Honouring the Prophets: Peter and Judith Land

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 32, Lent 2005

What would drive a man and a woman and their nine children to leave the security of life in a city, make for the rural hinterland and carve out a new home in the bush? A vision, or poverty, or simply a touch of madness?

That question put to Peter and Judith Land draws a wry chuckle and comment from Peter, ‘probably a bit of all three.’ But then he corrects himself and the serious philosopher emerges to give a detailed explanation of how in 1978 they and seven of their nine children left Whangarei and spent every cent they had on 396 almost inarable acres in the Hokianga and proceeded to carve out a sustainable farmlet so they could live a genuine alternative lifestyle. Both believed that the western lifestyle they had been living, based on ever increasing consumption, was unsustainable. They believed that too many resources were being used up by too few and that life could be lived better if one returned to the land, grew whatever food was needed and built from renewable resources. And so it began.

Now, 27 years and 55 grandchildren later, they are enjoying older age still sustained by the same dream and still living ‘voluntary simplicity’, albeit in slightly more comfortable surroundings. In more recent years they have moved from their fairly primitive ‘barn’ home to a modest cottage on the same property.

The vision ‘to go bush’ was inspired by two sources: the monastic tradition and the traditional Fijian village. Both Judith and Peter are deeply spiritual people. Both are converts from Anglicanism to Catholicism, independently of each other and before they met. In early life, Peter spent time at St John’s Theological College in Auckland studying theology and scripture but chose not to be ordained. While Judith grew up in New Zealand, Peter was born in Tonga where he spent his childhood. Later they shifted to Fiji as a married couple where they attempted to live a simple sustainable lifestyle. Hence the influence of both religious and island traditions on their thinking. They saw the Fijian model as ‘always sustainable and renewable,’ while the monastic tradition attempted to link contemplation and prayer to an active lifestyle. The balance between action and contemplation has always been one of great interest to both.

Through studying history, philosophy and theology, Peter has always envisaged the big picture and sought to make it known. According to Judith, often in the past such searching for truth has made him unpopular. But that has been a cross they have both shared at times. None of Judith’s family came to their wedding because of her conversion. Few have much contact today because of their life choices. Such is the prophetic road.

Back from Fiji in Whangarei in the 1970s and going about the practical business of raising a family and trying to make ends meet, they both felt the urge to do things better and differently in a more sustainable and renewable way. Urban life was suffocating them.

And so it was to this difficult terrain in the bush near a river in the Hokianga that Peter and Judith and their youngest seven children came to live out their vision of a world built around Divine Providence, Christian values and the desire to plant God’s Kingdom in the here and now. They saw in the wider society a culture worshipping materialism and over consumption. They believed it was breaking down at every turn through a loss of relationship with the natural world, the earth and with God. Their vision was to seek God in the natural world devoid of modern comforts – no washing machine, phone, television, tractors, chainsaws or other mechanised farm machinery. Work was almost universally manual. But at every turn Divine Providence dwelt, helping develop a sustainable lifestyle, strong family bonds and a deepening spirituality.

While Peter had the vision, it was Judith who had the drive to get them to pack up their tent and go ‘and live the dream.’ Her tenacity and courage in the face of seemingly conflicting demands and radical choices have resulted in the security and stability that the extended family now feel. As daughter-in-law Catherine explains, ‘Judith had to work so hard to grapple with the issues. She has amazing hands – hard working, large hands with which she has kneaded dough and worked incessantly to make the vision happen. She was convinced by Peter that life could and should be lived differently. This is why she could go with the vision. She was also inspired by the saints, whose lives she and Peter read daily. They prayed the Office, went to Mass whenever possible – so they could live their dream. Today she has a beautiful healing gift of touch. Through re-birthing and praying, people find her totally understanding.’

They have raised their family, as son Joseph says, ‘to question and evaluate the practices and motives of the society around us. We were to hold fast to the values of the primacy of God, integrity of thoughts and actions, voluntary simplicity and the practice of Christian charity and justice.’

Peter and Judith also sowed the seeds for home schooling. A new generation has home schooled their children meaning that the next generation has grown up in an environment where, as Richard Rohr says elsewhere, ‘the path itself is your teacher.’ Currently the two youngest have read many of the classics (including Lord of the Rings three times), ride bareback, hunt in the bush, grow organic vegetables, study GE and add and subtract with the best of their age. Their ages are 13 and 10 years respectively. For this family, practising compassion, social justice, the love of God is the way, the path, the teacher.

Looking back on a life of dreams and hard work have convinced both Judith and Peter that their choice was the right one and that they have been especially blessed by God in so many unexpected ways. They often sit quietly at family gatherings, grateful for the way the dream continues to unfold. The acres of lush organic vegetables, the munching of Clydesdales in the yard, the ever present patter of tiny bare feet, the psalms of praise prayed daily at morning prayer, the sound of hoof beats on the path or in the orchard, the pervading daily smell of freshly baked bread, all signs of a meaningful and fulfilled prophetic lifestyle in action. May the bread continue to rise.

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