When Dan Schreiber came to Byron Bay from London in the early nineties he found that it was precisely the spot he was looking for. Its alternative culture and open-minded community were elements he had sought in Mexico, Bali and Hawaii in his quest for ‘the right place’ – which none of these places were.
Dan and I are sitting in the nearly-completed tea-house at Starseed Gardens, just out of Byron Bay. He has poured us oolong tea – the Beaujolais of green teas, he tells me – which we sip from tiny cups as he describes his plan.
South African-born, he is a self-taught herbal healer and horticulturist, creative director of Starseed – and ‘I’ve also been called a visionary’, he says. With a background in the life sciences – oceanography, botany, zoology – he would prefer to describe himself as ‘just into nature’, or perhaps Dr Seuss’s character Lorax, ‘a friend of the trees’. When he arrived he was looking for somewhere to build some botanical gardens here, with the notion of gradually introducing cultural elements into it. For a while he was ‘living quite happily up in he started to realise that ‘the very thing I’d moved to Byron for was becoming eroded, marginalised – like the buskers in the street.’ And so he devised a 25–50-year plan. ‘Instead of trying to change the whole area I wanted to create a pocket set in gardens and not in the CBD, so people could come and visit and see what Byron is for. Town is not a true representation of the culture that exists in the hills.’ He wanted to ‘design a forum for our incredible artists and healers, thinkers and musicians’, a microcosm or a model, perhaps, of a utopian vision. In fact Starseed’s website features the words ‘attainable utopia’. ‘I think that communities have to find a way of finding out what’s of value and keeping it there – like the Barossa, for example, which has a strong traditional culture of growing food’, Dan says, ‘Where’s our whale and dolphin festival, for example? – given whaling was one of our early industries… people who come here are drawn by the cultural dynamic that is alternative and it’s vital we nurture it. We have the highest incidence of creative people per capita in Australia.’
Dan found Jagers Piggery, off Skinners Shoot Road, which up until 1995 was the most hi-tech piggery around. It is 80 acres of pasture, spring-fed dams and the old piggery buildings themselves – the tea- room, for example, all recycled bamboo floors, spiral deck, old wooden chests and fuschia cushions on the floor, was the pig-loading building. Starseed itself is ‘a loose co-operative’ of about 15 members. Wwoofers help out and there is a core group of six ‘who are directing the energy.’ That energy is being poured into the garden nursery itself, which will ultimately specialise in culturally significant ethno-botanical plants traditionally used for food and medicine; workshops on a host of topics such as organic gardening, biodiversity and solar economies; building wood-fired ovens and Polynesian earth ovens; bamboo- building festivals and mushroom cultivation. It sounds so ambitious, and yet Dan is in no hurry, one of the most relaxed and gentle people I have met. All of this started about ten years ago, close enough to Byron so that it was accessible for people to come out for day sessions but far enough away.
‘We’re going to organically grow these botanical gardens,’ he tells me, ‘but we’re growing everything from seed… What I’m doing is drawing from so many traditional cultures – there’s very little that is actually new. A lot of these things aren’t really complex. The elegance of their solution may be found in the bass notes of culture – food, music.’
Starseed Garden Nursery ‘is the home of plant-human culture and relationships’. Its regularly updated website, which features future events, is www.starseed.co.