Sunday, November 6, 2011

Update From Oz

Hello All,

It is time for a fairly mundane update on my travels for all of you out there simply wondering where I am and what I’m up to :-).

I arrived in Australia in the beginning of September. My first major destination was an intentional community called Bellbunya.

(View from one of Bellbunya's garden)

There have not been many new intentional communities forming in South East Queensland in the past few years because the legal and financial climate has deteriorated a lot since the 1970s when many communities were started. It is hard to get permission to have more than one dwelling on a property, and land is much more expensive. Bellbunya is one of the few new ones, and they have an interesting financial structure to try do jump around the hoops and negotiate the big questions like what happens when someone wants to leave, and how to arrange for people without much money to have access. My time here was mostly to learn about the whole intentional communities situation, having never actually lived at one before.

And I got to take that learning theme to the next level by accompanying some lovely Bellbunya folks to a conference about intentional communities in Northern New South Wales. The conference was held at a fairly large intentional community, with something like two hundred people, called Bundagen.

(House made of mud bricks, Bundagen)

Bundagen is set up into little hamlets, and surrounded by amazing old forest. The community initially started in order to purchase and save the forest, with the realization that to actually protect it people must live there full time. And find a way to do so in co-operation with the forest. Since the initial colonization the forest has become a national park and also they have secured the nearby coastal region as a marine park. The beach is breathtakingly rugged, with roaring surf and an enormous, long, rocky beach.

At the conference we discussed a wide range of issues, like how to get along with people in the community. This seemed to be a top challenge for intentional communities in general. Even a representative from one which spent 12 years in legal battles trying to secure their space said that getting along internally was actually their primary challenge, not the legal battle. Yikes. It makes me wonder if we are really barking up the right tree with this intentional community thing. I heard stories about the beginnings of communities, their alternative school systems, history of the movement in Australia, continuity challenges (including an aging population) and more. I particularly liked the reflections on what an intentional community is supposed to be; I see the promise of an intentional community as creating a space for experimentation in living. A kind of bubble where radical things can happen. A sort of safe space.

Of course an intentional community can also be seen as people coming together simply to address the basic issues of life; affordable housing, decent food, sensible school system, and good work. None of these are very well organized in mainstream society, after all.

Next, I spent time at the radical and lovely Peter Maurin Farm, populated by a bunch of anarchist Christians who belong to the Catholic Worker Movement. When I saw their farm advertized in the WWOOF book as an anti-military, anarchist and Christian place Tolstoy came to mind. I just had to visit :-).

(Peter Maurin Farm house)

In the past, I’ve found the anti military activists to be most radical and I was not disappointed this time either. Shortly after my arrival I accompanied my new friends to an anti military demonstration outside Ennogera Military Base in Brisbane to protest the tenth year anniversary of Australia’s attack and occupation of Afghanistan. We sent solidarity messages to an Afghan youth organization, and held a vigil for dead Afghanis and Australians, closing the day by blockading the entrance to the base, ending in the arrest of 5 people. The event was blacked out by the mainstream media, and you will not hear about it just about anywhere but here.

(Andy getting arrested)

The media blackout occurs with all events involving the name Jim Dowling in Australia. Just ask the naive new reporter who tries to do a story involving Jim. For example, about that time he and some friends marched into the most secure military base in Australia, clipping their way through the fence to sit on the roof of one of the buildings inside. The the military got quite rude after noticing the citizen inspection team taking photos with their flash camera at night... The team was inspecting the base for illegal activity as it was reported that they were murdering people in Iraq. All collected evidence supports the initial suspicion. Actually, it’s bloody obvious. Just ask the person walking through puddles of innocent blood in Baghdad. Incidentally, this same person took a stroll into the base and showed up in court afterwards in the same bloody shoes. Bloody peace activists.

But before we all get depressed, let’s move on.

And indeed I did. Onwards to witness some other (loosely associated) Catholic Workers in a protest of the hoarding of wealth in Brisbane. One of the most visible hoardings is the collection of real estate. Specifically houses which a landlord owns, and being too rich anyways to bother renting them out, simply leaves them to rot while others sleep outside or work their ass off to pay exhorbitant rent. Rent, which is of course driven up to rather unreasonable levels by the practice of landlording and usery in the first place.

(example of hoarded wealth)

Fortunately there is a neat and obvious direct action way of protesting this situation, and it is as timely as it is simple: Occupy. Those of you aware of recent happenings in Madrid and Wall Street understand my allusion to timeliness. The particular house I witnessed the occupation of had been sitting empty for eight years. The squatters lived there for a month before being unceremoniously tattled upon by a real estate agent living next door. At last contact the squatters now live on the lawn of Post Office Square, in the middle of Brisbane.

(Tent village, Post Office Square, Brisbane)

My time in Brisbane was also an excellent opportunity to explore the community gardens, dumpster diving scene, some backyard urban agriculture and a food distribution agency called Food Connect.

Although Post Office Square is an excellent location, only the shortest walk to the finest bars and shopping in Brisbane, and the rent is quite affordable, I found the buildings to impinge excessively upon the sky.

So, I have moved to my most recent location near Stanthorpe, at 900m and a fair bit further inland than Brisbane. The landscape is much prettier, dominated by those poems written upon the sky: trees. I much prefer these to the concrete sky-caves of Post Office Square. Besides, the vegetables are much fresher at Symara Organic Farm.

(Symara Organic Farm house)

This is actually the first time I have been on a real, producing, market garden since leaving Everdale about two years ago. It is a good change. I have been looking for quite some time to be in a situation where there is a semi decent work situation. By that, I mean one which fulfils the three basic requirements of good work: overcome the ego by working together with others in a common task, use and develop the faculties, and secure a decent material existence. As simple as these criteria may seem, they are actually rather difficult to achieve in this day and age. Market gardens seem to come closer than most places. There’s something about actually being involved in the outside economy that is encouraging. I suppose knowing that someone cares about your work enough to pay some decent money for it is nice.

The couple running Symara are quite involved in the food system here, creating a rural local food system as well as supplying to a interesting organization and “farmer’s market” in Brisbane. So it’s a good place to learn for a while about a section of the food system in Australia.

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