Jack died not long after the winter solstice following a short illness and two bouts of hospitalisation. He was 92.
Su Dennett and I and our son Oliver have been neighbours to Jack and Lois Monaghan for 30 years.
During the early 1950’s housing shortage, Jack’s grandfather subdivided his 15-acre paddock on the edge of Hepburn. Jack and Lois became owner-builders of a modest fibro house on the double block.
When we started building at Mellliodora, Jack and Lois’s only child Dianne (my age) had left home, and Jack was in his last year of self employment as the local panel beater, spray painter and smash repairer, walking the 500m to work each day to his workshop opposite the house where he grew up. Jack always dated the years of his retirement by Oliver’s age who was born the same year. Oliver was the baby on the building site with me until we moved into the house in 1988.
I remember Jack and Lois as third generation locals with the perfectly maintained house, car and property and a strong culture of self-reliance who were friendly and welcoming of newcomers. However I admitted to a local friend my own age, who was also from one of the old Hepburn families, that I had borrowed a soldering iron from Jack. His comment was that you should never borrow anything from Jack Monaghan because you could never return it in good enough condition. This fitted with my own suspicions, having seen Jack’s spotless workshop, perfectly mown lawns and his 1964 Valiant station wagon that was still in showroom mint condition. Actually at some stage he had resprayed it but the job he did was of course perfect. I was aware that Jack could be a fussy and opinionated character and I resisted the temptation to ask favours. We respected their modest traditional self-reliance and they respected our hard work in owner building and tackling two and half acres of blackberries.
As Oliver assumed ownership of the building site, he gained early experience as one of the blokes building, maintaining and fixing stuff. It was inevitable that after we moved in, on his second birthday, Oliver would wander further, attracted by the little old man next door who was always busy in his workshop. We apologised for our annoying son but to our amazement (and Lois’s) Jack enjoyed Oliver’s questions and attention. The perfectionist with one daughter and no grandchildren was taken by a boy who paid attention and accepted the rules of the workshop.
Jack was almost the age of my father who died when I was 19, but unlike my father, he was highly skilled in woodwork, metalwork, mechanics as well as being a competent gardener (like my father). I respected Jack for his skills and great knowledge of the local area and its history. His stories helped us gain a real sense of place with roots in the past. His Super 8 movie of the sawmill that once stood on our land was the template for Greg Holland’s drawing in the Melliodora book we published in 1995.
Despite having the same first name as my father, Jack was never a father figure for me and I tended to avoided discussion of political issues given our different outlooks. But for Oliver, who never knew his paternal grandfather and hardly ever saw his maternal grandfather, Jack was his adopted grandfather. For me this was a gift not because it took the kid off my hands, but because it connected Oliver to place and community in a way that I could never provide. It also meant that Oliver osmotically absorbed some of Jack’s metalworking and mechanical skills, so it seemed no accident that by his early teens Oliver was a better welder than me and went on to develop respectable sheet metal and panel beating skills. In the last few years Jack was teaching the next generation of neighbours’ boys how to shoot an air gun!
In traditional rural culture, talking too much is poorly regarded but Jack was a social character and a great talker, like my father, me and Oliver. He would often end a visit with the comment that he had been ear-bashing us for too long. Even if we were very busy, our discussions were almost always interesting and informative.
Jack was also always interested in my knowledge and skills and would often say that you are never too old to learn something new. He had a great interest in how to do things better, as well as the latest technology. In the 1960s he installed water filters in his mains supply to protect the hot water system from sedimentation. Around the same time he was experimenting with using the then new silicon mastic for many purposes and used engine oil additives to extend the life of his vehicle and small engines. He may have lived so long without succumbing to the lung cancer that took most spray painters of his generation as he always wore masks and other safety gear that most blokes of his era thought were unnecessary inconveniences. Jack’s food habits were traditional but he never smoked and hardly drank alcohol.
He often talked about the skills of the old timers such as his grandfather who could spend all day slowly scything the paddock (while puffing on his pipe) but admitted he himself had never got the hang of scything. Jack was the quintessential modern man, enthusiastic about technology and progress, although the digital revolution was a step too far. He always understated his problem solving skills by saying he wasn’t smart enough to understand computers.
Over the years our households maintained a gift economy of lemons, eggs, old newspapers, bottles, odd gas torch metal brazing repairs, pruning help etc. In more recent years as Jack’s capacity gradually waned, we and our volunteers managed to do a little more to help Jack keep going with the vegetable garden and especially pruning the fruit trees. For many young permaculture travellers who stayed at Melliodora, Jack and Lois provided another model of self-reliance and modesty in consumption to inform their own journeys.
When my mother joined us at Melliodora for her twilight years, Jack would often walk down the hill to have a chat with her. Like us, my mother marvelled at Jack’s incredible flexibility and dexterity despite his complaints to me that his steady hand for welding and other fine skills were gone, (and that the hill was getting steeper).
Apart from his place in our hearts, Jack’s great care in looking after things lives on in a photo I asked him to pose for over the open bonnet of his gleaming 64 Valiant. I used that picture to illustrate the permaculture design principle of No Waste. Our Permaculture Principles Teaching Kit that is used by people around the world includes that picture as one of a set of 12.
Jack’s attention to detail and care with maintenance lives on in another way. Su and I are both of the same mind in looking after things to avoid waste that comes from lack of maintenance but we often find ourselves chided by Oliver for not being careful enough. One day people might say, ‘Oh don’t borrow anything from Oliver Holmgren; you could never return it in good enough condition.’ They probably already have.
During his adult life Jack saw the culture of waste and carelessness grow from small beginnings to the raging consumption of his later years. All that time he doggedly maintained a frugal care of the material world. As the era of abundance and waste reaches it twilight years, some of Jack’s skills and mentality will again be part of the puzzle in how the next generations survive and thrive the challenges of the 21st century.
Winter Solstice 2016
Bushfire has been a recurring theme in my work over nearly four decades and a central concern for anyone involved in permaculture design, teaching and practice in rural Australia, especially the south east of the continent, which has the dubious title of being the most bushfire prone region in the world.