Everybody Loves Us…Almost

Editor’s Note: This is one of my weekly columns for our city’s newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle. I use it regularly to help facilitate transformation in our city, and to point out some of the wasteful and unsustainable practices of our council.

The last two columns told stories about our first interns, John and Amy, and how they helped us transform an abandoned villa and section full of rubbish and weeds into a little paradise of sustainability. Along the way, the process of working with us provided vital steppingstones for each of their own transformations to more sustainable worldviews.

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Transformative learning, as I pointed, is a learning theory often applied to adults that seeks to explain changes of perspective that differ drastically from those held previously.

As I have pointed out in this column with regards to Castlecliff Beach, the potential for change can be scary, and so many people resist it. Transformative learning theory stipulates that in order to undergo transformation, learners must experience a “disorienting dilemma” or “cognitive crisis.”

In a nutshell, either of these conditions present the learner with the perception of mixed messages about the world and their place in it. For example, one message might say, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” while another message says, “Western consumer lifestyles are harming the planet.” Then she or he may choose to seek out learning experiences that help change their perspectives and lifestyles accordingly.

The mixed messages that most of us observe and some of us internalize are also sometimes called “cognitive dissonance.” For example, one can smoke cigarettes while believing it to be unhealthy. Psychologists suggest that those who experience such inconsistency (dissonance) are likely to be psychologically distressed.

Well people, I’m here to say I’m psychologically distressed. No, I don’t smoke. Nor am I living a consumer lifestyle. Here is the nature of my distress.

During any week, half dozen strangers will stop me on the street and say something like, “I read your column. Keep up the good work.” Or something like, “What you’re doing is so important for Whanganui. Don’t stop.”

Additionally, our work has been praised by leading permaculturists across the country and around the world. Our Eco-Thrifty projects have been featured in national and international magazines. We have been invited to other cities to present our work. Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 4.41.06 PM

Meanwhile, it appears that certain elements of Wanganui District Council does its best to ignore the work that Dani and Verti and I do to help make our community more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Please note, I have been advised not to make blanket statements about “council”, as it is a large and diverse organization. I recognize that many council staff may feel their positions have little or nothing to do with sustainability, and that they are not the ones making what appear to be unsustainable decisions for our city.

On another level, I suppose an argument can be made that it is not the role of council to help people live healthier lives while saving money and protecting the environment. Indeed, a senior staff member indicated such in a letter rejecting funding for a Community Contract with which I was involved.

Our council cuts heritage trees, dumps raw sewage into the ocean, and spends tens of thousands of dollars pushing sand to windward on the beach while other councils around New Zealand support innovative and successful sustainability programmes that help people and the planet. Does this explain the cause of my psychological distress?

Leading up to the elections last year I asked the question in this column if “sustainability” and “environment” were dirty words in Whanganui because almost nobody standing for office used them. Evidence of council decision-making certainly supports the suggestion that they are. But this begs the question, WHY?

Given the amount of good will that comes my way and the number of people that ask me to stand for office, it would appear there is a quiet majority of citizens – including some council employees – who recognize and appreciate the win-win-win thinking that I share in this column.

Silence over the last three years on our work appears to indicate the positions of those recently re-elected politicians, but the good news is that two of the newly elected councilors have indicated an interest in sustainability: one has contacted me via Facebook and one recently attended a local Green Drinks gathering.

Could it be the early signs of transformation for WDC? Time will tell.

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Harvest Season Permaculture Update

We have been blessed with a week of light winds and pure sunshine that has topped off our blackboy peaches, put our tomatoes into overdrive, and all of the other good things of early autumn.

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We are actively saving the stones to plant more of these amazing peaches.

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Hard to keep up with the tomatoes at this point, and giving away the excess.

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But eagerly awaiting our first capsicum.

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The tamarillos got pounded by wind three weeks ago, but are recovering now.

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These autumn raspberries are fabulous.

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While strawberries still going after 3+ months.

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First rock melon on the way.

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Pumpkins curing before storage.

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Monty’s Surprise apples will be ready in another month.

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Big, beautiful broccoli flourishing despite white butterflies.

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Even a rare chance to harvest seaweed on our coast. It usually does not wash up here.

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We were invited to have dinner with an interesting European couple who spend six months each year on their farm nearby. They gave us these gorgeous pears.

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And our dear friend Murray brought us these early Tropicana apples for us to enjoy.

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Peace, Estwing

Eco-Thrifty in the International Press

There seems to be a rising level of concern lately of news stories that put Whanganui in a bad light. Of course we all know that there are many groups and individuals working hard to do just the opposite. Among them are Dani and Nelson Lebo of The ECO School (Castlecliff), whose efforts have earned them praise from a wide range of environmentalists and sustainability advocates both near and far. At present, their work is featured in the current issues of three magazines: one domestic and two international.

Screen shot 2014-02-23 at 10.15.15 AMLocal writer Helen Frances has penned a fabulous article for New Zealand Lifestyle Block that runs a full eight pages, profiling the couple’s unique philosophy and international perspective. Find one in the shops before the end of the month.

Additionally, Nelson has written a piece for Permaculture (UK), on raising an eco-thrifty baby, using many of Dani’s photographs. It’s rare for New Zealand projects to feature in this magazine, so this is a particular accomplishment for a Whanganui-based permaculture property.

And finally, Nelson also contributed to Green Teacher (Canada), describing an environmental education curriculum he developed based on the couple’s renovation in Castlecliff. You can find information on the curriculum at The Little House That Could on Facebook.

Transformations: Part II

Last week I marked the three-year anniversary of the arrival of our first two interns, John and Amy. That was an opportunity to share the story of the transformation of what was once a chimney in Gonville into our brick patio in Castlecliff.

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It was also a chance to talk about transformative learning, a process by which many adults undergo a profound change in the way they view the world. In order to undergo such a major shift of thinking, learners need a nudge, which can come in the form of a ‘disorienting dilemma’ or a ‘cognitive crisis’.

In other words, something happens that renders unsatisfactory their current way of thinking. An easy example of this is a diabetes diagnosis that may force a change in ones view of diet and exercise. Other examples include the loss of a job or the break-up of a marriage. It should not be hard to recognize that these would alter ones perspective on financial security and relationships.

For many people in the sustainability movement, transformative learning is sparked by a slow but cumulative body of evidence indicating that the current state of the world is unsustainable. Literally, it cannot be sustained. Trends in everything from ecosystem health to energy supplies to extreme weather events to income distribution show that we are headed for volatile times ahead.

As such, the prudent and conservative thing to do is to look for systems on our planet that are more sustainable. For example, a forest ecosystem experiences a dynamic balance of plant and animal populations as well as materials recycling.

Observing such systems has led to the development of eco-design strategies such as permaculture. As one would expect, many adults experiencing a ‘cognitive crisis’ about the damage that Western consumer culture is inflicting on the planet and many of its people turn to permaculture as an alternative worldview.

Because I knew John-the-intern before he came to us three years ago, I expected that he was already well on his way to developing an alternative worldview. But Amy came to us more or less as a stranger. When she left many months later, not only was she a friend, but also a young woman on a mission. Screen shot 2014-02-22 at 7.23.58 AM

For Amy, it all started when she picked up a hammer and built us a fence. This was an empowering experience for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, she chose the project herself from a long list of options. Second, I set her up for success by providing enough structure that the project could be accomplished with her limited building experience at the time. Third, it looks awesome!

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In the same way that John transformed a chimney into a patio, Amy transformed our former deck into a beautiful and functional fence. Also like John, her experience served as a steppingstone along a path to a more sustainable worldview. Two and a half years after she left us, that path recently led Amy to the International Permaculture Congress in Cuba in December of 2013.

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Interesting how transforming our little villa here in Whanganui has helped transform a few young minds along the way.

Peace, Estwing

Choosing Kohanga Reo- Maori Immersion Preschool

Today Eco-Thrifty Baby started at kohanga reo – Maori immersion preschool. This probably isn’t a choice most people like us would make. And by “like us”, I mean non-maori. So why are we going this route? Why not enroll in a private daycare facility or in-home child care provider, like most of our (white) friends are doing? The answer is a combination of factors.

First- we know our weaknesses. We have been home-schooling our way through the first 18 months of ETB’s life. And so far we are doing a pretty damn good job of it. She experiences a wide variety of activities, is outdoor tons, and hears two languages spoken daily. But, there is a huge part of her culture, her background, that we can’t teach her about. Verti was born in NZ. She whakapapa’s to Castlecliff, Whanganui… more specifically to our living room. And that means that it is our responsibility to teach her about the people, the culture, and the language of her home country. Um yeah. We don’t really know much about that, so better to hand it over to the experts.

Also, we are really aware that ETB was born into a position of power simply based on her skin colour, the education level of her parents, her relative wealth, and the language she speaks. It is really easy to take those things for granted, especially if you grow up surrounded by others who look, speak, and act just like you. We want ETB to grow up with an awareness that most people in the world don’t look and sound like her. We want her to know what it is like to be “the other” and therefor have a deeper empathy for those who find themselves in the minority.

Plus, immersion education is amazing. It will like triple the size of ETB’s brain. Well, maybe not triple, but definitely double. OK, maybe it will just improve her reading comprehension, ability to learn additional languages later in life, and even facilitate the learning of mathematical operations. But that’s pretty awesome. Even more awesome is that because of the generous social welfare system in our bi-cultural nation, this immersion education is nearly free for us. That’s right, nearly free. IMG_4487

Also, kohanga will be a learning journey for all of us. What an amazing opportunity for us as parents to role-model a love of learning, the humility of trying something new, and the hard work that goes into improving. What a great chance to empower our toddler in the role of teacher as she picks up new words and phrases that we don’t know.

Finally, this kohanga is part of our community. It is walking distance from our house (although biking is a lot easier with a toddler), which means that many of ETB’s classmates will live nearby. The friendly face that greets us every day at the front door is Ma, the matriarch of our softball family, and ETB’s softball “cousins” go to the attached immersion primary school. Our neighbours, and close friends, have enrolled two of their children in the kohanga as well. By joining kohanga, all of these people, our community, will support us in ETB’s schooling. And in return the resources, time, money, and energy, we put into her schooling, will stay here in our community.


So even if, in the end, this is just a drop in the bucket, here’s hoping that our decision will be one step of many in raising a culturally aware and globally responsible child. In the least, we will get to enjoy a few hangi and ETB will finally get to make use of the pukana eyes she’s had since birth.


It’s Academic

As part of our education programme, we have developed a curriculum  on passive solar design for upper primary and lower intermediate/middle schoolers. It is included in the current edition of Green Teacher, and viewable on our website: http://www.theecoschool.net/The_Eco_School/Research_and_Publications.html

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Here is a story that sets the scene:

Once upon a time, in a small country at the edge of the world, a couple bought a run-down house and renovated it into an eco-home using passive solar design. They shared the project with the local community through open homes, workshops, school visits, and presentations. And they shared the project with the world with their blog. Word of the project traveled far and wide, up the Whanganui River and out across the Parapara Range to number of rural schools that formed a cooperative network called a “cluster.” Teachers from three schools in the cluster decided they wanted the theme of their final term (Term 4) to be sustainable energy use. They contacted the couple and arranged a hui – Maori for gathering or assembly – to talk about working together.

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At the hui they decided together to take a cross-curricular approach, integrating science, maths, English and the arts. The isolated locations of the schools across the rugged New Zealand countryside offered both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, the couple would not be able to visit the schools during the term. But on the other hand, they could use the Internet as part of an innovative unit plan that could be shared not only across the Parapara, but also across the world. Additionally, the rural schools had roles of five to 25 students, so mixed-age classrooms were the norm. Therefore, the lessons would need to be adaptable for different ages and abilities. The couple returned home and developed a series of multi-disciplinary lessons on energy that became The Little House That Could (TLHTC). What follows is an overview of the unit and then a number of individual lessons.

Also check out TLHTC on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Little-House-That-Could/205750306163061


We’ve just passed the third anniversary of the arrival of our first two interns. John Wright was a former student of mine from my high school teaching days, and Amy Lamb came to us through her uncle, a good friend and groomsman at our wedding. They were both in their early twenties when they arrived in Whanganui in late summer, 2011.

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 We were in the heart and guts of our renovation: ripping open walls, adding insulation, hanging Gib and weatherboards, installing solar hot water. Much of what we were doing at that time required close supervision, as it would be scrutinized by our building inspector. I’ll admit I was a bit of a taskmaster, which went over better with John than with Amy.

John had come to us straight after 4 months on a lobster boat off the coast of Maine through a Northern winter. Amy was fresh out of uni, and looking for a gap year type of experience.

By the time they left us, both had experienced transformative learning experiences on different levels. John returned to the states and immediately took up a lease on a two-acre organic vegetable farm. Amy took a job with a conservation organization, enrolled in a permaculture design course, and now works with a sustainable forestry consultant.

Transformative learning theory stipulates that in order for one to transform their perspective they must first recognize that something is wrong with their current perspective, then look for alternatives, and eventually adopt a new worldview. For those like John and Amy, the Western consumer lifestyle messages bombarding them on a daily basis did not satisfy their need for meaning.

They came to us and experienced some alternative worldviews such as sustainability, permaculture, and what we call eco-thrifty living. For the first month they spent with us, most of their ‘transformative learning’ took place outside of our nine to five workday dictated by the NZ Building Code. It took place over the dinner table, in the garden, and even during our weekly trips to Hayward’s Auctions.

But as the pressure of pre-line and post-line inspections waned, I allowed John and Amy to select from a long list of non-consent jobs to engage with while I got back to writing my PhD thesis.

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After building our outdoor pizza oven together, John embarked on laying second-hand brick for our patio and Amy set herself to constructing a fence. I’ll share John’s experience this week and Amy’s next week.

In my 14-year teaching career, John was one of my top 10 favourite students. Although not a strong academic, he always worked hard, had fun, and was open to new ideas. He was just an awesome kid.

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I had no problem telling him to build me a patio and trusting he would do a good job. The bulk of the work involved carting many wheelbarrows of sand to fill and level out the trench beneath the former deck that was full of rubble and rubbish. John was the perfect candidate for this job because he was strong as a horse, but also carefully used a leveling line to place each brick. John took ownership for the job and followed through with an amazing result more or less on his own.

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The project is a good example of eco-thrifty renovation because it involved second-hand materials, local materials, and free materials. With a little vision, hard work and patience, the bricks that made up a chimney in a Gonville home are now our patio in Castlecliff. What a transformation.

A Toddler-Centred Room

Two weeks ago I wrote a column in which I featured Castlecliff Beach in a design exercise of eco-thrifty renovation. The exercise was used to demonstrate that ETR principles can be applied across a broad spectrum. Among the core principles are working with nature instead of against it and investing money up front to save money over time.

While the above design principles embody both the ‘eco’ and the ‘thrifty’ of ETR, the column was written to include some more universal design ideas: ‘form follows function’, and designing to scale. Although these design ideas have been around for a long time, they can still be applied through new lenses.

As our cultural perspectives evolve, so do the ways we apply tried and true beliefs. For example, think about a baby’s nursery. Is the space designed for a crawler/toddler or for an adult?

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Many of the nurseries I have seen tend toward the traditional, magazine-photo-shoot variety. They are painted either pink or blue, they are tidy, and everything is set to adult height. As a way of thinking outside the square this week, I thought I would share our perspective on a more child-centred nursery design for our daughter, Verti.

Form follows function: For our family, the functions of Verti’s room are: sleeping (wishful thinking); independent play; toy storage; story time; playing with us.

Like many parents, our aim is to keep the ‘mess’ confined to her room. While this has not been accomplished yet, our design thinking was to make Verti’s room the most desirable place in the house for her to play. We did this by using a number of toddler-centred design elements that are lacking in other parts of our home.

For example, Verti’s room is the only carpeted one. A quality off-cut wool carpet and thick underlay purchased on TradeMe make the floor – where she does most of her playing – both warm and soft. The carpet remnant was more than twice as long as Verti’s room but only half as wide. We fit it to the room as needed and then hid the seam with furniture and a colourful area rug.

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Colour is another way we tried to entice Verti to play in her room. The Moroccan palette was inspired by a hanging string of elephants from a fair trade shop.

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Dani bought the area rug to match, and we reused paper lanterns from my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary party to take advantage of the 12-foot ceilings in a fun way. While those colourful paper orbs may seem miles above her head, everything else in Verti’s room is designed to her scale.

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Right-sizing: From the perspective of making a nursery child-centred, one must understand a child’s perspective. The best way to do this is to sit your bum on the floor. There you go. Done. That is a child’s perspective.

Two habits we want Verti to develop are choosing her own entertainment and putting things away after using them. To these ends, we have five toy storage areas in her room that she can access. These include a low shelf (secured to the wall for safety), two draws under her cot, a large toy basket, a rack for her play scarves, and a driftwood tree limb for her bags. She can access any of her toys whenever she wants, and has just begun putting them away too.

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Additionally, the low couch – really just three cushions and a cleverly made wooden frame – has been a big success. Verti loves being able to climb onto it easily and act ‘grown-up’, and we love sitting on it with her and reading stories.

The bottom line: Almost the entire world is designed by adults for adults. We wanted Verti’s nursery to truly be a child’s space and we think we have accomplished this. Whenever her little friends come over they immediately head for her room, and recently one of their dad’s lay down on carpet and said, “I really like this room. It invites you to get down to their level.”

What’s For Dinner: Tomato-Zuchinni-Chicken Bake

One of the most popular questions we get from people who read the blog or articles is – what do you eat?

They are usually surprised to learn that we don’t have a very strict dietary regimin. We certainly like our cheese too much to be vegan, and after a brief wwoofing experiment with raw food, we decided that wasn’t for us. Our eating principles are as follows, in order of importance:

1. Avoid GMOS

2. Eat Local

3. Eat Organic

We also tend to loosely agree with the Nourishing Traditions folks in the fact that we drink whole fat milk, use butter instead of marg, use real sugar and salt, and eat meat – all in appropriate quantities of course (or maybe silghtly more than appropriate) – and all following the above rules as closely as possible.

Given that information are you still curious about what we are eating for dinner tonight? Well alrighty then, I’ll tell you. But bear with me, because this is my first ever attempt at writing a recipe and my food porn is likely not up to scratch.

After taking a quick look through the fridge and garden and seeing what we have in abundance- it was decided by the head chef that tonight’s dinner would be some kind of Tomato-Zuchinni-Chicken thing.

I headed over to my favorite source of inspiration (for cooking, life, and bad-assery) and found this recipe. That Pioneer Woman, is she real or legend? I think legend. Who has the time to run a farm, take such great photos, and be so damn witty?

I dutifully followed her directions, using our homegrown vine ripened tomatoes, free range organic chicken, and top of the line boxed wine. I added some of that giant zucchini. Because it’s summer, and ever dish gets zuchinni in the summer.


But it wasn’t quite veggie enough for us yet, so I popped out to the garden to grab some green. Fresh herbs, swiss chard (silverbeet), and oh hey, a cute little ripe pumpkin! (We’ll just save that for another day).


Chopped all of that roughly and added some of our world’s best garlic and she was good to go. Image

An hour later our house smelled amazing and Eco Thrifty Baby was anxiously awaiting her dinner. Sorry kid, probably should have started dinner just a bit earlier, but time management is not one of mama’s strongest attributes.


And done. An easy healthy meal plus the chance to use my dutch oven. Sweet.