IN 2002 Carolyn Rowson was a city woman running a childcare centre. On stress leave from work and holidaying in Inverloch with her mother, she saw an ad in a real estate window. The photo showed an old house in a bare paddock in a place called Kongwak, “The Valley of Peace”. It was the first house she’d seen that didn’t need a lot of work done. She took it.
For two to three years it was her holiday house, a retreat. “But ultimately,” she says, “I realised I didn’t want to go back to the city.” The twin towers had fallen not long before. “You could feel things weren’t right with the world. The systems weren’t working.” Kongwak had become a kind of sanctuary.
She’d started with ornamentals - roses, bulbs, cottage plants of all kinds, cuttings from neighbours’ gardens. “Along the way I did a lot of play. I experimented with things: landscaping, building things for my own pleasure, garden beds, paths, arbours, shaping the water run-off into the dam.” She began to understand the role of compost – she calls it “Kongwak gold” – and worms. “It’s exciting to discover how much a worm can do for you!”
There’ve been costs – selling up in Melbourne meant she had to break important ties - but it freed her of a mortgage and, paradoxically, it grounded her. “Being in touch with the elements, being out there in it, experiencing the seasons first hand, I learned to tolerate the winter seasons of my own life,” Carolyn says. She’d taken things for granted in the city. “Down here it’s so direct. The rain falls out of the sky onto my roof and into my tank. Because I’ve planted so much the water is now in the canopy, in the trees and the soil. I’ve harnessed the water that runs through the place.”
She remembers one “aha” moment along the way. “I realised what a nightmare we’d created for ourselves, trusting the powers that be to manage the world for us.” Financially free in Kongwak, she had the opportunity to take responsibility and do something. She was free to think about how she could develop the property.
She did a permaculture course, formalising her growing understanding of the way ecosystems work. Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOFers) became a big part of her life. Feeling lonely and isolated and now a single mum, having other people around was a healthy distraction. She’s hosted about 30 backpackers from all over the world. “I love working and collaborating with others. The woofers are young and enthusiastic. They’ve got positive energy.”
In her youth, she’d been an exchange student in Japan so it was an opportunity to give something back, and exchange information as well. “They might have come from a farm that was growing something I was curious about. I’d say: ‘Tell me everything you know!’ You’d hear all about their hopes and fears; how they see the future of the world.” And she was glad for her young son, Lucas, to be exposed to different viewpoints and cultures.
Recycling is second nature. She’s a great hard rubbish scavenger. Her garden houses numerous old bath tubs: one, at table height, is full of potting mix; another contains a crop of spinach. An old fridge stores seed.
Fifteen years on, the bio diversity in this garden is impressive. It hosts 20 to 30 species of birds. The dam provides a micro climate for frogs and insects. Goldfish keep the mosquito larvae down. A handful of swamp gums (tiny saplings when she first arrived) shade the life beneath. And amongst it all, apple, pear, plum trees; rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries; all kinds of vegies, flourish. For the future she’s planning windbreaks and investigating vertical farming – fungi at the base, suspended garden beds above. Bee keeping is on the cards.
There’s no argument that there’s a lot of work involved, particularly since she recently re-opened her nursery at the Kongwak market. She suspects she’s creating a monster. “I want edges and neatness. I like a stretch of mown grass. I fall victim to that. I’m not a permaculture purist.”
Recently her involvement in the coal seam gas issue led her to doorknock at the home of every Kongwak resident. She likes that feeling of knowing everybody in her own community. Just a couple of weeks after she’d arrived in 2002, the only shop in Kongwak, the general store, closed and the loss was keenly felt. The Kongwak market has become a surrogate social hub but Carolyn would like something more.
She’s passionate about the community living within its resources, reducing emissions and packaging. “There’s no reason why Kongwak couldn’t have its own local food co-op,” she says.
Is she surprised to be the person she’s become? She laughs at the question. “I’m surprised to have survived motherhood,” she says ruefully. She laughs again when she recalls how little she knew when she first arrived all those years ago.
“I was so green that when a local woman told me it was calving season I thought: ‘Carving’? They have a special season to cut up the meat??”
She has changed, of course. Over the years she’s learnt heaps. She’s always been creative – in the city she did cake decorating, floristry, sewing, painting. But here, she says, “my focus is on where I live. I feel I’ve found my right livelihood, an outlet that has a light footprint. I’m creating from the centre out rather than being out there saving the world.”
Carolyn would like people to come to her garden and see its value but quails at the thought that visitors will expect perfection. She is happy for it to be called a work in progress.
Carolyn’s Open Garden: A Work in Progress, 1509 Korumburra-Wonthaggi Rd, Kongwak. The garden is open next Saturday and Sunday, November 26-27, from 10am-4pm. Inquiries: 5657 4221
November 19, 2016
Great story Gill and congratulations to Carolyn in what she is achieving on her property and in her life.
Nola Smith, Cape Paterson