Searching for resilience to restart a permaculture paradise

For fifteen years The Monastery of 11 Strings was Vic Waghorn’s little slice of heaven.

What turned most people off about the property was what the filmmaker and permaculturalist liked about it, her daughter Raen Waghorn-Hughes said.

NATURAL BEAUTY: Raen Waghorn-Hughes with mum, Victoria Waghorn on the banks of the Guineacor Creek at The Monastery. Insets: Impending threat and an aerial shot depicting the 'magic bus'. Pictures: Supplied.

NATURAL BEAUTY: Raen Waghorn-Hughes with mum, Victoria Waghorn on the banks of the Guineacor Creek at The Monastery. Insets: Impending threat and an aerial shot depicting the 'magic bus'. Pictures: Supplied.

“She fell in love with the isolation, mountain vista, rugged landscape, the creek down the bottom; it is unique to have that all in one piece of land,” she said.

“The landscape was attractive to her – some people want it to be farm-able and a revenue stream but she just fell in love with the beauty of it.”

Nestled in bushland off Mares Forest Road with the Guineacor Creek running along the boundary, The Monastery was an off-grid permaculture success story – a labor of love and hard work which provided the key to a sustainable life while honouring the beauty of the bush. 

On the weekend of January 21, the ominous and foreboding plume of smoke over the ridge soon proved to be a a very real nightmare. 

The Bannaby fire ripped through the landscape, leaving her home, along with everything they had built as blackened dust.

THRIVING AND SURVIVING: A functioning aquaponics system before the fire.

THRIVING AND SURVIVING: A functioning aquaponics system before the fire.

When her mum first saw the smoke approach The Monastery on the Friday she was nervous, and quickly made plans to evacuate her two cats from the property, Raen said.

Watching closely, when it came to Saturday she decided to grab her two cats and seek safety away form the bush.

After voicing her concerns to the Rural Fire Service, Vic and her partner Dave spent the night camping at the skate park at Taralga as a precaution.

On Sunday she returned to the property to try and herd her “very free range” poultry that “don’t do choppers.”

 “It hurt so much leaving them behind under duress, but I couldn't catch them with a helicopter out of nowhere yelling eviction notices on top of us in the middle of the day,”  Vic said.

FREE RANGE FOWL: Miraculously, only two chickens perished in the fire.

FREE RANGE FOWL: Miraculously, only two chickens perished in the fire.

With no choice but to leave, on Sunday she drove back to Sydney to her daughter’s home, before deciding to return to the property the following day to save the chickens and ducks.

She only got as far as Pheasants Nest when she found out the worst – the property had been enveloped by the bush fire. 

The world suddenly “became really blurred” as she spoke on the phone to a friend as she walked into the service station to pay for petrol. 

On the side of the highway, reality hit hard. 

“I thought we were fine. I refused to believe it was true,” Vic said.

With a “concrete knot” in her stomach, suddenly she could no longer hear.

“I cried and wouldn't accept it was real. It was raining on the highway. So much bitter sweet,” she recalled.

“I had to be there, I had to go home. I had to see. I wished I hadn't left my sacred space, that I hadn't let that chopper shoo me away”.

HARD YAKKA: Dave and Vic Waghorn cut timber.

HARD YAKKA: Dave and Vic Waghorn cut timber.

She pushed the details of the fate of her house, her gardens and her animals to the back of her mind, and she drove on to Taralga. All the while she wasfocusing on “not falling apart”. 

The destruction of The Monastery had come as a complete shock. 

“The entire weekend I had been told and assured there was no danger on the north side where I am; I felt like I was being a drama queen,” she said.

“Last time I checked the map it had seemed fine.”

Just one hour before, Raen said her mum had posted in a facebook group for those who spent time at The Monastery.

“She sort of said ‘oh my God the wind is still blowing in the other direction’,” she said. 

“It was sort of like black comedy in a way. In an hour it just changed and once it started blowing the other way it went really fast and burnt through several hundred metres in less than a minute.” 

It was days after the fire until they could finally get in safely to survey the aftermath.

With a bit of assistance from a dozer organised by Taralga RFS senior deputy captain Brad Sheridan, and a lift from John Sullivan, on Thursday they saw the extent of the damage. 

The land was scorched, structures were destroyed and fifteen years of hard work was “pulverised”.

A COMMUNITY: Friends of The Monastery preparing lunch.

A COMMUNITY: Friends of The Monastery preparing lunch.

It was a “moonscape” punctuated with blackened twigs.

“The flames were fifty metres high,” Raen said. 

“It was just impossible to defend.”

Her mum was heartbroken to see all the hard work destroyed, she said. 

With limited access to the property, anything and everything established was the result of hard and slow do-it-yourself effort over many years, she said.

Miraculously, when they got to the site they found they had only lost one duck, two chickens, and most of the beehives had survived.

“They probably hid under the bus, but the heat must have been absolutely insane,” Raen said.

“It is really bizarre going out here now because all the things that were landmarks aren’t there anymore. You just think ‘how is this going to come back?”

While a car had been burnt out, by chance the bus had been mostly spared and had since earn’t the nickname ‘the magic bus’.

TRANQUILITY: The beautiful Guineacor Creek borders the property.

TRANQUILITY: The beautiful Guineacor Creek borders the property.

In the days that followed, with offers of help coming from left right and centre, Raen and her mum’s partner Dave decided to put together a crowdfunding campaign to help.

“A few people had expressed wanting to send money, but not until we had full clarity after seeing a few aerial photos did we want to set it up,” she said.

“It is awkward to talk about money and we didn’t want to ask about but it was a special circumstance.”

With an initial goal of $5,000, the gofundme page has raised $11,500 from 88 people in just one month.

While money was one thing, Raen the messages of support and love was the most overwhelming part.

In the days after the fire a few close friends even helped set up a composting toilet and a makeshift kitchen space in the ‘magic bus; as a base to start re-working the land.

MUM AND DAUGHTER: Vic and Raen in Christmas, 2015.

MUM AND DAUGHTER: Vic and Raen in Christmas, 2015.

“The most touching were those who don’t have much but donated,” she said.

“Some people even just bought her a six pack of beer so all those little things add up.”

One of the silver linings from the catastrophe that took out The Monastery for the family was truly becoming part of the Taralga community.

“Mum didn’t know a lot of people in Taralga but when she went through everything she spent a bit of time in the town and had so many people offering support,” Raen said.

“They were effectively strangers but know she knows half the town, she has really felt the love of that community and met some really great people.”

With her animals separated and billeted off to three different properties and all of her work, including ongoing film projects lost in the fire, Vic said her life was “fractured in pieces”. 

Taking out in Fjordland in New Zealand, Vic said she is “taking stock” of the situation before committing to the next chapter. 

“I figure when one is delivered lemons why not make limoncello? Lemonade is for kids and I need something a little stronger right now,” she joked.

COMING TO FRUITION: The early days of the orchard.

COMING TO FRUITION: The early days of the orchard.

“On one view I am crippled by the tragedy and horror of my home and life's work being destroyed and the other is my inner film director realising that I have just been ironically delivered black gold in terms of a post apocalyptic film set.”

As a “lapsed filmmaker” with creative pursuits on hold, she said now is a time of thinking and taking therapy in writing. 

“I see how I choose to spend the next 15 years of my life, whether once more it will be to wrestle with the elements in an off grid scenario, to phoenix here in the harsh unrelenting but incredibly addictive Australian bush.”

Whatever the future holds for The Monastery and her home in the bush, she hopes to be as “resilient” as the landscape she left.

This story Taking stock in ashes of devastation first appeared on Goulburn Post.