CHERYL and Gordon Moody's retirement tree change is a tale of renewal.
In 2019, the couple sold their home of 20 years in the seaside suburb of Redhead to take on "a project" on almost two acres of land two hours away at Wingham, a town of 5000 people near Taree.
They bought a sloping property at the end of a cul de sac on the edge of town; only three minutes' drive to the shops but bordered by Stoney Creek, with open paddocks beyond.
With the goal of becoming as self-sufficient as practical, Cheryl and Gordon have faced drought, fire and flood while renovating the house and creating a productive slice of paradise.
And the lifestyle change has borne more than bountiful fruit and vegetables.
It has restored their health.
Towards the end of his 40-year career in finance, Gordon's mental health was deteriorating. The death of his mother from cancer and a change of role at work triggered his second major depressive episode.
"When my depression was at its worst, I was unable to work; some days I would lie curled in a ball, unable to get out of bed," he recalls.
"I remember describing how I was feeling as being on the edge of a deep, dark well and being unable to stop myself falling in . . . just staring into darkness and unable to see the light above."
Gordon credits medical specialists, the love of Cheryl and their two daughters and the support of his employer and colleagues with getting him through the worst of the episode and back to work.
Although coping, he was still anxious, sleeping fitfully and questioning his self-worth.
The suggestion by Cheryl - then a teacher's aide and a former nurse - that they start afresh planted a seed that took hold.
They gave themselves two years to find a town and property that ticked their boxes, however, everything fell quickly into place.
With their search pushed south by North Coast prices, the couple settled on Wingham, which had the health and retail facilities, landscape, vibrancy and good coffee they were after.
"It is a town that's going places," Gordon says.
The property they bought was among the first they investigated.
"The house was empty and we peered through a window and could see its potential," Cheryl says.
"It had the land we were after, was on a creek, had permanent water and was close to town."
While they had grown food and kept chickens in their Redhead backyard, Gordon says Wingham "was a blank canvas for us to develop our vision".
It was the project they needed.
CHERYL and Gordon, both 62, have breathed life back into the land by planting and landscaping food and native gardens, and regenerating the creek.
They have herb beds, orchards and, on the fertile creek flats, vegetable gardens. Following permaculture principles, they focus on enriching the soil and do not use pesticides.
Gordon, using artificial light and heat mats, propagates plants from seed and Cheryl preserves food by freezing, bottling and drying. They are never short of home-made jam, pesto and passata, swapping and sharing excess produce at a community cart at Tinonee.
In a good indication of habitat health, native birds and wildlife are returning. Cheryl identified the resident green tree frogs and bleating tree frogs by recording their calls on a special app.
The transformation, however, has not been without its challenges.
When the Moodys first moved to Wingham, they had to nurse new plantings through drought, and at the end of 2019, fierce bushfires encroached on the district.
In March this year, floods flattened their vegetable gardens.
"The creek was 30 feet deep [nine metres] and the flats were under 12 to 15 feet of water. We lost all the vegetables on the flats," Gordon says.
The couple say they bought the property knowing its risks.
"We feel very lucky," Gordon says, putting the floods in perspective.
"This is not our livelihood; it is a labour of love. If not, it would be another story . . . we really have nothing to grizzle about."
Gordon and his Pasquali walk-behind tractor ploughed 250 square metres of the flood-replenished alluvial soil for spring planting of tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, eggplants, chillies, zucchinis and greens.
"It can be hard work but we enjoy it," Cheryl says.
"And if we don't get something done today, we know we can finish it tomorrow. There is no time pressure."
FURTHER READING: Homes of the Hunter - Halcyon fields
The Moodys have benefitted from the manual labour, moving away from sugar and processed food to a plant-based diet and stopping to smell the roses.
Gordon, who has lost 15 kilograms, has found a local GP with an interest and experience in mental health. His recovery has been steady.
"We have reduced my dependence on medication substantially," he says.
"The move [to Wingham] has allowed me to slow down and come to terms with my life.
"I sleep well and wake to the sound of birds in the trees outside the deck off the bedroom."
The couple have made sure to take time out to explore the area and are feeling welcome in their new community. Cheryl volunteers at an op shop in Wingham, and Gordon and English springer spaniel Saffy have been approved to visit residents at a Taree aged-care facility. Rescue dog Daisy is more of a homebody.
Their Instagram page, @halcyonfields_wingham, set up to keep family and friends informed of happenings on the hobby farm, is evolving into a reference point and inspiration for others.
"We are still on a steep learning curve," Gordon says.
"We just want to give people who may want to try something similar an idea of what worked for us and how much it cost."
In particular, they hope to encourage others at the same stage of life as them.
"It may seem a bit daunting but if they can see we're doing it, they might feel they can too," Cheryl says.
"What this way of life teaches you is that everything is incremental," Gordon adds.
"It's not about instant success or doing things perfectly.
"Make a start and it will happen organically around you."
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