is the chook and duck house that provides shelter for 12 fowls. The Acorn is a double storey treehouse nestled around our oak tree, from which is suspended a zip line that Woody, our four year old, uses to travel to the main house when we call him and his friends in for dinner.
The Permie Love Shack, our Airbnb abode which pays our mortgage, is replete with two composting loos, an internal sit-style commode for urine, an outside squat toilet for humanure and a shower room filled with warmer climate fruiting plants.
There is the Cumquat, a small dwelling built by Zephyr, our now 15 year old, and James, under the tutelage of Patrick, who has worked as a builder. James came to us initially as a SWAP (Social Warming Artists and Permaculturists), our version of WWOOF. He came for six weeks, the duration of the build.
Zephyr, who was in Year Eight and struggling with the confines of a rigid school environment, took six weeks out to learn to construct the tiny house. He collected materials by bike from the tip, various skip bins around town and from friends’ sheds. He then worked with the pre-loved materials and helped shape them into a new story. The aim was for Patrick to mentor James, and for James to mentor Zephyr, to foster a sideways learning between the two young men, 14 years apart.
Now the Cumquat is home to Connor and Marta, two permanent SWAPs who have been with us since January. Connor answered our callout for a mentor to live with us for a year, to help Zeph navigate this tricky time of adolescence. Marta came from Poland as a week-long SWAP…then she and Connor fell in love and have made our small neo-peasant compound their home.
We have another full-time SWAP too, Jeremy, who has also been doing an informal building apprenticeship with Patrick to build his own small garden dwelling: the Yause. The final small building on our block houses another composting toilet. Later this season it will be rebuilt as a sweat lodge to make our ongoing highland winters a little easier on all of our hardworking bones, and as a place of ceremony and detoxification.
To ensure our permaculture communitarianism expands past the quarter-acre compound of Tree Elbow, we organise various community projects and events. Meg initiated and runs Culture Club, a fermentation group that meets on the first Saturday of each month. She organises free workshops on cheese making, sourdough baking, and cider and vinegar brewing. She also teams up with local growers who supply vegies for community making days to make lacto-fermented pickles, kraut and kimchi.
Patrick facilitates Daylesford Community Food Gardeners and organises events such as the Bruce Pascoe and David Holmgren public meeting last year, which he produced into the film Land Cultures: Aboriginal Economies and Permaculture Futures with community friend and filmmaker, Anthony Petrucci.
The five community gardens in town that we helped establish (around the time we went car-free) are important sites for public food. The gardens were started either by guerrilla tactics of public land reclamation or through collaborative partnerships with the neighbourhood and health centres. We have monthly working bees, not meetings. We have communal plots, no membership and no annual fees. The gardens remain public food domains in ready for money’s inevitable contraction, awaiting greater communitarian times ahead and increased localised productivity.
The same goes for the extensive forest land to the south of our home. We now forage 15 edible species of mushrooms there, as well as blackberries, wild apples, hawthorn berries, rosehips, native cherry, elderflowers, countless edible weeds, and snare rabbits and glean fallen wood. We make sure we don’t over harvest this renewable resource so as not to interrupt the habitats and processes of decomposition required to keep the soil alive and giving. However, under-harvesting also causes a serious threat to the forest.
Every few years the fuel load builds up to what the CFA and other land authorities deem unsafe for the town, and they set the forest on fire. Each time this occurs, the ringtails (who have built their dreys in the hawthorns to protect them from powerful owls and foxes) and many other critters who have long made their home there are burnt out, the forest humus is once again removed and the soil put into a greater state of drying.
By harvesting the excess fuel, pruning out non-habitat deadwood, chopping and dropping woody material into small, quickly decomposing parts and stomping down the dry, fireprone blackberry canes (keeping this soil-stabilising plant as a groundcover so other species can push up through and eventually shade it out), we give to the forest.
Our activity helps to create an ecology that has plenty of humus- building material and thus water conserving properties for biodiversity to flourish while reducing the fire risk. This work is transformative as we go outside the typical limitations of anthropocentric modern life into a deeper realm of creaturely knowhow, plant wisdom and mycology, to be in service of the forest that in turn keeps us warm and bears us fruit.
We eat over 100 species of autonomously growing foods from our walked-for commons. We garden dozens of annual and perennial vegetables at home and in the community. We grow, glean and forage fruit nine months of the year, bartering and swapping bounties with neighbours, friends, community gardeners and beyond. We butcher unwanted broilers and roadkill from around the town, and as a rule do not eat abattoir-killed meat.
Most of the energy we use and the food we consume has an origin point that we know intimately. When we eat meals together, with our children, SWAPs, friends and people who have come to learn about our practice, we take in the life-giving nourishment of our loved homeplace and with it in our bellies, help establish the grounds for recreating ecological culture.
Time For A Change
Turning our backs on an irresponsible economy, one household at a time, means making some big decisions. This takes courage, will and a whole load of hard work. While the way we live is just one response to the predicament of the times, culture change can only occur if households and communities begin to map out their own place-specific plans to disentangle themselves from the mass destruction of cultural capitalism.
In whatever form this occurs, an abiding, tangible relationship with one’s local land (be this a farm, forest, suburb or industrial wasteland) must be at the heart. In other words, our central ideology must shift from total extraction to songful regeneration. This, at least, is what we have learned over a decade of deliberate transition. The details are what matter, and the flowering earth of your loved homeplace will show you the way.
Patrick Jones and Meg Ulman are the authors of The Art of Free Travel: a frugal family adventure (NewSouth 2016). @artistasfamily