“One of my aunts who travelled with the royal family to Siberia didn’t get shot with them because she happened to be ill on that day. She was in bed somewhere so the Bolsheviks tied her on the roof of the train and drove her through Siberia. My mother said she was always very bad tempered but they were told to be very nice to her because she had endured this horrific thing.”
And with that powerful and emotive story I’m thrown into the realisation that Alexandra Seddon perhaps has good reason to be incredibly grateful for the life she has lead and wish to share it with and provide for her community.
In the 70’s Alexandra started a commune in a tiny country farming community. 35 years later with that still standing, she bought a wildlife sanctuary, which she and her colleagues have brought back to life. Both of these projects engage large collections of volunteers and are community oriented.
The first time I call Alexandra she has to go get her diary to make an appointment with me. “Just a moment Indi, I’ve got a bird in one hand and the phone in the other so I’m going to put the phone down” she says. This is a pretty good example of who Alexandra is, she’s busy, dedicated and despite the fact that she created numerous amazing projects around southeast NSW, she doesn’t believe she is any more important than anyone else who gets involved.
Back in Russia, Alexandra’s great grandmother was Lady-in-Waiting to Tsar Nicholas’ mother, Maria Dagmar.
“My mother talked about the Russian part of our family and their life and I thought of it as a sort of magical fairytale for most of my childhood and it wasn’t till I actually saw Dr Zhivago and I realised that there was another side and that the aristocrats in Russia didn’t really consider people who had nothing and I thereupon sort of rejected the whole fairytale side and I suppose that started me off on the community thing.”
In the early 70’s Alexandra was living and working in Papua New Guinea, her husband and her brother both wanted to be back in Australia for different reasons. In 1975 she found herself in Candelo on the South Coast of NSW.
“My brother wanted, after working on other peoples land, he wanted to work on his own land and own his own land and then my husband wanted to teach law in Canberra but have somewhere to come for the weekend. So it wasn’t really me, I didn’t really want to leave Papua New Guinea.”
Despite the initial hesitation, she found an opportunity to revisit some old ideas and interests
“I suppose even when I was still at school I was fascinated by community things like Kibbutzim and I thought that sounds absolutely amazing to be doing all the physical things but then to have the arts in the evening combined and the whole idea of sharing I liked.”
Out of these ideas came Cowsnest, a commune style farm and the Candelo Arts Society. Today the farm produces enough food to feed the current residents and sell excess at the monthly market. The Arts Society brings the likes of Harry Manx, Kristina Olsen and Mia Dyson into this sleepy town on a regular basis.
“So I thought ok this can be a place where people who have no money can come and work in return for their board and lodging. We set it up as a company and there were 12 shareholders they were all people who had been there for two years or more. Whenever someone had been there for two years they could ask to become a shareholder, it didn’t cost them anything on the condition that they would give their shares up if they decided to leave. It was more or less like being alive, you’re on the earth but you can’t take anything with you.”
The idea really did, and still does, seem to work. At times they’ve had more than 30 people living there, growing food, maintaining the farm and providing produce for the local market each month. The farm really is independent; flour is the only foodstuff they have to bring in to the property.
Sean, one of the young volunteers from Potoroo Palace wildlife sanctuary, tells me that that hands-on attitude continues now even with Alexandra in her late 60’s.
“It wasn’t for a few days that I actually realized that she was one of the directors. She was carting around a wheelbarrow full of plants and I just thought she was one of the volunteers. She was busy carting wheelbarrows full of plants around and feeding animals.”
Alexandra is honestly one of the most engaged, interested and friendly characters I’ve ever met. Her eyes light up with excitement every time you speak to her.
The relationship between her work now and her ancestor’s lives in Russia became evident to Alexander in more recent years. In 1927 her great grandmother set up a trust for the family. As she starts to explain this to me I realise just how affected by her past she is. Her eyes fill with tears and her breathing changes as she talks.
“I now understand that there were five women who got together in my family and set up these trusts `that no one in the family would ever be destitute ever again. It’s an amazing thing to realise only now, I didn’t realise quite how extensive it was and also my great grandmother’s father and his brothers started Seimens electrical. Originally Carl, my great, great grandfather started it in Russia and Verne started it in Germany and Wilhelm in Britain. Verne, when he first started Seimens we have a quote which says ‘my money would burn a hole in my pocket if I didn’t look after the welfare of all (the workers)….They actually looked after them more than twice as well as the state their pensions still are twice what the state ones are there welfare staff.”
The gratitude that Alexandra feels to have had the life she has had shows constantly in her attitudes and interactions, both with staff and volunteers. No part of this life has been taken for granted. Although the mixture of the money she gets out of the family trust and that which was left to her as inheritance could have seen her living very comfortably she has chosen to share that wealth with the community. Alexandra and I sit and chat on the veranda of her quaint little bed-sit, her haven she says, all she needs to be happy.
The story of her ancestors has impacted the lives of generations of her family. “Truly the stories are horrific but when you get to about the 10th suicide it’s very difficult to be totally serious. One of my aunts called felicitous, she was known as fairy, she was in Berlin when the Russian’s came in the second world war and she had already had her father murdered by the Bolsheviks and she had her husband at war at that time fighting and her two sons. She had all her supply of wine and food and things ready for when they came back from fighting and she was going to welcome them. When the Bolsheviks came, she was so aware of what was going to happen to her after they’d taken over her house. She gave them all her wine and all the food and gave them a banquet and then went into the next room and shot herself. Uncle Willie shot himself at the time of the revolution he was only 19 cause he thought no Russia no life and uncle Nicky who was the next one older he went to South Africa and became an Alcoholic and jumped off a balcony and he was only 20 something I think and then his daughter Anne committed suicide in my lifetime because she had a Thalidomide baby. “
Out of these stories, for Alexandra, came not only a desire to ensure the safety and happiness of her family but a realisation that it is important to ensure the safety, and security of the community and to provide opportunity for those less fortunate. Alexandra’s husband Peter Nicholson says this community lifestyle is how they live
“We don’t believe in ownership of anything, seeing it go ahead is great, we don’t want to control anything. We’ve got certain standards that we want to see happen but we don’t take control. “
He tells me that most recently Alexandra has bought a stretch of wetland, which has been given back to the community of Pambula. The wetland was threatened by development but now has a walk through it and is kept by the community. Other community members have followed her example and bought the land around it to add to the project.
When the local wildlife sanctuary was put on the market in 2006, a friend approached Alexandra who had spent many years volunteering in Wildlife rescue. She was encouraged to take over. Alexandra tells me the place was run down, the animals were dying and everyone worked very hard. Seven years later they are almost back on their feet.
“Basically the first three months was picking up rubbish. Ever since we’ve just been trying to make things better and better for the animals but it’s been unbelievable but I do not regret it for one second.”
When I walk in to the animal sanctuary, Potoroo Palace; the first person I meet is Kelly Price. I explain to her that I’m writing a piece on Alexandra “No freaking way” she says “that’s awesome, I started working here and then found out about Cowsnest through Alex, now I live out there.”
This kind of reaction to any mention of Alexandra is common thread among any community member who has had an interaction with her. Her passion for life and genuine care and interest in what you have to say seems to be somewhat contagious.
Kelly tells me that Cowsnest still has community day every Tuesday nearly 40 years after Alexandra started it
“Every Tuesday about 9 o’clock everyone gathers in the shed, there’s usually about half an hour of cups of tea and figuring out what we’re going to do for the day. It could be anything from like whipper-snipping the blackberries to making the jams for the market or even preparing scones if it’s going to be a market weekend. Either everyone goes off and does their own little job or we work together on a task or something. Anyone can come out; they’re just expected to do a little bit of work. We all have lunch together and then do a bit more work in the arvo then it’s beer o’clock. “
When it first started, Cowsnest had up to 30 people living there. To begin with it was people coming through Alexandra’s Papua New Guinea connection. “Then we had another connection with Pyrmont in Sydney which was really strange squatters in Pyrmont; there seemed to be like a main highway from there to Cowsnest. So we had the punk era and we had the gay era and they were sort of simultaneous because the gays were coming from Papua New Guinea (the artistic people I worked with in Papua New Guinea) and the punks were coming from Pyrmont and they didn’t like each other so there was a lot of peace making but it was a very creative time.”
The punks joined the local footy team and drank in the pub, which engaged the rest of the community in Cowsnest. The township of Candelo just saw the Cowsnest crew as a funny looking bunch of farmers, they still drove utes and spent their money in town on stock feed and farming tools. On those grounds these guys were all right.
So, what comes next for Alexandra? Well, she tells me, she and Peter are working hard on becoming redundant.
Peter Nichols is Alexandra’s husband, not the one she arrived in Candelo with but a more recent addition to her life although, they have known each other for most of the time they have both lived in this valley. Peter moved to town in ‘76 to become a part of the ‘New Buildings Long Flat’ commune a few kilometers south west of Candelo. The similar interests and lifestyle drew him to have a look at Cowsnest, they’ve been friends ever since.
He believes Alexandra will always be doing something to help the community and the environment.
“Everything about Alexandra is trying to educate people about how important it is to look after the environment. One of the things that I found out looking at the Bureau Of Statistics is philanthropy in Australia, less than one percent of what people donate goes to the environment. On that basis Alexandra would be one of the major players in donating to the environment. Without the environment we’re stuffed.”