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Travels in the off-grid…

4. Friends off-grid

Friends, the books and the dome

A rural idyll. Cooking on the outdoor wood fuel stove, the partially-completed geodesic dome in the background. Life in the backblocks in the 1980s.

WE LEAVE TOWN and follow the two-lane westwards until we come to the gate we were told to look out for. The vehicle track we follow is rough and takes us into eucalypt forest, across a shallow creek and up a slope before coming to a large clearing on one edge of which stands a forest of tall, straight-trunked eucalypts. Impressive. No undergrowth, I note. And there, where forest meets clearing, is Judy and Rupert’s orange tent.

Fiona told me about the couple before we drove to their bush block that day. Some years ago, she and Judy set out in Fiona’s Kombi to do the around-Australia road trip. In Lismore, Fiona found work and the two lived for a time in the car camping tent in a caravan park.

It was later that Judy and Rupert bought this block of largely forested land at Mungay Creek. They live in the large, family-sized car camping tent that accommodated the two women in Lismore. Robert is a landscape architect whose work with a mining company doing revegetation for land rehabilitation takes him away for the good part of the week. He leaves Judy alone on the property with just her two, big-footed clydesdales. They plan to build a mudbrick house.

Is it around a year later when we again take the highway north and spend a few days at Mungay Creek. Now, Judy and Rupert are finishing construction of a a temporary home among the tall timber, a small, two-level geodesic dome that is enclosed by a large plastic sheet to make it habitable. Soon, they will move out of the tent that has been home since moving onto their bush block. The dome is makeshift for sure, but functional.

The geodesic dome with its temporary covering of plastic sheeting. The ground level would eventually be made into a kitchen and a living area attached to the side. Geodesic domes were a popular type of construction during the early years of the alternative/back-to-the-land movement but eventually fell from favour in preference for conventional construction.

On our next visit we find they have replaced the sheeting with a shingle roof and have built a rudimentary kitchen below the raised bedroom space. A new, shed-roofed extension serves as a living room. It is a process of housing by increments. A car cassette player and radio powered by a vehicle battery connect them to the world. It seems a fitting way to live in this bushland environment.

On our visits I found it appealing, their living simply in the bush, cooking on an old wood stove by the tent on the edge of the tall, open forest. It was life at its basics and in that lay its appeal. I realised that for the couple and for others starting off with a bush block, living like this was the start of a long journey, a journey of years until they had a solid roof over their heads, food growing in the garden and rainwater trickling into their tank. Assuming their relationship survived through it all, that is.

The mudbrick home they planned to build near the farm dam would never happen. Such were the plans of so many in those days and so it was before the couple went their own ways.

Was it the pressure of owner-building while living in basic accommodation that lay behind so many relationships breaking up? That was a topic of conversation among alternative folk. I know of no firm evidence proving break-ups really were more common among owner-builders — it is anecdotal evidence that says they were. In later years the story was perpetuated in an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio documentary series that looked back at peoples’ experiences of owner building during the alternative years.

Judy and Rupert’s was off-grid life at its most basic. It was simple, close to nature and moved at the pace of rural living. It was the way others made their start in rural living in those days. Living in a tent served until construction of a house started. That was a time-consuming process especially for those without building skills. Ways had to be found of providing life’s basics of clean water, food, energy, healthcare and an income.

The dome

The dome that Judy and Rupert built was one of others scattered around the country in those times. How many complied with local government building regulations? My guess is not many.

The geodesic dome appealed because it was cheap to build and was an internally open structure that enclosed a lot of space. Domes were owner-built affordable housing, a symbol of the alternative lifestyle, a signifier of difference and of the search for a better way of living. They became a subcultural symbol as well as a means to owner-built shelter.

One of a number of books describing the how-to of dome construction that was published in the 1970s.

Geodesic domes appeared earlier in the rural backblocks of the US where, as they did here, they eventually gave way to conventional, traditional ways of building. Judy and Rupert’s was much smaller than the big white dome that in the early 1970s stood above the Channel Highway between Hobart and Kingston, in Tasmania. It was the product, I understand, of students at the College of Advanced Education.

During the 1960s the geodesic dome was popularised by the polymath, Buckminster Fuller. With a record of innovation going back decades, Fuller was one of the main influencers on the creative, constructive edge of alternative culture — those, that is, who wanted to go out and create better ways of living than mainstream society offered.

Lloyd Khan was another of those influenced by the ideas of Buckminster Fuller. He build his first dome in 1968 and in 1970 published Domebook One and, a year later, Domebook Two. Lloyd soon became disillusioned with geodesic domes and set off overseas is search of other building techniques. The result was the 1973 book, Shelter. It was followed by Shelter Two, both of which remain in print all these decades later.

Shelter and Shelter 11 inspired many owned-builders of the 1970s. Both are still in print.

Lloyd was the editor of the ‘shelter’ section of the Whole Earth Catalog. The influence of the Catalog is not to be dismissed. Started by Stewart Brand, it has been described as ‘the internet before the internet’ because it carried user-generated content, book and tool reviews and informed a diverse and distributed network of alternative lifestylers. It validated their search for new ways of living at the same time it brought a sense of cohesion to a geographically scattered social movement.

The Whole earth Catalog provided access to information to the many who set out to make a new life in country and city.

Now in his eighties, author, builder and surfer, Lloyd Khan lives with his wife on their owner-built northern California homestead. They maintain a vegetable garden and keep chooks (for non-Australian readers: chickens). He rides his pedal-assist electric mountain bike, started skateboarding in his fifties, surfs California’s breaks, is something of a music afficionado and travels to do author talks. His influence is substantial and his active, creative life as a publisher at his stage of life is a motivating example to older people.

A decade’s contribution

I have no idea of the number of geodesic domes constructed in Australia during the 1970s and the following decade. Nobody collected such information. I don’t know if Judy and Rupert were influenced by Lloyd Khan or Buckmnister Fuller, however it was people like them whom that shop in Kempsey, Self-Sufficiency Supplies, catered to, people seeking freedom and new opportunity in a DIY lifestyle in DIY houses far from the city.

Looking back, we see the surge of interest in off-grid living as a generational reaction to consumer society and the lifeways it offered. Is is no coincidence that the decade brought the birth of the environment movement and of the intentional communities that started to appear in the hills and backblocks as the decade opened. All of those social movements matured. The environment movement prospered in Australia through the 1980s and reached its peak as a political influence in the following decade and is now an entrenched political force. Start-up intentional communities waned as we entered the 1990s but had their rebirth in the ecovillages we find today. We could also add the popularisation of organic food, now a large industry, of natural therapies as the continuing contributions of the 1970s and the generation some of whose members pioneered those things. All of these things became components of the off-grid movement.



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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.