Book and Videos Review

by independent journalist Russ Grayson:
(Used with permission)

Here’s a new resource that transition educators might find useful in their work. It’s a new booklet and accompanying videos by Katoomba-based permaculture educator, Rosemary Morrow. Rosemary has for years promoted what we now name ‘transition initiatives’ in her local area in the NSW Blue Mountains. Quite some time before the term became popularised through transitions, I recall talking with her on occasions, about what we called ‘community resilience’. We looked at that through a permaculture perspective and now we have insights about it coming from outside the permaculture milieu. I’ve had a chance to take a look at the booklet and DVD now, and following, you can find my impression….

If I had to make a knowledgable guess, I’d say that it is her attitude to life and the determination and courage to live her spiritual beliefs that have led Rosemary Morrow along the path of a comfortable frugality and simplicity of living. And if I wanted confirmation of this, then her little, 23 page, A5 size booklet would provide it. The booklet carries the rather intriguing title of ‘A Good Home Forever’. It proposes that we respond to economic downturn and the crisis in sustainability by taking control of our lives and by examining what it is that we want in a home. Rosemary describes conventional homes as ‘consumer junkies’ gulping down resources and producing only wastes. Yet, her solution isn’t to go out and commission an architect to design a state of the art energy efficient house such as we see in some ‘green’ magazines aimed at the well-off. Not all that many can afford to do that. Rosemary suggests converting – retrofitting, in the jargon – an existing house to make it energy, water and materials efficient. It is the reality that retrofitting existing housing stock, rather than constructing new buildings, is the way we will make our cities energy and resource efficient.

This is the theme of her booklet – that retrofitting a brick veneer, suburban house can turn these often-maligned dwellings into comfortable, resource efficient homes, and can do so comparatively cheaply. Rosemary preferred brick veneer, with alumimium window frames and galvanised iron roof, because these are low-maintenance materials. The construction of the house allowed Rosemary to easily remove interior walls to open up the place, and doing so allowed her slow combustion wood stove to warm the interior during Katoomba’s chilly (let’s be honest here and say freezing) winters. Reading this, I was reminded of something that Jude Fanton from the Seed Savers Network said about buying a house in Byron Bay. Brick veneer, she told me, is the best buy because such houses work well in the climate.

Rosemary’s booklet is not simply about an urban retrofit to adapt her home to the seasonal variability of climate in Katoomba, high in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Embedded in it is a philosophy of life, including the assessment of whether you move to more affordable premises or stay where you are. Not all that many years ago, Rosemary moved from a larger property at Blackheath to nearby Katoomba, and in doing so made the choices about sustainable urban living that her book focuses on: solar access (the house faces the north, to sunward, affording access to solar energy), energy autonomy, water sustainability, proximity to services – she can walk to the train station, and she is close to amenities.

There was also the criteria of financial sustainability because she didn’t want her money tied up in a mortgage. As Rosemary says, by moving to a lower priced home you might be able to free yourself from financial anxiety in these economically troubled times, or at least set yourself on the path to doing that. There’s a lot to learn about site analysis in her booklet and several site plans of her house and small garden are included. She covers the permaculture concept of designing by zones – according to the frequency of access needed to the different parts of the food producing garden – energy design principles derived from the permaculture design system and harvesting and storing rainwater. She even lists costs and offers a checklist to assist thinking about your home. May I suggest that this would be useful reading for people reconsidering how they live? It is, in essence, an ideas book and it carries that critical, analytical and self-assessing attitude that is embedded in the permaculture design system, of which Rosemary is a noted educator and exponent.

Rosemary’s experience is also valuable because she did the reverse of that all too frequently promoted in permaculture circles – she moved into a small city rather than escape to the countryside. In doing so, she emphasises the reality that urban living can be the catalyst for sustainable living, and that, as the population ages, urban living offers solutions that become too difficult in rural areas. The book, which is printed on recycled paper, is illustrated by Rob Allsop, who did the drawings in The Earth Users Guide to Permaculture.

The book is complimented by videos from the website with a 20 minute or so program of Rosemary’s retrofit, produced by the local Lysis Films in Katoomba. It also has segments, potentially of use to sustainability educators, about particular elements of the retrofit. These run only a few minutes each and are sufficiently short to be of use in workshops and courses. The full 20 minute video would provide an informative case study to start a conversation on home energy and water efficiency. Educators would show it, then use the content as the basis for an ORID format (objective, reflective, interpretive, decisional) or other guided conversation. In this way, the videos work in the same way as Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond’s 15 minute production on local foods, which provides an introduction for discussions about food systems.

Educators have a number of longer video programs, but too few of this shorter length suited to public events and use in workshops and courses.

Rosemary sells the book for a mere $20. This is a complementary and useful package. And if you think that’s a lot for a 24 page booklet, think of its value this way – the cost is equivalent to only six cappuccinos, and its effects are likely to last a great deal longer.

Rosemary is now on the road, heading northward up the NSW coast, then over to Darwin where she has a teaching engagement. After that, she goes to East Timor to do some work. It may be some months before she returns to her energy efficient home in Katoomba. By that time she will have missed the pleasures of winter there, in her retrofitted house with its slow combustion stove spreading its warmth, while outside the frost thickens and birds shelter deep within their nests from the biting south-westerlies.