Going Off Grid

Firewood, Stack, Wood, Chopped, Cut, Drying, Pile

My parents recently moved to a château in a rural part of France’s Loire Valley. How’s that for an aspirational middle-class retirement lifestyle choice? English expats have been flocking to France since Peter Mayle published his memoirs A Year in Provence in 1989. Chris Stewart’s account of trying to eke out a living on a farm in Andalucia is markedly less romantic. I’ve noticed an increasing interest in rural living with a reduced environmental impact. Going off grid used to be the phrase but that sounds terribly old fashioned, something paranoid Americans do because they don’t want the government involved in any part of their lives. However, in these environmentally minded days, more people want to lead a greener lifestyle. Increasing numbers of builds on Amazing Spaces and Grand Designs have been designed to be greener and more energy efficient. The BBC iWonder website even has a section devoted to living ‘off-grid’.

The Oxford Dictionary defines self-sufficiency as ‘needing no help satisfying one’s basic needs, especially with regard to the production of food’. Our attempts at rural community living were based on the teachings of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami who had a very clear vision that we should be self-sufficient: build schools, farm, grow our own food, keep cows and produce slaughter-free milk. The aim of this was to step away from being a wage slave to focus on more important things and to build a sustainable way of living for people and their families.

My dad started to lose interest in the idea when he learnt that even the UK’s self-sufficiency guru John Seymour generated income through speaking, presenting television programmes and writing endless books on self-sufficiency. This raises the question of how easy it is to generate revenue from the land and agricultural endeavour. We struggled to grow vegetables. We had a greenhouse but didn’t manage to grow much. I suspect it may have been because we didn’t really know what we were doing. Our neighbours lived without electricity and hot water. I am amazed that they kept going as long as they did. It really can’t have been easy to do that with three kids. Sooner or later, like us, they abandoned their plans to renovate a derelict cottage and grow veg.

I remember not quite being sure what was going on during that period of our lives; why our school arrangements kept changing, why my mum wasn’t very happy. I was unaware at the time that my parents’ marriage was going through a very rough patch. Dad was fed up of the conflict within the temple council and the crunch point came when the caravan we were temporarily living in froze solid that winter. I view this as a sort of low point, a metaphor for what might happen if you don’t make sensible, conventional life choices. ‘Yes, but we might end up living in a frozen caravan!’, I say whenever anyone suggests anything unusual.

I feel allergic to the idea of anything alternative, going against the grain. I want to start screaming when anyone suggests that stepping back from mainstream society would be a good idea. This is a difficult attitude to align with being a liberal Guardian reader who tries to be open-minded. I suppose my reaction is based on experience but I also feel I’d be crap at a land-based life. It would be tremendously hard work and I don’t think that’s where my skills lie. I’m perversely invested in the idea that it won’t work and it’s a terrible idea. Much of this is about a broader disappointment that we weren’t more successful in building vibrant, flourishing communities and that things didn’t work out differently; I don’t think I’m alone in that.

I’m very happy to concede that the world is mad, horribly injust and bafflingly materialistic. We only work to afford hugely overpriced houses which our parents’ generation bought for £250 thirty years ago. Things that should be rights are hugely commodified (housing, for one) and somehow the many are supposed to override the system to attain what the few have, often gained as a product of that very system. Commercial farming is horrendous and exploits both animals and humans. We are wrecking the environment, eating pineapples in December that have been grown in South Africa and flown round the world. I’m not holding my breath for ethical capitalism to take off…

I must say I am wary of these people who start talking about ‘something more’. I’m never sure about this ‘something more’… Do they mean something less? It often refers to the desire not to have to work and pay bills, perhaps being left feeling a bit hollow by the rat race. But what is the alternative? Being broke? (I don’t believe that endlessly accumulating stuff equals happiness but I do appreciate all my kitchen appliances. They are very useful and I feel lucky to have them. I’ve used them until various parts have needed to be replaced.)
I’m always puzzled by people who feel the need to jump from one extreme to the other. It often features in lifestyle supplements in weekend broadsheets. People who sell all their possessions and go to Nepal for three months. (What on earth is it about travelling that people think will magically solve all their problems?) Or people who have very busy jobs and massive mortgages in London, never see their families, are incredibly stressed and at risk of complete burn out. Rather than downsizing their mortgage and changing job or company to allow them to have a better work/life balance, they sell their house and move to the absolute middle of nowhere, where life presents them with a new set of problems, as it might if you set up a coffee farm in the most remote reaches of the Panamanian jungle. One has the sense of these people being slightly traumatised and needing to flee their lives, but I’m never sure why such dramatic changes are needed.

I was intrigued to read about Dylan Evans’ apocalyptic community in rural Scotland. (He wrote a book about his experiences.) He talked about struggling with the lack of daylight in the winter, feeling weak and tired from the hard physical labour of agriculture and feeling lonely, let alone the challenge of living in yurts in the Scottish winter. He also talked about the expense of buying the supplies needed, the expense of keeping things going and how they were still shopping at the supermarket a year into the experiment out of necessity. The community splintered and one member started his own community down the road. Struggling under the significant burden of leadership and responsibility, Evans had a nervous breakdown and decided that living in a field in Scotland wasn’t for him. Many of the volunteers did however stay and the community is still going, run by one of the founding members.

A part of me wants to shriek, ‘SEE! SEE! IT DOESN’T WORK!’ but that’s short sighted. It misses the point that different things work for different people. I take the viewpoint that you might want to go for it, but I don’t. Go for it, maybe you’ll do a fantastic job, but my experiences are what they are and all I can do is get on with life. I won’t try to sell you an idea that didn’t work for me.

A review of Evans’ book suggested that idealists are seldom very practical people, and that communities tend to attract cantankerous misfits, who then find themselves in a pressure cooker. I must say I am suspicious of people who suggest alternative means of living are a good idea. This can be the preserve of slightly useless talkers, rather than do-ers. I’m also irritated by people refusing to engage with the fact that their ideas have been tried by other people and didn’t work. Overcoming challenges requires you to really grapple with them and find ways of fixing them, not just burying your head in the sand and repeating the same mistakes.

I don’t think land-based life is something you can just have a go at. I feel like lots of things were done that way and may have been successful in the short term, but not the long term. I imagine it would also be easier to grow produce in a warm climate as opposed to Scotland or Ireland. Sustaining anything long term can be difficult, when the youthful enthusiasm is gone, when you have family responsibilities, when your children grow up to be accountants, disinterested in a rural life which they may leave in search of economic opportunity. It can be hard to earn a living in very rural areas. Don’t just assume that your children will want the same life as you. They may, they may not. They may be more interested when they come to settle down or they may not.

Dylan Evans raised the idea that religious communities are often the ones that last. On that basis, ours should have worked better but it makes me think about the various reasons why people join communities. What are you in it for? Are you seeking a refuge from the world? Could you not cope with the world or is withdrawing a considered choice based on the positives you foresee and really believe in? Do you seek something more natural? Is it a way of fulfilling your ambitions, something genuine which wouldn’t be possible on your own? Are you seeking similar people to share things with? Are you coming to offer a skill, bringing something to the table, something to give back in return for other people’s contributions? Or are you looking for people to solve your problems? Are you looking for people to provide for you, look after you? Do you want to give or take? Do you have a carefully considered plan or are you ricocheting between things that seemed like the best idea at the time? Are you on a power trip? Do you want to run the show and tell everyone what to do? What’s your leadership style? Do you lead by example?

One religious community that does work is the Amish. I had thought that they retained their community structure through brutal rules. It is however more complex than that and different Amish groups operate differently. My dad likes to talk about how the Amish give every newly married couple a plot of land and build them a house. He also talks about a critical mass where you have enough people to do everything, a body of expertise to have and share knowledge and skills. The Amish also have skills that we lack in modern society: building houses and barns, sewing, keeping animals, farming, even cooking is falling away…

Collective or community living is very hard. We tried to have rules but there was endless disagreement about what was acceptable and people would leave rather than follow the rules. We often talked about the larger communities in Hertfordshire and Florida, that remained intact and grew, where people lived in their own properties, rather than on temple land. People could be more involved or less involved. I feel quite strongly about people choosing to live by rules based on faith and realisation, rather than mandated standards which may feel like impositions or generate guilt for those who find it hard to follow them.

The Lammas eco-village in Pembrokeshire often features in the media. (Abs from Five went to visit them for a BBC documentary in which he was investigating the idea of buying a farm and trying to be more self-sufficient.) Lammas’ founder wanted to live with lots of outdoor space for her son with special needs. An environmental science graduate, she wanted to ‘live very much in connection with the land and to provide our own food and electricity’ and to be among like-minded people. She bought a plot of land for £35, 000 and built a roundhouse for £10, 000. They grow their own food, cut their own wood and have hydro and solar power panels. She makes most of her income from selling farmed produce and wool. She made the point that it took ten years to build the community and that they all have different separate households. This echoed what we’ve observed about the bigger communities where people live separately functioning better.

My parents are enjoying life in the Loire valley. Their parental responsibilities fulfilled, my dad newly retired, it made sense to seek out something new. My mum tells me the place has been through all sorts of things, toxic politics, people leaving. I wonder if maturity comes with time… My parents tell me they feel valued. The place runs on a shoe string budget. I visited last August. The woman who largely keeps the place running is about my age and grew up there. They grow fruit and veg: kiwis, butternut squash, walnuts, apple orchards. They keep cows who give milk. I was impressed. My mum and I picked lots of apples and made an enormous apple crumble for everyone. My dad runs the guest house and rings me to tell me about issues with the plumbing. He keeps an eye on the younger members, looking after them, making them cups of tea and listening to them. Maybe it helps to have people of different ages, with their different experiences and skills.

When I visited last year, I thought about a life as the temple cook, wearing a turmeric-stained cotton skirt (cotton is safer around open flames) and churning out huge vats of subji for lots of people every day. But I knew that I prefer my life in London, where I do admittedly churn out vats of subji. The Doctor grows lots of veg in our garden: green beans, beetroot, pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes (endless tomatoes), courgettes and asparagus. That’s probably as close to a rural life as I’ll ever get.