Coffee has become an essential part of mornings and certainly we’ve developed the habit of offering it as a welcome when somebody arrives for a visit. I’m meeting Miles at his house around 10.00am so deliberately resist the urge to drink coffee before I leave. I’m on a quest to find out what makes this man persist in his valiant efforts to achieve improved environmental outcomes in this conservative district.
No 52 proves to be Google-defying, so after a quick and fruitless search, I park and walk up a little roadway running at a steep angle away from the road. When I turn there’s an expansive view to the north where Mt Alexandra stands guard over Mittagong. I’m in the right place. I make my way up to a practical house tucked snugly into its garden. Standing on top of an impressive outcrop of rock, I wonder what will this place reveal about its owner?
Towering, welcoming and loquacious, Miles fills his small hallway when he opens the door. I follow him through to the kitchen where a repurposed schoolroom stool is just the right height for perching. We’re both a bit nervous, not knowing one another well and unsure of the territory we’re about to enter. Talking about past travels, Miles busies himself making the coffee I’d hoped for. He takes care, wanting it to be just right.
“Milk? We have a milk frother.”
Suddenly he diverts himself mid-task, spinning around to reach into a cupboard and grab a little Italian espresso maker. We’re talking about Paris – coffee stories. “It broke, I mended it!” he tells me, brandishing the object. “The handle came loose but it’s such a good, sturdy thing. Far too good to throw away. I love things that are made to last”.
During a morning of conversation it becomes clear that Miles is a repeat offender when it comes to repairing things. I feel as though there could have been chaos here, a property heavily laden with bits and pieces, but laid out before me are calm and well-ordered spaces designed for family use. Something is going right. I suspect a good marriage.
When I ask why he chose this place for this stage of his oft-repaired life, he seems almost apologetic, as though he’s wearing someone else’s shoes. ‘It’s practical’ , he tells me, ‘and it faces north’.
We pass through a dining space on our way to the garden and he runs his hand along the surface of a honey-coloured table set around with six chairs. “It’s made from floorboards”, he says. I’m admiring and a bit envious, having nurtured a long-time dream of performing such Rumplestiltskin acts for myself.
I’m steered towards a cave-like retreat.
Shaded and welcoming, this space is decorated in the ‘Recycler’s Delight’ style. Salvaged chairs and a variety of rescued objects serve both practical and decorative purpose. I’m keen to be invited into this complex little space with its back hunkered down against the weather. A tiny, ornately carved timber window frame is set into the back wall of the cave. I mean to check to see if it’s a real window and what’s to be seen through it, but navigating the fast-flowing river of conversation takes concentration and in the end I forget. This man’s mind overflows with ideas and solutions, frustrations, more and yet more plans, people and places. A continuous, binding thread of frustration with ‘the system’ weaves its way through the stories.
The Folly speaks eloquently of the man who built it. Well-cushioned chairs prove to be comfortable and a sturdy timber box is drawn up to serve as a table. We begin to relax and stories keep flowing. Our coffee waits in elegant, white mugs bought on that happily remembered trip to Paris. Miles and Michelle together.
Miles was born in Adelong in ’56. His dad was a medical practitioner and his young life hovered around farms in the Highlands, stints in Sydney, Hawkesbury Agricultural College, student politics, Jackarooing and sport. From a young age he became acutely aware of misuse of the planet and was drawn to search for sustainable solutions. But he found himself in a world that throws up barriers to change and has scant regard for such concerns.
Later, referring back to the country-boy experience, he will tell me ‘I ended up working in stud cattle breeding and it was just wrong’. Perceptive and knowledgeable, he rales against inappropriate management practices and behaviours he sees as running in conflict with natural systems. I see this courageous attitude as putting him at odds with a high percentage of the Australian population. Clearly this is a brave man!
During this part of his life Miles was profoundly influenced by information coming out of Permaculture and by Rachael Carson’s benchmark book, Silent Spring.
Early life and work experiences culminated in time spent overseas after which Miles gravitated back to the Highlands where he has always felt at home. Successive droughts severely impacted on his pursuit of agricultural enterprise in the early ’80’s and for this, he calls himself naïve.
Impecunious and frustrated Miles worked for others, including time at the Bowral Co-op.
With work practices conflicting with his sustainability principles, he embarked on a journey of re-education around sustainable farming and Permaculture. He diversified his income stream through teaching and together with a business partner, set up an organic vegetable growing operation on the family farm at Alpine with the attendant idea of establishing a Growers’ Co-operative to market produce.
He saw this business opportunity being in tune with a way of using land kindly, although growing certified organic produce with low impact on the land, competition from (non-organic) vegetables transported from as far away as Victoria saw the enterprise defeated. It lasted under two years.
I capture conversation fragments to stitch together and a pattern is emerging of a man with a strong desire to make things work efficiently and without waste. Next, he is driven to change the ‘out of sight out of mind’ culture that stretches far-reaching tentacles across our land.
If you’ve been around the Highlands for a while you’ll remember the Welby Tip. Crowded, rank and wasteful, it came into Miles’ sights in ’94 when he took a job at Council. Local rubbish was piling up fast at the last remaining local landfill following a recent decision to stop the ‘fill and burn’ practices at the site. With burgeoning quantities of waste flowing from an accelerating consumer economy, Miles quickly recognised a deeply flawed culture ripe for change. At this time there was limited recycling or reuse in Australia. Together with members of Council’s ‘Waste Management and Minimisation Committee’, he began to research alternatives.
This resulted in the development of one of the first Resource Recovery Centres (RRC) in the country. He oversaw the move of waste operations from Welby Tip to the previously retired Moss Vale landfill site where the RRC was established. This worthy and well-executed initiative became a model for further developments of its kind. It welcomed many visitors and won recognition, including the inaugural Waste Management Association of Australia National Waste Transfer Station award. But frustrations with certain aspects of the job took its toll, leaving Miles exhausted and disillusioned. In 2011 he left.
So many hopes; so many projects. When he tells me “I’m a sucker” there’s a scarcely concealed note of despair. I’m reminded of Mr Punch, who, despite being knocked over time and time again, keeps popping up for another go at life.
Later, he approached the waste challenge from a new angle, this time focussing on electronic waste.
Without support from his family and in particular, from his wife Michelle, he might well have despaired. “She is so truly honest,” Miles tells me, “She keeps me real”.
Perhaps surprisingly, the flame of hope continues to flicker back into life. In association with a like-minded band of locals, the idea of a local Climate Action group germinated. As co-founder of Climate Action Now Wingecarribee (CANWin – now WinZero) Miles embarked on a new journey of activism with focus on working to change local resource management and consumer practices.
These days, Miles finds inspiration in the new and capable team running WinZero so he continues to work with this group. His main area of interest now is in renewable energy. Together with many other long-time workers for change, he feels hope that at last such ideas are beginning to make headway and a healthier and more sustainable outcome will be achieved for the planet and for current and future generations. For this family man, five grandchildren are the driving force behind a continuing commitment to these pursuits.
Our coffee mugs are empty and the dogs have long ago given up on trying to attract our attention. Sprawled, they’ve fallen into a deep sleep. More than two hours have passed and we’re both exhausted by the stream of words, emotions and passions which have filled our morning. Finished, we walk out into the freshness of a well-tended garden. The chook shed is a noble architecture of practicality and strength with the fortunate resident ladies pecking and scratching contentedly around their domain. Through a wooden gateway, raised beds of veggies are thriving. Robust energy eminates from all the hand made objects and everything speaks of function. A pleasing visual harmony has been achieved between the many weighty and practical components of this outdoor space.
Miles wants to show me his shed on the way out. I picture a massive space tight packed with a collection of retrieved treasures, but when the door rises the space is almost empty. A borrowed ute is parked outside and he tells me he has used it to ‘rationalise’ his lifetime collection of saved objects. This, I discover, has been triggered by the recent passing of family members and an ensuing need for catharsis. Also, a need for space.
Remaining is a tall plastic drum filled to overflowing with salvaged screws, hooks and bolts. He runs his hand over them, appreciating, once again, their solid practicality and rich potential. I understand that they are treasure. But they, too, are destined for ‘Reviva’.
His sense of relief at letting it all go is palpable.
When we stand on top of the rock to say goodbye Miles reaches down to tug out a yellow flowered daisy. “Fireweed,” he tells me.
I’m not so sure, but it gives us something to smile about as I leave.