Good jobs, a nice home near Stanford University, views of the Santa Cruz Mountains … there was a lot going for John and Jill Davidson’s life in California’s startup capital, Silicon Valley.
Which is why their decision to leave in 2009 and invest their super into revegetating 60 hectares of farmland near Robe on South Australia’s Limestone Coast doesn’t make sense to some people.
“We’ve taken some quite good friends out there and they just look at us as if we’re completely mad,” Jill said.
Like Silicon Valley, Robe has its share of wealthy locals. Purchasing prime farmland for environmental purposes was, fair to say, foreign.
“It’s a great opportunity to take a piece of land that’s been degraded by grazing and turn it back into a carbon sink,” John said.
While John enjoyed the challenge and intensity working as a medical imager in California, he came to feel like a cog in a wheel.
Determined to enhance the environment they were in, they decided to retire back in Australia, in Robe.
After spotting the land for sale on a beach walk, they decided to go all in.
“Ultimately we hope, after our time, it will be a sanctuary for local plants and wildlife.”
Going against the grain
Trying to avoid a consumerist lifestyle has always been on the Davidsons’ radar, especially in the US.
Their sons Tom and Henry, in their teens at the time, couldn’t see why they weren’t allowed to have a TV like everyone else.
“It was a deliberate and often difficult determination to live differently to most of the people surrounding us in Silicon Valley,” Jill said.
Some of that difficulty has followed them to Robe with a modern emphasis on land development and profit.
Fortunately, with the help of local community groups and the National Trust, they’ve been able to garner some support for their vision.
Fascinated with biology and natural history, John has “always collected and propagated seed”. Thousands in fact.
“We’d actually been told to take some of the trees away from places where we’d planted them in town,” Jill said.
As well as developing the topsoil with native plants, they’ve been planting local edible species like muntries, spinach, pigface and Luca pogon (a white berry).
“All of these have been bush tucker for millennia,” John said.
“There [used to be] a productivity cycle here that was more than just turning plants into meat.”
For the next generation
John and Jill realise their sanctuary’s future lies in the next generation’s hands.
“It’s easier for our age group not to care. For younger people I think it’s quite difficult,” Jill said.
“The next generation has asked a lot about what our vision is and how they can pursue it and maintain it.”
Jill, an early childhood educator specialising in the Steiner philosophy, is passionate about using the space for educational purposes.
They already have a relationship with a local area school whose students come out and plant and will hopefully one day camp. Their son, Tom, also teaches there, specialising in sustainable living.
“Thinking about the world and what can be done in a positive, creative world, I think Tom’s ahead of where I am. He’s really taken it to task,” John said.
Tom and his wife, Ali, also live in Robe although are planning a move to Franklin, Tasmania where they’ve already bought 9 hectares with the intention of revegetating.
“I’ve got absolute gratitude for Mum and Dad and the legacy they’ve left around teaching the values of conservation here.”
They look forward to learning about local species from the local indigenous people as they have done with revegetating their property in Robe.
“There’s an amazing amount we can learn through Indigenous stewardship and their ability to help us as a globe heal country.”
A lifestyle of giving back
The Davidsons recognise not everyone can do what they’re doing.
“The transition to actually do what you’re thinking about requires a lot of good fortune and freedom. For us, we’ve had both of those things,” John said.
“We’re incredibly fortunate.”
Philanthropy is something they observed a lot in America and hope to see more of here.
“Once you get into your mind that consumption is a product of humanity and it’s a burgeoning disease, you go about finding ways to minimise consumption.”
As for Robe, they’re committed to giving back to their coastal home as much as they can.
“We decided when we came to Robe that we were going to make this our headquarters for our remaining days,” John said.
“We have invested our time and effort and thinking in how to make this beautiful place the best home we possibly can.”