From the Rabbithole: Hutt greenie finds ready response to sustainability tips

How does a seminar about trimming a household's food budget to $75 a week pack out the Lower Hutt Town Hall with 570 people, when a public meeting, even for a local controversy, is lucky to draw 100?

Sure, many families are doing it tough with the economy the way it is.

And yes, the speaker at that mid-June event, Lyn Webster, is a bit famous for her television appearances and newspaper columns about sustainable living.

But Natalie Hormann, a Hutt Valley woman who filled five courses this year on topics such as home energy, gardening, rainwater harvesting and making smarter and more sustainable shopping choices, thinks it's more than that.

"It's a message that simple changes in lifestyle can make a big difference," she says.

"I think it's about taking power back. We're so dependent on the world around us.

"We depend on getting water from the tap, electricity from a socket, our rubbish collected."

Growing or making something ourselves can be incredibly satisfying, Ms Hormann says, and doubly so if it's good for the environment.

At the Webster seminar people got "really excited" about making their own cleaning products. Baking soda can do the same job as Jiff. In fact, Ms Hormann says, it can also do the same job as shampoo.

"It takes a bit of getting used to because it's dry and doesn't foam up, but it serves the same purpose.

"It's this thing about giving back people the power of choice. They're realising 'I can buy this, but I don't have to'."

Not so long ago Ms Hormann was a lawyer, heading for life on a six-figure salary. Now she and her husband Darryl and two kids are making an Akatarawa block  dubbed "The Rabbithole"  self-sustaining.

They both take on contracting work from time to time, but neither have been in full-time paid employment for a couple of years.

The Rabbithole name is largely because of their property's layout, off a driveway that runs down a slope from the road.

But they also like the connotations of "learning more, falling down the rabbithole and ending up in a wonderland" or escaping The Matrix, "and what coloured pill do you take?".

There is nothing wrong with working a traditional job to earn a living, Ms Hormann says.

But when the hours get out of whack, and the stress builds up, the income can become a trap in itself.

"Your whole life depends on it."

"I'd much rather survive more doing what I want to do.

"The other aspect that I really, really believe is this lifestyle most of us are living can't go on.

"It's a logical thing: you cannot grow a system indefinitely on a finite planet.

"One way or other, something has to change.

"Whether it happens sooner or later, and in what way it happens, I don't know. But it won't go on forever."

Ms Hormann grew up in Hamburg, Germany.

She came to New Zealand for work, and met her husband-to-be.

She went back to Germany to finish her degree and worked in environmental law for a while, but returning to New Zealand faced more study to gain admission to the bar.

"By then I was too over it. I was ready for a change."

She took up consulting roles on government environmental legislation, but found getting change was slow, and switched to consulting with businesses on sustainability strategies.

"But it's hard to get people to change their thinking.

"The business world, of course, is profit-driven."

Having her own children  now aged three and five  saw her delve into books about non-toxic, organic lifestyles.

"I found out so many things I didn't know.

"I started making changes in my own life, and talking to others about it, and I just slipped into the lifestyle I'm doing at the moment."

Ms Hormann says she asked herself, if the world is going to come a cropper sooner or later because of our abuse of the planet, how she would want it to be for her children.

"I was thinking the big thing missing at the moment is the connection to nature, but also to people.

"We've become so isolated in our lives. That whole idea of bringing community back is what appeals."

She returns to her theme of being trapped on an income, saying you can work 9 till 5, and completely forget what life is really about.

It might deliver a big house, the latest mobile phone, but does it connect you better with your kids, your family?

"Do I want to be sitting in a corporate law office every day, moving paper from the left side of the desk to the right?

"Is that what life is really about?" she says.

"It might be part of it, don't get me wrong.

"But the amount of time it takes is out of proportion."

A book she is reading describes how people in some tribal cultures take four hours a day to take care of their food, water and shelter needs.

The rest of their time is spent with their families and their communities, doing arts and crafts and practising their religion.

"Think of how many hours a day you spend trying to secure your food, shelter and water. It's crazy.

"The most precious thing we have is time.

"I wouldn't want to be spending that in too one-sided a way."

Ms Hormann says the courses she runs are not focused on people giving up their day jobs, but are to get people thinking about things that are easy to do and often do not take a lot of time.

People are really receptive to practical tips that save money, she says.

Why use plastic food wrap?

"That causes lots of discussion.

"A plate over the top of the bowl does the same job."

Different driving behaviour, taking off the roof rack and removing heavy, unnecessary stuff in the boot can save up to 20 per cent of petrol.

Ms Hormann says people come to her courses with monthly power bills of $500 for a family of five.

"It doesn't have to be like that."

Better insulation, switching off appliances and in particular smarter ways of heating water prove cost-effective within a relatively short time, she says.

And composting does not have to be complicated.

Worm farms, bokashi bins and other systems mean that, with recycling, you could cut down to a fortnightly or even monthly rubbish bag.

You might think this is all very well for someone living on a lifestyle block, but Bill Mollison, the founder of the permaculture movement, has said one fifth of a four-person household's food needs can be grown on a balcony.

Up until January this year, Ms Hormann's family lived on a standard city property in Normandale. They had a vegetable garden, chickens and were putting in fruit trees and investigating rain water barrels.

"It all fell over a bit when our pet lamb got out and ate the neighbour's roses."

There are many more things that can be done with more land  and more time.

"That's what we've been doing [in the Akatarawas] because we have the time, and didn't have the money."

Permaculture systems that Ms Hormann describes at evening courses at WelTec could be summed up as organic gardening, with animals.

The classic example is having a chicken pen over your garden. They peck out the weeds, eat the seeds, dig and fertilise the soil.

Then you move them on to another spot and your garden bed is pretty much ready for planting.

Ms Hormann is going the next step at the Rabbithole  planting a food forest.

"You plant fruit trees but other species as well that will help them along.

"So the system will work like a forest and will self-maintain, rather than you having to spray and so on.

"You have a ground cover of plants and herbs that help the fruit trees by attracting bees [and] fixing nitrogen in the soil.

"You might have ducks wandering around that eat fallen fruit and fertilise the trees."

Ms Hormann says people interested in saving money, and those interested in "greener" lifestyles, find themselves on the same wave length.

"If you try to live on a very small budget, you'd be doing the same things (as an environmentalist); growing more of your own food, buying less processed products, making more of your own things, saving electricity  all those sorts of things."

Perhaps there's a point for traditional budget advisers and government agencies helping those on benefits or low incomes.

Think green.


Making world 'as odd as me'


Natalie Hormann is involved in the Transition Towns movement at local and national level and teaches courses on sustainable living for Hutt City Council.

She also introduces people to permaculture, rainwater harvesting and the like from her property, The Rabbithole.

She recently started a new Facebook page called "Sustainable Lower Hutt".

In her blog "Who's the mad hatter here?" at, she begins, "Hello, my name is Natalie and I am odd."

Her ambition for the future?

"Make the world as odd as me  and a whole lot odder."

For now she will writing a weekly "Sustainability Tip" for Hutt News readers.

Look out for the first one next week.

Hutt News