High summer, connecting hoses, layering mulch, making sure the fish are ok.
The beans are flowering, seeds are planted.
Some by the means of their will to escape the pod and find their own way.
As in the garden, so in this life.
And it reminds me of growing into adolescence in a sheltered suburban town, which I jokingly refer to as Deepest, Darkest Suburbia.
One where each blade of grass is measured and immediately slashed should it outgrow its neighbour.
One where each rose blooms in peachy perfection, the petunias are replenished before they show signs of reaching their peak, and a dead head has never been seen.
How then, did it come to this? Rows of zinnias not just abandoning, but obliterating the shape and form of their designated beds. Corn growing so high through the Hills Hoist that it no longer spins. Sunflowers so mighty you couldn’t estimate the drop to their feet by merely cranking your neck towards their faces.
Yes, I was raised in immaculate suburbia, in a garden that to my mind has never looked better than it does this particular year. Yet something shifted as my teen years reached their peak and I burst out of my seed pod like a seed wishing to fling itself on the wind and sail far, far away before planting itself anew.
Somehow that journey, with all it’s intricate twists and turns, lead me to a townhouse in inner Sydney Alexandria.
And there I found myself.
With a cement balcony.
A patch of pine bark covering the industrial waste buried inside the front yard.
And a tiny little baby.
And it was there, in the stolen moments between cooing and cries, I opened books and began to study.
Those who knew me previously would have expected a music book would be before me at my earliest chance. And the study of music was certainly the strongest call. But there, in the wee hours, just for no reason at all, I began to study the science of herbs.
How to grow them, how to eat them, how to use them, how to live by them.
And for me, at that time, the study in itself was a fascinating pursuit, but it was not nearly enough.
There, on my heat-parched, west facing, colourbond clad balcony, I began my very first permaculture garden, grown entirely in black plastic pots.
It was 1988, my friends were still at school, and I was vividly growing my life.
Despite the immense heat searing the roots of anything in a black pot, I tilled away, growing lemons, zucchini, tomatoes, flowers and anything I could find that would grow. I planted my first passionfruit vine – something that began a trend, and I have planted a passionfruit in every garden I have lived in ever since. Many years later I returned, and had a quick sticky over the fence. The garden was long gone, but the passionfruit and lemon remained.
On my balcony I began my first compost, in a black garbage bin, and carefully layered it with all our kitchen waste. One layer soil, one layer sand, one layer kitchen scraps, sprinkled with a handful of lime. My compost was my friend. I made it cups of chamomile and comfrey tea, and despite its being right by the kitchen door, it never attracted vermin or created a smell. I was very proud of my endeavour.
I hung out at the library and borrowed Grass Roots magazines, learning all I could about alternative lifestyles and ways to grow food, and all the wonderful tales of spinning and goats and geese that fill the recycled pages of the inspirational non-glossies.
In time I began to sense I had outgrown my cement pad. I longed for land and a space to really send down my roots. I traveled to Byron Bay and roamed the hills up the back of Mullum, and found a 50 acre plot, filled with ranging mountain tops and open paddocks. It was right at the head of the local water supply.
I had found my utopia.
I visited the contemporary music school at the local university campus in Lismore and made a plan to get my HSC sorted out and enroll as soon as possible.
We returned to the city in search of a loan to complete the purchase, and a plan to build a simple house, and work hard for a time to get it all paid down. Despite holding almost a quarter of the fifty thousand asking price, we were devastated to learn that a loan was impossible at this time. It was the late 80’s, interest rates were skyrocketing over 16%, and the final blow: this land, with all it’s breathtaking waterfalls and creeks, was zoned water catchment. Not a lender in the land would touch it.
And so we packed away our dreams in our summer suitcases. But the walls of that townhouse had already crowded me in, and the cement surrounds could hold me no more.
I began to imagine a life that might be possible rather than unattainable. A life not necessarily where I wanted to be, but somewhere perhaps in between. Somewhere closer to home with all the practicalities of being near family during my daughter’s younger years, and a place to practice the absent skills we were going to need when we did eventually make the leap out of town and onto the land.
I found a three bedroom fibro house on a three and a half acre plot at Menai in Sydney’s south. Two acres bush, one acre fenced for horse agistment, divided from a half acre house paddock cleared, fully fenced, and ready just for us. We gathered all of our pots and our garden and took off to the edge of town.
My brother helped build our first chook house based on a blueprint drawn up by an experienced friend. My daughter got a pair of ducks for her birthday, and helped water the garden and dig up weeds in her darling little way. My uncle, an old timber cutting bushy from up round Glen Innes, showed me how to grow plants in the harsh summer heat without cultivating all of the land or draining Warragamba Dam. “See”, he said, spade and pot in hand, “you can still grow the tomatoes in pots, but dig them half way into the soil, and then they don’t overheat. You only use a fraction of the water, and the plants will produce infinitely more fruit.”
His bushy wisdom didn’t end there. He showed me how to trace the most fertile and lush place on the land to plant pumpkins, right in the middle of the horse paddock. “You see over there,” he said, “where the grass is really tall, under the shade of the trees? That’s where you want to plant your pumpkins”. We moved closer to take a look, and sure enough, he was right. The rest of the paddock was barren and impossible to dig. Yet this patch was so soft the grass clumps easily came away when gently tugged. He took the seeds and planted them straight into the hole where the grass clump came out, and poured a bucket of soil on top, followed by a good drink from a bottle of water.
I was resistant at first, as the hoses didn’t even reach that far. But he was right. We never watered or fertilised the plants in any way, and by the end of the summer we had our first good crop of pumpkins. The yield was high and the contribution on our part was unnoticed – compared to our efforts to grow in the open paddock at the back of the house, where the heat perished our every effort.
Having taken a long lease and established ourselves, I was ready to start on my next goal -though this required a change of plan back to my original ideas at high school – to enrol at my local music college at Oatley campus, which by this time was amalgamated with the University of New South Wales. I looked at all of my options for uni entry, and decided the best way was to take up the University’s offering of studying actual uni subjects in their Tertiary Preparation Program, at the same time as doing as many non-award programs at Sydney Conservatorium as I could find. The UNSW program included a general studies subject, run by none other than Dr Ted Trainer from the Simplicity Institute.
I sat through Ted’s lectures in despair. The open hall was packed with students forced to complete compulsory programs to broaden their general knowledge. To say they had little interest in his subject was to overstate their response. They paid no attention whatsoever to what he said, and spoke so loudly they may as well have been at the Roundhouse Front Bar. Yet there he stood, showing films of Bolivian Tin Miners whose lives were not just in despair but suffocating in complete conundrum.
They were dying of malnutrition, living 20 or even 30 to a room.
Babies, mothers, suffering.
Fathers dying of mining related diseases.
So what do we do, Ted asked.
Do we keep giving them work which will kill them, or do we stop them from doing the work in which case they will also die, since we have taken their land? Do we run the Thatcherist line that wealth will trickle down from richer to poorer, telling ourselves that so long as we allow wealth to be created, wealth will find its way down through the guts of the privileged and into the mouths of these people? Can we truly build our lives upon that lie?
At this time my daughter was still a little thing. She was in nappies. Her future was foremost in my mind. Earlier, when we were still in Alexandria, I received a free subscription to the Sydney Morning Herald. From these papers I kept an ongoing segment on the rising tide of environmental problems our way of life has formed. I put the articles into a scrap book for my daughter to reflect on when she was old enough to care. I still have them in a little green folder to this day.
The voice inside me, that murmur saying this was a more important calling than the seemingly self indulgent pursuit of music was not just getting louder, it was screaming at me.
To say I took Ted’s teaching seriously was an understatement. I completely overestimated the input required to get through his course. But it wasn’t just my sense that my work wouldn’t be good enough to pass that made me work so hard. It really was the sense that this – this information, this topic, this burning desire to turn the world around, before the water pent up in all the northern hemisphere dams had continued on its journey towards changing the world’s axis with all its unbalanced weight, this sense that opening the earth’s veins and sucking out all the natural gas in underground chasms and seams was going to cause untold and irreversible catastrophe – it was the sense that this, these issues, were too big to ignore.
1990, and environmentalism was beginning to count in marketing. I walked into a store in Kensington, near my UNSW campus. I looked at aerosols. Tins. Man-made containers filled with fluorocarbons that propelled the contents of the can toward whatever it was intended for. Substances like Mr Sheen, a furniture polish I had become familiar with in my suburban household growing up. Other substances I was familiar with, like Aerogard, don’t forget. There was nothing new about these products. But what was new was a stamp of approval from the emerging environmental organisations that were creating green approval labels. Dolphin Safe Tuna. CFC safe aerosols. Long lasting nappies that would hold the contents of a young child’s bladder for extraordinary lengths of time, and when discarded were creating mountains of non-biodegradable waste. A quarter of a century later and those nappies and aerosol tins are probably still laying in their landfill graves, little changed from the state they were in when we laid them there.
I had no issue with the standard run of products, well, I did, but I raised no objection. What I did do, was raise a challenge with every product I could find that claimed an environmental assurance, a green badge of honour, that seemed incongruous with the reality of the product. I carefully wrote down the details of the claim, then I wrote to the company responsible for the product and asked them to explain their position. How does a company producing chemicals in a tin with an aerosol pump lay claim to being environmentally responsible, whilst the hole in the ozone layer continues to expand, and landfills continue their creep upon the global horizon? What is it about the people using the product that makes them incapable of lifting a finger and bringing it gently down on a pump pack, using their own energy to propel the substance from its container? How is it that a nappy company can place chemicals known to harm a baby’s skin into a product as simple as a nappy, and tell the parents that this is a more sustainable effort than washing cotton cloth? How does a tin filled with wild harvested tuna in oceans already suffering depletion of fishing stock justify making dolphin friendly claims?
Many of the companies I wrote to did not engage. Many of them replied, initially with stock standard responses and information that disputed my concerns about the global impact of products in daily use. Some maintained a dialogue for a short time, showing the steps they were prepared to take towards more responsible practices. Did I achieve anything? Well, I achieved my uni entry, having imagined I would struggle to pass, I came first in dear Ted’s course. I learned more about sustainable living and permaculture principles, and the journey towards an alternative society. I visited his farm at Pigface Point, and read a lot of Ted’s literature. And I certainly noticed in the years to come, that whilst the companies were never going to write to me and say, “Yes you’re right”, they did over time begin to change. I hope my relentless letter writing played some small part in changing their attitudes. I also like to think that many other people worked in similar ways at the same time – that consumer activism can exert its influence.
In the end, I was forever changed.
After my year I eventually enrolled in my music degree. I took a major in music and moved on to second majors in journalism and culture studies, and I wound up writing about these topics for grass roots magazines, then taking my perspective to a global audience with magazines around the world, and The Australian closer to home. But that’s a different story.
In more recent times I have returned again to the pursuit of permaculture gardens, organic produce, sustainable living and counterculture. For too long I have buried myself in the pursuit of work for the sake of keeping a roof over my family’s head. And even my music had a long hibernation for nearly 20 years. These days I am back on the road when I’m not in my garden, selling organic food, playing music with my band Honey, and doing my best to be a gentle earworm on the broader society around me, encouraging anyone who will listen to loosen their grip on their pursuit of economic satisfaction, the getting of things, and the lack of connection with the natural world.
My brother, and my uncle, have recently passed, having both lived their lives operating cranes and other machines that disrupt the natural environment, all the while disrupting their own sense of what’s right in the world, and wishing their economic condition would free them from that pursuit.
It didn’t, and they’re gone. Too late now to change. But it’s never too late for those of us still here. Today is the very best day you will ever get to start.
So go on, join me. Put your phone down, turn off the internet. Put on some lovely music, or better still go outdoors and listen to the sound of the earth spinning forward at 1000 miles an hour, and ask yourself what does it really take to merely just stand there, and let this planet take you for the wildest ride of all time.
I’m out there now.
My question is, what will it take for you to accompany me?