Food, fire, and water: the pillars of human community (from the perspective of a mother in Australia)

Norann Voll

Norann Voll 1976 –

Born and raised on the Bruderhof, Norann, a teacher, blogger, and passionate cook, has lived and breathed community for as long as she can remember. For years, she took it for granted. Then, in 2002, she and her husband, Chris, and their two little boys (they now have three teenage sons) moved to a new Bruderhof in Australia. In the bush, in a harsh climate marked by droughts, floods, and wildfires, she learned how community can be a life-or-death matter:

When we moved here seventeen years ago, everything was so new and different, and with that unfamiliarity came vulnerability. When you’re uncertain, you need other people to help you through. And when your closest neighbor is ten kilometers down the road, a strong sense of community is vital. We’re supporting each other through drought, fire, floods, storms.

Harvesting English heirloom apples

And it’s not just about the dramas the weather throws at us. When the hard stuff of life arrives on your doorstep – whether it’s a child who’s made a poor life choice, or aging or dying parents, or an accident or an upsetting diagnosis – it’s important to have friends who can rally around you and look after you. If you can’t depend on your next-door neighbor – well, there may not be anyone else to depend on.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the pillars of human community: primal gathering elements like fire, food, and water.

Fire, because it brings people together in beautiful, non-threatening ways. Chris and I recently hosted a barbecue followed by a campfire. We invited fifteen people. Forty showed up. That’s what a fire can do. Someone began telling stories from his childhood. Someone else talked about the loss of her teenage son. A campfire is a great venue for a deep conversation, maybe because you are not actually looking directly at each other, but at a fire. At a table, you can’t avoid eye contact. Around a fire, in the darkness, it’s a more relaxed setting, and the focus is not on any one person. You’re continually drawn to the fire, to the center. 

Food, because sharing it is one of the deepest expressions of community we can have with one another. One skill I’ve learned from the farm women around us is what I call “inconvenient hospitality.” Life here is akin to pioneering, and it happens all the time that someone suddenly has to deal with an unforeseen change of plans or an unexpected visitor. These women just take it all in stride. Who cares if the house isn’t perfect, or the food isn’t ready? You’ll be invited not only to share the meal, but to help prepare it and to really make yourself at home. That in itself is a beautiful form of hospitality.

Water, because it’s life-giving and healing and sustaining. In a land that is primarily desert, water has taken on new meaning for me. And the absence of water gathers people too: when it doesn’t rain, month after month, you look out for your neighbors. You notice how their farms are doing and care for the farmers’ mental health, which can be fragile at such times.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the hard things are what bring you together with others. A crisis can bring you together in a unique way and leave a deep and lasting bond.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the hard things are what really bring you together with others. A crisis can bring you together in a unique way and leave a deep and lasting bond. I’m not trying to sugarcoat anything, but I am saying that if you look at those around you with eyes of gratitude – if you look for community – you will find beauty and strength. It’s a gift for me to be able to share the simple, pedestrian, joy-filled moments of the day via my blog and social media. Platforms like Twitter can be something of a wasteland, and yet it is possible to find and cultivate friendship there too, to encourage grace and gratitude, ask for advice, share questions or recipes, and bring people together.

Norann preparing food with friends

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