Susanna Vall's Story

Susanna Vall

My kids and I came on land at Elands on the Bulga plateau inland from Taree NSW in 1982, and the brick foundations of the building were here from 1985, the rest of the structure finished in 1990. Three adults and eight children between us bought this piece of land (about 114 acres of escarpment). We needed a piece of land where we could live, not live off, which gave us lots of space for all these kids to eventually grow up and have some space of their own. So we bought a company and have ten shareholders. The idea was to find a place where we could stay all the time if we want to, or come and go, so it’s a refuge. But also that one person could maintain, because rates etc are less than $1000 a year. There are about nine sites at the moment, some with just a caravan. My house began as a communal building, but that didn’t work well after the kids grew up.

It is really a village structure rather than a community structure, so what you get is a village community – you share a school, halls, tennis courts. Isolation is a thing that creates community, and we are isolated in this place. One cycle of people from the 1970s and 1980s is often called rural resettlement, because we moved into places that other people had left for economic reasons – the dairying went out, the timber mill went out, and cattle was becoming unprofitable. At the moment there are about two dozen settlers here, not including children. People in my age group came here 30 years ago. At its peak, about 15 years ago, there were about 50 of my age group – that is people aged over 45. What we’ve noticed is that when you have primary-aged kids you tend to be pretty stable, but when they go to high school there is a change. I was one of those who took my teenage kids to Armidale for a while. So the parents and children may not come back after that.

I am quite a transitory person as regards Elands. I lived in Armidale for a few years, went to Queenstown in Tasmania for a few months of the year, and I used to travel with community markets and for holidays. I’ve always known that I need to come and go. I think people get too caught up in the place they’re in and what they’re doing, without enough feedback from outside the often small communities or neighbourhoods. We used to call it ‘valley vision’ when people didn’t go out much.

Most people end up somewhere because it’s the next part of their life, but maybe ten percent are more conscious – they perceive that there are things happening in which they can get involved and for which their input would be meaningful in some way. I think one of the keys is caring for others, who may not be connected to you except that they live in the same place. And then we might get to the intentional level of being active to bring about social change.

We’ve got together a few things in Elands – longer term projects and events. We have the Oxygen farm, a private reserve with a volunteer conservation agreement on it through NSW National Parks, protecting flora and fauna. There is a walking track, an information gazebo, a shed for the mulcher etc. We also have a community development Co-operative which owns land in Bulgong village. The Co-op bought shares in the Elands Mill and that enabled us to get a grant to finish the oval, and move in the Food Club. The health centre is another project we got together as a community, when there were lots of us to support it, but it is a bit of a white elephant now because it doesn’t get much use.

It is important for me to step back from things and not be attached to outcomes, because once things are on their way they have their own life. In 1999 there were major disagreements among the shareholders of the Elands company about what was being done at the old sawmill. This posed a threat to the company itself and I needed to act to ensure it wasn’t damaged. There have been important anniversaries in the history of the project, such as putting on a market and a dance or a luncheon. I try to get to the school play every year, which is usually a really good turnout.

I just learned what I do by simply doing it. I am constantly picking up information and seeing possibilities both for getting rid of problems that arise or for new directions showing up and unfolding. Each situation feeds back into the others – the wisdom of other communities as well, not just this one. I’ve been visiting and reading about and discussing different aspects of community life and projects with people for the best part of 40 years. I am pleased that by the 1980s academic studies were being done on communities.

Social justice is very important to me. When I attended a Catholic school in Sydney I found a bishop and priests committed to social justice. They told me about what was happening in Spain in the Basque country, where co-operatives were being set up. Those places were great examples for the co-operative movement that developed in the 1960s for things like housing, education, transport, health, food and alternative schools. One of my major interests in life is getting people together and working for social justice. One reason for my interest was that I had a strong sense of injustice, whether it was with children, animals, or adults. The humanitarian aspect and awareness of pain and disadvantage made me see the interconnections.

Parallel to this was a spiritual awakening. While church dogma proved difficult for me, I understood its intrinsic social impact and people’s adherence to it. My curiosity was really my leading light. So at 13 I attended some of the talks put on by the Theosophical Society. I sought like-minded people but was not comfortable with everything they did. I overlapped with people on one thing, and moved among sub-cultures. I was very independent, being an only child, and I enjoyed the social mobility that was available. I was attracted to the company of older people, and children much younger, and I didn’t have friends of my own age. I attended gatherings of the Ironworkers Union, the Workers Education Association. I got used to associating with a wide range of people, and I don’t feel uncomfortable with anyone.

I started at the University of NSW in 1966. With the politicisation that came with the Vietnam War, and a lot of people beginning to travel and bring back all sorts of interesting information from 0verseas, a whirlwind was happening in many ways. People like the guys who started the whole concept of Nimbin were at my university at the time. I went to lots of meetings and listened. I had a sort of insight into myself that I had to get a very broad set of activities that I had observed. They were very radical years.

I could have stayed in the city and had a comfortable life, but I chose to go to the country. I had been attracted to the bush by childhood visits to the Blue Mountains, Cooma and the Murrumbidgee. A friend showed me a house where the parents made private dwellings for the growing kids and I took that idea with me. I’ve always had a vision of the future and how I wanted my living arrangements to change and expand. I still think the idea of an expanded dwelling is a really good thing even if it’s transitory. So I decided to live in the country and discussed options with many people, and visited many places.

An inspiration emerged from Tennessee USA where 300 people had settled on a place called The Farm. One of these people, Gladney Oakley, came to Australia looking to set up a similar place. He and his wife started in Queensland and worked their way south looking for good climate, water, soil etc, and gradually they made their way to Elands. Because the dairy industry was being rationalised, a property was available and the Oakleys bought it. By the late 1970s there were about 30 people intentionally living here. Soon there were monthly bazaars and Saturday markets to share produce, dances and movies and cricket games. Healing practices, primal screaming, were part of the environment of the place. The California dreamin’ connection was pretty strong. I met the Gladneys and visited Elands. The place didn’t have what I wanted at that time, and my partner and I could not finance anything there at that stage. As Elands developed, quite a lot of Bhagwanis and Satyanandas came to practice healing, rebirthing etc. By the 1980s there were big workshops, with a flow of people in and out. I always felt it was more social than spiritual.

My partner and I found a place by ourselves near Kempsey which worked on and off as a community. When our relationship broke up and I left there, I went to Mt George where a group of friends bought an old bakery and butcher’s shop and I considered joining them, but the school put me off as being too ‘redneck’. I finally moved to Elands, after a time linking with Rollands Plains community. I had two sons and I needed a place we could share with others. The Elands community school appealed to me, and everything fell into place.

I have also been involved with the Mt Oak Community to some extent, although I have never lived there. After the Down to Earth festivals (largely organised by Jim Cairns and Junie Morosi) I heard of Mt Oak (at Bredbo between Canberra and Cooma). In 1985 they brought people in because outside violence had become a problem for the Morosi clan there. Over the next few years Mt Oak’s legal infrastructure was developed. I have had some involvement with their decision-making on setting the tone, possibilities and limitations, as well as dealing with emergencies and conflicts.

I came across Ned Iceton in 1984 through AASC, and I first attended a workshop of SDN in 1986. I have enjoyed the opportunity to be with like-minded people, sharing experiences and finding techniques to solve problems and dilemmas. SDN has given me the opportunity to reflect on both personal and social development, to have feedback on my projects, to assess how these fields of personal and social development are developing in Australia. It is a successful network, and has continuity, which is most important. I greatly value Ned’s contribution, and I hope SDN continues along the same lines.

1982-2005 (based on an interview with Jane Dunstan in 2005)