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.