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Permaculture & community sufficiency – regenerating ecological culture and economy

In June 2021, a small French film crew came to Australia to interview several people who are, in very diverse ways, responding to the predicaments of our age. Alongside permaculture elders and friends Su Dennett and David Holmgren, we have been featured in what is now published as a French TV series directed by Thierry Robert, starring Cyril Dion as the narrator. The series is in three parts and this short clip is an excerpt from ‘Regeneration | A New World (Part 3)‘ in which David, Su and Artist as Family speak of the cultural and economic shifts we have implemented in our lives.

When Thierry and his crew visited us to film the conversation we had with David, we recorded an audio version of it for our own purposes, which you can listen to in its entirety here. And you can watch all three parts of Thierry and Cyril’s series here: Resistance I A New World (Part 1) I ARTE.tv, Adapting I A New World (Part 2) I ARTE.tv , and Regeneration I A New World (Part 3) I ARTE.tv.

A little while ago we asked our friend, the talented Catie Payne, to illustrate a simple graphic to demonstrate our household’s transition from money to subsistence neopeasantry through applying permacultural community sufficiency principles. We gave Catie a crude sketch representing our 15-year transition of decoupling from a destructive, incarcerating and extractive economy to how we are living now, and she came up with several evocative drawings for us to use as teaching aids.

A transition from money, for us, has been a transition from debt to indebtedness, from gratuitousness to gratitude, from mistrust to ever deepening relationships with the living of the world. Yes, money has played a role in our transition, but step by little step it no longer masters over us and crushes our souls.

Barter is a crude and clumsy form of economy, not one we wish to dwell in for very long. However, it is essential for building trust on the way from money to what we call a flow of gifts economy. Trust is always conditional in order for us to arrive at unconditional love, which is the place our economy now mostly resides within – a deepening love for the living of the world.

This transition from scarcity (indulgence mind, unproductive waste, greed, hoarding and miserliness) to abundance (the continual flow of gifts and the reverence for life as sacred, suffering, dying and renewing) is what we have found after 15 years of setting out into the unknown. Knowing what we were moving away from and what we were longing for was all we needed to begin this journey towards a more beautiful world of connection, relationships and self respect.

Thank you Catie, for the gifts of these drawings, thank you David and Su for your wisdom and continuous collaboration, and thank you Thierry and Cyril and crew for the gift of sharing heterodox stories.

Where are you in your transition, Dear Reader? Are you finding it difficult to begin? Are you unable to begin because you lack support and resources? Are you already a certain way along but feel stuck or limited because you are waiting for your community or family members or neighbourhood to step onboard? Or, are you radically flying with abundance because you come from a cultural or family setting where self-respect, generosity and the flow of gifts have always been your main lifeways?

Teaching neopeasant lifeways (a love antidote to the Internet-of-Things-business-as-usual future)

OK, let’s take the oak tree, for example. Air conditioner, alkalising leaf compost, fine timber, Green Man cosmology, edible tree crop, and a now sacred feral tree of our homeplace in southern Djaara country. Is such reculturing neopeasantry? 

Is neopeasantry the walking, harvesting, shelling, cracking, steeping, drying, grinding, baking and celebrating of acorns? For us honouring the fruits of this old deity tree as food and soil maker where both remain outside of an economic lock and key is precisely neopeasantry. Teaching this and the following skills, ethics and lifeways non-monetarily where the exchange is labour for learning, is what our School of Applied Neopeasantry at Tree Elbow University is all about.

The Permaculture Living Courses we’ve been running over the past year have been a radical experiment in education held in the centre of our family life. This is worts and all learning and sharing. There is no convention centre, no powerpoint presentations, no absence of non-human kin and children, dirt and rich microbial life, as Woody and his friend Fab (juicing gleaned crab apples) can attest.

Life is cooked, dried, stewed, fermented, stored and consumed, and so too are all the apples we can reach that haven’t been eaten by our fellow friends of the non-monetary economies – the local fruit-eating birds.

Apples that come from the mothering earth are dried by the fathering sky within a gender fluid logic that is both ancient and present and calls the future to account. Apple cider vinegar and scrap apple cider vinegars brew alongside one another. Before bottling the strong vinegar and the weaker scrap vinegar they are strained and mixed together to get a strength we desire with minimal waste.

Neopeasantry is a physical life (no gym memberships required), and lifting heavy items (such as this basket of vinegar bottles to take down to the cellar) without damaging our backs is crucial in maintaining the capacity to perform such economy and culture, which keeps us fit.

Making sourdough fruit loaves using biodynamic spelt grain and our dried fruit, dried ground orange peels and some spices (purchased from the not-for-profit food co-op we belong to) means we can eat highly nutritional luxuries for around $2.50 a loaf.

All of our bread making occurs in a bowl and tins. We are too busy to clean the mess that benchwork requires, so we’ve adapted our method – stretching the gluten in the bowl every hour throughout the day (or when we’re home), and doing the final rise in tins that will hold this incredibly wet loaf together. It’s a 24-hour ferment that takes 12 minutes of our attention throughout the day and 60 minutes in the oven, which we fuel with bicycled and hand-cut tree waste.

We reckon our high-hydration sourdough (which costs $1.80 a loaf) is the “best thing since the return to unsliced bread,” a favourite saying in our home. It is a locally grown staple (thanks Tania and Steve from Burrum Biodynamics for growing it) that even our gluten intolerant friends can happily eat.

The starter is made from Burrum rye and because of the diverse microbiology attracted to rye grain it always makes the starter (leaven) very active. Buying yeast, which must come in single-use packaging, is avoided when keeping a starter. So are the safe industrial strains of yeast that men in white lab coats have prepared for the money chasers since the 1960s. A starter becomes one of the household kin, it needs attention, love and regular feeding. Excess starter makes lovely crumpets, just tip it (like wet pancake mix) into a hot oily pan and cook off both sides.

For about 9 months of the year we make neopeasant cheeses and yoghurt from contraband local raw milk when the cows are not being rested. Neopeasants resist state encroachment into our lives and the ridiculous rules that come with a nanny state. We don’t passively accept all laws. Many need challenging and resisting, especially if we are to live again in relationship with the cycles of abundance and limits that constitutes the living of the world.

Going without cheese and yogurt for approximately three months of the year bonds us to the cycles of the year and the need to rest, which enables us to appreciate these gifts of pasture and cow, sunlight and water even more. Yum!

Meg loves to teach from this important hearth of our home,

and also from this hub of the community – the free-to-learn Culture Club where wild microbes enable the possibility of what she calls ‘community-immunity’ without a single cent going to any pharmaceutical company.

Patrick teaches from other commons in the town – the Daylesford Community Food Gardens for one – de-privatising his food growing knowledges to any participant who sees the value of a community flow of gifts economy.
Banana passionfruit vine creeps slowly across the library garden, while the pumpkins spread out across the front annual bed inviting all to behold community food that is not under economic lock and key. Keeping away the encroachment of private interests has taken some work and even among permaculture peers has created tension. This model draws on traditional Djaara food and energy provisioning and our own peasant and indig ancestors’, albeit not in the cultural or technical details, but rather in the spirit of keeping food and energy resources non-polluting and free from narrow self-interest. We call this community-provisioning or community-sufficiency.

Household-provisioning is the foremost economy for us. Neopeasant household provisioning requires broad self-interest. We grow it for ourselves, volunteers, friends and to trade with community but we do it in a way that is ecologically-integrated. Making cookies with seeds, oats and dried fruit we either grow, glean or buy through our local co-op enables us to eat non-packaged healthy snacks that cost very little money. A neopeasant economy is a time-rich/cash-poor economy.

Tending and growing tiger worms is integral to such an economy. These worms are soil makers and provide home-grown bait for more provisioning.

And if we don’t catch a feral redfin at Lake Daylesford,

we might go home via the creek and bring a little yabby protein home to join the dinner.

Commoning is a big part of ours and a growing number of neopeasants in the town. This is Bluey, a mama Boer goat who through our participation as shepherds in Goathand Cooperative, we’ve got to know and love.

Ryan, a former PLC student, interested in alternative forestry practices, gives young Ella a cuddle. Ella will become one of the herd working sensitively and biologically to reduce fuel loads in the climate changing and thus fire prone forests around town.

Tess gives herd alpha Woodison a scratch while he’s on the job in the Cornish Hill commons in Daylesford. Where these lovely mammals are standing couldn’t be accessed for the 3 metre high blackberry a few weeks earlier. This photo shows you where they’ve got to.

Hand tool forestry is complimentary to the goat browsing. And planting useful trees, such as this strawberry gum (thanks John + Emmanuelle for the gift), into the commons has been something many of the PLC participants have done,

especially after multiple sessions of blackberry surfing.

Once again, this area was impenetrable before our board crushing (blackberry surfing) work, allowing Zero to do more rabbit hunting in areas that were too dense even for this little tough nut.

With each harvesting of the abundance of perennial crops at home comes learning. Little learnings about when to harvest, where to pick from, what is labour intensive, what is not.

A year’s supply of brewing hops can be harvested by three people in a morning. Audréane shows her haul.

Some things we do still calls for money, such as the 3-hour house and garden tours we hold from time to time. While we’re forever transitioning away from the hold and grief money once played in our lives we still require some.

Demonstrating the harvesting of garlic scapes on one of these tours raises awareness about growing your own bulbs and getting an extra feed out of them, instead of leaving the scapes on which will put the energy into the flowers instead of the bulbs.

Demonstrating the simple processes of humanure composting on these tours can encourage a transition from fecaphobe to fecaphile and a way forward in a peak phosphate rock era.

Recognising we are the largest mammals on our quarter-acre plot means our shit is out of the outhouse and back on the table,

via a very safe and slow method,

that is fool-proof once you know how to do it.

And this is our shit on our table. Beautiful produce enabled by a closed-poop-loop.

And this is what Zac, Tess and Audréane turned some of that goodly shit into.

Learning and making on the go is a big part of a PLC course, which came out of the teaching we were already doing with our SWAPs or volunteers. Many had said to us they’d done a Permaculture Design Course but it wasn’t until they came here that all that theory was actually performed and they could see how to begin to embody it.

Keeping bees and making mead,

knowing the farmers who grow our staples, the earth processes given freely for us to make pasta,

to learn skills for life so our consumption is conscious and full of story and indebtedness,

and caring for the ecologies that make more living possible,

is the heart of neopeasantry, which is a deliberate refusal to follow the intransigence of global economic rationalism and all its waste, separations and despair. While the land on which we make this alternative economy has never been ceded, and we stand in the trouble of this, we have found that capitalist food, energy and medicine resources can be divorced with a little access to land and a lot of will, attention and care.
If you missed it here is ABC Gardening Australia’s take on what we’re doing. It’s cheesy but generous and they reveal a complex story of economic and cultural change in simple and accessible terms, for which we are grateful. (If you’re reading this in your inbox you’ll need to click through to our blog to view it.)
There have been so many learnings, diggings, explosions, failures, accidents, fermentations, tears, discoveries, haulings, screamings, inventions, reclaimings, cuttings, upcyclings and salvagings to get to this point in our neopeasant transition. When we began we saw the internet as a friendly commons, that is before the dopamine engineers and greedy manipulators polluted it. So each year we contribute less and less to it, weaning ourselves off a digi-dependancy that further plays into the hands of powerful interests and their non-transparent algorithms and spying ways, the data of which they sell to third parties who forever try to claim our attention. 
With three course participants at a time and six two-week courses now complete this means that 18 students have completed a Permaculture Living Course with us. A big thanks to Marty, Cara, Teeka, Mo, Liam, Christy, Ryan, Claire and Lucille who came in the late spring and early summer months and Felix A, Felix L, Nat, Audréane, Zac*, Tess, Peter, Patrick and Tara who came from late summer to mid autumn. We hope you are all out there in your homeplaces stirring up big pots of microbes and trouble.
* Thank you so much Zac Imhoof for taking all of the beautiful photos above!

A statement

We have been asked to supply some images and a statement concerning Food Forest for a forthcoming Thames and Hudson publication that surveys ecological art globally. Here’s our new statement about the work and an early plan drawing we haven’t shared before:

Food Forest is a work that champions biodiversity and demonstrates that materially art can be generative; can be a resource, rather than just an extractor or exploiter of resources. In other words art can be generative contiguous with ecological functioning. Thus this work attempts to blur the line between art and nature. Food Forest is a biological system that is in part self-maintaining. It utilises a combination of applied ecology (mimicking a forest system) and what Artist as Family call ‘social warming’ (art that makes relationships). It’s a poetic space; a garden that supplies uncapitalised food for a soup kitchen and the nearby community; a physical poem set on publicly accessible church ground; a home to marginalised urban dwellers, wildlife and bourgeois organisms. It is a space to inhabit, to garden, to find solace. Its politic makes a clear departure from typical expressions of nihilistic contemporary art. The work is informed by permaculture utopianism, which has in turn been informed by how traditional communities function as non-polluting custodians of land. The food produced by the work forms part of a local gift economy.