In this article, I reflect on the first year of our downshift from suburbia towards rural homesteading using one of David Holmgren’s matrices to frame our transition.
In his most recent publication, RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future (2018), David Holmgren outlines options through which personal and household autonomy might be reshaped for more frugal and communitarian Do-It-Ourselves (DIO) resilience using what he calls the ‘Household form and location matrix’. David describes the matrix this way
“On one axis, the imperative to ‘consolidate’ in situ is contrasted with the opportunities or necessities to ‘migrate’ to somewhere new. On the other axis, the opportunities to ‘develop and control’ a personal, household and/or communal response are contrasted with the imperative to ‘downshift and disown’ (property and/or assets). These imperatives define four quadrants or ‘solution spaces’ within which most personal and household level responses to energy descent can be located: ‘Family castle (for a secure home base)’; ‘Communal Living (to work together)’; Adapt in situ (to age with grace)’; and ‘Mobile Minimalism (to maintain flexibility)’”.
Source: RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future, David Holmgren, 2018
During our first year of transition we moved from an ‘adapt in situ’ approach to resilience to a ‘communal living’ one, exploring ‘mobile minimalism’ on the way to building the foundations for a ‘family castle’.
In late 2021 I left Tāmaki Makaurau with my wife and two children and moved to Whaingaroa / Raglan, seeking a rural homestead to call our forever home and embrace my peasant roots. For over a decade, my wife Karen and I had been ‘adapting in situ’, living in our small 1920s bungalow on our 375 square metre suburban homestead. That whole time we talked about moving to Whaingaroa but kids, career, APW, friends and a range of other excuses and rationale kept us in Auckland until Covid…
In the two years leading up to us leaving, we had started to notice several changes in our neighbourhood and Auckland that were degrading our quality of life. Two local majestic, at least one hundred-year-old pohutukawa trees were cut down to increase its property development value, causing our family significant grief - it took about 5-6 months before we could walk around the block without tears and anger. A perfectly good house across the road was demolished to put in 6 townhouses - in fact, infill had been ramping up in our area for the last 5 years without any increases in infrastructure or amenities to support the increasing local population. Living on the river’s edge we were aware of ever decreasing water quality in the Whau. We were starting to feel like the benefits and quality of life markers that we had become accustomed to enjoying in Auckland were diminishing.
Despite our attempts to be resilient on our suburban block in Te Rewarewa / New Lynn, during the Covid lockdowns our lack of self-determination and agency in the events unfolding around us became very apparent. The lockdowns reminded us of what mattered most, our very limited control over access to the things that nurture and sustain us as a family, and a deep desire to live off the land and deepen our relationship with our immediate environment.
Given the Auckland region was in lockdown at the time we couldn’t even get to Whaingaroa without proof of a residential address/tenancy in the Waikato. Luckily, we managed to rent a one-room studio at Solscape - both a site and whare very familiar to us, so we packed up the house, put it on the market and moved all of our stuff to Whaingaroa to begin our new life.
While the move itself was stressful for the whole family, our initial transition was reasonably smooth - arriving into a paradise setting with familiar faces and places, beautiful summer weather and ready access to the ngahere and moana - it felt to all of us like an exciting new adventure. We made the most of living on the slopes of Karioi, taking regular family bush walks and walking down to the beach to enjoy the wild west coast. We had friends around us, and because of the summer camps happening at Solscape, we met a lot of locals who came up to enjoy the uncommon opportunity to socialise again. After almost 2 years of living in Auckland during Covid, we were very grateful for the more relaxed, less panicky and fearful atmosphere and community vibe of Whaingaroa.
Unwittingly, in our new living situation, we had entered into communal living, which was both challenging and rewarding. One of our biggest challenges was the unintentional community aspect of this living arrangement. While there were about twenty of us living on site, there were no shared agreements, values, social systems or processes that facilitated us being together in a particularly conscious way. This organic approach to community living was based primarily on land owner-tenant agreements as well as goodwill, common sense and tolerance which mostly worked, for most of us, most of the time. However, while we appreciate and value keeping things casual and flexible, Karen and I also value shared agreed values, principles and processes as a cornerstone for living together with others in community. Lack of clear communication, negotiating private/public spaces, social dynamics (and a lack of forum/mechanism to address them), as well as very different parenting styles amongst families living on site, were the most notable challenges for our whole family in this unintentional community arrangement.
Soon after settling in at Solscape we started to look for our future farm - As a family, we discussed what we wanted and came up with a wishlist - we wanted at least 1 hectare (2.4 acres) of land, ideally with secure water, north facing productive land, existing native bush and one or more dwellings on site that was within 10-15 minutes of Raglan township. We were naively ambitious and optimistic about what we could find and afford.
Given the buoyancy of the property market and the popularity of Raglan, we realised we would need to either buy bare land or a large property with others to fulfil our dreams of setting up a rural homestead. We couldn’t afford the size of land we wanted with an existing house on it - we could afford either the land or the house (on a small section) but not both, at least not alone. Therefore, we explored opportunities to buy land with others. Before we knew it, we were in a serious conversation with three couples about purchasing a 10-hectare farm block together and sharing land with 8 adults, 12 children and 4 dogs. The sense of urgency of securing land in a hot Raglan property market meant that conversations about shared vision, aspirations for living in community and values were rushed, and we hadn’t really even started discussions about governance, decision making, conflict resolution processes, and ownership and financial models for land sharing. The pace, urgency and associated risks of not taking the time required to fully work things through with all four families was too much for Karen and I, and we ended up withdrawing from that opportunity. Our relationship at the time was also under significant stress, and we opted to prioritise our relationship over pursuing communal living with relative strangers as a long-term strategy.
Therefore, we agreed that our best next step for our family to be on land was building or buying a tiny house on wheels (THOW). We wanted to move out of the studio rental and into our new house for winter, so building our own home was not an option. However, as luck would have it, we found a tiny house that someone else built to accommodate their family for a year while they built their own house that they no longer needed. It is 3 metres wide and 7 metres long with two lofts - small, but it has everything we needed. And awesome permaculture friends of ours in Waitetuna invited us to move our tiny home onto their farm while we found land. So we bought and moved the tiny house from Waihi to Waitetuna to begin our phase of mobile minimalism.
In the course of six months, our family of four went from living in a 90 square metre 3 bedroom house to a 50 square metre open plan studio, to a 21 square metre tiny house.
In May 2022, we moved our new home to our friend’s 15-year-old one-hectare farm in Waitetuna. This was a great move for us - we could help out around the property and enjoy its abundance, I could plant a winter garden, and we could adapt to land-based living in a tiny house, in another familiar and comfortable setting with great neighbours. There was even a pottery studio on site, so we had the opportunity to make bowls, plates, cups and other household ceramics. Being on a farm, in our new home also helped focus our efforts to find land and helped to clarify what it was we were looking for.
While only 145 km south of Tāmaki Makaurau, we were surprised at how significant the climatic change was for our first winter in the Waikato. Although Waitetuna is a valley, inland from the harbour and, therefore can be several degrees colder than other parts of Whaingaroa, we didn’t expect so many severe frosts, or the water pipe to our tiny house to freeze three times that winter. We needed to use cloches on the garden beds to protect the winter veges - something I hadn’t done in almost 20 years (not since my Mōhua/Golden Bay days), and we realised the need to get serious about how we would heat our tiny home. As well as heating, addressing the moisture in our tiny home during winter was another issue we didn’t really appreciate in advance - with all the rain and four humans sharing such a small space, we needed to squeegee the windows every two to three days and mop up the small puddles of water that collected on the window stools. By the end of winter, we were doing this daily.
During this first winter in Whaingaroa the land hunt continued. We looked at huge properties (over 30 hectares) and small ones (1 hectare), getting to know what was on the market and the local real estate agents. I even started cold calling some local farmers when I saw land parcels that I thought might be suitable to see if they would consider subdividing. However, nothing we saw met quite enough of our brief to pursue further until mid-May 2022, when we found the land we would come to call home.
It was love at first sight for Karen and I - she was and is beautiful - a 6-hectare north-facing degraded farm block in a coastal valley on the southeast coast of the Whaingaroa harbour with breathtaking sunsets and nightscapes. We were lucky enough to visit the land before it went on the market, shown to us by a local real estate agent who now knew what we were looking for. The farm block had a short dead-end driveway, stock fencing, troughs and springs with no more than 30 trees on the entire site, most of which were less than 5 years old. Other than not having any established bush on site (which is still a sore point for our son), and now that we didn’t need an existing house on site, it met all of our other needs and wants. Prior to purchasing the land from the neighbours, who have a large patch of bush immediately adjacent to our property, we met with them - our only condition as part of our offer - and they confirmed that we were welcome to access the bush anytime we wanted. With this agreement in place, we bought the land and began the next phase in our downshift to living off the land and starting building the foundations for our family castle.
We formally purchased the land in August 2022 but started planting trees in July (with the neighbour’s permission), organising a few working bees with friends to help us put down as many roots as possible that first planting season. In the following months, we organised diggers and trucks to build a driveway and cut two pads - one for our tiny house and the other for a future barn/workshop area. We also installed a 10,000L water tank to catch water from our main spring, and started to build a shed, a propagation area and a structure for a nine-panel solar array.
Through researching our options for onsite energy, we determined that going off-grid was our best option. The first estimate of getting a connection to the grid from WEC, the local energy infrastructure provider, was somewhere between $20-100,000.
We were still living in Waitetuna but spending more and more time on the land coordinating and building foundational infrastructure and getting to know the land. As a family, we would spend hours there walking, exploring and scheming. We dug a large garden and sowed as much of it as we could with the limited time and energy we had. It was an exciting and exhausting time and by late October 2022 the site was ready for us and we made the big move. In just under a year after leaving suburbia, we were on land, setting down permanent roots in Whaingaroa.
In the next article in the Downshifter’s Diary series, I will share our experiences of our first year living on the land.