Back to basics cool again

Top: Natalie Hormann and Daryl Neal live on The Rabbit Hole, a 0.8-hectare lifestyle block of land in Akatarawa Rd.
Top: Natalie Hormann and Daryl Neal live on The Rabbit Hole, a 0.8-hectare lifestyle block of land in Akatarawa Rd.

It was the death of the television that started it - the evolution of Daryl Neal and Natalie Hormann.

Not long ago, the couple were suburban professionals  Neal's background is in industrial design and Hormann's is in law and corporate strategy - living in Lower Hutt with their two young sons.

Now, they live on The Rabbit Hole, a 0.8-hectare experiment in permaculture on the outskirts of Upper Hutt.

Their TV packed up not long after the birth of their first son, now five, while they were living in the suburbs. They went through a brief transition period trying to revive it for weekly viewings of Boston Legal, but the "frizzled" picture soon meant even that wasn't worthwhile.

Never big TV viewers anyway, they didn't bother replacing it.

"Getting rid of the TV was probably the single biggest catalyst," Neal says. "It was the instant key that allowed us to free up our minds to think about stuff."

Big stuff  stuff like climate change, peak oil and the world financial system.

"It just turned out that knowing all that, you couldn't go back to not knowing it," Hormann says.

"What got us here was the idea of being self-sufficient and what drove us out of the city was the paranoia about the state of the planet."

The couple became involved in Transition Towns, a movement that encourages sustainable communities.

They started to grow more of their own food in their backyard in Normandale, but soon it wasn't big enough.

"We had a pet lamb in our last place, but it took off and ate all the neighbour's bush, so we thought, 'We have to move'," Horman says.

"It's nice to pursue sustainability in the suburbs, but we wanted to pursue it on a larger scale."

It took about 18 months to find their rabbit hole in Akatarawa Rd, chosen because of its proximity to the railway line, its plentiful water supply, and a combination of bush, garden, paddock and river that allowed them to try different ways of sustainable living.

Neal bought a new TV for $20 a few weeks ago, but it doesn't work. He plans to use the screen to make a solar barbecue. Hormann thinks she will turn the case into a hutch for the family's guinea pigs, and maybe the speaker systems will also be useful.

They have plans for the disused swimming pool behind their house. Their first idea was to convert it to a glasshouse, but now the couple are considering making it part of a mini-hydro scheme.

A steep path beyond the swimming pool leads down to the chickens, ducks and lambs, and the vegetable garden. And deeper into the rabbit hole is their "food forest", newly planted with fruit and nut trees.

Hormann, 36, grew up in Hamburg, Germany and describes herself as "a real city girl".

Neal, 34, grew up on a sheep and beef farm in Martinborough, but has had 20 years away from rural life.

The couple's vision is to transform the property into a permaculture and back-to-basics education centre.

Hormann says they want to use it to help others find a more sustainable way of living. In the aftermath of a disaster, there is no point having a garden full of vegetables if other people in your community don't.

"Unless you want to sit on the fence with a big shotgun, it's not going to help.

"You need to have as many people as you can know about these things  know how to grow food."

It is not possible for individuals to be self-sufficient, she says. "Communities can be more self-sufficient, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. I think there are also a lot of people to think about the answers and we need all sorts of people trying all sorts of things."

One person confident of surviving in the aftermath of catastrophe is Carolann Murray, author of Mastering the Art of Self-Sufficiency in New Zealand. The book, released late last year, describes lessons learnt over 15 years of living on a 4ha block of land in Whitemans Valley, Upper Hutt.

It features recipes for homemade wines, breads and soaps, and has instructions for hand-milking cows, making cheese and beekeeping.

Murray, a self-described former city slicker, says she still buys a handful of things  toilet paper and toothpaste  just because she can, but she could equally do without them.

Her most extreme act of self-sufficiency is arguably running her tractor on ghee (clarified butter) produced by her cow.

The book has been a "brilliant seller" since it was published, says Amanda Robinson, of New Holland Publishers.

"We have had to schedule a very quick reprint. We have a large quantity of back orders and are now having to double the reprint quantity."

Murray says she has seen many urban dwellers who buy lifestyle blocks end up going back to the city.

"We watch properties change hands every four to five years. I think those who have really made the decision to do it, will do it."

But it's possible to make your life more sustainable without moving houses, she says. "The main point I'm trying to get across to people is that you don't have to be on a lifestyle block to do 95 per cent of this stuff."

What can't you do?

"Milk the house cow and grow a huge amount of vegetables."

Even apartment dwellers can buy fruit and vegetables from the local markets and preserve them, she says, and make their own soap and candles at home. She argues that space is not a factor. Her house is 64 square metres, smaller than some apartments.

She has also made a series of DVDs, including How to Milk a House Cow. She has just started offering courses for people who want to grow organic vegetables, spin wool or make their own herbal medicines.

In a similar vein to Murray's book, former women's magazine editor and journalist Wendyl Nissen has published A Home Companion: My year of living like my grandmother. It outlines her transformation from "high-flying corporate animal to a green goddess nana".

Nissen describes herself as a LOHAS  an acronym for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, a demographic that favours organic foods and shopping ethically.

Aucklander Fionna Hill has published A Green Granny's Garden, a diary of her first year with a vegetable plot in the Grey Lynn community garden.

Beyond the book sales, there are plenty of signs  from food-swapping between neighbours to food-foraging websites  that the interest in sustainable living has gone beyond the stereotypes of hippies and greenies.

Linnea Lindstroem, who is involved in street gardening and complementary currency system Wellington Independent Trading System, points to a resurgence of interest in buying food locally through farmers' markets, and the emergence of organic food sections in supermarkets as signs of change.

More people are involved in community and street gardening, "and we've got more and more gardens in schools".

Meanwhile, Wellington City Council staff have noticed an increase in urban poultry-keeping, with an associated increase in the number of complaints about "containment issues". DSS Animal Management, which handles dog control for the council, reports it has been picking up more wandering chickens.

Wellington Beekeepers' Association treasurer John Burnet says the club's membership has trebled in the past few years. "It's all hobbyists."

It now has about 120 members, enough to force it to change meeting venues twice in the past year, and to start a beginners' beekeeping class.

Both urban and semi-rural dwellers have been driving the growth, he says.

He links it to an increased interest generally in knowing where food comes from.

"I think there's a whole new interest in the community at large in relation to self-sufficiency and getting back to basics."

Keeping food producers in a suburban backyard isn't always easy. Wendy and Conrad Adams, of Lower Hutt, were forced to look for a bigger property after their neighbours complained about the egg-producing ducks they kept on their 670sqm property in Alicetown.

The flock started with three chickens, followed by a pekin duck, followed by some muscovy ducks, which turned out to be prolific breeders.

By last Christmas, they had 12 ducks  too many for a suburban garden. Not keen on eating their pets, they started to look for new homes for them. But before they managed to, their neighbours became unhappy about the ducks' "rather messy habits".

Hutt City Council inspectors turned up and found the Adams also weren't meeting the bylaw for chickens, which state coops should be 10 metres from any dwelling, including their own.

The ducks and chickens have since been holidaying with friends, including Natalie Hormann and Daryl Neal.

The Adams have bought a new property on the outskirts of Lower Hutt, with 2800sqm of garden, native bush, a creek and room for "poultry galore".

Conrad Adams, a keen organic composter and gardener, already has several projects planned, including an eco-extension to the house, incorporating a composting toilet.

The Wellington region now has several active transition towns, part of an international movement that explores how communities can respond to challenges posed by climate change and resource depletion.

Initiatives include community gardens and orchards and workshops on everything from compost to household cleaners.

One of the original members of the Wellington movement is Paul Kennett, who is involved with the Moera community garden.

"In some places you get that mix of people who come together and things spark and it takes off. In other places, it doesn't."

Kennet's personal focus has been on energy efficiency, an obsession that started when he bought his first home  a 1927 railway cottage  in 2004.

His online diary details his extensive efforts and innovations  a weather station, solar-hot-water system, rainwater tanks to water his vegetable garden, and insulating his walls by blowing polystyrene beads in them with a hair dryer.

Last year, he started to carbon-budget, living "happily" to a budget of one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO-e) a year.

Graphs on his online diary track his household's carbon emissions back to the beginning of 2004, when he started to collect energy data in his house.

A keen cyclist, he doesn't own a car. His wife's "conked out" in 2004 and they haven't replaced it.

He hasn't taken a flight, except the odd one for work, since 2004.

He recently made a list of every flight he can remember taking.

"I've worked out that I've taken 87 flights in my life and that has produced 40.6 tonnes of carbon, so I could offset those."

Father of Adam, three, he has also been mulling over the carbon implications of producing a child.

For Natalie Hormann and Daryl Neal, one of the crucial steps to a more sustainable way of life was to spend less.

They started to prepare for more difficult financial times a couple of years ago while they were working on contracts. They thought about how they could survive without jobs  "planning to go broke"  and cut back as much as they could.

Hormann says: "I know living off the land is not for everyone, but there's a lot of things you can do and I think taking back control of your own life is one of the biggest. If you are holding down a job and you have a big mortgage and you have lots of big expenses, you're quite trapped in some ways."

The couple have a mortgage themselves and joke that they hope the banks will fail before they have to pay it back.

Their aim is to find "micro-bits of income that hopefully cover our needs".

Hormann already teachers courses in Lower Hutt through the Sustainable Living programme and has planned a range of her own to run at The Rabbit Hole.

Neal, whose electric farm-bike design won him awards in 1999, has launched an online store, EVLAB, selling electric vehicle parts.

The couple also plan to offer consultancy services, offering sustainable living advice and helping families make their own "energy descent plans".

"The demand for that is quite big, I think," Hormann says.

"I'm not sure how ready people are to pay for it, though."

Neal has coined the label "pioneers of the great undoing" for their new lifestyle.

But he adds: "My grandparents lived like this, only they were good at it.

"Nana says all they bought was sugar and flour. Was there a term for them? They did it because that was how it was.

"We do it because that is how it will be again soon."

His 90-year-old grandmother, Anita Neal, still lives in her own home in Blenheim. She recalls how she raised six children on the family farm.

"I cooked for eight of us every day. We were self-supporting. We had everything we wanted on the land.

"Today, it's different. Life was so much more natural in those days. It wasn't artificial."

The Dominion Post