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Coming to Ground: a chat with Kirsten Bradley

Kirsten Bradley, alongside partner Nick Ritar, is director of Milkwood, an Australian permaculture education institute dedicated to cultivating skills for down-to-earth living. Teaching courses such as mushroom cultivation, organic vegetable gardening and permaculture living, they’re passionate about up-skilling individuals and communities for resilience and regeneration. Kirsten is an excellent communicator, navigating complex issues with empathy, openness and joy. I caught up with her recently to chat more about holding multiple perspectives, growing strong communities, and finding meaning in strange times.

Georgina Reid: Kirsten, please tell me how you started Milkwood, and where you’re at now?

Kirsten Bradley: Milkwood started out when two artists, myself and my partner Nick, moved to Nick’s family farm in central New South Wales about 16 years ago. Like many people given the opportunity, we thought ‘this is great! We’ll put down roots and build a tiny house and lead a really simple life’. We got totally sideswiped by regenerative agriculture and all these really interesting ideas about regeneration as forms of climate action which we hadn’t encountered before in permaculture. Before we knew it, we were all wrapped up in that world, holding events and hosting teachers. That spiraled into Milkwood which is an educational institute dedicated to skills for living like it matters.

We’ve now based in southern lutruwita, Tasmania. We’ve bought – well, we’re stewarding – half an acre on the edge of a small town. It’s very different from broadacre farming and we absolutely love it.

Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar’s vegetable garden at home in lutruwita. Photo: Kirsten Bradley
Nick Ritar and Kirsten Bradley. Photo: Bree Dunbar
Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar’s home garden in lutruwita. Photo: Kirsten Bradley

GR: What does a typical day look like for you?

KB: It looks like getting up, bundling our kid off to the school bus, and then either doing projects at home or tootling down the hill to our office in town. We have a small team of Milkwooders, some based in Cygnet with us, and some in other parts of Australia. Together, we build and teach amazing online courses. We also do lots of writing and free resource creation around ideas of household resilience in a really pointy, useful way – as opposed to ‘all you need to do is change your lightbulb and take your Keep Cup and the climate crisis will sort itself out’. That is not our bent.

We are more about ‘there are things you can to do every day because you need to live your life somehow and you’ve gotta eat something for breakfast, as well as advocating on a large scale and using your voice and your privilege and whatever power you have to create change and participate in that change’. It’s pretty much an and also situation, in terms of advocacy and action for us.

GR: Yes! I’m really interested in the ways people hold, and communicate, multiplicities. You do this so well. You seem to be unafraid of going to places that make you uncomfortable, and communicate this in a way that brings people with you, not divides. It’s such an important skill. Have you always been like that?

KB: People who have known me for a long time would probably say no [laughs]. I grew up in an activist family and was quite righteous as a young person. I was very lucky to have some awesome friends who called me out on my black and white thinking.

When we started Milkwood, we’d get so many people coming to the farm who were scared of the future, convinced that this was the only way to farm or the only way to live or the only way to build a house.

It’s obvious from how ecosystems work, and how we work as a society, that there’s many different solutions to any challenge. When you say ‘this is the only way’, you close off all the other possibilities.

When you’re teaching and sharing with people who are wanting to make their households more resilient – because they are either concerned for the future or they’d like to do things a better way, whatever better means for them – usually they’re at quite a vulnerable point. There’s a responsibility to hold them as gently as possible, and have an attitude of ‘you could try this or you could try that’. There isn’t a right or wrong.

I don’t want put people off from trying out new things and, you know, enhancing their relationship with their ecosystem or their community because they did this one thing and it didn’t quite work and therefore it’s all useless. I really, really want people to find a meaningful way of growing a little bit of food or participating in their community.

GR: You know, I hear experts – often men – they might be climate scientists or systems thinkers talking about solutions and there’s this clarity, like, ‘this is how we do things and this is how we’ll fix things’. It’s so seductive.

KB: So seductive. It’s such a relief to go ‘huh, there it is’.

GR: But, as you say, it isn’t … I wonder if it’s a feminine thing, this ability to hold all sorts of different ideas and solutions together rather than being wedded to one answer. So often it’s seen as a weakness, or ‘she’s not giving me a straight answer, so she clearly doesn’t know what she’s talking about’.

KB: ‘She’s giving me five options, which one is it?’ It’s a side effect of our culture, I think. We’re used to being fed a solution until a better solution comes along. It’s that and also thing rather than either or.

The more I’ve been learning about Indigenous science and knowledge systems, the reciprocity of your relationships with everything – and the circularity of things – comes up again and again.

You are in reciprocity with your ecosystem and your household biome and your bodily biome all the time, whether you admit it or not, whether you’re aware or not.

That sort of fundamental thinking is a different starting point to ‘this one thing is going to save the world therefore we will do it and everything else is a bad idea’.

Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar’s home vegetable garden in lutruwita. Photo: Kirsten Bradley

GR: You and Nick have been deep in permaculture thinking for a long time now. Has it, as a framework for thinking and being, grown with you? Does it feel like home?

KB: We do see it as a framework. It’s a decision-making framework, a good design framework and it’s fundamentally useful. We came to it like, ‘Oh, here’s all the solutions in a book, awesome!’ We’ve moved very far from that original point, as I think everybody has, realizing the roots of Indigenous science and Indigenous knowledge and how that relates to, and underpins, permaculture and all modern thought.

There’s a quote, something about the ideas on the floor on the day of the disaster are the ones that get picked up and used. I think it’s pretty spot on. Part of our work is to gear people up with skills and knowledge. They don’t need to be an amazing community cultivator or know exactly how to resolve community conflict. But if they know there’s systems, books or techniques out there that could serve them, they’ve got a running start on how to think about it and where to go for that knowledge.

We’re all trying to reconnect with place, we’re all trying to find a way forward in a world completely out of balance. You know, some of us are investing more and more in adaptation than trying to stop things at this point. There’s a lot of really interesting conversations and actions going on around that.

GR: Where do you sit on the adaptation spectrum?

KB: A few years ago, it occurred to us – as it had occurred to many people previously – that the same skills we need now to help mitigate and think usefully about what’s going on in the climate crisis and everything else are actually similar, if not the same, as the skills we would need after a downturn, whether sudden or gradual.

Cultivating community, getting involved in your food system, taking care of your watershed and coming to terms with the fact that you’re an integral part of your ecosystem and you should act accordingly – these are all skills that are a really good idea now. As a form of radical hope, or just to help keep you sane in crazy times and also hopefully feed you a bit of good food. And if we aren’t able to fix things, whatever that means, we’re going to need a similar skillset.

Household resilience is a good idea as long as it’s interwoven with community. If you want to be safe in your community become the most useful and connected person to know. Work on your own shit so that you’ve got enough heart to share with others.

There’s a recent article by Douglas Rushkoff about super-rich preppers he’d been engaged to advise. He was trying to convince them the best thing they could do is create connections in their community rather than having the best oxygen system in their bunker.

GR: What does a bunker with the best oxygen system get you?

KB: An extra 30 days. Woo [laughs].

GR: It’s like they’ve forgotten they’re going to die.

KB: It is. When we started Milkwood, we would have people come to the farm and go, ‘You don’t have gates. Do you have guns?’ From our perspective, if you want to feel safe, get to know your neighbours, even if they vote at the opposite end of the spectrum. Know where your water sources are and advocate to keep them safe as a community. I think the fortress mentality is really dangerous for your mental health, community and family.

Get as useful as you can be and share it around. It makes more sense.

Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar’s home garden in lutruwita. Photo: Kirsten Bradley.

GR: Something I’m always thinking about is how to show up as a white woman privileged to own land in a colonised country. What are your thoughts on this?

KB: I can only really speak to what works for me. We became land owners two years ago. I had a fair bit of guilt after it, like ‘how do I interface with the idea that this half-acre technically belongs to me even though it obviously doesn’t?’ The reason this land is here in the first place because the Melukerdee people have done such a stunning job in this landscape the last 40,000 years.

On a practical level, we figured out who our local Indigenous organization was and started paying the rent to them.

If you live on stolen land, pay the rent to your local Indigenous people. Pure and simple. Don’t decide what the money will be used for, just get it to the most appropriate local organization, and do it every week.

We did that, which surprised our local Indigenous organisation somewhat. It had its own ripple effect, and people started talking about it in town. There’s a lot of local families doing it now, which is really good.

There’s also Patrula Nayri, a local cultural burning mob who are doing an amazing job and we started showing up to workshops and learning everything we could.

Before we moved to lutruwita, Tasmania, I read as much as I could on Tasmanian Indigenous culture. We arrived off the ferry from the mainland and drove down to Cygnet, having just read Tasmanian Aborigines by Lyndall Ryan, which was insanely sobering reading. It didn’t feel like a gorgeous little green land full of apples anymore, it felt like a really weighted, heavy place. I’m glad I read it, and I’m glad we came here knowing what we know, rather than just going ‘da da da da’ [hands over ears], not being aware. As a settler, the least you can do is educate yourself on what’s happened so far and where you sit in that lineage – so you can show up for the solutions, from an informed place.

I also place a lot of value on learning as much as I can about the different species here, all the different birds and plants. You can see it as a form of classification, getting all your names right, but to me, it’s a really fundamental way of understanding where I am and how the landscape works and how the community of beings here work.

GR: What are you thinking about at the moment? What’s drawing your attention, calling to you?

KB: I’m just finishing writing a book on permaculture habits [due for release in September 2023], so I’m thinking a lot about that. I’m thinking a lot about the macro and the micro, the tension between the big actions and the little actions. How to encourage people, and myself, to do what I can on both levels of action – climate action speaking – at once, without losing faith or completely running out of puff… And yeah, how to language those in a way that doesn’t take from one or the other.

I don’t want to trivialize the collective power of the small stuff and I don’t wanna trivialize the big stuff either. I really believe the goodness for many of us lies in acknowledging that it is all true and important at the same time, and to find a way through it rather than getting caught up in ‘it’s one or the other’.

Photo: Kirsten Bradley.