The Long, Slow, Creative Hard Slog

“The long, slow, creative hard slog always wins out in the end.”

Contrary to how ‘floaty’ such a statement may seem there’s a great deal of evidence to support it. It’s evident in everything from entire societies being built on earth stewardship, see Amazonian societies creation of Terra Preta on otherwise relatively infertile tropical soil, to Van Gogh’s hard isolated life work which now occupies vast galleries created in his name, and the countless artists whom acknowledge his influence. I suppose we could analyse and attempt to interpret the rabbit hole that the last part of the above statement, ‘the end’, entails. Though this is far too open to interpretation and has overt metaphysical connotations. Therefore allow us to briefly examine the long, slow, creative, hard slog bit.

To begin with we must acknowledge the ninth Holmgren Permaculture principle; Small and Slow Solutions. As obvious as this principle may seem, within our current dominant paradigm applying such a thing within your daily routine is to run, or rather meander, directly against the conformity grain. Though the rewards are endless, in this life or the next, for ourselves and/or future generations. Be it in taking the time to study your local ecology which can reap untold benefits of higher yields, better return on your investments, be they in passive solar buildings or soil management, to embracing patience with yourself and others. The benefits of which seem unnecessary to state here.

Need we discuss the creative part? Yes. Perhaps we do. Djaning and all it entails has recently taken to realising itself as a Life as Art project. Which, for us, has untold benefits. To begin with, artists make mistakes, though instead of them being ‘mistakes’ as such, they can further become art. We recall a dear friend of ours smirking in wonderment whilst watching Jimmy Page playing another perfectly oulandish solo on Led Zepplin’s the Song Remains the Same film, and stating, “He hits bum notes, but then keeps hitting them! He’s making his initial errors intentional! And this makes them awesome!” We’d like to think we can do something similar, but on the land. (Duly noted, of course, that Jimmy is a master craftsman with decades of experience, and music is not geology. But I think you get what we’re trying to say).  We make mistakes, though so long as we don’t throw down our instruments and sob, we can learn from it, and if it’s in time and in tune with gaia’s guidance, it can become a hallmark.

More on the Life as Art concept in later posts. Now for the hard slog part… Hmmm. Yes that. Well, no matter the creative process we must work. Andy Warhol knew this and was known to have instilled Lou Reed with the ethic, even resulting in the song Work. For us we’ve often been caught singing the Temptations Just My Imagination chorus in relation to the thought of being able to create our dream, without the hard slog; it’s just our imagination. It’s therefore beneficial to look to others who have achieved, or are well on their way to achieving their ideal situation through diligent, applied labour and effort. Some that come to mind are our teachers, Geoff & Nadia Lawton at the Permaculture Research Institute, Robyn Francis at Djanbung Gardens or Ben Law, woodsman extraordinaire. Others are our friends and colleagues, like Merav and Janta at Karuna Insight Design. While others again are those that just wholly blow our mind, like Ernst Gotsch and his Syntropic Agriculture.

Clockwise from top left, Ernst Gotsch, Geoff & Nadia Lawton, Robyn Francis, Janta & Merav Wheelhouse, Ben Law.

Whatever or whoever it is, we feel we’re on the right track. That bendy, gravelly, wooded way with all it’s quirks, foibles and ‘perceived’ hiccups.

Oh You United Kingdom You

It’s rather hard to put succinctly the feeling of returning to this wet little island known as the United Kingdom. It’s a little like putting on one of your old pair of shoes; a little musty, possibly mouldy, but comfortable, welcoming and if a little spit and polish is applied as good as the day you first wore them. Upon stepping into these old shoes we’ve encountered old and new projects, rekindled friendships and developed some anew.

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Making the time for some toddler led yoga with old friends

The unifying theme it would seem of the trip was in fact contrast. The individuality of this unifying movement known collectively as permaculture, has presented itself to us beautifully. We’ve tasted the social and interpersonal aspects of it as shared through the nurturing mentorship of friends and acquaintances, like Klaudia Van Gool. We’ve had our comprehension of potential alternative systems of governance explained in detail by the likes of Andy Goldring , Maddy Harland and others. We’ve been taken in, wined, dined and toured wonderous living classrooms such as Karuna Insight Design and Lammas Ecovillage. And we’ve consistently tasted some of the finest forage we’ve ever had the pleasure to have dance on our taste buds. With each experience being presented to us with the personal flavour and splendour of the individuals themselves.

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One particularly special insight afforded us came from Karuna in the Shropshire hills. Fionn had been a WWOOFer here a few years ago and had been so taken by the place that he was adamant we had to return in whatever capacity. So when we managed to organise and co-teach an Introduction to Permaculture course there (a first for us, anywhere in the world!) it was serendipitous to say the least. Having the Wheelhouse’s allow us to share their space and guide us through their lovingly and painstakingly created ‘Sanctuary’ was truly a treat. The evidence of their care, their observation and their willingness to integrate seemingly disparate elements was and is everywhere to be seen.

All the variations we’ve been able to sample in this brief time has been a testament to the movement itself. Be it demonstrated in a social manner, through animal husbandry, large scale forest gardening, back yard tampering, or completely altering one’s life to continue the spread of vital, inspirational information pertaining to the continuation of sustainable means and livelihoods.

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The windmill water pump at The Green Gathering

As we pack our bags for our return we’re thankful for so much. All these beautiful beings have again roused and shaken our understanding of what it is and what it means to be alive. With these memories in our hearts we happily venture forward into the next chapter of our little part in the quiet revolution.

 

Trust Yourself

We’ve reached a seemingly large, and potentially daunting milestone recently; We’ve altered this beautiful patch of land we call Djaning permanently. We’ve dug enormous holes in her. Ripped a large line through her middle following her beautiful contours. Turned up the earth, removed a ton or seven of her grass, sand and soil, and are now faced with the task and duty of completing this vast cosmetic realignment of her features.

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Digging the ridge point dam

When we look at it like this it certainly keeps us up in our little caravan, hoping we’ve done the right thing. Remembering that the sins of our father are visited unto the seventh generation… Reassuring ourselves through reading all the manuals, noting all previous experience from our elders, that show this type of restructuring of the landscape works. A seemingly extreme, though proven measure in trapping water and slowing it, thereby hydrating the landscape.

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We know there’s other methods, and we will resort to these later. But this initial scarification is giving her a new skeleton. A new main frame. We now have two dams, one rather large, a valley dam, close to a million litres, and another, a ridge point, that’s around the two hundred thousand mark. Along with this a swale the length of two and half football fields reaches from the lowest point on the highest boundary through her newly acquired ridge point dam and out the other side. With our care and attention all will become bountiful habitats for micro and macro biology and everything in between, to grow, play and achieve their full potential.

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We know all this, and are comfortable with our choices, and have had close to two years to really think it over. Though that doesn’t mean we’re not slightly daunted, even if it does seem we’re taking this rather large step in our stride. We’ve been stepping and running since we landed on this wondrous little piece of land. By any measure we have been small and slow, though by others it can certainly feel rather large and fast. It’s in this feeling that we can get lost and doubts and troubles can seep in. And questions, demands and expectations that have no real purpose being in your head or on your lips, except perhaps to perturb you further, also creep in. Questions that can’t, or needn’t be answered, and expectations and demands that will surely – in good time- be met.

We’ve found that it is in this phase that, most importantly, we must stop and breathe. Look to each other for a hug and a pat on the back. Not that we’re short of it, but a few kind words and a loving embrace goes a very long way to planting feet firmly on the ground.

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We’ve recently heard on the wind that there should be an inclusion of a fourth principle to the three main ethical principles of permaculture, the central oft quoted three being, care of the earth, care of the people, and return of the surplus. The fourth to be considered is care of one’s self. This is hard not to agree with. It would appear it’s included in care of the people, but all too often we focus our energies on others and are left feeling drained without allocating sufficient time and energy for self soothing and reassurance.

It would seem in hindsight, if it weren’t so lovely and horrendously obvious, (and quite likely it is to many) that we must be gentle with ourselves, as we’re the only us we’ve got.

In the words of James Brown “Jump back, gonna kiss myself.”

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To be a Dreamer and a Doer

The winter months here on our little soon-to-be farm have brought some interesting changes and realisations, here’s hoping we can recount a few for you.

We feel as though we’re finally getting to see some changes. We’re almost 6 months in and as we started in late summer and are now well into winter, we’re beginning to fully comprehend the necessity of the first principle of Permaculture, Observe and Interact. Noting little pockets of frost and which plants can and cannot hack it, how micro-climates can be provided by an array of things hitherto unknown to us, watching the migratory flocks of birds, and seeing the real slowing down of growth. All interesting. All integral for us to better understand where we are and how we can better live in harmony with changes for now and in future.

Red sky in the morning, our delight?
Red sky in the morning, our delight?

Another happening that has  become evident to us is something Geoff Lawton often recalls when teaching his Permaculture Design Courses; a time he confided in Bill Mollison and asked, “How do I know I’m getting it right?” To which, Geoff says, Bill replied, “Resources will gather around you, and more often than not they will be in the form of people.” It’s likely too early to tell but we’re just beginning to feel as though we may be on the right track. Resources of the non-biped variety have been pooling in dribs and drabs; friendly neighbours leaving us seeds, and tree guards  on our doorstep, a few tarpaulins, a fuel canister, and several large bags of a variety of fresh, local veges. We’ve also been blessed with many visitors, hard working or otherwise who’ve all contributed to our little piece of land in their own unique way.

The formation we found the gifted tree guards in!
The formation we found the gifted tree guards in!

There’s another that’s really sinking in, and it’s something we’d talked about long before we arrived on our land, and that’s the often misunderstood or overused concept and term, ‘necessity’. You may not need to live ‘off-grid’ for 6 months to comprehend it, though it certainly seems to have helped us. Questions have pervaded our once common place assumptions about living and daily existence. A simple example is that we’ve begun adding a ‘Do we?’ to many statements. “We need to install a shower with hot running water… Do we?” If we go back to our permaculture principles and apply small and slow solutions we come to the realisation that we can have a hot shower but in a manner that addresses our ethics via closing loops and creating little to no waste. To some it has the potential to sound like a lengthy process, but to us we enjoy our bucket wash under a tree. It allows us the time to assess and evaluate, reconnect as well as water the tree and harvest any run-off.

Early morning breakfast preparation
Early morning breakfast preparation

On a final note, we’re learning to not take ourselves so seriously, acknowledging the fact that we have to be dreamers and doers, and that there’s no defined dead line for this life.

 

This is Permaculture, right?

It’s 6am and it’s 2 degrees inside our caravan. The frost has killed off what was looking like some promising Cucumbers and Zucchinis, along with about 30 Pigeon Pea saplings and a bunch of other stuff. We’re wearing multiple layers, under the covers, drinking some not-too-bad Chai, and laughing. Guttural laughing. It started as laughter due to our 2 year old friend and companion doing something hilarious, it then gradually built as we began making fun of ourselves and the situation we’ve not only find ourselves in, but knowingly, willingly put ourselves in. Then comes the question (or is it a statement?) “This is permaculture right?!”

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For all our pondering, we guess it is. Well, sort of. As we’ve heard on more than one occasion “It depends”. This is our brand of permaculture. The one where you drop more or less everything and begin to reinvent yourself literally from the ground up. Now we suppose that if we were horticulturalists, engineers, or any brilliant combination of anything that may serve our new found direction well, this whole process would, or could possibly be a whole lot easier, or just different. But we’re not. We’re artists, and educators, and learners and lovers, with a few healthy streaks of farm and woodland through us.

Dirt Path

One of the key tactics we’re learning is to drop our egos and ask questions. We always hear, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question”, but when you’re in ‘The Bolt Barn’ asking “Where do I put the bolt?” or in the local plumbing shop asking “Where does the water go?” you tend to feel you’re stretching the limit of that saying. But we’re learning. Every time we do ask an ‘interesting’ question we’re one more question away from complete ignorance and a little closer to implementing our permaculture dream.

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The end of the ridge is where you’ll find Djaning Farm.

Be Here Now

So we boarded a ferry as excited as could be and rushed off into the blue aboard a giant ship, with hopes and expectations colliding with a calm trust. A trust of the sea, the road, and of each other. We’re not so sure we’d ever felt as alive as we had over the last few months. How were we going to top it? A zig-zagging trip through France, and Spain might do it? How about a trip to the desert? The desert, The Sahara? That certainly sounded like a great deal of fun.

As a picture says a thousand words, we’ve decided to let them do the talking:

 

As we’ve written and posted this almost 6 months after the fact, now working our little piece of land (little is certainly subjective), and taking each day as it comes and riding the roller coaster of learning, there’s a glimmer there that wasn’t there at the time. Something that can only be understood with retrospect. It certainly was fun, though it’s still close enough to remember the bumpy times. Those infinitesimally small moments that seemed so big. Something to keep with us as we venture into our new lives. Be here now.

On The Road

Our first stop in our green beast, (aptly and fairly named Arvan “our van” by our two year old) was Carmathenshire in South West Wales for a stay with Laura’s brother, his wife and their two boys on their recently purchased 16 acre small-holding, Rhiw Draenog or Hedgehog Hill Farm.

Hedgehog Hill Farm
Hedgehog Hill Farm

They had also experienced a similar disillusionment with our human predicament and had been looking into permaculture as a positive solution. They had sold their house in the suburbs of southern England and found a gem of a property in Wales. They were a few steps further along the path than us and were equally nervous/excited/daunted by the prospect of building and creating a life with positive repercussions for the future. We were lucky enough to camp in their garden (house paddock) for a month and get used to our new living conditions.

Arvan in Pooh Corner
Arvan in Pooh Corner

This initial part was particularly hard due to the fact it was such a large change, Fionn was in Herefordshire for the first 10 days, and our little girl making regular complaints along the lines of “Tweety birds, no! Where are the Nee-Nors?!” making things rather challenging for Laura. But gradually as we began seeing the direct results of working together as an extended family the initial awkwardness faded.

A family of wheelbarrows.
A family of wheelbarrows.

This short period became a great learning experience for all involved, as Laura’s brother’s family had only recently moved into their current house (with no windows!), we had the fortuitous opportunity of learning some of the baby steps phase together. Once Laura’s brother’s two boys took our little lady under their wing, showed her the best hiding places in the long grass, got stuck into some of the hard graft, gave her ride-arounds on their toy tractors and most importantly showed her where to source the blackberrys, things became a great deal easier, and the familial re-wilding came into it’s own.

Digging out a polytunnel in Wales
Creating a self watering polytunnel
Cob Oven - almost there
Cob Oven – almost there

In the process of building a cob oven, coppicing a great deal of Hazel, mulching even more Monkey Puzzles, swimming in their little stream umpteen times among many other things, we  would often get far too excited about how things should be implemented and slowly came to understand that everyone needs to make their own decisions and their own mistakes in their own time. Since leaving we’ve been able to see and have begun to comprehend how ideas, like those at Hedgehog Hill Farm, can develop into future masterpieces regardless of what anyone else says, against the current, against all nay sayers. With this seed of inspiration and optimism we set off for Cornwall.

Looe
Looe, Cornwall

We had volunteered to help out at on an organic farm whilst they ran a Permaculture Design Course. This experience couldn’t have been richer and more engaging. The venue – Keveral Organic Farming Community, the people – beautiful, intelligent, open, endlessly inquisitive, and the subject matter were everything we were hoping for and more. We felt we had found our tribe.

Keveral PDC Trobe

This experience took us to some places that were on our lengthy list of ‘places to see that inspire’, including Martin Crawford’s forest garden at the Schumacher College and the Land Matters Cooperative. It also gave us direct experience in foraging (not just for a few bits but near on entire meals),  woodcraft, mushroom cultivation, and other basic survival skills that have left an indelible mark. We also had the great pleasure of being able to sit in on lessons, when not preparing food, from some of the best teachers the UK has to offer.

Picking wild plums in the food forest
Picking wild plums in the food forest

We’ve been able to keep in touch with many of these beautiful people since this time and we’re not surprised but are very pleased to see and know that we’re all applying ourselves as best we can to various projects all over the world. Such a special moment in time for us and our little family, one not soon to be forgot.

All this and the summer was just beginning.

 

Trouble in Paradise

It’s very easy to get caught up in the world, to forget to be human. It would seem right at the point everything was ready to happen it very nearly all fell apart.

We had our land, we understood largely what needed to be done in order to provide for ourselves and were working towards it on a daily basis. Yet somewhere between finding this future paradise and making the life changing shift to occupy the land and the lifestyle, we both fell victim to seemingly separate ailments that had a very similar core.

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With the ever humbling application of 20-20 hindsight we now know where and how it happened. We had become so preoccupied with the end goal and our future that there was no room left for living in the present. Fionn always pushing, backed by an aggressive holier-than-thou moral code and Laura ever cautious, and overtly sentimental. We had become too attached to an idea well before it’d even begun. These two things nearly broke us as we both continued to fight to be heard.

As many couples do in such situations we took a break from each other, reassessed what needed to change, made drastic attempts to change them, all while drip feeding each other new information about our individual progress. The ideas that kept resurfacing were stillness of mind and presence of being. Why work towards something that’s making us forget why it is we’re doing it in the first place? We wanted to make the world a better place and were destroying each other and those around us in the process.

Never miss

So we pulled the plug. We wanted to get out and see and do while we still could, before we got down to some serious work on our farm, we thought, ‘Let’s live now, now!’ Seems ridiculously simple, but at the time it was one of the most challenging processes we’ve ever attempted, and are still attempting to this day.

Another issue that became clear was that the convenience of living in a modern city was about as far away from our idealised future as possible. First we decided we needed to declutter. It’s amazing how much stuff you accumulate over a few years, particularly when you’ve got a child. We also needed to get out of the city, find some open air, and some stillness. Laura wanted to re-embrace an aspect of her youth, and it seemed an old Combi van would help her do that, which worked in nicely with the ‘out of the city’ thing. Fionn wanted to finish something he’d signed on to do in India years ago; a ten day silent retreat, and signed on for a trip to Herefordshire, which nicely tied up the ‘stillness’ aspect.

With these things in mind we decided not to renew the lease on our flat, effectively making us homeless. Then we sold and gave away all our stuff, well the vast majority of it, and put in boxes the bare necessities, tucked them away in Laura’s parents attic (thanks Nanna & Papa x), then hit the road. All three of us in our little green Combi van.

Nietzsche

 

 

Some Backstory

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We met in Sihnaoukville, Cambodia. Laura was volunteering for a children’s charity, where as Fionn was on indefinite hiatus from a fledgling teaching career. The one thing, among many others, we obviously had in common was a desire to “make the world a better place”. Of course at that time neither of us had any idea where that would lead us or how it was we were supposed to achieve such a vague life goal.

Laura teaching an Art class in Tamil Nadu
Laura teaching an Art class in Tamil Nadu

So, we fell madly in love, of course, and jumped on a great many bandwagons of “making the world a better place” as we went along. We lived and worked in India and Ghana. (Fionn for almost a year in India and both of us for 6 months there while Laura was pregnant with Iyla). We joined Occupy,  marched with Anonymous, cooked free food and attempted to discuss the major issues with anyone who was within earshot.

Million Mask March
London Million Mask March

Fionn really wanted to make “changing the world” his life and completed a Masters in International Development with his main interest being Political Science and Social Psychology. Although it was Fionn’s degree, we both ended up learning an enormous amount. As most good couples know, one can’t go through a life changing experience without the other also learning from it.

Unfortunately the main thing that was learned through the lengthy and at times brutal learning process was that basically everything that the conventional governmental and non governmental organisations had to offer, from our perspective, only served to further exacerbate our current global dilemma. Though what was potentially the worst of all was that very few within our immediate group of friends and associates wanted to know about it, or they did, but they were unwilling or stated they were unable to do anything about it.

After about 3 years of thinking and questioning that reached some very deep and dark places, the only genuine, yet rather vague conclusion we could come to was to contribute as little as possible to our current trajectory. The best way to do this, we felt, was to get off grid and supply as much of our own needs as was physically possible.

Then we found this…

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