Living in the Environment, Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons

Author: Alistair Knox

It has become a generalisation in the Eltham district that environmental fathers produce environmental sons. The problem is that the sons sometimes lack the consistency that their fathers had because they did not come from a period where one had to work every day in order to live. The post war technologies took the joy out of labor and made the making of money its only reason for existence.

Environmental fathers are faced with the problem of demonstrating to their sons a belief in reducing the Gross National Product in order that the world may survive on the one hand and a joy in disciplined work on the other - in other words doing more for less. This is especially difficult in those places where the making of money has been the means of life for centuries. Yet it is often only possible where money has been a plentiful commodity and the manner in which it has been made a rather dreary one.

The proliferation of warnings that appear in every level of the concerned society do make an impact on the rising generation, but much of this gets lost along the way as the young men and women adopt steady drinking habits and get caught in pay day to pay day existence instead of pushing out and away on the seas of divine discontent.

It was these thoughts, the recollections of how my first family had found their own way that prompted me to offer Hamish the eldest son of my second marriage, the job of building the Coller house on fifteen acres of land just across the road from where I live. It is a squarish piece of land sloping gently to the south with beautiful natural bushland around the perimeters. It contained the remains of an old farmhouse with fruit trees in the centre. The whole scene was overgrown with the most tremendous crop of blackberries and weeds that can occur when man steps into the Australian bush and then steps out of it again. The natural grasses had given way to imported weeds and hetereogeneous confusion that had taken the place of the original bush which so many Australians still call scrub. But an attuned eye can read in such landscapes unerring power and order of the creator. It was next door to the land on which Hamish had made his adzed tables.

The Coller house Above top: Coller house. A room within a room. Above bottom: The power of primitive building.

John and Jenny Coller and family happened to attend an Earth Day we had at our house in aid of the Community school that Macgregor, our second son, attended. It was a good day. Some one thousand people came and joined in the experience of making mud bricks, domes, organic gardens, weaving, dyeing, eating home made bread and natural foods and many other activities. They came from many parts of Victoria which convinced me how general the desire for natural living was becoming.

During the afternoon I spoke briefly on the tragedy of the embalmed society, and this set John and Jenny Coller off looking for land which they soon found opposite, land which we owned. As they really wanted that block we soon entered into negotiations to sell to them. It was comparatively cheap because of its landscape zoning. I designed a new house suitable to their proposed change of life style. It meant goodbye to the elitist school system and welcome to the community school. It meant greater travelling and less convenience for John but, there was no doubt about their resolve to bring it about.

The ground floor plan of the building was about five thousand square feet in dimension. Earth was the only acceptable material to use for building and I had to produce a result at about two thirds the standard price of such a building when built by the proper professional methods. It was a matter of once again getting down to the systems I had employed when I built our own house. There were many advantages that made this proposal possible. First it was a generous and an easy site on which to operate. Second there was an abundance of clay subsoil for brick making, and a supply of reasonable topsoil for an abundant mortar as well. Topsoil is generally used for mortar because it deletes the necessity for screening subsoils. It lacks the beautiful colour as well as some of the strength of subsoil but it does make the work easier.

In this instance the topsoil was taken from around an area that had once been occupied by fowl yards. The ancient droppings of the birds had made it strong and congealing in character. It was more plastic than lime mortar could ever be.

It was pleasant to work once again with my old friend Keith Joslyn the earth moving contractor to form the site and store the soils. At the very beginning of my building experience it had been my privilege to discover him as a boy of about fifteen contracting earth moving in a Ferguson tractor. He had started the previous year with two horses and a scoop. We became dependant on each other as we discovered the relationship between good earth movement and environmental building. It has been a friendship and a regard that has continued ever since. Keith has made several fortunes from his work and now owns many machines and has become a tradition in his own time. When he started he was so poor he had to walk several miles to and from work, to save petrol. Now despite his business gains there is no better excavator in the whole business. He indeed created the climate of environmental earth moving in Victoria as we worked on those early sites together.

The blackberries that covered Coller's site were soon bundled up for burning and the debris of the old farm buildings pushed into heaps for sorting. John Coller did this in the weekends when he and his family consistently attended while preparations were being made for the work to begin.

We employed a good man with a back hoe to dig the footings. After the site had been levelled to within the tolerance of an inch the footings were poured to this prepared ground level and the surplus soil caused by the digger graded off so that the site was once again entirely flat and clean as at the beginning with the difference that there were now footings for the building. There could not have been an easier site to work on.

The main trouble was that inflation had now set in and the demand for building material had risen btKause of an easier flow of credit that had been caused by the new government that had come to power the previous year. It was nearly as hard to find materials as it had been in those immediate post-war years. It was most satisfying that without any special effort every requirement seemed to be on hand when needed when most builders are demented over shortages. Some fifteen hundred machine made bricks (at that time unprocurable) were required to lay one course over the whole ground plan. These were already stacked by John Coller in his gleanings from the old house on the site.

Some roads were being constructed in the district and I noticed loads of suitable filling heading off towards the township. I asked the driver if he would dump about a dozen of them around the site so that bricks could be laid within a few yards of where they had been made. The water supply was not available at that time. We drained one or two small dams on the property by gravity into a tank, and made our own water supply. It was all very much a combination of my own building ten years earlier and the early post-war days twenty-five years ago.

Hamish, who was nineteen, enjoyed a good relationship with his peers. He took to the job naturally and as the word got around, about ten young men presented themselves and started making and laying bricks. Hamish and Eddie Gray, who had never really built anything before except adzed tables, were given the job of constructing the window frames. These were both simple and practical. Second hand eleven by three oregon was cut down the centre for the stiles and top and bottom rails. It was left in its mill sawn condition which made it fit into the overall concept much better than if it had been dressed to within an inch of its life.

The walls rose steadily with the usual irregularities that are part of mud brick building especially as we tried to keep the corners of the piers plumb and true. There were times of trimming them back into shape with a tomahawk, but in the end there was a vibrance about the building warts and all that could not occur in the usual tradesman's procedures. You could feel the development in the builders as they worked together and they saw the structure becoming a reality. None of them had ever been employed in a project before and I aimed to keep it an entirely amateur affair. No professional has come onto the job except the plumber and electrician.

The bluestone drawing office, Eltham The bluestone drawing office, Eltham

The bricklayers who built the great chimneys of hand made bricks were also the sons of environmental builders who had gained their experience without the usual apprenticeship. The whole project is now completely finished and only a few pieces of new material were needed in its construction.

The ceilings were formed with six inch by one-and-an-eighth inch baltic flooring from an old wool store in Melbourne. The basic cost of the material was about one fifth of its new price if it were available, but by the time we got it onto the job from a disorganised wrecker it went up to one third. I used it for panelling cupboards and all the other necessary fitting out. It gave continuity of style and intention.

On summer nights the full moon shines over the magical bush and the Southern Cross and the pointers indicating the direction of the South Pole seem immensely large and luminous. The candlebark trees by then have shed their old bark and show out white in the bright night light and I recall once again those old Eltham days when it all began. It is still possible to hear the rapids down at the river over half a mile away just as one heard them back in 1946. True, there are the distant auditory intrusions of occasional cars starting up in the distance and the blinking red and green lights of the big planes coming into Melbourne a couple of miles to the north.

But nothing has changed the spirit of it all. Mud bricks and environmental building has returned to stay forever. Everyday I am being approached by young couples for advice and plans for land they have bought in the country. There is a significant demographic metamorphosis going on as people refuse to pay astronomical prices for suburban land and choose to live in the country instead. They are aware that this means new ways of earning a living and doing with less, but they are prepared for this in exchange for the priceless privilege of living with nature.

New communities are springing up in old gold mining towns and a sense of the pioneering character is making itself felt again. Almost without exception the building medium is mud brick. If the trend continues for a few years it will bring about a new national lifestyle. Once again that group known as physical planners are being proved wrong. Few emancipated young people want to accept their freeways and corporate state psychologies. It is back to Ivan Illich's voluntary poverty philosophy.

It has been my exciting experience to watch all this come about and to be a part of it. It is probably the one element that remains out of the post war promise of 1946. Elsewhere we see the technological materialism of the fifties declining in the oil crisis, and the ever widening gap between rich and poor that threatens to bring the world as we know it to an end. The humble mud brick alone could be the one catalyst to stimulate co-operative living instead of competitive destruction.

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