Getting to Know Alexa Fobes
Nō Airangi, no Kotairana ōku tipuna,
I whanau mai au ki Te Awamutu, kei raro te maunga Pirongia
Nō te iwi o te rohe tēnēi maunga āriki. Ngā mihi mahana atu ki a koutou.
Inaianei, e noho ana au ki Tahuna Queenstown, kei raro te maunga Kawarau, kei taha te awa Kawarau, te awa me maunga āriki nō te iwi Kai Tahu.
Ngā mihi mahana atu ki a koutou.
He manu hou au.
Aroha atu, aroha mai.
What’s your number one saying?
It is what it is. [shoulder shrug]. Represents non-attachment and acceptance of whatever is arising. What’s the system at play here? Represents taking a wider view of the drivers of any given issue.
Where are you based, how long for, and where were you before that?
Tahuna Queenstown. Have been here since 1986. Before that, I was in Auckland briefly after coming home from several years overseas, mostly in France. I’ve lived in the house I’m in for 23 years and before that, I lived across the road. The area has gone mad in its growth. It’s been amazing to watch - the Queenstown Lakes District (includes Wanaka and Arrowtown) had a population of about 8000 when I arrived, it’s more than 40,000 now. Many of my friends over the years have left and the number of times people have said to me ‘it’s not what it was, they’ve ruined it’, is immense, but people still come - suspect they wouldn’t if it was ruined. I reckon ‘ruin’ is a relative thing as I watch the slow but sure degradation of where we live and its communities. In this place, we are in better condition than in other parts of the world and we have become increasingly accessible - but only to the wealthy or the privileged. It has become so expensive for people to live here that you can’t have, on any normal income. We own our home, every year it earns about 3x what we do in capital gain. There’s something very wrong with that. That could take me down a rabbit hole of economics and the return on capital versus the return on labour….so I’ll stop there...except to say if you want to explore economics further, please do read Sacred Economics - Charles Eisenstein, and if you want to understand some New Zealand context and the rubbish that is GDP as a measurement system, do watch the movie Sex, Lies and Global Economics that tells the story of a fascinating era of NZ politics - that time when Marilyn Waring brought down the Muldoon government and her international investigation into GDP.
All this aside, there’s something very solid and very fluid about the mountains and the lakes - somehow we (me and my partner) are still here, deepening our roots and finding nutrients somewhere below.
What led you to permaculture?
Ha, this is pretty funny. I’ve always been securely grounded in nature and principles of observation, no waste, and a high-level systems view - a result of parental influence, a rural Waikato upbringing and overseas scholarship when I was very young (17). But it’s only recently I’ve learned anything about permaculture. When I began working in sustainable practice as a facilitator - about 2013, I needed to learn about the framework that underpinned permaculture as I worked to collect as many frameworks as I could to support people’s thinking as they learned about a systems approach and sustainable practice. I explored the work of David Holman and Bill Mollison and visited places like Awhi Farm. One day, not long ago, maybe 5 years, I said something general and disparaging - can’t remember what it was (Steve Henry or David Hursthouse might - I think they were all there for my faux pas and resultant whakamā) about permaculturalists at one of our Grad Dip Sustainable Practice meetings. In the democratic and collaborative way of this group, this wasn’t allowed to slip and it was decided that for my sins I must attend the next permie hui. Which I did, learned lots and loved it.
What is your profession/passion and who are the people you share this with?
I’ve had lots of professions and passions, from music to radio, to journalism and others, but currently it’s all about environmental defence - advancing age has brought on activism - and helping learners learn through reflection and critique. I do the first mostly as an Otago Regional Councillor - this is an ongoing experiment in trying to create change from the inside - success has been limited, but there are some interesting moments and some small differences made. You can check out some of the dysfunction in this video that I made following a particularly frustrating meeting where we refused to make the right decisions to protect a river. The second, and more immediately rewarding is my work at Otago Polytech as a facilitator in the school of Work-Based Learning. I work in professional pathway Diplomas and Masters programmes and, more recently the wonderful Leadership for Change Bachelor degree. Learners consistently inspire and educate me with big dreams that we wrangle into do-able projects or explorations.
My work at council is shared with a disparate group of ex central politicians, farmers, lawyers, an engineer, a scientist and others of random backgrounds who are voted into this institution which is supposedly responsible for Otago’s environmental health. In this role, I also spend time with people who are trying to make change by pressuring the council to do a better job, and of course, those with axes to grind and every reason to preserve the status quo. I meet a broad cross-section of people doing awesome things and get to poke around and learn about wetlands, irrigation, natural hazards, alluvial fans, flood protection, transport systems and other things. Really special is learning about Te Tiriti from a governance perspective and te ao Māori alongside Ngai Tahu people of huge mana. I’ve felt myself shrink on many occasions as I’ve realised when I’ve got things wrong, or when I've lost my patience or temper at a particularly poor bit of behaviour and realised later that in doing so I’ve failed to uphold the mana of others as a priority. Ahhh, the learning here has been massive. Maybe I will stand again after all. Interestingly, I decided to stand for this council, and announced it informally, at the last Permaculture Hui at the Guyton's in Riverton. Ella Lawton - a great friend and teacher to me - had told me that she wasn’t running again and I should be her successor. She talked me into it that weekend and felt terrible later when some bad stuff happened… but it’s been an incredible experience, if daunting, challenging and less successful than I would like.
At the poly, things can get complicated occasionally, but mostly work there is a joy. Supporting motivated learners is incredibly rewarding and the people I work with are committed, fun and good. The environment fosters openness, authenticity and vulnerability - utterly opposite from that of the ORC. If hope should exist, it’s right here where people are exploring and doing their best selves.
What's your personal take on Permaculture in New Zealand?
It’s been a couple of years since we’ve had a good hui, but my sense is that younger people are coming through which is good, but it’s still quite fringe when its place should be more in the main stem of the river. I’m stoked to see the direction towards inclusion of mātauranga māori and the active engagement with tangata whenua.
What lesson in life stands out the most for you?
Loving a child - my biggest lesson and taught me to love all children. Loving nature - in particular a walk on Kakapuku maunga with my dad when I was about 8, and another across the Coromandel when I was about 14. I knew I felt best when I was in and felt connected, to the natural environment. Another is recognising patterns - the same ones everywhere, expressing them through metaphors. Suspension of belief and bias. Assume nothing, whakamananui everything. All of those come immediately to mind. And there are so many more.
If you could pick a favourite plant, what would you choose?
Dandelion. I love the work the dandelion does, love that it feeds the soil, bees, us, anything, love its delicate flowers, its hardy taps that hold it firm in the ground, adore the little parachutes that it sends its seeds out to the world with. Dandelions are pure joy.
What changes would you like to see for permaculture in the future?
I want to see more people come to it, or similar frameworks that bring people closer to nature and closer to each other.
What question do you wish to ask those who are reading this?
Is permaculture about permaculture or is it about finding your way back to papatuanuku? Do we try to rescue our democracy or just work outside of it? How do we faff about with the must do’s of this and that while the world burns and we bathe in poisonous chemicals? Why do I get up each morning and do anything at all? I have so many questions for this community. Can I do a survey?
You can find me on Linkedin or my occasional blog is at alexaforbes.blog. I am very happy to be contacted if anyone thinks I can help with anything, or better still if anyone has ideas that would help me.