Operating Within Lockdown in Our Eco-Community

Operating Within Lockdown in Our Eco-Community

By Robina McCurdy


Well, the end of March to the end of April was going to be a bumper month of outgoing education and facilitation for me:  The Empowered Activism Waananga, Tipuranga Ecovillage Hui, NZ Permaculture Hui, Australasian Permaculture Conference.  And due to Lockdown restrictions, none of this happened! Instead, I have been at home in Tui Community, Golden Bay, tending my garden and my community devotedly.  I feel sorely for the people who are confined in inner-city apartment buildings without being able to sense the equilibrium of the earth under their feet or smell the fragrance of a flower. I am privileged in these times to be living rural remote, with a group of people who have lived together for some time (some of us for the 35 years of Tui’s life!), who are really familiar with consensus decisionmaking processes and pulling together when it's needed most.  

As this year’s Chairperson of our Land Trust, I have had to guide our Trust Board in navigating changes to our way of life, in response to the government’s requirements.  Everything we have put in place is an antithesis to how we typically live here eg locking up the trampoline, ceasing weekly community meals, no casual passing-by hugs. Although we comply for the wellbeing of all, there can be an inner resistance to such rules and regulations, as we have chosen to live in an intentional community for responsible freedom, co-operation, extended family and the sharing of resources.  During the lockdown/rahui our 40 people community is divided into smallish pods (bubbles) not necessarily in the same household, which is primarily based around parents and children, plus an honorary kuia or kaumatua who are most connected with them.  

Regardless of my Chairperson role and autumn practical work on the land, I've been living a slower fulfilling pace of life, observing my inner-self, mindful of the movements of nature around me (I live in the forest, by a stream) noticing the little things and appreciating the qualities in people.  As our community business, Tui Balms hasn’t been deemed an ‘essential service’, the 15 residents who work there are more around and about on the land, so it’s a time of deepening in relationship with each other by happenstance – from isolation distance! As well, over the past 2 weeks, I have been on Zoom with friends, colleagues around the world more than I imagined possible!  And our Tui meetings, still using the ‘Colours of Empowerment’ discussion and decisionmaking cards by holding them up to the screen! Cultural events close to home but via the internet, have been Redwood's poetry, Nilgin & Aralyn’s storytelling, Inna’s Deep Ecology, Sybille & Jay’s facilitated Open Floor Dance, Ra’s birthday message’s ..


Like a darkened backdrop to this sweetness of life, I regularly keep abreast of the larger global context on Covid19 and what that is meaning and can mean for the world.  I chastise myself for neglecting my seedbank to the extent that a lot of seeds have lost their viability, for not prioritised the publication of my ‘Food Sovereignty Facilitators Handbook’, for having given up on our ‘Localising Food Project’ (www.localisingfood.com) when despite what we have already achieved,  we just couldn’t bring in finance to continue editing the 200 stories we have captured of inspirational projects around Aotearoa.  There just isn’t enough of me to go around, and although I’m 70, I’m still as active as when I was 30. In a conflicted way, I celebrate this tragic opportunity for humanity’s ‘wake up’ call and pray that millions will step into the ‘Activist Waka’ and paddle together. 

PERMACULTURE PRINCIPLES in ACTION during these 3 weeks of Lockdown

As a futurist visionary with an extrapolating analytical mind, I am pre-empting the impact of COVID-19 on our economy and culture, and activating changes in our community and my personal life. Here are some of my reflections based on experiences within this lockdown/rahui time, with reference to the Permaculture Principles.  I hope you enjoy this autumn-time adventure around Tui! 

Observe & Interact

During the first week of the rahui, I met with my Deputy Chairperson, Keith, every day at a different spot on the land with a new view.  We believed that this would keep our minds open and ideas fresh. After all, we had a lot to grapple with. As we met at our 3-4 metre isolation distance, we soaked up the sun, watched the clouds go by, listened to the bird song and had times of reflective spaciousness within the intensity of what we had to discuss. We had our own personal outdoor chairs which we left in separate bushes, incidentally by one of the best patches of chickweed on the land.  Our meetings usually ended at lunchtime, so fresh chickweed was a daily reward. So were other edible wild weeds that meadow gifted us. Mostly we chose open spaces where residents who were passing could see us from afar, and take the liberty to come and check in if they wanted. When we needed dialogue on some very challenging subjects needing incisive decisions, we would find a more secluded spot where people rarely ventured, such as on the edge of the shelterbelt. Last week the feijoa season kicked in, so we positioned ourselves near enough to the feijoa hedge so that we could connect with the kids as they came by harvesting with their pod. As things got sorted, we met less frequently.  Now every system we thought needed covering is in place and things have simmered down, we have stopped meeting. I find I am missing this rhythm, our long-distance intimacy and the palpable feeling of service I carry within me when I am more directly engaged. Yes, every week there is some form of internet meeting in our community, but its not a patch on being part of the real internet web within the natural world. 

Apply Self-regulation & Accept Feedback

Directives from the government have been clear and specific regarding what we can and can’t do.  Tui Trust, our administrative governing body, needs to determine how we can apply these to 40 people living on common land, from placing sanitisers at gate latches to barricading the kids climbing frame and putting a lock on the trampoline.  By far, how we dealt with the playground was the toughest decision of all. The playground, and specifically the trampoline, is the kids ‘community hub’. They congregate on it to have fun, regardless of being 5 or 15 years old. To deprive them of this daily delight felt so mean, but under the circumstances, necessary. Adults opinions ranged from ‘completely close down the tramp’ to ‘make it that an adult has to be there at all times and sanitise it before and after use, to let one pod only use it.  So I spoke to everyone on the land, adults and kids alike. We talked about health risks, the vulnerable elderly, fairness, freedom, control, consensus.. Action needed to happen, and at the end of 2 days, the deputy chairperson and myself took the power into our own hands and closed down the playground. We got praise and criticism. The playground still remains closed and everyone has adjusted. To soften it for the kids, it helps having a lovely sign up speaking from the ‘voice of the playground’.

Creatively Use & Respond to Change

The COVID-19 scenario has changed the somewhat predictable systems in our ecovillage life here.  No more Tues eve community meals, no more visitors or WWoofers - and many more changes..

Since the 2011 flood wiped out our big community garden on the flat land, households have put in their own Zone 1 gardens mostly on the hills – another change circumstances required a creative practical response to. Before lockdown/rahui, our small community garden was allocated just for visitors and community meals. Now it is full of food and its function is defunct! So we have opened it up for everyone to harvest from, and today re-evaluating the whole system - from offering individuals small allotments so supplement their winter gardens, to one person seedraising and managing a seedbank for all the gardens on the land.  Some cling to the old and resist the new, but the old will never resettle into how it was, and the new lies in the realm of courageous experimentation.

Obtain a Yield

I have 3 gardens: a Zone 1 kitchen garden, my staple crop Zone 2 garden at the Golden Bay Community Gardens in town (really like Zone 11 as its half an hour drive from my home!) and a Zone 5 ‘wild harvest’ undefined garden all over my bioregion.  A few weeks ago I harvested my potatoes and maize (grinding) corn. Both crops were poorer than expected, so half I am keeping for seed for next year's crops. I am aware we don’t have ideal winter storage facilities, and already the corn in the pumpkin racks is showing signs of mildew.  My thoughts, intermittently tinged with strong emotion, ask: ‘What if this very seed is vital for survival? What if no amount of cash or plastic money can purchase more any seed? (as we saw happen just before lockdown). What if the seed we have stored on this land is all we have to plant and also exchange for other seed available in our community?  As an avid seedsaver from a long family line of gardeners, I have instinctual need to ensure food provision for the next planting season for my tribe. I am tempted to add to this permaculture principle, ‘ Sustain a Yield’.

Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services

I have been taking photos for around 20 years until I reach the magic number to publish a photo-journal called ‘101 Uses of Mussel Buoys’ – and I’m well over halfway!  It's these kinds of ‘discarded’ resources to keep an eye open for and provide ‘resource recoveryspace for somewhere in your back yard, as the future may well be one of makeshift and make-do. Our land is at the edge of Wainui Bay, which has the best conditions for raisin mussel spat in NZ, so at the point of the bay, there’s a big mussel farm. Generally, the ocean is flat calm, but when storms rage, it becomes wild and tugs at the mussel buoys which keep the spat ropes afloat, dislodging some. So a walk along the shore after such conditions have prevailed can offer the gift of a mussel big fat black buoy! So yesterday after the dynamic storm subsided, I went for a beach walk.  There were 3 buoys washed up, so I did my typical action of stashing them amongst the bush and gorse, and counting my traces back to the track entrance, to retrieve them later with a rope. I have a stockpile behind my shed, ready for transformation – creatively cutting and shaping up for compost bins, kids go-carts, water tanks, kids swings, wheelbarrows, sinks and anything else you may imagine! This resource is one the most renewable I know.

Catch & Store Energy

Yes, I’m doing it!  The lights and sound system for my small round earth house are powered by the sun, driven by a simple 80-watt solar panel and one deep cycle battery.  However, at the beginning of the lockdown my battery gave up and I was operating with a headlight and candles. It took a week of a countrywide search for my local agent to locate a new one.  Batteries are will be a vital sought after in a resource-scarce economy. Solar panels too. Herein lies the technological weakness in a solar system. We might think that mains electricity is more secure.  However our countries main supply is generated from damned Sth Island rivers, all electronically operated by a switch in Central Otago! And for this centralised system to operate depends on payment from its consumers, within a future volatile economy where the necessity of electricity may become a luxury.  So innovative grass-roots engineers, your time is now!

Produce No Waste

It's Autumn time. The leaves around here have started turning golden, the first being the big paulownia tree at the marking the entrance to the bush track to my home. After the big storm, the ground is a patchwork of golds, browns, and greens. In my annual tradition, I lay down my large tarp to capture the leaves as they fall till the tree is bare.  Then I wrap the tarp into a bundle and leave it under the tree for a year to alchemically turn into rich leaf mould for my potting mix. Its smell is so sweet and its texture so soft. I give thanks to my paulownia tree for its gift so that I don’t have to use peat mined in faraway countries.

Use Edges & Value the Marginal

A couple of days ago in the storm, two of Levi and Annika’s tipi poles broke.  At the edge of my office is a stand of running bamboo, which I cultivate favouring straight, fat and tall. It mops up water running down the little bank when it rains and whistles a lovely swishing sound in the wind. It produced so prolifically I can almost see it growing!  Levi selected his poles and went on his way to resurrect the tipi. Today Robert approached me about thinning out some bamboo as there was a hazelnut tree that kept being overgrown and he wanted to give it more light. He also wants to cut out most of the bamboo closer to his house and plant more hazelnuts.  Since this pandemic, he has accelerated his commitment to grow and tend a lot more nut trees on this land, seeing these as a sustainable food source for the future if food becomes more scarce. Like so many plants that love the favourable microclimates created on the edge, hazelnuts do well here. I can see this area, as well as many other margins of Tui land being viewed as having a higher value and getting more attention than before this pandemic catalyst.  Time for conscious design!

Design from Patterns to Details

Since the rahui, we have been giving another push to our previously ‘on idle’ Tiny House Cluster development.  Its become obvious to some of us that the social ‘fallout’ of this current global event, means that we need to expand our accommodation capacity here sooner rather than later. Robert and Tyson are working most days with the digger and dump truck, shifting sand from the big mounds by the lower stream to the Barn Paddock area, and levelling it.

Its looking less like a farm amenity yard by the day. A couple of years ago, prompted by the need to provide living spaces to more people wanting to live here, but limited by our Council to have no more house sites, I was engaged to do a permaculture design of this area for medium-term temporary accommodation.  My permaculture colleague Guenther and I embarked on a site and sector analysis, did some community consultation, followed by broadscale design, then laid out an overall pattern with white buckets and coloured ropes, which could be easily picked out by a drone camera. As the land was flat, finding a ‘rhythm’ to this pattern which signalled where electricity and water points and internal pathways should go, was quite straightforward. Now is time for the details. William is defining the details of his caretaking area and starting to get in a shelterbelt accordingly. We are planning on purchasing a kitset All Wood Cabin, and dividing up plenty of healthy harakeke plants on other parts of the land to plant out where the bank meets the flat land.  It's going to be like a ‘community within a community’.

Use Small & Slow Solutions

This principle seems to have no applicability to the swift response needed to COVID-19 – as referenced to the playground dilemma above. I don’t see this principle applying to a crisis. However, its application is very relevant to the post lockdown situation.  In the shift to Level 3 and as we go up the levels, permissions are planned in increments rather than wholesale change. The movement back to some kind of ‘business as usual’ is at a slow measured pace. In permaculture, we design for ultimate functional awesomeness, then immediately peal back to staging our design starting with the basic biological building blocks as well as what’s immediately tangible and attainable from the backdoor.  Then continually apply all the permaculture principles to inform us what’s needed in modifying the design. When preparing for ‘beyond lockdown’ this principle is very apt. The most relevant biological metaphor I can think of is natural succession. When the right conditions are provided, seeds already in the soil start to grow. This depicts the momentum that my proposal for developing a staple crops paddock is now getting, given the right conditions (a crisis!). The ‘seeds’ have been sown around 10 years ago, but lain dormant due to perceived issues of irrigation, pukeko and weka proof fencing, and insufficient energy.  Now we are starting to talk about installing a ram pump in the stream, to increase the capacity of the water system.

A friend of mine shared this quote the other day: ‘Make haste slowly’.  I wonder if this curious guiding principle is a better fit for these times?

Integrate Rather than Segregate

Here’s anotherprinciple which doesn’t seem to apply under COVID 19 lockdown, when everything is about segregation in order to be safe!  However, if we view it from the perspective of how we have organised our ‘pod’ (bubble) system at Tui, it makes total sense.  In the mainstream world, when your hair becomes grey, you are no longer seen as a valuable and contributing member of society and are eventually put into an ‘old age home’ with other old people, segregated from the rest of society. This is a clear example of a macro-scale where Social Permaculture would call out for integration. Under the rahui, integration within safe defined boundaries has been our governing principle.  Pods, formed mostly around children and their needs, consist of people within a household plus one or some who have become like aunties/uncles/grandparents of that child over time – who live in a different household. This means that during this lockdown time, all of the elders on this land who live alone are wrapped into a pod with whom they can share meals, play board games and cards, have hugs and are committed to take care of each other if they become ill.  It also solidifies relationships for the future. When we can open up our pods more (Level 3) it will be first to one other pod chosen for the best combination of relationships which enhances overall wellbeing.

Use & Value Diversity

Where I live in the Tui Community there is such a rich diversity of skills.  People ranging from 2 to 75 years old, originating from different countries with diverse cultural traditions and backgrounds. This rahui has offered time for reflection on life priorities and assessing desirable skills to develop for the future.  My neighbour Robert is learning how to tan possum skins from Levi who gives him what he has shot the previous night with his bow and arrow, after feeding the carcass to his dog. One of our teenagers is going into the inlet with Keith when he puts out his set net and is learning to fillet fish too.  I’ve been getting tips from several seasoned sauerkraut makers of how to make the best ferment ever. Charlie and Jesper have both used their testing devices to help troubleshoot and rejig my solar system. Aralyn is going to teach me how to make her yummy crackers. And it goes on and on… All of this happens with social distancing unless we are in the same ‘pod’. Some of us are quieter and reserved, some dynamic and extravert.  On our Trust Board and within our resident group here the energies all seem to balance out. How boring if we were all the same