Usually a green riot, the trees and gardens are all tinged brown, the creek that runs through the property is dry and the vegetable beds, as Dave describes them, have been “nuked.”
It’s been the hottest Australian summer on record, but it didn’t help of course that Dave, Lauren and their young lad, Minoa, were off surfing in Hawaii all of January at the peak of the summer heat.
The garden and the waves compete for their time. That’s the cycle of life around here–when the waves are good, the garden suffers. “Lauren and I are both such surf rats,” offers Dave, “that if the waves are good for weeks on end, the garden either runs wild or dies.”
Dave and Lauren have lived on the property for a decade now, and while Byron life hustles past on the road nearby, you’d never know. They’ve built a life here, a tranquil escape from worldly worry where cell phone coverage exists only on the far corner of the veranda.
Lauren is a graceful surfer, a thoughtful writer and a perennially curious soul, although all of these have taken a backseat to the role of "mama" since Minoa arrived on the scene in 2017.
A surfer of extraordinary gifts and a long-time ocean activist, Dave meanwhile has traveled the world chasing waves and environmental causes most of his life. But in recent years, with the arrival of "Minnow", it’s become harder to drive away from the property and his little family.
And why would they leave? Everything they need is right here. There’s a bush track that runs to a quiet back beach, and there’s a monastic calm to the place broken only by birdsong. There’s also the fact that after years of toil, the property is giving back, bountifully.
When Dave and Lauren purchased it, the property had been grazed by cattle for a century. With the exception of a grove of towering eucalyptus, everything else had been eaten down to the roots.
After building a small cabin to live in, Dave and Lauren set about regenerating the whole property with 7,000 native trees. From there they studied permaculture and began to understand how the property worked–the soil, the elevation, the various microclimates that exist across it.
The learning curve was steep, especially for Lauren who’d grown up in Florida where, she assumed, food magically appeared inside local supermarkets. “My whole childhood I never encountered food in a natural state,” she laughs, "so it's been a real education for me, growing our own food here and getting our hands dirty and over time understanding the cycle of life that's happening all around us." But while the work was hard, between the volcanic soil and the sub-tropical climate they could hardly screw it up. Dave laughs and calls it, “The Goldilocks Zone.”
Once their farmhouse was built, Dave and Lauren soon had plenty of guests. With great waves nearby and plenty of spare beds, they had friends from all over the world stopping by–and they immediately put them to work.
“We took full advantage of it in surf season,” laughs Lauren. “People would always be coming through and they’d ask, ‘What’s the rent?’ And we’d hand them a shovel.”
Their friends happily became “Woofers”–Willing Workers On Organic Farms–and they helped plant out the whole property with gardens and fruit trees. While visiting Dave and Lauren for this piece, I saw Dave’s two nephews emerge from the far corner of the property, shovels in hand and covered in sweat after reclaiming Dave’s original decade-old garden bed from the advancing wilderness.
Living off the land is hardly unusual around these parts. Byron is famed as an alternative hub, and the whole area is dotted with small farms with some kind of organic hustle going on.
Dave and Lauren’s neighbors are the Andersons, who a few years back became the rock stars of the beekeeping world when Cedar Anderson invented a revolutionary beehive that allowed you to simply turn a tap and have honey flow. Dave has one of the early prototypes behind the house. He was over at Cedar’s one day and the pair noticed a large swarm gathering in a nearby tree. They quickly parked Dave’s truck under the tree, lopped the branch with the swarm into a box, and drove it over to Dave’s house. Those bees now provide Dave and Lauren with more honey than they could ever need, the surplus being gifted to friends.
Their other neighbor is George Greenough, the guru of surfboard design, and when there are no waves Dave and George often head out fishing in George’s boat. Both Dave and Lauren had been staunch vegans for years, but Dave had an epiphany in his garden one day that led, after some soul searching, to him eating fish again.
“I had this trippy feeling,” says Dave. “I was pulling up some basil, and to stop it going to seed you pick the buds off. While I was doing it I had a guilty weird feeling. I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’m ending the life cycle of this plant.’ I suddenly felt the same way I used to feel before I became vegan when I used to catch a fish. I felt that same remorse I felt when I had to kill it.”
Dave wrestled with it for days. Living from the land promotes an examined life; there is nothing between you and what you eat and it poses questions about your relationship to your food and the world it comes from. Lauren was pregnant at the time and needed protein, but Dave also knew the soy and tempeh that was providing that protein for them as vegans were also coming from half a world away, from industrialized farms, and was arriving wrapped in plastic. Dave weighed it all up and figured he could simply walk over the hill, swim out and spear a fish instead, and that’s exactly what he did.
Among the council of Byron elders Dave and Lauren keep is a woman named Helena Nordberg-Hodge, a Swedish academic, Byron local and one of the world’s foremost authorities on localization, happiness and local happiness.
Dave and Lauren have been friends and students of Helena’s for years and–through living a conscious and local life–have been able to fashion a perfectly happy little world triangulated by Byron Bay, Minnow and their vegetable gardens.
“Meeting Helena was a real turning point for us to ask questions about where everything was coming from and the social, economic and environmental impact of globalization,” recalls Lauren. “How can we get to the seed of all those things at once? Growing our own food and supporting local businesses was at the heart of it.” The property now provides most of their food, supplemented by trips to farmers markets and a local organic co-op that delivers a mystery box of whatever is in season around Byron.
Sitting on their veranda discussing the small green world they’ve created here on the property, it’s clear there is a deep sense of reward to it all, and for every scorched vegetable patch there are seasons when soil gives up a cornucopia of produce.
“A couple of years ago, we had everything on the go,” recalls Dave. “All of our strawberry papayas were growing, we had finger limes, lemons, kumquats, bananas …” he takes a breath and keeps going. “Greens in our garden, grapes, water from the roof, passionfruit, honey, herbs, lemongrass for tea, galangal and ginger and little native stuff like midgen berries and cherry guavas. It was when I was fishing too, so we had fish every day. We could eat each meal of the day from the property. All our meals.” He pauses. “That was the most successful feeling in my life I think, apart from having a family. That was true success to me. It felt like it could go on forever.”
“The high point for me is any time we sit down to a meal and everything in front of you you’ve had a hand in growing,” says Lauren. “The pumpkin soup we did a few weeks ago; the pumpkin, galangal, kaffir lime, ginger and turmeric all grew here on the property. The satisfaction of planting and nurturing and then sitting down to a meal that you’ve grown yourself, that feels like real wealth, real abundance.”