Tree changers moving and shaking

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  • Published 20140423
  • ISBN: 9781922182258
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IT IS 1.15 pm on a blistering Saturday in early 2003. I have missed the newsagents and will not be kept company by the Saturday Age this week. Heat from the footpath radiates up my skirt and sweat trickles and pools in uncomfortable places. I am thirty– five weeks pregnant with my first child. This is my first Saturday in my new hometown, bang in the middle of Victoria.

‘We could have been sea changers, instead of tree changers,’ I think to myself, as my wary eyes scan the barren streetscape, heat creating more movement on the street than any living being. Oliver’s Sports, Mensland, Videoland, Extremity Sun, Ski’n’Surf and Blue Fin Fish’n’Chips return my stare. The fish must have been trucked miles to get here and we would have to be trucked miles in return to get near any surf or snow.

Cicadas chant their welcome song and my heavy body looks for somewhere to sit. I am not just looking for a chair and a drink; I’m looking for a café that serves decent coffee. I’m looking for evidence that I can make a home in this place.

I’m not certain that the teahouse with its plaid, plastic-covered tablecloths is quite going to cut it for me. It’s too late though. We ourselves have been trucked miles to get here and our life has been unloaded into Lego-land on the outskirts of town. In two weeks’ time the baby will arrive and we will sweat together through the hottest and loneliest of summers.

We are not alone though. We are among many tree changers creating a modern gold rush in the old town of Castlemaine.

CASTLEMAINE IS A rural community of about ten thousand people, an hour and a half’s drive northwest of Melbourne and on the railway line. The town was once home to the richest alluvial gold field in the world and, for a brief period during the gold rush of 1851-1854, had a larger population than Melbourne. Recent years have seen increasing numbers of city folk rushing to this small rural community and buying up picturesque Victorian weatherboards and renovating them with the sizeable change afforded them if they had owned Melbourne property. It is now eleven years since we as a family joined the rush and in that time the population of Castlemaine has continued to grow.

At the University of Melbourne’s 2013 Festival of Ideas, Kirsten Larsen, research fellow with the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, posited her belief that rural areas would be seeing more and more ‘corporate refugees’ in years to come.

‘Urban escapists’ is another term coined by The Age to describe this ‘conspicuous trickle of tree changers’. A significant proportion of these people are coming from the inner north of Melbourne, an area once bohemian and affordable.

Catlemaine’s resultant patchwork of residents, made up of sixth-generation descendents of the gold rush settlers; fourth-generation farmers; first, second and third-generation local business owners, alongside hot rod enthusiasts, factory workers, prison workers, service professionals, commuters, digital employees, permaculturalists, artists, and modern retiring ‘gentry’, makes for a fascinating study of community and change.

The town is witnessing a rich convergence of skills and world views and somewhat shared valuing of heritage, the arts and sustainable living. This phenomenon provides fertile ground for learning and innovation towards living more lightly on the earth. In 2008, the communities of Mount Alexander Shire, which includes Castlemaine, were awarded the United Nations Association of Australia, (Victorian Division) World Environment Day Communities Award. In 2013, the shire had the highest per capita participation in the Climate Rally marches, which took place around Australia.

The golden patchwork, however, also has its perhaps necessary rips and cracks as significantly different cultures and lifestyles attempt to live side by side, and the very elements of gentrification, unaffordability and busyness which tree changers were first fleeing, risk repeating themselves.

SIX YEARS AND another baby later, I was starting to feel at home.

‘You don’t move to Castlemaine to opt out,’ said Deanna, a more seasoned tree

changer, ‘you move here to opt in.’ ‘I’ve never been busier,’ she told me.

I was interviewing ‘locals’ for a short film I was producing called The Castlemaine Story: Innovation towards sustainability. (You technically don’t qualify for ‘local’ status until you are at least second generation).

I had long since found the funky cafés and many a like-minded soul in Castlemaine, and I was relishing the slower/faster conundrum that Deanna was talking about. True to the cliché, people have more time for a chat in the country. You can’t whip down the street for milk and bread on a Saturday without planning for an hour-long outing (just get there before 1 pm or you’ll miss the newsagent). Many who come here have made a lifestyle choice, which involves owning less, owing less and working less. Many grow their own food, and, glory be, life here revolves around coffee.

But it is over coffee that the ‘busy’ begins. They grow more than just apples and hot rods here – this place is a serious hothouse of ideas and action. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Well, maybe on the wind-swept lawns during those languid hours between lectures when we Monash Uni students were stuck in the middle of nowhere, and made good use of it by generating youthful solutions to all the problems the world had ever known. It is a similar energy here.

Kirsten Larsen, in her address to last year’s Melbourne Festival of Ideas, asserted that the future ‘corporate refugees’ to rural areas would be seeking, and looking to locals to learn about, sustainable ways of living. To this end, tree changers are flocking to Castlemaine like audiences to a show with rave reviews. And it is getting rave reviews. Castlemaine is a relatively tiny rural community that is home to leading-edge artists, thinkers, and innovators, and it is putting itself on the map as a hub for sustainable living.

Which is why I was making the film. I wanted to know how and why it happened.

‘Buzz,’ Geoff Brown told me as I filmed. We were standing next to the old jail, now empty and waiting for a combination of council release and community impetus to transform its ghostly corridors and dark corners into an arts, community and culture precinct. That journey, not yet complete, would become another story but for now we were riding high on the success of the community based sustainable behaviour change project run by Geoff and his team, Castlemaine 500.

Castlemaine was chosen as the site for the first Victorian pilot of this project and, said Geoff: ‘It was palpable that the community was close, and it was palpable that that was how the community worked. It worked on buzz. When I sat in cafés and listened in on conversations, it was obvious that that was how a lot of business was done around town. We thought “great, we want to try and tap into that as much as we can.”‘

It turns out I was onto something right at the outset with my search for a decent coffee.

‘Buzz,’ he continued, batting flies, ‘precedes behaviour change. You get awareness, then buzz time, and then you get behaviour change. That buzz period can sometimes take years. All the work we are doing now is putting a foundation in place where, we hope, that at some point in the future, there will be a tipping point. It hasn’t been achieved yet, but if it’s going to happen anywhere, it’ll be here.’

I loved the energy of being part of a town in the middle of nowhere where ‘if anything’s going to happen, it will be here.’ It was like having a lover who is widely admired and basking in the reflected glory. ‘Oh, do you live in Castlemaine?’ Melbournians would ask me periodically, ‘I’d love to live there.’ ‘Yeah,’ I’d reply smugly, ‘we love it.’ I’m not exactly sure what the myths were which fed such commentary (and the ongoing stream of tree changers), but there was definitely something happening that was exciting and dynamic. I was keen to find the pulse and put my finger on it. I devoured interviews with people about the ambitious projects targeted towards reducing our emissions and transitioning towards an alternative energy for a sustainable future.

There was the elderly couple who made solar ovens from reclaimed cardboard and wooden boxes and aluminum foil, the guy who made a biofuel converter from a car engine, the couple who had bought the big old hotel on the corner and converted it into office space for the (then) fledgling sustainability action group. And then there were the groups: groups for placing solar panels on roofs; groups for teaching householders how to retrofit their houses and their behaviours; groups of developers who took on sustainable housing projects and sustainable housing tours; groups of artists working with school children; groups of gardeners working with schools; groups exploring wind power; and groups for teaching businesses how to reduce their emissions, which bought the savings from them, to be on-sold – an early carbon economy. There were groups to co-ordinate the groups – we apparently had more local action climate groups than any other region in Australia at one stage. The four largest energy consumers (and employers) in town got together and set ambitious emissions reduction targets and schemes. CSIRO and Powercor got in on the act and the Mount Alexander Shire Council produced, together with all its various partners, what was believed at the time to be the first local government-endorsed greenhouse action plan, with targets of thiry per cent reduction by 2015, and one hundred per cent reduction by 2050, based on 2008 figures. The local sustainability group burgeoned and solar panels grew from rooftops more abundantly than plants in this drought-ridden community. The churches, regional banks, hospitals and regional universities jumped on the bandwagon and Castlemaine became the site of many a pilot program and bucket for many a seed fund, not to mention seed ideas and seeds of the traditional sort.

ALL OF THESE efforts were against a backdrop of terrifying drought, a particularly bad bushfire year in 2009, and increasing conservatism in local government elections. ‘It is a very sad country to be travelling through as part of my job,’ Bronwen Machin, the then co-ordinator of the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance, told me at the time. ‘I see a significant increase in the number of farms that are now unsustainable,’ she explained. She told a story of a local farmer who had been denying man-made climate change. He was asked whether he might be beginning to change his mind about this. His reply, ‘Yes, but I’m scared to because that means that my farm is no longer viable.’

Visible hardship was definitely part of the story fuelling the impetus towards change in this small rural community where ‘real’ locals live alongside newbies and, despite often wildly different life experiences and world views, the kids all still play footy for the same team and, no matter who you are and what you believe, you face the threat of bushfires, and your gardens are dying.

Yet, despite the difficulties of blended cultures living side by side, and the very real difficulties of nature, the story that my interviews were catching was that there was an excitement here. We were doing something, we were part of something, and it felt really good. Many of the older, long-time locals have been recycling, retrofitting, seed saving, growing vegetables and raising chooks since they were children. They wondered what the big deal was with all these ‘new’ skills people suddenly seemed to be getting so excited about. They would hang over their fences and deal out advice to their less grounded neighbours.

Climate change and human adaptation to it in this community has been like a slower, less visible version of the response you hear about when communities suffer a terrible crisis – everybody comes out of the woodwork, young and old, rich and poor, to make sandwiches, donate blankets and counsel the survivors. Of course, there are some who don’t believe in man-made climate change and some who lean over fences and call their neighbours ‘f’ken greenies’, and many who don’t join in. But my point is, there are many who do. And it surprised me.

I wanted to understand more. Why here?

Carol McDonough, an earth and justice campaigner, has a theory. ‘What is happening here,’ she said to my camera, ‘is that we have a diverse leadership emerging which is visionary and practical. It is distributive – nobody is trying to own or be the top of the pile. People are happy that there are numbers of people coming forward, inviting people around them, creating ideas, and projects are running. There’s a lot of “let’s do it”, and it’s happening,’ she said, with that flourish elders have when they are finally being proven right. ‘We changed from coal-fired to diesel trains. We can adapt to climate change too,’ she added, with an enthusiastic smile. This woman has been dancing at this party for decades and she still hasn’t worn out her dance shoes.

Party is possibly the wrong word to use to describe the fight to avert the devastation we face. In my search to answer the questions: ‘what is going on here?,’ and ‘what can we learn from it about how people change their behaviours?,’ Dean Bridgefoot, the then project co-ordinator at the Mount Alexander Sustainability Group had some thoughts about why it has taken so long for communities and people to begin to recognise the need to take action.

‘There was a whole generation of agricultural existentialists,’ he told me, ‘who went out with an attitudinal theory about behavior change. They went out there and collated a whole heap of information – mountains of the stuff,’ he gesticulated, ‘and dumped it onto people. “Here’s all the information,” they would say, “and here’s what you should be doing with it.” Which is extremely disempowering because it relies on a whole lot of assumptions about adult learning. It is often written, for example. Sometimes we repackage it in interpretive dance,’ he added, laughing, ‘but it’s still quite inaccessible and more often than not, it doesn’t hit the mark. So for years ecologists and environmentalists collated evidence, information and bad news stories, dumped it on the table and people didn’t take action and we wondered why.’

Geoff Brown is on to it, too. ‘Information only inspires about twenty or thirty per cent of change,’ he told me, ‘and bad news, inspires about six per cent of change.’ ‘There are a lot of myths out there about how information should be used and about how change cascades throughout a community. But no one really knows the answers. We’ve got a whole lot of assumptions and theories about what we think might work but it is so complex, it’s not linear. We can’t actually say: “Because this worked in Castlemaine, we can pull the same lever and it will work in other communities.” It’s much more interactive than that.’

WHATEVER WAS HAPPENING, we were buzzing and proud, and in 2008 we, as a community, nominated ourselves for, and won, the United Nations World Environment Day Communities Award under the application title: Going Carbon Neutral – Castlemaine, Kicking the Carbon Habit.

I did have my moments, as I pondered the achievements and pitfalls of this dynamic time and place, of wondering if we were just living in a self-congratulatory bubble.

Dean Bridgefoot addressed my concerns and it was good news: ‘I’m not sure how unique the Castlemaine story is. I think what is happening here, and in places all over Australia and the world is that there are clusters of people who get together and infect each other – working directly with, and influencing people they already know. But what is happening here is a convergence that is really dynamic.’

Jim Norris, a former mayor, and local restaurant and bed and breakfast owner, agreed that this can and is happening in communities all over the world: ‘There’s a role for us all and it doesn’t need to be just in communities the size of Castlemaine. It can happen within microcosms of community, within factions or sectors or whatever you like to call it. In my case it’s the dining and hospitality industry and in another case it might be a peer group of farmers who get together and have field days and discuss different methods of production. It won’t be every farmer in the district or every restaurant in the town. In a way what you are doing is breaking down larger communities into manageable sectors and finding something that unites them, in order to be able to work together.’

What Jim, Dean, Carol and others were getting at was that, at its heart, it is about community. That is what had opened its arms to me in this buzzy, dry little town, and that is what I felt when I attend the ‘HOT’ dinners we had started, where we brought a plate of food to share and would sit around sharing our projects – the successes and the failures. ‘HOT’ stood for ‘Hats Off Transition’: ‘Transition’ being a movement which came out of a small southern English town about the time I was making the film; ‘Hats Off’ being necessary because half of us worked for council, or the local hospital, or school, or community health centre, or neighbourhood house and it is sometimes hard in a small town to know which ‘hat’ you wear, and who you represent. The emergence of the worldwide Transition Town movement was evidence that communities were starting to rumble from the proverbial grassroots, with individuals realising that the ‘government’ machine is too big and too hamstrung to really effect long-term change, and that, therefore, it is up to us. That was the other thing that was bringing us together: this kind of ‘revolutionary, being part of something bigger than ourselves, doing something for the greater good’ feeling.

IT SEEMS PARTY shoes may be in order after all. Rob Hopkins, artist and creator of the Transition Towns movement, suspected that perhaps we were telling too many negative stories about the challenges of peak oil and climate change. In The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience (Green Books, 2008), he writes about conducting a small activity with community locals around re-imagining the future. ‘As I stood at the front of that hall watching the room full of laughing, twinkling people…I felt very moved. “There is a power here,” I thought, “which has remained largely untapped.”‘

‘Surely when we think about peak oil and climate change,’ he wrote, ‘we should feel horrified, afraid, overwhelmed? Yet here was a room full of people who were positively elated, yet were also looking at the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change square in the face.’

He wondered, in that moment, what environmental campaigning might look like if ‘it strove to generate this sense of elation, rather than the guilt, anger and horror that most campaigning invokes?’ He advocated ‘applied optimism,’ futures visioning within community and built a worldwide movement from sharing these thoughts (and many more), tapping into a collective consciousness in which communities like Castlemaine were waking up and starting to ponder the same sorts of questions.

What we are also seeing in these sorts of communities is an influx of like-minded people who are generating energy together with their shared beliefs and pooling their talents. In the face of problems such as rising populations, rising property prices, mounting public transport pressures, and digitally enhanced work stresses, there has been a swing back towards traditional crafts and slower, more wholesome, holistic living.

Castlemaine has become one of the overflow valves for those city folk wanting simpler lives, aided by easy railway and road access to Melbourne. Castlemaine and surrounds have long attracted alternative lifestyle tree changers. The trend started in the early ’70s with artists attracted by low property prices and the Boyd-ian bush, with mud brick houses and intentional communities springing up. The Castlemaine Steiner school, offering an alternative, arts-based education, celebrated its twenty-first birthday last year and next year the biennial Arts Festival, the renowned Castlemaine State Festival, will celebrate its fortieth anniversary.

Interest in adaptation towards alternative energy sources and planet preservation is no longer just the domain of the brown rice and sandals brigade, though. I’m fascinated by the diversity of the people moving here and the permaculture-like webs of connections that emerge. Much of the work done here on social ‘issues’ is unpaid, often performed by people who have had significant training and careers around Australia and the world. Mount Alexander Shire had the highest volunteer participation rate reported in the past two Australian Censuses. ‘Overqualified and under-employed,’ I sometimes joke (mostly to and about myself, lest I offend), of these people who bring their skills to all manner of community projects.

WHILE THE ENTHUSIASM for innovation and change is exciting for those wanting to be part of this party, there is also a dark side. Some of the energy can come with a blind assumption that all people want to, or should want to be on board. Watch out any corporate type who wants to build or do something which isn’t 100 per cent earth and human ethical. The old gasworks site opposite the primary school was only eventually remediated (detoxified) after much exhaustive community consultation. This exercise was led by some in the community who were not satisfied with being told ‘don’t worry, we know what we are doing, trust us,’ and whose informed dissent was fed by their leading edge environmental scientist and lawyer mates. Consensus building eventually involved community representatives, the landowner company, the shire council, and state and national regulatory authorities all sitting respectfully around one table. This kind of approach proved to be so streamlined and satisfactory to all parties that the community organisers were invited to present their community engagement techniques to an international conference on site remediation.

Then there was the application by one group of entrepreneurial types from a neighbouring town to introduce dozens more pokies to Castlemaine. Opposition was taken all the way to VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) and shot down by a self-funded, well-organised, well-informed action that involved half the town. A significant number of others, though, (polling numbers varied according to who was conducting them) would have liked an affordable entertainment venue in town. The passionately fought battle divided the town.

There was the oval, which was saved from development (of a new pool, which many wanted) and the sale of the old jail, which became another divisive battleground between developers and dreamers. Ironically, many of these battles were fought, in both the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps, in the name of community.

AS A FAMILY, we extricated ourselves from the paradoxical intensity of the ‘quiet life’ in this community for a time. We fled north to try our luck as sea changers and explored the ins and outs of other communities. We had planned to go for good but the gravitational pull of extended family and all the upsides of this special place brought us home again. When we returned from our year away, there were more cafés and interior design businesses lining the streets, fewer available car parks in the main street, and our home (which we, thankfully, had decided not to sell), had almost doubled in value.

Fast-forward another couple of years and my son, who arrived that first hot, lonely summer, is now eleven. My film has been made and outdated and those stories and groups are continuing, evolving and being replaced by others. Community-led responses to peak resources and climate change are now well seeded and growing in many a community (although recent rains and changes of government add a complex spin). Things have changed, I have changed, and my questions have changed. How can we as a community celebrate our successes while learning from our mistakes as ‘change agents’?

Our year away gave us broader experience and some perspective on our community. Our return brought us even closer to our neighbours, fourth-generation ‘Castlemainiacs’ who taught us about the gentle and profound art of country neighbourliness across fences. The status quo, which is often guarded quietly, has much to offer. In a rural community, the glue, indeed the sandwiches and the saviours, are often found in the CFA, the SES and the footy club. Run mostly by long-time locals, these people could teach we ‘change agents’ a thing or two about growing things, looking after each other in the face of hardship, about community and about sustainability.

The significantly changing face of our town has, like the gold rush that came before it, unearthed enormous treasure, but not without some unwanted tailings. On the other side of passionately held world views, there can be others made wrong – on both sides of the fence. Maybe this is an inevitable part of the learning curve of being in community and it is intensified in a rural setting. Perhaps the next work of art to be molded out of the delicate blend of old and new Castlemaine gold will be the art of community.

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