We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children
(Native American proverb).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Opposite of Sense

For the first time since our tree change, I'm mad. Very mad!

It started at our local farmers market this morning. I was chatting, as I usually do, to our local wine maker about the week, the weather, the wine... the usual. Time passed and he mentioned the simmering conflict between vigneron and local government. Now disputes between councils and local businesses are nothing new, except this one really does defy belief, and I'm afraid, only serves to illustrate a much bigger problem we have in Australia.

My journey of wine appreciation is long and still very much limited. Not long after moving to our cottage in the Capital Wine Region of Australia, we heard a series of rather loud bangs followed by what has been aptly described as a recording of a dying cockatoo issuing a distress cry. It was quite clearly a rather simple and effective way of keeping birds off the ripening fruit of the vines. No dead birds, no chemicals, no inhumane treatment; just a simple solution to a very real problem to produce some of the country's finest wines.

Enter the commuter. You know the one: they earn more money than most Australians (perhaps they're the ones lamenting the $150,000 threshold the feds want to impose on middle class welfare recipients); have a keen desire to live in the peace and tranquility of a rural setting, whilst not wanting to take pride in working the land they have bought with their hard (or not so hard) earned salaries. They don't mind commuting the hour or so it takes to get them to their overpaid job in the city, and all they ask in return is a little peace and quiet to enjoy the spoils of their "sacrifice" on a daily basis. But alas, those pesky auditory bird controls on a Saturday morning disturbed their sleep-in. What to do? Easy! Do what any rate-paying, tax-paying, voting citizen would do, and address your concerns to the local authorities. Then, without so much as a "what did you think you were getting into when you bought into a new rural estate next door to a vineyard?" the restrictions start on the use of audio bird controls.

Now I'm a great fan of the local drop, and everyone who I have introduced it to seems to find something to love in it too. Am I to pay a premium price for a wine which is now going to be in limited supply because the birds have taken their share first? I certainly hope not! Economics aside however, where are we going to produce our abundant agricultural bounty if any whinging commuter within cooee of a regular, "noisy" farm complains that the bird control measures are too loud, or the dogs bark too much when rounding up the sheep, or the tractor made too much noise when they slashed the paddocks, or, heaven forbid, the dust dirtied the washing on the line when they ploughed the southern paddock to plant a winter forage crop... then we won't get jack from anywhere near our maddeningly crowded cities.

It gets worse, because many an "informed" contributor to the recent carbon tax debate in this fair country has complained about the impact of the tax on increasing food prices. Food prices, like all things, are a function of supply and demand. Demand is not declining. Quite the contrary. However the supply is largely a function of the cost of inputs and the cost of transport. That being said, if our cities (which historically are located on some of the finest and most productive farming land, hence the longevity and growth of the settlement in the first place) are to expand into surrounding prime agricultural land thus forcing farmers ever further out into more marginal lands, surely this will have a doubly inflationary impact of both forcing up input costs in order to maintain output through the addition of chemical fertilisers for instance, PLUS increase the cost of transporting the finished product to markets in the expanding urban centres (let alone the additional cost of ever growing energy costs even without a carbon tax!). Which ever way you look at it, this scenario is the opposite of good sense!

Back to our local issues... I have it on good authority that local vignerons are collectively not going to stand for this. Stay tuned for updates as the battle unfolds, and please, support your local growers, your local, state and federal politicians/parties who have policies to preserve our food security and advocate urban consolidation, and if you must live on land, spare a thought for those working the land for our individual and collective benefit. Maybe those of us who live on small parcels of land could learn a thing or two from those who do so, and we could all grow some of our own produce and live healthier and more flavoursome lives.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Be yourself, and fit in.

It's starting to get cold. Not as cold as it is going to get, as I am constantly reminded by those who have lived through many a southern winter, but the cold that gives you a little slap on the face; the cold which finally make those autumn leaves all over the ground have some meaning; the cold that puts the little snow flake icon on the dashboard of our car.

I haven't written since we moved. No excuses, just so busy, and so tired that even when I have sat at the computer to write something, I can't think at all where to start. So for now I'm going to start with today, and then go forward and backward as the spirit moves...

A student told me today that he liked my style. Ordinarily this is no big deal, but this 18 year old is not the type that gives away complements AT ALL. A friend bumped into someone from town in Canberra the other day who mentioned that their child was in my class at school and thought I was a pretty good teacher... A colleague today asked me for advice for the first time. Probably one of the most challenging things about moving to a town where you know no one, what's more, a town of around 5000 people, is wondering whether you will fit in. Will this outfit make me look a little too urban or coastal? Should I wear a hat? How much should I share about the type of music I like? In the end, it comes down to being genuine; nothing pretentious, nothing other than who I am right now, and what path I am on. Authentic; and the rest will just follow.

Not sure what this has to do with earth keeping... just being a part of the solution I suppose.



Wednesday, January 12, 2011


How much stuff can one family accumulate? I think that we live fairly frugally compared to many of our peers, yet even with an attitude of limited accumulation, we still have so much stuff. What drives us to gather, collect, store (and this alone is a crazy, illogical rationale... it's the "I'll keep because I just never know when I might need it" voice in your head!) and protect our stuff, much of which we never use, and rarely take time to appreciate.

We are downsizing. On the surface it looks like a pretty straightforward shift... 3 bedroom house on the Coast for a 4 bedroom cottage in the southern tablelands. Then you look at the rooms. This "cottage" is actually half of a converted shearers quarters. The main bedroom looks like it has been created by dividing the lounge/dining room. Another looks like it was a veranda until it needed to be a bedroom. The third is barely big enough for a queen size bed, and the last, well I'm sure it was a closet in a past life. I'm not becrying our choice of residence; we wanted to downsize; but it is quite a bit smaller than where we are now. I'm quite pleased we decided to go this way however as we are now in the throws of being a little ruthless in getting rid of some of our useless "stuff."

This brings me to my second jaw dropper... who wants my old stuff? Surely the various charities would want it. There's the old TV which we are getting rid of because I couldn't bare to let me father throw out his flat screen CRT digital TV when he upgraded to a slim LCD model (which has just broken down mind you after 18 months!); there's perfectly good books which we have read and are quite useful but which no one seemed to look twice at during our garage sale; there's fabric remnants from my wife's sewing kitty which could make some great crafty goods or clothes or bags; and then there's odd bits of furniture... NO ONE WANTS THEM! Are we that wealthy as a community that even our poorest members of society can afford an LCD TV? Does no one read books any more? Is hand made just plain old fashioned? I KNOW people sit on stools still!

I have a new year's resolution: until now, when my wife would stop on the side of the road and ask me to get out and collect some old chair/suit case/stool/cabinet/ladder/etc... I would do so with the usual grumblings and self consciousness associated with a dust man rummaging through the garbage on Pitt St. No More! From now on, I will do so with joy, secure in the knowledge that at least I can be the difference I want to see in the world.

Until then, it's back to packing up our stuff.


ps if you want to hear more about "Stuff" check out www.storyofstuff.com

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The role of Money and our Tree Change

"Money is the root or all evil" is the often misquoted verse from the Bible, which actually says the "love" of money is the root of all evil. It does however play a significant role in our lives at this time of preparing for our tree change. I have oscilated between radical adoption of this phrase as a mantra for my life, and a sceptical disbelief in its central idea; but in retrospect, it has been a very real part of our journey.

Several years ago we were broke, or very nearly. Our business of 8 years was sinking fast; my wife who was the intellectual property behind the business was very ill and things were grim. For the best part of a year we struggled like you wouldn't wish on anyone, and often during this time vowed and declared that we would never again be in the position. I had wanted to build a large business out of our humble photography studio, franchising my wife's good name and artistic abilities to the end of living a jet setting lifestyle, all run out of our Hunter Valley vineyard. Even as we went through the worst of our PFC (personal financial crisis) i thought the answer would lie in earning our way out of it, then we could just step straight back into those dreams once more.

I should digress at this point and mention that 10 years earlier I was radically opposed to the whole capitalist system. I was anti big business, an active environmentalist and considering pursuing such ideals in a political sense. I had studied to be a Geography teacher to help educate the future generations in the ways of harmony with the earth and the power of community, and really only chose to to minor in the field of Economics because I disliked it least from a list of subjects I would need to get a job in NSW schools. Ironically my first teaching position was to teach Business Studies, and the path was set for the next 10 years in my gradual transition to idealise and aim for the very thing I had derided as a student.

Our PFC did not go away quickly. we struggled on, stressed and discouraged. We wanted another child (in fact we had talked early in our relationship about 4 or 6 kids) but couldn't fall pregnant. We couldn't afford IVF and weren't really sure that we wanted to go down that path, when finally we decided to just surrender to our situation and enjoy what we had. My wife left her job managing an event decoration business and went back to Uni; I worked in a school I enjoyed working in again; and you can probably guess what happened next...

...back to one income. Now, however we had to make some serious decisions about what was best for our own family, health, finances and future. At this point we were both journalling many thoughts and finally sat down to compare notes, only to discover a deep yearning to live a better quality of life, rather than a have a better standard of living. We also decided to make sure that in so doing we were not inadvertently compromising that of others in our own country or around the world. Our kitchen blackboard, which often carried inspiring sayings (as well as our weekly menu), suddenly carried some rather poignient messages including:

"Live Consciously" (which now appears on a range of tote's my wife creates)
"Be yourself, everybody else is taken" (from the song by Melinda Schneider)
"There is no pleasure in the finest cloth if it causes hunger and unhappiness" (Gandhi), and

It's funny how once you verbalise something enough, it becomes a part of you. I started to struggle teaching Business Studies when so many of the case studies I had used were only about money, and how much you could make; we started to be more focussed on providing for ourselves again by growing more and more of our own food; we began spending more on products that had been made locally, or by friends, or in ethical and environmentally sustainable ways; my wife started sewing again and worked on producing art or craft items for art sake, selling some to help make ends meet; and things started changing in our lives. Of course it took a casual conversation with our landlord one afternoon as he fixed some drawers in the kitchen for us to realise just how far we'd come. As he listened to our stories and chatted about life, he remarked that it seemed to him that we had already taken money out of the equation in how we lived our lives.

The final step was to voluntarily take a step back in my career, along with a pay cut, in order to really focus on family, learning, creating and working on our now renewed dream of country living. The irony: merely 2 months after giving notice of stepping down from my management position, all the things that I had been searching for in order to make our dream a reality started occurring in rapid succession: not one but three job vacancies in country schools which were in the vicinity of where we wanted to be; travel plans which involved visiting one of the towns I was to interview for en route to my sister-in-law's 40th birthday party celebrations; a great interview and supportive principals in both schools; a cottage on a farm in our price range, with a landlord willing to wait longer than we could have hoped for in a market where properties were scarce. Money was not the enabler, if anything it limited our imagination, stifled our creativity and served to lower our quality of life.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we can live without money altogether. On the contrary. It is a necessary evil. But when we allow ourselves to live free of money's stress, we open doors and ideas and relationships which are worth far more than the money could ever have provided.

Forget the "Show me the money!" or "Greed... is good; greed works" promises of a happiness that lasts. I say take money out of the equation.


Why would you leave The Coast?

My love for country living began as a child, growing up in the Blue Mountains. We had chooks (far too many for our own needs) a couple of jersey cows, goats at one time, a couple of sheep we inherited from Uncle Kevin in Glenn Innes, plenty of fruit trees and a vege patch. Sunday was work day on the small acreage my father decided to call Tallowood Farm, and barely a weekend went by when we didn't spend much of our time walking the paddocks to pull out fireweed or pattersons curse, sitting by the creek when it ran, chasing then catching and riding the sheep (easy to do when their fleece is long and you're a 10 year old boy), digging manure, or the garden or chasing a wayward sheep out of the living room where their favourite dish was mum's ornamental indoor plants. There was lots of hard work, but so much joy when looking back.

These memories are not all rose tinted as anyone growing up outside of suburbia would know, but they are ones that I would wish for my children. There were bushfires, droughts, floods (actually, I liked the floods as a kid - no school!), fetching wayward goats who seem to be able to escape through the smallest hole in a fence... But on balance, it is amazing how easy it is to remember the good times, and forget the tough times. This week our books are packed away ready for our move, so we have resorted to recounting stories from our childhood for our two boys at bed time. They sit transfixed by the tales of coming off horses or motorbikes, getting hit by cars or cows, chasing sheep out of the house, etc... and I cannot help but wonder what stories they will tell to their kids.

Fortunately I found in my wife a kindred spirit and we have been working, sometimes harder than others, at achieving the goal of a tree change for our own family. However it has not been the same dream all the time. We initially thought the Hunter Valley would be our ideal home; a brief thought for the Yarra Valley and Tasmania; the Southern Highlands when we felt rich enough, or a scrubby block waiting to be discovered in the Wollombi valley when we weren't. Sometimes we envisaged a grand residence, complete with artist studio and gallery space, while others we saw a fully self sufficient, environmentally sustainable cottage made out of mud brick, rammed earth or straw bales. The binding factors were the ones mentioned in my last post, and the memories that can only be created in rural settings.

Philosophically speaking, our world view sees the western culture as far too materialistic and consumer driven, and with all the symptoms of Oliver James' Affluenza surrounding us, we have a great yearning to leave the ease of that lifestyle for the closer connections with the earth, regardless of how difficult that may be at times. There seems to be a greater emphasis on community and simpler, slower living; sharing our excess in the good times, and supporting each other in the bad; the muse of poets, musicians and artists is often adversity where it inspires creativity, ingenuity and simpler pleasures; and finally there's the food... well, need we justify being closer to our food sources?

In short, and to answer the question, if the coast could provided all this, maybe we wouldn't leave... but what an exciting journey it will be stepping outside our comfort zone.


Monday, January 3, 2011

2011 is the year...

...for turning dreams into reality.

The Dream:
To have a farm, in the traditional sense, with a variety of outputs from eggs, pork, beef, olives, and of course wine, in a rural community where my family and I could practice the principles we have always strived to live by. To slow life down and live rather than exist. Find a place to be... to be me; to be free; to be free from the overdeveloped consumer-driven society which is slowly killing us and our culture... but i digress.

Our requirements:
We want to be within 4 hours of the central coast (family and friends from the past 10 years are there), within 2 hours of a major city, within 3 hours of Sydney (for our Sydney fix) in a region capable to producing good wine and olive oil, and with land we can afford without selling our souls to the machine which is modern economic rationalism.

There were other ideals... green rolling hills (okay so that's Tasmania and the NSW south coast... not gonna happen!), a stony creek, a vibrant arts community, a degree of multiculturalism, and some foodies nearby...

Fast forward to November 2010, and after years of waiting, researching, looking, visiting different areas and almost applying for several jobs, the ideal opportunity arises. Just 11 months after deciding that we'll stay put in our suburban life until our 3 year old starts school, a spanner gets well and truly thrown into the works and the resultant roller coaster of the past 2 months has been a giddy thing (Mumford and sons gave me that last line as I write).

My next few posts will be dealing with the past 2 months as we pack up our suburban lives and prepare to move to the country for a new life, with new possibilities and new challenges, but with an expectation of a reality quite different from our present reality. Also, for anyone who has ever read one of my previous posts will attest, I also plan to reinvent my blog as a journal of discovery which is quite a different direction from the old righteous indignation at the state of the world.

I do hope that you will join me on my journey...