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

NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS POL LY GRE EKS

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...

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