Humble yourself in the arms of the wild at Gembrook Retreat

Adrian Glamorgan

 

Samara Pitt and Jane Hope, Victoria Regional Meeting

Humble yourself in the arms of the wild
You gotta lay down low and
humble yourself in the arms of the wild
You gotta ask her what she knows and
we will lift each other up
higher and higher
we will lift each other up
higher and higher

(song lyrics Bob Hudson)

For the past 20 years in a quiet corner of Boon Wurrung/Wurundjeri country in the Dandenong Ranges outside of Melbourne, a small retreat centre has been emerging. 

 In 1964, Quakers Maggie and Bob Dunkle bought 22 acres of a former dairy farm. Their vision was to revegetate and rehabilitate the land. During 1980 they built a house that Bob had designed to use the solar energy technologies he had developed during his career.  Maggie planted extensive fruit and nut orchards, flowering exotics and native species.

In the year 2000 with the death of Bob some years earlier and her own increasing frailty, Maggie created a religious trust so that Gembrook Retreat would be held in perpetuity as a place of spiritual retreat, renewal and healing.

Today the main house onsite is known as the Black Cockatoo House of Welcome.  The land now holds a mixed fruit orchard and chestnut orchard, protea and waratah plantings, a large veggie patch, native bushland and open fields.  Many bird and animal species can be found, including black cockatoos, wallabies, wombats, lyrebirds and even the occasional goanna.

There is a small Christian Quaker-based residential community living onsite at the Black Cockatoo House of Welcome and down the road at Blue Tongue House. We invite people on to the land to encounter God in creation and equip each other to live a soulful life.

Inviting people on to the land

 Wood is stacked, thanks to my fella and the kids. The wood is from a few different trees. Mainly a blackwood, a messmate and a grey gum. They all grew from seeds, naturally, on our property. The blackwood maybe 20 years ago, and the gums maybe 60-80 years ago. At some point they withered, died or had branches come down. They were then cut up by my fella and son, moved to a woodpile to dry out for about a year. Now they are brought into our house so we can warm the place up over winter.

 This whole process is about connection to land, and connection to the resources we use in our daily life. Most of the ways our society has set up our lives is about disconnection. Interestingly, the more disconnected we are, the less our lives find spiritual meaning, and the more we destroy God’s creation.

(Jane Hope @rewildingchristianity)

The land here is on the border between Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri country. Due to colonisation the boundaries are not clear, but high on the ridge close to where we are, the water runs to the salt-water of the ocean (Boon Wurrung), and inland to the Birrarung river system (Wurundjeri). This may have been a place of meeting and exchange.

 

Aboriginal people who have visited the Retreat have often been drawn to one area where there used to be a scar tree. It fell down and was cut up decades ago.  We know and honour the place where it used to stand, and by naming this, we also name the damage and destruction that our own forebears have participated in, and benefited from. These stories are so often hidden and lurk beneath the surface to haunt our histories. By bringing them to the light and experiencing the feelings of guilt, shame, helplessness and confusion, we can come to a place of acceptance that enables us to open up and listen with compassion. 

We host people for overnight stays and day visits. David’s cabin is a simple, cosy two-room building. It uses solar power, tank water and wood fire stove for heating. Guests pay what they can afford so that all are able to access the Retreat.  Many appreciate being surrounded by nature, and the break from technology and unnecessary conveniences.

Once a year we have a Chestnut Harvest Open Day where more than 150 people from all over Melbourne come onto the land to collect chestnuts, and picnic under trees.  Events like this express our gratitude for the abundance that the land offers, and the generosity of Maggie who understood that land was not for owning and hoarding, but for sharing.

Encountering God in creation

 We have tried to create places that invite our guests to stop and consider what the land is saying to us.  The Quaker Peace Garden was established in 2016 with a donation from Northern Suburbs Quaker Meeting. This garden forms part of a cycle of contemplative stations on the land inspired by The Work That Reconnects. This is a network developed by Joanna Macy to help people who are exhausted from trying to change our world’s destructive ways to experience our interconnection with all things, thereby transforming our despair into collaborative action. She focuses on four practices: Gratitude, Honouring your pain, Seeing with new eyes and Going forth.

 

In the Quaker Peace Garden, we have a cairn of stones. We are invited to take a stone and hold it as a physical sign of the weight of sorrow and suffering in our world that we are carrying.  We have a culture that can try to repress pain, or hurry us over it.  Here we recognise that pain may have something to teach us, and that we are not alone.

This year we celebrated the winter solstice. We touched the earth, washed our hands in rainwater, breathed the air and fed sticks into the fire, singing ‘earth my body, water my blood, air my breath and fire my spirit’. These rituals remind us that we are not separate from the land, that we are created from the dirt and that our living bodies are part of the darkness and the light.

My wander this morning took me to a stump on our property that gives me the best view of the wallabies if they are about. As I sat down the sun shone brightly on my face and body, giving me much appreciated warmth, but blinded my sight. As I looked out I could not see anything…

 During this month I have felt the presence of God move through my body more than ever in my life, a bit like the sun’s presence this morning. But I can’t necessarily see that much in front of me.

 After a while of trying to strain my eyes to see the familiar wallabies, I give up and turn to the left. In the distance are lyrebirds. A new wild creature to learn from. I’m heading into new terrain. It’s unfamiliar, but with the sun by my side and wild animals to teach me, my eyes begin to see a little bit further along the path I must take. 

(Jane Hope @rewildingchristianity)

Equip each other to live a soulful life

 When I was younger, I was a city girl through and through and I found silence unbearable. Oh how times have changed. But that change has happened over a long time, and it’s been with the support of my community. 

 Today when I went out in the rain, it is only because I have learnt from one of my children the delights of being in the cold and rain, and from another how to live in the present, and then I have a spiritual companion who has often risen from sleep and prayed with me in the middle of the night.

 (Jane Hope @rewildingchristianity)

During the long lockdown in 2020, we developed a rhythm of work and prayer to help us live deeply and soulfully in the day to day. Using a simple liturgy of singing, Quaker Advices and Queries and silence, we pause three times a day to remember that it does not all depend on us.  During this time we have looked at how we here at Gembrook Retreat can respond very practically and directly to some of the big challenges our society is faced with, such as climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

This year we are opening our beautiful ‘new’ Meeting House. It has been built using many recycled materials from the bones of Tom’s old hut which had lots of character but was falling down! It has a meeting room, and dining room, a kitchen and disabled access. Like the cabin, it is powered by solar, heated by fire, and uses tank water. Groups of up to 20 people can book the space for their activity and be surrounded by nature.  We hope to have a regular meeting for worship as well.

Some questions Quakers have about the way forward for an ageing Society might be addressed here where the spiritual and practical elements of life are integrated, where prayer is linked with action, practices of discernment are encouraged, alternatives to capitalism are explored, responses to the climate crisis are implemented, and connection with the land is at our doorstep. Let’s not struggle along on our own.

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The Gembrook Retreat residential community is Jane Hope and her family, Samara Pitt and Shannon Ormiston. The Hope family are members of VRM and Shannon is an attender who grew up attending QLD RM.

There are lots of ways to connect with Gembrook Retreat.

  • Book the cabin or the Meeting House
  • Join FRoGR (Friends of Gembrook Retreat)
  • Donate – in 2022 we need to increase our donations to pay for much needed land care and building work
  • Become a resident at Blue Tongue House, our sister house in Gembrook
  • Follow us on social media – Instagram: gembrook_retreat, rewildingchristianity

To find out more, go to gembrookretreat.org.au

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