Updated: Oct 15, 2019
The process of meeting new people can be a minefield for the introvert; nerve wracking, exciting, ambiguous. The search for a tribe, in and of itself, can so often be a drag. On the rare occasion that the search is a joy, however, it's a joy worth sharing.
I wrestle my car down a zigzagging escarpment and stumble across a sunny clearing to a friendly-looking shed. Inside, humans I've never met are chatting and laughing.
"It's okay, folks... she's a leftie!" jokes Tanya "Tid" Ritchie, queen bee of this activist hive, as a long table of jolly diners shares a pot luck lunch.
I'm used to this sort of setup, and have arrived with bottles of orange juice, milk, biscuits and a box of muesli bars. I offer some muesli bars to the children, who exchange silent stranger-danger screening checks with their parents before sliding a tiny hand towards me for a treat.
Wollemi Common - a quiet fifty-acre valley in the northwest of Sydney - is confirmed to be a nature-lover's delight. Social anxieties are quickly forgotten in bringing together those whose first loves can be whittled down to the purest of pursuits; creativity, co-operation, learning and growth. Whether we're referring to personal growth, the growth of a purposive group, the growth of children immersed in nature, or native animals and habitat, Wollemi Common is the fertile ground from which any of it can spring.
The definition of a "Common" is technically a piece of undivided land that is intended to be shared. At first glance, it may appear that Wollemi Common is public land. However, the story of this thriving come-again community is one that will always return to the simplicity of a private custodian who merely wished to share her paradise.
In a region where visibly queer-friendly spaces are few and far between, members and guests are invited to walk into the cantina to see rainbow flag bunting. Another flag quietly but kindly reminds us that we stand on Darug land.
The sights and sounds greeting the humble guest are dizzying; children playing cricket on the earthen road, a performance space positioned against a spectacular rockface, a retaining wall under construction, a humming woman painting a wall here, an eruption of laughter there. A gloved team picks its way through a corridor of weeds, like a grazing herd. Trees thatch their fingers overhead as the afternoon sun sends shafts of golden light onto the soft valley floor.
No, it's not a dream. Nor is it a place frozen in time.
Rather, it's a glimpse of the future, as it could be, with all the best aspects of village life.
"Utopian" is that go-to word that so many will reach for in this situation. My feelings are different. I've seen such places before, or versions of it. This is a community that appears to have a far less lofty vision than others; there is an industriousness that intrigues me.
Wollemi's socio-economic aims appear to be rooted - so to speak - directly into the real and emerging world. One could conclude that this is a group that has angrily cast aside a failed society to reinvent community, but the optimism wafting thick in the air tells me firmly otherwise. There is no despair in this place. Nobody's shouting, except for two delighted children who appear to have found a large trough of rainwater to play in.
Busying themselves with bushcare and construction tasks are librarians, teachers, parents, students, lifestyle all-rounders. To my horror, a familiar face from the ABC watches on as I interview the Wollemites.
Raffles Nebish says, "I guess for me, the appeal of this is that it's something quite inspired, and I think a reaction to the way people live their lives in the mainstream, which is completely disconnected from other people and beautiful places, because they don't have access to these sorts of things."
Raff says that Wollemi Common is an example of how organisation among people can produce valuable, exciting social assets that people can enjoy and use for their collective benefit.
He explains, "For me - being a teacher - a lot of the work I do is online. I'm used to my phone beeping at all sorts of times, so when I come here it's my chance to turn off all of that and to tune in to nature.
"Every time I come here, I always leave more relaxed. Even if you've been doing work, you're still relaxed, because you've spent time connecting with this place. The other thing I come here for is the creativity that this place gives me. My band and I wrote our entire EP here, over the space of two days. That creativity only comes when you reach into that creative state, and the creative state is only possible in a place that is as exciting and as beautiful as this."
The origin story of Wollemi Common is as uncommon as it gets.
Tid Ritchie met her partner Suze Pratten in 2011, and from that time, previously-dormant ideas began to take shape between the two, becoming new plans.
Suze explains, "Tid was talking then about wanting to leave the department and work out a way of letting the land be more used, and possibly creating a living here. In mid-2012 she took the redundancy from the Office of Environment and Heritage."
Tid began building upon the concept of sharing her fifty acres with the community, and worked closely with her friend Paul Van Reyk, who mentored her through the process of structuring the idea.
The community is membership-based, with fee-paying members whose time on the Common can be spent on anything from meetings and conferences to music workshops.
Suze says, "Wollemites are people who make a weekly contribution, anywhere between $1 and $20. It's an artists' and activists' retreat. And because I am a music workshop leader, our very first event was called 'Singing Up The Valley', in March 2013. There are a lot of people who have come through in various ways. We run ukelele singing workshops. People already knew about my work in the Stay Tuned choir and so on, so they were a lot of the first people who came through. Plus, Tanya's ex-workmates. It has grown from there, and continues to grow."
It's so much more than just a "retreat" for friends who are attracted to the Common for a weekend in the country. Social immersion with fellow environmentalists and creatives builds a charge in the air which has been intentionally-cultivated, but also forms organic associations. Wollemites filter in on weekends to attend concerts or plan for their groups. With organised groups using Wollemi Common as their place to bond and strategise, it's easy to see why the inspiration flows freely below the shaded canopy.
Tid and Suze say that one of their favourite aspects of the Common is that they have cultivated community which comes to them.
Tid explains, "In my former job I felt like I was working really hard and not having a lot to show for it. I felt like we were working towards good outcomes, but you can count on one hand the number of actual achievements we had. It's hard, working in a big bureaucracy with a risk-averse government. So doing this is just like a breath of fresh air. I get to work with people who are truly inspiring, and who are politically on the same page. The younger people who come here are inspired by something that we can all work together on and enjoy collectively."
Suze says, "The fact that community can be created so close to home feels really lovely. Mentoring takes place from older people to younger people, and to be honest, I think it flows the other way, too. Tanya and I have learned so much from the students who have come here in terms of their way of being. The way that they organise their group process is inspiring. If this is the future, I just feel so hopeful."