Becoming a Symbiote

by Fionn Quinlan – First appeared at Small Giants Academy Oct 11 2021

I was born into a city. Its seed was a convict settlement. Yet it was on Bundjalung land and country that I grew. Knowing this much alone could tell you my story. But first I must ask, what do you know of cities? What do you know of Bundjalung? Me knowing this will tell me some of your story.

When I look at many cities, I see a lot of straight lines and squares. From a distance they appear as anthills. Ant colonies conjured from the landscape.

When I look at Bundjalung country, I see ocean, rivers, creeks and verdant green hills littered with small towns and farms. Segments of ancient rainforest reminding us of another time.

For as long as I can remember I wanted to make more of that ancient rainforest. I wanted there to be this arching, overpowering green encasing my concrete clad school. I wanted vines to swing on and trees to climb. Cockatoos to screech when the teachers wouldn’t stop talking and Pademelons to cheekily distract me from my algebra.

So I planted and planted with my father and my family. I thought that if I just kept on planting I’d be like the book my father would read to me, called The Man Who Planted Trees. A beautiful story of a single man returning life to a barren landscape through the simple act of planting seeds for decades.

Through travel and study I was afforded a glimpse into the larger world and its workings. I began to know where the things that littered my daily routine came from. How they came into being. My computer of rare earth minerals extracted using slave labour, my clothing too much the same, and my food and the house I lived in not much better.

I came to see this picture writ large upon the world. A single species with a single purpose – to consume. Enact the goal of a virus. The mindset of a cancer cell. A parasite upon the globe like no other. The humans had arrived and we weren’t leaving until everything was consumed, converted, tilled, toiled and trashed.

I decided I’d take back my agency. I’d take responsibility for what it was I was consuming. I became vegetarian, only bought second-hand goods, rode everywhere, volunteered at organic farms and soup kitchens, joined protests, attended every permaculture and green living course I could find, and moaned at all my friends and family to change along with me (sorry).

It wasn’t until I began living on the land, growing my food, building my house, connecting with the land base that I began to realise that it was a story which had held my attention. It was a story that had me believe that the only option I had was to consume or be consumed. This story is our culture.

I’m lucky enough to live on Bundjalung land. Stewarded by a living Indigenous culture that has nurtured it for tens of thousands of years. Working with the rhythms of the landscape. Identifying and discerning patterns to thrive in a land that is as beautiful as it can be harsh.

In my admiration of the Indigenous culture of my local area, I came to scratch the surface of a broader Indigenous narrative. One that penetrates every continent. From the human-made, life-enhancing soils of the Amazon basin – Terra Preta, to the diverse and productive Chagga home gardens of Kilimanjaro, people of place are providing for themselves and their neighbourhood whilst building biodiversity, sequestering carbon and building soil. I find these happenings deeply exciting. They are symbols of hope in a dying world. And they’re everywhere.

At the Climate Action Summit of 2019 ,United Nations Secretary General,  Antonio Guterres said, “If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardise life itself.”

So I’ve said to myself, “I want to change the ways of my life. I really want to inhabit this landscape meaningfully. I want my children to walk here in clean air, water and soil, for generations to come.” The answer is resoundingly clear. The best way in which I can foster life is by becoming a creature of place. Just like myriad of Indigenous peoples the world over I must develop context specific methods to create fecundity.

To do so I must follow a new story. One of the symbiote as opposed to the parasite. We have a choice. I know which one I want to be. Which will you choose?

Who Speaks For Weeds?

Before I begin I must note for the record that I write this with great trepidation. My palms are sweaty, I feel my heart thumping within its bone cage. I am going against my programming, perhaps even my better judgment. These thoughts sat at the back of my throat for far too long. I fear they may metastasize if not enunciated…

Why in this age of extinction do we choose to poison living things? Plants, particularly those of vigorous growth, tend to be known as weeds. This is a derogatory term if ever there was one. If humans have no direct and obvious use for them, they are branded. Now, more than any time in history, it is up to us to question the dogma of invasive plants and feral animals. They may in fact be our best shot at making it through our multiple crises.

So I ask: “Who speaks for Weeds?”

I was raised to both love and to hate plants – raised to love natives and hate non-natives. This wasn’t strictly applied to plants. Certain animals were also targeted for hatred. However, it was plants that got the majority of mine and my family’s and my wrath (along with most of the settler families in the area), particularly that of my father. He was a co-land holder on 72 acres, doing what he thought was the right thing, and bringing the rest of the family along for the ride. For close to twenty years, I had a very black and white, wholly disconnected, view of land management. This was fostered by my ‘right thinking’ father, as well as most, if not, all neighbouring farmers, environmentalists, and academics alike.

Above: The farm I grew up on utilising poisons is now another proud site of urban sprawl.

The ideology was easy to take on board. It was a narrative of the heroes’ story. A great tragedy had befallen the forested areas of our nation. Our wrong thinking forefathers had decimated the landscape and it was our job, no, our duty, to bring it back to its former glory. There was a right way to do it. It began with identifying the bad plants, the weeds, and identifying any of the good plants, the natives. Simple as that, really. We then set about poisoning all the bad plants and, wherever possible, preserving the good plants. This is still very much the story today, but I no longer buy it.

I think it began with another thing my parents bestowed upon me, the ability to ask questions, and keep asking them, not settling for a myopic or limited response. I had begun to wonder why it was ok, and even encouraged to say or write that a plant is bad, invasive and even destructive. I’d begun to just try to see plants for what they were, living entities, giving freely of their life affirming processes. When we apply this same thinking to humans or a particular race of humans, we are branded, at best, intolerant and possibly bigoted. At worst we are labelled racist. Now I knew, and still know that racism is abhorrent, but why is this label only applied when humans antagonise other humans and not when humans antagonise other species?

There are some obvious sociological correlations between plants and humans. Reading the Department of Primary Industries’ spread sheets on certain invasive and destructive plants, if we replaced the words ‘Broad-Leaved Privet (Ligustrum sinense)’ with, for example, ‘mechanically minded humans’, the desired effect is the same. We can hate a plant for being non-native, or at least openly discriminate against it, if it has no immediate or obvious use to humans. This is highly suspect, particularly with Privet which is a plant that has been used in Chinese medicine for over 1,000 years. It’s been used to treat menopausal problems; to blurred vision and cataracts; through to backache; and insomnia. If it occupies it’s niche well, we tend to roll out smear campaigns, to first debase it, then poison it. In turn we poison ourselves literally, as well as give birth to the cancer inducing emotions related to the stresses of trying to eradicate it.

Above: Surely there’s something not right when this is the recommended outfit to apply said poisons…

It appears that within many contemporary, tolerant and well-meaning communities, who may no longer openly discuss human immigrants as a ‘problem’, bigotry and distrust is switched onto plants (along with other species too). The ‘invading’ plants are seen as occupying spaces that could be used by natives, in a similar way to some people seeing jobs for natives being taken up by immigrants, for example: “They breed readily, you let one in and many more will come…” It sounds a lot like the complaints I’ve read in News Limited’s papers regarding minority groups they wish to use as scape goats to help them sell more papers, in order to distract the masses from who’s really doing the short-changing. That’s the ideology. The language of fear. We then manage to justify the eradication of the ‘different’, for example Privet, through the purchase and use of tons of carcinogenic herbicides. These herbicides, coincidentally, are made by the same companies that brought you Agent Orange and the gas used in Nazi death camps. You can’t make this stuff up.

However, this is seen as acceptable, because these plants are percieved as malicious entities determined to destroy our pristine rainforest, what’s left of it anyway. That remaining 1%. The 1% we’re still vying to turn into productive, anthropogenic landscapes such as dams and shopping malls. What happened to the other 99%? A good portion of it is under the wheels of your family car, your Tesla, your ute or whatever your chosen mode of transport is. Still more is kept down by cattle, macadamia monocultures and urban sprawl. The whole notion is hypocritical. What about Coffee and Cherry tomatoes? They’re weeds too, but they’re ok because we love a nice garden salad and we’ll kill anyone who gets in the way of our morning coffee.

In this age of extinction, what is it we need most? As the planet’s climate is thrown into disarray, what is the most powerful naturally occurring element that can help us? You guessed it, plants. And what are the processes driving these changes? You and me. We need biodiversity, and we need it rapidly. While it runs in the face of accepted ‘knowledge’, the more non-native species are introduced, the more overall biodiversity is increased. Our best chance to redirect this human-centric crisis is plants. Their ability to sequester carbon, purify air, mitigate erosion, and cool the surrounding environment are some of the myriad benefits of these wondrous beings. They are the best tool we have for building soil and repairing a dying earth.

Homo morbidus economicus

As though projecting our own history of invasion, we see these plants as something to fear. I would be very hesitant to discredit the work of many people working in the regeneration of rainforests. I was inculcated from a young age in the virtues of ‘cut and paste’, ‘drilling’ and the many other forms of applying state sanctioned poisons. However, I really do question the willingly accepted nature of the processes, and what appears to be a vindication rooted in the colonial mindset. This is one soaked in xenophobia, and veiled in valour and conquest.

This same colonial mindset seems particularly obvious in many of the modern outposts of the British Empire. The same group of nations which refuse to ratify the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (USA, NZ, Aus, Canada), seem to be the same group determined to pursue an endless war not only against the original inhabitants but against the land itself.

On the rare occasion a regenerator, resplendent in their safety attire, may speak of the processes which have lead to the mass desecration of the land. This degradation is rightly attributed to our forefathers and the mandated cleaning up of country. However, I’m yet to hear one of these well meaning persons speak of the hypocrisy within the process of their regeneration. The first and most obvious step in the pursuit of their ideology is the application of poisons. This is just the start.

This hypocrisy is most prevalent in our daily complicity to perpetuate the growth mindset at the cost of all biomes. The ‘Not In My Back Yard’ philosophy of ‘caring’ for what’s before our eyes, whilst never questioning the entire way we live makes no sense. We rarely question where we’ve obtained our food, clothing, or resources in general. At best we are mining of finite resources, and at worst we are directly contributing to slave labour, mountain top removal and biocide. These ramifications are, for the most part, writ large on our landscape and all life on earth, due to our lack of, or unwillingness to utilise, a larger time frame. If only we could all begin to think like trees; even the moderately long lived can call 200 young. Many trees were in their hundreds, if not thousands, during the invasion and settlement of Australia. I wonder what they’ve seen become of their neighbourhoods?

The painful irony of our short-sightedness was recently brought home to me when visiting the Brisbane museum. In one of their major natural exhibits, consisting of taxidermied animals from throughout the continent, sponsored by BHP (the worlds 19th largest corporate polluter), was where I found a stuffed, but still snarling feral cat. It was of course the Cat and not landscape devouring companies like BHP that was deemed the problem in this scenario. The plaque beneath the cat read:

Feral Cat – Felis catus
‘Feral animals such as feral cats, foxes, rabbits and camels threaten the fauna and flora of the arid outback through predation, competition for resources and habitat destruction. Controlling feral animals and weeds remains a huge challenge, given the vast size of Australia’s arid outback and the sparse human population living there.

My immediate thought upon reading the above was, Where’s the stuffed Feral Human – ‘Homo morbidus economicus’? Seemingly the feral cat has more of a constructive place in this modern paradigm. As do the weeds.

This essay’s purpose is not to debase humans. It is to question our assumptions of black and white, our willingness to turn a blind eye to ourselves. At the same time, we point a judgmental finger toward all that we deem unproductive or unhelpful in perpetuating the advance of the industrial modality. What we need is every plant we can get. Save the rainforests? Absolutely. Keep them pristine. But don’t lose sight of the big picture. In our pursuit of purity, we’ve forgotten about the microbiome, a fundamental building block of all life on earth. Every time we use poisons, be they emissions from our car or direct injections into living things, we’re mutilating that link in the chain and compromising everything that is connected to it. Everything.

This war on invasive species is a never-ending war. The seed bank isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s in the soil, it’s in animals’ intestines, it’s in the river beds, in the gutters, under the concrete waiting for the moment when we stop, run out of oil, breath for a moment or five. If you’re lucky enough to live in a humid climate, the forest will regrow regardless. These new forests are known as Novel Ecosystems. They have astounding biodiversity and are showcases of what can be called the New Pangea. We’ve tried the conquest of nature since the time of ancient Babylon. I think it’s high time to let nature take the reigns. It’s high time we not just learn to live with these novel ecosystems, but to work and thrive with them, to allow them to teach us tolerance and acceptance of what is and will be for the years to come.

A friend recently related to me a question posed by his mentor. ‘If you were terminally ill would you care if the doctor who could provide you with life giving medicine was black or white, Russian or Haitian, tall or short?’ Of course you wouldn’t.

So why do we care which plants are going to build our soil, sequester carbon, and detoxify our planet, before it’s too late?

This is Permaculture, right?

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.

Dirt Path

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.

Djaning real estate
The end of the ridge is where you’ll find Djaning Farm.

On The Road

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.

Hedgehog Hill Farm
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.

Arvan in Pooh Corner
Arvan in Pooh Corner

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.

A family of wheelbarrows.
A family of wheelbarrows.

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.

Digging out a polytunnel in Wales
Creating a self watering polytunnel

Cob Oven - almost there
Cob Oven – almost there

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.

Looe, 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.

Keveral PDC Trobe

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.

Picking wild plums in the food forest
Picking wild plums in the food forest

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.

All this and the summer was just beginning.


Hippies, Activists and Permaculturalists

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.

The Channon Market
The Channon Market

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.

This guy's our neighbour?!
This guy’s our neighbour?!

After a few months we had watched every video Geoff Lawton and his team had ever put out, were volunteering with our local team Brighton Permaculture Trust, and were spending every bit of spare time reading anything and everything from the likes of Masunobu Fukuoka, Sepp Holzer, Bill Mollison, David Holmgren and many others. We imagine this part of the story is like many others experience. Once you feel you’ve found your path you go headlong into it.

The next part of our story however, may not be entirely what you’d expect.


Some Backstory


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.

Laura teaching an Art class in Tamil Nadu
Laura teaching an Art class in Tamil Nadu

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.

Million Mask March
London Million Mask March

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.

Then we found this…



The Beginning

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.

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