A review of David Holmgren's Retrosuburbia

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The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around loosely these days. Once it was reserved for pieces of music, visual art, building design, film making, and writing that were a genuine tour de force, the peak moment in a lifetime of practice that stood head and shoulders above contemporary works.

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is a piece of music so beautiful that it can bring a grown man to tears. It’s a masterpiece. So is Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s magnificent painting Earth’s Creation 1, Roberto Benigni’s Oscar winning film Life is Beautiful and Tim Winton’s iconic Australian novel Cloudstreet. 

David Holmgren’s latest book, the self published, 592-page Retrosuburbia, might not have the same gravitas as Beethoven’s tear jerker, but as a contribution to the field of genuinely sustainable domestic design, it is a work without peer, a masterpiece from a thinker/doer at the peak of his powers. 

Having said that, Retrosuburbia is a hard book to pin down. It’s highly readable, but not a literary marvel. Holmgren’s ideas aren’t necessarily new and sometimes not original, yet they feel revolutionary. The book is nearly as heavy as a fat pasture raised chicken, yet its real weight isn’t in pieces of bound paper, but in its vast scope. It’s philosophically astute and intellectually well informed, but totally down to earth and practical.

Maybe the best word I can use to describe Retrosuburbia is homely. That almost sounds like an insult when talking about such a big book, but in my view it’s an honour - home is at the core of human existence. It’s the term we use to describe the planet we live on, the towns we grew up in, and the places where we eat, sleep, make love, raise children, work and ideally, die. One of the most powerful emotions ever is the feeling of arriving home after being away for an extended period of time. 

You’d think that there would be an abundance of big thinking books about home, but you’d be wrong. Most titles in this genre are about architecture or styling. Sometimes they’re about gardening or cooking. Very rarely are they about designing a whole life, but this is where Retrosuburbia, and permaculture more broadly, excels. As the culmination of 40 years worth of thinking, learning and hard won experience, Holmgren has elevated the design of thriveable domestic life to its rightful, central position.

The topics covered by the book delve into unfamiliar, some would say uncomfortable territory, but they are so deserving of attention. Holmgren writes candidly about things like finances, humanure, old age, and council regulations. His section on dying, toward the end of the book, is done with a very personal touch, as he writes about the death of his 92-year-old mother Venie and the decisions the family made about holding the celebration of her life at home. The book is full of photos and illustrations, but none are quite as poignant as the photo of the author, his son Oliver and a friend, standing arm in arm with the coffin they built from home cut timber for Venie’s body.

To me it sums up the depth, and raw energy of the book. We all want to thrive. We all desire a nurturing home and a good life. Retrosuburbia’s premise is that it’s becoming harder and harder to make this kind of home in a world that’s burning through fossil fuels like a high roller burning through cash, cigars and expensive champagne on a big night out in Las Vegas casino. The next day hangover of societal collapse and a dramatically more volatile climate is inevitable.

I started growing food on a suburban block two decades ago out of concern for the planet and a desire to live well. I moved from city to country a decade ago partly in response to a looming energy descent that’s now patently obvious to anyone prepared to look. Retrosuburbia is exactly the kind of book I’ve been waiting for. If you too want to learn how to design the good life, I highly encourage you to read it.