Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Notes on Landing


Dear, dear Family and Friends,

It feels very good to be communicating with you. As we begin to construct a new life here, my links of love and appreciation to you are very real to me. We would not be who we are, doing this, but for you, even those of you who think it's odd, at least, or plain wrong.

I'll begin with first impressions of these eight days, and end with notes on what the project is about.

The town

Motueka is on the northern coast of the South Island of New Zealand, or Aotearoa, the name preferred by many. Its population is 6000 in the non-tourist season. It's near three national parks.

The houses are mainly smallish and many have quite wonderful gardens. It's Spring, so Jack and I are stopping often to gaze at beautiful and outlandish plant forms. 'Like Dr. Seuss illustrations,' says Jack. We are renting at 30A Poole St., Motueka. (Phone no. 011 643 5280189). We'll be here until the end of November.

Motueka means 'island of the weka bird', but it is not an island. A few days ago I cycled to the beach at first light to see the sunrise and do a little yoga on the beach. Behind the town are mountains which are still snow-capped. It is, in fact, cold, much colder than in Hamilton when we left. The town seems to arrange with its artists to create public art, including benches and rubbish bins. There are four second-hand stores, three bakeries, three stationery stores with books, and one serious bookstore.

The town is surrounded by orchards and vineyards, with sheep and cattle grazing here and there.

The people

People are helpful and friendly. Bureaucracy is easier to negotiate.

Not everything is beautiful in this delightful land. As I walked with Japanese-born Kyoko through the streets of Nelson, the nearby city, a passing car full of young men hurled racial insults at her. She said this happens from time to time.

The Sustainable Settlements group

So far we have engaged with three young families. Two of the guys are the founding thinkers of the endeavour. They met us at the airport, and one of them had stocked our frig. He then lent us his car indefinitely. We are treated with great kindness. Between the three families, there are children of 5,3,3,3 and 8 months. Two are twins. To some extent, this group already functions as a community. A few days after our arrival, 10 of us travelled to Nelson, 40 minutes away, in two cars to join the 3rd family. The plan was to go to a street festival, a children's masked parade. It was an amazing event with hundreds of families having fun. The children paraded as whole schools. The theme was protection of the environment. They had wonderfully creative costumes and masks and performed dances and songs about 'Reduce, Recycle, Reuse' as they capered through the street. One school was all dressed as worms to illustrate the merits of composting. This event was followed by a Japanese meal prepared by Kyoko, one of the group.

Peter, one of the founding thinkers, is arranging monthly 'Atamai Tramps' for the group. 'Atamai' is the name of the first settlement site and is Maori for 'common sense'. 'Tramp' is the NZ term for 'hike'. There will be an alternative route for little ones, and a meeting point with the big trampers.

Several of us helped one family unpack their container full of goods in the last few days, while I made dinner for everyone. In the evening, Chris, the father of this family, cycled here to help us with computer problems.


Car-sharing, which will be a feature of the settlement, is beginning between Peter's family and us. Happily, our rented place has two bikes; Jack and I find it far preferable to use them to go where we need to.We have ridden to the beach and towards the mountains a few times.


The very pretty garden of our house has many greens and a small, prolific lemon tree of which I've been freely making use. I've been experimenting with kumara, a Maori staple related to yam. The chocolate cake I made for the group was a very big hit with the children, who rarely have anything with sugar.

There is a fine farmers' market on Sundays.


I can't believe my luck. On my second day I saw, in the supermarket, an ad for a drum workshop featuring African rhythms. On my fourth day I attended it. The brilliant teacher, Damara, who has just returned from Ghana, had us doing 5-part rhythms with multiple instruments. It sounded amazing. This afternoon I've had my first lesson with her.

How did I get a drum to practise on? The workshop was held at a very long-established intentional community called Riverside. It has a strong arts orientation and an excellent cafe, where Jack and I had lunch after cycling through the countryside to get there. While we ate, a whitehaired man came in and began to play excellent jazz on a good piano. When I finished with the workshop later, I found Jack was chatting with Emory, the pianist, a resident of Riverside. As we talked about music, he asked if I had a drum, and offered to lend me one. As it was raining, we didn't take it then and slipped away to ride home. Before we had our helmets on, Emory was back with a borrowed car, offering to drive us home.

At the children's festival, I heard a wonderful group of unaccompanied male voices from New Caledonia. The music sounded very exotic to my ears, with marvellous bass voices.

Radio New Zealand has pleasant music so I often have it on.

The village

It was a thrill to see the Atamai Village site. The photo above shows its undulating nature and also that it is old grazing land, pretty bare of all but grass, except for the ferny gullies that cross it. Since that photo, a part of the land has been terraced, and pathways have been cut. Seven thousand fruit, nut and forest trees have been planted, the ground between some of them sown with lupins and mustard. The soil was prepared with 'terra preta', an ancient soil technology invented by Amazonian indigenous people.

Land for us

We are looking at sites contiguous with the village, in order to extend its useful area. I've seen one site - lovely land, extremely odd house.

The project

The purpose of our being here is to contribute to the development of sustainable communities - several of them, working cooperatively with each other. This is in response to the multiple ecological threats of climate change, oil scarcity and other resource scarcity. There is every reason to continue to work at all political levels, municipal, national, global on measures such as carbon tax, fuel efficiency standards, the Oil Depletion Protocol to make 'oil descent' more fair and orderly, less catastrophic for small countries and less likely to lead to violent conflict. At the same time, there is reason to attempt to move out of a growth-dependent economy and to experiment with living at significantly lower levels of consumption, especially of energy. This will require growing food near to where it's consumed, working near to where one lives, public transport, renewable energy, houses that are passive solar and well-insulated, stimulation of local economies. This will involve changing forms of agriculture, with more people inolved in cultivating, reversing the flight of people from the land of the industrial age. It will involve changing suburbs to function more as local communities, growing food and taking care of basic needs. It will involve careful use of technology, assessed for its impact on culture and Nature. It needs many intelligent experiments, of which this is one, to work out how to do this and to show that it can be done while maintaining or improving quality of life.
We hope we can contribute something to this.
Warmest wishes to all friends,