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How did I get here?

'How did I get here?' Well, it all started in bed - as a lot of beginnings do. I was living in a little house with an amazing view (a view with a room) in The Patch in the Dandenong ranges. I'd been there for 4 years, a refugee from Coburg looking for a chance to put into practice a budding interest in gardening. By the fourth year, my third of an acre of chocolate-rich soil was growing a wild profusion of exotics, natives, hedges, creepers, espaliered fruit trees, vegetables, and weeds. So many weeds. But maintaining it all, although a pleasure, was also increasingly hard work. I wasn't getting younger but the slope I lived on was getting steeper by the day.

One morning, over a cup of tea in bed I somehow ended up on an ad for a house in the evocatively named Bend of Islands. The very name was enough to arouse curiosity. It sounded like the title of a novel! But there it was: 'Alistair Knox house for sale on a Conservation Co-operative in the Bend of Islands'. One of 24 houses on 326 acres, with a 200-year lease. I thought that (barring some extraordinary medical breakthrough) 200 years would probably see me out and so I followed the links to learn more. My first uncomfortable assumption was that this 'Round the Bend Conservation Co-op' might be some humourless hippy-style arrangement. You know the sort of thing: communal mess hall, ancient elders and feral children, a dour mix of cult and siege mentality, but the website seemed to suggest otherwise.

A few days later my partner and I did a drive-by through the area. Eltham, Warrandyte, Bend of Islands. First impressions? I've got to say that to someone used to the lush, (largely imported), deep lush greens of the Dandenong Ranges this landscape of red and yellow Box, Stringybark and Ironbark trees with precious little understory was not all that appealing. It seemed barren and harsh. It was to take me a while to uncover and appreciate its richness and quiet diversity.

The real estate agent agreed to meet me on-site the next weekend, but this was no simple 'house and land package' and he wasn't inclined to spend too much time on it, or us. 'Read the fine-print' was his sensible advice, the devil's in the detail. I'd done a bit of that research already and now I'd fallen in love with the house. The owner kindly allowed us to stay a night and we brought some wood for the fire and camped on the brick floor of the vast living room. What a night! So still, so silent. No traffic, no dogs barking, only the croaking of frogs in the pond and an occasional woo-hoo of a Powerful owl to disturb the stillness. In the morning a pair of Kangaroos outside the window and, is that a Wombat waddling down the slope and into the gully? At every turn this place seemed to delight.

But there is a 'sweet spot' you need to reach before the idea of living here is doable. To start with no pets are allowed. Not so easy in the age of Covid when every second person seems to have bought some form of 'doodle'. Why no pets? Because cats are voracious predators (ever wondered why there are no little skinks running around your suburban yard like there are here? Ask your cat - or the neighbour's) and dogs leave scent trails that disturb the wildlife - this is a 'conservation' area after all!

Second, you need to have the funds to purchase (Banks are decidedly chary of lending on this sort of set-up). In my case, the move would be financed by the sale of my Patch house.

Thirdly the Co-op is just that. It has a revolving Board of Directors drawn from Members and here conservation is not just a warm and fuzzy feeling. You actually need to get your hands dirty (and put them up occasionally to help run the place).

This brings me to the membership process. You're not guaranteed acceptance into this community. You need to exhibit qualities that will be of benefit to our aims and ideals.

All of this was fine by me and so I agreed to rent the house for a year while we all went through the 'getting to know you' phase. I also signed an agreement to purchase the house at an agreed price if I was accepted as a member and if I hadn't changed my mind in the interim.

I took part in the monthly work parties. (Members need to attend six half days a year) and I came along to the monthly Directors' meetings to get a sense of how the place 'ticked'.

Other than that, I was on my own to meet my neighbours, or not, and to learn about the orchids, plants and animals that call this place home.

I've been here for nearly three years (two as a member) and have become familiar with the local inhabitants, both furry and otherwise. I'm a lot more knowledgeable about the ecology of this important bit of native bush than I was - but that's not saying much and there's a lot more to learn.

You could call it a lifestyle choice, but I simply like living close to nature and doing my bit to protect it.

I started this story in bed and as I write this I'm there again, but now I can hear that in the ceiling above me a Phascogale has made my home hers. They are beautiful and endangered, and they choose to live on the Co-op too, along with Powerful owls, Koalas, Sugar Gliders, Jacky lizards, rare orchids and a thousand other delights.

I consider myself in good company.


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