Voltaire’s Garden: a memoir of Cobargo is Isobel Blackthorn’s memoir of an ambitious plan to live sustainably, happily, harmoniously, through the building of an eco friendly house in the beautiful Australian countryside in the lee of the Snowy Mountains, the small town of Cobargo in the Bega Valley.
You can see the ‘before and after’ photos of Cobargo from the Black Summer bushfires here.
The memoir, set in the early-mids 2000s, is both an inspirational tale and an elegy for a lost dream. Isobel and her husband Greg, joined by Isobel’s twin teenage daughters, return to a beloved area to build a house and a bed-and-breakfast business from scratch. They lay their physical, financial, and emotional lives on the line as they turn former farming land into a home that sustains them with a permaculture-style garden, building their home and all its features as much as possible using with recycled and repurposed materials, and by hand rather than machine power whenever possible.
Years of literally backbreaking work follow. They live in cobbled-together caravan accommodation on ideals, supported by their neighbours, like-minded residents of this glorious valley. They work every daylight hour and beyond to bring their dream to fruition.
The book is a brilliant primer of how complex and difficult are the tasks of solo-building. It’s also a kind of warning – I feel it says to me ‘don’t try this at home’!
The land is beautiful. The views are magnificent and the upland air – unless tainted with smoke from fires – is wonderful. When the bed-and-breakfast eventually opens, the guests are in awe and in love with the place.
But the magic has gone. The relationship can’t survive the crushing toil, when for years they have scarcely lifted their heads to even see the view. Isobel and Greg have driven themselves and their marriage into the ground.
The account is full of nostalgia and regret for a lost dream, but it also inspirational. Voltaire’s Garden is testament to the dreamers who live their dreams, and it’s shattering to see how the good dreams of good people can be crushed. It seems that those with the highest ideals of truly harmonious living with the planet are those worst affected by the thoughtlessness of a world that selfishly destroys the climate.
Voltaire’s Garden is polemical in its views of climate change and justice, and that makes it all the more real and heartfelt. Anyone who remembers the 1970s Tv show ‘The Good Life’ could get a slightly different impression here os how difficult such harmonious living really is.
This memoir has been released now with an epilogue, updating the story after the horrendous Black Summer fires in Australia (Sept 2019-March 2020), which is excellent for placing the story in perspective.
There are also some bonus recipes from Isobel, including one of the best ever pesto recipes.
I’ll be recommending this book widely, especially to my country-dwelling Aussie friends, and also my overseas friends who would like to learn more about us.
Raw, real, and engrossing, this memoir marbles hope and love through hard times.