What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” (Henry David Thoreau)

The other day as I was walking in my local suburb with the dog child, I noticed that yet another house had been bulldozed to the ground to make way for yet another new build. But this was no ordinary house and certainly not a tumbledown. Well-maintained, it was an elegant and gracious Victorian-style home enclosed by a bluestone wall with a polished brass number plate. In fact, it was smart enough to have statues in the garden. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl – albeit in a Southern Hemisphere setting – I used to peek through the fence, admiring the porch with the tiled floor, the wrap-around veranda and the ornate cornices on the roof. This is the kind of house I would buy if I won the Lottery, I told myself.

I was aghast seeing it demolished and furious at the waste of materials – those lovely long sash windows – and the senselessness of it.  And this during the summer that Australia has been experiencing the worst bush fire season in its recorded history, with over 2000 homes destroyed. One the hand greedy developers and fickle homeowners and, on the other, individuals and families powerless to save their homes from being razed to the ground by ferocious fires.

Whatever your views about climate change and its impact on our environment, one thing is indisputable. The way we are living on planet Earth is not sustainable. We rape, pillage, plunder, pump out pesticides and plastic, spend, acquire, amass, throw away and then start over again. And we don’t learn from the past or heed the warnings. Think of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring published in 1962, considered to be the book that kick-started the global grassroots environmental movement.

And I’ve just read – and very much enjoyed – John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In 1960 Steinbeck set off in a truck converted to a camper van on an epic journey across America with his standard poodle, Charley, a colourful character in his own right.  It’s a wonderful tale full of rich and lyrical observations of the natural world – especially the giant redwoods in southern Oregon, amusing anecdotes about the different states he passes through, and chats over coffee and whisky with a cast of quirky characters he meets on the way. But it’s also deeply reflective and the themes he raises are still relevant today.He laments the amount of waste (including wrecked and rusting cars) in American cities, and the amount of packaging used in every day life: “I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness – chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea.”  He talks of towns encroaching on villages and the countryside, supermarkets edging out ‘cracker-barrel’ stores. “The new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry.” And he encounters political apathy – life seems to revolve more around baseball and hunting than discussions about the respective merits of Kennedy versus Nixon in an election year.  Sound familiar?

Steinbeck died in 1968, just eight years after writing this book, at the age of 66. I wonder what he would have made of the digital era. I suspect he might not have been much of a fan. “No region can hold out for long against the highway, the high-tension line and the national television.” And he rails against trailer homes, a tax efficient form of property ownership with an inbuilt form of one-upmanship as owners constantly upgrade to a better model. Overall, he comes away disenchanted.

“We have in the past been forced into reluctant change by weather, calamity, and plague. Now the pressure comes from our biologic success as a species. We have overcome all enemies but ourselves.”

How prescient, and how uncomfortable, especially given the recent outbreak of Coronavirus. Let’s face it, humans are the problem. Planet Earth can do without us, and most likely will cast us aside – as insignificant specks of dust – unless we learn to live in harmony with the ecosystems that support all life, giving us clean soils, air and water.

Rather than getting depressed and defeated, however, it’s vital that we use the current level of global discontent to campaign and advocate for change to policies and practices that reduce emissions and promote sustainability. And as we do that, let’s not lose sight of the many positive initiatives being undertaken by changemakers, entrepreneurs, inventors and scientists to tackle social and environmental challenges.  It’s not all bad: just this week I read that one of Britain’s largest builders, Bovis Homes, is incorporating “hedgehog highways’ into existing and future housing – hedgehogs walk more than a mile each night foraging for food, but numbers have dropped significantly due to habitat loss and pesticide use. A nice win for biodiversity!

Surfing through home renovations

I went back to my house on Wednesday for the first time since I handed over the keys to the builder and escaped to my brother’s beach house two weeks ago.

It’s just as well that I’m project managing from afar. There’s no way I could have worked from a building site with no bathroom or workable kitchen and where every available space is stacked with furniture or soon-to-be-installed bathroom fittings. In fact, there’s not much room to swing a proverbial cat, let alone play ball with Bertie dog.

No room to swing a cat...

No room to swing a cat…

Incidentally, he turns one in two weeks’ time which means he is no longer a puppy but a juvenile. And a naughty one at that! I left him in the kitchen this morning while I showered, and within ten minutes he had pinched the towel off the rail, pulled down the rubber gloves from the sink and was tucking into a packed of bread. Anyway, back to the renovations.

I never stole any bread. Look, I've been fast asleep all the time...

I never stole any bread. Look, I’ve been fast asleep all the time…

“You’ve no idea what’s been going on,” said my long-suffering neighbour. He wasn’t complaining – well not directly anyway – just pointing out that there’d been trucks going up and down the driveway, lots of noise, disruption, bashing, breaking, splitting, dragging, scraping – the whole shebang. I asked him if he’d had a look round – would he like a tour of the rotten bathroom floor and wood borer infestation? And did he know they’d found asbestos in the bathroom? No, but he would willingly swap places with me in my coastal hideaway, he said, somewhat wistfully.

Out with the old!

Out with the old!

I’m happy to say the asbestos has been taken away – at a price – of course. Rule number one of home renovations is that they always go over budget. So you have to budget to go over budget and a bit more. But at least I haven’t got to strip off all the plaster and get the wood borer treated. For all of half a day, I thought we might have to knock down the house and start again. My builder called in a specialist and, as far as I understand it, wood borer attack freshly cut timber (is that the same thing as sapwood?!) but do not re-infest dry timber. So whatever damage is done is done and won’t get any worse. Mind you, it’s quite extensive; some of the wood that came out of the bathroom literally crumbled into dust. They’re very skilled nibblers, those pesky beetles. So I do hope that we got the correct advice. The whole point of this home makeover exercise is so I can more comfortably rent out a room. I don’t want to have to advertise a gorgeous two-bed, two-bath unit complete with adorable cocker spaniel, resident beetle population and structurally weakened timbers.

Wood thoroughly bored by wood borers

Wood thoroughly bored by wood borers

The demolition phase – one bathroom, one laundry and one powder room – took about two days apparently. That’s the easy bit. It’s going to take a while for them to fill in all the gaps and create my en-suite, the tiny guest bathroom (think train compartment) and the new laundry. And there’s work happening in the kitchen and living room too. As you can imagine, the whole place is covered in dust and debris. My neighbour is right: I am very lucky to be enjoying a temporary sea change down in Anglesea.

Guest bathroom in the making. Size doesn't have to matter.

Guest bathroom in the making. Size doesn’t have to matter.

The house is one street back from the ‘back beach’ where the waves pound and roar (you can hear the sea lying in bed) and the light shifts and changes minute by minute. But, bliss comes with caveats or I am being Goldlockian again? When I was clearing out my house and running up and down stepladders all day long, I longed for the peace and quiet of Anglesea. But when I finally got here, I didn’t quite know what to do with. I had a dose of the post-adrenal blues. I was tired and fidgety and instead of going flop for a few days, only gave myself one day off. Maybe it was because it was so quiet that I felt I had to fill in the gaps. And, just to keep me on my toes, I got two writing commissions, one on Indigenous Health and one on Corporate Volunteering. Both are right up my alley but pinning down willing interviewees proved less easy, so I become even more fidgety.

But then, thank Goodness, something shifted when I returned from my 24-hour trip to Melbourne. I realised that it’s simply a case of allowing myself to make the most of the less hectic pace here and to re-charge my batteries. Because once I return to my house, I am going to need lots of energy to clean up and put it all back together.

So, yesterday, I ditched the keyboard, had a cup of chai latte in a cafe and then walked Bertie by the river. After a day of non-stop rain the sun came out as did the birds and the butterflies. And the air had that wonderful post-rain woodiness and freshness. I noticed the quiet flow of the river compared to the pounding of the ocean. It was as soothing as the cup of chai latte.

I’ve got friends coming to stay this weekend and we’re going to Lorne to check out the Sculpture Biennale, where more than 40 works of sculpture are dotted along the shoreline from Lorne Pier to the Erskine River. What’s more we can take Bertie – it’ll be good for him to discover his inner artiste rather than his innate glutton!

There are lots of delights down here – and I haven’t even started on my favourite cafes or the fabulous book shop at Aireys Inlet. I’ll leave those for another blog post. Meanwhile – and wish me luck – I have signed up to a Zumba class on Wednesday night. I thought it would be a good way to meet the locals and have a laugh. Or discover I have two left feet. Time will tell.