(or how I became a criminal for a year)
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This story won second place in the Eastern Regional Libraries' history writing competition, 1999.
A sleeping granite giant, Toolebewong is the first mountain you see as you approach from Lilydale. If ever she stood, she'd tower into the sky, but she has lain peacefully for millennia.
The plateau is a place of power and beauty. In ancient times, the Black People hunted here in summer among the mighty Mountain Ash. Mr and Mrs Robarts cleared the plateau in the 1890s, and Mrs Robarts and her daughters ran the Nyora Guesthouse until it burnt down in the terrible fires of '39.
A little old lady once visited us. As a child, she came to the Guesthouse every summer, and was now keen to tell us all about it. She trotted around the property with us in tow, pointing out the nine-hole golfcourse, the magnificent orchard, the piggery ... and alas, there is no longer a sign of any of these. The Old House still stands, survivor of three bushfires. Mrs Robarts' aunt used to live there, and 'kept it as spotless as a pin'. A peaceful clearing our children have dubbed 'The Fairy Garden' is probably where the Guesthouse itself stood, for we have found broken shards of crockery and old bottles melted by the inferno. And a round, stone-circled mound is where the Cobb & Co coaches used to stop, allowing ladies and children to descend after the long drive up from Healesville.
After the tragedy of Black Friday, Mrs Robarts sold out to one of her long-standing customers, an engineer called Marriot. He had the Lodge built. It is a large brick building placed to make the most of the view towards distant Melbourne.
Then war broke out. All the young men disappeared, and Mr Marriot received two official letters. One specified his contribution to the war effort as the owner of an engineering works. The second demanded thousands of bushels of potatoes from him, as the owner of the newly named 'Mt Toolebewong Lodge' property.
Steve Marriot, one of his grandsons, has shown us family movies displaying his solution. He made wondrous one-off devices, tractor-pulled marvels to work the land. We have found bits and pieces, buried in high mounds of blackberry, and even now, feral potatoes can be found in areas otherwise long reclaimed by the forest.
The property passed through several hands, not all of them kind to the land. In the 1950's, the western half was subdivided in a way that would not be countenanced now. Many narrow, ten-acre strips were created, dropping down the slope in a closely jostling crowd. Speculators bought these blocks. Few built, for by then people thought it a hardship to live without mains electricity.
The bulk of the property remained. Its last owner was Mr Cromb, a retired Engineer of Moorabbin Shire. His main wish upon selling was to avoid further subdivision, so he was happy when approached by a group of people who wished to start a cooperative venture on the land.
Such ideas sounded crazy then. 'You can't stop progress' was a cliche, smog was something people had read about (it was what Los Angeles had instead of air), you could fill the petrol tank of a car for $2, and at a time of near-full employment, anyone questioning economic growth had to be crazy.
Crazy or not, young people everywhere moved into communes, protested against the war in Vietnam, formed small community schools for their children, experimented with everything forbidden to their parents. Not all of this was good, but all of it was scandalous.
One group of dreamers formed a communal household in Kooyong and planned a rural cooperative that would be a model for a sustainable future. One of them, Peter Cock, gave many inspirational talks, and at one of these, at a Humanist Society meeting, he was approached by another group with similar ideals. The two groups merged, and became large enough to think about buying land.
They did, on Mt Toolebewong, in 1974, 25 years ago. Sandra Cock thought of the name 'Moora Moora'. According to her Aboriginal dictionary, in one or another language 'moora' meant 'earth', 'moora moora' 'friendly spirit'. However, another book of Aboriginal words contains neither of these. The only mention of 'moora' was the Moora Man, who appeared in dreams to women of a Western Australian people. When he did, the dreamer would have a girl child. And, sure enough, every child but one conceived at Moora Moora has been female (and the boy's father was not a Moora Moora member).
Four nice young men, recent graduates in planning and architecture, undertook to prepare a Planning Permit application to the Council. Though not members of the Co-op themselves, they put in a year's hard work, charging barely enough to cover their stationery expenses. The result was an excellent document that considered everything from bushfire and weeds through water supply and roads to communication and social interaction.
The fruit of their labour was duly delivered to Healesville Shire Council, which deliberated upon it. The Planning Permit application was so impressive, so well thought out, that despite the suspicion and prejudice that must have influenced those present, the Council's vote was six for, six against. A tie.
The custom in those days was that in the event of a tie, the item of business was deferred for a month. During the thirty days this allowed, the most attractive young women of Moora Moora dressed in middle-class finery, and called on each Councillor in person. An afternoon tea was arranged at the Lodge, with a borrowed silver tea-set, and followed by a conducted tour.
At the end, one Councillor changed his vote. Moora Moora was given the vote of life, by seven to five.
The architects presented Peter and Sandra Cock with a plan for a house that was a 'crystal growing out of the ground, of natural materials'. That was fine, but the design was so complex that it was (literally) impossible to build. After 18 months of getting nowhere, Peter found a local builder, Doug Marriot. Steve Marriot has informed us that, as far as he knows, he and Doug are not related, despite the shared name. Doug redrew the plans. The new design was still very complex, not a right angle anywhere, and you have to walk around the house to get an idea of it, but at least the structure now obeyed the laws of physics. Once a week, Doug came and worked with Peter. Then during the week Peter passed the lesson on to the rest of us embryo builders.
To the people of Healesville, we were objects of suspicion. Stuart Bowran, the Council's Building Surveyor, turned up one day with a camera, hoping to photograph the illegal humpies we were no doubt living in. At that time, he knew nothing about mudbricks. To his great credit, he made it his business to become the foremost expert on the topic from the Local Government point of view. In later times, he occasionally telephoned, asking, "I've got some visitors from X Shire, who have had their first application for a mudbrick house. Can I show them around Moora Moora, so they can be reassured about owner-built mudbrick houses?"
By then, we had invested a lot of time, thought and money into solar and wind power. For many of us, not having mains power was a decided advantage. It allowed us to put our ideas about alternative energy into practice, and growing our own electricity was one of the fields of experimentation, one of the areas where we felt we were showing the world how to live better.
Beyond this, we looked at the rest of the mountain. Only three of those fifty or so inappropriately subdivided blocks were occupied, and these owners shared our attitudes towards nature, and the conservation of resources. So, they joined us in saying a most definite 'no'. We looked at the fragile slopes on those blocks, at the regrowing forest, at the view of the mountain from the valley, and knew that those blocks were better kept as bush. The only thing preserving them that way was the lack of mains electricity.
The State Electricity Commission of Victoria claimed that they didn't care whether power was supplied to the mountain or not, but if local landowners asked for it, the SEC had a statutory obligation to supply it. (At the same time, people in other areas were complaining of long waiting lists for connection to power.)
Er... It just happened, that the SEC was establishing a chain of microwave towers to link the La Trobe Valley to Melbourne, and Mt Toolebewong was the ideal place for a tower. So, since landholders on the mountain had requested connection anyway, the SEC would put its tower there.
We stalled by legal means for over two years. Then the SEC held a meeting of all landowners. At that meeting, an SEC spokesman explained, "To have the powerline taken to the boundary of your property will cost you one or two thousand dollars. It will immediately raise your property value by at least $10,000."
Moora Moora, and the other three residents, still said 'no'. All the absentee owners said 'yes'.
And that's how we became criminals. My wife and I, all my friends, all my neighbours, we became a human barricade to stop the trucks and bulldozers. It was a worrying time, a gut-wrenching time, a time of sleepless nights and anxious days, a time of TV interviews and feature articles in the newspapers. It was also a wonderful time, of standing united against impossible odds, of defying the world for a principle, of action despite fear.
Mark Snell, a young Co-op member, was a journalist and had all the contacts. He organised what amounted to a roster of media presence. The protest had two faces. When the cameras rolled, when the journalists watched, police action was firm but restrained. The violence came when the press was not there. To their credit, the local policemen still acted within the bounds of human decency. But the contingents from the city became animals as soon as the world couldn't see them. They dragged women by their hair, threw people into blackberry bushes, inflicted pain, though in a way that left no evidence. Then the next TV crew would arrive, and the dance of protest and restraint became civilised again.
One hard-faced policewoman threatened my wife with the forcible removal of our children. Obviously, we couldn't be fit parents if we persisted. This was a far more vicious form of assault than the rough hands and feet, the arrest, the fingerprinting.
We almost won. A State election was looming, and Labor promised a hearing, an Environmental Effects Study. Of course, this was the election Labor lost by one seat. We duly went to court on a charge of obstructing a public road, and were given a year's good behaviour bond.
So, the power line went in. It is still there. The SEC microwave tower is there, you can see it as you drive along the Maroondah Highway. The landowners who voted for power have all sold out, at a nice profit thank you, and when the new owners built, the damage to the land occurred just as we said it would. But well, they are all lovely people, and it's not their fault.
And twenty years on, Moora Moora is still here. It is no longer an artificially set up, intentional community, but more like a natural, organically grown village. It is like an extended family, as we envisaged it back then. New people have joined through the years, and the place is alive to the joyful noise of little children, to the vigorous dreams of their parents.
Yes, we lost that battle twenty years ago, but if I had to, I'd fight it again. The powerline cuts through our land, but we make no use of it. Why should we? Our power comes from the greatest nuclear reactor in the Solar System, just the right distance away. Even light takes eight minutes to get here.
Oh, and that policewoman was right. Our children should have been taken away from us. They are as bad as their parents, being involved in protests against Jabiluka, and engaging in other anti-Economy activities like growing their own vegies, recycling everything and raising their children with a book rather than a TV set.
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