TALES FROM A FAR-NORTH FOREST
THE LAND IS PROVING TO BE A NATURAL CLASSROOM IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE FOR POLLY AND HER FAMILY
The land proves a natural classroom for Polly and her family
WHEN JAMES AND I embarked on our Great Land Adventure, it was as an experiment. Feeling a lot like children at play in the woods, we ambled about our 15 hectares of Far North native forest, learning through trial and error where to put a road, how to build a ford across the stream, achieve running water, rig up a solar panel and begin building a home.
Six-and-a-half years later, the experimentation continues. It’s a liberating, light-hearted approach, providing us with an attitude of kindness towards ourselves when we fail at endeavours, as well as offering a psychological exit during moments of grim comparison when it feels like city living is way easier than going offgrid on a shoestring.
“We don’t have to stay,” we murmur consolingly over candle-lit powwows. “We’re just testing this lifestyle to see if it’s for us.” Life in the forest might be a research project in progress but hard yards aside, the results so far indicate selfsufficiency, a deeper connection to the natural world, good health, authenticity and creativity. It’s a compelling case for pressing onwards.
When life’s undertaken with an attitude of investigation, our failures are lessons well learnt. Chop the firewood at the end of winter so it can dry out all spring and summer. Find out a seedling’s preferences before planting it. Living on the land is an ongoing practice of refinement.
Our children, Vita and Zen, are masters at exploration. In their eyes there’s no right or wrong; just a focused curiosity on cause and effect. If water is mixed with a tub of concrete oxide and spread across the house site, how far will it go? If a tray of eggs is crushed into the dirt, will the dog lick the mess? If all the unripe plums are picked off a tree and left in a bucket of water, will it make a nice drink?
Observing this desire to learn in five-year-old Vita has given us the confidence to select homeschooling for her education. With the land as a classroom, we’re hoping her passions, creativity and curiosity take us all down some interesting paths.
“Is that wise?” queried my mother, concerned about socialization and the time commitment required to be Vita’s teachers.
I think so but as with most things around here, we won’t know until we’ve tried it. Experimentation is an active life science.
So far our homeschooling research has seen us touch base with several different communities of parents and children and illustrated just how many different approaches there are. We’ve met kids who speak four languages, daughters receiving their education through equestrian training, free-spirited un-schoolers hurtling past in DIY go-carts, rebellious teenagers demanding to attend their local college and home-taught young adults excelling at various arts.
Just because James and I are now kitchen-table teachers, it doesn’t mean we aren’t still learning too. We were recently forced to solve a rather hefty conundrum with some hasty reviewing of physics when our new cast-iron wood stove arrived on the land. Weighing 400 kilogrames, it had been forklifted onto our trailer in a matter of minutes. Getting it into our new room wasn’t so simple. With no team of weightlifters on standby, brain was required to do the job of brawn. After some chin scratching and a foray down to the stream, James reappeared with harvested bamboo poles that he cut to uniform lengths. Using a chain-block hung from a roof bearer to crank the stove off the trailer, we lowered it onto seven bamboo rollers and began the painstaking process of inching it forward to the doorstep. It took us five hours of rolling and levering to get the oven into its final resting place but I’m still marveling that we managed to budge it at all. Despite our new room being currently door-less, we departed on a camping holiday soon after with peaceful minds, relaxed in the knowledge no light-fingered thief would be making a quick getaway with the latest addition to our home.
JULIET JACKSON HAS always loved to paint. A paintbrush was her companion at school and her tool while completing her degrees in fine arts from Elam and visual communication at Unitec. Juliet created abstract and figurative art, experimenting with colour, shape and surfaces, and painted portraits of friends, her brush strokes telling their stories.
One day in 2009, it all went dark. An accident left Aucklander Juliet blind in both eyes. Her favourite colours, the images she created and her identity as an artist disappeared. But creativity lives in the soul not the eyes and it wasn’t long before Juliet redirected her energy. In 2013 she completed her masters in creative writing (with first class honours) at AUT and recently the Toi Ora Trust published her first novel Dropping the Mask, completing her journey from artist to author.
“It was frustrating to lose the medium I was most comfortable with but there is an overlap in the creative process of painting and writing,” says Juliet. “Writing fiction is a way to uncover kernels of truth and painting has the same ambition. Both are difficult but in different ways; painting is so open. There are endless possibilities. There are more clearly established conventions around the novel, although a writer can still push those boundaries.
“On the other hand, you can’t hide as easily when writing fiction; it reveals how you think. As a writer you go places emotionally that can be uncomfortable.” Gone are the days of two-finger touchtyping. She writes on a computer that repeats each letter and also complete sentences back to her. This is just one of the tools that have allowed Juliet to regain her independence.
While writing sated some of her bubbling creativity, Juliet still craved creating something with her hands. She exchanged paint for clay and took up sculpture at Toi Ora Live Arts Trust in Grey Lynn (toiora.org.nz), a creative space that supports mental health and well-being. Her first sculptures were of small animals but she has moved on to busts, a nod to her dormant love of painting the human form. Her heightened senses of touch, sound and smell create colour in both mediums; where paint once met paper, her unseen clay tells a tactile tale, and her words create worlds.
Without her sight, words have become Juliet’s lifeline. They connect her with people. Their voice is what matters. She no longer sees someone for their clothes, their haircut or their age. “It’s surprising how much information you can learn through the other senses; I can tell how a person is sitting or moving. It can be nice to be without visual distractions, it’s easier to focus on what is said. In a way, what you miss is balanced out by what is enhanced.”
Losing your sight, says Juliet, takes a level of acknowledgment and letting go. While she had regained a significant level of independence after a year, complete acceptance is still elusive. “You never truly adjust to losing your sight. There’s always this feeling of ‘when can I turn the light back on?’ But the Blind Foundation has helped to pull me out of the poor-me mindset. It’s made me realize I’m not alone and that this is a shared human experience.”
Between writing and sculpting, Juliet has joined the foundation on a few excursions, including tramping in Rotorua and venturing onto a treetop walkway. Her only complaint? The walkway didn’t feel quite high enough. “I’m keen for a little more danger.”
In the next issue, Polly and James visit a marae and reap the mother of all harvests.
After numerous offshore adventures, Polly Greeks, her husband James and their two children are putting down roots in a stand of isolated Northland forest where they are slowly building a mortgage- free, off- grid home and discovering an entirely new...