on leaving the city…an anecdotal history
The sight of a manicured house framed by the lime green of its mown lawns, and European foliage, edges sharp, shapes pruned, and an expanse of raked gravel is a known pleasure that is repeated with varying degrees of confidence throughout the suburbs of Australian cities and the associated regional towns and country properties that can be found beyond them. It is the pleasure, as many have noted, that comes from reassurance – the reassurance of the evidence of wealth (of time, of water), and of continuity (of Europe). It is the reassurance that our surroundings are under control.
It was an old double-storey timber house, boarded up and falling apart but charming in its suggestion of other places, other times. The sign on the fence noted that this was known as ‘the Swiss House’ –that it was a ‘kit’ house, had been transported from Europe as numbered planks in 1850 and had been rolled down the hill to this site on the floodplain of the Avoca River 20 years after it had been erected in the main street as part of the pub. The claim made for the house as an important historical artifact was profoundly denied in its treatment.
Every year when we travelled from Melbourne to the goldfields to camp over Easter we would drive in to the small nearby town of Avoca to pick up the Saturday papers and I would insist on us spending time with the house. I would sneak into the garden, past some huge River Red Gums, an old olive tree, a hedge of elm suckers, an assortment of scrappy callistomen, the remnants of japonica and, because it was Easter and the last rains had been in Spring, a sea of brittle yellow grass. Every year, as the house became more broken and the garden increasingly forlorn, I wondered how long before some stray spark might set fire to the whole place. And I fantasised it with its broken windows repaired and surrounded by green lawns, green trees looking out to the little river across the road. Just like in Melbourne.
And then the old house and its vestiges of a garden became mine. The ‘Swiss House’ - which embodied the fading glory of this small town in its walls and the threat of an increasingly hostile climate in its struggling European shrubbery, was the perfect next long-term art project – a challenge to change a lived relationship with the world around me. The question was, and continues to be- how, precisely, does one go about doing this.
In a world where it had become increasingly obvious that whole societies would need to make major changes to their lifestyle if we are to survive as a species, what might it mean to make major changes in one’s life at the individual level? This was to be The Avoca Project.
I gave myself 10 years to try to do it, to physically attempt at decentering humankind not by making art about it but by using art activities and allowing myself to be changed along with others.
Within this framework it became essential to re-use, repair, restore, retain… to adapt, to save… to “turn the lights out, turn that tap off, and shut the door (were you born in a tent?)”. It felt like being a child again in a world of carefulness of the resources around us. Was this what what was required then? A return to careful resource use? At first I thought so and this has been hard enough, even in a small country town where the evidence of the need is more pressing.
But there was something else here too. The 50’s values of repair, re-use were accompanied by the assumption and rigorous maintenance of power through oppressive control of relationships in families, but also with animals, plants, site. Now it was necessary to consider a different relationship not simply towards the material world but also a different relationship to the network of plants and possums and insects and birds and people, all there together.
Against the possibility of changing these relationships has been the astonishing force of local social pressures. Some are to do with sensible measures in an increasingly fire-ravaged countryside (no grass over 20mm during the fire season). This supports the local council’s weed control program with its liberal use of herbicides, even along the river and mowing of grasses (and River Gum seedings) across the floodplain which has become the town’s only parkland – and my extended ‘borrowed’ front garden. Herbicides are also used liberally to maintain perfect, weed-free gravel driveways in the town and advice on which ones are the most effective is often given to me as my neighbours eye the yearly invasion of couch grass, dandelions and oxalis beyond the neat edges of the lawn.
After 9 years of my refusal to use herbicides and observation of my annual hand-weeding events, this has now become a running joke of the ‘you’re clearly nuts but we admire your persistence’ kind. I now realise that my own activity is also nuts - that not having this kind of driveway at all would be more sensible.)
The way things are done…
There is a kind of fatalism at work here too. Possums inhabit roofs. They will, according to local wisdom, get into roofs no matter what you do. The answer is to kill them. Illegal, so it is said quietly. When the upstairs ceiling needed to be completely removed, there was the opportunity to make the roof space possum-proof. The builder calmly noted that this couldn’t be done –that they would find a way in. And so they have. Because of his possum-philosophy, the roof-space wasn’t completed carefully enough.
STRATEGIES ADOPTED OVER 9 YEARS
Work on water-saving landscaping has been undertaken with Mel Ogden and advice from Peter Andrews, along with the use of historically resilient plantings (Amaryllis Belladonna, Almonds, pomegranates, salvia, grasses, River Red Gums)
The story of salinity – the dying trees, the thriving wooly saltbush
The decision to plant the 2 Red Oaks and the struggle with not only the wisteria but also the banksia and the complete denuding of the now 10ft high local gums…all revealed as foolish as they struggle to survive in a heating, drying climate.
The work of others –
Forewarning of a flooded house with Jane Prophet’s work
The space for inclusion of live frogs in Carl Micheal Von Hauswolff’s performance
The creation of wicking beds at the hotel and the transformation of the Porrer’s tennis court into a garden by RMIT students
Natalie Jerimijenko’s soil cocktails, a celebration of a different relationship with the land itself…
Nine years later
Through a series of events –a field day led by radical farmer Peter Andrews, a collaboration in designing a garden-scape focused on water capture and retention with Mel Ogden, a series of building repair projects with Simon Pockley using found timbers, a whole range of artworks as house and garden installations and performances by various artists, the process/outcome remains visible. But so too do the conversations, the complex negotiations, the long dinners, the continual pain of hearing the water as people take too long in the shower or watching as they try to fit every single food item in a too small fridge….
While it was a house that began this project, it was the town that became increasingly involved. I had called it The Avoca Project because the acronym TAP (to tap into perhaps, or the sound of busyness, or the water controlling device) seemed pertinent. And it enabled people to find their way here more easily. And remembered too late to beware that the names we give somehow usually take over as subject.
There was the moment when a volunteer, walked purposefully down the yard wearing thongs and shorts into the long grass, the brushcutter held ready to start. – but no shoes, no faceguard, no earmuffs, no gloves… He was shocked by my small tantrum…
There was the time when a local woman billeting two students mentioned that they would need support. They had all gone for an early morning walk in the bush and come across a car in which someone had committed suicide.
I sometimes pass the Porrer’s garden. It sits proudly productive, flourishing in its series of raised beds and underground watering system. Someone told me that they are still in contact with at least one of the students they billeted. And that was 5 years ago.
Lyndal Jones, Avoca 2014