Hi fellow Gippslanders. I’ll start at the beginning: I spent my childhood years, during the 1970s, in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, but suburban life was very different back then and the area where we lived was still very much surrounded by paddocks.
My dad is from a small rural village in Italy, so of course he always had an enormous vegetable garden. My mum sewed our clothes, cut our hair and used the produce from dad’s vegetable garden to keep us well fed. I grew up with three older siblings and we were raised with a strong outdoor focus. It was a happy childhood but it was also about hard work and self-sufficiency. I became a Gippslander when my dad bought some vacant land in Nar Nar Goon when I was about 10 years old, and this may sound funny, but as a little kid I always thought of myself as a cowgirl, (maybe because I watched so many western movies), so I was in my element when I was at Nar Nar Goon.
I spent every weekend there riding my pony, sometimes rounding up my dad’s cattle, and occasionally digging in the vegetable patch. We moved onto a larger property in West Gippsland when I was thirteen, and that felt perfect for me because the outdoors is always where I feel most comfortable. I was then able to surround myself with an evergrowing assortment of animals, which has always been something that makes me happy. I now reside with my husband and I moved onto small acreage in Bunyip more than twenty years ago. Bunyip is a great town, which is slowly growing, but we still have a relatively small population, and we’ll probably live here until we retire. We’ve even joked about being buried in the local cemetery after we die. I have spent many years working as a horticulturalist, (because my parents instilled in me their love of gardens), but I’ve spent the last eleven years in the animal care industry.
I’m currently working as a surgical nurse in a veterinary specialist hospital. Much of our day is spent conducting CT scans and carrying out orthopaedic repair work. All our patients are referred to us from General Practice vet clinics. It’s an interesting job, very satisfying to me, and I work with a great team of professional people. I don’t consider myself as unique, but certainly many of my fellow Gippslanders might consider me “different”.
I’m a country girl, but I’m vegan, which means I don’t use or consume any animal products. That also compels me to be very particular about what activities I engage in and which charities I donate money to. I’ve been vegan for about twelve years now. I guess many people would feel that was a contradiction of sorts. There is an assumption that country folks are quite comfortable killing and eating animals – and once upon a time I certainly was that person.
When I was younger, homeslaughtering was a regular event: cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry – and not many people know this about me, but in my late teens my hobbies included leatherwork and hide tanning, rabbit shooting and rodeo riding. So choosing to be vegan was a significant change of lifestyle for me. I guess in the end my love of animals was the driving force that enabled me to change my habits. The transition began in my early twenties, when I stopped eating meat – and you can believe me when I tell you that at that time I had no intention of ever becoming vegan. But as the years went by I educated myself about the reality of the practices that had to take place in order to produce certain animal-based products. I read books, I watched documentaries, and I had in depth conversations with some intelligent people. Eventually I decided that to live a life of integrity I had to align my heart with my values, (and it was a painful process to open my heart), but I’ve never looked back. I’m healthier now, both physically and emotionally, than I’ve ever been. I initially thought I was the only vegan in my area, but I’ve discovered there are lots of us! And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that. Country people often build up special bonds with the animals they interact with, and it is the honouring of those connections which eventually drives people to change. From talking to like-minded others I can see that although everyone’s journey is different, the end result is always about embracing our relationships with animals. It’s about minimising the negative impacts that we have on our fellow beings and on our planet.
I started a project a couple of years ago which invited other vegan country folks to tell their stories – and not everyone wants to speak about their journey in a public forum – but the project has progressed into a website called Rural Vegans, and a few of the vegan country folks in my network have made their stories public on that website. There are lots of country people currently in transition toward a healthier and more compassionate lifestyle, and I think it’s important for them to know that they are not alone in their experiences. Choosing to be vegan in a small country town can be a challenge. When I removed myself from the cycles of “animal production” I was aware that some of my friends and neighbours were offended by my choices because they felt it was a personal criticism against them and the way they live their lives.
Obviously, I am interacting all the time From Cowgirl to Vegan – One Woman’s Journey of Personal Integrity with people who not only eat animals, but also farm them, and slaughter them. People can get incredibly defensive when they feel like they are being “judged” and this can cause animosity, which is unpleasant for everybody. The Rural Vegans project has two main goals: Firstly it is about supporting new vegans in rural and regional areas, hopefully lessening the sense of isolation they may be feeling, and secondly it is about bridging the gap between vegans and nonvegans in country areas, opening up some dialogue with farmers and other rural neighbours so that local relationships don’t break down. Country towns are great places to live, but change happens slowly, and lots of people are wary of things they don’t understand. The profiles on the website will help others in a farming community understand why someone from an animal-agriculture background might suddenly choose to live a vegan lifestyle. The Vegan community is growing. Some friends and I have recently initiated the West Gippsland Vegan Group so that local vegans can catch up with others who are on their wavelength. We try and meet once a month, and sometimes it’s just an excuse to eat mountains of vegan food. I think most of us are shameless foodies! There’s an ongoing joke that vegans only eat grass and twigs but the truth is that but becoming vegan takes the experience of food enjoyment to a whole new level. Somebody recently discovered that chickpea water, now universally known as “aqua faba”, can be whipped up into an amazing meringue for desserts.
So the current trends in vegan baking include traditional favourites like pavlova and lemon meringue pie. It used to be quite a challenge dining out, but it’s getting easier all the time. My local pubs and cafés are pretty good at catering to people who don’t eat animal products, particularly if you let them know you’re coming beforehand. They’re always eager to please and very accommodating. As for the practical things I use in my everyday life, (like gloves and boots), a lot of local grain stores carry good quality nonleather gloves which offer protection when handling fencing wire or firewood. And if I can’t find something locally I can usually find it on the internet and arrange to have it posted to me. For instance, a few years ago I found a great pair of steel-capped work boots on eBay, made by a cobbler in Melbourne who uses microfibre instead of leather. These boots are of exceptional quality, they are so comfortable and incredibly tough. On our small property we have a wide range of species in our care: goats, sheep, alpacas, and many others. My childhood pony is still with us too, and he is turning 36 in September. The current headcount on our property is 50 animals, but more than half of those are hens.
Most of our animals are rescues, some are retirees, and one is with us in temporary foster care. They are a funny bunch of personalities and they enrich our family life in a multitude of ways! To unwind I play the guitar! – And I’m not a great musician, but I am a passionate songwriter. Music is a valuable therapeutic outlet for me. I also enjoy photography – animals, flowers, landscapes, rural imagery and historical architecture – but just as a hobby. I still spend a bit of time studying each week for my job, but then I counteract that with my adult colouring books, (which I know some people find very amusing, but it’s a very relaxing activity which doesn’t require much effort).
Anyone interested in networking with other local vegans can contact the West Gippsland Vegan Group by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. au The Rural Vegans website can be found at: www.ruralvegans.info