You Can't Have It All, but You Can Have Most of What Matters

Today, we are featuring a guest article by Karen Treanor, an author living in Tasmania, Australia, and the founder of Quenda Books.

Treanor stumbled upon our article (“A Thousand Hidden Subsidies” by Johnny Sanphillippo) about $700,000 homes on semi-rural hilltops in California. She was struck by the dramatic contrast between the situation Johnny described—residents seeking the best aspects of rural living but also demanding a full complement of urban services—and her own experience living in rural Tasmania, where very little of the necessary infrastructure for a high standard of living is provided by the government. Rather, residents’ resourcefulness and initiative fill the gaps.

I'm a former New England Yankee who spent the best part of a decade in southern Africa and then settled in Western Australia with my family for many years before coming to roost in Australia’s smallest state, the island of Tasmania, which is about the size of Maryland. My husband and I came here in 2014, and rather than downsizing to a sensible suburban house with all the infrastructure most people take for granted, we found a large wooden cottage in the country. It has been a big change, going from a semi-suburban life with all the modern services at our doorstep to a rural existence with very few amenities.

We live on the edge of the d'Entrecasteaux Channel where the sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, and eagles and ospreys patrol the skies. At night you can see millions of stars because there is no light pollution—no street lights, no shops, no offices burning the midnight oil.  Just us and a handful of not very close neighbours. We are just about the same latitude South as our hometown in New England was North, so the quality of light and the weather are quite similar—except the snow stays in the high country most of the time. The house sits on one corner of a ten-acre “environmental block”. You might think that sounds very green and responsible, but in practical terms what it means is you can’t develop your property much beyond what you've currently got. No holiday chalets or granny flats can be built here, for instance. No commercial chicken farm can be established.

Rainwater storage tanks

We have chosen a rural life—who pays for our infrastructure? The short answer is: we don't have much of it. We have no town water, which is true for many places in Tasmania, so we catch the rain from the roof, pump it up the hill to a large tank, and let gravity bring it down to the house. It goes through a filter system, but many local folk don’t bother with such niceties. “Bird poop adds that little something extra,” an older neighbour told me, smacking his lips.

The water has no fluoride in it, so we use fluoridated toothpaste and get a twice-yearly topical fluoride treatment from our dentist when we get our teeth checked and cleaned twice a year.  This service is provided free by the government, which figures it makes more sense to save people’s teeth than to deal with the results of unhealthy teeth later on. (Who knew that bad dental disease can lead to rheumatic heart disease which leads to people being unable to work and pay taxes? Show me any politician who doesn’t want healthy taxpayers!)

We don't waste the water. We have a super-efficient shower head that gives a great shower with less water than the old-style models, and a dual-flush toilet that uses much less water  than the giant American models. Almost all toilets in Australia, whether private or in public conveniences, have a dual flush. Very few people—even the Olympic-class beer drinkers for which Australia is famed—have bladders full enough to require a three-gallon flush.

There is no town sewerage system, so we have a dual waste system: grey water and septic. The grey water goes into a network of pipes, filters through the leach drain in the lawn, and seeps away. The grass is always greener over the leach drain, to paraphrase the late Erma Bombeck. The 1500 litre sausage-shaped septic tank is pumped out by Dave the pumper-truck man every three years or so. He takes the waste to an industrial treatment plant where he pays part of what we pay him for it to be processed. The first time we had the tank pumped was shortly after we bought the house—and that was shortly after being assured by the real estate agent that the tank had been pumped ‘not long ago’. As Dave was pumping he pointed out some weeds nearby. “Pull ‘em up when you see them or you will be invaded.” Sure enough, after I didn’t take the advice seriously enough, we had a fine crop of those weeds. As he was leaving, Dave also advised us to run some water into the tank.  “Ground’s wet; I’ve seen these fibreglass tanks pop right out of the ground once the sludge is pumped.”

Grey water and septic systems

Although suspecting this was a joke on the newbies, or a way to ensure future business, we nevertheless did as Dave advised, and ran 100 litres of water into the tank for ballast. I heard later that a neighbour who had not taken Dave’s advice had to pay a local excavator to rebury his newly-cleaned septic tank. (Now we know why those two large stone slabs are sitting on our lawn near the tank’s access port—they are not an art statement; they are to hold the tank down if it is pumped out when the ground is sodden.

Many homes in Tasmania—both rural and urban—have solar panels on their roofs. After the initial expense is amortised, solar power gives you almost free energy, and in most cases, makes you a modest profit when you sell your excess back to the electricity company. A large number of Australian homes have solar hot water heaters on their roofs, which provide hot water at next to no cost. We had one for many decades; it was efficient and more than adequate for our requirements, even when we had teenagers at home. Most solar water heaters have electric boosters in them to increase the water temperature when required—occasionally in winter, or when all the family wants showers on the same morning. Even when the day is overcast, the solars are quite efficient.

As I said, there’s no town trash collection here. “The locals voted it down when it came up at a town meeting some years ago,” I was told by a woman at the council office. Apparently the expense of having their trash collected by the county trucks was considered to be too much, so my neighbours knocked it back. This means we all have to deal with all our household waste.

At our house, a lot of the paper waste goes through the office shredder, then into the hen-house and eventually into compost. In that hen house reside three hens: Ada, a large Barnevelder-New Hampshire cross, and two little brown Hylines. By day they free-range, but come sundown they are locked in a secure coop to protect them from quolls and other nocturnal visitors. The quoll is a beautiful little carnivorous marsupial which fills the same ecological niche here as a weasel. No rat, mouse, rabbit—or domestic hen—is safe from these nocturnal killers. Whatever country you live in, if you like fresh eggs from happy hens, keeping a small flock is the answer—and ensuring they have a predator-proof coop is vital.

High security hen yard, enclosed on all sides and top

The Hylines do the job they are bred for, which is to be egg-laying machines. In commercial farms they have miserable lives, but on our smallholding they live pretty well. The hens’ other job is to process all the clean household food waste. They get vegetable peels, meat trimmings, bones, and all those leftovers that in most homes sit in the back of the fridge, grow a dish garden of mold, and are then thrown out. We cut out the middle process, which saves a lot of guilt and potential health problems. If there’s not enough left over from a meal to freeze for another day, or if it’s not reheatable for someone’s lunch, it goes into a small bin beside the sink, and the hens get it for breakfast, along with mixed grains and shell grit. In return, they provide us with large and extra-large eggs. The record-breaker so far weighed in at 91 grams. (That’s over 3 ounces.)

The other kitchen rubbish, such as potato peels, onion skins, orange rinds, coffee grounds, etc, goes into another small container that is emptied into the compost bins when full, or sooner if there’s something whiffy in it. Every summer all manner of feral vegetables appear like magic in the compost bins. Some of the tastiest tomatoes in the world grow this way.

About once a month I take our sorted rubbish to the recycling. I keep several bins and bags in the shed: one for recyclable plastics such as OJ bottles, yoghurt boxes and the like; one for glass; one for aluminium cans; one for steel cans; one for paper and one for cardboard. If this sounds like a lot of work, it really isn’t. There’s a small flip-top bin in the sunroom next to the kitchen which receives all the daily household discards; when that is full, I take it to the shed and distribute the different things to their receptacles. Ten minutes, perhaps twice a week—anyone can find that much spare time, surely.

Any items that have a potential use for someone else go to a charity shop. The high heels not worn for three years, the blouse that doesn’t button over a now matronly frontage, the remnants of the old set of china gathering dust on a shelf, the souvenir tea-towel that wasn’t all that funny when Uncle Ed brought it back from Las Vegas and is even less so now—all of these and many other things can be used by someone else. Don’t keep them!

Compost bins

After I drop off all the recycling, I pay $11 to hand over the modest amount of trashy trash to the processors who grind it up and bury it. It’s the same price for one bag or a small truck-load. We use canvas or cotton shopping bags to reduce the eternal plastics. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and now most other Australians are doing it also, as new state laws have banned single-use plastic and the big stores are encouraging you to re-use the heavy plastic shopping bags or the even tougher fibre bags that they sell you. All the big stores now have a plastic recycling bin into which all the ‘soft’ plastics are put. A huge company in another state takes the plastic and turns it into playground equipment, benches and other handy items.

We have no mail delivery, so we rent a post box in the nearest small town, about five kilometres (three miles) away. This is an LPO, a licenced post office, run from the premises of a private citizen who is trained by and supplied by Australia Post, rather like a fast-food franchisee. The postmistress knows everyone and hears most of the local news, so she’s my go-to source for information.   

There’s also a small general store, which sells a bit of just about everything—food, hardware, fishing tackle, and animal feed. They have recently got their liquor licence and offer a variety of local wines, beers, ciders, and saffron gin—if you haven’t ever tried that, you are missing an exotic treat. They have a couple of petrol pumps which provide the gasoline to keep local cars running, and they sell bottled natural gas for our stoves and barbecues. They also dispense useful advice about who is the best window cleaner or carpenter or electrician to call. Small local stores perforce charge more per item than big chain stores, but when you factor in the extra cost in time and transport costs, the prices come out very close to even.

The nearest bakery is an hour’s round trip from here. I could buy commercial bread at the local grocery store, but I prefer to make my own. Bulk flour is available from several whole food stores in the big towns, and with that and my sourdough starter I manage to keep us in toast, sandwiches, and bread crumbs with very little effort.  Few things make a house smell nicer than freshly-baked bread.

There's a dedicated band of volunteer firemen and women who take care of putting out fires; the local community provides some of their costs and local taxes help with some of the rest.   Most private properties have a dam (pond) usually made by a local excavating contractor, which supplies water for gardens and also to helps put out fires when needed. Dams are havens for frogs and provide water for wildlife such as the wallabies, adorable but pesky marsupials that look like kid-sized kangaroos. Our dam has two huge clumps of water lilies and is home to wild ducks occasionally. There is an extensive network of piping leading from the dam to various places in the yard and gardens—it’s not potable water, but it’s alright for watering plants and washing cars.

We pay land taxes to the local council every year, which pays for the roads and library we use and the schools and other services that we don't use or don't have access to—as well as those services that don’t happen often enough, such as roadside maintenance. The land between our property line and the edge of the road (“the verge”) belongs to the local council, and you’d expect they’d take care of it. No doubt one day they will turn up and do something on our verge, but as we live at the extreme and least populated part of the local government area, we have given up waiting for them. Several times during the growing season I go out with the mower and whipper-snipper and pruning shears and deal with the grass and weeds myself. Neighbours who own sheep, goats, alpacas or ponies often tether them on their verges to do the mowing for them.

Mown grass is caught in the hopper of the mower and most of it is tossed over the fence for the wild wallabies to eat. Branches, bark and other tree detritus are piled up and every so often run through a big mulcher. The mulch comes in handy around the yard either to lighten up the heavy garden soil or protect a young tree, or spread along the fence line to suffocate weeds.

Like other rural people, we try to get the most out of any trip to a major town. Any time I have an appointment in the capital or one of the two other large towns within an hour’s drive, I have a list of things to do. Library, bank, post office, pharmacy, large grocery store for major shopping items, news agent for an occasional magazine, bakery for a treat, and so on. When you are paying $1.59 for a litre of gasoline, you wring every bit of value out of any trip. (That’s about five American dollars a gallon, folks! And if you think that’s bad, our son who lives in New Zealand is paying $2.12 a litre!)

The point of the foregoing is to illustrate that people who opt for a rural life need to be willing to take care of some of their own needs rather than expect "Da Gummint" to do it all. You can’t live the same life in the country that you do in the city. Presumably if you have moved to the country, it’s because you want that lifestyle—and are willing to accept the changes and challenges that come with it. If you aren’t, then stay in Quaker Heights or Nottinghill and make the most of that, but don’t try and have it all.

If you have $700K to spend on a house, you should be willing and able to cough up another couple of thousand to install a rainwater catchment system and a split wastewater system—grey water for reuse in the yard and garden, and septic treatment for the toilets. Pay the bit extra for a dual flush toilet. Install an efficient shower head, and get the most efficient household machinery you can afford—washers, refrigerators, etc. Recycle as much as you can, even if it takes some extra time and effort. Being rich enough to build a $700,000 house does not entitle anyone to be an irresponsible consumer or to demand the government take care of every want.

Strong towns require strong citizens: people who learn to take control of their lives and do for themselves things that are doable. Our great-grandparents were tough survivors who did a great deal for themselves before there were so many services done for them. Should we be emulating them before we forget how? It’s something to think about.

One last word before I go and pull more of those weeds Dave warned me about: when local elections come along, find and support good candidates—or be a good candidate.

© K. R. W. Treanor, July 2018. All photos by the author.

This essay is printed here with permission and is not available for republication.

About the Author

Pulling up nearly 400 years of Yankee roots, Karen and Gene Treanor ran away from home and joined the Peace Corps. After spending nearly a decade in Southern Africa, they realized that the three children they had acquired probably needed a bit of stability. They all found a new home in the nearest port of call, which happened to be Perth, Western Australia. In 2014, deciding it was time for a new adventure now that the family had grown and flown, Karen and Gene moved from the biggest, driest state in Australia across the continent to the smallest, dampest one, Tasmania.  Here they ignored all sensible advice and bought a big wooden cottage and a lot of land which needs constant attention of one sort or another. Grateful for their collection of vintage Mother Earth Catalogues and antique USDA pamphlets, they are so far enjoying their new lives—except possibly the unremitting battle against unwanted plant life. (Karen’s website has further information.)