It’s 6am and it’s 2 degrees inside our caravan. The frost has killed off what was looking like some promising Cucumbers and Zucchinis, along with about 30 Pigeon Pea saplings and a bunch of other stuff. We’re wearing multiple layers, under the covers, drinking some not-too-bad Chai, and laughing. Guttural laughing. It started as laughter due to our 2 year old friend and companion doing something hilarious, it then gradually built as we began making fun of ourselves and the situation we’ve not only find ourselves in, but knowingly, willingly put ourselves in. Then comes the question (or is it a statement?) “This is permaculture right?!”
For all our pondering, we guess it is. Well, sort of. As we’ve heard on more than one occasion “It depends”. This is our brand of permaculture. The one where you drop more or less everything and begin to reinvent yourself literally from the ground up. Now we suppose that if we were horticulturalists, engineers, or any brilliant combination of anything that may serve our new found direction well, this whole process would, or could possibly be a whole lot easier, or just different. But we’re not. We’re artists, and educators, and learners and lovers, with a few healthy streaks of farm and woodland through us.
One of the key tactics we’re learning is to drop our egos and ask questions. We always hear, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question”, but when you’re in ‘The Bolt Barn’ asking “Where do I put the bolt?” or in the local plumbing shop asking “Where does the water go?” you tend to feel you’re stretching the limit of that saying. But we’re learning. Every time we do ask an ‘interesting’ question we’re one more question away from complete ignorance and a little closer to implementing our permaculture dream.
So we boarded a ferry as excited as could be and rushed off into the blue aboard a giant ship, with hopes and expectations colliding with a calm trust. A trust of the sea, the road, and of each other. We’re not so sure we’d ever felt as alive as we had over the last few months. How were we going to top it? A zig-zagging trip through France, and Spain might do it? How about a trip to the desert? The desert, The Sahara? That certainly sounded like a great deal of fun.
As a picture says a thousand words, we’ve decided to let them do the talking:
As we’ve written and posted this almost 6 months after the fact, now working our little piece of land (little is certainly subjective), and taking each day as it comes and riding the roller coaster of learning, there’s a glimmer there that wasn’t there at the time. Something that can only be understood with retrospect. It certainly was fun, though it’s still close enough to remember the bumpy times. Those infinitesimally small moments that seemed so big. Something to keep with us as we venture into our new lives. Be here now.
The weather was changing, we could feel the cool night air seeping in under our duvet while the three of us slept in our van, Arvan. It was time to make another change. We were becoming more open to our surroundings and opportunities. We decided to take our friends from Keveral up on their offer of a place to stay with them in Morocco. We thought a trip through Southern Europe would be a kinder place climatically to spend some time. We had friends along the way that were practicing permaculture so we could also continue our quest for sound ecological knowledge. This felt like the right thing to do. The longer we were away from such niceties as water on tap, power, central heating, the easier it was to be without it. We were slowly but surely rewilding. Though before we could get going there were two opportunities in England that were too good to pass up.
The first being that the International Permaculture Convergence (IPC), which appears in seemingly random countries bi-annually, was going to be held just outside London. It was listed as being, “a unique global gathering of some of the most inspired permaculture designers and practitioners from around the world, hosting over 500 participants from over 60 countries.” In short we couldn’t miss it.
The second being an event which was one of the first ever Social PermacultureCourses, with a line up of educators that would make anyone interested in permaculture excited to say the least. The course was taught by five facilitators considered to be pioneers in social permaculture; Looby Macnamara, Peter Cow, Starhawk, Robin Clayfield and Robina McCurdy. We very nearly had to flip a coin for this one but as Fionn had returned to Australia to do his PDC with Geoff Lawton earlier in the year, it was now his turn to be with our little one and prepare the van for our future adventure.
This course opened up Laura’s eyes into a world of permaculture that was far deeper than she was expecting, something she is still digesting to this day! Some of the broader aspects covered were how to make our culture, our interaction with each other, and our groups sustainable, self perpetuating; How we can and will live together in an uncertain future; How to have better conversations; How to ask better questions of each other. Stories were told, songs were sung and emotions were felt. Something was happening, a shift, a movement, an optimism.
Straight after this course was the IPC. The three of us drove up to Epping forest and spent 5 days immersing ourselves in PERMACULTURE! (yes in capitals and with an exclamation mark). It was incredibly inspiring to say the least. The people we would chat to, and the projects that were happening were all so up lifting and full of thought provoking actions it was hard not to be moved. Fionn felt in his element networking his way around the world in Epping forest, as Laura just felt a little daunted by the speed and quantity of the knowledge that they both were accumulating! Isn’t there some saying about once you allow the doors to be open you allow endless possibilities to enter into your life?! That was definitely happening to us. And we were becoming less afraid of taking those opportunities.
And with that, we headed South to Portsmouth where a ferry was waiting for us.
After our volunteering in Cornwall we moseyed through some national parks, namely Dartmoor, Snowdonia and Brecon Beacons. Upon visiting these national parks we were naturally impressed with the landscape, they were beautiful, and still are. Yet a recent comprehension of ecological succession and land use practices throughout the UK, helped along by one George Monbiot and his poignant and revealing book, Feral, it was difficult at times for us not to dream of what these landscapes could be if managed more effectively, be they left to re-wild completely or otherwise.
After all this time in the greenery it was time to take on another of our little plans; a family pass to the Green Gathering festival. We’d organised this one once we’d came out the other side of our ‘Trouble in Paradise’. This is a festival with the tag line, ‘a sustainable festival for all our futures’. Every festival since it’s inception has been powered by wind, sun and people, and this year the festival was branded as ‘Performance Meets Permaculture’.
As with so many festivals of this nature, where we’re attempting to re-imagine the future, and are surrounded by strong, intelligent and active people, there’s such a strong sense of what could be if only we’d all be open and willing enough to completely reassess, acknowledge and act upon all the mistakes we’ve made. In short, along with Laura’s brother and family from Hedgehog Hill Farm, this experience felt like the breaking of a dam wall of inspiration.
The highlight of the festival, besides meeting the ever charismatic Charlie Mcgee of Formidable Vegetable Soundsystem, whilst engaged in a Children & Permaculture workshop fronted by Robina McCurdy, was getting to watch Seize The Day. This band is the musical actualisation of what you wished Bob Dylan would have done, could have done, if he’d maintained his protest edge. They’re like a combination of the political side of Billy Bragg (on fire), the spirit and get up of Fela Kuti in his Afrikan Shrine, mixed with the truth, honesty and folk of an old weathered, leather-faced, drunken Scotsman playing his heart out for just one more glass of whiskey all the while revealing the harsh brutality of our world with a smile.
Now that we had a soundtrack it was time to ready ourselves for a trip across a continent.
Our first stop in our green beast, (aptly and fairly named Arvan “our van” by our two year old) was Carmathenshire in South West Wales for a stay with Laura’s brother, his wife and their two boys on their recently purchased 16 acre small-holding, Rhiw Draenog or Hedgehog Hill Farm.
They had also experienced a similar disillusionment with our human predicament and had been looking into permaculture as a positive solution. They had sold their house in the suburbs of southern England and found a gem of a property in Wales. They were a few steps further along the path than us and were equally nervous/excited/daunted by the prospect of building and creating a life with positive repercussions for the future. We were lucky enough to camp in their garden (house paddock) for a month and get used to our new living conditions.
This initial part was particularly hard due to the fact it was such a large change, Fionn was in Herefordshire for the first 10 days, and our little girl making regular complaints along the lines of “Tweety birds, no! Where are the Nee-Nors?!” making things rather challenging for Laura. But gradually as we began seeing the direct results of working together as an extended family the initial awkwardness faded.
This short period became a great learning experience for all involved, as Laura’s brother’s family had only recently moved into their current house (with no windows!), we had the fortuitous opportunity of learning some of the baby steps phase together. Once Laura’s brother’s two boys took our little lady under their wing, showed her the best hiding places in the long grass, got stuck into some of the hard graft, gave her ride-arounds on their toy tractors and most importantly showed her where to source the blackberrys, things became a great deal easier, and the familial re-wilding came into it’s own.
In the process of building a cob oven, coppicing a great deal of Hazel, mulching even more Monkey Puzzles, swimming in their little stream umpteen times among many other things, we would often get far too excited about how things should be implemented and slowly came to understand that everyone needs to make their own decisions and their own mistakes in their own time. Since leaving we’ve been able to see and have begun to comprehend how ideas, like those at Hedgehog Hill Farm, can develop into future masterpieces regardless of what anyone else says, against the current, against all nay sayers. With this seed of inspiration and optimism we set off for Cornwall.
We had volunteered to help out at on an organic farm whilst they ran a Permaculture Design Course. This experience couldn’t have been richer and more engaging. The venue – Keveral Organic Farming Community, the people – beautiful, intelligent, open, endlessly inquisitive, and the subject matter were everything we were hoping for and more. We felt we had found our tribe.
This experience took us to some places that were on our lengthy list of ‘places to see that inspire’, including Martin Crawford’s forest garden at the Schumacher College and the Land Matters Cooperative. It also gave us direct experience in foraging (not just for a few bits but near on entire meals), woodcraft, mushroom cultivation, and other basic survival skills that have left an indelible mark. We also had the great pleasure of being able to sit in on lessons, when not preparing food, from some of the best teachers the UK has to offer.
We’ve been able to keep in touch with many of these beautiful people since this time and we’re not surprised but are very pleased to see and know that we’re all applying ourselves as best we can to various projects all over the world. Such a special moment in time for us and our little family, one not soon to be forgot.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the world, to forget to be human. It would seem right at the point everything was ready to happen it very nearly all fell apart.
We had our land, we understood largely what needed to be done in order to provide for ourselves and were working towards it on a daily basis. Yet somewhere between finding this future paradise and making the life changing shift to occupy the land and the lifestyle, we both fell victim to seemingly separate ailments that had a very similar core.
With the ever humbling application of 20-20 hindsight we now know where and how it happened. We had become so preoccupied with the end goal and our future that there was no room left for living in the present. Fionn always pushing, backed by an aggressive holier-than-thou moral code and Laura ever cautious, and overtly sentimental. We had become too attached to an idea well before it’d even begun. These two things nearly broke us as we both continued to fight to be heard.
As many couples do in such situations we took a break from each other, reassessed what needed to change, made drastic attempts to change them, all while drip feeding each other new information about our individual progress. The ideas that kept resurfacing were stillness of mind and presence of being. Why work towards something that’s making us forget why it is we’re doing it in the first place? We wanted to make the world a better place and were destroying each other and those around us in the process.
So we pulled the plug. We wanted to get out and see and do while we still could, before we got down to some serious work on our farm, we thought, ‘Let’s live now, now!’ Seems ridiculously simple, but at the time it was one of the most challenging processes we’ve ever attempted, and are still attempting to this day.
Another issue that became clear was that the convenience of living in a modern city was about as far away from our idealised future as possible. First we decided we needed to declutter. It’s amazing how much stuff you accumulate over a few years, particularly when you’ve got a child. We also needed to get out of the city, find some open air, and some stillness. Laura wanted to re-embrace an aspect of her youth, and it seemed an old Combi van would help her do that, which worked in nicely with the ‘out of the city’ thing. Fionn wanted to finish something he’d signed on to do in India years ago; a ten day silent retreat, and signed on for a trip to Herefordshire, which nicely tied up the ‘stillness’ aspect.
With these things in mind we decided not to renew the lease on our flat, effectively making us homeless. Then we sold and gave away all our stuff, well the vast majority of it, and put in boxes the bare necessities, tucked them away in Laura’s parents attic (thanks Nanna & Papa x), then hit the road. All three of us in our little green Combi van.
So we found the land we were looking for. It was close to a village – within walking distance – it wasn’t too big, and it wasn’t too small -to use for the vague ambitions we had anyway – and it had direct access to a natural water source – the beautiful Terania Creek. The area we chose also had a lot to do with the fact that Fionn grew up near by, therefore we understood the climate and had some friends we could, and have since called on to help us out in our early stages. Another major plus for the area is that The Channon and more broadly the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales, is renowned for it’s acceptance of alternative view points and pioneering, activist spirit in general. We therefore felt our attempts at living sustainably, or deep green wouldn’t be hampered by local opposition.
Yet all this aside, we genuinely had no idea where to start. We were still living in the UK at the time so the practicality of living and learning whilst on the land were not yet available to us. Luckily for our generation there’s a device called the internet, and so we began what we assumed would be a lengthy and tedious trawl.
On the second day of us freaking out about the big decisions and choices we had ahead of us we received an email from the local Real Estate agent who’d sold us the land with some niceties and one particular piece of information that really made our heads spin. He said that he’d just been over the road to visit the Permaculture Research Institute, and that he was amazed at what they’d been able to do and were doing with and for the land there. So we took a look. And kept looking.
We met in Sihnaoukville, Cambodia. Laura was volunteering for a children’s charity, where as Fionn was on indefinite hiatus from a fledgling teaching career. The one thing, among many others, we obviously had in common was a desire to “make the world a better place”. Of course at that time neither of us had any idea where that would lead us or how it was we were supposed to achieve such a vague life goal.
So, we fell madly in love, of course, and jumped on a great many bandwagons of “making the world a better place” as we went along. We lived and worked in India and Ghana. (Fionn for almost a year in India and both of us for 6 months there while Laura was pregnant with Iyla). We joined Occupy, marched with Anonymous, cooked free food and attempted to discuss the major issues with anyone who was within earshot.
Fionn really wanted to make “changing the world” his life and completed a Masters in International Development with his main interest being Political Science and Social Psychology. Although it was Fionn’s degree, we both ended up learning an enormous amount. As most good couples know, one can’t go through a life changing experience without the other also learning from it.
Unfortunately the main thing that was learned through the lengthy and at times brutal learning process was that basically everything that the conventional governmental and non governmental organisations had to offer, from our perspective, only served to further exacerbate our current global dilemma. Though what was potentially the worst of all was that very few within our immediate group of friends and associates wanted to know about it, or they did, but they were unwilling or stated they were unable to do anything about it.
After about 3 years of thinking and questioning that reached some very deep and dark places, the only genuine, yet rather vague conclusion we could come to was to contribute as little as possible to our current trajectory. The best way to do this, we felt, was to get off grid and supply as much of our own needs as was physically possible.
We’re just a little family trying to do “our bit” as best we can. We are Laura, Fionn and Iyla Quinlan; wife, husband and 2 year old daughter. We packed up and left a big dirty British city to move to the sub-tropical North Coast of NSW. We sold our flat and purchased a bare, degraded, 21 acre cow pasture in the heart of a little village called The Channon.
Our back story can and will be filled in with time. As you may have guessed by the title, this is our first post, and as yet we’re without internet. We’re also without running water, or electricity. So currently our posts will be few and far between. They’ll be put up at random intervals depending upon the grace and good will of our friends and family allowing us to use their internet at odd hours of the day and night. But we’re just hoping to document some of our struggles and victories.
We’ve been on the land, the land we’ve decided to call Djaning Farm, for 2 months now. The three of us are living in a 1974 caravan we bought from a handsome American in the nearby coastal town of Lennox Head. It’s beautiful two tone orange and brown with a gorgeous paisley interior.
Our general aim is to provide for ourselves as much as possible, through food (vegetable, fruit, meat, dairy), water (dams, rainwater harvesting) and electricity (solar, wind), while integrating with the community as much as possible, through direct involvement in and creation of community actions (be they anti-coal seam gas protests, fundraising activities, market stalls).
One of the main driving factors in our decision to do this is so when our daughter, and any other children we may have in future and any children they may have in future, turns around when she finds out the mess the planet’s in and has been in for some time now and asks “So, what did you do?” We can gesture all around us and say “This.”
Stay tuned for more updates. With any luck they’ll become more regular once we’ve got our first shelter built to hold our little solar system in place. Thanks for reading.