Off the Grid – Mara Whenua Part I

This is our fifth day at Mara Whenua (MAY-ra FAY-new-a, roughly “permaculture” in Maori), a 400 acre farm in a secluded valley in the far north of New Zealand. After just a short chat on the phone with Yvonne (EVE-on; there is much more accenting of the first syllable of words here than in the states), we found ourselves driving down a seemingly endless gravel road to get to their place, bottoming out our poor car a few times on their .7 km driveway (all gravel shoveled by hand by Wayne).

That driveway came back to haunt us again today as we left to go back to what I have been calling “the world” to stock up on supplies for the kids we were watching. I was trying to drive with the right wheels in the center of the driveway, which is raised to allow for rain runoff. Kathy had taken us in and her slow cautious approach had served us well. Now that we felt more comfortable here, I was driving us out at a faster pace. As I brushed the encroaching bush (semi wild or native plant growth) with the passenger side of the car, Kathy began screaming that I was going to kill her (I didn’t) and that I would put us into a ditch (I did). No worries, though—it seemed to take forever to walk over to neighbor Chris’s cob (homemade adobelike substance) house but we found him there and he was able to help us with a tow out of the ditch. The rearview window popped out but popped right back in again, the car as good as new or at least as good as 15 years old.

Wait, what, kids we were watching? Yes, Yvonne and Wayne had left us with two of their boys, Jarra and Miro, aged 13 and 11, for four days while they drove down to a garden sculpture show in Auckland. Hmmm, maybe I need to rewind a little farther.

After that first endless trip down the driveway, marveling at the increasing lushness of the scenery, we finally saw some buildings along a path off the side. I got out of the car and went walking down the path where I encountered Yvonne gardening away like mad, as is her wont. As is typical of the kiwis (us kiwis?), she was extremely friendly and quickly began showing us around. We saw the campervan that was one of our choices of accommodation, the giant grape arbor and tree nursery that held our dedicated outdoor kitchen, the outdoor composting toilet, some of the many gardens around the property, and finally our other choice of accommodation, a huge beautiful warm sunny room in a building made of exposed timber and a variety of homemade earth/adobe/cement materials, Yvonne rattling off details about the composition of the mixes of various walls amid instructions on how to use the limited solar power to run a light in our room at night.

Kathy and I set ourselves up and went down for dinner, meeting Wayne and their three children, the two above and Rewa, age six, the whole family all very well mannered, intelligent, and deeply sweet. We exchanged stories, ate dinner, discussed when we would show up for work the next morning, received a pile of several spiral bound documents written by and about Yvonne, Wayne, and the property, and went back to our room shell-shocked.

Of course we were shell-shocked. We were shell-shocked before we even got there as should be obvious from my last post. As of today we’ve only been here in NZ two weeks and it feels like a lifetime. When we checked our internet today after being off for a few days, we were perplexed that it seemed like nothing in the external world had happened, when for us so much has.

Back to that first night. Despite the lovely surroundings and our kind hosts, we were quite tense. We calmed ourselves by reminding ourselves that if we could go tramping (backpacking) for several days, we could certainly do this. The next day we didn’t have a chance to ruminate as we were quickly thrown into learning how to cardboard mulch a garden bed and fetch and carry for the new addition they were putting on their house. They let us go after about five hours but continued working nonstop themselves until dinner, where we returned, having enjoyed the quick bonding that working together on new things and watching them come forth from nothing will bring.

A friend once remarked that he wished he could be at Burning Man all the time. He might want to consider buying 400 acres of badly logged, deeply rural valley and reforesting the whole thing, putting in plumbing powered by the river water and electricity powered by the sun. Add a serious ongoing commitment to green politics, restoration of giant native Kauri hardwood populations, planting and maintaining a variety of fruit bearing trees, intensive gardening, and raising a family. Oh, and of course, ways to make some hard currency like a tree nursery, honey sales, or a permaculture design and a hand cast garden sculpture business. Along the way these incredible people continually make the effort to reach out to others to share their knowledge and experience and to continually organise and give a voice to the exceedingly common, but mostly ignored, pro-environment views that the majority of people share.

After a day or two of work around the place mulching gardens, clearing gorse (a pervasive and thorny implacable plant enemy of all ranchers that appears whenever land is cleared, nature abhoring a vacuum…., but wait, it’s actually quite helpful as a pioneer species for an impoverished ecosystem like a pasture, fixing nitrogen and dying away once mature forest returns), and eating dinners and playing games with the kids, we were left here by ourselves to work on a list of tasks and cook dinner for our new, albeit temporary, family.

All of this hard work, clean air, pure water, and fresh raw food, along with sudden inclusion in someone else’s family, is hard on the bodymind. Being here and experiencing the good things they have made for themselves from ugly scrubland and reading their documentation of the process makes quite an impression. In fact this immersion is somewhat disorienting, being part of someone else’s creation. I found myself thinking, yeah, I could do the same thing, it would be a little different, of course, but I could homestead into some neglected tract of land in the back woods. I was also starting to feel a bit cranky and crunchy.

It wasn’t until we drove out to town today, had lunch at a really incredible fresh seafood restaurant and had a beer in front of me that I started to get some perspective. I need lots of my own time and energy to sit around and contemplate things, to work on my own projects, to dream my own dreams. This experience is really, really wonderful. These people are amazing and I’d like to have a permanent connection with them; I am incredibly lucky to be here and am having a fabulous and invaluable time, but I also need to chill out and remember that it’s all a process and the journey is the goal. Pacing!

As I munched on mussels, shrimp, and scallops so fresh and perfectly batter-fried that to use the same word as the carpet covered hockeypucks that one typically experiences in the States is libelous, I made a list of all the good things here that I want to try to emulate and came back to myself about the way that I could achieve those things. If the world gets gnarly I can be the guy feeding himself off the land and providing his own electric power and building his own house by hand out of creatively sourced materials, but if it doesn’t, then the power I can generate comes from directing abstract financial forces to provide just so much of those things as are fulfilling, but no more.

Because I now remember as I write this that one of my new lessons is that the maintenance of things, no matter how wonderful, is a burden. Witness the degeneration of the state of my room in San Francisco as I ceased needing to direct my real estate business from there but had no desire to properly file those last few boxes of papers; the slow accumulation of materials from different projects in different corners of the room as I went from one to another. The sheer bounteous size of the room allowed me to accumulate far too many things in every unused corner. Right now I think one of the best lessons I may have learned from Yvonne is that it is best to do things right the first time. Things for yourself, for your own personal infrastructure, I amend. It’s OK to do a real estate project half-assed, over budget and behind schedule, at least in a crazily rising market, because at the end the payoff is a number, and one number or another is not so much of a maintenance concern. But when you’re talking about creating your new life out of thin air, maybe it’s time to do a little more research. A lot more research. The adventure continues. At the proper pace.