Live Free – a handcrafted life
We are driving backwards into the future on a road we have already trashed. Six years ago, I took the road less traveled with the thought of wriggling my toes in the local equivalent of Henry Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I moved into a one room log cabin in the woods and lived off the grid anticipating a life of voluntary austerity. I yearned to weave resilience into my life and make sense of the gathering certainties in the world. At the time, it was merely the economy and climate swinging on their hinges, now we have the added threat of a rising tide of extreme right wing populist politics. Building strong, diverse and inclusive communities has never been more important.
I must admit to jaywalking through life, for every year of formal education, I have almost spent one year backpacking - scanning distant horizons rather than a flickering screen. A fondness for distant beaches and mountain trails kept me from being sucked into the gaping maw of the 9 to 5 world. I had time to sit, think and watch from the margins.
The world stopped working for ordinary folk when Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberalism took hold in the 1980s. The necessities of life became commodities, environmental and social safeguards were whittled away and potential careers morphed into precarious employment. Then society was swept up by the digital revolution and an ideology that glorifies ultra-individualism and competitive self-interest. Shopping and the consumer lifestyle made it easy to block out the daily struggle of those on the margins, bicycling through the barrios of South America tells a different story.
Meanwhile, back in the cabin I was happily adjusting to a life with one boot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st Century. Then, one day at the end of my first summer, I received a summons from the bank, they insisted that I come in for an interview. The manager met me at the door and asked if she could sit in on the meeting. Across the desk, I faced two sets of arched eyebrows.
“Did I know how much was in my account”?
Well, it had jumped by a several zeros. I suspected that they thought I might have a grow-op, I do, but not what they thought – more about that later. I told them that Charles Dickens wrote the book on finance. His stories are about how ordinary folk keep their heads above water in hard times. The moneylender in David Copperfield said it best: disposable income equals income minus expenses. No matter your career, your salary is at best a slight incline, however, everyone’s expenses are way up or way down depending upon lifestyle choices. All the things that come with an invoice can also be had for free or nearly so.
Every square meter of the earth’s surface gets 1.4 kw of solar power a day, a sauna insures unlimited hot water, drinking water comes out of the ground, raised bed gardening provides food, a root cellar’s temperature is a stable 55F degree, dead trees provide heat. Then there. are all the other opportunities to save money; local libraries are my office and when I go to the office the challenge is choosing which movie, music or book to give my attention to. The local Salvation Army thrift store has a tractor trailer load of upmarket city clothes delivered every month, nobody dies when you shop at the Sally Ann, unlike the cheap fashion outlets in the Mall tainted by the recent death of 900 garment workers in Dacca.
I went into that meeting fearing a Little Red Riding Hood experience, instead I came away thinking that my Fairy Godmother had sprinkled fairy dust over my cabin. It set me thinking – instead of a life of voluntary austerity my greening was, from a banker’s viewpoint, a money mission. For the first time in my life I had the affluence of time and money; I could handcraft my life to be myself 100%. The three big cogs that put the smile in my stride are books, building stuff and travel. I now divide the year into three so they all chimed together. Travel alternated each year between cycling and long distance walking.
I was bicycling across Ireland when I met a retired Frenchman who was walking across Europe. He had with a deeply furrowed face, wild wavy hair and bushy beard. He was my Gandalf. He told me to go to St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees and travel the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Ten days later I was there, I have since returned twice to walk the Camino. Pilgrimage pushes your re-set button. Shouldering a backpack also discourages shopping. Which brings me to my grow-op.
My background in horse racing and equestrian sport taught me that turf matters. The challenge was to have optimum conditions with limited time and resources. Red Wriggler worms give the Midas touch to farm manure. The resulting ‘black gold’ compost is magic for turf and gardens. The horse world’s response was a disappointment; however, the local farmer’s market was happy to have me as a vendor. Raised bed and container gardening with vermicompost can make a gardener out of anyone. Food security and ultra-low cost house are the bedrock to building communities. Building things is what makes me tick. DIY hobbit houses popped up on the internet, I couldn’t resist. A library book on earthbag construction enabled me to turn a dream into reality. My currency of construction is barter, recycle and goodwill. My hobbit house cost $56. Plastering the interior added another $400 because I used a mortar and lime mix rather than an earth plaster (it was 20 below outside and I sacrificed clay on the altar of expediency). The roof and walls are covered with my ‘black gold’ compost, kale grows on the roof and beans climb the walls. Yes, Virginia, you can build your house and eat it too.