This blog records my 3000-kilometre bicycle trip up the east coast of Australia, researching a book about simple living.
On the way we’ll meet a variety of interesting characters — chefs and scavengers, farmers and gardeners, the young and the radical, the old and the wise — and learn something from each person’s life.
It’s a story about local food and community gardens, downshifting and DIY building, sustainability and self-sufficiency. But mostly it’s about people. I hope you enjoy meeting them as much as I have.
This feed contains my favourite posts, updated every few months. For more recent content, visit the full blog at www.simplelives.com.au
Moora Moora part 2 – community works
Moora Moora Co-Op Work Days are held on the third Sunday of each month. Last May, Sophie and I rocked up at the front of the communal Lodge at 10am dressed in dorky hand-me-downs, ready to do our bit. Here’s Sophie in her painter’s overalls:
The Moora Moora Works Co-Ordinator, Amber Sprunt, delegated tasks, giving me the unenviable job of clearing a cattle grid and road culvert with a shovel. Amber drove me down to the site, complaining about people arriving late. I got the sense that delegating tasks to your fellow residents was a tough gig. Who wants to be bossed around by a neighbour?
Unclogging road culverts was hard work, but the conversation made it worthwhile. I spoke with Rachael Kane, a farrier (a specialist in horse hooves) who once ran a horse and cart business.
I also chatted with Matthew Cairns, a film maker and graphic designer who moved into Moora Moora in November 2011.
Lunch was communal hippy slop, minus the Hare Krishna chanting. We ate in the large dining room of the Lodge.
As the adults chatted, whispering children stalked the hallways, engaged in some youthful conspiracy. I remembered my own childhood, how I felt that all adults were boring idiots, just waiting to be tricked. It must be wonderful to grow up in a community with enough playmates to create a small society of likeminded rascals. But I did wish the little tykes hadn’t eaten all the dessert.
After lunch I trudged back to my digging, feeling a bit like a convict in a road gang. What kept me from fleeing for freedom wasn’t a chain around my ankles, but the emotional shackles of guilt and obligation. If I didn’t work hard, would other people think I was lazy? As a newcomer, did I have to prove myself? I was only here as a short term WWOOF, but I already sensed some pressure to contribute. What would the pressure be like for new residents vying for membership?
That evening, after my prerequisite seven hours of communal drudgery, I got chatting with Amber in the lounge room. She sat cross-legged in an armchair, a thin young mum with a nose ring. She was loud and assertive. I could see why she had the the task of co-ordinating communal work days. As we spoke Amber’s 10-year-old daughter Bella supervised younger kids making cubby houses out of couch cushions. So it seemed delegation ran in the family.
Amber said residents were expected to do 10 out of 12 Co-Op Work Days a year, but when she started the role two years ago only about 40 per cent of members would turn up. After several ill-fated attempts to boost attendance – including a suggestion to change the name of the event to “Fun and Food Day” – the community approved a penalty system to motivate people to pitch in. Annual dues were to be increased by $900, and members would get $90 off that amount for each Co-Op Work Day they attended.
Why had it been so hard to get people to attend? Amber said sometimes people skipped duties because they didn’t want to see a member they’d had a disagreement with. Families with young children and a house under construction struggled to find the time, and some long-term members felt they’d already done their bit. “When I started here I thought I can’t wait till I’m a member so I don’t have to come to work days,” she joked.
Getting membership at Moora Moora, however, isn’t easy. First you have to loan the Co-Op $200 to become a “Friend”, then you have to lobby eight members from at least four “clusters” (a small grouping of houses) to become a “Nominated Friend”, then you can apply to be a “Non Member Resident”, which involves permission to live in the community for up to six months, and finally, after attending at least five meetings, and reading Co-Op documents, including a 76-page policy manual, you can nominate to become a “Member”.
Confused? Imagine what it must be like for newcomers. The whole process could take years.
But once you’re in, you’re in. As a result, some people vying for membership feel they have to be on their best behaviour. Recently a Non Member Resident was forced out of the community because he wasn’t seen to be participating enough.
Even long-term members admitted that newcomers faced greater pressure to contribute. “The expectation is on you to perform, but falls off once you’re a member,” said Hardy Brosow, a 71-year-old who’s been a member since 1979 and a resident since 1995.
That’s not to say people attended communal events solely out of fear of repercussions. I got the sense Co-Op Work Day was an important bonding exercise, an opportunity for residents to socialise and reflect on why they chose to join a community in the first place.
“You get to respect people who you might not have had such a good relationship with by working with them,” explained Amber.
Tolerance is essential for a functioning community. When you live in place like Moora Moora, you have to learn to work with others, even if you don’t like them. You either get along with your neighbours, or you get the hell out.
The other thing I noticed is that Moora Moora doesn’t fit the stereotype of a hippy commune, with lots of shared belongings. Some housing clusters have shared power systems, and there are several communal buildings, including a lodge, cafe and workshop/function room next to a tennis court. But most appliances are privately owned, and households have their own kitchens and bathrooms.
This is a deliberate choice. In his book Alternative Australia, sociologist and co-founder of Moora Moora, Dr Peter Cock, categorised Moora Moora as a “bourgeois rural co-operative”. The kibbutz model was rejected because it would be too communal to attract people in Australia, he wrote.
Later, Hardy pointed out to me that Moora Moora does have communal belongings, but they’re entrusted to the care of individuals. “If it’s community owned it only works if someone puts up his or her hand and says ‘Okay, I’ll look after it’.”
It was a bit like that classic “tragedy of the commons” idea, except in this case the commons was a set of rusty secateurs. “Assume if it is communal, it will get trashed,” he said.