Taking my life into my hands as I link, this article from Charles Eisenstein, one of the world’s foremost thinkers, is probably the most important thing I’ve read all year.
As promised here is a look at how we keep things moving specifically for our two boys, organised more or less into the same categories Katy Bowman uses:
Life off-grid in Sakleshpur by its very nature ticked almost all our movement boxes in one fell swoop, and was perfectly stacked with food and daily life tasks necessitating all-day every-day outside movement. This wasn’t intentional, but I had quickly realised when Uppu was small that being outside + being active = happiness, and it was this that gradually took us to living full time in the jungle.
Now that we are in England, things have changed. Living in a conventional house means that we no longer need to collect firewood and light fires to cook, nor to wash our clothes by hand, nor to walk back and forth between our (outdoor) kitchen and other living areas. There is less substantial food to forage here, and we no longer live and work alongside a large and varied community of travellers and friends almost entirely outdoors from dawn to dusk. So life is certainly less inherently stacked and less outside than in Sakleshpur, but we have found ways to get out and keep the movement going.
A minimal approach to clothing (t shirt and shorts, or nothing at all; sandals or bare feet) worked in the warmth of southern India. Here, on this rain- and wind-swept island, you need a lot more clothes especially if you want to spend time outside. We keep a few smart but movement-restricting clothes for special occasions, but otherwise the boys wear flexible, short, quick-drying shorts (Uppu actually took this call on his own, unprompted by me, after trying several other types of shorts he had been given and finding he couldn’t run comfortably in them) for all but the coldest months. The top half seems to be much easier, for boys at least; none of their t shirts or jumpers restrict movement. They also have full rain gear – which isn’t so easy to move in but does at least mean they can be out for longer when it does rain heavily. We haven’t yet found a solution to the wellies conundrum. Every type of wellies we’ve looked at or used, even those branded as minimalist, are heavy, rigid, narrow at the toe and clompy to walk in. Wellies here are an all-year-round necessity so I’m hoping to find some kind of a solution.
We are using Dad’s old paddock as a miniature homestead and spend many hours there each day working with the trees and the bees, the poultry and the pumpkins to produce our own food.
Having animals – in our case for eggs and honey – seems a neat way to address many needs at once. Theos still loves to have a go at whatever task I’m doing – watering, weeding, raking – but in general the main attraction of the vegetable garden is as a seasonal snack bar: cucumber, tomatoes, peas, mange tout, strawberries, gooseberries, redcurrants and even raw broad beans and sweetcorn. Our fowls though are an endless source of fascination: chicks and ducklings to be held, adult birds to be chased and caught (something best done by under 10s well practised at playing ‘It’), runs and coops to be built/moved/dismantled/cleaned. And all this in addition to getting us out first thing and last thing every day without fail – the joys… Growing up with the responsibility of caring for animals, and having a chance to closely observe and live beside them, helps in so many ways – and moves us in so many ways. I’m wondering now if there’s a corner of the field big enough for sheep (we have friends who look after orphan lambs through spring and summer and get the meat in return), goats, pigs, cows… But onto our dogs, who don’t feed us but do provide plenty of rough and tumble play time for the boys, as well as needing to be walked, washed, dried and brushed.
Inside the house, we follow many of Katy’s ideas for low or no furniture. I also get the boys to help with housework and cooking. Mostly this is because I think everybody in the family should chip in, and they need to learn to fend for themselves; but it also means they get to move about a bit when they are indoors. One hack I’ve found very useful is to mop our hard floors the Indian way: squatting on the floor with a wet rag and bucket, and moving with squat-lunge type movements over the floor as you mop. This makes up in part for the lost squatting time we used to have while washing clothes. We have also built ourselves a Lillipad squatting platform for the loo so we eliminate in the best possible position, and the boys don’t lose that crucial ability to squat. We had couple of sets of rings which we had set up in the cowshed, where we first lived, and got all of us hanging every day. The boys quickly learnt all kinds of stunts and spent hours on the rings, just because they were there. We haven’t found a way to put the rings up in our cottage and as a result we’ve all stopped hanging and the boys’ upper arm strength has visibly diminished. We could set them up in our garage, which has beams, but I doubt anyone would ever go there to use them. As Katy points out again and again, if it’s there we’ll use it. This goes both ways: we sit on the sofa because it’s there; if it isn’t we sit on the floor.
Uppu, now 8, is at school full time and that means he spends ways more time than we would like sitting and indoors. He is sociable and loves school though, so rather than interfere with that instead we cycle to school almost every day in the rain, snow, hail, wind…and occasionally sun. We are helping him become independent in meeting friends who live more than walking distance away by building him up to cycling several miles alone on reasonably busy roads to reach their houses. An alternative school – such as Waldorf – would have almost certainly prioritised outdoor time, nature and movement more but there are many other advantages to being at a local state primary, and perhaps in time we can push for more active, outdoor school days, at least in the summer.
Our off-grid community has been replaced with a large extended family, including our newest addition Tom and Memthoi’s baby Mili who is almost four months. We live in separate houses a stone’s throw apart which means the boys spend a lot of their time running from one house to another looking for someone, running errands or raiding the biscuit tin. In the middle roughly of all three houses is our paddock-homestead where many of us often work together, stacking social, food, outdoor and movement needs nicely.
When we meet up with friends we try to do so in an outside space, like the beach or for a long walk. Covid has of course massively helped this by pushing everyone towards outdoor meetups, and anyway, as many other parents have found, children always get along better when they’re not inside and surrounded by toys. When we have people over we often do campfire suppers. Our campfire/barbeque area is inconveniently low with tree trunks for seats and no table. I love it because it means we get to cook outside AND while squatting, and of course inconvenient for adults means perfect for small children.
Holidays involve a large tent and often another family or two, semi-wild camping with sea- or river-swims for showers and whole days with no indoors at all.
I should add that if this all sounds, and looks, fairly idyllic, and you are picturing the boys scampering across lush sun-warmed grass, remember that most of the year the weather is rubbish. Some winter days we’re lucky to manage even a couple of hours outdoors, and this summer has been so wet we’ve barely needed to get the watering cans out.
I love Katy Bowman. She is one of those rare scientists (her field is biomechanics) who is brilliant at explaining the hows and why-it-matters, as well as at providing practical solutions. Her writing is full of the kind of insights that make you sit up and reconfigure your entire world view (a la Yuval Noah Harari and Jared Diamond); it’s also fun and, at the risk of sounding American, sassy.
Katy’s specialism is understanding how the human body needs to move for optimum health and then translating that into actionable ideas that everyone can do. She’s written eight books, at the last count, some looking at the bigger picture of movement (vs. exercise) and how it fits into our past and present, and others giving more specific guidance on topics like transitioning to minimalist footwear or moving well as you grow older. As a mother of young children she has also done a whole lot of interesting stuff on movement as it relates to pregnancy, birth, babyhood, breastfeeding…and of course kids. Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More is her latest offering, and focuses on children’s movement, or lack of. The fact that “human children have never moved as little as they move today” is causing problems far beyond the well recognised issues of obesity and poor mental health. And it’s worth clarifying here that ‘movement’ isn’t some fancy new term for exercise; rather exercise is a small part of a much bigger whole called movement. “Human movement is any change in shape of the body.” It encompasses recognisable movements – jumping, bending – as well as the less visible stuff that goes on inside our body, the way our heart beats, the way our eyes focus on near and far objects, and even the way our cells are moved when we stay in the same position for a long time – hint, sitting for hours is fundamentally affecting us at the cellular level, and not in a good way.
“For almost the entire human timeline, movement has been woven into all aspects of humanity, beginning at birth. Eating, learning, dressing, playing, building, foraging, celebrating, and traveling all required changing your body position over and over again, in different ways. Movement was inseparable from human necessities; every task was accomplished through movement. Millennia after millennia, children’s bodies grew up experiencing all-day every-day movement via loads created by walking and being carried a variety of miles each day, squatting, sprinting, climbing, jumping, digging, gathering, play-huntnig, carrying, hanging, and sitting and lying on hard ground. The bodies that resulted could withstand all the movement required to succeed in that environment once they became adults. It’s a perfect biofeedback loop: the work required to meet your biological needs today creates a shape capable of continuing that work tomorrow.”
Human ingenuity has put paid to this environment and we now have “a society stuffed with conveniences that save us movement”. The problem, as Katy states, is this: “our bodies and basic biological needs are the sameas those of our ancestors who moved all day, every day, for everything they needed. Our physiology still requires all those bends, flexes, loads, lifts, and jumps as we’re growing; all we’ve eliminated is the environment that easily prompted us to move.”
And all this sitting and stillness “is a contributing factor to the majority of the health issues we and our children now face.” Our lack of movement is making us ill.
So that’s the why of it. Most of the book focuses on easy baby steps we can all take to add movement opportunities back into our lives. And the key to it all is what Katy calls ‘stacking’, meeting basic human needs to eat, move, socialise, be outdoors, play and learn at the same time as far as possible. An example Katy gives is Soup Night: they invite friends round for an outdoor meal and round it off with a walk. This ticks several boxes: community, food, nature and movement. To the idea of stacking I’d add this: looking at movement as a means to some other end, rather than an end in itself. Just as with food, children don’t eat healthy things because they’re healthy. If you want them to eat well the food needs to taste good, or have a story around it, or be in some way connected to the child (this is the cucumber you just harvested), or be novel, or be part of a meal with others – or all of the above. Running up a track for exercise is something only adults do, but running up a track trying to tag each other is something that can be played endlessly, and often lasts much longer than mum’s 10k. Adults will drink a shot of wheatgrass or do 50 push-ups each day because it’s good for them. Children don’t work that way.
It is our environment that has removed the need for movement so it is our environment needs to change. And not only that, the very culture in which we live reinforces our sedentariness, mandates it even. This for me is epitomised in the parks in Indian cities that have signs saying ‘No Playing’, but there are plenty less extreme examples. How many times are children told – at school, in public places, at home – ‘Don’t run!’ or ‘Don’t climb on that!’? But it’s also about the more subtle cultural expectations that children should be ‘well behaved’, ie: still and quiet, in many settings and situations. As Katy says, under a photo of a boy doing a handstand on a table in a restaurant: “I know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable when my children’s movement disrupts a sedentary space. It is so much easier to force the movement out of our kids than to put the movement back into our culture.” Movement needs to be explicitly or implicitly permitted, and we adults also need to model a much more movement-rich life, because children do as we do not as we say. And although for the purposes of this book that mainly means the home environment because it is here that we have most control, there is no shying away from the fact that school is a hugely sedentary place. “The single thing kids practice the most at school isn’t reading or math. It’s sitting in a chair.”
Katy cycles through the most movement-important aspects of our children’s home lives, from the clothes and shoes they wear (which often restrict movement) to the furniture that shapes them. Special scorn is reserved for the chair* in its various formats, from pram to sofa. It’s not that we, and our children, don’t need to rest, but that we now rest almost solely on cushioned surfaces and in reclining or semi-reclining positions – rather than while squatting, sitting cross legged, lying on our stomachs, or stretched out on a hillside. And she also discusses, as neutrally as possible given the facts, the role movement plays in breastfeeding (it turns out breast is best not just in terms of nutrition and bonding, but also for optimum development of the jaw and teeth which likely impacts how well we chew and breathe throughout our lives, as well as keeping the dentist away) and carrying/wearing babies rather than sticking them into buggies, carry cots, bouncy chairs etc.
All of this is accompanied by a huge array of photographs (submitted by movement enthusiasts worldwide; there’s one of Uppu and Shravanya scrubbing clothes on our washing stone in Sakleshpur) showing children moving in all kinds of ways, designed to get small minds to see movement possibilities. There are also practical lists of what to do and how, aimed at parents and also caregivers and educators.
Another movement-killer is the great indoors. The ‘greenhouses’ we live in cut us off from the outside world and thus the impetus that outside world gives us to move. “Just as greenhouses don’t facilitate any movement of plants…our increasingly complex houses have been keeping growing kids from the nature and movement they need. Walls literally block out the non-human parts of the world…, but more importantly, the new shape of our houses and the stuff inside them has reversed the way we use shelter. Instead of using inside as a place to rest after a day spent outside, we now spend most of our time inside. Our work, leisure, and community have all mostly shifted inside. …That indoor diet has been cemented by the fact that we have not only gotten rid of outside, but we’ve put all the things kids and adults use inside. This eliminates the pressures that once got us all to leave the hut naturally.”
So a lot of what Katy advocates involves getting outside and doing whatever you do – eating, working, playing, seeing friends – there instead of inside. And on the other hand making indoors more outdoors-like, with opportunities and requirements to move more.
Food is the biggest of Katy’s “containers”. As she explains, it was food that got people moving all through human history. That has changed, and how. “Food has never been moved so much at the industrial level and the people eating it have never moved so little.” We no longer need to forage for our supper, spend a day sprinting after a buffalo to bring it to ground, climb a tree in the hope of stealing some honey, or walk every morning to the river for drinking water. We do though still spend a lot of time procuring, preparing and eating food, and it is here that Katy sees lots of scope for us to reintroduce movement and outdoor time. Her examples include: eating breakfast on the grass, going on a walk to gather berries for pudding, or grinding spices with a pestle and mortar.
I was first introduced to Katy Bowman during our early Sakleshpur days, and read Move Your DNA a good three years ago so we’ve been aware of and heavily influenced by her ideas for a while now. Reading Grow Wild has been a good excuse to reassess our own movement equation now that we’re living a very different life in rural England. Watch this space for a follow up post on how we are managing to keep things moving in our current set up. In the meantime, go read Grow Wild.
*Interestingly Katy doesn’t equate sitting with smoking, but instead compares screens to cigarettes: “When cigarettes first emerged they were everywhere and there was an entire generation that began smoking quite young. Several decades elapsed before a set of “use practices” was developed. Right now, parents and alloparents are the first generation to have to deal with raising children who are completely inundated with media devices. There is no framework offering guidance, likely because there is little understanding of this emerging (peaking?) problem. There are very few accepted good-use practices, and almost none of them relate to movement. As we put more devices in more places, and put more activities (education, entertainment, community) online, the baseline for “how much time is all right” keeps increasing. This is because the recommendations aren’t trying to match our environments to our biology; they are matching them to our culture.”
The first two weeks of June were sunny and hot, after a monsoonal May. For honey bees, this was the perfect time to swarm, and swarm they did. We found two swarms in the field near the river; heard, from alarmed neighbours, the progress of a swarm making its way from garden to garden before being collected by a local beekeeper; and watched the bees from our big Warre hive swarm out of the hive, form a cluster on a Japanese maple nearby, and then swarm back into the hive.
One of the central tenets of conventional beekeeping is that you try to stop your bees swarming at all costs. Swarm prevention is a large and complex topic and there are many different established methods and techniques of achieving it. Coming from a different school of beekeeping thought, I have struggled to understand why beekeepers are so worried about ‘losing’ a swarm. Yes it depletes your hive which means less honey in the immediate future. Yes it can upset your neighbours. But swarming is the manner in which bees reproduce. Should we be messing with that?
And so from the sex life of bees to that of chickens. Many people prefer to keep only hens. They lay an egg most days. Without a cockerel around there is no chance of fertilised eggs and the resulting chicks, many of which will be male. Male chicks are a problem because they consume food, take up coop space and fight, once they grow up – and they give no eggs as recompense for all this. So you either have to give them away, if you can find a taker, or kill them. All in all a messy business and one many prefer to avoid, buying or rescuing instead when they want new birds. But one problem remains for the all-hen flock: some hens will still go broody, and want to hatch their (unfertilised) eggs. A broody hen means less eggs and more pecking, and her broodiness can be catching. So a broody hen needs to be ‘broken’, ie: forcibly dissuaded from sitting on and trying to hatch her eggs.
Exchanging reproduction for egg production is certainly convenient. The collateral damage – the hens that are killed at 17 months once the cost of keeping them exceeds the profit they bring through their daily egg laying; the male chicks culled at birth because we humans have no use for them; and the abysmal quality of life that layers have on commercial farms – is almost always out of sight out of mind. Still even the most hard-hearted bee- or chicken-keeper has to consider the long term health impact in not allowing their animals to reproduce naturally.
My knowledge of larger farm animals is hazy, but they certainly don’t mate or mingle freely. Stud animals are big money, and they and their sperm command a high sum. Cows are artificially inseminated regularly to keep them in calf and therefore in milk, and in some cases the calves are then kept near but not with the mothers so that their continued call for milk – a call never to be satisfied – will stimulate the mother’s milk-making hormones in a manner similar to the ‘let-down’ of milk that new (human) mothers experience when they hear their babies cry out to them.
Cats and dogs are again bred selectively, and owners are always extremely careful not to allow a female in heat to be impregnated by any passing tom, dick or harry. Many choose to have their pets neutered to prevent unwanted puppies or to make a ferocious or errant dog more docile. And often puppies and kittens are weaned prematurely.
All of this intervention made me think of Brave New World, where humans are no longer allowed to choose their sexual partners or even to give birth to and raise their young. Instead they are selectively bred in test tubes by a central authority and women who experience that broody feeling are cured with a pill.
As custodians of both pet and productive animals, how do we navigate these difficult waters? Certainly our completely hands-off approach to animal reproduction (and animals in general) in Sakleshpur wasn’t entirely successful. The free-range poultry quickly turned feral, rarely gave us any eggs and the one chick that did hatch was killed on day two by one of the dogs. The dogs themselves, all rescues or offspring of, had a grand life with no leads and no boundaries. Our Mudhol hound though, who wasn’t castrated, ranged so far and so often that he started to go missing for days. When he did come back he was aggressive and in time he departed never to return. And the two bitches both became pregnant at a very young age, to the detriment of their health, because we weren’t vigilant enough.
So I do now appreciate the need for animal husbandry, and not just in the realm of reproduction. Domesticated animals are by their very nature dependent on us humans, and if we find ourselves in charge of these animals we cannot neglect them. On the other hand modern agriculture treats them as resources to be used and then discarded. No one ever questions our right to be in complete control of every aspect of these animals’ lives; would you check with your dog before castrating him? Did Indira Gandhi ask the 8 million men she had forcibly sterilised in 70s’ India for permission?
I’m still trying to figure out where we will draw our line. Our Labradors are both neutered – Bullet from before we rescued him and Lassie after giving birth to her seven puppies – so no decisions to be made there.
This year I let the bees decide whether to swarm or not, having given them all the space I could so they wouldn’t swarm just because they’re overcrowded, and I’m almost certain they swarmed at least once if not twice. So we lost some bees from our first hive, but we also gained some: we managed to hive another swarm which issued, most probably, from a wild colony high up in a willow nearby. It was a small swarm but it seems to be gradually building up and hopefully will grow big enough to survive the winter.
And among our cockerel’s ten-bird harem, we’ve so far had two broody hens have a go at hatching their clutch in a safe (so the rest of the flock doesn’t peck the chicks when born) separate broody coop. As we can only have one broody hen in there at a time, we gently dissuade other sitters in the main coop, mainly by lifting them off their eggs and removing the eggs from the nesting box. At last week’s full moon, our first chick was born, with two more following over the next few days. We’re trying to supervise without intervening – ensuring Mum is showing her offspring how and where to eat and drink, providing commercial chick crumb (might review that next time round) and a chick waterer, and keeping all four of them separated from the other birds. Three half-hatched eggs didn’t make it so our success rate so far is 50%, but, still, an improvement on Sakleshpur.
After a year’s hiatus, our JungliFood blog is back. Jeune. has been busy collecting interesting edible specimens while on a road trip (ah to be in India, the land of the free, or at least the land of no lockdown) around northern India, with notes to follow. And I have started a seasonal diary of British wild food, the first instalment of which is here.
Two news articles in the British press about Covid in India gave me the courage to write about some reasonably controversial ideas we have long been discussing.
The first, which appeared on the BBC website in November, explored the paradoxical fact that India, where conditions couldn’t be more ripe for the devastating spread of a virus such as Covid, seemed to have got off lightly. Case fatality rates, even when you discount for the under-reporting, are just 2%. The journalist, Soutik Biswas, links this, albeit rather cautiously, to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’: the idea that our over-sanitised environments are weakening our immune systems, whereas in India “low hygiene, lack of clean drinking water, and unsanitary conditions may have actually saved many lives from severe Covid-19”.
The headline of the second, published in the Financial Times last weekend, ran: ‘Has the pandemic burnt itself out in India?’ Although the sources quoted in the article were still cautious about a second wave, most agree that with India’s caseload dropping from around 100,000 a day in September to about 13,000 by the end of January, it looks like India is over Covid. A virologist from Tamil Nadu is quoted: “What we seem to have done is let the virus run its course…the epidemic seems to be naturally coming down.” And this is, the experts feel, due not to the vaccination drive, which has only just started, but rather to herd immunity.
This raises a few questions about the fight against Covid and future pandemic threats.
First, is this the right way to fight it?
The strategy most governments have adopted consists of the holy trinity of hand sanitiser, face masks and severe limitations on social interaction and travel. This ensures that each citizen is shielded within a germ-proof bubble through which neither Covid, nor indeed any other bug, can penetrate. It’s a foolproof strategy were it not that the technically perfect bubble is undermined by human failings. We forget to wash our hands, we get fed up of wearing our mask, and we want to go see our elderly, lonely parents. So rates fall dramatically when governments lock their populations down and mandate masks and hand washing, but Covid doesn’t disappear.
Officially India was following the same policy. There was one massive and extremely draconian (friends told us they couldn’t leave their flats because lathi-wielding police were patrolling the common areas of the apartment complex) national lockdown, back in March. For the last few months though it seems to have been business as usual. People can travel, shop, socialise, celebrate festivals and weddings, and go to work, and all in the vast numbers that are the norm in India. They can’t go to school, quite inexplicably, but even that looks set to open up again soon. Masks are mandatory but as with everything in India the gap between rule and compliance is large. And if you do need to show a negative Covid test, you can always buy one. As a result of this and the realities of hugger-mugger life on the sub-continent, a huge amount of people have been exposed to the virus, leading ultimately to a certain degree of herd immunity.
Now of course what works in a young, tropical country may well not work in an elderly, temperate country; only 6.5% of India is over 65 compared to 20% in Europe. But still it makes you think. The loss of so many civil liberties and freedoms, the loneliness and the isolation, the boredom and the depression, the home-working and homeschooling, the financial ruin, the unemployment – we need to know that it’s all worth it, that it is entirely unavoidable, that the only way to defeat Covid is to beat it into submission.
If it’s not, then we need to urgently consider other strategies. Rather than trying to ensure no one ever comes into contact with the disease, could a more nuanced approach work? Shield and protect those with compromised immune systems, and help the young and healthy to develop the strong immune systems needed to counter the virus while allowing them to return, at least partially, to pre-Covid life.
Secondly, what are the long-term implications for our immunological health?
One of the things that makes Indians more tolerant of Covid is their strong immune systems. India is rich in all manner of pathogens, from exotic tropical viruses to the most humble of stomach bugs. And those pathogens are kept in constant circulation thanks to population density and living conditions. While many succumb, those who survive grow strong.
This concept appears in different forms in many medical and research contexts. In essence the immune system is designed to develop effectively by being exposed to manageable amounts of pathogens through infancy and childhood. Children who grow up in over-sanitised environments often develop allergies and auto-immune disorders such as asthma, eczema, hayfever and diabetes, because their immune systems haven’t had a chance to be challenged and develop as they should. The BBC article quotes Matt Ritchell, who has written a book on the subject, “The broad idea is that we are starving our immune systems of training and activity by excessive focus on cleanliness.”
Obviously the huge leaps in hygiene and sanitation that the world has seen in the last century or two have massively lowered the burden of disease; no one is suggesting India should stop the fight for clean drinking water and clean(er) living conditions. But perhaps in countries like England we’ve gone a little too far in the other direction.
Our new Covid world is not just sanitised, it’s sterilised. In shielding ourselves from Covid, we are also shielding ourselves from every other foreign particle, good and bad. Will this in time mean our immune systems grow weak from lack of use? What of lockdown babies, never held by friends and relatives, never taken to mother-baby classes, never going to the supermarket or travelling on a bus – in short never exposed to the normal bugs in their environment? What of children growing up without the mud, blood, sweat and tears of playground games, washing their hands every 20 minutes, subconsciously learning to fear human contact from the socially distancing adults around them?
So long as the shield is in place, we’re more or less ok. But how can we ever emerge from behind the shield if our natural defences are insufficient, either undeveloped or atrophied? How can we resume our old carefree lives, with unmasked faces and unwashed hands?
Now most of you at this point will say the solution lies in the jab. Which leads me to my final question, are vaccines the answer?
Not being impartial on this matter, nor wishing to risk heresy in the current climate of vaccine-love, I’d better not answer this one but instead leave you with this excerpt from Robert Shrimsley’s always amusing and spot-on column in the FT magazine this week:
“You don’t hear so many people talking about Big Pharma these days. The pandemic has left most sane people rather in love with pharma; the bigger the better as far as we are concerned. Frankly, there is no deal we would not wave through for an extra few million Covid-19 vaccines. And even when this pandemic is pushed back, we will all be gearing up for the next one or, hopefully, focusing on the more global concern of antibiotic or antimicrobial concern. The only objection to Big Pharma will be that it isn’t Huge Pharma.”
I can only conclude I’m no longer counted among the sane.
I can understand the lure of going off grid in countries like England. Quite apart from the ideological incentives, being connected to the grid is incredibly expensive. The bills for electricity, natural gas (used for heating and cooking in houses that are connected to the gas pipeline), heating oil and mains water and sewage can be astronomical, and that’s before you’ve paid council tax.
Here is a rough idea of energy and water usage in our four bedroom cottage, with the four of us plus a lodger:
- Electricity: about 8,000 kwh at £1,400 p/a
- Oil: about 3,000 litres at £1,000 p/a
- Water (including mains sewage): about 168,000 litres at £780 p/a
Total: £3,180, almost ten times our total annual utility spend in our three bedroom flat in Bangalore
With sky-high bills and a guilty conscience every time the boiler comes on to burn yet more oil, I have been investigating how to tackle our use of these resources. It seems to me there are two main ways to reduce energy and water consumption: the first is to change your lifestyle so that your actual consumption reduces; the second is to technologise your way out of trouble while continuing to live life with all mod cons.
Revert and Reduce
The first approach often involves reverting to traditional ways of life and paying in sweat rather than money for the energy we use. Actual resource consumption tends to fall dramatically. If you have to work to get each drop of water you use it is precious and you naturally never waste it.* This is the approach we took, more by accident than design, in Sakleshpur. We spent months each year collecting, processing and stacking firewood for cooking and for heating water in the bathrooms, and then kindled and lit the wood stove every time we wanted to cook (we soon realised it was easier to cook twice a day rather than three times). Baking in our cob oven required a whole day, starting with splitting the wood into small enough pieces, and ending with a grand succession of dishes through the oven: pizza, bread, cake, biscuits, roasted vegetables, peanuts and then a huge Pongal to slow-cook overnight. It was hard work and needed many hands, but good fun, so we did it on the weekend when friends were staying and turned it into a party. We ferried water back and forth with the use of non-automated piping systems and good old-fashioned buckets. Our compost loos worked brilliantly but they were basic, and needed to be emptied every six months. We never had electrical appliances such as fridge, washing machine and kitchen necessities (kettle and toaster in England; mixey in India) because we had no means of powering them. We soon realised life was totally possible, albeit certainly less convenient, without them. Lights, powered by tiny solar panels from good old Amazon, only came on at dusk, and phones were used sparingly because it was slow to charge them on the solar light batteries. Laptops rarely surfaced, and there was virtually no internet access, which freed up vast amounts of time.
In England, there are two issues with this back-to-the-basics approach. First is that it is cold here. Not Canada cold or Russia cold, but cold enough and wet enough that hot, or at least warm, water is needed for washing clothes and dishes as well as for showers, warmth is needed to dry wet laundry, and in almost all houses some amount of heating is needed for at least four months of the year. Providing for all these needs requires an enormous amount more work and energy than off-grid life in sunny southern India. Not that there are not people doing it in communities across the country. And of course in the past there was no other option.
The second problem is that in this country things are ridiculously over-regulated. When our electric hob and oven packed up the other day, Uppu suggested we put in a wood-fired stove like in Sakleshpur. That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Our 19th century cottage has a chimney in the kitchen where the hearth would have been. My parents’ house, built in 1692, has a traditional bread oven, not dissimilar to the one we made in Sakleshpur. But things are very different now, and wood fires are currently so frowned upon that even our smokeless wood-burning stove in the sitting room may soon be deemed unacceptable. You can’t even divert your kitchen grey water to the garden without running afoul of the rules. If you want to go off grid without investing vast amounts of money and time on compliance your best bet is to find a remote, preferably invisible, spot, do what you want and hope nobody ever reports you to the council.
Innovate and Hope (for the best)
The second approach to reducing energy consumption is to move in the other direction: onwards and upwards. You use evolving technologies to make your energy consumption more efficient and more sustainable. This is the approach that many off-gridders are in fact taking. They want to retain their washing machine and fridge, but run it off the renewable energy created by the sun. They still want power showers, but create a sophisticated rainwater harvesting mechanism with solar-powered pump to make it work. And their loos are composting but look like regular toilets, are powered by electricity and require no maintenance. Consumption remains the same, but the means of meeting that consumption change to become more sustainable.
This is also the approach that the British government seems to favour. It has all manner of schemes to encourage householders to switch to renewable energy sources. For instance, we can now replace our oil boiler with an air source heat pump, which is powered by electricity but uses no fuel, and the government will pay up to £5,000 towards the installation and then pay us back a certain amount over the next seven years. There have been similar schemes to incentivise solar panels and other renewable energy sources at the domestic level.
While there is definitely growing awareness that resources are not to be wasted – utility boards are always telling us to switch off taps and lights – no one is seriously suggesting that we re-think whether we actually need central heating; electrical appliances to meet every possible need, from ice cream making to automated grass cutting; and hot and cold water on tap throughout the house. In a couple of generations, people have become habituated to the freedom from domestic chores that devices such as a washing machine bring. They have got used to central heating, to their houses being warm enough in winter that you barely need more than a t shirt when inside. Who would ever countenance a return to the old, cold days where you put on an extra jumper, or three, when the temperature dropped?
What is encouraging is that renewable energy here is well advanced. For instance, it is now possible to opt for an electricity supplier that generates 100% of their supply from renewable sources. So while I am still reeling from the fact that we consume 8,000 kwh of electricity a year, at least I know it’s not coming from burning coal.
On a global scale, though, can this second approach reduce energy consumption enough, especially when you consider that large parts of the world’s billions don’t yet have all these energy-guzzling mod cons? Can technology enable us to hang onto our dishwashers and tumble dryers, to continue to heat or cool our homes to the most comfortable temperature, without destroying the planet? Who knows, but for our part we will most probably follow the path of least resistance while living here and see where technology takes us. At the very least it should be able to soothe our guilty consciences.
*At the community of Sadhana Forest in Pondicherry, volunteers must go to the communal kitchen and use the hand pump there to fill a bucket of water every time they shower. New arrivals tend to fill their bucket full, but by their second shower they have learnt that lugging a full bucket of water all the way back isn’t worth that extra few litres so almost everyone manages with half a bucket.
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.
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.
Following my last post, here are some photos, rather badly organised thanks to WordPress’ new(ish) block editor, but you get the idea