Mike and the Bush Mechanics | Michael Green


A writing shed

ON the 2nd of January this year I wedged open the rotten door to our courtyard lean-to and surveyed the junkpile. There were no windows, so it was hard to see the extent of the filth. It was so full of broken appliances, electronics, dusty boxes and various items of dubious origins that I couldn’t get inside.

Over the next few months I cleaned it out, knocked it down, smashed it up, and built a utopian writing shed in the shell of the old world. Here’s a short documentary about it, made by Andrew McDonald, filmmaker-cum-furniture maker extraordinaire.

It was so much fun that now – with my collaborator-builders Mike, Matt and Andrew, who star in the doco – I want to build them for other people. Tell me if you want one...

Michael Green's Writing Shed from Documentary Shop on Vimeo.

Journalist Michael Green fills his dodgy old backyard lean-to with a unique lath construction.

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THERE’S a homeless man living in our street. Or, more accurately, living in his car on our street. I first noticed him early this year. I’m not sure when he moved in – he’s good at it, see.

I know lots of my neighbours, and no one else seems to be aware of him (although I haven’t mentioned him to them, either).

I’m going to call him Danny.

Danny comes and goes. He parks on our street half the days of the week, more or less.

My house is in a row of terrace houses in a pretty, inner-city suburb. We have old trees and green grass. When I sit at my desk, I stare out the window to the street. Danny, like me, is a creature of habit. He usually parks directly across from my room, on the other side of the road.

One morning in summer I was staring out the window when I saw the driver’s side seat of a car slide upright, and the door ease open. Danny stepped out. He wore low-slung, loose jeans with a rock ’n‘ roll studded belt, and a heavy metal t-shirt stretched over a round belly. He had a receding hairline, close shaved, except for a curious long black fringe flicked behind one ear. I watched as he meticulously cleaned his car. From his boot he retrieved a container of Windex and a cloth. Later, he returned to the boot and collected a dustpan and brush. He took a plastic bag full of rubbish to the bin in the park.

Another morning, soon after, I looked out the window and saw Danny leaning on his car smoking a cigarette, speaking to two young women. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I was pleased – from their body language, things seemed to be going well. They talked for some time, ten minutes perhaps. But then the women stiffened a little, and the conversation broke off.

The months have passed. Each evening, when I arrive home, I look for his car. Each morning when I wake, I look again.

In the wee hours one Saturday night, I pedalled home from a party and saw Danny crouching next to the parking meter. I couldn’t tell what he was doing. The next morning his car had gone but the parking meter was decorated with graffiti, in thick black felt-tip texta. Words like death and devil and forbidden, repeated over and over in gothic capital lettering.

The previous week the council had installed new bench seats in the park and I saw that he’d inscribed the timber of the benches similarly; likewise, a ‘For Sale’ board on a house across the road; and, I noticed, the wall of a nearby supermarket.

Within a week, the council had scrubbed the parking meter clean, but his words remain on the bench seats.

I am glad about this. I have rented a room on this street for several years, many of which I worked from home; during that time I knew all its comings and goings. Once, the day after returning from a long hitch-hiking adventure, I bumped into Martha, an elderly neighbour. “Oh, you’re back!” she exclaimed. “Freida told me she thought you were back!” Freida is another neighbour, further down the street. I liked that. I care about place and identity, about the physical and psychological markers we lay down, about the people we know and who know us.

One evening last week, Danny was already in his car – seat fully reclined, window slightly open – when I rode home at half past seven. Periodically, his hand would stretch up and out the window to tap the ash from a cigarette. He was still there the next morning at eight o’clock, when I collected my newspaper from the step. It had rained. That must have been a long, lonely night, I thought.

When I left for work, his car had gone. In the parking bay were his leavings: several cigarette butts, an empty can of beans, an avocado peel. Occasionally, I’ve noticed the remains of vomit on the asphalt. Most days he leaves no trace.

And so the year has passed, and Danny always returns. I’ve never spoken to him. I would like to say hello, if happenstance allows, but otherwise, I have resolved to leave him be. He has a street to call home.

For the last few days, however, his car has been there, but he hasn’t been in it. I walked past it this morning, and noticed a sign in the windscreen: “STUFF OFF WITH YOUR PARKING FINES”. Another sticker, by the driver’s door, said “FUCK OFF”.

I wonder about his life. It doesn’t change anything, but there is someone Danny doesn’t know, who knows he exists. I wonder whether or not he would like that.

Read this story on Right Now

Read a long story about homelessness I wrote for the Big Issue and this follow-up piece on the people I met. 

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Bread and roses

THIS past couple of weeks I’ve been meeting with striking cleaners in the CBD. My attention was piqued a month or so ago by a news snippet saying cleaners were refusing to change toilet paper. They were advising office workers to bring in their own.

So I went to their noisy protests. All this year, their union, United Voice, has been coordinating protests four days a week. They do it like this: one or two dozen workers materialise in front of a building, armed with wailing megaphones and 20L steel buckets and drumsticks. They make the worst racket they can for 45 minutes, hand out flyers to office workers, and leave.

They’re targeting the biggest cleaning contractor, Consolidated Property Services, which so far has refused to renew the Clean Start agreement, first negotiated with the union in 2009. About half of the cleaners in Melbourne are international students, and almost all were born overseas. But more about all that another time.

For now, follow me through a few leads: last week I met with a Nepalese student and cleaner named Koustup. He is tall and handsome, and endearingly friendly (in our correspondence, he told me to say hi to my girlfriend for him). He’s only been in Australia and working as a cleaner since the start of the year, but he has decided to help front the campaign because many of his co-workers are too scared. It was a bright afternoon and we sat outside a café on Swanston Street. “Have you seen the movie ‘Bread and Roses’?” he asked me. “It’s just the same as ‘Bread and Roses’. Exactly the same.”

So I watched ‘Bread and Roses’. It’s a Ken Loach film, made in 2000, starring Adrien Brody and Pilar Padilla, about cleaners at one building in Los Angeles trying to organise for better pay and for health care. The story is based on the Justice for Janitors campaign by the Service Employees International Union. At one point, Brody, the union organiser, escapes the caretaker by hiding in Padilla’s trolley. Another time, he confronts the building owner at a fancy restaurant, sips his wine, and eats a lamb chop from his plate. Later, Brody and Padilla kiss in a cleaning cupboard. The movie also unflinchingly portrays the dilemmas for the janitors, who are nervous about making trouble, and must decide whether to risk their precarious livelihoods.

Striking millworkers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912

Afterwards, I wanted to know about the title. It comes from a speech by unionist, socialist and feminist Rose Schneiderman, said to have been given at the famous 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Half the employees of the major mill company were women between the ages of 14 and 18, and they’d come from dozens of different countries.

Camella Teoli, a 14-year-old millworker, testified before a U.S. Congressional hearing on the strike in March 1912. She started working when she was 13, she said, and after only two weeks she was in an accident in which the machine pulled her scalp off. She spent seven months in hospital.

Mr. HARDWICK. Why did you [join the strike]?

Miss TEOLI. Because I didn’t get enough to eat at home.

Mr. HARDWICK. You did not get enough to eat at home?

Miss TEOLI. No.

She was among more than 25,000 workers who joined the strike. It was led by the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), and, chiefly, by the 22-year-old unionist Elisabeth Gurley Flynn. At the time in Lawrence, the infant mortality rate was among the worst in the country, and over a third of millworkers died before they were 25.

But in her speech at the strike, Schneiderman argued for more than starvation wages. “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist – the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art,” she said. “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

After eight weeks, through the bitterly cold winter, the owners gave in. In 2012, a centennial committee commemorating the strike stated that it led to pay rises for 150,000 textile workers. Within a few years, however, the textile companies had undermined those gains.

Schneiderman, who was a Polish Jewish immigrant, died in 1972, at the age of 90, after a lifetime of campaigning for workers’ and women’s rights. She had red hair; her critics dubbed her the “Red Rose of Anarchy”. In the 1930s and 40s she helped European Jews flee to the USA and Palestine.

At the café, Koustup told me that at his building, it’s standard practice for cleaners to begin work up to 45 minutes early, unpaid, to get through the chores required of them. They haven’t had a pay rise for two years, and reports of bullying and intimidation are common.

Nevertheless, he says, the cleaners’ hourly rate – over $24 per hour, for four-hour evening shifts – is “good money” compared to earnings in many of the workers’ home countries, so many of them just accept the difficult conditions. Why don’t you just accept it? I asked.

“I can’t,” he said, abruptly.

Why not?

“Because I know it’s wrong.”

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AFTER sneezing a thousand times, I went to the chemist for a cure. The only one open nearby was one of those large, bargain-basement pharmacies.

“How’s your day been?” I asked the checkout dude.

“Just peachy,” he replied. “It’s been a rollicking, rambunctious day.”

The store was very quiet. My guy was somewhere between 16 and 20, with dark, wavy hair swept back from his forehead. His lively word choice took me by surprise and I laughed, but then felt chastened, unsure how much of his displeasure was directed at my question. I like to make that kind of small talk, but I suppose it’s bitter for someone working a menial job on a Sunday afternoon.

He stepped back from the terminal and shook his head. “I’ve had it. I can’t do this anymore, you know.” His blue eyes were wide, and his voice flat. “I just can’t.”

Then he stepped forward and leant in over the counter. His voice took on a peculiar energy. “There’s got to be a better way to make money. You know those people who rob banks and never get caught? That’s the smart play.”

I looked around. No one was waiting to be served. “I’m not sure if those people exist,” I said. “Don’t they get caught?”

“You know when internet banking began in like 2001 or 2002?” he said, gathering momentum. “Hackers were just breaking in, and shovelling it out. It’s just numbers on a screen. No one got busted – they got rich. And the banks added the zeroes again, just making up the money. They can just make it up. That’s why we have inflation.

“But what I’m saying is, what if all the hours I’d spent here, all those hours in this place, instead I was learning how to be a hacker? Wouldn’t I be better off?” He glanced left and right at the lifeless store, and its garish signs promoting vitamins. “It’s too hard to make money the honest way.”

I thought about quoting the old aphorism devised by a freelance writer in ancient times (I think it was Plato): the greatest wealth is to live content with little. It's been particularly useful for me, and it must become useful for many people if we're to avoid and withstand the harder times ahead. These things crossed my mind. Then I thought about checkout dude’s measly hourly wage, and I thought better of it. “Well I guess it depends on whether you get caught,” I said instead.

“What if I could guarantee, like 99 per cent sure, you won’t get caught? What then? I could be millionaire. I could be out of this place.”

He was animated now, slightly breathless, and – happily – I was certain that some part of him had already left.

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Lucky Dave

THIS is how all my stories about hitch-hiking begin: I was waiting on the side of the road, near x, when y pulled up. This time, read: Seymour and a mid-sized truck.

The set up is the same, but what happens next is always different.

Dave wore a baseball cap and wrap-around sunnies. “I’m not allowed to give you a lift,” he said as I climbed up. “But stuff it, I’ve lost my job anyway.”

His boss had called him the previous night, asking him to turn in his keys, only to call back an hour later to see if he could do one more shift. He needed the money more than his pride. So there he was, delivering car parts up the Hume Freeway. I accompanied him on his stops at Benalla, Wodonga, Albury and Holbrook.

Dave was from a large town in central Victoria. A week ago, he’d had an altercation with a manager in Melbourne. The guy had wanted to fight. “I don’t fight anymore – did all that when I was younger. If it was a few years ago I would have smashed him,” Dave said. “Yeah, I fought a lot when I was younger.”

He shifted his cap, showing a close-shaved, balding head. Sitting behind the wheel, he had a lanky aspect, with a slight paunch, and it was hard to imagine him as a fighter. We talked about what work he might do instead. “Hospitality. I’ll go into hospitality again,” he said. I couldn’t really imagine that either.

He’d been a glazier, but had three hernias from lifting glass. (“I’m a bit weak through my middle bits.”) He’d been an arborist, but got a rare fungal infection from a eucalypt. (“I’ll always have it – it’s scarred my lungs.”) He’d been a truck driver. Until now.

“Lucky Dave, they call me. I say it’s a good thing I’ve got bad luck, otherwise I’d have none at all.”

It was a nice line – so good, in fact, it seemed incongruous, like his fighting past and his hospitality future. Our conversation was hard won. It wasn’t that Dave didn’t want to talk, I thought. More that he wasn’t used to giving much away. And our lives didn’t overlap in the ways that would make it easy.

So I asked lots of questions and he didn’t ask any. He gave the clipped, limited answers common to many Australian men. I’d leave it rest for a while, not wanting to overreach. Then he’d proffer something: about his busted four-wheel drive, or his father’s dodgy heart, or his wasted mates.

This last one gave me the fear. Dave’s portrait of his town and his social life was dystopian. “Ice is easier to get than marijuana,” he said. “I’ve lost two mates to it.”

He used to smoke it too, every day for a while, along with weed, and then clock onto his job. He told me about friends – a husband and wife with kids – who’d received a large transport accident payout and spent it all on ice. They couldn’t stop. He’d taken a couple of mates into his home, to help them get off it, but had to kick them out again.

“If it wasn’t ice, would it be something else?” I asked.

“Yeah, they’re so used to being high, they can’t handle being sober anymore.”

Now he’d offered a room to another mate, who’d been drinking too much. Dave recognised the signs, because he’d been through it himself. In any case, he was glad of the company – he had a rule not to drink alone anymore. Now when his friend walked through the door each night, he laughed, they could drink together.

All this made me think of an op-ed I’d read a month or so ago, by a journalist and former Liberal Party member, Chris Earl. He was taking aim at economic reforms that lead to fewer regional jobs in agriculture and manufacturing.

“Who would be left to pick up the pieces?” he asked, and decried the situation now: “government at all levels… today prop up country towns” and, further, “country people are increasingly beholden to government for survival”.

Last year, as I hitched through Western Queensland and NSW, I noticed that major towns like Charleville, Cunnamulla and Bourke seemed, above all, like government service centres. I’m in no position to generalise; the causes and effects are complex and solutions hard to imagine. Maybe that’s why smoking ice seems like a good idea.

Earl proposed one answer: “Perhaps the way forward can be found in history – the return of more locally owned co-operatives and enterprises capitalising on local resources and skills, towns taking back responsibility for their future”.

Hours up the freeway, Dave dropped me off. I jumped out of the cab, but he looked on the seat beside him and beckoned me back. Wide-eyed, as if surprised by what he was doing, he passed me a glad-bag. “Go on, take these,” he said with a nod.

I looked down at my hand. They were his driving snacks, I guess: two tubes of instant tomato soup, a muesli bar and a packet of strawberries-and-cream lollies.

Earlier, we had stopped for fuel. I was looking for food in the shop, and turned to see Dave at the counter. He’d raised his sunnies onto the top of his head, and his long, dark eyelashes startled me. His eyes were honey-brown, and he looked much younger, almost unrecognisable from the man in the truck, soon-to-be unemployed, who had described those hopeless scenes.

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Billions and billions

I’M on a winter search for the sun, a few weeks of warmth to help me through to spring. With my friend Roger, I set off north on a drizzly Friday afternoon. We drove to Tocumwal, on the Murray River, and camped in state forest on the Victorian side.

Roger has bad knees, so he can’t walk much. But what he lacks in mobility, he makes up for in curiosity. That’s why we bumped all the way to the end of the muddy track in the dark before deciding on a camp spot: he wanted to see what was round the next corner. I took the wheel next morning, windscreen still foggy, my attention on the conversation, and promptly got us bogged. We got bogged a second time that day, driving off-road to look at an interesting house we’d glimpsed from the freeway.

Our drive to Brisbane, on the Newell Highway – mostly – continued in this fashion: detours, pauses, slow circumnavigations of every town and back again. Ooh, look at that old building! Maps. More maps. A lazy morning spent on the sloping balcony at the Imperial Hotel in Coonabarabran. Fried food. Bains-marie. We got to Brisbane in five days.

Along the way, I finally began to learn about stars. (Here's Leunig's take, for the election.)

I’d never before understood the movement of the night sky. I like to look for the Southern Cross, but I’ve never been sure where it would be, or why. I remember reading a picture book called My Place in Space over and over again, and understanding the smallness of Earth had a profound effect on me. But on the whole, I didn’t pay much attention to what was overhead, besides special occasions – school camps, summer holidays at the beach, or travelling here and there.

I’m only partly to blame. Growing up in the suburbs and then living in the city, stars are the exception, not the rule. When Galileo was stargazing on a clear, moonless night, the Milky Way was bright enough to cast a shadow. It still is – but not where people are, not where lights crowd out the cosmos.

The Newell Highway is an observatory tour, of sorts. It passes the Dish, at Parkes; the big telescope near Coonabarabran and the radio telescope compact array near Narrabri.

We bypassed the Dish, but visited the second two. And in the evenings, when we stopped for camp, Roger looked up. He explained how to find south using the Southern Cross and its pointers, talked about the varying expansion rate of the universe, and sung the galaxy song from Monty Python. He also sung the praises of Carl Sagan, astronomer and writer, whose Cosmos television series he’d watched as a young man. “There have been others since with better graphics, but none with better politics,” Roger said.

At Roma, in western Queensland, Rog turned north for Carnarvon Gorge and eventually, Cairns. I hitched further west, to Charleville.

There’s a tourist site on the edge of town called the Cosmos Centre. I think it’s the best attraction I’ve visited. And there, I found the sun – but not in the way I’d bargained for.

I saw it through a telescope. I was in a group and each of us, in turn, peered, paused, and gasped. A rough looking man wearing tracksuit pants and thongs limped up and put his eye to the telescope. “I see it,” he said. “Oh, wow.”

Through the filter, the sun appeared molten red. I saw dark sunspots, only pinpricks on the lens but larger than Earth in reality; and huge solar flares on its edge, like wisps in the wind.

(The Sun: a photo on my phone through the eyepiece of the telescope – it's nothing like what I saw, but you get the idea.)

I returned to the Cosmos Centre in the night time too, and saw Saturn and its rings through a telescope, and a globular cluster – stars as bright and close as a field of flowers – and the Swan Nebula, a great dust cloud from which stars are born. The guide pointed out a puff of white in the sky, the Small Magellenic Cloud, and suddenly I could see another galaxy 200,000 light years away with my naked eyes.

It is several days ago now, but it still feels like revelation.

The final episode in Sagan’s Cosmos was called ‘Who Speaks for Earth?He despaired that it might be inevitable for technological civilizations to self-destruct. For humanity, he was alarmed about nuclear war, and later, about the hole in the ozone layer and about the greenhouse effect. He died in 1996.

But he did have hope: “A new consciousness is developing which sees the Earth as a single organism and recognises that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet,” he said.

“One of the great revelations of the age of space exploration is the image of the Earth, finite and lonely, somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.”

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The road home

I HITCHED home from Darwin in four days. I googled the distance and found this answer:

The road distance between Melbourne and Darwin is around 3752 kilometres. The journey would take approximately 45 hours, so would best be undertaken over a minimum of 5 days.”

I won, and without a car! Here are some other non-vital statistics...

7: different lifts

6.5: hours waiting by the road

97: roadkill carcasses (an estimate), attended by

283: contented crows (also an estimate)

13: roadhouse pitstops

18: pee breaks

1185: kilometres covered in the longest lift, from Katherine to Alice Springs

3: hours I drove the (government) car during that ride

2: other hitchhikers we picked up, including the owner of a roadhouse near

1: roadside bushfire we braved, with

5: metre flames on either side of the vehicle

1: crocodile-skin vest, borrowed from

1: itinerant tree-dweller named ‘Bushy’

20: hours in the longest driving day, from Coober Pedy to my door

1: free lunch given to me by picnickers in Port Augusta

1,3 &5: the only functioning gears in the backpackers’ bombed out Nissan Pulsar (no reverse)

1: stop by the police highway patrol, and

0: charges laid

It all adds up to…

1: happy traveller/tree-dwelling protégé

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Footy territory

ONE day, while I was staying in Yuendumu, I took a trip to the Laramba Sports Weekend. My friends collected me in their troopy and we drove east for two hours on dirt roads.

Teams and onlookers from four remote communities showed up and camped out for a few days. The women played softball and the men, football. The night before we arrived, there’d been a song contest. Sports weekends are a regular, lively fixture in desert life.

Yuendumu is about 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs. Laramba is a smaller settlement, on Anmatjere land, closer to the Stuart Highway. On the way, we drove through a community called Mt Allen (or Yuelamu) and past a few outstations – clusters of houses where families live out of town.

There are several hundred remote communities in the Territory, most of them very small, and all of them profoundly different to mainstream Australia. Visiting Yuendumu and Laramba, I realised I was travelling to different countries. I spent three years taking Indigenous studies subjects at Monash University, but strangely, I hadn’t grasped this reality. The land is still occupied; the spoken languages are not English.

When we arrived at Laramba, a lengthy debate was underway in the timekeepers’ stand about which sides would play each other. We waited, lathering sunscreen and looking at the red dirt oval, its boundaries marked by lime dust.

On the Mt Allen team there was a big lump of a lad, a little chubby, with a plaited rats tail. My friend pointed him out: “I’ve heard he’s the one to watch,” he said.

The games were relaxed affairs. Play was skilful, but not physical. There was little chasing and few tackles – you wouldn’t want to risk your skin on the raspy surface. The big lad positioned himself at centre half back, intercepted several balls and cruised through the middle. It was a fun afternoon.

A couple of weeks later, back in Alice Springs, I watched the inaugural game of the Central Australian Redtails in the NTFL, which is the competition held in Darwin over the wet season. I noticed the big lad playing at full-forward, and found out his name is Daniel Stafford. He's only 18.

He kicked four goals as the Redtails surged in the last quarter to win by five points and, later, was named the competition’s rising star for the round. The team did a long, raucous lap of honour while the crowd cheered and whistled. The newspaper reported effusively:“Pandemonium struck the ground as the final siren sounded, with emotional scenes of jubilation and local pride”.

The day before, one of the new club’s founders, Rob Clarke, said the Redtails were about more than sport. “This football team is about changing people’s lives here in town and in communities.” He’d decided to start the club two years ago, after a promising young player died in the summer off-season. The Redtails are playing a four-game trial, and seeking to join for the full competition next year.

A couple of weeks later I arrived in Darwin and stayed with my friends Charlie and Ness. Charlie is the director of the Clontarf Academy at Kormilda College.

The first Clontarf program was started in Perth in 2000, and it now operates in nearly 50 schools all across the country, with thousands of students enrolled. It uses football – Australian rules or rugby league – as a drawcard to keep Indigenous boys in school. The website explains: “Clontarf is a sophisticated behavioural change program, not a sporting program”. Many schools have set up similar incentive-based sports schemes for girls, such as Katherine High’s Stronger Smarter Sisters.

For now, school retention rates are low among Indigenous students. Less than half make it to year 12, compared with nearly four out of five non-Indigenous students.

I visited the Clontarf common room one morning before school started. About 30 teenagers were in there early, playing table tennis, pool and video games. On the walls were photos of the camps they’d been on. The staff run footy training sessions twice a week, among other things.

The build-up to the wet season has begun, so the weather is hot and steamy. It’s the witching hour, the time when tempers fray. Later that day, Charlie told me, there was a nasty fight. For many of the students, there are no easy answers. But the programs boost attendance and retention rates and support school-leavers to find work or more training. The boys have a place to be, somewhere on campus where they belong.

When he lived in Katherine, Charlie helped start the Big River Hawks, a new team in the Darwin under-18 competition. To get a game, you’ve got to be attending school or work.

Players travel to Katherine from communities spread across an area the size of Victoria: south-west as far as Lajamanu, east to Ngukkurr and north-east to Numbulwar on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

I saw them play one week in Darwin. Gosh, can they play. At half-time, up by nine goals, the young men ran off the field whooping and cheering. After the break, they emerged from their rooms whooping again and jumping with joy, literally. They won by 128 points in the fierce midday sun.

I’ve watched local football nearly every weekend I’ve been in the Territory. In part it’s because I like footy. It’s something here I understand. But it also feels like I’m witnessing something constructive, both on the field and in the crowd. The players are talented and determined. Among supporters, the game is a shared language.

So, of course, I went to the footy another weekend in Darwin too. There was an NTFL triple-header on at Marrara Stadium. The Central Australian Redtails were playing the reigning premiers, the Tiwi Bombers. They were behind all day, but late in the last quarter Stafford, that big lad with a rats tail, kicked a goal that put them within reach.

The sun had set and the grass was luminous beneath the lights of the stadium. I glanced up and saw a skein of geese flying in formation across the purple sky. This week, it wasn’t to be: the Tiwi Bombers kicked away again. There will be another week. 

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Court in the Alice

I SPENT a day in court in Alice Springs. I knew it would show me only a sliver of the whole, but in central Australia, the whole is unfathomable. As it turns out, so is the sliver.

Initially, I felt awkward being there, observing the cases as though they were sport. So I paused in the foyer instead. A few families and individuals were sitting along the vinyl benches. The courthouse opened in 1980, replacing the low-slung heritage one on the opposite corner. It’s a blockish, concrete building, with a central atrium; the two courtrooms, the Magistrates and the Supreme, are set on either side at the back.

It was quiet. Or it would have been, if not for Ray, one of the security guards. He approached a thin young woman across from where I sat, who’d stifled a tense cough.

It’s not the coughin‘ that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in!” he said, with fatherly glee. The woman looked perplexed, and eventually, amused.

Ray went on: “I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son. Can you say that? No swearing in here!”

He laughed good-naturedly and smoothed his dyed brown hair. “It goes like this: I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m the pheasant plucker’s son. I’m only plucking pheasants till the pheasant plucker comes.”

The woman smiled with him, and mouthed the first line. Ray was well pleased. I watched as he worked the room, winking and testing the tongue-twister on everyone. With one young man, he progressed to “She sells sea shells by the sea shore”, and shortly afterwards, he entertained a toddler at length with the mysterious beeps of his metal detecting paddle.

I stepped into the Magistrates Court and sat through about a dozen cases. All but one of the defendants was Indigenous. (In the Territory, Indigenous people make up less than a third of the population, but more than 8 out of 10 of the prisoners.)

That day, the offences fell into two broad categories: drunken, senseless violence in town; and sober, inconsequential traffic violations on remote communities. Everyone pleaded guilty and the judge handed out very small fines, in view of the individuals’ limited capacity to pay – none had jobs. The defendants walked in silently and left without remark as the next matter began; the proceedings happened around and without them.

When the morning session adjourned I sat in the park across the road and sent a despondent message to my friend, who is a criminal lawyer in Melbourne, explaining what I’d seen. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound surprising,” she replied. “Unfair targeting or higher prevalence, I don’t know.”

Or both, I thought.

In the Supreme Court, in the afternoon, I watched the sentencing in a case that seemed to sum up the way of things, and the futility of the judicial response.

A man from a remote community was charged with two counts of causing serious harm, offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.

He’d come to Alice to bring his mother-in-law to visit her grandson in prison. One day while he was here, he began drinking in the early afternoon. Later, he began playing cards with two uncles. They started arguing and one punched him. He punched back and broke the man’s jaw. The other man tried to stop the fight and the defendant picked up a large stick and struck and broke his arm.

When he was taken into custody, he was 33 years old, married, with a daughter he cared for while his wife was working on the Indigenous night patrol. He played footy, worked occasionally and lived simply. He had a criminal record: traffic offences ten years ago, then rioting and assault four years ago when there was a large feud between families on his community.

His barrister requested a suspended sentence, as he’d already been in custody for four months, and in that time, had apologised to the victims and resolved not to come into town to drink.

The judge disagreed. Given the man’s previous record, he sentenced him to three-and-a-half years, with a non-parole period of 21 months. The accused sat quietly. The judge called the next case.

Later, I read a report on recidivism (re-offending) posted on the Northern Territory Supreme Court website. Of all the demographics, the highest rates of recidivism are for Indigenous men between 25 and 34. Over half are caught again within two years. To what end then, is jail?

In his sentencing remarks, the judge commented that this was “yet another example of drug-fuelled violence in central Australia”. He said it wearily.

Afterwards, I sat slumped on the bench outside the court, cowering at the thought of three-and-a-half years. I watched Ray give two children photocopied drawings and coloured pencils. By the metal detector, I noticed, there was a pin-board full of finished ones.

I was unlocking my bicycle when he came out for a cigarette. “It was really nice to see you in there,” I said, “chatting to everyone, lightening the mood.”

“Oh you gotta. Everyone knows me, anyway, I’m Uncle Ray,” he said. “The managers didn’t know how to take me when I started. ‘That’s not security!’ they told me.”

We spoke for a while. Ray said his mother was a “half-cast” and his father a “whitefella”, that he and his siblings were part of the stolen generations. They’d grown up rough, in a home. He’d gotten into boxing, trained hard, and later, run a boxing gym for a long time.

“Sometimes people ask me if they’re going to be sent to jail. I say: ‘I dunno. I’m just the security guard. You better hope the judge got naughty in the mornin‘, or he’s just having a good day.

“I say to them: ‘You gettin‘ sentenced on Friday? Well, you better enjoy your Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday! Nothing else you can do. You’ve gotta change what you can – if you can’t change it, don’t worry about it. Worry about it on Friday.’”

Cheerily, Ray told me to come visit him at court whenever I was in town. He perked up my afternoon. And his advice is better than any response I could muster. Trouble is, that day felt worrisome, like a Friday. Every day in Alice is like a Friday. 

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People in cars

NOT many drivers will stop. Not grey nomads, not truckies, not women alone, not the elderly, not families with kids, not backpackers in rented vans, not young men – not young people in general, but especially not young men – not the pilots of vehicles with safety lights on top, not the risk-averse who turn their headlights on in the day, not owners of cars with leather seats, not owners of aqua-marine or burnt-orange speed machines, not owners of late-model Holdens and Fords – no, not them.

Above all: not young men driving leather-seated, late-model, burnt-orange Holdens with their headlights on.

I watched one whoosh by in Marla, South Australia, 230 kilometres north of Coober Pedy, 450 kilometres south of Alice Springs.

Few cars were passing. Marla is a roadhouse, hotel, shop and caravan park, and not much more.

I’d been dropped there by Amy, a Vietnamese woman wearing large sunglasses – a woman alone – who picked me up at Coober Pedy, and thereby proved my rules mistaken.

From where I stood, in opal territory:

She didn’t even pull off the highway; she just stopped. She was driving a Toyota sedan, its fender busted in a way that made it look like a racecar. That’s how she drove it. She didn’t have much English and wasn’t interested in small talk. She was driving from Melbourne to Darwin for a few months’ fruit picking. She was driving in a hurry. There was no rush, she said, except that she couldn’t sleep.

“Very tired,” she said, as I observed the speedometer chasing 130 kilometres an hour. The speed limit on that part of the Stuart Highway is 110. “Very tired,” she repeated, as she switched the music from smooth Vietnamese crooner to hard, relentless trance.

Amy had her GPS set for Alice Springs, but she was having trouble connecting times and distances. Not far into our race, she glanced at the device and said: “How long take Alice Springs? Two hours? Three hours?” The GPS said we had 620 kilometres to go.

I suggested she might consider staying overnight at Marla. “Very tired,” she said, as usual, and lit another cigarette.

Thankfully, she stopped. (“Very tired,” she explained, apologising for not taking me to Alice.) And so I stood by the road at Marla. It was about 1 pm.

I’d dallied at the campground that morning, talking with Jenny and Mike, a couple who’d camped nearby.

Mike had asked me a few questions: how was I going getting lifts? Where had I come from? His thick grey moustache was ambushed by several days growth, and it gave him a haphazard, approachable look. I’d noticed them the evening before, because they were camping in a simple tent, not hauling a fully appointed, medium-sized house, as is the fashion.

He couldn’t contain himself any longer: “You know you’re talking to two of the world’s biggest hitchhikers?” he said.

Through the 70s they’d hitched all around the world: more than a thousand lifts. Afghanistan? For sure! They worked in cabin crew for Qantas. Whenever they could, they picked a new spot on the map and went there. “We never had a plan for where we’d get to by the end of the day,” Mike said. “We met the most wonderful people, and we went everywhere.”

They hitched with their two toddlers, when they were aged one and three. “All you need is two backpacks and six cloth nappies. That’s what we’d say.”

They made me a cup of tea. Earlier, Jenny had gently discouraged Mike from talking too much. But then she warmed to the story-telling too, with an hilarious anecdote about sashaying into a stuffy, cigars-and-evening-dress British club in the Sri Lankan high country, their bohemian best caked with mud after a downpour on the way.

Mike was bursting with all these memories. Jenny suggested he get his thumb on the road again. But he wouldn’t, he said, sadly. He couldn’t: “I can’t go back. It was a magic time then. I don’t want to ruin it. The world’s not what it used to be.”

He gave me a lift to the highway, apologising for detaining me with their reminiscences, which had meant I’d missed the early morning travellers. (I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend the time.) “But it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You always get the right lift.”

So there I was in Marla, a few hours later. Arguably, the lift with speeding Amy had not been ideal. But the experience of hitching does lend itself to the metaphysical. One long-time practitioner told me recently that it had changed his life. He’d come to believe in manifestation: you get back what you put out. By the road, it feels that way to me too – at least in part.

I take off my hat and sunglasses for each passing vehicle and try to make eye contact. I smile and wave, whether they slow or not. Whoever stops, stops. It’s beyond my control. If nothing else, I’m fishing for a reciprocal wave, a small addition to the global stock of friendliness.

I’d been aiming for Alice that day, but maybe it wouldn’t happen. That wasn’t so bad. I was reading a magazine article about the conflict in Syria while I waited, scanning the wide desert horizon for people in cars. I pondered Mike and Jenny’s extraordinary adventures, and his view about how the world had changed. Had it? Could it change again?

The burnt-orange-Holden driver accelerated past and I waved and smiled, trying, as much as I was able, to inject a little something different into his day.

Two years ago, I hitched for the first time in Australia, to Cairns and back. I was very nervous. Thousands of kilometres later, on the way south again, I was humming, brimming with joy. I remember standing a while near Tenterfield, watching each passing car and thinking: “You missed out, dude! We would've had a great conversation!”

Perhaps the Bureau of Statistics could introduce a Hitching Index, tracking minutes spent waiting for a lift. It would be a proxy for the state of our society, a better one than Gross Domestic Product.

For now, not many drivers will stop. Many can’t, of course, for practical reasons. But someone always will.

It was Dave who pulled up, in a blue ute with a loaded trailer. He hobbled round the back, to shift his gear so I’d have room. He was going right through to Alice, four hours drive away.

“Just before I left, my sister called and told me not to pick up a hitch hiker,” he said. “But I saw you there and thought it wouldn’t be right to drive on.”

And my, did he have a story to tell.

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Re-empowering Port Augusta

AS we rolled into Port Augusta, Allan, the travelling salesman who was driving, told me that South Australians call the town Port Agutter. “No one cares about anything much up here,” he said. A police car was stopped up ahead. “That’ll be an issue with the tinted ones.”

Until then, we’d had a pleasant yarn. When we got closer, we saw a young Indigenous man sitting on the footpath.

The council’s slogan is “the crossroads of Australia”. I suppose Allan would snigger at that. In part, it’s a service town – nearly a third of employees are in community or admin work. One in five of the town’s residents are Indigenous. It’s a hub for the state’s northern regions.

Mainly, though, it’s a struggling industrial town. Cargo trains line its eastern flank, and coal power plants lie south and north. The lung cancer rate is twice the expected national average.

Nevertheless, at the top of Spencer Gulf, the foreshore is pretty. I drove to Perth in the heat of summer ten years ago and one of the images that remains in my mind is watching young Indigenous kids backflipping into the sparkling water from a small jetty there.

This time, my experience countered Allan’s cynicism. In fact, I lingered a day longer, because I’d been told there’d be a stall outside Woolies, set up by Repower Port Augusta.

In the library, I briefly met Daniel Spencer, a worker with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition who’d been living there for a few months, helping with the local community group’s campaign. We didn’t talk long – he was heading off to meet with a local elder.

The Repower campaign unites some unlikely allies: the local council, the business coalition and the National Union of Workers, as well as environmentalists near and far. They all want to replace the two coal power plants with solar thermal ones, if for different reasons. The locals want jobs, and solar thermal promises more ongoing employment than the other alternative, gas.

The plan (PDF) was developed by renewable energy advocate Beyond Zero Emissions. It says six solar thermal plants and 95 wind turbines would match the base-load capacity of the two coal plants.

For the time being, neither plant is operating, although the generator, Alinta, plants to fire up one for the summertime peak season. But it, too, is interested in solar thermal, albeit on a smaller scale.

A poll taken by Repower last month recorded votes from one-third of the town’s residents, and 99 out of every 100 ticked the box for renewables. This Sunday, September 16, there’ll be a rally signalling the start of the Walk for Solar. About 100 students are marching from there to Adelaide – 325 kilometres in two weeks – arriving for another rally in the big smoke, where they’re calling for an end to the coal smoke altogether.

So, with all this in mind, I thought I’d stick around. But the stall didn’t happen. Overnight, the federal government announced it had stopped negotiations for payouts to close the country’s least efficient plants, Port Augusta’s among them. They’ll receive compensation to keep running, instead. Dan jumped on a bus to Adelaide to attend a protest, and figure out what next.

In the absence of the stall, I got the best image I could. Just put your thumb over the ‘Ty’.

My experience in Port Augusta also countered Allan’s racism. Heading north, I got a lift from Robbie and Jimmy Barnes, an Arabunna man and his son, who were driving to Roxby Downs, where Jimmy was about to do a stint as a trades assistant.

Robbie had lived and worked there for a spell, decades ago. He’d worked all over as a boiler-maker. Early in the drive, there was a moment of silence. He shifted stiffly in his seat and looked at me in the rearview. “C’mon Mick, give us some yarnin’. Tell us a story about what it’s like in Melbourne!”

I went blank, but it didn’t matter. Robbie filled the space. He was talker of the first order. He spoke about growing up on Davenport Reserve north of town, the places they’d walked and camped, and how many goals he kicked from the forward flank. He grouched about young men drinking and fighting, about his diabetes and failing eyesight, and about the black cloud from Maralinga that killed his wife’s mother and many of her people.

As we drove on, Jimmy began to talk more too. He said there were too many suicides in town. But he thought that the programs run by a group of local Indigenous men called Males in Black (PDF, see page 12) made a difference, if only they could run them more often.

They dropped me off in Pimba, inviting me to visit them when I came to Port Augusta next time. “Just ask for the Barnes Boys,” Robbie said, with a wry smile. “We’re more famous than the Kelly Gang.”

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The Hitching Post

I GOT a lift this afternoon without even trying. I’d been dropped on the highway at the turn off to Port Pirie, about three hours north of Adelaide, and I was standing in the dirt, head down, scribbling in my notebook.

I’m in the practice of writing the names of each person who gives me a lift, together with a few choice details. So I was writing: “Andi and Jim, Port Wakefield to Port Pirie, maroon Mazda 323, nurse and plasterer, heart arrhythmia and bipolar, Coca Cola beanie, adult kids, the golden rule tattooed on his left forearm, Jim wants ‘to go on an adventure, hey’, like me…” when a white van slowed and stopped up ahead.

It was Harm (pronounced, to my ears, something like Harem). He’s balding, with a thin grey ponytail, and great joy in his face. The great joy is always there – of that I was sure very quickly – but he was particularly chuffed right then, thrilled by my means of travel.

We talked enthusiastically. He reminisced about his wandering days, and picking up hitchers past, and how he and his wife, Tinky, ran a hostel where they live, in the big old ship workshop in Port Germein. Now they run a small gallery, called Germein Art Focus, where they show Harm’s work and that of six other local artists.

Harm and Tinky have re-furbished their building, which dates from the 1880s. He took me there to visit. It is magnificent: stone walls and huge wooden doors with the original doorknobs and locks.

When they bought it, there was a hitching post on either side, Harm told me. He was just describing the building, but to me the detail seemed significant. They’ve created something that people – locals and wayfarers alike – want to attach themselves to.

He brewed coffee and told me about how he’d arrived in Australia on the last of the migrant boats from the Netherlands and talked his way into a surveying job, almost on the spot. “Anything was possible then,” he said.

Port Germein was once Australia’s largest grain port. There’s not much to the town now, besides the quiet, and a long wooden jetty, which reaches 1500 metres over the shallow Spencer Gulf, towards Whyalla on the other side. 

I walked out, and by gee, it sure is a long jetty. At the end a few gnarled dudes were fishing. One had ridden out on a pushbike, rigged with plastic pipes to stow his rods. “Caught anything?” I asked.

“A squid and a crab,” he said. “So far.”

By the time I returned, the sun was setting. It glowed pink on the silver timber of the jetty, and the Flinders Ranges in the distance.

Over our coffee earlier, we’d fallen to discussing nearby Melrose, which has become a popular mountain biking destination, through the vision and efforts of a few residents. I commented on the way they’d changed their small community.

“It is slow,” Harm said. “It takes a long time. You have to keep on going.”

He showed me an aerial surveyors’ photograph of Port Germein in 1988. It was a dustbowl. “I counted 168 trees, and that’s being generous,” he said.

In the decades he and Tinky have been here, they’ve grown thousands of indigenous trees from seed, and given them to locals. The town is transformed. You still couldn’t call it lush, I don’t suppose – the rain shadow from the Flinders Ranges rules that out – but its houses are now nestled among foliage. Behind the gallery, hundreds more seedlings are growing. 

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Harvest frenzy

THE ‘Apple Spiral Machine’ is surely one of the greatest technological advances known to humankind. Have you seen one?

Push an apple onto the prongs, wind the handle, and a miracle ensues: the apple emerges peeled, cored and sliced into a spiral.

Occasionally it doesn’t.


This autumn, my house – sometimes squalid – has become a hotbed of domesticity.

I live in a double-fronted terrace house, with a north-facing concrete courtyard. We’re renters, but we have made some minor alterations – we’ve built large raised garden beds, converted a bathtub into a wicking bed, and collected all kinds of containers for food growing. I installed three connected pickle-barrel water tanks, and we rarely need to water from the mains.

Over the last two weekends, we pulled out the remnants of our summer vegie patch, and returned a colourful crop of tomatoes, rocket, purple king beans, basil and beetroot.

With the green tomatoes, we made chutney, following this recipe (add chilli for kick). With the basil and rocket, I made pesto.

That’s not all. We re-potted our worn-out perennial herbs, rejuvenated our wicking bed, saved tomato seeds and beans, scattered the seed-head from the leftover lettuce and rocket, and spread chook pellets and worm castings through the patch. Inside the house, we re-sealed gaps below our wonky doors with a cheap, inventive and effective combination of timber strips, old bike tubes and a staple gun.

Yikes. So we’ve been harvesting, eating, preserving and preparing for winter. Unfortunately, another (altogether more common) pastime in the house is pun-making. At the end of our apple bottling, we had created a small mountain of apple cores and peels.

“The worms will love it,” said Neesh, as we moved the mound towards our worm farm. I sensed the puns coming on. “It’s going to be hard-core,” I said. “They’ll be jumping out of their skins.”

Silence. Grimaces. Stifled laughter. But then I was trumped by Paul, calling out from another room: “I’m sure they’ll find it very a-peel-ing.”

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Bottling tomatoes

SINCE last year, my dozens and dozens of preserving jars have been waiting patiently in the hallway, under tables and beneath kitchen benches.

But Shaun, our new housemate, is a member of the Seddon Organic Collective – a very attractive quality in a prospective roomy. Last week he bought a box of tomatoes from the wholesale market, and we put the Fowler’s kit to work.


We chose the least fuss method: quartering the tomatoes, buzzing them briefly, and pouring them into the jars, skins, seeds and all.

Processing processing

When Margaret, my Fowler’s fairy godmother, first wrote to me she said she had “the complete works”, and she spoke the truth. As well as the jars, lids, seals clips, and the boiler, she gave me bottle tongs, a peach pitting spoon, a pineapple corer, a cherry stoner, and vacuum bottle opener. And of course, her old instruction book, with Mrs B. Thrifty on the front.

So, while we brought the tomato jars to the boil, we passed the time flipping through the instruction book.

Fowler's method

Naturally, we were drawn to the meat-bottling pages, most of all.

Calve's foot jelly

These days Fowler’s only recommends bottling high-acid fruit, but when Margaret’s book was printed, any edible substance was fair game: fruit, vegetables, eels, sheep’s tongues or calves’ feet. No matter. Just load ’em in. 

We held the tomatoes on the boil for 15 minutes, then plucked them out. I think they'll suffice for the winter.

Fowler's jars

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Many hands make light earth

LAST week I visited The Plummery, my friend Kat Lavers’ urban permaculture demonstration home. I’d received an email from her, addressed to undisclosed recipients, with a subject line that read, “Come and get mudddddy with me!”

That’s five d’s. That’s a lot of mud. Here’s Kat, when I arrived:

She’s re-building the shed at the back of her yard using a technique called light earth or clay light earth. The basic idea is to pack out the timber frame of a building with a mix of straw and clay.

First, you make a sloppy clay slip (a bucket of mud). Kat had gathered clods of Northcote clay from her backyard when she dug out a small pond. We carefully dissolved the lumps in water and strained it to remove the rocks.

Next, we added straw and jumbled it until the clay wouldn’t run through your fingers when you clutched a handful of the mix. Left overnight, the clay-straw blend turns malleable like putty.

As a building material, the walls provide more insulation than mud-brick, because of the air trapped in and around the straw. For the same reason, however, it offers less thermal mass – the walls themselves don’t retain warmth or coolth for as long. In this case, the method suited the location and design of the shed, which receives little sun on its northern wall and windows.

Kat had prepared some of the mix the day before, so we tried our hands at packing a wall, once she’d screwed the formwork in place. Here’s a section that Kat had completed a week earlier:

“It’s a little bit alarming when your walls start sprouting,” she said, as she pointed out the green shoots. “But I’ve been assured it’s ok.”

It’s better than ok. Solo, light earth building is slow going, but together, it’s a lark. About half a dozen friends popped in to help. When Kat explained that the method has been used for about 400 years in Europe, we all imagined the way villagers would have gathered to assemble each other’s walls. Shortly after, in another time-honoured tradition, our host cooked us a delicious lunch.

The next stage of the building will be the rendering. Kat is planning a lime, sand and clay external render, and an earth plaster on the inside. The studio won’t just be functional; it will be beautiful.

And all this got my brain sprouting. Kat had told me that in the course of her building research, she found there’s no need for a permit for structures that have less than 10 square metres of floor space.

I’ve been thinking about a recent Radio National show on tiny homes, and my rent, and about how housing is the largest expense everyone incurs. And also, about how we pay for it by exchanging so much of our time – perhaps the only thing we truly have – for money. Imagine if I could reduce my housing costs significantly, by building my own shed-home? Could I put it in someone’s backyard? (Samuel Alexander from the Simplicity Collective did that for two years.)

And, then, imagine if that little building was also a beautiful, carefully designed, demountable, light earth dwelling, with a loft for sleeping and a chair for reading? I think it’s worth my daydreams.

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The great chicken coup

GEOFF, the Urban Bush-Carpenters’ spiritual leader, was absent from our fourth workshop last week. He is an engineer. I am not. Whenever I suggest something that won’t work, Geoff pauses a while and hesitantly says this: “Ah, well, ah, you could do it that way…” and then trails off into silence, before politely suggesting an alternative that won’t fall down. He can be frustrating that way.

In fact, Geoff says this so often that the rest of us have begun repeating it to each other, just for fun.

With that in mind, you may be surprised to read that while the big, bearded cat was away, the mice decided to build a large A-frame chook house. None of us had built one before. But hey, our workshops are free, so it would be churlish for attendees to complain. In any case, I was supremely confident. As I’ve found out, everything just seems to work out well for the UBC.

Before we split into three groups to work on the A-frames, the floor and the door, we had to decide on the dimensions of the whole. The various pieces would change greatly depending on our desired width and length, and the height of the floor. Everyone took part in a robust discussion as we considered the timber available, the ease of cleaning, the chooks’ need for roosting space and the ergonomics of the door.

It was a slow start. As we neared 2 pm, our nominal finishing time, the chook house looked like this:

In progress

If it were a challenge on a reality TV show, the producers would have been blessed with many opportunities to emphasise uncertainty and delay. If they were honest, however, they’d have revealed the fascinating and fruitful process of cooperation instead.

Here, I have an admission: despite our catch-cry celebrating irregularity (“close enough is good enough”), tape measures were used in the making of this chook house. We measured the lengths between diagonal corners on each of the sides, and the door. It’s a handy technique, because when the two measurements match, you know the frame is square, not skewed.

When finally the chook house was complete, Bobbi, one of the attendees, said: “It’s wonderful to realize that you can just go ahead and do anything!” Indeed. Even when Geoff isn’t around to check it won’t collapse. It was thrilling to see the pile of salvaged timber and tin turn into a sturdy hen home in just a few hours.

Another participant, Nick Ray from the Ethical Consumer Group, observed that while each of us would have done it differently had we made it by ourselves, the final product was very likely an improvement, courtesy of our combined problem solving skills. “The best thing is the collaboration,” he said.

Many hands

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PARKing day

BRAKING NEWS: Last Friday, several citizens commandeered a parking space on Little Lonsdale Street. The idlers topped up the meter all day, but used the asphalt for nothing more than lounging around, writing letters, hula-hooping and lively conversation. When questioned, they said it was PARKing day.

We arrived at seven o’clock in the morning, rolled out fake grass, positioned pot plants and a petite picket fence, then spread out an umbrella and deck chairs. PARKer extraordinaire Alicia brought most of the props, as well as fruit, sandwiches, hot drinks, cold drinks, baked goods and KeepCups. During the week, she’d contacted some local traders to let them know we’d be sitting around.

Passers-by were intrigued: some stared, some questioned us, some glanced and turned quickly away as though we’d made them accessories to the crime.

We said hello, invited people to join us and explained that along with hundreds of groups around the world, we had turned a car park into a park for pedestrians to enjoy. It was a fine place from which to ponder the use and misuse of public space in our cities.

My favourite visitor was a radiant nun, Anneliese, who had strayed off course in search of Collins Street. With a cup of tea in hand, she shared stories from her deeply reflective and, to us, wholly unfamiliar, existence. Anneliese, who wore a purple jacket and pearl earrings, had joined her order 54 years ago in Germany and subsequently dedicated over five decades to service in Australia.

Sculptor Benjamin Gilbert and philosopher Samuel Alexander also stayed a while. Karen, a sprightly woman who lived nearby, explained that a group of residents had been working on a plan to convert the neighbouring Wesley Church grounds into the only parkland within the Hoddle Grid.

We’d chosen the location for its slow, one-way traffic and proximity to a nice coffee shop. Fortuitously, an estate agent’s board directly across the road proclaimed the existence of a “UNIQUE INNER-CITY OASIS”.

Three employees of Melbourne City Council visited us throughout the day. Two of them, who worked in urban design and sustainability, cheered us on. The third fellow, who seemed to have something to do with permits and insurance and drove a large white car with orange lights on the roof, told us our behaviour was illegal and that we were “a danger to ourselves” and warned that other officers would come shortly to move us along.

No one came, however – aside from a parking inspector who declined to check our (up-to-date) meter, but instead, asked if he could take a photo.

Many people took snaps. We didn’t solicit media coverage, but we were photographed by The Age and the Melbourne Times Weekly, and also appeared on the Wheeler Centre’s blog. Architect-turned-photographer Nick Stephenson took plenty of pics too.

I had a wonderful day. It reminded me of one of my favourite memories from the two years I lived in Canberra. On a fresh spring day, my housemates and neighbours held a garage sale on our wide driveway. We gossiped with all-comers and ate home-cooked pizzas. It was the first time I appreciated the joy of neighbourliness.

PARKing day was similar. We had a quirky excuse to smile and say hello, and the perfect place to meet people we’d never otherwise come across. There is something to be said for sitting still. 

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Changing chairs

LAST week, following Greg Hatton’s advice about learning from old furniture, I spent a day with Michael Kelly. It has been over a year since we finished building the tiny studio, though I have visited his shop often in the meantime.

Michael decided we would refurbish old dining chairs, by replacing the seat with lath (thin timber strips used in old plaster interior walls), stripping them back and shaping them smooth.

The original chairs were rickety and ugly, with a flaky stain obscuring the timber. The Oregon lath, in contrast, has a rich and varied grain. Before long, it was clear that the chairs would become very attractive.

Throughout the last few weeks I’ve been shifting uncomfortably at my desk. As spring emerges from winter, I haven’t been able to write much. I have had little in my head besides the desire to work with my hands more often.

I sat in the shop and looked at all the things Michael had made from lath. There were bookshelves, coffee tables, tables, boxes, cabinets, shutters, and several small studio-sheds. So I said to him: “Lucky you came across lath – what would you be doing without it?”

He replied that wherever he went, he built with whatever material was in abundance. “In the city, forests of hundred-year-old timber are thrown away. There’s a constant supply that very few people make use of.”

He explained that when he lived in an old gold mining town in New South Wales, he had built with abandoned stone. He made stone walls and dry stone walls.

“And when I was living on a block with good clay soil,” he said, “I made mudbricks.” As a teenager, he built a mudbrick hut in the bush, spending only $30 on glass for windows.

Michael told me he took great confidence from the knowledge that wherever humans go, we have the capacity to use what is around us to gain the necessities of existence. Although life can seem complex and expensive, what is truly important is simple. Building, too, can be simple.

He showed me photos of timeless things he had built from timber, stone, brick and mudbrick – materials that humans have used for so long that we feel immediately comfortable in their midst.

And so we passed the day in this fashion, talking about life and building while we trimmed the wood and hammered dozens of small nails into the chairs, making them both firm and beautiful; unwanted objects that now will be treasured for decades.

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Greg Hatton

SEVERAL weeks ago I visited furniture maker Greg Hatton in Newstead, Central Victoria, to write an article for the inaugural edition of Smith Journal (which has just come out).

Once I’d finished my interview, I asked Hatton if he had any tips for tinkerers who’d like to make their own furniture (that is, ahem, did he have any tips for me?).

Earlier in the conversation he’d said this: “The way I approach everything is, well – if someone else can do it, I can do it. All I’m missing is the knowledge. I’ve never been scared of having a crack at something new.”

I liked that a lot, even if it made my mind scream through all the things I’d been too scared to try.

Several years ago, Hatton quit his job as a fisheries officer and began making wicker-style chairs from willow branches he gathered along clogged creeks. They turned out like this (see also his light-fitting made from leftover landscaping netting):

Hatton light and chair

Lacking training as a carpenter or cabinetmaker, he learnt how to make things piece by piece. Lacking money, he used recycled or reclaimed materials. I have long, intricate daydreams in which I do exactly that, so I was very pleased to meet him.

Here was his first piece of advice: “Think about ergonomics, for a start. If you’re making a chair, humans are only a certain size. The first one I made was too tall, too wide and too deep,” he said. “Same for tables – they’re always the same height. If you want to know how high a table is, measure a table. The same for a chair – measure the angle of the back. If you want to create an armchair go measure up an armchair and you’ll see it’s wider and it sits a lot lower.

“The best way to learn is to grab something and use it as a template for your own designs.”

In his workshop there was an elegant wooden couch (awaiting cushions), which he’d adapted from the frame of a couch he’d picked up by the roadside.

His second piece of advice was about how to use a chainsaw to carve timber. I began writing it in this piece, but foresaw terrible limb-loss among readers, so I deleted it; I suggest you take a course instead.

As well as Hatton’s phlegmatic demeanour and his achingly nostalgic factory, there was something else that appealed to me about what I saw.

Hatton factory

By necessity and by design, he had turned his limitations into his strengths. When he began, he had little money, but oodles of time (and a strong environmental ethic). So he used recycled materials.

He also didn’t have the expensive tools or the know-how to make slick, polished pieces. So he combined rustic finishes with a classic design aesthetic, and finished with a style all his own.

“I try not to sand too much,” he told me. “It’s an incredible amount of work and a large capital investment. If you can finish a piece of furniture with the natural weathered timber, why waste a day polishing the shit out of something and applying finish? There are so many people doing that already anyway. I think you can try to make things look too pretty, whereas it has inherent beauty relatively raw.”

Hatton has, however, spent several years working to shape a life that fits him perfectly – creatively, ethically and practically. 

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Maya's benches

As promised, the Urban Bush-Carpenters gave the benches we made during our July CERES workshop to river writer Maya Ward. On Saturday, she installed them in her front yard, in Brunswick, as public seating.

I arrived a few minutes late to see two strong men carrying the front fence away. There wasn’t much more to do, but we managed to occupy the rest of the morning doing it, nitpicking over the precise arrangement and placement of the seating in order to make it as inviting as possible.

Finally, we levelled the spaces in the front yard and the nature strip, hammered cut-off star-pickets deep into the soil and wired them to the benches, so the new seating won’t vanish with the sun.

And here we have it:

 Maya's benches

Dave, Jane, Maya and I ate a delicious lunch outside and exchanged salutations and conversations with many passers-by. The next-door neighbour sat for a while and a man from down the street promised to return another day with beer. The street now has a welcoming place – and a talking point.

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Building bench seats

THE Urban Bush-Carpenters’ workshop at CERES last month was on how to build bench seats. It was, needless to say, a tremendous success. We used pallets and bits and bobs collected hither and thither.

None of us had made a bench for a while, but Geoff dusted off our old design template for the legs and set about explaining the task at hand.

Geoff and the template

Our approach is quite simple – criss-crossed pieces, screwed and reinforced – but the trick is in getting the angles correct. This can take some trial and error to begin with. If you try, remember to make sure the seat is a nice height and depth, and the backrest is on a comfortable slant. Play around with the timber until it works. If in doubt, find a bench seat and copy its design.

Kavi, Thierry and Andrew

Kavi, Thierry and Andy were hard at work, while Phil and Leharna streaked ahead of the rest.

Phil and Leharna

And here are the three finished benches, together with their builders. As you can see, each bench – and each human – turned out different and beautiful, in their own way.

Finished benches and team

We’re planning on using the benches for some chair bombing. In the coming weeks, we’ll be setting them down on a nice piece of nature strip, some place where neighbours and passers-by can sit and shoot the breeze.

Next month’s workshop, on August 20, will be on making planter boxes from pallets. It’s filling fast, so contact the UBC if you’re keen.

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Sourdough starter

I’M besotted with baking at the moment, so over the coming weeks, I’ll write a couple of posts about my sourdough and me.

Today, I’ll start – where else? – with the starter. If you’d like a soundtrack, I suggest The Loaf, by Darren Hanlon.

For those of you who haven’t come across the makings of sourdough before, the starter – otherwise known as the culture, plant or mother dough – is a kind of wild, bubbling, gurgling yeast. It’s the thing that makes the dough rise and contains the bacteria that make it sour. To my understanding of yeast, what happens is this: as the mix ferments, the yeast eats the sugars in the flour and releases carbon dioxide, which leavens the dough.

You can make your own starter in a week, by fermenting flour and water. I have a beautiful book called The Handmade Loaf, by Dan Lepard, in which he suggests adding raisins and yoghurt to the recipe.

But if you’ve got a liking for narrative – or convenience – I suggest you prevail on a friend for a portion of their culture. To keep it alive, you must feed it regularly with fresh flour and water (or you can store it for a while in the fridge or freezer and revive it later). This bakery in San Franscisco has been using the same “mother dough” since 1849.

While I was away hitch-hiking last year, my old starter died. I discovered the jar recently, toppled over under our kitchen bench. When I peered at the jar’s congealed innards, it I realised that both of us – the culture and I – were petrified.

Its death was apt. Over the last few years, I had made a number of half-hearted attempts at baking bread, but gave up, not really knowing what I was doing.

But then I fell in love with Les Bartlett’s small bakery near Maleny on the Sunshine Coast. There I met Penny, a fellow Melbournian, who was staying there to learn Les’s craft. Earlier this year I saw Penny again and she brought me a sample of his sourdough plant. For most of this year, I’ve been baking twice a week. I am only beginning to learn.

This is what my jar looked like the other day:

 Sourdough starter

Last week, I was talking with a good friend whose grandmother died recently. He was driving to visit her one morning, when he received a call saying she’d passed away. While we talked, I began to think about my family.

Two years ago my grandparents on my mother’s side died within a week of each other. At that time I gained solace from the wisdom of another friend, Daniela from Argentina.

Daniela is the person who first showed me how to bake bread, while I stayed for weeks at her remote camping ground – Ecocamping Ñorquinco – on the edge of a lake, in a national park, in northern Patagonia. Here she is by the lake, with bread for morning tea:

 Daniela with bread

She told me that while she did not believe in an afterlife, she knew that her relatives, generation upon generation, lived on through her and through her children: not only in their minds – for memories rarely surpass a few generations – but also in their bodies. Her ancestors lived on, physically, through her.

I find this profound; it seems both soulful and scientifically valid. I think of generations stretching back in time, each of us given our substance by those before us, even as we must make our days, minds and bodies our own.

Sourdough is like that. Whenever I open my jar of culture to begin a new batch, I call upon a living portion of the past. The mother loaf goes back to Les, and maybe beyond. Its family tree extends through all those with whom he’s shared it, and on and on, in turn.

Lago Ñorquinco

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Bathtub wormfarm benchseat

ANDY and I ventured north on a sunny Saturday, to hold a UBC workshop at a Permablitz for the Reservoir Neighbourhood House.

We were asked to adapt our previous bathtub wormfarm design into something much lower to the ground, to fit a convenient spot near the kitchen and double as an outdoor bench. We scavenged timber from our own ramshackle stocks, including some gorgeous old hardwood floorboards that Tall English Stephen had earmarked for his own chook shed. He put on a brave face when he found them missing.

Not amused

Despite the trouble we were in with a miffed Stephen, this was my new all-time favourite Urban Bush-Carpenters workshop. A large group of enthusiastic volunteers did all the work while we watched, imparted wisdom and ate cake. Many of the participants hadn’t had any experience using a saw or a drill, but with a few small pointers and much gusto, we produced a beautiful object.

It is a constant source of wonder to me that we always seem to have just the right amount and right kind of timber on hand, not more or less – but I guess that's about making do with whatever we've got. 

Andy work close-up

Andy's bench

I was so excited by the way it looked, that if it were me, I’d be inclined to keep it inside.

We’ve got our next workshop at CERES on this Saturday July 16, at 10 am. We’ll be building bench seats, like this:


If you want to take part, shoot us a message.

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Pallet planter box workshop

LAST weekend the Urban Bush-Carpenters commenced phase two of our world domination strategy: we held a free workshop at CERES on how to build planter boxes from pallets.

Half a dozen of Melbourne’s savviest citizens came along. We split into three groups. I worked with Neil and Tom (pictured) to transform these:


Into this:


And then, within a couple of hours:

Hey pesto! You could grow bunches of basil in this container (sorry about the pun). 

 As our new accomplices found out, there’s nothing tricky about the design. All you need are a couple of pallets, a saw, a hammer and some screws and nails. And a friend with whom to stand side-by-side, point and think-out-loud, while you’re figuring it all out.

Neil, Tom and Thomas (another attendee) are all part of a guerrilla community garden by the train line in Clifton Hill. They’ve promised to share their bush-carpentry skills with the neighbours (world domination begins – very slowly).

Until the end of the year, the UBC will be holding workshops at CERES on the third Saturday of every month. At the next one we’ll make bench seats – send us an email if you’d like to attend.

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Revolutionary compost bays

THE Urban Bush-Carpenters returned to Stewart Lodge, hitherto the site of our finest hour, the walk-in chook house. And we topped it.

Over the course of four weekends, we constructed a hybrid compost bay/deep litter chook-feeding system. In the absence of naysayers, we consider it to be a world’s first.

As seen on TV, Stewart Lodge is a residential care facility for people with acquired brain injury. The garden co-ordinators, Robin and Nattie, had strict design requirements for us to meet. They wanted the Lodge chickens to have access to the bays – that way, the chooks could scratch around and feed on the kitchen scraps, all the while adding their own nitrogen-rich deposits to the mix. But the design would have to be as simple as possible, so the residents could use it. No heavy lids or complex mechanisms.

Unfortunately, these demands postponed Geoff’s longstanding desire to construct a chook-powered conveyor-belt and elevator contraption:

Geoff's sketch

This sketch was better:

Geoff's second sketch

After a frank planning pow-wow, we settled on the perfect design. We would build the bays with tall posts and doors that hinged at the top. To give the ladies access to the veggie scraps, we’d extend the run all the way to the bays, and wrap the frame in chicken wire to prevent their escape.

We’d been collecting materials hither and thither for a couple of months. My mother’s friend Pretam is renovating her home around the corner from Stewart Lodge, and we were able to construct the bays almost entirely from material she kindly donated – her old hardwood framing timber, floorboards and even a classy wire door. Late one night we scavenged sheets of tin from a footpath in Carlton North, and motored nonchalantly down a main road with several sheets protruding savagely from the rear end of a hatchback.

And so, to the construction: together with volunteers and prodigal bush-carpenter Dale, we worked on the beast. We’d confidently predicted we’d have it done in two afternoons. It took four weekends instead, including one dawn to dusk session by Geoff and Andy under a giant tarp, while the Gods wept bitter tears.

But here is the magnificent finished product, which makes everything (almost) worthwhile (maybe).

 Andy and the compost bays

The final afternoon, as we basked in our own self-satisfied glory, one resident approached with food scraps to feed the chickens. “Put it in the compost bays!” I suggested, and tried to explain our grand plan.

She was unconvinced. “How are the chickens going to get in there?” she said scornfully – and perceptively. She may have a point.

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Autumn Leaf Catching Contest

A FEW weeks ago I announced the inaugural Autumn Leaf Catching Contest, as best I could, using my feeble social networking capacity (by way of a Facebook event and a twitter hashtag: #autumnleafcatching, and on my Sharehood notice-board).

However, as befits a contest of such nostalgic quality, it is gaining momentum by word of mouth, especially in the office tearooms of my friends. 

Here’s how it works…

While you’re walking, keep your eye out for falling leaves. When one drifts nearby, try to catch it. That is all. I will say this: autumn leaf catching is both more difficult and more fun than sounds.

The contest continues until the end of the season. If you want, you can post your provisional leaf numbers on twitter (#autumnleafcatching), by commenting on this article or the Facebook event, or by emailing me. Final tallies must be posted on 1 June. Winner gets Official Autumn Leaf Catching Bragging Rights until next autumn.

But don’t feel compelled to keep a record or post a tally. Just notice the season changing, and try to catch a leaf now and then.

Some rule clarification and general advice (in response to queries)

1. Standing around below a tree waiting for leaves to fall is frowned upon for the purposes of the contest, but what the heck: I encourage it whole-heartedly.

2. Contestants shall not saw off branches or cut down trees in order to collect leaves.

3. Although butterfly nets and fitted sheets may greatly increase your yield, their use is not considered within the spirit of the competition. However, if you do employ a sheet as a leaf-catching contraption, please take a photo. I’d like to see it.

4. While there’s no doubt that the momentary kiss of an autumn leaf upon one’s person is an episode of great beauty, it is not a catch. Unless, of course, you’re quick enough to prevent said-leaf’s downward journey. Catchers, here’s the rub: the leaf must not strike the earth. That means, however, that if one gets stuck in your hair or your hood, or flutters into your handbag, it counts.

5. If you feel the need to mail me your leaves, I will gladly use them as compost, but I will not count them. Let your conscience be your guide.

6. Attempting to catch leaves while riding a bike is very dangerous.

Some experiences you can expect

You may find yourself looking around sheepishly to see if anyone just witnessed you fumble at thin air. You may startle a friend by darting to your right, mid-sentence, arms flailing. You may find yourself smiling and cursing, stifling your laugher and shaking your fist to the sky. You may become very excited, or very smug, when you catch your first leaf.

The tally

My neighbour Tanya is leading. She’s on eleven. I’m on five, and I’m mad as hell. Let the leaf catching continue!

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A FEW months ago I wrote a column about Fowlers Vacola bottling kits, and a week later, I received a letter, via The Age. It is my all-time favourite letter. The writer had cut out the header of my article from the newspaper and adhered it to the sheet.

The handwriting was cursive like my grandma’s. “Dear Sir,” it began. “Last week you wrote a very interesting article on fruit bottling. I have the complete works, several dozen bottles and instructions. I would like to find someone interested as I am now retired and no longer do any bottling…”

Margaret included her number, and when I phoned, she called me “Mr Green”. We spoke a few times, and finally, a week ago, I drove to her house.

She was waiting by the door when I arrived. I guessed she was in her late 80s, but her physical presence had not yet diminished. She gave the impression of height. Her husband had recently passed away and she had been sorting through their effects. Over the past weeks, she retrieved the Fowlers bottles from the garage, washed them and stacked them for my arrival. There were rows and rows of them – too many to transport at once – as well as the big electric boiler and boxes of lids, seals and paraphernalia.

Margaret told me that she and her husband had both worked full time. In late summer and autumn, they would arrive home at six o’clock and begin bottling. They bought cheap boxes of fruit and stored enough to last through the year.

When she told me about her husband, she spoke slowly and looked away, towards where the wall and floor met. She had no next of kin, she said. It was a lot to do, to organise and discard their possessions, but there was no one else. She was glad the bottles, at least, would go to someone who wanted them.

We stacked the jars in the car and I arranged to visit again in a couple of weeks, for the dozens remaining. It was a grey Sunday afternoon, windy, and the jars rattled as I passed back through the suburbs.

A couple of days later, I rode to my friends Helen and Sam’s house with half a dozen jars in my bag. They had a box of apples ready, some gleaned from a tree in their street, others from a neighbour’s sister's yard. In a small production line, we peeled and cut them, and packed the jars. Helen made syrup, three parts water to one part raw sugar. We clipped on the seals and lids, brought the water to 94 degrees, and held it there for 45 minutes. We nattered and joked and listened to music; we were productive and joyful.

I’ll take Margaret a jar or two, and a story to preserve, when I return.

Fowlers jars

I’d like to bottle some more fruit, over Easter. I’d especially like it if I could use fruit that would otherwise go to waste – so if you know of any overburdened trees, please let me know!

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Anita's dad

A couple of weeks ago, I got a message from a woman called Anita, offering some timber to the Urban Bush-Carpenters. She lived in Brooklyn, in the western suburbs, out of bike riding range. I called her, planning to say thanks, but no thanks.

But when we spoke, she told me about her dad, Ricardo, a lifelong builder and tinkerer. “He re-used everything,” she said, “to the point where he made a wooden base for a broken wineglass.”

So on the weekend, I drove west to pick up the timber. Four years ago, when her parents became unwell, Anita had moved in next door to her childhood home. I knocked on the door, and she welcomed me into her house. Most of her belongings were packed away in boxes and the garden was bare – the place was well cared for, but with the air of a waiting room.

The yard next door was teeming with life. Above the fence line, I could see several fruit trees: stonefruit, citrus and olives. It was an abundant garden, with veggie patches near and far.

“When I was younger, an ex-boyfriend once told me he always knew I was a wog, because we grew vegetables in the front yard,” Anita told me. Both her parents had passed away, and the two houses had been sold. “Living here is just too emotional,” she said. She was about to move suburbs.

Ricardo, a carpenter by trade, had emigrated from Italy after World War II. He was lean and poised, and he liked to present himself well. In the photos clustered on Anita’s table, he wore a suit and hat.

Anita's dad, Ricardo

Anita put on her gloves and helped me move the timber. She told me about how she’d grown up learning how to do things with her hands. In her street “there were Italians, Greeks, Aussies, Polish, Germans and even a French family”, and many of them shared the DIY ethic.

Recently, she and her siblings had cleaned out Ricardo’s collection of useful materials. “We grew up reusing and recycling,” she said. “I can’t tell you how much it pained me when the skip came and we threw away so much of the timber.”

Over decades, he’d built two houses and two extensions. He built the “taverna” as well, the small brick building where he cooked family meals and smoked meats. Anita showed me a photo of its interior, pointing out the sinks and stove and bench top. “Everything was salvaged, second-hand, re-used,” she said. Then she pointed out a pattern of white tiles on the floor, which formed his initials. “The man had an ego, too,” she laughed.

“He was always doing something. He carried had a notebook in his top pocket, with a list on it. But the list never ended, it just went on from one page to the next. Even as he was dying he didn’t want to stop. He said to me, ‘I can’t die yet, I’ve got too much to do.’”


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On Fame (and a Bathtub Wormfarm)

WHEN I first wrote about the Urban Bush-Carpenters, I described us as “a revolutionary organisation”. Scratch that. Now we’re celebrity revolutionaries.

Two weeks ago we found out that not only we had been nominated for the Earth Hour Awards, in the ‘Future Makers’ category (by Andy’s wife, Josie), but that we had been named as finalists. Gosh. You can vote for us here.

(Otherwise, I suggest you vote for Beyond Zero Emissions, an extraordinarily effective volunteer group, which has produced a blueprint for Australia to convert to renewable electricity by 2020.)

Associated with our unexpected nomination, we have done some media interviews. We appeare on The Circle, a morning TV show on Channel Ten. We sawed and hammered, and carried chickens for the camera. Un-missable TV.

But enough of that. You’ll be relieved to know that we’ve also been keeping it real, salvaged timber style. We built a schmick planter box from a pallet and a bed base, for the Where the Heart Is Festival, a celebration for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

And last week we constructed a frame and lid for a bathtub wormfarm for a community garden in Clifton Hill. We picked up the timber – old hardwood framing timber – from my mother’s friend Pretam, who is renovating her house. She had a pile of the stuff, all in great condition. (She also gave us dozens of apples from her tree.)

We made the frame with a three-part lid, each a neat prop, so the gardeners can feed their earthworm livestock in stages. Geoff described it glowingly, as “maybe the second best thing we’ve ever built”. Andy wasn't so sure:

Andy's coffin

But the bathtub wormfarm is so alluring, in fact, that it was all we could do prevent the Lovely Melissa from planting herself on top of it for all time. The revolution I spoke of is not a violent one. We originally described it is as the three S’s: salvaging, socialising and sharing. To that, we now add a fourth: sex appeal. (Note the matching red sock on the clothes line.)

Glamour Mel

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Down in the dumpster

I’VE begun dumpstering. One night, my friend and I rode to a suburban shopping centre in Melbourne’s north.

Rubber-gloved, overalled and booted, I swung into the bin. I began by sifting through several cartons of discarded, in-date eggs, searching for organic, free-range ones (in the case of food wastage, beggars can be choosers).

Suddenly I looked up and to my left. I saw an old Pakistani man with a full white beard, peering at me over the edge of the bin. He wore a head torch and surgical gloves.

“Do you come here often?” he enquired.

“Ah, um, we’ve been here a couple of times,” I stammered.

He introduced himself, explained that he lived nearby and raided the bin regularly, and promptly sprung over the side.

There ensued some minutes of silence as he searched, and I stood back, not knowing the etiquette. He gathered two bags of potatoes and some eggs and took his leave, shaking my hand, smiling broadly, and commenting that it had been a pleasure to meet us.

A moment later he returned. “If you’re going to come again,” he said, “it’s best to come after eleven-fifteen, because there are staff around earlier. Sometimes they see me and break the packaging so I can’t take it.”

Other employees turn a blind eye. The supermarket bins are locked, but the master keys are in wide circulation – the waste removal companies prefer it that way, so skip-dippers don’t break locks to get in.

Once you’re in, it’s a lucky dip: you can find everything from plums to pedestal fans, canned beans to Camembert. Often, the item’s presence in the bin is baffling. “Don’t even question why,” one long-term gleaner advised me. His lounge room is stocked with crates of essentials picked up over time.

For me, the experience has been thrilling. Sure, it’s icky. And thankfully, I can afford to feed myself otherwise. But it’s a small act of civil disobedience, a harmless protest against a mad world.

Australians throw out more than $5 billion worth of food each year. And that’s just from the produce that we bring into our households. More is trashed before we even get the chance. Supermarkets toss good food if the packaging is damaged or the best-before date is approaching.

As a new dumpster diver, I’ll need to learn to trust my own judgement about what is good to eat, rather than relying on the shop’s approval. My bearded friend from the northern suburbs, and his family, must have learnt that lesson long ago. And I'm sure they've been eating well.

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Container cladding and Lebanese coffee

FOR the Urban Bush-Carpenters’ first job of the year, I arranged to meet Houda at 10 am on Saturday at the South Melbourne Park Towers community garden.

We were late, predictably. But Houda didn’t seem to mind – she was waiting patiently on a bench in the shade, with a trolley and a thermos of coffee. The garden allotments were lush and pretty at the base of the imposing public housing block.

Cultivating Community – a not-for-profit group that supports community gardening – had asked us to clad two huge steel basins with timber and build a slim, wheelchair-accessible, raised garden bed. And to do it at short notice, in time for the garden open day on Saturday 5 February.

We began at our customary slow pace by sitting for a fine while and devouring Danish pastries. Houda poured us a small cup of Lebanese coffee – the first of many treats she brought for us throughout the day.

“It’s strong and sweet,” said Ste, who looked tired from the night before. “The ideal qualities of an Urban Bush-Carpenter.”

Houda told us she used to grow lots of food on her land in Lebanon, but had left nearly 30 years ago because of the Israel-Lebanon war. The community garden at South Melbourne Park Towers opened three years ago, and it was the first chance she’d had to grow veggies since arriving in Australia. She has become the garden’s caretaker.

We had a simple job, and once Houda gently suggested that it was time we begin work, we hopped to it. Geoff and Andrew measured and cut the lengths while Ste and I bought the long ‘bugle head batten’ screws (which have an internal hex drive, the kind an Allen key fits into). They’re good heavy-duty fasteners for timber joins because they give a no-fuss countersunk finish – they don’t stick out, like a chunky-headed coach screw would.

We made rectangular collars, stacked them together and slotted the sinks in. The containers will host a nectarine and an avocado tree – may they fruit abundantly. We didn't have enough timber for the wheelchair-friendly raised garden bed, so we'll return one night this week to finish it off. All in all, Houda was pleased. 


Houda, Andrew, Ste and Michael.

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Heritage eco-renos

Wanted: Heritage homeowners who've done an eco renovation.

This is a slightly unusual post for me, but I received this enquiry from Paula Judson, who is studying the eco-chops of heritage buildings. She's looking for people to participate in her research. 

“As part of a research study on heritage buildings and environmental performance, I am seeking to interview households (in Victoria) that live in a heritage dwelling about: the issues experience/d in upgrading a heritage dwelling to higher standards of environmental performance; their values and priorities; and how conflicts between protecting heritage and interventions to improve energy performance are dealt with.”

“I would like to hear from home owners who have recently undertaken renovations (within the last 2 years), are currently renovating, or about to commence renovations to improve the environmental performance of their heritage dwelling (this may include modifying the existing building, upgrading the services, or extending the existing dwelling), either using professionals in the construction sector or ‘do-it-yourself’.”

Does that sound like you? Contact Paula: paula.judson@student.rmit.edu.au

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Compost bays

THE Urban Bush-Carpenters have been on assignment at the Merri Corner Community Garden. We were commissioned to build three sturdy compost bays, and we did it with style. I think they’d survive a cyclone – which may be just as well, given Melbourne’s recent tropical weather.

The bays have hardwood frames, fortified with sleepers at the base. We used tin for the cladding, the dividers and the top of the hinging lids.

The lids particularly pleased UBC stalwart Ste Hiley, otherwise known as Tall English Stephen.

Ste and the lids

To build them, we drilled holes through the rear posts, large enough so that the coach bolts would fit through loosely, then screw tightly into the lid cross piece, one at each end. As a result, the lids are sturdy and rotate freely.

“These bolt hinges are our P.O.D.” Ste enthused one morning, and then had to explain to me that P.O.D. stood for Point Of Difference. “I’ve told everyone about them.”

“Who’ve you told?”

“Well, no one really. But they’re amazing.”

It’s true: they are nifty. Also nifty is the size of the bays. They’re a bit larger than one square metre, which is the golden mean for hot composting.

Inside our bays, the community gardeners will be able to make piles that generate enough heat in the middle to cook an egg. The heat rapidly breaks down the organic matter and kills off weed seeds and pathogens. If the folk at Merri Corner remember to turn the piles regularly, they could have rich, sweet smelling compost in as little as a few weeks.

Crouching UBC

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Good folk

WHILE I was on the Sunshine Coast, I attended a bamboo-building workshop. Actually, it was more of a tea-drinking workshop, with occasional breaks in which we dabbled with bamboo.

The workshop was hosted by Tim and Kate, who run a café called Chocolate Jungle at the Woodford Folk Festival. There, from within a huge structure concocted of bamboo and tarps, they serve chocolaty organic treats to all comers at all hours.

This year, they wanted a trial run, in the hope that construction would go more smoothly at the festival. I’d arranged to meet Kate in Nambour. As we drove to the workshop, she laughed often and told many tales – ukulele-playing, festival-going, caravan-living tales.

We arrived at a bamboo grove in Cooran, where there were about 60 kinds of bamboo, some growing as tall as 30 metres; others short and fine, with gently spreading leaves like fairy’s wings. When the wind blew, the clumps clicked and clacked as though they could collapse at any moment.

But bamboo is strong and flexible: a few years ago, when I visited Hong Kong, I was astonished to see modern skyscrapers enveloped in bamboo scaffolding. Another reason it’s a good building material is that it grows quickly, some varieties 60 centimetres a day, under the right conditions. In two years, a pole can be strong enough to use in a temporary structure.

Our building, however, grew slowly. Tim is a dreamer, tall, tanned and lean: with a faraway look in his eye he’ll conjure a glorious second storey, not noticing the first is lacking its corner posts. After four days, although the structure was far from complete, it had taken shape in Tim’s mind; and in any case, we’d all enjoyed ourselves tremendously.

After the workshop, I set a southerly course and happened to hitch through Woodford. I got a lift from two women, Danielle and Kassandra, who were volunteers with the folk festival’s art department. They took me to their shed, where they were assembling giant decorative flowers. They’ve been volunteering once a week all year, and will shortly begin a six week full-time stint. They assured me that Woodford is less a festival and more a way of life.

Later that day, a funeral director called James drove me from Toowoomba to Warwick. He dropped me at O’Mahoney’s Hotel, next to the railway station, for a cheap room.

One of my resolutions on this trip was to stay in old country pubs. At O’Mahoney’s I found just what I was looking for: high ceilings, rambling hallways and a broad verandah. The hotel was built in 1887; now, trains rarely stop and the main street has long since migrated east. On the first night, the owners, Joan and Glen, invited me to eat with them. I stayed a second day.

Every Wednesday evening, the Warwick folk circle meets in the Ladies Room of the hotel. In turn, the members play a song or recite a poem, both originals and covers. It was the day before Remembrance Day, and one man sung Eric Bogle’s anti-war ballad No Man’s Land. I remember my dad listening to that song when I was a kid.

In many ways, it was an unremarkable scene. They seemed like ordinary townsfolk – tradies and salespeople; café owners and teachers; parents and children – yet, here they were, exercising the greatest gift. I found their songs deeply moving, the more so for the fact they were playing together.

When I hear simple singing like that I seem to lose track of everything I think I know; or, at least, it disappears for a while, and comes back gleaming, like a vintage car that’s had a cut and polish. I think I’ll take up the ukulele – one way or another, it’ll make people cry.


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Rhythm of the day

I LISTENED to music while I worked on Elizabeth Fekonia’s land: bluesman Howlin‘ Wolf – picking potatoes; Cuban singer/guitarist Silvio Rodriguez – potting seeds; Paul Kelly – making sweet potato cuttings; The Faces – digging holes; and Bob Dylan – weeding.

Yes, I settled into a nice rhythm at Black Mountain. I began toiling in the fields early, usually before 7 am, and worked until lunch. Then I wrote or interviewed people for articles. By evening, I was eye-rubbingly tired.

For the first few days, my legs were sluggish, but they became stronger. Some days I bounded up the paths. My muscles were weary each night, but I noticed that I felt more at ease: with people I met, with whatever task was due.

The physical work gave me a body-confidence to which I’m not accustomed, and it changed my state of mind. I wrote in a previous post about the practice required for me to gain faith in my hands and limbs, in the way they grip and move. After my time at Elizabeth’s I felt sure that I could be useful in whatever situation I chanced upon. Writing, on the other hand, makes me feel timid. I think it’s the contrast between observing and participating, hanging back and pitching in. On this trip I’ve found a nice balance: wwoofing, hitchhiking, writing and talking. It’s got me feeling grand.

When I left Black Mountain, the seeds I potted had begun to sprout and the seedlings I planted, grow. Soon will come the veggies. I planted fruit trees too, and daydreamed about the years, even decades, when people will pluck ripe peaches and nectarines from their branches.

Dusk at Black Mountain

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Otto sausages

I MADE sausages from Elizabeth’s bull, Otto. I’ve got a brother-in-law called Otto and he’s vegetarian. Sorry, Ottos. 

As I pushed the meat through the mincer, small pieces stuck to my fingers. I felt like Lady McBeth with King Duncan's blood on her hands. “Out, damned spot!” I cried, rubbing my hands, but the tiny mincelets stuck fast.

I’ve been a polite semi-vegetarian for a few years. I don’t buy and cook meat for myself, but I’ll eat it when I’m a guest. It’s not that I don’t like the flavour of meat, but that for me, it’s better to go without if I’m not sure where it’s from, how it was raised and how it died.

Elizabeth showed me photos of the way Otto died. They hired a “bush butcher” to kill and cut him up. He was in the freezer by the time I arrived, but he’d spent his life grazing happily on their land and servicing the cows a little too often.

While I was mincing, Elizabeth came in and told me that six turkey eggs had just hatched. In the last week, three pregnant goats had given birth to several kids. The young billy goats would be slaughtered, processed for cheese-making rennet and eaten; the she-goats kept or sold.  

“Gee, there’s a lot of birth and death going on,” I said.

“Isn’t there?” Elizabeth replied. “It must be spring.”

When I finished the mincing, she added cassava flour, garlic and herbs to one batch, and curry spices to the other. We used hog intestine for the casing. It was – yes, it was – like an endless slimy condom. An unpleasant animal smell overwhelmed the room. When making sausages, you must twist each one the other way to the last, so they don't unravel. I wasn't very dextrous, but I got the job done: two big batches of snags made. 

Before I ate, I gave thanks to Otto. I don't terribly much fancy butchering, and I'm not yet sure how much meat I'll eat as time goes on, but the sausages did taste good that night. And at least I knew how they got there, and what was inside them.

Mincing Otto

Me mincing, all crazy eyed.

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Black Mountain sauerkraut

ELIZABETH and Frank Fekonia live on a thigh-tremblingly steep block on Black Mountain near Cooroy on the Sunshine Coast.

Frank is an eccentric, longhaired septuagenarian who long ago escaped from the army in communist Yugoslavia and landed in Sydney a refugee. He moved to Cooroy in the early 1990s (Elizabeth arrived soon after) and built a series of concrete structures, culminating in a concrete castle at the top of the block. The home has commanding views over the green hills towards Gympie. “Everything you see here, Michael,” he says to me often, “I built it. Every bloody thing.”

Together, Frank and Elizabeth have established systems that provide nearly all their food. This morning Frank pointed down at two nearby houses with large lawns. “They’re English. Strange people, the English,” he said. “Always mowing the lawn. Mowing, mowing. No food, just mowing.”

After a lifetime of labour, Frank’s lost his kick. He’s still got his raucous, squealing laugh, but he’s too sick to work. Elizabeth keeps their challenging block going, on two parts will, two parts faith and one part strong arms.

Each morning she does her rounds, down and up the hill, calling out to her cows and goats as she goes. They call back, and the singsong echoes around Black Mountain. She waters the veggie patch, milks the goats, checks the chooks, waters the pigs, looks in on the tropical vegetable food forest, and collects a bucket of pollard to keep Lydia the cow happy while she milks her.

Elizabeth is mad for ferment food. Every day she mentions in passing yet another product she makes or ferments herself. Yesterday it was vinegar; the day before, a kind of fermented tea called Kombucha. She makes her own cheese, yoghurt, kefir, sourdough bread, sauerkraut, butter, ghee, soy sauce, miso, tempeh, lemon wine and soap. I'm sure there's more. She teaches short courses in nearly all the above, as well as her TAFE classes in organic gardening.

Before I left Melbourne I made a mouldy attempt at sauerkraut – much to my housemates’ disgust. Here I did it better, and it turns out to be very simple.

I cut up two cabbages finely, added half a tablespoon or so of salt and crushed the cabbage in my fists until my fists were sore and there was a puddle of cabbage-water in the bowl. Then I packed it into a huge jar, pressed it all down and put a couple of the outer leaves on top to keep the cabbage submerged in its juice. We left it for days to ferment – usually about five days, depending on the season and how tangy you want it – then drained the juice and stored the sauerkraut in the fridge. 

Elizabeth and Lydia

Elizabeth, Lydia and the new milking machine.

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The rainforest, the reef and the ringer

I’M wwoofing once more, this time near Cooroy on the Sunshine Coast. My host, Elizabeth Fekonia, is a fermented foods guru. I’ve been making and eating all sorts of fermented food. And how!

It’s just as well. I caught a long lift with Phil – a ringer, roofer and mechanic – from Tully, two hours south of Cairns, all the way to Cooroy. We left at 7 am and Phil dropped me off at lunchtime the next day, after stopping for the night above a rundown pub in Rockhampton. Along the way, as I ate oily roadhouse food, I consoled myself with the thought of freshly picked vegetables to come.

I stayed in Cairns for longer than expected, and I was a dutiful and astonished tourist. I visited the Daintree Rainforest, gasping as I drove the stretch of road between Cairns and Port Douglas. It tracks the coast, with forest on one side and deserted beaches and aqua-clear water on the other. I did an introductory scuba dive on the reef one day, and drove on the lush Atherton Tablelands the next.

As always, I kept my eye out for the rivers. Up there, rivers have Apocalypse Now foliage: trees and vines of the darkest green, growing so thickly they extend from the shore and hover well over the water’s edge.

I could have stayed longer, but Phil called me. He’d given me a lift on the way up, from Ingham to Caldwell. He was driving back down again, all the way to the Gold Coast. Would I like a lift?

So I traversed the giant state again, at an unexpected pace, entranced by Phil’s tales of life on cattle stations throughout Queensland. He’s a tall, solid man, with goofy enthusiasm and long, gentle eyelashes. The kind of guy who’ll spend days helping you – or driving you – and ask for nothing in return.

He told me about mustering wild bulls and riding them in rodeos; about the time he made a plucky pass at a tough cocky’s daughter and later scored a punch in the head in return; and about vomiting blood and passing out alone in the middle of a highway, hours from death, after his appendix burst. (Maybe that’s how he learnt about the kindness of strangers.)

He told me about Clint, his force-of-nature friend, a sometime hunter, cattle dog breeder and free-diving spear fisher who could hold his breath and plunge to prodigious depths. In the two weeks that elapsed between my lifts, Phil had been offered land on Clint’s property near Tully, home of the big gumboot, the wettest place in the country. “Yeah, they say it rains 360 days a year,” Phil laughed. "At least it's a bit cooler than other places up north."

Soon he’ll drive back up the coast and begin building a new home for his young family. He’s planning to use Besser blocks, with a wide verandah all the way around and a roof strapped down and set in concrete: protection from the sun, rain and cyclones.

One reason Phil wants to move to Tully is for the community. “I’ve only been visiting there a while,” he said, “and already it seems like everyone knows my name.” I’m not surprised though – he’s a good man to meet.

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The weather on the road

I MADE it to Cairns. It’s a long way to hitch hike. For six weeks, in every lift or chance encounter, I had this exchange:

“What are you doing?”

“I’m heading to Cairns for a friend’s wedding.”

It became a kind of pilgrimage, and Cairns – in my imagination – a lush, secret village in the clouds. I’d never been further north than Fraser Island. What would life hold after Cairns?

With just over a week to go, I was loafing on the Sunshine Coast. I had a closer look at the map of Queensland, and observed that I still had 1700 kilometres to travel. The next day I put out my shingle again. My first lift was from Australia Zoo’s wildlife rescue team. I shared the backseat with kookaburra with a broken wing, sheltering in a cardboard box. The rescuers were on their way to pick up a python from a construction site.

As I got further north, people spoke more and more about the weather. “It’s some strange kind of year, this year,” they’d say. “An early wet – we never even had the dry. The weather’s all mixed up nowadays.” The radio reported predictions of a ferocious storm season coming. Climate change is bringing more intense, variable weather.

One sunny afternoon I waited for hours on the highway at the Bundaberg turn off, just north of Childers. Eventually, I gave up, crossed the road and hitched back into town. The next morning I got an early lift, but my heart sank when I was dropped at the same turnoff.

Hitch hiking is a slow way to travel, but you can’t beat it for the people you meet: beautiful, heavily pregnant Spanish women, South American spiritual drug-takers, travelling salesmen, miners, police. Most of my lifts have been from people who hitched when they were younger, or from lonely middle-aged men.

I waited another hour at the turnoff. Finally, an aging sports car pulled up. It looked like the car from Back to the Future. When I got in, Rodney, the driver, told me at length about the engine, and I tried to rev my approval at all the right moments. He had a chubby face and a curly mullet hairdo, and his eyes had long since parted ways. When I asked where he’d come from, he told me he’d been on suicide watch overnight at the Hervey Bay hospital. “They’re probably still looking for me,” he said. “I’m in a bad way these days.”

Rodney said he didn’t have anyone to talk to about his troubles. We spoke about cars and motorbikes and road maintenance, well past my capacity. He drove to Gin Gin, toured me through the town to the free camping area and returned me to the centre. He showed me great care.

Further north, as I passed through Proserpine – in a little red Mitsubishi driven by a man named Matt – no smoke billowed from the sugar mill. Matt was a plumber-turned-mineworker who grew up in Mount Waverley, the same suburb as I did. He split for the north a decade ago and now lives at Midge Point, near the Laguna Quays resort. “I’d come up here in my twenties, working,” he said. “Everything was a grind in the city, my marriage ended, so I came back – I wanted to find that feeling I had when I was younger, that sweet way of life.”

He told me that so much rain was a curse for the cane farmers. Right now, the earth was too soft and the big harvesters would bog. If the rain keeps up until the wet season proper, the farmers will lose their crop. The mills close in December.

For my friends’ wedding on the beach, at least, the weather held out. And it was, as forecast, a damn good knees-up of a wedding.

The freeway, a long way to go

The Sunshine Coast Highway near Brisbane. A long way to go.

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The shipwright

RENNIE gave me a lift from Miriam Vale, north of Bundaberg in Queensland, to Agnes Water, about 40 minutes away on the coast. Agnes Water is the last surf beach before the Great Barrier Reef.

It was a Saturday afternoon and Rennie told me he was going to throw himself in the sea. He had his surfboard stowed in the back of the ute. It sounded like there was something he needed to wash away.

He was 50 years old, with a heavy, but still-athletic build. He shifted constantly in his seat. There was a restlessness about him and the force of it engulfed the cab. He wore a shabby fedora-style hat and had a gap between his front teeth – the combination lent him the air of an old circus performer.

In fact, he was a shipwright by trade, a boat builder. At 14, during his school holidays, he began working as a deckhand on fishing trawlers. Then, at 16, he took three months off school and worked a stint as a cook at sea, and came back with ten grand for his troubles. School couldn’t keep him after that. He began his shipwright’s apprenticeship the next year.

I asked questions and Rennie’s tales tumbled out. He wasn’t a direct storyteller. “Bloomin” was his adjective of choice and he baited every line with it, twice over.

He’d worked on many famous boats and yachts built in this country: Australia II, Sydney-to-Hobart race winners, even Collins class submarines.

Some years ago he packed it in to start a business up north. “It was supposed to be about the simple life. I went to the Whitsundays with lots of money and left with none. It was the dengue. Nearly bloomin‘ killed me.”

Now he worked fixing up mining accommodation, moving from site to site and living each place a while. “All the ugliest places in the bloomin‘ country,” he said. “I never thought I’d be startin‘ again at 50.”

I mentioned that I wrote a column about sustainable housing and living.

“Don’t get me started on the building industry,” he said in a wild staccato, like I’d triggered an eruption, but his throat was too small a passageway for the flow of his mind. “The whole thing’s a bloomin‘ fraud. What’s wrong with this country is there’s too many rules and we’re too bloomin‘ comfortable.”

He told me that in north Queensland, all the coal money meant big, stupid houses. “In Gladstone, people are building garages with turntables in them, so when you drive in, it turns the car around for you.”

Rennie had chosen the timeless way instead. He had bought an expired mining lease on a hill overlooking the water near Gladstone, and was sculpting a small home into the rock, more than a kilometre through bush from the nearest car access. Sheer granite walls and benches.

“Gosh. Incredible!” I was the one gushing now. “I love hearing about handmade homes like that. Amazing. So how’d you do it? Can you just build anything you turn your hands to?”

“You could say that.”

He told me he’d carved a natural swimming pool deep in the rock behind the rest of the home, with a 40-metre skylight shaft. A few barramundi live in the pool. He used mirrors, like the Egyptians did, to shine light from the skylight throughout the other rooms.

He’d been working on the house for 16 years. “Started when my wife was alive. That’s the trouble with life, you know. You think you’ve got a plan and then your wife goes and bloomin‘ dies just to bugger it all up.”

Agnes Water

The beach at Agnes Water

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Baking with Les

I STAYED a while at Crystal Waters, an ecovillage about half an hour from Maleny, on the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Over 200 people live on 85 one-acre lots, spread among bushland and fields. No cats or dogs are allowed, but kangaroos and wallabies abound.

On my first night I woke after only a few hours. I was the only guest in the bunkhouse. The room seemed particularly familiar. As I lay thinking, I realised the room was set out exactly same way as the bedroom of my childhood. The bunk bed, the door and the window: they all fitted precisely. I looked up at the slats above me, at one moment utterly disoriented, and the next, so vividly a child again. The timing was slightly unsettling – I turned 30 this week.

When eventually I slept again, I woke to a sunny, steamy morning. The evening before I’d met Les Bartlett, who bakes sourdough loaves twice a week in his small bakery on Crystal Waters, and sells only locally. Today was a baking day and he’d said I could pop in.

In the morning I watched Les and Penny mix their doughs: sourdough starter, organic stone-ground flour, water, salt. Penny is from Melbourne, but is staying here to learn the craft. I came back at lunchtime and watched them shape the loaves with Leslie (Les’s partner), then returned again in the evening to watch the baking in a wood-fired oven – each time staying an hour or two to talk (or eat pizza and sip beer).

When the baking was nearly done, two young children knocked on the door. The boy said his mum had sent him for a loaf. Penny put a still-hot Pain de Campagne in a paper bag, and told him to set it on a cooling rack when he got home.

As they left, Les said, “That’s something isn’t it? He’ll never forget it.”

It’ll be a fine memory one day: walking to the community baker with your kid sister, and returning for dinner with fresh hot bread from the wood-oven.

It was a day to remember for me too. A gleaming day, a day when people are so kind and welcoming that everything clicks, like a turn at Chinese checkers where you jump all the way home.

Half a dozen Japanese hippies had set up camp during the afternoon. Les gave me a fruit-and-nut loaf for them. It was warm from the oven. The Japanese didn’t speak much English, but some things I understood: the murmurs in appreciation of the smell, the extended silence as they chewed, and then the contented mooing – the sound of satisfaction from their bellies.

Finally, one guy, called Nobu, held the remainder of his portion aloft and said: “It’s like art.”

Les Breads

Left to right: Penny, Leslie and Les 

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The outdoor shower

AFTER a day’s dirty work in the garden, or painting ceiling boards, it’s always nice to have a shower to wash the humidity away. It is, however, especially enjoyable to shower at Mel and Ant’s place. They have an outdoor shower (see the photos below).

The water comes from a spring on their property, and Ant has rigged up a greywater system from the shower that feeds a banana circle.

The greywater runs down to a circular trench and mound (or swale), around which the bananas are planted. Bananas need lots of nutrients. In the middle of the circle you can put compost scraps and cut vegetation. Ant explained to me that to productively manage the circle, you should have banana plants in threes – a grandma, a ma and a baby. Only the grandma of produces bananas. Eventually she’ll be cut and composted in the circle and replaced by the ma, and so on: the circle of life (banana edition).

The shower looks like this:

The shower

The view from the shower looks like this (gosh):

The view from the shower

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Looking up

WHEN I wake in the morning I lift my head just a little and look out the huge window of the A-frame loft, and into the rainforest. I lie there a while before I get up.

I’m wwoofing again, this time in Upper Main Arm, near Mullumbimby in northern NSW. I’m staying with Mel and Ant, and their toddler Maddy. They have veggies and chickens and a hundred fruit trees – exotic trees to me, like mango, papaya, tamarillo, guava and white sapote.

These last two weeks, there’s been something going on with ceilings. Maybe it’s because I’m travelling north and I’ve always associated north with up.

At Homeland, near Bellingen, I helped a few members of the community as they installed a new ceiling in their common house. They use the house for events and activities. For a while they ran weekly open-mic nights, but the roof sprung a leak many months ago and the building has been out of commission ever since.

A few young families moved onto Homeland recently, bringing fresh energy to rejuvenate the property’s facilities, and the long-time members’ spirits. That's why we were fixing the ceiling.

Members can own their houses, but no one can own the land. About 30 people live there now. They tread foot-tracks from their homes to the common laundry and shower block and clotheslines, and meet each other along the way. Kids explore – there's no traffic to watch out for. A morning can vanish on Homeland, among all the conversations and cups of tea.

Here, a few hours further north at Upper Main Arm, it’s been raining a lot. And while the raindrops tap on the tin roof of the outdoor living area, we’ve been building a ceiling below, so Mel and Ant can install insulation.

Whenever it stops raining, I fight Morning Glory. It’s a weed vine with a pretty purple flower and a conquistadorial spirit. 

The land is fecund, damn fecund. Plants grow like nobody’s business – both the wanted and the unwanted. Periodically, Ant takes his machete and hacks a tract of jungle away from the fence line of their house zone.

The landscape is lush like a movie soundtrack. Mel and Ant’s outdoor chairs are stained with damp and the new shed already looks two generations old.

There is so much water in these parts, compared to dry Victoria (well, Victoria was dry before I left). I’ve got a thing for big rivers, so I’ve been happy here. When I visited the US a few years ago my main ambition was to sit by the Mississippi and read Huck Finn.

From Woolgoolga to Byron Bay I got a ride from a biological farmer called Ian. He’d lost a marriage and a farm, and until recently, he’d been living out of his car in Sydney. He still had rheumy eyes, but now he had big plans. He told them to me as we drove past Grafton and along the Clarence River. The river was astonishingly wide and full, and so close to the highway. We passed over the bridge where the water made for the coast, but soon we came alongside another, the Richmond River. Unless it’s flooding, you sure don’t see that kind of water down south.

Mel and Ant's house

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Garlic picking

LAST Monday I picked garlic all day. For a couple of hours in the afternoon the smell was so pungent my eyes went cloudy.

I was staying on Homeland, an intentional community in Thora, about half an hour from Bellingen. Brian, one of the residents, has grown a big curly afro, a thick mo‘ and two healthy patches of organic garlic.

We began at eight o'clock. The task was simple: pull the bulbs out of the ground without breaking the stalks, and group them in two rough clumps – big and small.

As the hours went on I narrowed my preferred picking stances to two: sitting cross-legged and scooting forward, and standing and bending down. Both caused me considerable discomfort, but in different ways, so switching over was brief, blessed respite.

Every now and then I shifted my gaze from the bulbs at my feet to the lush field beyond, then to the orange grove and to the purple-blue hills in the distance. Suddenly the deep lungfuls of air I inhaled seemed to smell sweet again. By knock-off time at five-thirty my legs were shaking with fatigue, and I felt overjoyed to be sore and finished, not just sore. 

A few days later I got talking with an Englishman in a pub. He had a miserable face, the kind you’d cast as a depression-era tax collector: sallow cheeks, a long, pointy nose, and arched eyebrows. He was a heater salesman before he packed it in for a round the world trip. He had blown 40,000 pounds (AUD$67,000) in just over a year, mainly on booze. He’d comfortably drink 15 pints in a night, he said.

I told him I’d been garlic picking for a day and that it was damn hard work. And he said, “Nah, can’t be hard, you just reach up and take them off the tree.”

Garlic patch

The garlic patch, from a safe distance.

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Going north

I’M in Bellingen now, inland on the mid north coast of New South Wales. It’s a lush, vibrant town and when I arrived this afternoon the air smelled sweet like it had just rained, even though it hadn’t. Maybe it always smells like that here.

To my shame, I haven’t done an honest day’s work since I left. I got offered some labouring in Canberra, but I moved on instead (too cold).

While I was there I bought another Primo Levi novel, called The Wrench. It’s about a rigger who works on building sites moving heavy objects, constructing cranes. The back cover quotes a reviewer: “This is not a book for journalists. Civil servants, too, will feel uneasy while reading it, and as for lawyers, they will never sleep again. For it is about man in his capacity as homo faber, a maker of things with his hands, and what has any of us ever made but words.” I’ve been sleeping lightly, but maybe it’s a coincidence.

In Newcastle, I visited wunderkind photographer Conor Ashleigh, whom I interviewed recently for a Big Issue photo essay on child labour in the brick kilns in Nepal. One morning we drove through the Hunter Valley to Singleton, and saw the huge open-cast coalmines and four-wheel drives. In the pub on Saturday night we met a young man who’d left Singleton. He told us that a 19-year-old mate of his who worked in the mines already owned a house outright and had bought himself a Hummer.  

But the region isn’t all coal – the guy who'd left Singleton is now an arts student, playing in a band. On Sunday I went to a singer-songwriter night run by Conor’s girlfriend, Grace Turner, she of the breathtaking voice. Her mother, artist Mazie Turner let me stay at her home. We got to talking about Moby Dick, and she related the story of a journalist on the Melville trail who swam with whales. One came straight at him, massive below the surface. He felt the sonar reverberating through his body and looked into its eye. At the last moment, it dived deeper. “Seeing something that fills up your entire vision – now that is truly awesome,” Mazie said. “Wonder. Wonder is the first principle of life.”

If nothing else, I’ve been stretching my awe muscles: sea baths on Sydney’s northern beaches, dolphins at Port Macquarie, broad rivers, kind strangers, the size of this land. Sometimes I forget how big and varied it all is.

Today I visited a macadamia farm, Tallow Wood Grove, south of Nambucca Heads. They have 23,000 trees, lined across the hills. It takes ten years for a macadamia tree to return a commercial crop. The long harvesting season, from April to September, is coming to an end. It was cool and open in the shade of the rows, and walking below the foliage, I realised it was just the way that, as a child, I'd imagined the wood in Roald Dahl’s book, Danny, the champion of the world, where Danny and his father go pheasant poaching. My catch would be a pocket full of macadamias.

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Changing the volume

THE cold weather slowed me down this month. I’ve been learning to bake sourdough bread. The house is small enough that the oven heats the whole place, so every fresh loaf warmed my insides and my outsides.

I’ve been pottering at odd jobs too. I have an old two-deck tape player I was given when I turned 13. Now it looks unaccountably bulky, but once I thought it sleek. It contained mysterious worlds. I remember listening to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and feeling entranced and uneasy.

For over a decade the volume control has been unreliable and the sound has rattled and risen like a coming train. No amount of adjustment could stop it.

Finally, I decided to find out why. I opened the shell of the tape player and cleaned the relevant parts with a cue-tip. That’s all. But now the radio glides quietly into the right station.

Confident of my newfound volume control expertise, I assured my friend Mischa that I could repair her over-loud alarm clock. I disassembled it and found a flimsy, broken plastic knob that could not be re-attached. Even so, I took pleasure in the discovery: at least we knew the problem. And the alarm clock still works. With a slender implement and a slice of dexterity, the volume can be adjusted. Right, Mischa?

Mischa and her alarm clock

Simple fixes. Maybe it’s beginner’s luck, but I’m convinced that adequate patches could be found for many malfunctioning gizmos just by taking a quick look inside.

A second small project:

Our house has a north-facing courtyard. On clear winter days, there is no better place to be than resting against the rear wall of the house, looking at the veggie patch, taking in the sun.

But the ground has a concrete lip that doesn’t suit a chair. So one afternoon I assembled a bench from reclaimed framing timber, according to a tried and tested Urban Bush Carpenter design: three parallel lengths to sit on, and x-crossed, reinforced legs below. I sawed the legs to match the awkward split-level concrete.

Maybe the bench accounts for my subsequent lack of practical work. I made my perfect sitting spot and then I sat there, reading, whenever the sun broke through the clouds.

And now I’ve left town. I’m on my way, slowly, to Cairns. I’ll be on the lookout for bush mechanics between here and there. 

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The third toaster

FIXERS are everywhere I look. They’ve emerged from their cluttered workshops and entered my field of vision.

Tired of reading polemic non-fiction, I picked up a novel by Italian writer Primo Levi, called If Not Now, When? It is a story of a band of Jewish partisans in the second world war, a jumble of Russian and Polish Jews, men and women who fight against the Germans behind their lines. Sometimes the Red Army, other partisans and villagers support them; more often, they too persecute the Jews.

As I turned the second page, I discovered that the main protagonist, Mendel, is a watchmender.

Mendel is the book’s moral conscience and his trade is not a coincidence. He is a village craftsman: grounded and resourceful, but also compassionate and thoughtful. He is balanced and patient, like a clock. The novel is a meditation on the ethics of war, and Mendel is the melancholy pendulum, his mind rocking back and forth the atrocities they witness, and the violence they perpetrate.

Early in the book, he and Leonid, a young soldier from Moscow, seek respite in an encampment of Jews and other refugees in an old monastery hidden among the marshes. For food, the small community traps frogs and collects grasses, herbs and mushrooms. They tan hides using oak bark and make boots for partisans. The two newcomers meet Dov, the leader of the camp:

“Do you have a trade?” he asked, addressing Mendel.

“I’m a watchmender by trade, but I also worked as a mechanic in a kolkhoz.”

“Good. We’ll find work for you right away. What about you, Muscovite?”

“I studied to be a bookkeeper.”

“That’s a bit less useful, for us.” Dov laughed. “I’d like to keep accounts, but it’s impossible. We can’t even count the people who come and go.”

I think I know how he would have responded had one of them replied: “I’m a freelance journalist.” Thankfully, I am not in the war.

All this, however, brings me to my latest tussle with a toaster.

This time, armed with tamper proof screwdriver heads, I was able to remove the outer casing, then the second layer, to reveal the wires and the filaments. Using the multimeter, I slowly tracked the source of the broken circuit by testing the resistance between different points. One of the thin wires in the filament had snapped.

I searched a while on the internet and I don’t think it’s possible to buy replacement filaments. The toaster was not made to be mended. So I couldn’t fix it. But I still count my foray as a minor success: I identified the problem.

Toaster side

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Raising the roof

THE assembly is over. The courtyard studio lives!

One afternoon not long ago, Michael Kelly and I gathered what we had built over the last few months: five separate segments of the frame, ten panels of cladding and eight shutters for saloon-style swinging doors.

Michael had cleared a space inside his shop. He decided to display the little building there, for passers-by to see (and perhaps, order one of their own).

We began to assemble the pieces, inching the frames into contact with one another. Accurate measurements are particularly important for a modular building like ours. One length awry and a whole panel might not fit.

Hence, the carpenter’s maxim: ‘measure twice, cut once’. Michael stated his variation on the accepted wisdom while we slotted the panels together, as certain as jigsaw pieces. “Measure and re-measure, and check and re-check, over and over again,” he said.

And indeed he had. As we laid out each panel, he had measured, scribbled numbers on his hand, returned to the frame, then measured again and again; back and forth like a cook between pantry and pot.

I’ve just read a book by the American writer Michael Pollan, called A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams. It is his story of building a small, wooden hut on his property in Connecticut. While he learns to build, training his “radically” unhandy hands, Pollan ponders the nature of shelter and the history of architecture.

Although the hut appeared small and simple, the architect’s design was deeply considered and intricate. Pollan’s project took two-and-a-half years of Sundays to realise.

He built the frame from Douglas Fir, commonly known here as Oregon – the same timber we used for our studio. On the day they raised the roof’s ridge pole, Pollan recalled feeling abashed when he first saw the fir timbers he’d ordered; being, as they were, milled from hundred-year-old trees.

In the early years of the American colony, carpenters would mark the topping out of the frame by nailing a bough of a conifer to the highest beam of the structure. Pollan enacted the tradition, and speculated on its role in celebrating the new dwelling and the achievement of the workers, and also recognising the trees cut down for it.

“People have traditionally turned to ritual to help them frame, acknowledge and ultimately even find joy in just such a paradox of being human – the fact that so much of what we desire for our happiness and need for our survival comes at a heavy cost. We kill to eat, cut down trees to build our homes, we exploit other people and the earth.”

It seems to me that Pollan’s “heavy cost” of being human rises or falls according to the choices we make as individuals, and those of our societies as a whole. But he’s right: there is always a cost.

One of the rewards of working in the physical world could be a heightened appreciation of its materials, a better understanding of the composition of the things we use. The makers among us must be more aware of the stuff of life, and perhaps, too, the damaged goods discarded along the way.

We did not nail an evergreen bough to our studio. It is made from timber carefully reclaimed from demolition sites. Several decades sheltered us from the full force of the paradox.

For our ritual, we stood side-by-side, arms crossed, leaning back ever so slightly, and murmured the studio’s praise. “It’s one thing to have an idea, but another to put it into practice,” Michael said.

The studio

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Testing toasters

ON SUNDAY night, Green’s Guess Appliance Repair spluttered into action. Two foolhardy customers had emerged after my initial post, proffering three broken toasters and one silent doorbell.

So I called on my friend Craig, who is a mechanic and knowledgeable fix-it man, far more comfortable in the real world than I could ever daydream to be.

When I arrived at his house down along the bay, I found him in conversation with his neighbour Chris, who happens to be an electrical engineer. On this particular evening, Chris’s feet were unsteady and his eyes akimbo. I deduced that the stubby of cider in his hand was contributing to the malfunction. First puzzle solved.

On learning of my quest, Chris was eager to pass on his wisdom in all matters electrical. He fixed me in his sights, and pointed at me: “The most important thing, the most important thing in the whole deal is this...” he began, then gripped my shoulder and paused dramatically, in the manner of fine Irish storytellers the world over. “Electricity will fookin‘ kill ya.”

Good advice, and I won’t forget it: don’t mess with anything that is plugged in. 

With safety in mind, Chris refused to let me work on the oldest toaster, which had a melted power cord. (One down, two to go.) A close inspection of the next one revealed a tamper-proof screw for which we did not have a suitable screwdriver. (Two down, one to go.)

The third and final toaster had a broad, angled face and separate levers that reminded me of aircraft controls. We tested it using a multimeter, displaying ohms, which are a measure of electrical resistance – sort of like friction, but for electricity. By placing the two probes of the multimeter on the prongs of the toaster’s plug, we could see how the current was travelling round. It wasn’t.

We then plugged it in, switched it on and eased the levers into flight mode. No take-off. As Craig unplugged it and set about removing the cover, I remembered David from Swann’s Small Appliance Repair warning me that manufacturers make it extremely difficult to dismantle their goods so that people can’t electrocute themselves. He also warned me that toasters were often unfixable these days.

While Craig prised, I practiced connecting and soldering wires, according to his instructions. “The secret to soldering is to heat the wire, then touch the solder on it,” he said. “And you should never leave wire exposed, so use electrical tape or heat shrink to cover the connection.”

On contact with the hot copper wire, the solder looked like mercury: a silver shimmer encasing the orange strands.

After much twiddling, Craig announced: “All right, we’re in!” Then, ten minutes later, he finally removed the cover. We blew out crumbs, analysed the mechanism and used the multimeter probes to test the resistance at various points of the circuit, but after an hour, still couldn’t find the glitch. (Three down.)

The doorbell, however, was a ringing success. We used the mulitmeter, set to volts, to confirm that the battery was charged. Then we took all the parts out, tested the switch on the circuit board, and put it all back together. And … ding dong!

I am emboldened by my attempt. I’ve resolved to procure a multimeter and a set of screwdrivers for tamper-proof screws. So give me your tired toasters, your poor gadgets: Green’s Guess is marginally better than ever before.

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Working in the window, on the shutters

I have been working with Michael Kelly less frequently lately and the finer details have taken longer. But we are nearly there. The courtyard studio is nearly complete. All that remains is its assembly.

As we finished the larger panels and began the smaller ones, we moved from the rear courtyard to the front of his shop, by the tall windows. Michael’s small workshop is set up in one window, with his bench, tools, coffee machine, stereo and books. Everything he needs for a day’s work.

The studio will have two entries and we are crafting them as saloon style shutter-doors. My role, for much of the project, has been to measure and saw the hundreds of strips of Oregon lath. When I began, my routine was without routine. The sawing bench was at right angles to the table where the uncut lath waited. I would swivel left to de-nail a length, return to the table to measure, then turn left again to saw.

Soon, I shifted the sawing bench in front of me – it fitted neatly underneath the table – so I didn’t need to turn at all. I began to de-nail in batches, measure in batches, saw in batches. I placed the pen, saw and hammer conveniently at hand. Honing this simple order was very satisfying.

Likewise, the simple pattern of our shutter-doors is very pleasing. The horizontal strips of lath are fortified by a rectangle frame and x-marks-the-spot crosspieces.

I recently borrowed the books of architect Christopher Alexander. In the 1970s, he wrote a trilogy outlining his design concepts: The Timeless Way of Building; A Pattern Language; and The Oregon Experiment.

I have only read a third of The Timeless Way, but our elegant shutter-doors seem open in concert with his argument. There is something whole about their design. Alexander writes that certain patterns of materials and behaviour bring life to buildings and their inhabitants:

“…the Alhambra, some tiny gothic church, an old New England house, an Alpine village, an ancient Zen temple, a seat by a mountain stream, a courtyard filled with blue and yellow tiles among the earth. What is it they have in common? They are beautiful, ordered, harmonious—yes, all these things. But especially, and what strikes to the heart, they live.”

On those days when we work in the window of the shop, it feels like we’re getting close to the timeless way. We toil there in the daylight, listening to Bob Dylan, waving and smiling to people who passed.

“Some kinds of physical and social circumstances help a person come to life. Others make it very difficult.

For instance, in some towns, the pattern of relationships between workplaces and families helps us to come to life. Workshops mix with houses, children run around the places where the work is going on, the members of the family help in the work, the family may possibly eat lunch together, or eat lunch together with the people who are working there.

The fact that family and play are part of one continuous stream helps nourish everyone.”

My experience matches Alexander’s words. Some towns, cities, neighbourhoods and homes can make my spirit sing, and so can certain patterns in my daily life. Days and months pass as I slowly take this in, notice what works for me, and what doesn’t, and seek that which fits. 

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Swann’s Small Appliance Repair

David Swann lives at the end of a hilly no-through road in Montmorency. By his driveway there is a sign that says Swann’s Small Appliance Repair. It lists the opening times: standard business hours, but on Fridays he knocks off at 4.30 pm. Last Friday he placed a large black CLOSED sticker across the sign and knocked off for good.

I had called up out of the blue the day before, and told him I’d like to learn how to fix appliances. It was an odd request, but David gave me advice. “You need to know how electricity works. Once you get the basics, there’s a lot you can do,” he said. “The repair industry isn’t quite dead, but it’s in the death throes. We need new blood in the system and I’d be happy to give any help I can.”

I asked if I could visit.

Down the gravel path at the side of the house there is a wooden shed, with a front counter and a workroom behind. When I arrived, David was packing boxes.

He had already cleared out the spare parts from his many shelves, removing the bits and bobs, motors and mechanisms he'd gathered over two decades. Some tools remained: a torch, a multimeter, multigrips, files, and a soldering iron with the finest tip you can get. There were screwdrivers of all shapes and sizes, some with special Torx heads, which have a tip like a six-pointed star.

He needs strange screwdrivers because most appliances now have tamper-proof screws. They stop people from inadvertently electrocuting themselves, but also from repairing the appliances.

It’s just one sign of the times. Coffee machines and vacuum cleaners are becoming rocket ships, with sensors controlling myriad functions. Kettles used to have separate elements, but now they’re moulded in place. New irons and toasters are no longer fixable. “A toaster is not a toaster anymore,” David said. “It’s electronic gadgetry.”

Five years ago, he would fix twenty microwaves a week, now he does a few a fortnight. Now most appliances come from China, and they’re throwaway cheap.

But David says there’s still plenty that can be mended. He used to fix aeroplanes. With repair work, he told me, he’s like a dog with a bone. Sometimes he wakes in the night puzzling on problems. “If you’re not an investigative soul, it’s not the right job for you. You’ll just throw your hands up and stop.”

He suggested I dismantle some appliances to see how they work. So here goes:

Green’s Guess Appliance Repair is now open for business*. This is the inscription I’ve placed by my workshop (with thanks to the Statue of Liberty):

Give me your tired toasters, your poor gadgets

Your huddled microwaves yearning to cook freely

The wretched refuse of your teeming kitchen

Send these, the homeless, trash-tossed to me...

Swann’s Small Appliance Repair will soon re-open in Apollo Bay. In the meantime, bring your damaged goods to me. 

* Preliminary slogan: 'Green's Guess is as good as yours!' 

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Pallet planter boxes

Last weekend, the Urban Bush-Carpenters returned to Stewart Lodge, in Brunswick. Six happy chooks were pecking around the home we built for them when we were there previously.

This day, we held a pallet planter box workshop. As the egg is to the chicken, so pallet planter boxes are to the UBC (except we don’t have to push them out of a small hole). No one can say which came first: the group or the boxes.

Here’s the idea: we use discarded pallets to make a big, cheap, handsome container for growing food.

German Michael drew up the excellent plans attached below. If you try to build one, remember that it’s not very complex, and there are no rules. No two pallet planter boxes seem to turn out the same.

At Stewart Lodge, we split into four teams, each one a mix of UBCs and volunteers, with residents helping out. We were building the containers to be handy garden beds for residents who can’t bend down easily. They can be set up on bricks, blocks or sleepers for extra height.

To begin, you’ll need at least two pallets. You can pick them up for free all over town. Ask your local shops or hardware stores and be sure to avoid the painted, treated kind. You’ll also need a saw, hammers, a drill, nails and screws.

Saw one pallet to the width you’d like for the container’s base. Next, dismantle the rest of that pallet and the other one, careful not to break the slats as you go. You can use the claw end of a hammer or a jemmy bar to prize them off.

To construct the sides and the ends, place slats between two uprights and screw them in place and onto the bottom of the box. Voilà! It usually takes a couple of hours to put one together. We’ve also been lining the timber with old chook feed sacks to postpone the rot setting in.

See Dale settling in for a well earned rest: 

Dale and the container

One more thing: the UBC needs an HQ. We’re looking for somewhere in Melbourne’s inner north to store a small amount of timber and hammer away for a few hours one evening during the week. It could be a garage, shed or backyard, or space on a community garden or a quiet corner of a warehouse. Just so long as you don’t mind some clanging now and then…

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Small and simple

I have worked on the little building with Michael Kelly for half a day each week. Mostly, we’ve been outside, in his narrow, paved courtyard. Courtyards fascinate him.

In the window of the shop, next to the flowerpots, a framed A4 printout is headed PRISONER GETS “LIFE”. It begins: “At a time when many young people are beginning a career or university, Michael Kelly was doing hard time for armed robbery. Life and death stood before him. He chose to make good use of his time in study, physical training and art.”

After prison, he was accepted directly into post-graduate study at the Sydney College of the Arts. The story continues: “In the years since, Michael has applied his art in a unique, hand-made building style.”

In jail, one of the benign things he discovered was that when one courtyard was uninhabitable because of brutal sun, another, on the shady side, might be too cool for comfort. “Courtyards can be their own little worlds,” he said one afternoon.

With a sideways, impish smile, he told me his incarceration might also explain why he had become so intrigued by small spaces. Planned and fitted out with care, they can enlarge even the most confined of lives.

At that time, I was reading The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka. The book, first published in 1978, is the Japanese farmer’s manifesto on growing and eating food, and on the limits of human knowledge.

As Michael spoke, I recalled Fukuoka’s observation: “…if one fathoms deeply one’s own neighbourhood and the everyday world in which he lives, the greatest of worlds will be revealed.”

In the book, Fukuoka recounts his quest for simplicity in ‘natural farming’. “‘How about not doing this? How about not doing that?’—that was my way of thinking.”

One chapter explains the cycles in his rice fields and outlines his practices. “There is probably no easier, simpler method for growing grain,” he concludes. “It involves little more than broadcasting seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me thirty years to reach this simplicity.”

Michael’s design for the courtyard studio is the result of steady simplification, stripping out anything unnecessary in the structure. Each of the four wall frames is separate. The roof frame rests above, on a rectangular timber plate.

After the first day, in which we built the frame, we have worked on the cladding for the roof and walls. Using the thin strips of Oregon lath (reclaimed from demolished lath-and-plaster walls), we have built lightweight panels. We overlapped the lath, like pixie weatherboards. The whole building can be easily dismantled and moved.

That kind of elegance takes thought. On his chalkboard one day, Michael wrote, “There’s no wisdom on a silver platter".


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Knowing how hard to push

ON the first morning I worked with Michael Kelly, I arrived at eight o’clock, as agreed. “Let’s see how much we can get done in a day,” he’d said. He planned for us to complete the framing for a small timber studio, even if we had to work until dusk.

His shop-home is a model in the artful management of space. It has a narrow paved courtyard, only eight feet deep and fifteen wide. Yet Michael and Nadeen sort and store stacks of salvaged timber out there, and inside too, in neat overhead racks and shelves Michael has crafted. Chairs hang from hooks high on the walls until they’re needed.

We began. The studio was to be seven feet long and high, and four feet wide, plus a steep pitched roof. Michael assembled the simple tools: hand saw, tape measure, pen, set square, hammer and nails. He let me do the sawing.

“I’ve got a simple tip for sawing a straight cut,” he told me. “As you saw, lean the blade lightly against the inside top corner of the timber.” It worked like a charm – I guess it stops the blade wobbling while your elbow pumps back and forth. Next, I learnt to place the groove precisely, by steadying the blade with my other thumb as I began.

In Michael’s hands, the saw flowed over the timber like a stream over a stone. In mine, it stuttered and stopped. I didn’t know how hard to push.

Last year, I was caught up in melancholy and a longish writing project – perhaps the two go together – and didn’t often go outside. I grew unaccustomed to using my body. When I re-emerged in the summer, I wasn’t so sure how my limbs would respond to orders. One day, I watched some new friends practicing acrobalance, a kind of circus balancing act in pairs. I hung back because I had no idea how strong, or weak, my muscles were. I didn’t know what my legs would do if I tried to use them. Likewise, when I danced, I wasn’t quite sure how my booty would shake (this may be congenital).

That hesitance lingers. For people unused to making and doing, it takes practice to gain confidence in your hands. When I pushed on the saw, swung the hammer or lifted timber, the physics didn't click. My reactions seemed less than equal-and-opposite.

We cut the first length from a long piece of timber and used it as a template for the others. When they were all done, we began nailing. The initial, unfinished frame was beautiful; so satisfyingly square and logical.

We worked diligently throughout the morning, stopped for a coffee, then worked through lunch. Michael regularly tidied our offcuts and swept up the sawdust gathering in the courtyard. Small spaces demand order.

The pitched roof required angled cuts. Again, we created a template – this time a triangle – and cut matching pieces and nailed them in place. By three o’clock, well ahead of schedule, we set solid the quivering ribs of our roof and manoeuvred the frames together: the studio’s skeleton assembled in but one short day.

Later, I walked home grinning stupidly, closed my bedroom door, turned up the music and danced my joy away, limbs flailing.

The frame

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City Boy Slinks Home With Sore Arm

I was WWOOFing this past week or so. For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, and concerned for my spelling, WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms.

It has become a verb (to WWOOF) and a noun (a WWOOFer). There are WWOOF organisations all around the world, connecting the willing with the work. People – usually travellers – exchange their labour for food and board.

For me, it is a chance to leave the city, learn, and be part of a way of life where food is grown and eaten, not just eaten.

Su Dennett and David Holmgren kindly agreed for me to stay at Melliodora, their property in Hepburn Springs, an hour-and-a-half north-west of Melbourne. Dave is the co-originator of permaculture, and an insightful commentator on matters from bushfire preparation to geo-politics and peak oil.

Melliodora is one hectare, teeming with food and thought. Each building, tree, path, plant and detail is carefully placed for the benefit of everything else. The household economy provides both physical and intellectual nourishment.

The evening I arrived, Dave walked me through the property. We left their owner-built, passive-solar mudbrick home and walked past their kitchen garden to the shed and chook-house. Through the swinging gate, we came to the barn and loft where I’d be staying. Close to the house, these buildings are the crossroads of the property. Here, the animals are tended: goats milked; chooks fed and eggs collected. This is the place to get tools and equipment. It’s the throughway to the orchards and the other veggie patches. It’s the spot for solitary time on the compost toilet.

We continued down the hill, past the orchards to the dams. Dave introduced me to Melliodora’s real owners: Tan, Bett and Flame. They were chatting and chewing on some willow, and they implored Dave to cut them more.

Su milks the goats each morning, all four (goats and human) united in constant conversation. Su makes yogurt and cheese from the milk. She also keeps bees, runs a bulk-foods and veggie box co-op, and works on the Hepburn Relocalisation Network.

I emerged from my loft each morning at seven-thirty. We lit the wood-stove in the kitchen, cooked porridge and boiled water. Dave roasted chestnuts. Life at Melliodora revolves around the gravitational pull of that wood stove.

My days were largely spent harvesting: apples, grapes, feijoas, mushrooms, potatoes, cherry guavas. It has been a bumper season, after so many of drought. I bottled pears, de-netted fruit trees, de-sludged a massive water tank.

The nights are cold in the Victorian central highlands. One evening, after the second afternoon digging spuds, I caught sight of a muscular man in the mirror: my shoulders were broad, my arms bulging. I was wearing five jumpers.

And alas, below the layers, my feeble arm was hurting. T’was the spuds that did me in. My left forearm and wrist swelled up like a thin snake that gobbled a mouse. The local physio told me to rest, then advised me to build up my muscles before returning. 


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Urban Bush-Carpenters

You've heard of the UBC, I'm sure. Everybody’s talking about the UBC. The UBC is a revolutionary organisation.

It’s also just a group of my friends. After much discussion and self-mockery, we called ourselves the Urban Bush-Carpenters. We take discarded timber, make things and give them away to people who need them. The three S’s: salvaging, socialising and sharing.

It started over summer. A group of young men decided they wanted to do something practical, enjoyable and valuable for the community. One Monday evening they met up, dismantled a pallet and transformed it into a veggie planter box, by way of much hammer clanging and gnashing of screws. We’ve built many since, plus some outdoor benches and a big chook house, and held some workshops to encourage other people to have a go.

Our skills vary. Geoff and German Michael are engineers. Sam’s an electrician. Andy works in a bronze foundry; Stephen, in community development; and Dale, a council. Mainly, we’re enthusiastic.

Our crowing achievement is the chook shed at Stewart Lodge, a supported residential service in Brunswick, Melbourne. Stewart Lodge is home to 80 men and women living with mental illness, physical or intellectual disability, acquired brain injury, or drug and alcohol dependency.

There was a permablitz there last October and as part of the follow up, we were asked if we could construct the coop. We built it in one long day, directed by Geoff and Andy, and assisted by a brood of helpers.

I showed up at nine o’clock in the morning. I looked at the rough plans and I thought we’d never get it done. Despite my furrowed brow, we dispensed with the spirit level and completed the framing by eye. Geoff would squint and say: “Oh yeah, that looks good.” And it did. Damn good. At eight o’clock in the evening the residents walked down carrying the chooks to their new home.

I’ve seen the future and the future is urban bush-carpentry: we take a waste product and make something useful, often to grow food in. We don’t wait for things to happen for us; we get out of the house, swing a hammer and learn something. We share our time, experience and output. Then we sit down for a good natter, and maybe a beer. 

Geoff and Stewart Lodge chook shed

UBC-guru Geoff and the new Stewart Lodge chook shed 

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Introducing (myself to) Michael Kelly

Close to my house, there is a curious shop. It says MICHAEL KELLY above the door in bold red letters. Nothing seems to be for sale. The shop is filled with petite, white, pitched-roof dwellings. Elegant, handmade shutters have been installed in all the windows.

In one front window, Michael Kelly has a small workbench. His tools are carefully arranged, both on the wall and on shelves behind the bench. Small containers of small nails are neatly stacked on the shelves. Another set of shelves contains books: the wisdom of Primo Levi, and psychiatrist and academic Thomas Szasz, among others.

There is a small blackboard resting in the window, and every day Michael chalks a new aphorism, something that reflects the matters he has been mulling. Today, it reads, “What is life without love and beauty, the gifts of art, music and ideas?”

Others I remember, off the top of my head, are: “Walk with wise people”, and “No truer comment on the human heart is the state of the environment”. Many people stop and talk to him about what he writes in the window and many others wave as they pass.

When I first visited Michael and his wife Nadeen, he spent all afternoon talking with me. Their dog Rusty pawed around us. Michael is tall, straight-backed and square-jawed. His hazel eyes see with strict, clear purpose.

He told me about his belief in building as simply as possible. “If you can build a rectangle, you can build a box. If you can build a box, you can build a house.” As you construct a rectangle, be sure that the structure is square, not skewed. Measure the two angled lengths, from opposite corner to opposite corner, and knock the structure until those lengths are equal.

Michael owns a battered yellow ute, in which he collects discarded timber from demolition sites. He seeks out Oregon (otherwise known as Douglas Fir), the soft but strong timber that was previously used for framing in houses. He picks up not only sizeable planks, but also the Oregon lath (thin timber strips) from old lath-and-plaster interior walls. He makes it into shutters, shelves, tables, walls, roofs: you-name-it.

I have since spent several fruitful afternoons at the shop, sharing labour and conversation. We are building a small dwelling (or studio structure) in his courtyard – and that will be the subject of forthcoming posts.


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Who is a bush mechanic?

Last year I wrote an article in The Age about people building things from used materials. Here’s an extract that provides a good description of who a bush mechanic might be.

Paul Wildman has spent years studying and working with bush mechanics – people he calls “our greatest national secret and treasure”. He says bush mechanics are fixers and tinkerers, people with practical skills that “provide joined up solutions in complex situations”. That might mean machinery. It can also mean things like keeping chooks, building a bench or sewing a dress.

The tradition comes from both indigenous cultures and from European settlers who had to solve their problems with whatever was available. It’s a knack that’s still important today. “Bushies are into reuse, repair and refocus,” he says.

Dr Wildman laments that this “hand knowledge” is disappearing, thanks to our apparent material plenty and too much focus on the academic side of education. Aside from losing depression-era skills, he says we’re also missing out on a way of learning that combines doing and thinking. “Einstein was a bush mechanic. There are half a dozen Nobel Prize winners who were hobby scientists.”

“The best thing is for people to do something tonight with their hands,” Dr Wildman says. “It might be cooking a meal, planting a window pot, or fixing something with wire. But actually start bringing those practical things into their lives and celebrating it.”

Just as important, he argues, is sharing your newfound knowledge with family and friends, and encouraging kids to pursue hands-on learning. It’s all a crucial part of the bigger picture. “Reusing and repairing also links into saving the world and (dealing with) the global economic problems.”

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The first cut

Welcome to my blog. I considered calling it ‘Practical Michael’, but then my friend Paul suggested the silly pun you see above, and I couldn’t resist.

As well as making me smile, it offers a neat summary of the kinds of things I’ll be writing about.

I’m a skinny, city man. I do know which end of a hammer is up (do hammers have ‘up’?), but not a whole lot more. Once, when I was travelling, I completed a short course on straw bale construction, but it was conducted entirely in Spanish, so I don’t recommend you hire me to build your straw bale home.

I’m setting out to learn hand skills and, essentially, I’m starting from scratch.

In the course of writing articles about sustainable living, I’ve met many vibrant people and thought often about what I need to live fairly and well – not just fairly well. So far as I can tell, there’s beauty in crafting a simple, elegant life that enlarges others, rather than crowding them out. I want to put that to the test, away from my laptop.

From the experiences I’ve had so far, I’ve also come to believe there’s wisdom and joy to be gained in learning to make things, and in reflecting on making things. To me, at this early, incompetent stage, there is pleasure even in the crooked, first saw cut. Just trying is bewitching.

I’ll spend time with handy people, learn some of their skills and listen to their words. Then I’ll share those things with you. I’ll also read interesting books and tell you about them, and occasionally, offer links to other people’s writing.

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