At home with David Holmgren

David Holmgren has spent a long time thinking about his house. When he moved into the one-hectare property in Hepburn Springs, central Victoria, he analysed just about every aspect of the site. He knew the average rainfall, the type of climate, the land use history, the geology of the area, the bush fire risk, the soil fertility and the solar potential. He even estimated that the big pear tree near the overgrown blackberry brambles was about 100 years old, indicating the neglected property was once owned by more caring stewards.

In the 25-odd years since, David and his partner, Su Dennett, have transformed their two sloping blocks into a food forest with more than 120 fruit and nut trees, a productive vegetable patch, and free-range goats and chickens. David is the co-originator of the permaculture concept, and so his house, named Melliodora after the ‘yellow box’ eucalypts in the area, has become a case study in applying ecological principles at a household level.

Sophie and I arrived on the Sunday for a tour of the property, and we were soon drowning in details. The house has a classic “passive solar”construction, with full glazing along the north side. Mud brick walls keep the interior at a comfortable temperature. The wood for the frame came from local traditional sawmills or was salvaged from bushfire-burned cypress and blackwood. Food is stored in a “cool cupboard” instead of a fridge. In fact, everything on the property seemed to serve a specific purpose, and by the time David described the chook pen as “our oldest nutrient recycling system”, my brain felt as densely packed with rich material as his woodchip compost. Speaking of which, here’s a pic:

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And some more photos of the tour:

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The next day David took us on a private tour of his mental landscape, which was also brimming with diversity. Over a two-hour conversation, he spoke about everything from household economics and greenhouse gas consumption figures, to theories of social change and the conflict between efficiency and resilience, and finally back to more prosaic matters, like roasting chestnuts on a wood-fired stove. All the time his hands roamed freely in front of his body. But while his “long rave”, as he called it, was interconnected and wide-ranging, it wasn’t the confused babble of some holistic thinkers, whose arguments have the intellectual coherence of a rainbow tie-dye. On the contrary, his language was precise and scientific. He sounded more like an academic than the co-creator of a radical counter-cultural movement.

We covered much territory, but the thing that struck a chord with me was David’s criticism of the commuting lifestyle. “People grow up from a very very young age feeling that a normal day happens when you get up, you have breakfast, you prepare for some other place, and then you go there. And without doing that you are not participating in society – you are not really a whole person,” he explained. In countries with compulsory schooling, children are programmed to live this commuting lifestyle from a young age.

The alternative, of course, is a home-based lifestyle. “A normal existence is place-based,” said David. But this doesn’t have to mean staying in the one room all day. Movement is still part of the home-based lifestyle – but it is movement on a human scale, such as walking short distances between buildings.

David sees huge advantages to this way of life. “Firstly, it’s way more economic. You can live at a much lower cost. Secondly, you are your own boss. You are not subject to the interminable regulations and demarcation controls…you set up your own rules.”

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Our conversation took place in the solar greenhouse attached to the north side of the house, and as David spoke the sound of chopping drifted in from the kitchen, where Su was busy preparing dinner. David said Su’s home-based lifestyle was punctuated by milking the goats in the morning and evening, whereas his routine was less structured. But most days involved a combination of physical work in the garden and intellectual work in his office.

Another benefit of this sort of home-based lifestyle, he said, is reduced environmental impact. The most obvious reduction is petrol or diesel because you’re not driving to and from work. But staying at home also tends to involve growing or making your own food, which reduces packaging. Plus, working from home saves having to heat and power an entirely separate building.

It’s become a cliche to say that we’re disconnected from what we consume – especially the food we eat. A home-based lifestyle can address this disconnection. When you grow your own food, collect your own water, and gather your own fuel for heating, you become more closely attuned to your consumption habits. Put simply, you know what you use.

“A lot of these ways of living actually bring you face to face with the consequences of your own actions,” said David. “You become more responsible for them directly. You have to deal with them both at a practical level, and at an ethical level.”

In eras past, staying at home might have been isolating, but the internet has changed all that. “Today we’ve also got this huge added possibility of information technology that allows us to have the best of that thing that was so lacking in the home-based lifestyle, which was this connection beyond your parochial village locale.”

What David said made a lot of sense to me. But while touring his property, I asked myself if I could live this way. I quickly realised that although I have none of the skills needed to build a permaculture property and look after it, I could probably teach myself these things. But I didn’t want to. What was stopping me was not a lack of knowledge or training, but my old sense of identity. I couldn’t imagine myself as a gardener, and therefore I refused to learn how to garden. With a shift towards self-reliance comes a new sense of self, and I just wasn’t ready for the change.

Another thing holding me back was my perception of country life. I had grown up in a city environment, and so I viewed living on the land as inferior to living in a vibrant metropolis. That perception is starting to break down, but it still exists.

David’s response to all this was to say that his way of life is only one example. We need lots of different models of good, ecologically sound lifestyles, rather than holding up just one property as the panacea to all our problems. Once again, it’s about diversity. “There isn’t one message that’s right for everyone.”

Recently permaculture’s self-confessed contrarian has been investigating future scenarios, and he has a message for conditioned commuters like me. “People in the future will be living home-based lifestyles. So get used to it!”

The obvious question from all this is how to integrate a home-based lifestyle into a community. Next up we’re going to visit an eco-village David designed based on permaculture principles. I’m looking forward to learning more.

(To learn more about David’s ideas, see www.holmgren.com.au and www.futurescenarios.org)

An interview with David Holmgren is featured in the book Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race.

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10 Responses to At home with David Holmgren

  1. Gavin says:

    Great story Greg about a great man.

  2. scott says:

    Interesting couple of days no doubt. I like the notion of a placed based existence. It does fit more into an older form of living. Its kinda interesting how the ‘progressive’ ideas of living sustainably often look back to a more simplier way of life and living whilst the more ‘conservative’ growth is about build build build and covering over that simplicity.

    Sounds like you are reflecting and learning a lot on your journey. Be nice to chat with you about it sometime soon. I think you could live a life in the country provided you have a sense of community around you.

    • Greg Foyster says:

      Thanks Scott. At the moment we’re in a community near Healesville called Moora Moora. We’ve been WWOOFing and interviewing residents about living here. I’m looking forward to posting our discoveries. Would love to catch up for a chat as soon as we get somewhere with better reception.

  3. Andrew says:

    Really great post Greg, thanks so much for sharing and your honesty.

  4. Angie says:

    Great article and great project!

    David’s an amazing man. I’m happy, as an Australian, to bask in his reflected glory. People are very impressed around the world; first permaculture is often viewed as a great Australian cultural and intellectual export, then Future Scenarios is, well, bloody sensible stuff. Thank God.

    (And behind every great man, there has to be a great woman milking goats and growing food.)

    Looking forward to reading more.

  5. julie jordan says:

    Enjoyed reading this article & David’s take of place-based life. I’m very lucky to live a place-based life too, but not in the country but in the square mile of the lovely city of Adelaide. I am in walking distance for food markets, my work, community garden & surrounded by Parklands, a grand life in a wonderful community! :)

    • Greg Foyster says:

      Adelaide is a wonderful city. Sophie and I did a training trip over the Adelaide hills a few years ago. It’s a wonderful place for cycling. And the city is big enough to cater for most needs, but not so big that you feel overwhelmed. You’re very lucky.

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