Animal Husbandry

Henny Penny with Brownie (almost hidden behind her) and Wispy

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. 

Our two Warre hives: the big one to the right has a strong colony which swarmed; the small one has just been filled with a small swarm we managed to catch and hive (no photos of that process as we were too busy trying to figure out what to do)

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.

Back to The Wild

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.

Covid Strategies

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.

Back on Grid

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.

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.