Written by Louise Munro
I recently discovered Lonely Conservationists after a friend shared a blog on Facebook. An Instagram chat with Jessie had her suggesting I write a blog. At first I was floored. What could I offer? What would I say? Those horrible feelings of self-doubt, questioning and comparison kicked in. There are countless conservationists in this community doing incredible, inspiring things. We can all be guilty of comparing ourselves to others and thinking we should do more. But Jessie was so encouraging and welcoming, so I pushed those feelings aside! I was captivated by the community and honoured to start my journey with it.
So why did Jessie suggest I write a blog? My husband and I built a completely off grid home. That topic has never been covered. I also suffer from mental illness. So here I am! I’ve had quite the journey to get to my new home and many exciting plans and ideas. I hope to include many of you in them!
So here’s my back story…..
In December 2017, my husband and I moved into our dream home on 20 acres in the Yarra Valley. We built a completely off grid, eco-style home, using recycled and reclaimed timbers, solar power, rainwater tanks, primary heating-wood fire heater and a worm farm septic system.
Our property has prolific wildlife and a thriving ecosystem of bees, bugs and insects. Our land is a combination of paddocks and natural bushland. The previous owners ran cattle. We’ve left it untouched until recently (agisting 2 horses as resident lawnmowers). We’re allowing the natural bushland to regenerate. The only animals we’ll allow are goats in one section, as we have a massive blackberry infestation. The area is full of native grasses and plants, gums, blackwoods and wattles. The trees are constantly falling over, so we collect all our own firewood and kindling. We’ll never have to cut down trees for firewood. We have future plans to establish a food forest system with organic permaculture principles – (alongside some friends) and have chickens for eggs.
This introduction all sounds pretty good hey? But just like life, it’s had its ups & downs and will continue to do so.
This house was my husband’s dream. I never really knew what my dream home was, or where I wanted to settle. I’ve moved a lot in my lifetime and was always prone to itchy feet. I was born and bred in the Victorian country town of Mildura, but I was what we called a “townie” (lived right in town – on one of the main streets in fact!) I went to university in Adelaide. When I met my husband I was living on Chapel St, St Kilda and he was in in Christmas Hills. Talk about polar opposites! He grew up in the Yarra Valley. I left St Kilda and moved to the outer eastern suburbs to be with him and bought our first house together there. That was a huge compromise for him. He needed to be near his children and workplace. He always hoped for something better. He suggested designing and building an off grid home.
I didn’t want a build a house. Never had and never thought I would. I certainly didn’t feel up to the challenge. I also had zero practical skills that could be used for farm life, except for housework and cooking! These concerns were amplified by the fact that my husband and I both have mental illness. I’ve been aware of my depression for over 10 years and discovered the anxiety last year. Looking back I believe the depression began in my mid 20s and that I’ve unknowingly had anxiety my whole life (same goes for my husband).
We purchased our property in 2014. It was a slow process from start to finish thanks to all the usual challenges of building, the difficulty of going off grid and our mental health. Our first builder also went broke, leaving us with only stumps after 8 months of building! That was a heartbreaking time, but it led us to an incredible new builder who completed the build in 10 months with a whole lot of love and incredible skill.
We moved in December 2017. It was such a special day, but a dark cloud hung over me. I had hit rock bottom with my mental health. 2017 was a difficult year for me. I worked 3 jobs (a full time job in nursing and running two sideline businesses). It was too much! I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I quit my main full time job in nursing and took a break. I was burnt out after nursing for 23 years. I wanted to leave the field. I tried looking for non-nursing jobs, but I found the search so hard with mental illness. I caved and returned to nursing 2 days a week after a 7 week break (by this time I only ran one of the businesses – home based).
That was a very poor decision. You should always follow your heart and take a chance. The universe had to step in to make me realise this. I got fired from that job over the phone in December. It was completely unjustified and I still don’t understand it, even to this day. But it was a blessing in disguise. It was one of the worst workplaces I’ve ever been in, full of bullying and some horrible staff. I didn’t see the blessing at the time though. I spiralled into the worst black holes I’ve ever been in. Anxiety overwhelmed me to the point I couldn’t even leave the house. I was suicidal at times. I beat myself up with guilt and shame. How could I be like this when I just moved into such a beautiful new home? I should be grateful for what I had.
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate hey? It doesn’t matter what you have or what you’re doing, it can hit you anywhere, anytime. Here I was, in a stunning new home, surrounded by serenity and wildlife and I was a complete wreck. I had little self-confidence. How was I ever going to learn the skills needed to run a property? How could I get a new job? It was clear I had to leave nursing. I was terrified about everything!
This quote perfectly sums up what happened next:
“Every difficult experience, every challenging emotion, is a chance for renewal.” – (Jill Stark)
I didn’t work for 3 months. My job hunting was sporadic and half hearted. Then I got thrown a lifeline by my chiropractor. One of his receptionists had retired. It was only casual work, but it was perfect for getting me out of the house and getting my confidence back. It was just me and him at work, alongside his fabulous patients. He is an incredible human being and just who I needed to be around. Slowly, my confidence improved. I managed to get another admin job a few months later. That was only temporary, but I’ve since scored a casual cleaning job. I work 3 times a week if rostered on and I love it. I also love having “just a job” I’d done the hard yards as a professional. I officially retired from nursing in May this year. It was a scary and huge decision, but if feels right. I’m incredibly grateful I can do this.
However, my employment changes left me with another challenge. WHAT IS MY PURPOSE NOW? So often our jobs define us. That’s society’s usual program. My mental illness hit me again as I desperately tried to find a new purpose.
I’m happy to say my new home came to the rescue. It healed me. I’ve never felt such a profound connection or sense of belonging before. I’ve found where I belong. Nature really does nurture. I like to say we live in an ever changing painting. Every single day, out every single window, nature enchants me. I’ve become so in tune with nature. You really notice the change of seasons in the Yarra Valley. I notice the sun and wind patterns, the changes in plants, wildlife and insects with each season. I have a natural circadian rhythm. I’ve become a morning person! Never thought I’d see that day. I’m awake every day pre-dawn. I don’t always get up then, but I try to watch the sunrise if I can see it and I can face the weather! I watch the sunset every day. I’ve come to love the silence, to the point where I rarely listen to music. I don’t watch TV. I switch off from technology every day in the late afternoon and sometimes all weekend. I’m slowly building up my property management skills. Gym and weights were part of my mental health recovery – further fuelled by my desire to be strong for farm work. I can lift heavy wood and carry big water containers now! I’m learning about growing food in pots. I joined the Diggers club. I’m slowly planning out where to plant food for the best results. I’m observing the soil, the weeds, what they all tell me.
I still have lots of ups and downs, as all of us with mental illness do. Off-grid living is hard work. There are always things to do. There are days I wonder where I’ll find the energy. I worry about my husband being the one who can do most things, especially as he works full time and runs his own business. I have so much to learn. I can feel like a burden and like I don’t contribute enough. You are at the mercy of the weather for everything. Essential chores that use power happen are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Collecting kindling and firewood is a never ending job, until you stockpile enough. You have to be patient as you learn the best ways to use your power and conserve it. You have to sacrifice your social life at times to get property work done. You can feel isolated when you live away from most of your friends. Friends and family can struggle to understand why they haven’t seen you for so long, as you have to give priority to property jobs. But it’s all worth it. It’s so rewarding to be self-sufficient, to leave a minimal carbon footprint and to co-exist so closely with Mother Nature and wildlife. It’s a magical way to live, despite the challenges. It feels good to live a life similar to our ancestors too.
We have 20 acres and I want to use the land for good. I’ve always done things to help people. Now I’d like to help Mother Nature and wildlife. Maybe I can combine the two? I have a few ideas floating around. The first one I ever had was to have a community space. I know so many creatives. I’d love to have a place where we come together to share our knowledge, skills and decompress. Run workshops, retreats, sell goods, teach skills – you name it! I’ve been testing the waters by hosting monthly jams for musicians and creatives. Everyone who attends has mental illness. It’s been incredibly rewarding and healing. I’ve also tossed around accommodation, but with trepidation. We’re very mindful of who we let into our space. It didn’t sit right to be just anyone. Jessie actually helped with this one. She suggested maybe it can be conservationists? Come here for some peace and quiet, plant a tree, and help us around the property. I also wanted to set up a brotherhood. I know so many men with mental illness that have committed suicide. Now I see the need for it to be for everyone. Finding Lonely conservationists was synchronicity!
I’m excited to be going to a tree planting day for the critically endangered helmeted honeyeater in July (thanks for the suggestion Jessie!). That also triggered us to explore making our bushland a possible safe sanctuary for them, as we are close to Yellingbo. We could also ensure our space caters for all the birds and wildlife we see. We may register for Land for Wildlife in time too. We need to complete our property set up first.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Lonely Conservationists. I found you at just the right time in my life. You reminded me what I’m already doing to make a difference and what more I can do. I feel a renewed sense of purpose and hope to meet many of you. It’s so healing to be surrounded by likeminded people and to support each other with our mental illness battles.
Mental illness is a beautiful beast. Its part of you, it teaches you and it challenges you every single day. Fighting it gives you a strength you never knew you had. Here’s to all of us.
For more of Louise, check out @louandglenn on Instagram