Themes / Everyday people

Having a go at rural living

Elvira Hewson

Manna Matters September 2014


I am already noticing that I am anticipating the change in the winds that comes sometime around the end of October. These winds bring the ‘Bonney Upwelling’ to the coastline surrounding south west Victoria in Spring: nutrient-rich water that starts a feeding frenzy right up the food chain to the Blue Whale. Right now, my son is climbing in the native trees planted around the border of our property. I am watching the birds come to drink in the bird bath outside our dining room window and I’m starting to think of all the work that needs doing in the vegetable garden. The patterns of seasonal work have started to feel like a comfort – looking forward to different tasks and growing a little more skilled each year in being able to carry them out.

These are fragments of my week, slowly building a story of our family here in our home in the country. But will we ever feel at home in a place so different from our upbringing in the city?

Greg and I moved to the country in 2006 with our first child, Patrick, then two years old. We had been renting a house in Footscray, Melbourne, for several years, and living there as an expression of our discipleship. We had developed practises of living that involved sharing our lives with other like-minded Christians, having time for people on the margins, and growing food in our backyard, which grounded us in our place.

When Patrick was born, we had an increased sense of wanting to make a more permanent home. We had thought about buying in Footscray, but the rising cost of housing was prohibitive. We began a process of discerning whether it would be possible to have a go living outside of Melbourne.

The problem was, we had no family ties outside of metropolitan Melbourne, not many practical skills for living on a larger piece of land, and were really somewhat unnerved by the deep darkness of night without streetlights. How would we choose where to go?

However, we slowly pieced together what we thought we might need for it to possibly work. Our basic criteria were affordability, proximity to someone we knew, employment possibilities, close to a regional centre, and the ability to own at least one acre of land. Our primary objective was to keep open the possibility of reconnecting with God, other people and the land, and saw these processes as intimately linked with each other.

We chose Cudgee, twenty kilometres west of Warrnambool, as it fitted all of these criteria. Friends that we had met through the Common Rule were living on 14 acres on the edge of the township and were really keen to have a go at living intentionally with others. So keen, that they had begun a process of subdividing off four one-acre blocks for others to come and buy.

We moved into their shearer’s quarters with our two year old son at the start of 2006, and started the process of building a home. However, after delays of various kinds, it was not until St Patricks Day in 2008 that we finally moved into our house with our son, and three month old baby daughter, Mairead. In between, we had spent a bit over two years getting to know our plot, laying down essential infrastructure, shaping a garden along permaculture principles, making mudbricks and then finally starting on our house.

Our aim was to build a passive solar house within a mortgage that would enable us to have space to continue to develop our values, time to get involved in the broader community, time for hospitality, time for our children, time to tend our garden and time for us both to engage in some part–time work. We have basically achieved this aim, but what is really important to note is the economy of sharing that made this possible: family and friends giving time, skills, resources and childcare to our project that actually helped keep costs within budget. For example in the weeks leading up to and following Mairead’s birth, our mothers alternated in being present with us, camping in a tent, painting, cleaning up on site, mowing, and helping with site management! We moved into a mostly-finished passive solar house, with solar hot water, and thermal mass provided by a concrete slab and mudbrick wall as well as double-glazed windows. As time has gone on, we have used savings to pay for a grid connected solar system, verandah’s and a north-facing pergola to increase the energy efficiency of our home.

We have enjoyed taking an active part in the life of the Cudgee community: helping to run a playgroup, taking on parent roles within the school community, trialling an art group, joining the CFA, participating in community tree plantings, sharing meals, supporting the social life of our children and being able to offer some hospitality and rest for friends and peers living in the city.

We have particularly relished our connection with the earth, enjoying being able to grow some of our own food, and primarily being more aware of creation than we were in the city, and feeling that, despite our clumsy efforts, this process is tapping into something of who we were made to be.

We long to keep drawing closer to God and with the commitment and support of our neighbours, have been able to establish some rhythms of prayer, bible study and worship, during the incredibly busy time of life with pre-school age children. Part of the lesson has been realising that communities grow only as we are able to give of ourselves to each other, while also realising how many barriers there are within us to doing this. Life looks a little different to what we had expected, part of holding things lightly and trying to think creatively about how to remain open to practises with young children.

However, our decision to live rurally has also brought some hard limitations: not being able to drop in and share Sunday lunch with family; not being able to easily visit sick or ageing relatives; childcare options being restricted to occasional visits. Questions loom about how to navigate the high school years in a rural area. Is rural living an option for young families worth pursuing? I don’t really have any clear answers. Probably the questions and wonderings that I have now are quite different from when we first arrived.

Our commitment to living in a way that honours God is a strong part of what anchors us here. The need for a different way of living in the way we care for each other and creation seems to be growing in urgency for me, with the consequences of our consumer-based connection to the land weighing heavily on our minds. Dorothy Day, from the Catholic Worker movement, writes that love is the measure. I find comfort in the thought that Christ had nowhere to lay his head and that we are somehow called into a discipleship of dislocation.

Perhaps the measure of how we have gone is whether we have grown in love, been able to love our children, and opened up possibilities for re-imagining what it might be to live well in our uncertain world.