In Champagne country

John Champagne
John Champagne

We rolled into Bega, New South Wales, after an all-night bus ride, tired and creased. We stumbled off the bus and were met by a man with light eyes and skin tanned a nut-brown. As we shook hands, I noticed he wore clog-like shoes that separated the big toe from the rest, a Hawaiian-looking print shirt, a floppy leather hat and well-worn pants. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail where it curled pleasantly onto the top of his spine. The man was John Champagne.

Quiet but not unfriendly, I assumed he was sizing us up. And who wouldn’t? What did two middle-aged Americans think they were doing backpacking around the country as if they were in their twenties? I soon learned the man takes in everything.

He drove us out of Bega to his homestead in Brogo, where his mud brick home sat at the bottom of a long winding, unpaved driveway. A vine-covered patio provided shade to the front of the house and the main garden lay just beyond. Some Permaculture homesteads feel way too chaotic for me, but this, this design was practical and beautiful. Twenty years of creative energy had gone into the place and it showed. He explained that he prefered shapes and patterns, rather than rows for his designs and the results were truly stunning.

Champagne emphasized that permaculture is a above all a planning tool, a system whereby one watches, observes and thinks things through before a single clump of soil is turned. Problems arise when people are impatient and plant in haste. He’s even taken the system to nearby Thailand and southeast Asia, where permaculture is recovering the best traditional farming secrets almost lost since the so-called “Green Revolution.”

A small bridge provided access to the main garden, traversing a small mock streambed drainage system. The garden design featured rounded berms, a technique he adopted after abandoning raised beds in order to plant things on the sides. Swales between the berms were not only used for drainage but to collect “chop and drop” clippings which he walked upon, speeding decomposition and ultimately providing mulch.

We saw many wonderful things that day, including John’s fruit and nut orchards and his method for watering a hillside via a small, unlined reservoir at the top of the ridge. The reservoir collected rainwater and slowly drained into the ground, watering the rest of the hillside and effectively eliminating the need for irrigation. In addition, all his trees were planted with comfrey around the base, not only serving to keep out weeds, but provide easy access to mulch.

I witnessed espalier (ess-pal-yaay) pruning for the first time in his netted orchard, where apple trees grew like vines along the side as a space saver. And I saw his gray water system, where water from the kitchen sink is filtered through layers of organic material and a worm farm. The worms eat the food particles and produce castings for compost. The system drains into the ground from a low tech flexible PVC pipe that is bent up to stop the flow and unbent for release.

As we toured Champagne’s 12 acres, Bell Birds whistled their tranquil metallic notes amid an idyllic landscape – some of the most beautiful country I had seen in Australia. Champagne himself hummed a little tune between conversation, running up the scale a few notes and back down again. As time went on, from some wordless place inside, I began to realize his song, simple yet true, came from the land itself.

On Social Permaculture

aul Hudson of Mullumbimby says permaculture must include Care for People and Fair Share of the Surplus.
aul Hudson of Mullumbimby says permaculture must include Care for People and Fair Share of the Surplus.

By Steven Saint Thomas

When Paul Hudson helped coach homeless men to compete in a Sydney soccer tournament, he says he was practicing permaculture. After all, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren identified three ethical pillars for a sustainable society: Care for the Earth, Care for People and Fair Share of the Surplus.

Hudson and other permaculturists would call the pursuit of the latter two ethical pillars “Social Permaculture.”

“Most people think of permaculture as growing something or producing a yield in fruit and veggies to eat,” says Hudson, who works in a health food store in Australia’s Byron Bay when he’s not developing his own bush homestead near Mullumbimby. “However, a successful permaculture system requires that people work together. Without an involved community where people know each other, a local food system cannot exist.”

Hudson says “community” includes people who are less fortunate – people who are homeless or without jobs, struggling with various disabilities, or from other cultures or countries. Care for People means integrating these people into society rather than shutting them out.

Street Soccer in his native Sydney was a good way to achieve this goal. Everyone is invited to play soccer and compete on teams. Tournaments are not only fun, but allow players to advance to regional play-offs, culminating in the annual Homeless World Cup.

One of the reasons Hudson likes the Street Soccer model is that it goes beyond charity and handouts. Homeless people are active participants and see the rewards of their labors.

“Welfare creates two classes: people who need the support financially and people well off enough to give it to them,” Hudson says. “Social Permaculture aims to help people reintegrate into society. That means you empower them. They’re all valuable parts of the community.”

Many Street Soccer players are also working themselves towards self-reliance by selling The Big Issue, a professionally produced street paper published in 10 countries, including Australia. Homeless or financially vulnerable people can buy copies of the paper wholesale at about half the cover price. They keep the markup as self-employed vendors.

Structured as a nonprofit organization, The Big Issue provides vendors with resources and counseling. It also sponsors 18 Street Soccer teams across Australia. People are not receiving charity, they’re simply Sharing the Surplus.

“Think about people who are on the edge, who wake up in the morning with no purpose for their day or prospects for the future,” Hudson says. “Suddenly they have employment or they are part of team surrounded with support. The track record is very good for participants getting off substance abuse or finding jobs or permanent housing.”

Hudson hasn’t gone to the mainstream World Cup, but he’s been able to attend two Homeless World Cup championships – one in Melbourne (2008) and one in Rio de Janeiro (2010). Team Australia didn’t win either one, but Hudson says the feeling of empowerment you get from representing your country on a world stage is unbeatable.