Lockdown

Life under lockdown here in Piddletrenthide isn’t so different to life at The Wildside, on the surface at least:

Confined to a small village in the middle of nowhere – check

Travelling restricted to trips on foot or bicycle to friends’ houses, for walks and perhaps to the local shop whose most interesting merchandise, from our perspective, is sweets and matches – check

Bimonthly excursion to the market for supplies – check

What is different though is that our ‘stay-at-home’ existence there was of course of our own choosing.  And we loved it.  Yes there were times when the rains were in spate and visitors just a trickle when I did feel the need to get out, to have a change of scene and see some people.  Mostly though we didn’t need to go anywhere because the world came to us, literally.  We had volunteers from all corners of the world and from all backgrounds, weird and wonderful.  We had friends old and new from Bangalore, Goa, Bombay, Delhi, England.  We had visitors – relatives of people in the village, government officials, homeschooling families, natural building enthusiasts, blog followers – who turned up often uninvited.  It was enough, at times too much, to keep us busy and keep things interesting.

Lockdown in the Piddle Valley is different.  For a start few people embrace something that is imposed upon them externally.  In Sakleshpur we were free to go to Bangalore or even Boston anytime we wanted.   It’s just we didn’t want to.  Here, knowing that you’re not allowed to visit the coast 15 miles away makes you want to do just that.  Secondly, not only do we not have the huge inflow and outflow of people that made our lives so varied in Sakleshpur, we’re not even meant to see our friends in the village.  Social interaction is all but illegal.

And perhaps it is because of all this, and the fact that we are deep in the sun-starved English winter, that I find myself longing to get out, to go somewhere, anywhere.  Suddenly those travel sections of the newspaper I long ago eschewed, preferring roots to wings, fill me with longing.  A few days of somewhere warm, somewhere different, somewhere where people can be people again instead of shrinking from human contact.  If only.

The Joys of DIY

We are deep in DIY country here.  Every self respecting household has a drill at the very least, and many have fully kitted out, insulated workshops where they can fine tune their motorbikes or create a beautiful bench for their garden.  Dorchester, our nearest town, is awash with building suppliers, plumbers’ merchants, painter and decorator shops, and agricultural and horticultural mega-stores.  And if you want to put up say a shed you buy it off the shelf, flat-packed, and then assemble it yourself. 

India is very different. Labour is cheap and tradesmen abundant.  Everything, from sewing a torn button back onto a shirt, to modding a rally car, can be done by someone else cheap and fast.  It’s more of a hassle and, if specialised tools are needed, much more expensive, to do the job yourself. So most people don’t.  This can make you lazy; it certainly made me lazy, despite inwardly wishing I could be a DIY goddes.  Necessity and all that.   

Since our arrival here, we’ve been on a forced learning curve which started with how to switch a drill on and ended with building a polytunnel (a weekend job which saw us working dawn to dusk for two solid weeks).  Ended is perhaps the wrong word.  We still have a long long way to go. 

On Boxing Day as I lay on my back in a cold, wet cupboard being dripped on by the disconnected sink waste pipe, there was a large part of me that wished we could have just called our Mr Fix It in Bangalore who would have had the job done in half an hour for the princely sum of 500 rupees, including parts.  Instead, we had had to call an emergency plumber out.  He had come only to announce that ours wasn’t an emergency – an emergency would have to be water coming through the ceiling he said; water spouting onto the kitchen counter didn’t qualify – patched up the tap with a repair job that lasted all of 10 minutes, and told us that we were welcome to call his office when they opened, in a week’s time, to book an appointment for someone to come and fix a new tap.  They were pretty booked up, though, so we’d be lucky to get an appointment in their first week of re-opening.  And no he neither had a new tap, nor could he get one and bill us, nor could he wait half an hour while we raced to the nearest shop to get one for him to fit.  With the choice of a water-soaked kitchen for two weeks, or the possibility of a real emergency if we cocked up the new tap job ourselves, we opted for the latter.  And with a little guidance from a builder friend we miraculously managed to do it.

The more convenient we make our living arrangements the more complicated they become.  No plumber ever visited The Wildside, nor did we have any specialised equipment, flat-packed assemblies or installation videos.  The trick was not having any plumbing, so to speak.  Water was pumped from our pond in large overground pipes that filled 2,000 litre tanks.  These were raised off the ground on mounds of mud so that when we switched on the hosepipe at their base gravity brought the water to wherever we needed it.  Generally that would be a smaller 200 litre barrel into which people then scooped mugs to wash their hands or do the dishes.  The most complicated it got was a solar water heater in our house which brought water in through a tap (how we appreciated the convenience of that tap when we fitted it two years down the line) to our bathroom.  All of this could easily be set up and maintained by the admittedly extremely skilled Bharath with nothing more than his machete and perhaps a hammer or pair of pliers.

Running water certainly makes life much easier, but it also increases our dependence on specialists and specialist tools. 

In the days before India allowed motorbikes to be imported, almost everyone used Royal Enfield Bullets to ride around the country.  They broke down frequently but responded well if you stopped for a half hour smoke and chai break on the side of the road or perhaps a whack with a spanner, and if it was really bad every village and every town had a dozen mechanics who had enough of an idea about Bullets to fix you up, until the next breakdown at least.  When the Harleys started rolling in, only the authorised service centre could fix them. Yes they didn’t break down so often, but when they did you were screwed unless you were within 250km of the Harley showroom.

From setting up camp on the riverbank, to collecting water in a vessel for immediate needs, to storing water in containers for use throughout the day, to irrigation for agriculture, to pipes and modern plumbing in the home, we have come a long way.  Innovation and technology have brought us wonderful things, and made everyday life more convenient and more comfortable.  We have though traded the simplicity of a crude system which requires more day-to-day work and basic maintenance, and some amount of knowledge and skill, for an elaborate masterpiece we understand not at all which works beautifully until the day it doesn’t leaving you at the mercy of extremely expensive and often unavailable specialists. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately perhaps for the other members of my family, we are not in a position to dismantle the complex system of overhead tanks, boiler, hot water cylinder, pressure pump, soil stacks, cisterns, isolators, taps, stopcocks and sewage pipes in our cottage, so there’s only one solution: learn how to work the damn thing ourselves. 

Back in Blighty – in photos

Following my last post, here are some photos, rather badly organised thanks to WordPress’ new(ish) block editor, but you get the idea

Back in Blighty

Today is the last day of term.  One down, 75 to go.  It is also very nearly winter solstice and the shortest day of the year.  The sun rose at 8:08am and set at 4:05pm.  That’s less than eight hours, and, in the gloom of incessant rain, not once did it brighten enough for cars to turn off their lights as they drove through our little Dorset village.

It’s been about ten months since we left Sakleshpur, rather precipitately thanks to Covid, and that’s where we are now, settled in the same village where I grew up, Piddletrenthide. 

We’ve moved into a 19th century cottage with central heating and, wait for it, a fridge freezer, admittedly left by the previous inhabitant.  The off-grid yurt dream was fairly promptly shattered by that most intransigent of beasts, UK planning permission and building regs.  Still, we love our cottage and a wood burning stove keeps the flame alive, literally.  And oddly enough we have traded sustainability of one kind (off grid, compost loos, mud houses, woodfire kitchen) for another: we are now far more self sufficient in terms of food, despite the 10 mouths to feed, than we ever were in Sakleshpur.  In part, this is because the soil here in the old paddock we are using to grow vegetables is so good, but the fact that we have an electric stove and infrastructure that isn’t homemade and in need of constant fixing means that I have the time and energy to focus on planting, nurturing, harvesting, fermenting, dehydrating, pickling, jamming, bread-making, chicken- and bee-keeping. 

Uppu has started at the Piddle Valley Church of England First School, the local state primary with 70-odd children to which we cycle each day.  Thankfully he thoroughly enjoyed school from day one, has made, lost, and remade lots of friends and can now do joined up writing. His seven years of unschooling/farm schooling/wild schooling certainly don’t seem to have hampered him socially or academically.  My main grouses with school are that it takes up so much of his time, almost every daylight hour now that we’re in winter, and that he is much more indoors and inactive than he ever has been before.  We have also noticed that the first hour or so after school are often spent in shouting, tears and blows, with Theos often the unwitting catalyst and recipient.  And of late his conversation recalls the drinking party room in that brilliant episode of the Elizabethan Blackadder where Edmund mistakenly organises a booze up on the night his ascetic aunt and uncle are coming to dinner. But hey he’s seven after all and he has had enough interesting discussions with grown ups to last him well into adulthood. The main thing is that he loves it and that is argument enough for us. 

I have often said that children need only two things to thrive: community and nature.  While Uppu may be missing out on the latter, by virtue of spending much of the day inside his cosy, heated classroom, as a family we are scoring fairly high on both here.  While Piddletrenthide is nowhere near as wild as Sakleshpur, and, particularly in the winter, we are not outdoors as much as we used to be, it is pretty unspoilt (except by agriculture, but that’s a whole other blog post), and we have two things that keep us out and about even in the cold and the wet – our burgeoning homestead and our dogs.  Bullet and Lassie, both rescue dogs who have been living with us in Sakleshpur for several years, finally made it here at the end of October.  In just a few weeks, they have successfully transitioned from from bark-all-night elephant defenders and snake-bite survivors to well behaved (don’t bark don’t jump don’t pull on the lead) English house dogs.

On the community front, we are much more integrated with the local community here than we ever were in Sakleshpur, for all my efforts. And that’s natural for many reasons.  Despite the almost exclusively white middle-class neighbourhood, people here are much better able to accept and assimilate Gautam (just don’t ask them to spell his name) than they could either of us in Sakleshpur.  This is very different from the kind of intentional communities I have often been drawn to (and from which Gautam tends to run from), where people are living together because united from a particular perspective.  Here no one chooses their neighbours but as a small rural locality everyone has to get on somehow, and in the process all kinds of unlikely people become friends.  With children at the local school, we are automatically part of the crowd, and I realise now that local makes it so much simpler.  Uppu’s best friend lives four doors down from us.  They are independent in when they meet and for how long and what they do.  How different from when I grew up here and went to boarding school many miles away. I never had a single friend in the village and my parents spent all holidays driving us to see (other back-from-boarding-school) friends or importing family friends in for a few days of playtime.

We have also formed what we call the Ansell commune, or, in Indian terms, a large joint family.  My parents live across the lane from us, and my brother and sister-in-law live in a cottage beside my parents.  The boys can and do move freely from one household to another – and thankfully we are all one big social bubble so not affected by the ever changing social distancing rules – and we all have the independence of living separately with the physical and social benefits of being close by.  In short, it works, and it works very well, perhaps largely because both son-in-law (Gautam) and daughter-in-law (Memthoi, my brother’s wife) are Indian and have grown up in large family communes of one sort of another.

The other big change for us as a family is that Gautam is, for the time being at least, working from home.  So from being a weekend dad he now often does Zoom calls while Theos flips through picture books on his lap, and he can help with the washing up.  Lucky him. 

Still, lovely though it all is, we miss Sakleshpur with what can only be described as homesickness.  There is a magic to that place which I doubt we’ll ever find here or elsewhere. 


I’ll be following this post up in a day or two with a photo blog showing what life here looks like.

Wild Produce from The Wildside

Wild coffee jam

We have been making jams, pickles, sauerkrauts, herbal teas, juices and preserves from the wild food growing around us for a while now. Most of it we consume ourselves – a jar of mango jam lasts about five minutes when there’s ten of us and a freshly baked loaf of sourdough – and what little remains becomes Diwali and Christmas presents.

This year we thought we’d try selling our produce very informally among friends and family to help with the upkeep of the place now that we are both officially unemployed. To this end we plan to start a WhatsApp group which anyone who is interested in buying Wildside produce can join by clicking here.

This is the line up to start with:

Wild mangosteen jam from two enormous trees in the jungle behind us

Jams and jellies made from our wild-grown* coffee cherries and flavoured with the riverside rose petals (you have probably never eaten the fruit of the coffee plant; it is sweet and delicious and also boosts brain power – see the post I wrote on it recently here)

Wild-grown* Arabica coffee beans

Wild-grown* black peppercorns

We will probably plan an informal meet up one weekend in Cubbon Park where anyone who wants to buy some produce can do so. More details will be sent on the WhatsApp group.

* The coffee and pepper were planted but have been completely free of any fertilizer or pesticide, organic or inorganic, since 2015 when we bought this land. And over the last couple of years we have stopped all maintenance (eg: trimming the coffee plants, tying up the pepper and keeping the jungle at bay). The only thing we do is harvest maybe half of the total fruit; because that’s all we can access, the rest is too overgrown. Our output has naturally fallen dramatically but as recompense elephants make our thickly forested plantation their home; all manner of wild edibles are growing below, above, around and on the coffee and pepper; and the soil, covered in several years of leaf fall, is slowly growing richer. Hence ‘wild-grown’.

Cherry Picking

When we bought this land along with some friends a few years ago, nine out of the 16-odd acres was planted with Arabica coffee. Initially we tried to look after the coffee plantation using organic methods – jivamrta, intercropping, that kind of thing. Nine acres is a huge area though. Our hands were more than full with building structures and setting up community life on the jungle land, and we didn’t want to hand over the maintenance of the plantation to anyone else as we knew they would use conventional chemical methods. So we increasingly left the coffee to fend for itself.

Five years on, the soil is covered in a rich leaf litter; creepers, shrubs, baby trees and brambles have covered every conceivable gap; and our coffee plants are tall and spindly rather than broad and bushy. They are also fighting for survival with the jungle’s native animal inhabitants, including the elephants who spent most of the Christmas and New year’s break camping in our jungli plantation as well as in our jungle land. The coffee plants don’t give too many cherries but the few that are produced are wonderfully sweet and juicy compared to those of our neighbours’ manicured estates.

With such a small harvest we decided to pick the coffee ourselves this year, with the help of friends and volunteers. One of the perks of harvesting is snacking on the cherries while you pick. We all enjoyed the fruit so much I started to think of ways to preserve it.

Coffee processing in Sakleshpur usually follows one of two methods: dry hulling, where the whole cherries are dried in the sun for ten days and then hulled and wet hulling, where the fresh cherries are passed through a special machine with plenty of water to separate them from the bean. In both, the fruit is not used at all, except to make a mulch after the wet-hulling method.


It seems such a waste not to use something so sweet, and it turns out the coffee cherry also has some serious health benefits. Move over kombucha…

After two and a half hours of squeezing coffee beans out of the cherries though I was beginning to understand why people don’t bother. It’s fiddly and takes a hell of a long time. Still, once de-beaned, the coffee cherries are fairly versatile and can be made into all kinds of things or dehydrated for later use.

So far we have managed to make coffee jam and coffee jelly; recipes below. I see there are companies selling coffee fruit tea from the rehydrated fruit and coffee extract. Apparently even Starbucks had a coffee fruit latte at one point. But that’s all a bit out of my league.

Right now I am content to bask in the fact that we are creating a super food out of a waste product.

Coffee Jam:
Remove beans from fruit.
Boil 3 cups beans with 1-1.5 cups sugar and 1-2 lemons and enough water.
When water has reduced and is syrupy, blend roughly.
Then boil again (should change from red sludge colour to strong dark red) and bottle.

Coffee Jelly:
Boil 2 cups whole berries, with beans, in 3 cups water. Squeeze out berries and then strain.
Mix 1/3 cup pectin with 4 cups sugar and add to the mixture, stirring vigorously.
Add 1/3 cup lemon.
Then heat until boiling up to top of pan. Boil for one minute and bottle.

Cherry Picking

When we bought this land along with some friends a few years ago, nine out of the 16-odd acres was planted with Arabica coffee. Initially we tried to look after the coffee plantation using organic methods – jivamrta, intercropping, that kind of thing. Nine acres is a huge area though. Our hands were more than full with building structures and setting up community life on the jungle land, and we didn’t want to hand over the maintenance of the plantation to anyone else as we knew they would use conventional chemical methods. So we increasingly left the coffee to fend for itself.

Five years on, the soil is covered in a rich leaf litter; creepers, shrubs, baby trees and brambles have covered every conceivable gap; and our coffee plants are tall and spindly rather than broad and bushy. They are also fighting for survival with the jungle’s native animal inhabitants, including the elephants who spent most of the Christmas and New year’s break camping in our jungli plantation as well as our jungle land. The coffee plants don’t give too many cherries but the few that are produced are wonderfully sweet and juicy compared to those of our neighbours’ manicured estates.

With such a small harvest we decided to pick the coffee ourselves this year, with the help of friends and volunteers. One of the perks of harvesting is snacking on the cherries while you pick. We all enjoyed the fruit so much I started to think of ways to preserve it.

Coffee processing in Sakleshpur usually follows one of two methods: dry hulling, where the whole cherries are dried in the sun for ten days and then hulled and wet hulling, where the fresh cherries are passed through a special machine with plenty of water to separate them from the bean. In both, the fruit is not used at all, except to make a mulch after the wet-hulling method.
It seems such a waste not to use something so sweet, and it turns out the coffee cherry also has some serious health benefits. Move over kombucha…

After two and a half hours of squeezing coffee beans out of the cherries though I was beginning to understand why people don’t bother. It’s fiddly and takes a hell of a long time. Still, once de-beaned, the coffee cherries are fairly versatile and can be made into all kinds of things or dehydrated for later use.

So far we have managed to make coffee jam and coffee jelly; recipes below. I see there are companies selling coffee fruit tea from the rehydrated fruit and coffee extract. Apparently even Starbucks had a coffee fruit latte at one point. But that’s all a bit out of my league.

Right now I am content to bask in the fact that we are creating a super food out of a waste product.

Coffee Jam:
Remove beans from fruit.
Boil 3 cups beans with 1-1.5 cups sugar and 1-2 lemons and enough water.
When water has reduced and is syrupy, blend roughly.
Then boil again (should change from red sludge colour to strong dark red) and bottle.

Coffee Jelly:
Boil 2 cups whole berries, with beans, in 3 cups water. Squeeze out berries and then strain.
Mix 1/3 cup pectin with 4 cups sugar and add to the mixture, stirring vigorously.
Add 1/3 cup lemon.
Then heat until boiling up to top of pan. Boil for one minute and bottle.

It’s Time

They say here that when all your milk teeth have fallen out, and when you can reach your right arm across your head to touch your left ear, you are ready. Ready for school.

In India, the Gurukulam system started at seven or eight. This was the age you left home to go live with your guru and learn all that he could teach you. Rudolf Steiner also connected the milk teeth transition with a switch from the hands to the heart, from the physical to the emotional. Steiner schools tend to move children at this stage from the outdoor play-based kindergarten to the classroom where they learn, among other things, to read and write for the first time. And in some countries, like Finland, mainstream schooling itself starts not at four or five but at seven.

While we have long since been aware of and thought about the magical age of seven, we weren’t sure if it would indeed be a turning point for Uppu. Circumstances though recently made us re-think our overall life plan and around the same time, in the run up to his seventh birthday and with two teeth down but many to go, Uppu started saying he wanted to go to school.

We have always been very open to the idea of school as and when the children want to go. Unschooling for us has worked, and is still working, beautifully from a learning perspective. What Uppu craves though, and what we feel too he is missing out on especially now that fellow gang-mates Elena and Ethan are no longer living here, is day-in day-out friends. There are always plenty of people, children and adults, passing through to keep things varied and interesting here but, whether old friends making repeated but short visits or new faces staying for a month and then continuing their travels, they are still just passing through. However much we try to provide for his need to have mates to muck around with through the day, it is almost impossible outside school. The fact is that almost every child his age and above goes to school and that in itself has become something of a sore point. I think he is fed up of always being the odd one out.

So we welcome the idea of him going to school. But where?

There are lots of options. Locally, there are the very strict English-medium private schools and then the Kannada government schools. Further afield, there are some excellent alternative schools, including the Krishnamurti official and spinoff establishments. Almost all though require being based in a big city, bar the few residential schools which are applicable only for older children and are heavily over-subscribed. Things are a little different in Goa and Auroville, where there is a vibrant alternative community and a range of interesting schools – and of course a melting pot of all kinds of mainstream-escapees, from the arty to the completely insane, among whom we feel quite at home.

In a way then we are spoilt for choice but all – except the local ones which we have ruled out for various reasons – would necessitate a move and somehow as a family we don’t see ourselves as having much of a future either in an Indian metro or in Goa or Auroville. So we found ourselves taking the rather major decision (and in honour of which we all shaved our heads at Tirupati) to move to England. There, even in a small village, we have more than enough schooling and unschooling options on our doorstep and hopefully the chance to lead a rustic, if not wild, life together rather than Gautam having to commute 500km every weekend just to see us.

So our happy existence here must come to an end, for the time being at least, in another eight months or so. I have always said that I would have no regrets about leaving our jungle home if we had to because the time spent here has given us so much, and I stand by that. Still it is hard to think of leaving a place we have poured so much of ourselves into over the last four years, and in which we saw ourselves living and growing for many more. What will become of this place we are not sure. Perhaps it will call someone to itself, as it called us, a custodian to care for it. Or perhaps it will revel in its freedom, and we will return to find the jungle reigning supreme once more.

All we can hope is that it will continue to welcome us home.

Vaccinations

After getting on for two years of research, discussion and debate on the big vaccination issue, I feel I have finally found an excellent, balanced resource to enable us to make informed decisions. Dr Richard Halvorsen’s book, Vaccines: Making the Right Choice for Your Child, is written from his perspective as a practising GP in the UK. Having vaccinated his own and many other children he began to have doubts when he started a research project into the MMR vaccine. Here he presents a potted history of each disease and its vaccine in the UK and offers sensible advice on which jabs make sense for which children.

For specific information on each vaccine, read the book.

What follows are musings on more general issues.

The vaccine that doctors and the government assures us is totally safe today is tomorrow withdrawn because it’s not at all safe. Mercury in vaccines was completely safe, until it wasn’t, and then mercury-free vaccines were introduced. It’s also rather worrying that the oral polio vaccine and the whole-cell whooping cough vaccines that are currently being used in India have been replaced in the UK, after many years of use, because of serious safety concerns.

The introduction of a vaccine often creates a new, unforseen problem, quite apart from any safety concerns. For instance the measles vaccine has pushed up the age people acquire the disease from childhood, when it is almost always harmless, to teenage- and adult-hood, when it causes more and serious complications.

In the developed world, many of the vaccinatable diseases kill only a very few, often already vulnerable children. Yet to prevent these deaths governments encourage, or force, millions of children to be vaccinated at huge financial cost and at an incalculable cost to health – even if we ignore the very few that react badly to a jab and end up disabled or dead, it’s common to have fever, pain, swelling and quite possibly long-term effects we aren’t aware of yet. Is this logical? In the UK for instance, 100,000 children have to be vaccinated with the Meningitis B jab in order to prevent one death from the disease.

If governments and international bodies such as the WHO want to really reduce childhood deaths in the developing world, they would be better off focusing on clean water and good nutrition rather than risky vaccination drives. That wouldn’t be so popular though with the pharmaceutical industry’s fastest growing sector, vaccinations.

The best advice Halvorsen gives is to ask these three questions before deciding whether to vaccinate or not:

1. Is the disease common and is it serious?
The risk of contracting Hepatitis B for instance in the UK is extremely low unless you have unprotected sex or share needles. So why are babies, even those born to mothers who don’t have Hep B, vaccinated at birth?

Mumps and Rubella are – or rather were – very common childhood diseases but also very mild. The only real danger is if you are a teenage boy (in the case of mumps) or a teenage girl (in the case of rubella). So screen these two higher risk groups and vaccinate if they don’t have the relevant antibodies. Don’t vaccinate everyone, as currently happens with the MMR.

2. Is the vaccine effective? Often a vaccine is launched with great fanfare – one shot will protect your child for life. Efficacy figures then start to fall as reality hits and soon a booster shot is introduced, and then another. Lifelong immunity, where applicable, seems to be guaranteed only by catching the wild versions of the diseases.

3. Is the vaccine safe? The first big vaccine scare in the UK was the 1970s whooping cough vaccine drive which was linked to brain damage. It is scary to read that the testing for MMR involved actively following up trial children for only six weeks. Or to find out that vaccines are not subject to the stringent safety checks other new medicines undergo.

Brave are the naysayers when it comes to vaccines. Debate on the subject is vigorously discouraged. Parents who question vaccination policy, hesitate to vaccinate or seek alternatives have been likened to drunk drivers and accused of having blood on their hands – and not by internet weirdos but by the Glasgow Health Board and the British Health Minister. Outside the UK, those that don’t vaccinate are liable to have child support withdrawn and school admission refused; in Pakistan parents have even been arrested. Doctors and other experts who don’t tow the official pro-vaccine line also pay a hefty price. So it is with some trepidation that I press the ‘publish’ button for this post.