The Life of an Eco-Villager

It’s my last morning here and I’m sitting having breakfast in Alan’s small cabin. I ask if I can write my story about him. He seems amused at this, and asks ‘why him?’ I explain that I came to this eco-village looking for inspiration, but it’s more complicated than I expected. There’s so much going on here and I’m still trying to get my head around it. I found him interesting though, and I’d like to write about his little slice of village life.

We chat about the complexities of village life. He’s still in his dressing gown, contemplating what he’ll do today. He has two pet projects that he’s particularly passionate about: azolla and compost. A day ago I’d never heard of azolla, but have now come to understand Alan’s enthusiasm for it. As for the compost, well, it’s not just his own; Alan deals with the compost for an entire village.

I’d arrived at the Tasman Eco-Village two days earlier. I’d been tired and grumpy after the long cycle to get here, over too many hills, and the lady who showed me to the village camping area seemed just as grumpy as I was. I’d come here hoping to learn about eco-villages and how they work, but it turned out I’d arrived at a tense time. There was conflict with the property developer and between some villagers over the future direction of the village. It seemed this was all anyone was thinking about.

I had set up camp and then spent some time wandering the grounds. The centre of the village was an old motel, converted for village use, with several cottages and cabins around it. Further back there were communal facilities like a village green, kitchen, hall and shower block, and then some large garden plots, with worm farms, compost pits and chicken coops. There were piles of waste materials in one area, waiting for later re-use. Further away I could see open fields, an orchard on the hillside, and a couple more cabins in the valley. Beyond that was forest.

The villagers were just going about their own business. Some people were gardening or working on their house. I overheard a couple who were making plans for an upcoming party in the communal hall. Some children were riding their bikes or running about playing games.

I’d met Alan while I was handwashing my dirty underwear in a sink in the communal shower block. Alan had come in to investigate why he could hear a tap running, and upon seeing me had immediately retreated, apologising for interrupting my underwear cleaning operation. But I introduced myself, and the next thing I knew he had pulled up a chair to sit and chat right there in the shower block. I started to learn his story.

Alan was originally a radiographer in the British Royal Navy. When he left the service he worked as a radiographer in various hospitals, eventually ending up in Australia, in Sydney, and later Hobart. When he retired he purchased some land in the hills above the town of Cygnet, south of Hobart, and built a small cabin there. It was a beautiful spot with great views, but he found it quite lonely.

In 2012 he met a man named Ilan Arnon, who had the idea to set up an eco-village on the Tasman Peninsula. He already had the land, and he asked Alan if he’d be interested in joining. Alan agreed.

Alan purchased a small plot within the larger property, and camped there while building his new home. He obtained two 3m x 6m ‘dongas’ — transportable single room buildings, like what you see on remote work sites — and placed them side by side, slightly offset, and cut a door between them. In this way he created a small cabin for himself, which he named ‘Twodong Cottage’. By improving the insulation and installing a rainwater tank, solar panels, batteries and a composting toilet, it’s now become a self-sufficient eco-home.

It’s in this cabin that I’m sitting with Alan eating breakfast. Alan has tried to explain how the eco-village works, though it’s only after I’ve chatted with a few different villagers that I’m finally starting to understand it.

One of the villagers I chatted with was Debra, who joined me for breakfast my first morning there and started my education about the village. Debra explained that the land is managed using a strata title system, similar to a block of flats, which divides the land into lots and common property. There are some key roles to understand in all this. There’s the developer, Ilan, who owns the land. There are the lot holders, who have each purchased a plot of land and thus a part of the strata title. In so doing, each lot holder becomes a member of the ‘body corporate’ or ‘owner’s corporation’, and has a say in the management of the common areas. In the case of this eco-village, there’s also a non-profit ‘association’, created as an alternate governing body for the eco-village, and which acts as the public face of the community.

The hope is that everyone can agree through a consensus decision-making process. Together they decided upon the shared vision and code of conduct of the eco-village, with strong values around ecological, social, economical, cultural, personal and spiritual sustainability.

Another of the villagers I’d discussed this with was Jack. I’d met him while cooking my dinner in the communal kitchen the night before. His kids were playing with several others nearby, building cubby houses out of furniture.

Jack told me that all the lot holders pay $2,500 each year to the ‘body corporate’, and then these funds are used to maintain the common areas. The initial hope was that this could also be used to pay a stipend to certain villagers to perform key communal roles, such as to tend the orchard, but there just isn’t enough money. So instead they rely on individuals who are passionate about making a project happen. Jack and his partner Hannah were passionate about gardening and local food, so they built a community garden on the common land. Every Saturday they sell what they’ve grown in a little shopfront by the village green, as well as goods from other local small-scale producers.

Alan isn’t a fan of gardening, but he found compost was something he could get interested in. He set up a composting operation to deal with all the waste paper, cardboard and food scraps from the entire village.

After meeting Alan in the shower block, I had suggested we move to the hall to chat, and from there he took me for a walk to show me his work. We crossed the village green to where four large cages sat in a row, each as large as a double bed, waist high, and wrapped in green shade cloth. The first cage had ‘August 2018’ written on it, and the second said ‘January 2019’. Alan told me these were the dates the batches were closed off, to be left to cook. And they did seem to be cooking.

He took me to the third cage, labelled ‘Active’, and lifted the lid. Inside was a mound covered in a thick layer of hay, and sticking out of this mound was a long thermometer. The dial read almost 55 degrees Celsius. Alan pulled the thermometer out and got me to wrap my hand around the base — it was hot! My hand came away smelling like poo.

Alan picked up a pitchfork and pulled aside some of the hay. Below it was assorted kitchen detritus, including vegetable scraps and even animal bones, all at various stages of decomposition. I was sent to fetch the bucket of vegetable scraps from the communal kitchen, and when I returned he tipped it onto the compost mound and then pulled the hay back over it. He fetched more hay from a nearby pile, added it to the mound to ensure a thick layer, and then closed the lid of the cage.

He explained to me that he uses the ‘Humanure’ composting method, and it didn’t require any mixing or turning. As more kitchen scraps are added, the rest moves deeper and down through the different temperature layers. He went back to the first cage, labelled ‘August 2018’, and showed me what’s inside. Beneath the layer of hay it just looked like dark, rich soil. “What happens next?”, I asked. He told me this batch was now ready for Jack and Hannah to take and use on the community garden.

The hay all comes from the eco-village too. Alan regularly cuts the grass around the property, leaves it in a pile to dry, and then uses it to cover the compost mounds. In this way, all the village’s food waste and cut grass is cycled into new food.

But what about their paper and cardboard? Alan and I walked down the hill to where a wide, deep trench had been dug, the soil piled up alongside. Nearby was a pile of bulrushes, which Alan told me he harvests from a pond on the other side of the village.

Alan climbed into part of the trench where it had been partially filled in, and after digging away the surface layers, showed me layers of mouldering paper and cardboard beneath. He told me that the paper and cardboard go in first, along with water to wet it down. On top goes a layer of bulrushes, then the soil is piled in on top. The waste paper and cardboard will all just become more biomatter, enriching the soil. Once this trench is filled he’ll plant a line of potatoes here. He also wants to try planting a line of potatoes in another spot nearby to compare results.

Alan’s enthusiasm for composting extends to his toilets as well. In a small shed next to his cottage he showed me two different versions of composting toilets he’d built. One was a normal toilet seat over a bucket, while the other was a composting version of an Asian squat toilet: a reinforced hole in the ground with a bucket inside. Alan believes that it’s healthier and more natural for humans to squat than to sit.

Each time you do your business in the bucket, you’re supposed to add a layer of sawdust to keep it dry and covered. Alan uses these buckets of human waste and sawdust in his own composting operation, separate from the one for the rest of the village. The composting process kills any pathogens, he explained, but he keeps it separate because he’s not sure if the public will be okay with buying vegetables grown from human poop.

‘Azolla’ is Alan’s other pet project. He took me to an outdoor bathtub filled with a carpet of green. I soon discovered it was a tiny fern that I was seeing, floating on the surface of the bathtub water, with delicate roots hanging beneath. He had set up a small pump attached to a solar panel, to run the bathtub water over a washboard and aerate it. This is azolla, Alan tells me as he lifts up a clump of the floating plant, though it’s also competing with a lot of duckweed that’s growing alongside it.

According to the Azolla Foundation website, azolla is a unique freshwater fern and one of the fastest growing plants on the planet. It’s rapid growth makes it potentially important for drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequestering it in its biomass. Studies of sediment cores indicated that 50 million years ago azolla covered the surface of the Arctic Ocean, blooming and dying, blooming and dying. As the plants died, they sank to the bottom where they now form a sediment layer beneath the Arctic Ocean. It’s believed that the huge amounts of carbon dioxide sequestered by this Azolla event triggered the initial shift from a greenhouse world towards our present icehouse climate.

Azolla also fixes nitrogen, creates a great protein source for livestock, and can be used to make biofuel. Whilst others around the world are exploring its potential for carbon sequestration, Alan grows it as a superfood supplement for the village chickens, though he said humans can eat it too. He picked up a clump and stuck it in his mouth to demonstrate. Fortunately the duckweed that’s mixed in with it is edible too.

So regarding the question of what Alan will do today, there’s grass to cut to make hay, bulrushes to harvest, the village’s waste food, paper and cardboard to compost, his Azolla batch to tend, and the village chickens to feed. He also enjoys having free time as well, and is part of some local ‘Men’s Shed’ groups.

After I finish the last bites of my breakfast in Alan’s cabin and start cleaning up, we chat about the current tension in the village. He believes it takes courage and a strong will for people to break away from a more conventional life and move to an eco-village like this, and they each bring their own values and moral philosophies — which can sometimes clash.

I’d chatted with Jack about this too. Jack has lived in a few different ‘intentional communities’ like this one, and he says they all have conflicts. This is what happens when people try to live in a tight knit community for long periods — they don’t always get along. But in many ways this eco-village is a huge success: it’s lasted for five years, whereas most intentional communities he’s seen tend to implode after the first year or two.

Alan has his own personal views on the conflict, but ultimately he hopes that they all manage to sort it out amicably. He likes it here, and isn’t sure where he would go if things don’t work out. He thinks he’d probably be in a nursing home if it wasn’t for the outdoor life he leads here.

It’s time for me to leave, and Alan helps me load my bike and says goodbye. I push my bike up to the village green, thinking of the lives that Debra, Jack, Hannah and Alan have built for themselves here, where they can live in community with people of similar values and share resources.

Along the way a pair of village children start chatting with me and I stop to take a photo with them. I’m reminded of something Jack said, that this is a great place to raise children. It reminds me of the famous proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s a nice parting thought as I ride away knowing that I’ve only just scratched the surface of this place.

A huge thanks to Debra, who I first made contact with at the Tasman Eco-Village, and Alan and Jack, for all their time and patience in talking with me and showing me around.