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Chapter Five: Wilderland Community - Coromandel Peninsula

Established 1964

Quote from Krishnaji at Rishi Valley: “Don’t think of yourselves as a community” he said, “there is something aggressive about a community, something sectarian and self-endorsed.” Instead, he wanted us to be a compassionate and intelligent group of people who had their doors always open (final entry in Dan Hansen’s diary, 2003).57

For some people, living at Wilderland was good because it was cheap.

For some it would be a philosophical thing – to avoid working for The Man. For myself, I started appreciating what community could be. Not being a Māori I didn’t have a marae to go to, and I realised that in a way Wilderland was a Pākehā marae (Piet, former Wilderland resident, personal communication, 20 January, 2009).

Everyone who comes here, the first thing they see is potential (Avner, Wilderland resident, personal communication, 4 November, 2009).


This chapter is in three parts. Part one begins with an orientation concerning the state of Wilderland‟s affairs at the time of this research. This is followed by an overview of its history and development since the property was purchased by Dan and Edith Hansen in 1964. Part two identifies significant changes that the

community has experienced throughout its lifetime, and the impact of those changes on the community‟s evolution. This is followed by a discussion of the Wilderland Trust. In Part three, I discuss the implications of Dan Hansen‟s influence over the development of Wilderland and the transference of ownership from the Hansens to the Wilderland Trust, the cycle of commitment followed by disillusionment and departure by successive groups of residents, and the situation at Wilderland at the end of 2010.

57 This quote was written by Dan Hansen after visiting a school founded by Krishnamurti (Krishnaji is a name Krishnamurti is sometimes called) in the United States. Hansen was strongly influenced by Krishnamurti in his own principles and beliefs.


Part One: Introduction


During the period that this research was conducted, Wilderland was in the midst of a crisis, with a number of major events seriously threatening its continued

existence. Between the beginning of 2009 and the end of 2010, this included a complete change of the resident population, a legal challenge to the Wilderland Trust that owns the land on the part of the daughter of the original founders, and a court order by the Thames Coromandel District Council demanding the demolition of all its thirteen illegally built dwellings, which were considered a health and safety risk. In January 2009, when I first visited the community, the population had dwindled to three residents and a number of casual visitors and WOOFers. By the end of 2009 those three core residents had been replaced by five different ones, three of whom were foreign nationals with insecure residency status. 58 This new group were considering how they would respond to the threat of a legal challenge to the status of the trust by Dan and Edith Hansen‟s daughter, Heather, and her family. By October 2010, this dispute had been settled out of court. Edith Hansen had been removed from the trust, two of the three foreign nationals had secured residency status, a new group of trustees had been elected, and a resident group of four committed members and several “trial residents”59 were working towards developing a new management policy, and negotiating with the council to upgrade rather than demolish the illegal dwellings.

Dan Hansen, the founder and original owner of the property, died in 2006, and although the Wilderland Trust was established in 1989, and ownership of the land transferred to it in 1992, there have been several disputes and issues associated with this. Initially, these concerned Dan‟s retention of authority as landowner, and later, challenges to the legal status of the group living at Wilderland as

beneficiaries of the trust, and to the power invested in the trustees to manage community affairs. Dan‟s widow Edith remained a lifelong trustee of the

58 By „core‟ I refer to people who are committed to living at Wilderland and take responsibility for managing the property. Wilderland consistently hosts a large number of visitors, some of whom stay relatively long-term but on a casual basis.

59 A category of resident outlined in the Wilderland Resident Policy document, 12 July, 2010.

113 Wilderland Trust after Dan‟s death. However, in 2009 she was elderly, in poor health and did not take a role in the affairs of the trust. Her daughter Heather, who lives next to the community, had assumed the role of advocate for her mother. At the time I first interviewed her Heather expressed uncertainty about what she thought should happen next, but felt the community should be “closed down”

(personal communication, 4 February, 2009) because she believed it was not upholding the aims of the trust. In 2010 Edith was removed from the trust due to her infirmity, Heather and her family withdrew their challenge, and no longer have any connection with Wilderland.


Wilderland comprises of 73 hectares (183 acres) of hilly bush covered land on the Whitianga Harbour. It is a certified organic farm,60 and includes extensive

orchards, horticultural gardens and an apiary. There is little flat land; the orchards and gardens are spread across the north facing slopes, comprising about 20% of the property, with the rest regenerating native bush. Dirt roadways provide access to small, modestly constructed huts and dwellings and the rambling network of gardens and orchards. When Country Life radio interviewer Jerome Cvitanovich visited Wilderland he described it as a “verdant and luscious cornucopia” (Murray, 2001). The Coromandel Peninsula has a sub-tropical climate where vegetation thrives, including a vast variety of fruit and avocado trees as well as number of invasive weed species. This, combined with the terrain, and an organic approach to horticulture makes the management of such a property a very labour intensive practice.

While the tenuousness of Wilderland‟s political situation in recent years has left it in a vulnerable position, the challenges associated with both serious conflict, and a fluctuating and impermanent core group of residents, is by no means a recent phenomenon. The community‟s 46 year history has been characterised by a high turnover of residents, and a high degree of disharmony. There have been extended periods when the resident population has dwindled to two or three, aside from Dan

60 Certified with Organic Farms New Zealand

114 and Edith. This is evident from numerous entries in Dan‟s personal diaries as well as the interviews with former residents of the community. A letter to Mushroom Magazine in 1981 invites new people to join the community to help it revitalise:

We are only 7 – 8 people ... the lowest population in several years. ... The people who are here now are not unified in their views of what we can do to bring life into a place that feels to all of us dismal and disparate

(Elwell-Sutton, p. 47).

There have also been several protracted disputes, some of which have involved legal challenges, that have had a profound impact on the community. Some of these issues are discussed in this chapter. The recent crisis described above has been developing for some years. When Sargisson visited in 2001, she wrote that:

Wilderland was undergoing changes and [Dan] Hansen did not describe them as a community. But he has since deeded the land to a trust and there are still a small number of permanent residents, so it is correct to say that Wilderland remains an intentional community (Sargisson &

Sargent, 2004, p. 125).

The changing population at Wilderland has presented obstacles to finding clarity and continuity for this research, particularly in regard to the history of the

community and the causes of conflict. Resident informants often referred to events that happened long before their time there, and gave inaccurate information about them, based on hearsay. Consequently, a number of key events have become mythologised61 and accounts were given of some events that had sometimes been heard about second or third hand. This mythologising is not uncommon in oral accounts of the past. The Popular Memory Group (in Perks, 2006) refers to the social production of memory that is produced in the course of everyday life.

Through the exchange of personal comparisons and narratives memory becomes

“encapsulated in anecdotes that acquire the force and generality of myths” (in Perks, 2006, p. 45). Similarly, in her thesis about other Coromandel communities, Larisa Webb refers to the role of gossip in small communities, suggesting that rapid circulation of stories through close social networks contribute to a process of turning past events into firmly established stories in the history of a community

61 Two examples of this are the various versions presented to me about two major events in particular - the events that led to the banning of all drugs and alcohol from the property in the 1970s, and a dispute during the 1990s when five members challenged the Trust over a financial issue (this is returned to later in this chapter).

115 (1999, p. 103). This is also evident in references to Dan and his intentions that were explained to me by people who had never met him. Apart from being referred to as a “lifestyle guru” (Hauraki Herald, 10 October 2010) or

“charismatic” (Sargisson & Sargent, 2004), many referred to his „dream‟ or

„vision.‟ Yet there is no real evidence that Dan himself was motivated by any vision or dream beyond growing organic food. His intentions certainly did not include establishing an alternative community. To the contrary, he said in a 2001 Country Life radio interview that he never set out to create a community, either practically or ideologically (Murray, 2001).

Sargisson and Sargent remarked that “communities that focus on a charismatic leader can face difficulties when this person dies” (2004, p.127), but they believed that Wilderland would survive Dan‟s death because of the establishment of the Wilderland Trust. However, Dan Hansen‟s death, five years after Sargisson‟s visit, had unforeseen repercussions. As Russel, a resident and spokesperson for

Wilderland in 2010, pointed out in relation to the legal challenge that Dan‟s daughter had instigated, the transference of ownership to the trust did not take into account the possibility of a situation arising in which “a daughter who is taking care of her mother‟s whole affairs [is] absolutely against Wilderland” (personal communication, 3 November, 2009). Nor did it consider implementing a process to deal with the possibility of a complete change of the resident population.

I visited Wilderland twice in 2009. None of the residents had been there longer than seven years. The first visit was in January, at the height of the harvest season.

The orchards were laden with ripe tangelos, plums, pears, and avocados. The vegetable gardens were producing enough vegetables to supply the Wilderland shop, and to feed the community.62 The proceeds from produce sold in the shop paid a wage to Thomas and his partner Sigi, who were the chief organisers and managers of the community, and a small allowance ($50 a week) for long-term residents. The income from the sale of produce also paid for bulk food and the costs associated with running the property.

62 The Wilderland shop is discussed on page 133.

116 When I arrived at Wilderland the first time, Thomas (the chief organiser) was returning to the community hall for lunch with a work crew of about six people, comprised mainly of WOOFers. They had spent four hours picking tangelos to stock the Wilderland shop. A hot meal was ready, prepared by one person who was rostered on to that role. I had arranged via telephone with Thomas to visit Wilderland a week prior to my visit, but when I met him he told me that in the interim period between my call and visit, he and his partner had decided to leave the community because they could no longer cope with the burden of trying to hold the place together virtually on their own. He told me:

It has never been easy for people who live here long term - who actually carry the place - to make it possible for people to come here short term.

… And none of the people who were living here were motivated enough

… to actually go for it. They left it all up to me and then afterwards they blamed me for telling them what to do. And I didn‟t like that. … I have carried the heavy end of the stick for far too long and I just can‟t carry it any more (personal communication, 22 January, 2009).

Thomas also explained that as he and his partner were both trustees, and it was stipulated in the trust document that the majority of trustees had to be resident at Wilderland, their departure and resignation would leave insufficient trustees for a quorum. 63 He was unsure of what might happen after they left.

Apart from this couple, there were two others residents, one of whom had been there for several years, and another who had stayed there previously, and had returned as a casual visitor. There were also six WOOFers staying. Despite the small resident group and the transient nature of the population of WOOFers, there was a clearly stated expectation that everyone would turn up at the hall every morning at 9 am, six days a week, and work together for four hours then eat a shared lunch together.64 In the afternoons and evenings people were free to do as they wished. Thomas spoke about Wilderland‟s dependence on WOOFers to provide a labour pool to harvest produce and to tend the extensive crops that Wilderland produced:

63 The Wilderland Trust Deed (1989) states that at all times a majority of the trustees must be resident in Wilderland (at any one time there can be no less than five). Thomas, Sigi and Edith were the three resident trustees at that time.

64 This was outlined on a board welcoming guests, as well as stated on the Wilderland website.

Further, the WOOF scheme handbook states that the minimum expectation of the scheme is that members work four hours a day with or for their hosts.

117 We need WOOFers to work. [They] are cheap labour, but they still eat

and drink and all the rest of it and they need to be organised. … Years ago when we had big market gardens, we had up to twenty [at any one time] in the main peak, around December (personal communication, 22 January, 2009).

Gary, an American who lived at Wilderland from 1989 – 2001, like Thomas, became overwhelmed by the workload. He reiterated that those horticultural enterprises at Wilderland could not have been sustained without WOOFers

(Torley, 1999). However, WOOFers are unpaid labour and their presence is casual and unreliable. They are also generally unskilled, a high number are foreign nationals and many have minimal English language skills. Their short-term stays means that the residents are constantly teaching new people new skills. While this reflects the objectives of the Wilderland Trust, it is difficult to sustain. When I spoke to Avner, Wilderland‟s beekeeper in 2010, he remarked that he had taken two WOOFers with him to tend the hives that morning, and that it had taken twice as long as it would have done had he taken someone who was familiar with the process. The inexperience of many WOOFers is illustrated by a young 21 year old architecture student from Ireland, taking a year‟s break from his studies to travel.

He told me “I grew up in a city, so it‟s pretty different. When I want an apple [here] I just pick one. … Yesterday was the first time I ever chopped wood” (Rob, personal communication, 22 January, 2009). Gary pointed out that “the strength of places like Wilderland depends on people getting behind it” (Cvitanovich, 1999), but that the demanding nature of the manual labour required to maintain the horticultural enterprises was daunting, particularly for those who took responsibility for managing it.

Historical context

A remarkable aspect of Wilderland‟s history is the fact that in spite of the difficult physical terrain, its founder, Dan Hansen, maintained a pivotal role for more than 40 years, despite being paraplegic. He was paralysed as the result of a farming accident in 1940, at the age of 21. In 1999, in his 80s, Dan told Country Calendar interviewer Jim Hickey that when he first bought the Wilderland property people had said that it would be difficult for an able-bodied person to farm such a

118 property, and impossible for a crippled person. When he and Edith took possession of the land in 1964 it was a neglected farm, starting to regenerate into native bush.

The previous owners had “just walked off it” (Cvitanovich, 1999) eight years previously. At that time the easiest form of access was by boat. The Hansens moved there with their then 14 year old daughter Heather, and a young man who came to assist Dan physically. They lived in a borrowed bus for two years before Dan had a road bulldozed onto the property. Initially another couple with four children had been interested in buying in with them, “but the vandalised and derelict condition of the one small old house existing was considered by them to be inadequate to their needs, so they withdrew” (Hansen, personal writings, 1994).

Heather described a Spartan existence in their early years; the family were vegetarian, and lived “on a pretty meagre diet” (personal communication, 04 February, 2009); they had “virtually no money” (ibid.) and subsequently divided off two ten acre blocks to pay off their mortgage. Heather attended her studies via correspondence school. In the early years she and her parents began planting orchards and people “just turned up” (ibid.).

Dan Hansen

Several informants referred to Dan and Edith‟s reluctance to call Wilderland a community, and talked about it being an „unintentional‟ community. Christine, a resident during the 1990s, said that Edith had called it “a community with a small

„c.‟” (personal communication, 23 February, 2009). Edith did not have much involvement in community affairs. Piet, another former resident, believed that “a part of Dan‟s past was community, and some part of him really understood that.

Whereas Edith … she didn‟t like it” (personal communication, 20 January, 2009).

The Hansen‟s reluctance to acknowledge Wilderland as a community seems paradoxical given that during the 1970s it was considered to be “one of Australia and New Zealand‟s most prominent „communes”‟ (Wilderland website, Sargisson

& Sargent, 2004, p. 33), and that it “influenced the development of many later communities” (Sargisson & Sargent, 2004, p. 6). Although Dan and Edith owned the property from 1964 until 1992, when they gifted the land to the Wilderland Trust, they always maintained a philosophy of openness towards others living there.

119 This philosophy had been established earlier when they had lived at another

community called Beeville, which Dan‟s brothers had founded near Morrinsville in the early 1930s (see Fyfe, 2004; Jones & Baker, 1975: Sargisson & Sargent, 2004). Sargisson and Sargent believe that: “Directly Beeville gave rise to

Wilderland … and indirectly Beeville and Wilderland gave rise to the whole New Zealand communal movement of the 1970s” (Sargisson & Sargent, 2004, p. 37).

This influence is reflected in Tim Jones‟s observations in 1975:

For many people Wilderland has been a training ground where they learnt to garden, live simply, operate communally and develop their own philosophy of communal living. After this period of learning they have moved on to start projects of their own (Jones & Baker, 1975, p. 80).

Legacy of Beeville

Beeville was described by Sargisson and Sargent as “an anarchist commune that survived for forty years in almost constant conflict with the Government of New Zealand” (2004, p. 33). However, Toby Boraman doubts whether using the descriptor „anarchist‟ is appropriate, arguing that Beeville did not have any connections to the anarchist scene in New Zealand of the 1960s and 1970s.

Boraman argues that:

Although Beeville did share similarities with some aspects of anarchism, such as its rejection of leaders, authority ... and private property ...

Beeville‟s philosophy was far more influenced by the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. ... Unlike anarchists, Hansen preferred a “people‟s world government.” He also supported Social Credit‟s version of capitalist economics and distrusted mass movements (2007, p. 2).

The Hansen brothers were conscientious objectors who actively opposed the military efforts of the New Zealand government during the Second World War;

they wrote letters to newspapers, and government bodies, took part in public protests, and several of the Hansen brothers were incarcerated during the war in detention camps. Beeville “managed to survive and flourish for many years

without a formal governmental structure” (Sargisson & Sargent, 2004, p. 34). Like Wilderland, “the Beeville community was originally based on a beekeeping

business but as it expanded other activities developed, including a roadside stall that sold farm produce” (Fyfe, 2004, p. 5). Also like Wilderland, income was

120 pooled and expenses were met from a common purse (Metcalf, 2003, p. 706). The Hansen brothers were influenced by the philosophy of Krishnamurti.65 The basis of Krishnamurti teachings involves the avocation of individual responsibility for action, and “individual discovery of truth” (Fyfe, 2004, p. 42). Its adherents believe “individuals can cooperatively produce a better society through voluntary involvement rather than through the imposition of authority” (Fyfe, 2004, p. 5).

Dan carried this philosophy to Wilderland, and the community that developed there over time was not planned, deliberate, or structured, and always had an open door. In 1997 Dan wrote:

My part in bringing about the development which has come to be known as Wilderland has lain in an attempt to live in a manner which is not constrained by any limited concept or determined by any particular tradition, ideology, or goal (such as merely “making money,” furthering the belief of a religious concept, following a pattern for living laid down by some idealist or utopian philosopher, or anyone claiming “higher”

authority). My underlying concern has been simply to live intelligently;

to learn from whatever occurs, to be open to experimentation and exploration and in a way which is not bound by a conclusion. As I see it the social implication or significance of this relates to the consideration of what is the need of mankind and of the world at large. A particular concern of mine has been the needs of children and developing young adults (personal writings, May 1994).

The „general manager‟ of Wilderland in 2009, Russel, recalled visiting Wilderland and asking Dan for advice years earlier when he was interested in starting a community elsewhere. He said:

The talks I had with Dan – his answers were surprising. He came from a just here and now kind of perspective. His answers weren‟t about ideas, or structural concepts. He talked about examples of when he‟d supported people on hare-brained schemes knowing they‟d fail. He was really open to people learning just from doing and being. He [created] an

65When asked in 1974 by his biographer, Mary Lutyens, to define his teachings Krishnamurti wrote the following: The core of Krishnamurti's teaching is contained in the statement he made in 1929 when he said 'Truth is a pathless land'. Man cannot come to it through any organisation, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychological technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the

understanding of the contents of his own mind, through observation and not through intellectual analysis or introspective dissection. Man has built in himself images as a fence of security - religious, political, personal. These manifest as symbols, ideas, beliefs. The burden of these images dominates man's thinking, his relationships and his daily life. These images are the causes of our problems for they divide man from man (www.kfa.org).