Thanking our Partners for Three Great Years

With American Thanksgiving this week, it seems appropriate for a couple of ex-pats to give thanks to all of our partners and supporters in Whanganui. We came here three years ago with next to nothing to a villa with no power, no water, no hot water cylinder, hardly any wiring, a handful of broken windows, and thousands a tiny holes in the roof. Oh, one other thing, we were newly-weds, and there literally was no threshold at the front door.
No threshold at our front door.
Note to readers: Think twice before undertaking a major renovation two months into marriage.
But that was then and this is now. Now we have, in no particular order: one of the most sustainable suburban properties in the country; a section full of healthy, organic kai; a power bill that averages under $30 per month; an active, healthy toddler; and one of the best grass roots, community-based, sustainability education programmes in the ‘Western World’ (ie, OECD nations).
While the first four items on the list we did more-or-less ourselves (using qualified trades people where required), the last was only accomplished through partnering with dozens of individuals, community groups, and businesses across this awesome city. Aside from the core work on our villa, nearly every other project we have successfully engaged with in Whanganui has been the result of partnership. We appreciate all of our partners, and hope to continue our work together. There are too many to mention without forgetting a few, so best just to say, “Thanks to all. Chur! Chur!”
Community Garden @ Day One
Together we have: attracted respected international thinkers and writers to Whanganui; offered over 50 free and donation sustainability programmes; run 20 below-cost workshops offering expert advice on eco-thrifty renovation and organic food production; visited 10 local and rural schools; delivered close to 80 free home energy audits; answered dozens of telephone inquiries on energy efficiency; and, developed a community garden on our ‘front lawn.’
Solar Sausage Sizzle
Some say, “success breeds success,” and we have certainly witnessed that, going from strength to strength as more River City residents see the logic of eco-thrifty design thinking. Granted, it’s hard to argue against creating win-win-win situations that save money, help people, and protect the environment, but it is shocking how many people and organizations try! What is that about old dogs?
Note to readers: If you are a climate change denier, please don’t ring me to argue your point. I am far too polite to hang up on you, and far too busy to listen to your conspiracy theories.
Interestingly, a completely unexpected form of thanks that has come my way lately appears to be associated with some opinion pieces I wrote for the Chronicle: one connecting the WDC rates structure, widening wealth inequality; and social problems; one on the futility to shifting sand around Castlecliff Beach when it all blew back into place in a fortnight; and, one on the comic tragedy of wasting approximately $200 of ratepayers’ money per year running outdoor lighting during daylight hours in front of Central Library.
Since the first piece ran in October, I’ve been asked by complete strangers to: a) run for mayor; b) run for Parliament. (Previously, I had only been asked to stand for Council.) I reckon that is about as fine a “thank you” one can get from a stranger.
But with no elections on the near horizon, what’s a poor boy to do? I reckon I’ll continue to build local partnerships, help those in need save power and money, tend the community garden in front of our home, change nappies, walk on the beach with bubba, surf as much as practicable, and grow the world’s best garlic.
Community Garden @ Day 500
And what can you do? Come visit us at the River Traders Market on 7th December for free advice on healthy homes and healthy food.
Also make a $20 donation to The ECO School and receive a free 2014 Permaculture Principles Calendar. Available at these locations:
• Whanganui Environment Base @ Whanganui Resource Recovery Centre, Maria Place
• Community Education Service (CES), Taupo Quay
• Delicious Café and Wine Bar, 132 Victoria Avenue
Riverside Osteopathy, 15 Pitt Street
Happy Mo-vember, Estwing

Local Newspapers Still Relevant to Democracy

Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is participatory. At best it is a contact sport, but unlike rugby or gridiron, the contact is done through communication not bone-jarring hits. In my experience, however, our local government appears lacking in its willingness or ability to communicate.
As a researcher, I seek to draw conclusions based on data and observations. Expressed in research-geek language, the data from my personal experience over the lat three years suggests that there is roughly a 40% probability that council staff will respond to a phone call, email or hand-written note, and about a 25% probability that an elected official will do so. Please note this data is based on a small sample size, and should be considered indicative only.
Some council staff have been excellent in their communications with me, and one Councilor has scored 100% (1 out of 1 email). As I have written many times in my regular column, I have a high regard for Building Control, but I do not necessarily consider them WDC employees for two reasons: 1) we pay them extra to do their jobs (ie, It does not come from rates.); 2) my understanding is that they answer to central government, not local government. As such, I did not include them in my informal research above. Chur, boys.
One thing research-geeks do is discuss their findings. A discussion is an attempt to identify relationships in one’s findings to those of others through a literature review. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not complete a thorough or even partial literature review on this topic. But I have mentioned the tendency toward non-communication with some friends, who have suggested that a great strategy for those in positions of power is simply to ignore those who appear to lack power.
Using my case as an example, the response may go something like this: “Who is this nobody? An unemployed, pesky Yank trying to complicate my day by offering positive suggestions and constructive feedback. Bugger that. If I ignore him he’ll just go away.” Fair enough.
That strategy probably works most of the time because many people are busy and don’t have the time, inclination, or patience to follow-up on what may seem like a lost cause. Fair enough. We are all busy, and life does get in the way. Unfortunately, this reality is exploited by the ‘powers-that-be’ across the planet, often to favour powerful interests rather than the people. Nothing kills democracy like non-participation.
This is why an independent press is critical to vibrant democracy. A free press gives voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. Any tiny influence I may ever have on our fair city – like turning off outdoor lighting during sunny days – has come through the Whanganui Chronicle. That said, I am not a supporter of the Chronicle for the Chronicle’s sake, but for the sake of democracy.
Please note that I’m fully willing to hold the Chronicle to account, although my wife was the one who has done so most recently. Also note that I have never been paid for my contributions to the paper. Approximately 90 pieces of writing and close to 400 photographs representing over to 300 hours of work have earned me one flat white from previous editor, Ross Pringle, although current editor, Mark Dawson, has promised me another coffee before the end of the year.
This is what democracy looks like, and anyone can do it. From my perspective, the Chronicleremains an extremely relevant entity in our community, and I encourage everyone on every side of every issue to write carefully constructed, well-supported arguments to support their point of view. If your case is strong enough, those in positions of power will no longer ignore you. (Although after all of my constructive feedback to Council, I suspect they’ll do their best to ignore me until I join them at the Council Table.)
One final example: After three years of inaction on the lights outside the Central Library, it only took three days for WDC to get in an electrician on the job after my opinion piece ran last week. The moral of this story appears to be: If you want something done in this town, do it through the press. Get writing you lot!
Peace, Estwing

Permaculture Explained by Examples

Permaculture, an eco-design system developed during the 1970s, is sometimes known for the paradoxical statements of its founders, such as “Lazy gardening,” or “The problem is the solution.” To the uninitiated, these types of statements may only add confusion to an already enigmatic word: permaculture.
Lazy Gardening

Personally, I have come to define permaculture this way: an eco-design system that seeks to recognize and maximize beneficial relationships while minimizing or eliminating harmful relationships. In this column, I’ll provide some examples that illustrate this definition, as well as one that demystifies the paradoxes above.
The results of Lazy Gardening
In an agricultural/horticultural application, maximizing beneficial relationships can include: companion planting; attracting beneficial insects; integrating animals such as ducks (snail and slug control), chickens (grass and insect control), and in larger systems sheep or small cows (periodic grazing between rows in an orchard or vineyard).
Our muscovies are snail vacuums. 
A home can be designed – or in our case re-designed – for its relationship to the sun. For example, we added glazing to the northeast and northwest sides of our villa to increase the amount of free warmth provided by winter sun, while removing windows from the southeast and southwest sides to reduce heat loss. Additionally, by removing the southwest window, we limited the overheating of our home during the summer caused by late afternoon sun.
From an organizational perspective, our tiny non-profit – The ECO School – seeks out mutually beneficial relationships with businesses, organizations and individuals that share our kaupapa of healthy homes, healthy food, healthy people, healthy planet. For example, we have excellent working relationships with the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Community Education Service, Central2Health, TreeLife NZ, the New Zealand Maters Games, YMCA Central, and the Wanganui Chronicle, Midweek, and River City Press, among others. On the other hand, despite our best efforts, we have failed to develop relationships with other organizations with whom we thought we could work successfully. And in the rare case, we have cut off relations with those entities with whom we felt we were only giving and not receiving.
And now to address the paradoxes of lazy gardening and problems as solutions.
Like many residents of our fair city, we have an abundance of kikuyu and couch grass on our section. These grasses, among others I cannot identify, compete with our shallow rooted fruit trees for nutrients and water, and encroach into our garden beds. The eco-thrifty ‘solution’ to these ‘problems’ that I have adopted involves a firm grip and a stack of newspapers.
Freshly mulched area.
When I find an area needing attention, I simply pull out as much grass as I can comfortably handle, lay down the newspaper, and lay the grass back on top. The grass I have pulled acts as a mulch that keeps the newspaper from blowing away while blocking sunlight to the shoots that emerge from the roots below. The ‘problem’ grass has become a ‘solution’ mulch, and I have not had to move my body any more than a simple twisting motion while kneeling. I have not had to go to the shop to buy a bale of straw, nor have I had to involve a wheelbarrow. Problem sorted, with plenty of time to go for a surf.
Interested in learning more about this type of eco-design thinking? Check out the upcoming events.
24th November, 3-4 pm: Food Forests. Diverse, productive, low-maintenance ‘ecosystems’ of edible trees, vines, bushes and fowl. Donation.
1st December, 1-4 pm. Permaculture Design for a Suburban Section. How to design and install a low-maintenance/high-productivity food system by working with nature, not against it. Sliding scale, $25 – $45.
8th December, 1-4 pm. Driftwood Structures for Gardens and Landscaping. View a wide variety of ways we’ve used driftwood as a beautiful, durable, free building element. Learn how to make some of these items. Tools and galvanized nails provided. Sliding scale, $25 – $45. 

A Few More Potential Photos

Here are a few more potential shots for Permaculture magazine.

The draft article has a section on encouraging creative, independent play. Here is Verti in her play waka, next to a patch of her favorite food: strawberries. She is making her sign for “more”, and pointing to what she wants more of.

“More please.”
“That’s what I want.”

“Chur, bro.”

Also, here is a before and after shot of a garlic bed.

July, 2013: Cheerful observer.
November, 2013: Eager helper.

Peace, Estwing

Please Help Us Choose Photos

Kia ora koutou,

We are writing an article for Permaculture magazine on integrating bubba into our lifestyle and ethics. Please help us choose which photos to include with the article. Your input is greatly appreciated.

Also feel free to order a calendar or two to support our community sustainability education efforts.

Peace, Estwing

I’m Bringing Driftwood Back

Good design, some say, draws inspiration from the natural environment. The preponderance of pohutukawa blossom prints on tea towels, throw pillows, duvet covers, change purses, shower curtains, fill-in-the-blank, in New Zealand appears to confirm this. However, one thing about design is that once its overdone, it loses some appeal.
As humans, we seem to continually seek the new. But there are only so many new news, so we witness the recycling of design. That is, we see styles come back. For example, when I was in high school in the 1980s, my brother and I raided our father’s closet for his skinny ties from the ‘50s and ‘60s that suited our preferred British ska ‘rude boy’ sense of fashion. Additionally, I found a sweater that had belonged to my grandfather, which became my most treasured item of clothing as a teen.
Along those lines, about a year ago the American rapper, Macklemore, released a song called “Thrift Shop” that briefly experienced deep rotation on some Whanganui radio stations. The song not only praises thrift, but also exalts “grandpa-style.”
I wear your granddad’s clothes
I look incredible
I got this big-as coat
From that thrift shop down the road
Restoring an old villa certainly qualifies as grandpa style, or even great grandpa style, but the villa is not the subject of this week’s column. Rather, I’d like to write about how the natural environment has inspired aspects of my landscape design and some pieces of artwork inside our home.
We moved to Castlecliff to be near the coast, but in a cruel twist of fate, during the first year we lived here I was kept so busy renovating and writing my dissertation that I only got out surfing three times. In the words of singer/songwriter, Alanis Morissette, “Isn’t it ironic.”
But now I have more free time, and I spend a lot of it walking on the beach. If you have ever been to Castlecliff Beach you’ll know that a dominant feature is driftwood. For me, the driftwood represents a connection between almost everything I know about the natural environment of the land of the long white cloud. A beautifully sculpted piece of twisted and polished branch pays homage to the forest on the mountainside from which it came; to the river that carried it; to the sea that tossed it; and to the sand that smoothed its rough edges.
Some of the most striking pieces are among the finest works of art I’ve ever seen. While Aotearoa is the artist, I am hardly the first to discover her talent. When visiting local artist Sue Cooke last week, she told me that there was once a time when all artists who moved to Whanganui went through a “driftwood stage.”
My use of driftwood outdoors serves multiple purposes: practicality and beauty. For example, I’ve used it for a bean trellis; a tomato trellis; arcs to support netting over strawberries; a funky fence to direct foot traffic; edging around our car park; posts to support wind netting; a climbing tower for our daughter; two play houses (whare iti and whare nui); and, most recently, a picnic table. 

Future plans include a swing set, a teeter-totter, and benches for our table. Indoors, we’ve used it in Verti’s nursery as eco-thrifty artwork.

From my perspective, the use of driftwood on our property represents the ultimate in eco-thrifty design. It is local, natural, organically-grown, non-toxic, and (nearly) free. The native timbers I select for ground contact are so dense (tight-grained) that they will last decades in our well-drained sand.
Keen to try it yourself? Check out the upcoming workshops.
1st December, 1-4 pm. Permaculture Design for a Suburban Section. How to design and install a low-maintenance/high-productivity food system by working with nature, not against it. Sliding scale, $25 – $45.
8th December, 1-4 pm. Driftwood Structures for Gardens and Landscaping. View a wide variety of ways we’ve used driftwood as a beautiful, durable, free building element. Learn how to make some of these items. Tools and galvanized nails provided. Sliding scale, $25 – $45.

(Mis)understanding Sustainability

Last month in my weekly column I questioned if ‘environment’ and ‘sustainability’ are dirty words in Whanganui as they were hardly mentioned in the candidates’ statements for the local body elections. One eager candidate contacted me, and suggested that they were not dirty words, but just that different language was being used. The candidate suggested terms like ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘sustainable job creation.’
How sustainable is running outdoor lighting during the daytime?

The response leads me to believe that ‘sustainability’ may not so much be a dirty word in Whanganui as a misunderstood one. This is not so much of a surprise as, by and large, our schools have not done a good job educating for sustainability, or even for an understanding of what sustainability is. That’s a shame because there is a mountain of research showing that engaging children in sustainability learning can enhance their learning of maths, science, social science and languages. But that’s not what I’m here to write about today. (I’ve already written a 400-page thesis on the topic.)
The term ‘sustainable growth’, when examined through the lens of sustainability, is an oxymoron. From a sustainability perspective, growth for growths sake is unsustainable. It is a bit like cancer: it can grow and grow but ultimately stops growing when it kills the host. Any broadly accepted definition of sustainability emphasizes balancing economic growth with environmental protection and social wellbeing.
It appears to me that the candidate must have confused ‘sustainable growth’ with ‘sustaining growth.’ Sustaining growth is business-as-usual for industrial Western society. It simply means, how do we keep growth growing? In the words of the Onceler from The Lorax, “biggering and biggering and biggering and biggering.”
But in the well-known Dr. Seuss story, the Onceler ultimately runs up against limits to growth. In some ways, sustainability is about proactively ‘living within limits’ so that we don’t bump up against harsh realities down the track. These could be ‘Inconvenient Truths’ or debt defaults.
However, there is a perception that selling ‘living within limits’ to the population of a consumer society is a bit like selling Wallaby jerseys at Eden Park. It brings to mind the words of Winston Churchill, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
It’s not really that bad, but there is a common misunderstanding that sustainability is all about sacrifice and deprivation. In my experience, this could not be further from the truth. The type of sustainability that I embrace – based on good eco-design – cultivates win-win-win situations between the environment, economics, and human needs.
An obvious example of this is energy efficiency. Saving power saves money while providing the same or better services for people. Meanwhile, people can use the savings to enhance their lives in other ways: eating healthy, local food; buying beautiful, local art; hiring a baby-sitter so mum and dad can go out to a local restaurant.
Do you see a trend developing here? Every dollar we do not send to power companies in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington is a dollar potentially spent right here at home. All of this money already exists in Whanganui. We do not need to ‘attract’ these dollars here to boost our economy.
From this perspective, I think it is downright silly for us to voluntarily send millions – yes millions – of dollars away from our city every year for no reasons that I can discern other than apathy or indifference. Any concerted effort to save power in Whanganui would simultaneously: help low-income families and pensioners; support local businesses; lower health-associated expenses; help the environment; and, create local jobs. How many wins is that?
Other cities have embraced this logic to great effect. Yet Whanganui has not, and I’m at a loss as to understand why not. Is it that we are so wealthy we do not feel we need to worry about saving power and money? Hardly. Yet, every time I go to the Central Library I am reminded of what appears to be the apathy or indifference of our Council regarding sustainability.
Lightbulbs burning under a skylight at mid-day.
It has now been over three years since I first mentioned to library staff that the outside lights were running during the daytime. As of last week, they were still shining brightly on a sunny day. A conservative estimate puts the cost to ratepayers at $600 since I first brought the issue up in October, 2010. How long do participants in a democracy put up with such an unsustainable waste of their money? With so much chatter about our city’s debt, and debate over rates, it is unfathomable to me that we cannot simply turn off a light.
Nelson Lebo

ECO-Certification for Whanganui Businesses

I have spent most of my adult life in front of a blackboard or behind a garden hoe. I was lucky enough to have worked for 14 years at one of the best schools in America for students with learning differences, and to have worked my own 38 acres of forest and (poor) farmland for eight years. Each of these endeavours – most teachers and farmers will tell you – can be a fairly isolating.
Farmers, obviously, spend most of their time surrounded by (pick any that apply): grass – stock – grains – veges – broken machinery – manure – debt. Teachers, on the other hand, are almost always surrounded with human beings. Paradoxically, many teachers often feel isolated because they spend very little time working with other teachers to improve their teaching practice as they are so busy preparing lessons, delivering lessons, and marking papers.
For me, add the experiences of writing a doctoral dissertation over the last four years and you might call me a regular hermit. But our Eco-Thrifty Renovation project has gotten me active in a community for the first time. During the three years of our renovation and education outreach I’ve met hundreds of Whanganui residents I would not otherwise have met, and partnered with dozens of local organizations, businesses, schools, individuals, whanau, and even artists.
The operational model for The ECO School takes its inspiration from nature. Specifically, this means our work is holistic, cooperative and adaptive. So you will imagine my pleasant surprise when I met another organization in Whangnaui with a similar philosophy: Central2Health. What follows is one of those stories that makes Whanganui…well, Whanganui.
Last May, Carla Langmead contacted me for a home energy audit through Project HEAT. During my visit, we got to chatting – as you do – and she told me I should meet Terry Cunniffe, and look into joining Central2Health, which, by the way, had a meeting that week.
I contacted Terry, who invited me to the meeting. I told him that I was on bubs duty at that time. He said bring her along. This positive sign was reinforced by another when I walked into the meeting with 10-month old Verti under my arm, and Patricia Osborn – a stranger at the time but now a friend – swooped bubba up for a cuddle.
I could tell these were my kind of people not only because they love babies, but also because they believe in holistic approaches to health. Having worked with Sharon Duff of the organization-formerly-known-as WRPHO, I’ve learned that more people are drawn to issues of ‘health’ than issues of sustainability. From a holistic perspective, of course, they go hand-in-hand. What makes a healthy environment also makes healthy human beings.
For example, our warm, dry, low-energy home is a healthy home. As such, it aids the health of its inhabitants, the health of the planet, and the health of our family budget. This type of win-win-win situation is made possible by eco-design, and eco-design can be applied to all aspects of human culture. For example, a business can save resources, save money, and promote its public image simultaneously. Some might call this the definition of a healthy business.

In an attempt to support small business in Whanganui, I am developing a sustainability certification – a ‘Green Tick’ – that will ensure customers that certified businesses have addressed issues such as waste minimization and energy efficiency. The scheme will be unveiled at the upcoming Central2Health event held at Meteor Design & OPD in Ridgway Street, Tuesday 12 November. The event runs from 2 until past 6, with the Green Tick explained at 5:30.
Central2Health consists of ergonomics consultants (Terry, as well as Clive Williams), a wellness coach (Carla), a clinical therapist (Patricia), a physiotherapist (Julia Craig), and me, sustainability consultant. 

Eco-Thrifty Renovation Reaches 3 Years

As an eco-thrifty renovator, watching The Block NZ is an eye-opening experience. On the one hand, our villa was in as bad or worse shape than some of the houses on the programme. But on the other hand, the couples’ renovation budgets far exceed what we have spent in total: purchase of the villa and section, all consents, new roof, new wiring, new plumbing, solar hot water, super-insulation, and fully landscaped. Put another way, the budget on The Block for each room makeover is more than what we spent on the entire interior of our home including new floors, a new kitchen and new bathroom!
Granted, they are in Auckland. Granted, they are selling the houses for many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Granted, they are working on a tight timetable.
By contrast, we are not planning on reselling our home in Castlecliff in the immediate future, and are just finishing the last of the landscaping after three years. As a matter of a fact, this weekend marks the third anniversary of our blog –– that we started at the beginning of the renovation: November, 2010. The blog has had over 70,000 page views.
Before: Day 1
Unlike The Block, our renovation has been a part time endeavor. I spent the first two years writing my doctoral dissertation, and Dani worked more-or-less full time at the YMCA. And in the middle of it, we had a baby in the middle of our lounge. Wouldn’t that make exciting television?!? Take that Loz and Tom!
Like most of the couples on The Block, we have blended the new with the old, blending fresh paint colours and accents into what is patently a vintage dwelling. Style and craftsmanship are important because who wants to live in a drab, poorly built home?
Finally, like the couples on The Block, our home is somewhat of a public spectacle. That is to say we have shared the experience with anyone interested enough to pay attention. Unfortunately, however, we have no TV sponsorship, Kiwibank pre-loaded debit cards, or stacks of vouchers.

After: Day 1,000
We engaged in the educational component of our renovation as a voluntary community service, with the hope that momentum and interest would build enough over time to provide at least one part-time job. In the last three years we have written over 300 blog posts, and 80 columns for the Chronicle. Additionally, we have organized and hosted over 40 free/gold coin community sustainability events in Whanganui, and I’ve answered dozens of home energy questions over the telephone. Finally, Project HEAT provided close to 80 free home energy audits this winter.
Unfortunately, no jobs have emerged other than the partest of part-time. That didn’t seem like such a problem while I was writing my dissertation and before the bubs came along, but now that I’m Dr. Dad, unemployment is not so appealing. With no apparent prospects in Whanganui in the field of sustainability, we’ve decided to seek support from the community at large for the time being.
For the next six weeks, we – The ECO School – are engaging in our first fund-raising drive. We will be selling copies of the 2014 Permaculture Principles Calendar as well as hosting a series of events as shown in the sidebar. Your support will help us continue to support our community.
Sidebar: All events to be held at 10 Arawa Place
3rd November, 3-4 pm: Garden Tour. Donation.
10th November, 3-4 pm: Composting. Donation
17th November, 3-4 pm: Garden Tour. Donation.
24th November, 3-4 pm: Food Forests. Donation.
1st December, 1-4 pm. Permaculture Design for a Suburban Section. Sliding scale, $25 – $45.
8th December, 1-4 pm. Driftwood Structures for Gardens and Landscaping. Tools and galvanized nails provided. Sliding scale, $25 – $45.