I was WWOOFing this past week or so. For those of you unfamiliar with the terminology, and concerned for my spelling, WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms.
It has become a verb (to WWOOF) and a noun (a WWOOFer). There are WWOOF organisations all around the world, connecting the willing with the work. People – usually travellers – exchange their labour for food and board.
For me, it is a chance to leave the city, learn, and be part of a way of life where food is grown and eaten, not just eaten.
Su Dennett and David Holmgren kindly agreed for me to stay at Melliodora, their property in Hepburn Springs, an hour-and-a-half north-west of Melbourne. Dave is the co-originator of permaculture, and an insightful commentator on matters from bushfire preparation to geo-politics and peak oil.
Melliodora is one hectare, teeming with food and thought. Each building, tree, path, plant and detail is carefully placed for the benefit of everything else. The household economy provides both physical and intellectual nourishment.
The evening I arrived, Dave walked me through the property. We left their owner-built, passive-solar mudbrick home and walked past their kitchen garden to the shed and chook-house. Through the swinging gate, we came to the barn and loft where I’d be staying. Close to the house, these buildings are the crossroads of the property. Here, the animals are tended: goats milked; chooks fed and eggs collected. This is the place to get tools and equipment. It’s the throughway to the orchards and the other veggie patches. It’s the spot for solitary time on the compost toilet.
We continued down the hill, past the orchards to the dams. Dave introduced me to Melliodora’s real owners: Tan, Bett and Flame. They were chatting and chewing on some willow, and they implored Dave to cut them more.
Su milks the goats each morning, all four (goats and human) united in constant conversation. Su makes yogurt and cheese from the milk. She also keeps bees, runs a bulk-foods and veggie box co-op, and works on the Hepburn Relocalisation Network.
I emerged from my loft each morning at seven-thirty. We lit the wood-stove in the kitchen, cooked porridge and boiled water. Dave roasted chestnuts. Life at Melliodora revolves around the gravitational pull of that wood stove.
My days were largely spent harvesting: apples, grapes, feijoas, mushrooms, potatoes, cherry guavas. It has been a bumper season, after so many of drought. I bottled pears, de-netted fruit trees, de-sludged a massive water tank.
The nights are cold in the Victorian central highlands. One evening, after the second afternoon digging spuds, I caught sight of a muscular man in the mirror: my shoulders were broad, my arms bulging. I was wearing five jumpers.
And alas, below the layers, my feeble arm was hurting. T’was the spuds that did me in. My left forearm and wrist swelled up like a thin snake that gobbled a mouse. The local physio told me to rest, then advised me to build up my muscles before returning.