PacificEdge
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PacificEdge

Travels in the Off-Grid…

8. Vignettes of the off-grid

A cottage in the hills

The DIY ethic was strong among those setting up an off-grid home in the hills in the 1970s. This was a family home in the hill country inland of the NSW Mid-North Coast town of Taree.

A CLOUD OF DUST marks our passage as we follow a winding gravel road through the eucalypt forest. There are three of us in the twin cab ute that summer day. Our destination is Byron Bay, but on reaching Taree we detour from the Pacific Highway to follow the road that leads us out of town and into the hills. Follow the gravel side road. Those are our instructions. Around a bend, and there up ahead is our destination.

Is is obviously the work of an owner builder. Small and two-level with a steeply pitched roof, the cottage stands in a clearing in the forest on the edge of a steep fall. The others are talking, so I wander over to the edge. What a view. A sweeping panorama over the coastal plain, farm and bushland all the way to Taree in the far distance and the blue Pacific beyond. It is a view that expands the mind more than any hallucinogen could do.

The view is not what we are here for. The modest little cottage is. We check it out with the owner and his partner. There’s a satisfied domesticity, a sufficiency in the simplicity of the place. Inside, a living area joins the kitchen with its wood-fired stove. Galvanised iron panels clad the roof. A covered verandah on the eastern side gives shelter for outdoor living and the expansive view to the coast. A large galvanised iron water tank stores rainfall for household use.

The building’s cladding denotes this as an economy DIY structure. It’s hippie boards, explains the owner. They’re from the sawmill, the rounded side of the logs, he tells us, and they’re a waste product. The mill burns them. They let us take them for free. Caulked, the hippie boards are weatherproof. Their name comes from their popularity as an economy building material among the new settlers. I realise there must be quite a few hippie board-clad owner-built homes around the country.

Modest, homely and self-reliant, the small owner-built, off-grid cottage in the bush is a reflection of the values and mindset of the couple and their young child who live here in this bush setting some distance from town. This is off-grid living, 1970s style.

The new urban

Denis and Pam lived in the city, yet like that family out from Taree they maintain a large vegetable garden. It demonstrates how, in the 1970s, alternative ideas are starting to infiltrate mainstream society.

When the couple showed us their vegetable garden in suburban Moonah, in Hobart, I was surprised and maybe a little envious. My partner and my vegetable garden is a tiny patch behind our flat, supplemented by vegetables cascading down the front steps in whatever containers we can find to plant them in.

Like Denis and Pam we live mainstream lives. I work in the adventure equipment industry, my partner in the public service. Unlike them, we aspire to a small rural property within commuting distance of Hobart. Our alternative dream still lives, but it will soon die.

The new urban in Newcastle

Most of us live in cities, some in towns. That is why this existing suburban house was converted into energy/water efficient demonstration home with the backyard lawn replaced by vegetable gardens and fruit trees. The demonstration house was in Newcastle. Large, sunward-facing glass doors replaced the existing wall to let in sunlight to warm the interior in winter. A pergola shades the doors during the sumner. A solar hot water system on the roof reduces the use of imported energy, saving on expenditure.
Winter sunlight streams through the glass doors and into the living room where its heat energy is absorbed in the thermal mass of the floor and brick walls, to be slowly released in the evening as the temperature falls and reducing the consumption of heating energy. The room remains comfortable even when outside temperatures fall.

The climber

He’s somewhere around thirty and he occasionally comes into the adventure equipment store where I work. A fit-looking guy as most rock climbers are, he is known in local climbing circles.

The crew I work with are all outdoor types given to multiday treks into the mountains, but they think there’s something a little unusual about the climber. Why? Because he is an organic vegetable gardener.

Organic food has yet to make the crossover to adventure sports. Yet, it is on its way. Even the big wall climber who I work with will become an environmentalist. At the same time in the USA, the mobile off-grid life is being adopted by a corps of climbers living out of their vans and vehicles or just rough-camping in national parks. They call themselves dirtbags and pride themselves on their name and their peripatetic lifestyle, so-called for sleeping rough in the dirt. Among them is a blacksmith from California who will start making pitons and other climbing hardware. His name is Yvonne Chouinard and he will go on to found the Patagonia adventure equipment company.

Stemming from that coterie of big wall climbers around Yosemite, dirtbagging became a subgenre of the off-grid life, a type of subsistence lifestyle that interacted with the economic grid only to replenish their meagre funds so they could return to the climbing life as soon as possible

Today, climbers and others following adventure sports like skiing, surfing and hiking are more likely to live and travel in their vans.

The tank

Red Hill sharehouse, 1972. Alan, I think it is, sits on the steps while Charmaine rocks Rohan back and forth on the swing. The weatherboard house is typical of those build in Brisbane’s suburbs in the earlier decades of the Twentieth Century.

It was in the town of Kempsey that the car we borrowed from Charmaine’s mother broke down. It was the cylinder head gasket and it would take some days before the local mechanic could fix it. Nothing for it then other than overnighting in the Railway Hotel and catching tomorrow’s train to Brisbane.

Red Hill. We’re sitting on the back stairs. Suddenly, Pat and Rowena strip off their clothes and pour buckets of cold water from the rusting, galvanised iron rainwater tank over each other. It is summer and we’re in Brisbane, a city noted for its hot, humid, sweaty days.

Our friends live in a sharehouse, an old weatherboard building that on the outside looks a little down-at-heel and in need of a fresh coat of paint, but on the inside is clean and comfortable. In later times Red Hill will undergo renovation and revitalisation as a new generation buys the houses that were once home to generations of families.

Other than the naked bathers, what I remember of my visit is walking down the wooden stairs at the back and finding a small vegetable garden. The rainwater tank is the relic of the time when people’s water supply fell from the sky rather than travelled along a pipeline from a distant dam. Its rust tells the story about how society has changed and says much about the notion of progress that still holds sway. There it is, standing unused and decaying, a silent witness to how people stopped using rainwater years before.

Rainwater tanks will be reprised in later decades, but that lay in a drought-afflicted future. The rusting galvanised iron tank in the Red Hill backyard was just one of many in cities across the country.

Off-grid in the country

Imagine this. A landscape of farmland not far from the sea that is dominated by a huge, snow-capped volcanic cone rising high above. Taranaki is a spectacular part of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s North Island.

We are driving into hilly farmland inland from the coast, headed for a rural property. It is one of several we are to visit after the conference in Turangi.

A couple cows graze in a fenced field below the new, two-level timber house the couple are close to finishing. We are shown over a large food garden in which there is not much growing. When it reaches full production there will be more than enough to feed the household. Further on, atop the steep slope where a number of apple trees grow above a farm dam is a small, one-room cabin where visitors stay.

We walk further onto the property, towards another house although it is no ordinary house, this one. To avoid the restrictive building regulations for permanent dwellings, the owners have built this house on skids. Technically, it is a moveable structure, though moving it would be no easy task. It has never been moved, probably never will be. The house’s landscaped surroundings including a vegetable garden, outdoor hot tub made of a couple old enamel baths with a fireplace below, fruit trees, a solar hot water unit on the roof and a fine view of the Taranaki volcano.

When the new house is completed this will be a partially-of-grid property although still connected to the electrical grid. An abundance of space offers the opportunity for cropping and grazing, contributing to the family’s financial self-reliance.

As we drive away I look back and there is the new house resplendent in its glowing, new timber. And there’s the ‘mobile’ house amid a rolling, green landscape where, in the distance, rises the snow cone of that dominating, spectacular, volcanic peak.

Below the banana farm

Up the Pacific Highway again but this time we don’t bypass Buladealah as my partner and I used to do. We stop off for a cooling beer at the town pub. It is one of those summer days when you sit and notice how the condensation on the glass slowly rolls down the side to leave long streaks.

I’m with John. He’s been in Sydney to pick up a new used car. A Holden station wagon. As we sit there not feeling in a hurry to be anywhere in particular, he tells me how it is that people who are serious about motoring buy Holdens.

John is a happy-go-lucky character who lives in the minute. That is, he doesn’t waste much time thinking about the future in other than the most general sense. I learned this not all that many years ago when he joined the sharehouse where I lived in Annandale. John is a good character to be around, what you might call spontaneous.

Back in Sydney he asked me if I wanted to drive back up north with him, to get the new secondhand car home. I said yes, of course, being on the end-of-year break from the communications and journalism course I am doing at Sydney’s University of Technology. My partner couldn’t come as she is working, doing civil engineering design drafting over on the northside. The Buladelah pub was our first stop on the road north.

John and partner Kim live on a gravel side road off the road from Murwillumbah to the McPherson Ranges in southern Queensland, just out from a little village called Chillingham. It is sloping land. There is a banana plantation above and a patch of rainforest below their clearing. John tells me there is a waterfall in there although I never get to see it.

The building they live in is one of those large metal, industrial structures on a concrete pad that farmers might park their tractor in or use as a workshop. It has a connection to the electricity grid but to no other grids. John and Kim have converted it into a home. There is a kitchen and divided-off areas for bedrooms for the two primary aged kids and a living room space. On a later visit I help John fell some eucalypts in the rainforest and we build a verandah along the sunward-facing side. Bush carpentering maybe not at its best. Later still, John builds a kitchen and sitting area across from the verandah. There is a large water tank, pergola and bush shower at one end of the building.

The family is happy here. One of the parents drives the kids the short distance to the main road to meet the cool bus. Home life is convivial. There are friends to visit and the weekly shopping for groceries in town. Attempts to grow a vegetable garden have been largely unsuccessful. With water needed for household use there is too little to spare to properly irrigate vegetables during the hot summer. They dry and die.

The family has moved around the region over the years and this is the first property they have owned. To earn some money John sometimes drives a taxi in Murwillumbah, however his is very much a subsistence working life, with gaps. The house, the lifestyle, they are not all that different to that of others up here.

John and I took turns driving north to deliver the car that time, my driving a little more cautions than his which was as spontaneous as his character. The end-of-year break would be the opportunity for future visits with my partner. Then they were no more. John and Kim separated. I never found out what happened with the property and the converted farm building they had called home.

John and Kim’s story is not unusual. It is similar to that of others who sought a better life in the subtropical backblocks in those final 25 years of the century. Their intent was not a deliberate separation from the grid. It was more one of building a life on their own terms. In its material simplicity and life-in-the-moment approach and in its mentality it reflected the values of the off-grid lifeway, however there was never the wealth to install its technologies.

Now, at the time of writing, the kid have gown up and John and Kim live their separate lives happily.

At home in the mountains

It is 2007. On the road again, well, on the rails to be accurate, a relatively short journey. I feel a tinge of anticipation as the train pulls in to Katoomba station. Anrticipation? It is usually curiousity I feel when I come into a town. I guess it comes from from my being here to launch the new edition of Blue Mountains permaculture teacher Rosemary Morrow’s book, The Earthkeepers Guide to Permaculture.

Rosemary trained as an agricultural scientist. She is an older woman with an abundance of energy and is still active in teaching permaculture in both developed and less-developed countries and in working in refugee settlements. Hair worn short, skin tanned from working outside, plainly dressed and modest, Rosemary exhibits the stoic personality traits of a positive attitude to a life that she lives as an adventure in doing good, her evident courage and self-confidence tinged with a strong sense of justice.

I’ve known Rosemary for years. Through her down to earth approach and modesty and her dogged determination in taking permaculture to refugee camps in foreign places, Rosemary has built respect and a substantial following among permaculture practitioners. It was a privilege to be invited to launch her book.

The launch takes place in the shade of a large, spreading tree and attracts a reasonable number of people to the Blue Mountains Community Garden. It is an impressive place, a large garden with a lot of umbioshi plum trees that offer a spectacular floral display when they are in flower. There is an avenue of heritage apple trees, all neatly labelled, other fruit and nut trees, a large vegetable garden and a mudbrick shed that makes this a community garden with a difference, a type of forest garden, an edible forest garden.

After the event we go to Rosemary’s house. It’s a single level, brick veneer structure that looks nothing out of the ordinary. Walk into the back yard, however, and the small vegetable garden with its hand-dug earthworks that channel and retain rainwater runoff in a pond makes it clear that her’s is a different approach to suburban living. Inside, Rosemary has had walls removed to open-up the place.

Rosemary describes conventional homes as “consumer junkies” gulping down resources and producing wastes. Her solution isn’t to go out and commission an architect to design a state of the art energy efficient house. Not all that many can afford to do that. Instead, she suggests retrofitting existing houses to make them energy, water and materials efficient, to produce a little food from the garden and to take advantage of sunlight and rainwater falling on the property by harvesting and storing these natural resources where they occur. Even though dwellings like this might not disconnect from power and water grids, they are partially off-grid and more self-reliant in the essentials.

Despite the energy consumed in manufacture, brick, galvanised iron roofing and alumimium window frames are low-maintenance materials. Low-maintenance is an important characteristic both for people living off-grid and those on-grid. Brick veneer construction enabled Rosemary to remove interior walls and open up inside. Her slow-combustion wood heater warms the interior during Katoomba’s chilly, well, let’s be honest here and say freezing winters.

Rosemary proposes that we respond to economic downturn and the crisis in sustainability by taking control of our lives and examining what we want in a home. She says her’s is typical of many. There are probably hundreds of thousands in Sydney almost exactly the same that were built in the 1970s and 1980s, she says. Most have potential to be renovated into energy and resource efficient dwellings.

After retrofitting her home Rosemary put together A Good Home Forever, a 25-page booklet about what she had done. A colleague produced the accompanying video. As I read her booklet I was reminded of what Jude Fanton from the Seed Savers Network told me about her and partner Michel’s house in Byron Bay. Brick veneer, Jude said, is a good buy because the houses work well in the subtropical climate. Rosemary’s booklet clarifies that they work well in temperate climates too.

Her booklet is not simply about the retrofit to adapt her home to the seasonal variability of the upland climate of Katoomba, which varies between the high heat of summer to the occasional light snowfall in winter. Embedded in her booklet is a philosophy of life. She suggests we assess whether we move to a more affordable location or stay where we are. It is about making choices and setting criteria.

Rosemary lists criteria for the resilient urban living which is the focus of her publication:

  • solar access; the house faces the north, to sunward, affording access to sunlight to warm the interior in winter and produce solar hot water and photovoltaic energy
  • partial autonomy in energy and water
  • proximity to services; Rosemary can walk to the train station, Katoomba’s commercial centre and the food co-op and is close to other urban amenities.

Rosemary had a further criteria of financial sustainability because she didn’t want her money tied up in a mortgage. By moving to a lower-priced home and retrofitting it, we might be able to free ourselves from financial anxiety in these economically troubled times, or at least set ourselves on the path to doing that.

The value of her point about achieving partial autonomy in energy is known to off-gridders and is becoming more apparent to suburban dwellers as energy and water costs rise. Now, lithium ion house batteries can take that further, a technology unavailable when Rosemary retrofitted her Katoomba home. The rainwater tanks holding rooftop runoff that started to multiply in Australian homes around the late-1990s also offer that partial autonomy Rosemary talks about. They supply water to the garden and, with a filter fitted, can provide backup or replacement drinking water to that from the mains supply. As a permaculture educator, Rosemary’s retrofit exemplifies the permaculture design principle of backing up key functions with multiple sources.

Her point about living close to services like shops, medical services and public transport reiterated what permaculture designer, Robyn Francis, told me when she worked with planner, Peter Cummins, to design the Jalanbah eco-hamlet on the edge of Nimbin. It becomes more important as off-gridders age. Having access to public transport as well as a private vehicle provides another example of that permaculture design principle of backing up key functions with multiple sources.

Adapting to the site

In her booklet Rosemary describes how she planned for resilient urban living.

A site analysis disclosed the characteristics of the site such as how sunlight and shade move over it through the day and the seasons, the type of soil, how rainfall runs across the site, how the seasonal winds affect it and their characteristics (hot, cold, weak, strong).

That done, she worked out the zones in which to establish her vegetables garden close to the house, where to locate fruit trees a little further away because they need less attention than the vegetable beds, and where to locate the compost and paths.

Her site energy and water plans looked at how to make use of renewable energies, how to detain rainwater runoff on site for irrigating the garden and how much roof water runoff can be stored in rainwater tanks. The plans were the practical application of another permaculture design principle: harvest and store natural resources where they occur.

I tried to summarise what I had seen at Rosemary’s place as the train sped away. There was so much. What her home did demonstrate, though, was that off-grid living wasn’t just something for people in rural areas, on bush blocks or in intentional communities. Elements of it could be applied even in the city.

Morrow R, 2009; A Good Home Forever; Mountain Wildfire Press, Katoomba NSW.

Adoption

These vignettes illustrate the different ways that people adopted elements of off-grid living as it started its journey from social margin to social mainstream through the years of the 1970s and the following decade. While some fully adopted the alternative lifestyle and went off-grid as far as their resources allowed, others adopted elements and grafted them on to mainstream lives.

It is still like this as, driven by drought, the rising cost of utilities like energy and water and concerns over what a changing climate might bring, the ideas and technologies of the off-gridders of the seventies and later have seeped into mainstream lifestyles where they are supported by a growing renewables industry.

The examples here are typical of many others across the country and are indicative of the social change that the 1970s brought.

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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.