Thursday, 8 September 2016

This Month In The Bush

Regular readers of Riddell Roundup will be aware that "This Month In My Garden" and the Landcare column have become a regular feature on page 5. I'm totally thrilled to be there, for one thing because Melanie's column gives me the feeling of the physical place that Riddells, in each of its seasons; for another, because we share a common love of the ways things grow. And there are similarities in what our respective columns reveal.
Melanie's account of each month's events and tasks in her garden makes it plain that good gardening is mostly about maintenance. Unless you keep on top of it, the cunning forces of Nature will have totally taken over and you'll have twice as much work. So it's a matter of persistence, and timing.

The same goes for the bush. It's mostly about maintenance. My regular short walk takes me from the lower slopes of Barrm Birrm, to the break of slope and up, along a bit, then down. Not at all a strenuous walk, really just a "wake-up to the wider world" walk. As I walk, I check the "to-do's" on my list:

"Oh, I must get to that sweet pittosporum this year." "That plant looks totally suspicious, it's got to go." "Oh no, capeweed!" "Damn, I've really got to make a morning to work on the sallow wattle, and how did I miss that Ovens Wattle last year?" "Why do they do it? Here's a can tossed far in the bush by the young dudes at their parking spot." "What are these few gorse plants doing here!?"

Every now and then, I tear myself away from the desk, and the endlessness of maintaining a small cleared working space amidst the churn of paper, and the property (dealing with leaking roofs and more capeweed - more maintenance again) to put in a couple of hours across in Barrm Birrm. Load up the barrow with handsaw, mattock, secateurs and roundup, and head off.

And here's the second thing Melanie and I have in common: there are a lot worse ways to spend a couple of hours than outside in the world of plants. Yes, I’m doing maintenance, and yes, it's never ending. But I do this with a light heart, because around me is the bountifulness, the cunning, persistent fittedness of a thousand species working out their lives.

On my morning walk, I've been watching the Prickly Moses at the break-of-slope, progressing through the seasons.

The break of slope is the part where the flatter valley floor meets the steeper slope of hillside. Prickly Moses is an Acacia that loves this part, perhaps because it's damper there. Its wee buds appear in the middle of winter, then begin opening well before Spring, and are now in full display, a dusting of dancing yellow.

I love its spare structure, limbs heading in different directions, and the way it grows slowly. It has settle this niche slowly. Slowly. Lovely (in this manic world) to watch a species that works slowly.

For a gardener of any persuasion, this is the redemption in the labour of maintenance. You're in the midst of the more-than-human world, absorbing its rhythms, its imperatives, its small dramas and, from time to time, its glorious abundance. 

It gives back what you give, many times over. 

Ross Colliver, Riddells Landcare

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Forum for Democratic Renewal

Regular readers will have noticed Landcare's monthly posting here taking a turn to the social side of Landcare. We continue that theme this month, but I'm determined by the end to get back to things green and lovely.

Several of us in Landcare have been supporting Rob Bakes, who lives out Kyneton way, put together the Forum for Democratic Renewal. His idea, and the project now of the band that has gathered around him, is to renew our democratic processes. It's pathetic of us to sit around and wait for someone else, particularly someone in authority, to lead the way. We the citizens need to get off our butts, work out what needs improving and start doing it. Here in the Macedon Ranges.

The relevance to Landcare is of course that the way Macedon Ranges Shire Council and the community environment sector (some 30+ community groups across the Shire) work together affects what we all achieve. The Shire's buy-in here reflects its commitment to generating lively democratic processes. Either we are collectively, a disjointed mish-mash of effort where important things that need attention fall through the cracks, or a sustained, negotiated alignment of collective effort around our sensing of what needs doing and the best way to do it.

My guess is that many of those in Landcare, Sustainability, Transition Town, Friends Of groups, and the food supply networks, would say our collaboration is dangerously close to the "mish-mash" end of that spectrum, despite our each doing many great things in our separate spheres.

Since my return from Montreal, (see "Striking up aConversation"), it's struck me that our notion of the public sphere is not of a shared social context that benefits all of us and that deserves to be cared for by all of us (the best of Montreal), but of an empty and open space within which we each "do our own thing". Our civic ideal is freedom from constraint. You do your thing and I'll do mine and we won't get in each other's way. That's the way we treat the public realm in Australia.

It's a pretty barren space, and it needs warming up. By the time this RR hits the streets, those with an interest will have gathered in Gisborne for the Forum there. We'll have completed one round of the towns of Macedon Ranges, and a collective statement as to what needs more attention within our public governance.

As to where to start improving things, we have these ideas from the Forum in Kyneton (photos above). Participatory budgeting, where citizens decide how the Shire's budget will be spent. Performance indicators that measure the extent of MRSC support for community aspirations. Participatory design of facilities like the possible Arts Hub in Woodend. The strengthening of discussion within our different local communities.

I'm particularly keen on the last one - local, regular, accessible discussion, about what people are doing for the public good, discussion too about contentious issues so we get to hear differing views and understand others even if we don’t agree with them.

Check Riddells Creek Landcare's blog "Nuts About Nature" for an update on these efforts, or google "Forum for Democratic Renewal Macedon Ranges". Join in!

That said and this month's column written, I've cleared the way to wake up tomorrow morning with a clear conscience and walk my favourite walk through Barrm Birrm. We're heading into Spring, and everything is beginning to wake up. I’m going to get out there and breath it in!

Ross Colliver

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Striking up a conversation

Landcare grows from a robust sociability. On holiday here in Montreal, I'm learning a lot about sociability. Walking with our friend Linda Rabin through her neighbourhood is a leisurely affair. She's lived in Mile End, Montreal, for 35 years, and she knows a lot of people. Georgio calls out from the veranda of his first storey apartment - his wife Anna had a dream about Linda last night and she's coming down to tell her about it.

We're happy to linger on the pavement. The houses are three storey terraces, a separate residence to each level, with a stairway entrance for each running down to the street. An area about five metres deep accommodates the transition from residence to street, and each building handles this transition with its own configuration of staircases, rubbish bins, bicycles and gardens.


Fences are low or dispensed with all together, so that the street frontage is an open, permeable zone, where private and public spheres overlap. Conversations are possible, with immediate neighbours and with passersby. As we discuss an unusual renovation, a man joins in from his doorway - the first two floors, he tells us, are one residence, the second two, another.

This easy sociability is the most remarkable feature of my three weeks in Montreal. People are helpful. Standing at the kerb of a major city street late one night, searching in vain for a cab, a passing public bus pulls over, the door swings open and the driver offers her help. Where are we headed? To Outrement? Jump on board then, she'll take us to a Metro station that will get us home. 

People are considerate of each other. Cars slow and stop as I prepare to cross at corners. Drivers look out for pedestrians, anticipate their movements and defer to them. People give each other space in queues, and don't barge in front of others. This care in the public realm flows over into care for the public realm. People are attentive to the quality of relationship. What happens between people matters to them. 

And the people I've met are great talkers, who are interested in ideas. Conversations begin easily, and move easily to matters of consequence. Standing at the bus stop wondering when the next bus will come, I get talking to a 50-something lawyer with a three day growth heading to his office late on a Sunday. We begin with the vagaries of the buses, then turn to the benefits of travel in loosening up one's expectations, then to the journeys brought on by his father's death this year, on the other side of the country. 

Montreal-eans move easily from 'bonjour' to the state of the world around them, and to their creative projects. For a traveller without connections, this matters. I’m not just looking at people, I'm conversing with them. My habits are slowly adjusting to the physical realities of a new city (stay to the right on footpaths, look to the right when cross the road), but the big stretch is social. There are deep challenges to my (Australian) expectations of disinterest and defensiveness in the public realm. 

The people I've met are thinkers, and makers, and contributors. They understand the social as a living thing that has to be maintained and cultivated. They seem to enjoy their shared social space as a collective achievement. It's summer, and they have made it through another winter (think 20C below). They are French-speakers in an English-speaking country. They stick together, and look after each other.

It's a good feeling to live in the circle of that care, to stand in the sunshine and strike up a conversation.

The start of democracy

Riddells Creek Landcare is embedded in a mesh of government plans and programs of government as complex as any ecosystem. Consultation mediates differences and connects local communities with government. Consultation is part of our politics, for the old presumption that public servants make decisions for others, independent of the community and politicians, has broken down. With the 24/7 news cycle, politicians have stepped directly into the activities of the agencies in their portfolio. The public narrative must be chivvied to chime with the Minister's, and consultation is the chorus between the verses of Ministerial pronouncement.

As a consequence, our humble Riddells Landcare group now finds itself subject to countless invitations to comment on the strategies of government agencies and programs. On offer are workshops and briefings, carefully engineered to present the options as the professionals understand them, and online surveys that ask yes/no, like/don't like of options that capture just a part of the complexity of living. And there's the emailed comment, where we can let loose with what we think, pent-up frustration spilling out as we hammer away at the smorgasbord of issues or draft recommendations put before us.

Excellent, I think as I hit the 'send' button; I've had my say. A storm of collective opinion is swept by a digital wind into vast strategorium cloudbanks, lining a distant horizon, simmering for months, eventually precipitating glossy brochures that rain down into our in-trays and letter boxes, with assurances that we have indeed been listened to.

Sometimes, but rarely, we are invited to speak directly to those who will make recommendations. The Macedon Ranges Protection Advisory Committee, set up by the Minister for Planning to decide what policy instruments are needed to protect the character of the Macedon Ranges, recently invited community members who had written their views, to come and speak to them. A rudimentary conversation was held.

What is missing in all of this is time where we talk with each other. What do you think? What do I think? What has been our experience around an issue like roads, or health services, or residential development, or recreation? Put those categories aside …. what is it like for you living here in Riddells? What is it like for me? Do we have goals in common?

These are conversations best run by the grassroots. Riddells Neighbourhood House is inviting community groups to hear each others' priorities. At the Forum for Democratic Renewal in Riddells Creek in April, 50 residents put their heads together on what they think needs attention by local government (google it).

These are places when we can talk with our neighbours, and listen, with no public officials or strategy in sight. It's here that we get a sense of who we are as a community, and what we want for our common life. These conversations are the start of democracy.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare