This article was published in Grass Roots magazine…
Many people imagine you need acreage to be independent, but my ex-partner Paula and I enjoyed 80% self-sufficiency on a small inner city block. At the time this article was published in Grass Roots magazine, we were marionette performers and had spent the previous four years touring with our show, The Grimstones. Our son, Jesse, was eight years old and we homeschooled him. It was a real challenge to manage our sustainable home life and eco farm with busy fulltime jobs and a son to educate. But when we’d neglected the sustainable lifestyle in the past, I’ve felt I’d lost my soul, spending too much time in sterile hotel rooms. Although I always took a craft project on tour to work on, it was when I got home that I could throw myself into the garden and all the new projects that I’d had time to dream up.
I never strove for complete ‘self-sufficiency’, but I aimed to produce food and products for as many of my family’s needs as possible, from materials as close to the source as possible. As well as producing from my block, I scavenged a lot from my neighbourhood.
The list of things we produced includes:
- Cooking almost everything from scratch. We grew most of our fruit and vegies, and what we couldn’t grow, we bought locally from the farmer’s market. We bought meat from the market too, though soon I hope we won’t need to. I also scavenged from neglected local trees, and collected food for the animals from dumpsters. We bought salt and wheat grain in bulk, and were working our way through honey given to us by a friend. Raw dairy products came from a local farmer.
- We tried not to buy too much other food, instead focusing on ways to feed ourselves well on these base ingredients. I made bread, pasta, pastry and lots of fermented foods. We bottled excess fruit (from our own and neighbouring trees, and from the farmer’s market) so we could still eat locally in winter, and we bottled all our tomatoes – often buying 100kg from a local farmer.
- I had made my own soap, which has lasted us about five years. A project for one day was to work out how to make soap from ash lye and the fat we scraped off the top of our cooking stock. We bought in laundry detergent in bulk.
- I was working towards a closed system of fertility for my garden. We composted all our waste, including humanure, and scavenged leaves and grass clippings from our local area to use for mulch and additional compost. I collected seaweed, dead animals and fish for fertility. My aim was to garden without buying in new products and ingredients, though I still needed to buy a few things.
- We had a grid-connect solar electricity system that produced about two-thirds of our needs. Our solar heater used a tiny bit of electricity to produce lovely heat in winter. We had solar hot water, but used LPG to boost it and also for cooking. We had a greywater recycling system which we used when necessary. The 40,000lt rainwater tank provided for our house and garden, so we were completely self-sufficient in water most of the time – quite unusual in Melbourne.
- We bought as little as possible, especially new items. We got most of our clothes and consumer goods from op shops, or made our own. From a ream of recycled office paper I made notebooks, and did art and craft with upcycled materials that we found or got from op shops. A lot of making happened as a result of trying not to buy: felted ugg boots, baskets and string from local plants, boxes made of papier-mâché, knitting from fleece I’d spun myself, making candles from wax I’d found in the hard rubbish and so on.
I’d always known I wanted to homeschool, though Paula had to do a fair amount of research to arrive at the same conclusion. The reasons we homeschooled were numerous. We felt that:
- The hierarchy and social structure of school is damaging to kids.
- School tends to make kids less inquisitive and less keen to learn by stamping out the questions, the ‘whys’.
- By home educating we could tailor the education to Jesse’s level for each activity, and find ways to engage him that were meaningful to him, so he was more likely to hold onto information.
- We couldn’t have had the travelling performing lifestyle that we had if Jesse was in school.
- Jesse learned so much through incidental life experiences, especially as we travelled, that his education was rich with doing rather than learning about doing.
- Neither of us wanted to miss the fabulous Einstein moments as Jesse learned some new skill. It was wonderful to be there with him and share his journey.
- We could choose Jesse’s curriculum. I believe that schools are gearing our kids for a life where oil is as abundant and cheap as it is now – and that Jesse would be better to learn skills that are more likely to be needed by the time he becomes an adult, when all experts agree we will no longer live in an economy fuelled by cheap oil.
We all loved it. We did have regular ups and downs, and changed what we were doing regularly to see what worked best for us. We’d noticed that Jesse was more satisfied and stimulated with a structured approach. We spent a few hours each morning homeschooling. Generally I tried to do two or three topics with him a day, and then handed him over to Paula, who did another couple of topics. But if life was more interesting, or one topic ended up taking over for the day, we went with that. It was great to be able to be flexible. We gave Jesse a lot of input and he was pretty keen to do most of the topics we offered him, but, like any kid, at times he rathered wander off and play Lego or read a book than do his homeschool work.
I built my own house on my block when I was 22. I’d just graduated from a computer science course and was being lured to work at the banks. I couldn’t think of anything more depressing. When I visited some handmade houses in NSW I was totally sold – I knew I wanted to spend my time building a my own home, making it an enormous artwork, rather than working nine to five under fluorescent lights on a computer to pay off a mortgage. I did work in computers for another year to save the money, but I didn’t mind that, knowing that the day I reached my savings goal, I would quit. And I did. My family was horrified that I threw away my job to do something I had no skills or experience in.
I paid for a contractor to dig and pour the concrete footings, and from there I did most of it myself. Friends came and helped me, and were as inexperienced as I was at building. I had no skills whatsoever – I had to work out how to hammer in a nail from a book. There was no-one who could take charge and say ‘This is how you do this’. My friend Andrew stayed with me for the first three weeks and helped me put up the timber frame – I learnt so much from him. After that it was just me showing my friends what to do. It took seven months until I moved in, but at that point it was really just a lock-up shell – there was no kitchen, no running water, nothing!
I hoped that through building I would become competent in many areas. And I did become a semi-decent bricklayer. But I’m still hopeless at carpentry – most of the woodwork came together as a fluke. I wired the house myself and learnt how electricity worked. But the plumbing wouldn’t remain leak-proof for me and in the end I had a professional come in to finish the job.
My house cost me $10,000 (about $25,000 today). Most of the materials were second hand. I assumed that this wouldn’t be my ultimate home for the rest of my life – I figured if I stayed more than three years, I’d be financially ahead, as that’s what I would have spent on rent. I was still here 15 years later and I hoped I would die here. I did wish I’d made the house a metre bigger in each direction, and a metre higher in the loft – but at the time I couldn’t afford that extravagance! As it was, the three of us squeezed into a tiny place that was 4m by 6m with a low sleeping loft overhead, a tiny room I added later which was just big enough for a double bed, and an outdoor bathroom. Our home had a beautiful soul. The whole place was filled with a sense of old-world romance. Everyone who visited felt it. There was nothing sterile; the lumpy whitewashed walls, the gothic arched stained-glass windows, the clawfoot bath in the loft right next to our beds: they were all enchanting and soothing. I like to be in beautiful spaces, and our home was one.
Although our block was only 450m2, because our house was small we had room for animals. We kept chooks for eggs and a recent experiment was raising our own broilers for meat. Worms provided castings and the worms themselves were also food for the chooks, as well as doing lovely digging in my garden. I was raising my first batch of silkworms and hoped to spin and use the silk, though I expected I’d only produce a small amount. Believe it or not, I was experimenting with breeding maggots as chook food. Yum! I also had bees for honey and wax.
I wanted bees for years, but had trouble accessing information about how to keep them. The best way to learn is from an experienced beekeeper. I tried going to workshops, but since I’m deaf, I couldn’t lip-read the teacher through his bee-helmet. I tried bringing an interpreter, but she could no longer sign when she was suited up with thick gloves! Finally, a friend introduced me to Martin O’Callaghan. From him I bought a top-bar hive, complete with bees, and every time something needed doing, I rang him up and he came over to show me what to do. He was very visual at communicating with me, no lip-reading needed, and the one-on-one tuition worked perfectly. Usually I try to do things like this on the cheap – I would have liked to build my own hive, catch my own swarm etc. But what I was paying for was the private tuition, and for a deaf person like me, that’s the only way to go. I’d only had the bees for six months so was yet to harvest my first bucket of honey. I couldn’t wait!
I also kept an Angora rabbit for her fur, which I spun and knitted into clothes. The second-rate fur I felted and used as lining for shoes. I’d had her for about 18 months and her fur was amazing, seven times warmer than wool. The items I’ed made were exquisite, so soft, not a hint of itchiness. I wanted to understand if sustainable textiles were possible. And in small quantities, it seemed so. It seemed unbelievable we can make gorgeous garments from a rabbit that mostly ate weeds from my garden. I bought her a small amount of pellets, and planned to see if she could produce the same amount of fur just free-ranging in the garden. I learnt to spin from a lovely old lady at the Handspinners and Weavers Guild – I think she was a bit taken aback by my excitement and enthusiasm. I used a spindle rather than a spinning wheel; it was easy to take on tour, and I could spin a length of yarn while waiting to go onstage at the theatre – a good way to make use of ‘dead’ time.
CRAFT AND SEWING
I am competent with the sewing machine and sewed a lot of homewares for my family – bags, cushions, pouches, toilet cloths (to use in place of toilet paper), and much more. I tried not to buy fabrics – rather I collected good sheets from op shops. But I loved making artistic dolls, toys, wheatbags etc, and I got to a point where my really special fabric stash had completely dwindled, so eventually I lashed out and bought a handful of new fabrics. I used them very sparingly, as accents, to complement the second-hand fabrics.
I did make clothing – usually special items that I couldn’t get second hand. We found so many good clothes in the op shop that I tended to put my sewing energies into homewares, but I’d a few clothing projects on the go such as some down jackets for winter. I was very into art and made books and a lot of miniature dioramas in boxes – all from recycled materials.
My garden took a few years of learning, but for the most part we now had a constant flow of food without too many gluts. Every so often there’d be a failed crop, such as when the chooks got into the bed of seedlings I’d planted to eat in September – there was a gap that month and we bought from the local farmer’s market instead. I grew the food, and harvested several times a week. I picked anything that seemed ready, and as much of it as I thought the plant could cope with. I delivered it to Paula, who worked out how to process it all so it wasn’t wasted. She was amazing at getting through everything, especially when I give her a single stalk of asparagus, three pods of peas, and other items that don’t quite make a meal.
We also had a family culture of harvest feasts – sometimes it was a single item like the artichokes when they were ready. I made mayonnaise, then we sat down together and celebrated the exquisiteness of the artichokes. Other times the feast had several dishes. The main point was that they celebrated the deliciousness of home-grown foods.
Jesse really absorbed the celebratory atmosphere, and I think because of this he loved artichokes and spinach and many other vegies that traditionally kids don’t like. We had a delightful ritual at the time of taking a bowl of homemade ice-cream into the food forest, topping it up with berries, and then sitting down to eat in the midst of all the greenery. It felt so special and abundant.
We’d spent so many years touring with our show that I was looking forward to spending more time at home and I was thinking of projects like raising bunnies and pigs to eat, and learning to live without a fridge. I’d recently became a writer when I was commissioned to write a book series about my family of puppets, The Grimstones, published by Allen and Unwin.