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February 2015

January 2015

Shop for your community - big is not always best

My favourite local greengrocers Peter Hajevsky and wife Mary O'conner at The Fresh ingredient in Georgetown with a bunch of locally grown lettuce. Little Eco Footprints

Shopping can be a bothersome chore. Or it can be a way to contribute to your community. It’s your choice. You can pop into the supermarket, check out via an automatic teller and support a large national company more interested in profit than people. Or you can wander into your local greengrocer, butcher or independent baker and chat to a familiar face and contribute to the viability of small business in your community.

One of the first things I did after our recent move back to Newcastle was visit our local greengrocer. After living in a town where the last one closed years ago, I was excited to have a greengrocer again. Mary spotted me and said "You’re back?". Her familiarity was a huge contrast to my visit to a nearby 24-hour department store. I made a purchase without speaking to a soul and a self-serve checkout computer told me "to have a nice day".

For some people, particularly the elderly, a visit to the local shops may be the only time they speak to someone. Do we want their only interaction to be with a self-serve computer?

For me, one of the main benefits of a local independent greengrocer is that I’m more likely to find local products. For example, The Fresh Ingredient stocks local products I’d never find at the nearby big supermarket. I can buy local Udder Farm Milk, locally-baked Bills organic bread, and Turners ice creams – made by a family business operating in Newcastle for more than 70 years. Plus there’s a suite of local fruit and vegetables including Sandy Hills avocados grown near Nelson Bay and colourful lettuce grown by Hinchcliffe Hydroponics near Cessnock.

In a quick visit to the local greengrocers I can easily contribute to a handful of local producers.

The benefit doesn’t stop there. Peter, the other half of The Fresh Ingredient, told me their success is linked to the viability of all the other stores in their local shopping strip. "The chemist, newsagent, butcher, hardware store and so on – if any of those stores closed down, we would feel it." By supporting the local greengrocers, I’m supporting the viability of all the other small businesses in the shopping strip.

And the benefit doesn’t even stop there. Money spent in small independent stores tends to stay local, whereas money spent in the big supermarkets promptly disappears from the community.

The disappearance of small greengrocers is also disastrous for our farmers. With few alternatives than to sell to the big supermarkets they can be at the whim of their bargaining power

The consolidation of suppliers and distribution centres by the big supermarkets is also decreasing our food security. All the stock on the shelves of my local big supermarket comes from a single distribution centre in Sydney. The distribution centre also supplies more than 600 other supermarkets across NSW and Queensland. That scale doesn’t leave much space for small and local.

Carefully choosing where you shop is one way you can contribute to your community. We each have the power to make a difference. As Coles managing director John Durkin has writtenthere are 30,000 independent grocers and food retailers in Australia, which means customers can always vote with their feet”.

Let’s do just that. Let’s vote with our feet and choose to shop for our community.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 25th January 2015.

Do your children get enough wild time?

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Natural gym. Little eco footprints

There's plenty of things we can do to help our children grow into creative, happy and resilient adults. There’s after-school tutoring, music lessons and a suite of extra-curricular activities. But one of the best things we can do is let them play in the natural world. Let them climb trees, jump in puddles and walk along logs.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Little eco footprints

Our children need to take risks.

The term ‘risk-taking’ often has negative connotations in our risk-averse society. But, age-appropriate outdoor risk-taking plays an important role in childhood development. It helps children find their limits and develop confidence, resilience and creativity.

Our children need to fall, pick themselves up and be able to recognise why they fell.

Small risks taken early [and the natural world is a good place to take those risks] can prepare children to avoid more onerous risks later in life.” Richard Louv.

Natural spaces are a great place for risky play.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Complex playgrounds. Little eco footprints

Natural spaces are more complex and calming than the plastic primary-coloured playgrounds popular these days. It’s almost impossible to take risks in those predictable playgrounds. Every risk has been carefully designed out.

The natural world comes with other benefits. Time in nature improves children’s ability to learn, reduces stress and improves concentration.

Increasing opportunities for nature-based play 

Play in natural environments and risk-taking used to happen automatically. Climbing trees and spending the whole day outdoors exploring nature was common only one or two generations ago. I spent much of my childhood roaming local bushland, building cubbies and playing in the local creek. I’m guessing your childhood was similar. Today, children are more likely to be indoors, busy with structured activities, or confined to the safety of their backyard.

School holidays offer the perfect chance to catch up on wild time.

There’s an increasing number of nature-based adventure playgrounds and school-holiday programs that give children the space and time to be a little wild. Little Eco and I visited two of them these school holidays.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 1. Little eco footprints

First, we visited Newcastle Treetops Adventure Park. This adventure playground lets children move from tree to tree on suspension bridges and fly through the air on flying foxes.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 2. Little eco footprints

Kids can push their boundaries and take risks – all from the safety of a continuous belay system that keeps them harnessed in at all times.

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 5. Little eco footprints

Treetops Adventure Park Newcastle 4. Little eco footprints

Little Eco and her friends loved this place. What surprised me most was how calm they were. Being in the treetops had them mesmerised. They made their way quietly around the course again and again – concentrating on the challenge.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Barefoot bushwalking

Then we immersed ourselves in nature through a three-day Wildcraft Kids Camp with Wildcraft Australia.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Learning how to use all senses when bushwalking. Little Eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Learning how to make a spear. Little eco footprints

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Making a speak. Little eco footprints

There was barefoot bushwalking, tree climbing, swimming in the creek, fire-starting and spear making. All these risky activities were safely supervised by guides Nikki and Sam.

Parents can tag along for the day or drop their children off and treat it as a vacation care program. I joined in and learnt almost as much as my daughter.

The kids started the camp tentatively, tiptoeing and squealing at the leeches. By the end of the camp they were confidently and mindfully striding through the bush and playing with leeches.

Wildcraft Australia Wildcraft Kids Camp. Leech. Little eco footprints

The children’s interaction with leeches demonstrates the transformation that happened. It’s easy to fear something you don’t know. At first there was panic each time a leech attached to someone’s leg. But as the children learnt how to remove the leeches, the fear slipped away and was replaced by wonderment. At one point they were wrestling over a leech. "Mine. Mine!"

Treetops Adventure Park and Wildcraft Kids Camp are going to become school holiday traditions for us.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 19th January 2015.

Water wise gardening: Frugal ways to capture and store water

When it comes to water, it’s been all or nothing in my garden lately. We had months without rain and then had a couple of huge downpours. There was water everywhere. We even had stranded fish flapping in our back paddock. But just a few days after the rain, my garden was dry. It’s clear I need to increase the water-holding capacity of my garden.

Rainwater barrels and water tanks are probably what most people think of when wanting to catch and store rainwater. But there are other easier and far less expensive options.

Mark Brown from Purple Pear Farm sharing tips for using swales. Little eco footprints

Permaculture practitioner and educator Mark Brown from Purple Pear Farm recently shared a few water collecting ideas with me.

Use swales to catch and store water

A swale is more or less a water holding ditch. They are built on contour and catch rainwater as it runs across the ground. Mark tells me "they make running water walk". The water then slowly infiltrates into the surrounding soil.

I’d always thought of swales as something only relevant to large gardens or farms. But Mark tells me they can be used on any scale, even in a small urban garden. "Swales worked beautifully in a small suburban garden I created. I even had a small decorative bridge over one of the swales. Swales don’t need a lot of slope and can be used even in small, flat looking yards," he said.

Capture and store water in your soil

The most cost-effective and efficient place to store water is in the soil. The key is to add organic matter. Organic matter – such as mulch, manure and compost – will increase the moisture-holding capacity of your soil. The more organic matter, the more water your soil can hold.

Using local spoilt hay as mulch in my garden. Little eco footprints

"Instead of buying a bag of sugar cane mulch from the hardware store that’s been transported all the way from Queensland, make use of what is readily available locally," Mark suggested.

"Here in the Hunter, there’s plenty of lucerne farms. If it rains while they are harvesting, they can only sell their lucerne as mulch. Take a Sunday drive through Louth Park (near Maitland) or Phoenix Park (near Morpeth) and you’ll pass a number of lucerne growers who often sell cheap spoilt hay."

"Mulch your garden with lucerne and the organic matter is very quickly taken down into the soil as it composts."

Another great source of organic matter is stable manure. Here in the Hunter you can pick up stable manure for free from the Broadmeadow racecourse (along Dumaresq Street), and from Maitland and Cessnock showgrounds. There’s also a couple of mushroom farms that sell spent mushroom compost for use in the garden.

Store water in your plants

"An often ignored way to store water is in your plants. Plants take up water and then release it into the atmosphere through transpiration – increasing the humidity of your microclimate," Mark said.

The more plants you have, the more water your garden can store. Having a good coverage of plants also decreases run-off and evaporation of water from the soil.

Purple Pear courses in sustainable living

Purple Pear Farm run a great selection of courses in sustainable living. Upcoming courses include worm farming, sourdough bread baking and cheese and yoghurt making.

They also run their Permaculture Design Course over weekends – making it accessible to people unable to take time off from work or family during the week.

The next Permaculture Design Certificate course starts on Saturday, 16 May. 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 12th January 2015.

Let go of old goals so that new dreams can flourish

Letting go of an old dream, our sustainable urban home, to make way for a new dream. Little eco footprints

Decluttering possessions can be hard, but as I’ve discovered, it is nothing compared to decluttering your dreams. Our hopes and goals are such a large part of who we are. But they evolve and change. 

Just like our homes, our goals can become cluttered. We need to let go of old goals to make space for new dreams to flourish.

Thankfully, many home decluttering tips are equally relevant to decluttering your dreams.

Identify what’s most important to you.

You need to choose what is most important to you now. Having too many goals will detract from those that matter most.

Since moving to a rural area two years ago, we’ve lived in a shed and then a rental property. We delayed building a home on our little farm because we didn’t want to go any further into debt. Selling our city home would have funded the build but we couldn’t bring ourselves to sell it. We had renovated it as our “forever home”, adding all the sustainable features – insulation, solar hot water, photovoltaic solar system, rainwater tanks and a passive solar extension. But we’ve finally accepted that it is no longer our dream home.

An old dream was stopping us from living our current dream.

So we’ve moved back to the city for a little while to do what we should have done two years ago. We’re renovating and selling our city home so we can build our country home.

Start small and take your time.

A common decluttering tip is to start small and not tackle too much all at once. Let go of easier, smaller dreams first and tuck the big ones away for a while if needed.

I don’t regret being back where we were two years ago. It’s taken us that long to accept that dreams change. If we’d sold our city home two years ago, I’m sure we would have regretted it. Some dreams take a little longer to let go of.

One in, one out.

One in, one out is equally applicable to goals as it is belongings. There’s only so many dreams and aspirations that will fit into one lifetime – at any one point in time.

My career was a recent casualty to my decluttering efforts. It was important to me, but not as important as my family or health.

My daughter was one year old when I first heard the then governor-general Quentin Bryce advise young women that, “You can have it all, but not all at the same time”. I stubbornly thought she was wrong. I thought that I could balance work and family and still live a sustainable and meaningful life. It took six more years of juggling work, a back injury, and time with a Buddhist monk for me to accept that being a single-income family suits us better right now.

Don’t keep things out of guilt or obligation.

Don’t feel obliged to live a dream that is no longer yours. For me, I felt committed to my career after devoting 20 years (and a PhD) to it. But as American author Seth Godin advises, "Used to be", is not necessarily a mark of failure or even obsolescence. It’s more often a sign of bravery and progress.

Letting go of old dreams or goals doesn’t mean they weren’t good dreams. It’s just time to move onto others. Let a couple of old dreams go, so that new ones can soar.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 5th January 2015.