There seems to be a universal appeal to the notion of living more simply, closer to nature and its rhythms.
The sense that that these days we all live in a swirling maelstrom of information, complexity and disquiet seems to be quite universal amongst citizens of the so called “developed” world.
There is a notion too, amongst a growing number that a move towards a simpler, more natural rhythm is sorely required.
Depending on our circumstances we might respond to this need in any number of ways. And it should be said that any attempt to lead a more natural peaceful life is valid. We might invite some nature into our lives by going for a walk in the the park or invest our attention in a potted tomato-plant on the window sill. At a more extreme end there are a few who might embark on that survivalist journey that lead Chris McCandless to his tragic death in the wilds of Alaska as documented in the book and film “Into the Wild” by John Krakaur.
McCandless’ story is one of tragic folly but it appeals to something in many of us who aspire to a simpler, more connected and more natural life. At the very least the desire to connect with nature is a noble and worthy aspiration.
The reality,however, is cruder than we might expect. When you have to devote time to primary needs such as shelter, warmth and running water you are seriously complicating life. A stressed out city dweller need only flick a switch to satisfy those needs. The newly arrived rustic has to divert considerable time and energy to the matter and soon finds plenty of things to worry and stress about.
So, motivated by a heartfelt need to be closer to nature I found myself living in a very small village of fifteen souls where I could pursue my interests in gardening, beekeeping and animal husbandry. It’s not as if I embarked on this with any grand plan. Rather it grew upon me little by little through conscious and more often than not, unconscious decisions that have lead to my total immersion in the process.
In the beginning I divided my time between conventional teaching jobs and the juggling of the innumerable and seasonal requirements of living in this context. There always seemed to be an awful lot of balls in the air at any given moment and all in all it amounted to considerable stress and uncertainty. There were many times I thought about jacking it all in and choosing a more conventional life.
There comes a point though, where you either quit or commit unreservedly. The thing that lead to my total commitment was the arrival of a donkey called Momo.
I had absolutely no idea how to care for a donkey or for that matter any particular interest in large animals. In fact, Momo’s arrival contributed initially to my sense of stress. But we learned a lot from each other and fell into something of a routine. After a year another donkey called Django, arrived quite out of the blue. Within days I had embarked on building a cart. If you have two donkeys you have to have a cart!
Donkeys are in fact pretty straightforward. They don’t require a lot of breaking in. Their domesticity is pretty much inbred and once you have their trust there’s no limit to the possible adventures. In the summer months we graze any free pasture and I control them with an electric fence. In the winter things get a little more complicated as the pasture is poor and the weather can be harsh. Donkeys don’t tolerate prolonged wet weather and cold wet weather can be fatal. So, you need a shelter and if you’re going to have them stabled you’re going to need hay.
You can buy bails of hay although livestock owners don’t often have much surplus to sell. These days the bails are often huge and require someone with a tractor to deliver it. It can quickly become an expensive headache. Nonetheless, every spring the county council sends a fleet of grass cutters to mow the verges at the side of the roads. Result, a two metre by 50km strip of fresh cut hay. I watch the weather keenly for the threat of rain and when the hay is good and dry, venture down the road with the donkey cart and collect as much as I can.
I have come to call this way of life, “living directly”. There is a need, which must be satisfied, you examine the resources, engage available tools, manpower and of course, donkey power and you arrive at a solution.
And so, on a hot day in August with the hay now good and dry the time had come to ship it all to the donkey’s winter quarters. My good friend and inveterate donkey driver Cameron Webster, was there to lend a hand. José, a guest from Valencia was eager to help too. Evidence once again, that folks are really keen to take part in some honest labour at donkey pace.
We loaded the cart with sacks of hay and made several trips to the shelter. I can only get so far with the cart and have to unload the sacks a few hundred metres from the shelter. We then unhitch the donkeys and tie the sacks to their harnesses for them to drag it in.
This was not without it’s problems. I had two lengths of rope, one short one long. I grabbed the first that came to hand, attached one end to the sack and the other to Momo. As I finished the knot I realised I had used the shorter rope. Momo is the more nervous of the two and a thought passed through my mind that he’d have been better with the longer rope. No matter! I passed the reigns to Cam and set about attaching Django to the next sack.
No sooner had I done this when I looked up to see Cam and Momo locked in a dangerous waltz. As they moved off Momo had got the notion that he was being pursued by a sack of hay. He bolted but Cam had his reigns so he ran in circles with the sack of hay moving even faster on the outer circumference of their trajectory. It was a bit like one of those kids games where they attach a ball to their ankle then skip over it as they walk. Momo’s version of the game was a bit more lethal and Cam soon let go leaving Momo to sort it out for himself. Thankfully he didn’t run far away and we soon had everyone calmed down and back on the job.
All in all the operation filled a pleasant morning. I’d have been quicker doing it with a tractor but out of pocket too. This method brought benefit in so many forms. We’d harvested a resource completely for free and spent a pleasurable few hours doing an honest job with the sky larks singing in the sky above. When all was said and done we sat back with a beer on a hot August day, secure in the knowledge that come the first snows the donks have food and shelter.
That’s living directly.
And as McCandless famously wrote, “Happiness is only real when shared.”