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.
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.
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.