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Travels in the Off-Grid…

6. Pioneers of the off-grid

Time to think. Time to contemplate. That is what the new rural life brought to those with the courage to toss it all in in the city and set out for the uncertainties of live in the countryside.

I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go?
I’m going up the country, babe, don’t you wanna go?
I’m going to some place where I’ve never been before.
I’m gonna leave this city, got to get away
I’m gonna leave this city, got to get away
All this fussing and fighting, man, you know I sure can’t stay…

THE LYRICS are from Canned Heat’s Going Up The Country. Released in 1968, the song forecast the movement of restless urban youth to rural towns, to farms no longer viable and to the new intentional communities that would bloom with the following decade. It was a substantial exodus, an outpouring. The participants knew they were doing something different but what they did not know at the time was that they were to become the pioneers of renewable energy systems, a renewed interest in owner building and the search for a more communal, less consumerist and more environmentally sustainable way of life. As the first of the modern wave of off-grid living they reprised the past just as they called on modern technology and ideas. They had a vision and they set out to make it real.

The importance of naming

To understand the present we need to understand the past. The past of the modern off-grid movement lies in the social turmoil of the late-1960s and the following decade.

Those were years of social change out of which grew a search for a fresh way of living in city and country. ‘Hippie’ and ‘alternative’ were used to describe the predominately youthful movement that was the continuum linking those seeking a personal path with those who had a more social, communal focus. It was from this milieu in both city and country that the interest in renewable energy, owner building, natural therapies, organic gardening and farming and other practices were to grow.

Naming creates meaning and when applied to a social movement it creates a sense of belonging. Those who sought new lives and opportunities outside of the cities styled themselves the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement. ‘New settlers’ was another, as was ‘alternatives’ because they saw themselves as inventing an alternative way of life to the conventional. ‘Counterculture’ was a hang-over from the late-1960s associated with ‘hippie’, the name that local townsfolk usually called them. The media described the movement as ‘alternative lifestyles’.

Back-to-the-land and new settlers were apt names for those leaving the cities for the country. They bought old farms or joined land-sharing communities or, in economically depressed towns like Nimbin in northern NSW’s subtropics, houses in town were cheap enough to rent and, where funds were sufficient or incomes found, to buy.

Some moved into the alternative movement after activism against Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam during the late-1960s. The experience of those years gave them a sense of their generational power, the experience of participating in a social movement with a unitary focus and a questioning and defiant attitude to authority, useful characteristics when it came to forging a path into a new way of living.

In a photo from the late 1990s, Robyn Francis feeds the geese at her Djanbung Gardens property on the edge of Nimbin.

Creating commonality and purpose

Traditional rural homesteading skills gained a renewed popularity among a generation whose parents had moved away from them. Urban youth learned to use the hand and kitchen tools their grandparents were familiar with. ‘Self-sufficiency’ was the buzzword although they soon realised it was largely unattainable. The term would eventually be replaced by ‘self-reliance’ or ‘community self-reliance’, a notion that recognised that people could not produce all of their need and had to rely on others, and that we rely on the work of others.

Although rural areas were seen as the desirable location for living an alternative lifestyle that was at least partially off-grid, not everyone could pack up and leave the city. Not everyone wanted to. Many participating in the alternative culture practiced their new lifeways in the suburbs or inner-urban areas, blending conventional mainstream lives and livelihoods with their alternative values and practices.

It wasn’t always an easy thing to do. The challenge was one of working out how to adapt and accommodate alternative values and ideas in an urban setting when people had a conventional, five days a week job. Adapting ideas popularised in the pages of Earth Garden and Grass Roots magazines, urban alternatives usually started by planting an organically-managed vegetable garden. That was the easiest place to start and brought a motivating sense of limited self-provisioning and partial decoupling from the mainstream food supply chain.

Personal health played a role in the rising popularity of organic food. Thanks to Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, the 1970s was the decade when distrust of the mainstream food system started to set in, stimulated by fears over the use of agricultural pesticides and other synthetic farming inputs. Organic home gardening and buying food from the wholefoods stores starting to appear in the cities offered a way of avoiding or limiting use of the products of the conventional food system.

Like their rural counterparts, people blending alternative values and ideas with a conventional, workaday life in the cities started organic home gardens, relearned the domestic crafts of past times and taught themselves how to build or renovate their homes. Home ownership was required for retrofitting a house for energy efficiency and rainwater harvesting, however few living alternative lifeways were at the home-buying stage of life. Many lived in the sharehouses that dotted the inner urban areas of the cities.

For those urban alternatives ready to make the move, the Farralones Institute’s The Autonomous Urban House provided inspiration and know-how although it had limited distribution. The book covered the conversion of suburban buildings into energy efficient, food-producing homes.

The book presaged the later interest in the potential of Australia’s suburbs as venues for environmentally, socially and resilient urban living. My first encounter with that was through the permaculture design system. It was reinforced when I became a tutor and occasional lecturer for Ted Trainer at the University of New South Wales. Ted’s teaching was inspired by the limits to growth model published in the book of the same name in the 1970s. He developed a concept in books and in his teaching that he variously termed ‘the simple way’. It reimagined the suburbs as ecologically and socially sustainable places with less space for automotive traffic and more for urban agriculture and worker and consumer cooperatives.

The notion was reprised in 2018 with the publication of the book, Retrosuburbia, by David Holmgren. With a ready market among the permaculture milieu that he started with Bill Mollison in the late 1970s, and thanks to the information networking afforded by the internet, David’s book attracted the attention that Ted Trainer could not access for his publications.

Into the country

For many, the call of a neo-rural life in quiet country town or farm lured them from the cities. And they came in their thousands. In what is probably the most authoritative study of the movement, Alternative Australia, researcher Peter Cocks estimates that perhaps 60,000 said goodbye to the city and hello to rural life during that short span of years between, roughly, the late 1960s and the mid-1980s. The intentional communities were often their destination.

Peter Cock’s research into intentional communities and alternative lifestyles was probably the most authoritative study of the spcial movement.

Those communities were few as alternative living started to turn from a notion into a social movement. I remember people talking about informal communities in northern NSW as far back as the late 1960s, however I knew of none.

Festival to social movement

It was 1973 and they came in their thousands. They were the young and dissatisfied from the city and the curious seeking something different. Their destination was an old dairy town in Northern NSW that had seen better days. From stores selling the accoutrements of rural living along the town’ single, wide main street projected galvanised iron awnings offering a welcome shade from the heat of the summer sun. A hotel stood at its western end.

Shopfronts in Nimbin were originally painted after the Aquarius Arts Festival in 1973. The town continued to attract the footloose and the wayward over the following decades while some who attended the Festival made the Nimbin Valley their home.

The Aquarius Arts Festival in the economically declining dairy town of Nimbin was the event that started the transformation of what became known as the Rainbow Region.

After the festival some decided to stay on. By December of that year the first occupants of Tuntable Falls intentional community, the product of the Tuntable Falls Coordination Cooperative, moved onto their land to start building their homes. AU$200 secured a share in the rural land-sharing co-op and despite opposition, the Terania Shire Council approved the proposed development.

Tuntable Falls was among the first of many intentional communities that made their start in the 1970s and the opening years of the following decade. Many are still here. Moora Moora, east of Melbourne at Healsville is now home to around 50 adults plus their children scattered over six small hamlets at an altitude of 700 metres on Mt Toolebewong in a cool temperate environment. In the NSW subtropics, Bundagen Co-operative was established in 1981 on 313 hectares on the mid-north coast of NSW not far south of Coffs Harbour. Dhammananda community set up near the town of The Channon, not far from Nimbin. There are more. Despite the claims we hear from Americans that intentional communities in the US failed, many of those in Australia persisted.

The surge in off-grid living stimulated political reform. In NSW, State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) 15, Multiple Occupancy of Rural Land, was introduced to allow or legalise existing communities.

The subtropical climate might bring sweaty summer days, nighttime mosquitoes and the occasional diamond python on the verandah, however the mix of farm and forest, valley and hill, plus the closeness of like-minds and the alternative subculture is what attracted thousands of city-dwellers to a new life in the Nimbin district.

Low Cost Rural Resettlement and Sustainable Rural Resettlement were published in 1983 and 1984 respectively. They were the product of the Australian Rural Adjustment Unit of the University of New England at Armidale. The Unit was set up to investigate ways to reduce conflict between local government and what it termed ‘homesteaders’ after the Hawke federal Labor government showed interest in alternative lifestyles as an option for young people.

The first of the Unit’s books took those seeking low cost rural living through the local government planning process, a place where confusion and disagreement arose. The second looked at ways government could facilitate the lifestyle. Putting an estimate of the number of people participating in what the author terms ‘alternative lifestyles’ at around 60,000 (an estimate by academic researcher and author, Bill Metcalf), the overview goes on:

A substantial portion of these people are living illegally and the reason for this lies squarely at the doorstep of the three tiers of government… homesteaders are people who presently aspire to SRR (Sustainable Rural Resettlement)… (they) are scattered throughout Australia and many of the estimated 160,000 such people wish to live a ‘commune’ lifestyle.

One of the books published by the Australian Rural Adjustment Unit of the University of New England intended to facilitate what the Unit called ‘sustainable rural resettlement’. The books, along with others from academic researchers and interest from government, demonstrated how intentional community and related lifestyles were taken seriously at the time

Interest by government and academia and books on the topic (there were one or two at the time in addition to those mentioned), mainly by university researchers, demonstrates how seriously rural resettlement and intentional communities were taken at the time. This is a far cry from modern stereotypical images we have of ‘hippies’.

Destruction on a tropical coast

Around 140km north of Cairns, Cedar Bay is a stereotypical tropical paradise where the green mat of tropical rainforest meets the blue of the Pacific. What happened there was in marked contrast to the conviviality of the Aquarius Arts Festival.

I don’t know when the informal squatter settlement made its start there on the shoreline, however it was shut down by the authorities following the raid of August 1976. The incident raised questions of corruption in the Queensland police force and its role in the wanton destruction of the community.

Writing in the Sun Herald of 13 December 1992, Ted Howes looked back at the raid which brought the settlement to an end. He reports “…former Queensland Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod, who insisted on an inquiry into police conduct during the blitz, remember the bitter Cedar Bay affair with regret. …some police involved in the operation were later accused of taking part in an orgy of wanton destruction, which led to 25 charges, including arson, being laid against four officers.

“The allegations opened a can of worms within the police force and thrust the then Queensland Premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, into a slanging match with Church groups, civil libertarians, the State Opposition and even his own police commissioner.”

The police were looking for a drug dealer wanted for murder and went on their “orgy of wanton destruction” of the shacks, food gardens and water tanks after finding no trace of him there. It was one of the less-glorious moments of the Queensland police service which has more than its share of them. It shocked many in the alternative subculture.

The movement

There was no single philosophy guiding the alternative subculture. What there was, was a shared but amorphous set of notions around simple living, opposition to the materialism and values of mainstream society, an environmental awareness and a sense of community and shared experience. This was not a unitary social movement, more a mashup of beliefs, values and practices with a shared though vague sense of commonality.

Most were from middle class families. Most were not wealthy. They made do with the material goods and whatever skills they already possessed. Many owner-built their homes, which ranged in scale and durability from modest shacks built without local government approval to large, artfully-designed and constructed houses. Cheaper, unserviced land more distant from country towns mattered to a generation many of whom forsook the cities, their expanding suburbs and bland lifestyles and who had little financial backing.

Many of the dwellings in more-distant rural areas were nowhere near energy and water grids, so the new-settlers had to develop their own means of supplying those needs. They had to learn to do what generations of farmers have long done — live off-grid. Doing that meant supplying their own electrical and cooking energy, water, shelter if there was none already on the land, and food. It meant dealing with wastes on-site. Those close to the power grid could hook-up their houses, however doing that could be expensive where power lines had to be brought in over a distance.

Food, water, shelter, energy. These are basic human needs so it is no surprise that they became the focus for people seeking new lives on old farmland. Supplying life’s most fundamental needs lay behind the adoption of traditional rural skills and technologies such as building and storing rainwater in tanks for domestic use and garden irrigation. Traditional practices and the tools of food preserving, the hydraulic ram pump, the wood heater and stove, poultry keeping, the vegetable garden and fruit orchard were assimilated from an older Australian culture. It wasn’t all looking back to the past, though. The need to provide for themselves stimulated the tinkering that would later manifest as technical innovation in renewable energy systems. Incorporated in 1987, Nimbin’s Rainbow Power Company grew out of the interest in off-grid energy systems.

A product of the then-emerging interest in renewable energy sources, the Rainbow Power Company is a commercial venture started by people living in Nimbin.

Many of the first wave of off-gridders grew some of what they ate, however it takes time to get a vegetable garden going. Until that happens, the supermarket or organic grocery in town was their larder.

Gardens were started sooner rather than later. Like building, gardening was something new that had to be learned. Food growing using organic methods became part of the alternatives’ life-kit and was popularised through the pages of Grass Roots and Earth Garden. In adopting organic methods, Rachael Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, with its story of environmental pollution by synthetic chemicals, was a motivator. Also influential was the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, Limits To Growth, with its warnings about the environmental and other impacts of economic growth.

The technology question

We all live with our own inconsistencies. So did the alternative subculture. One of their inconsistencies was their attitude to technology.

The 1970s in Australia brought the beginning of the computerisation of the economy. Big mainframe computers with their spinning tape drives started to appear in industry and government. The free tertiary education introduced by Gough Whitlam’s Labor government was the right thing at the right time to supply a transforming economy with the skilled workers it needed. Free tertiary education opened up opportunity and lifted the living standards of a great many who otherwise would not have been able to afford a university education. It enabled what economists call ‘social mobility’.

Those destined to join the ranks of the alternatives frequently looked aghast at the new computers, seeing them and the society they were transforming as impersonal and technocratic. At the same time they became early adopters of other technologies spinning out of the science of the time, such as photovoltaic energy systems and deep-cycle storage batteries.

It seems ironic that by the end of the 1970s some of their counterparts in the US were busy inventing something new — the personal computer. The story of how that happened is best described in Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. It involved a cast of names that over the succeeding years would become prominent — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniac, Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame and others.

Off-gridders of the present era have no compunction about adopting the products of high-tech. It is what makes their way of life possible.

A solar food drier, a do-it-yourself off-grid technology made of salvaged materials typical of the innovation necessary to living an alternative lifestyle at a time when commercial models were few or non-existent. Photo: ©Russ Grayson.

Politics

It seems reasonable for a subculture which sought solutions on the land, in organic gardening, in relearning the old crafts and skills, in a sense of community, in the independence of owner building, to become politically conservative. It didn’t.

What worked against that in the early days of alternative culture was that many of them left the cities after participating in, or at least being sympathetic to the mass opposition to the war in Vietnam. That many imbibed a leftist political attitude during the anti-Vietnam-war years is understandable because in the late 1960s the Left was the natural political home for those seeking a better society. Not the old Stalinist Left, but the New Left that blended social equity, opportunity and contemporary, often countercultural lifestyles with a mild dose of socialism in a new type of social democracy.

As the war wound down for Australia in 1972, and after the Whitlam Labor government abolished conscription for military service, the anti-war movement also wound down. While many who participated in opposing the war disappeared into conventional suburban lives, some found a new outlet for their rebelliousness and dissatisfaction. They packed their bags and quit the city to start a rural life in the country. It was just like that Canned Heat song.

A sense of commonality

To old houses on unviable farms, to old houses in country towns and to owner-built houses on the new intentional communities they came. The communities were where they discovered the how-to of off-grid living and the how-to of living close-by other people.

Those who chose to stay in the city adopted practices in common with their rural counterparts. Most of them were renters, some in the sharehouse that were the cheapest accommodation available in the cities. Even so, and like their rural counterparts, the organic garden in the backyard and a shared and rather loose ideology were the symbols of their difference. Whether in city or country town, old farm or intentional community, there was a diffuse and generalised sense of common purpose shared by the alternatives.

The term ‘off-grid’ had little currency at the time but the idea was starting to gestate. Next to the sometimes DIY solar water heater on the roof, over coming years a photovoltaic panel or two would be added, perhaps charging a deep-cycle battery specially designed to store renewable energy.

It was very much a bit-by-bit process as people in the social mainstream started to adopt ideas from alternative society over the next decade. For many, natural therapies and organic food was as far as it went. The more ambitious would retrofit their houses to make them energy efficient.

An unattainable aspiration

Self-sufficiency was part of the mythology of alternative culture. It was unattainable. There was simply too little time in the day and too many skills that were lacking to produce most of a persons’ needs. We all rely on the work of others for our needs.

One of those needs, household energy, might come from a vehicle battery charged in a car or from a photovoltaic panel, expensive though they were at the time. Energy for cooking was either bottled gas or a wood-burning stove, much as people on the land had relied on for generations. Transport usually meant a vehicle of some sort, especially if people lived on rural blocks some distance from town. Living like this could be challenging and some found it so challenging they returned to the cities.

Off-grid was not truly independent living in which a family or community produced all of its own food, energy and other needs. Ties to the mainstream economy remained, just as they do for off-gridders today.

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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.