mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Basic instincts

The adventure with the mosquito larvae in my hand washing has led to a rethink – with the result that I have spent the week playing happily about with the water system.

The first task was to start afresh with our big barrel that collects the rain water off our incredibly efficient corrugated roof. The water it contained was a light shade of brackish and was hosting an assortment of dead insects, very alive larvae and some beetles swimming vigorously. There were a lot of these, and no dead ones, which made me wonder. Had some of them been swimming for weeks? Or had they all gone for a spontaneous dip together? In any case, I carefully lifted them out – with my bare hands. I was very proud of myself.

I then set about cleaning some receptacles. These are blue 20-litre containers that we got off eBay. They must have come from a juicing factory because their labels bear information such as 'blackcurrant concentrate'. What was left of the concentrate had, of course, congealed into a life form thus the barrels required much sluicing and shaking about to dislodge the residue.

With everything ready, all I had to do was wait for the rain. And that is never far away although, given that North Yorkshire spent most of the last week under water, I was surprised there wasn't more of it. Still there was enough to fill a 220-litre barrel in a couple of hours of steady rainfall. This was incredibly satisfying – so much so that I took to standing soggily outside to stare at the water cascading out of the rainfall outlet.

Infinity pools – over-rated
I haven't always been so easily pleased – but over the years age and child-rearing have dramatically reduced my pleasure threshold. Where once luxury might have been an infinity pool somewhere close to the Aegean, now it is getting through a cup of tea without having to deliver loo roll or a lecture on cat sleep management. In such a climate, watching rainwater trickle into a barrel is positively self-indulgent.

But there is something more tangible to this than the lamentable state of my down time. I feel increasingly that living – as many in the western world do – so far removed from our basic needs robs us of something very fundamental.

In his Hierarchy of Needs model, American psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that in order to achieve our full potential four fundamental layers of needs have to be met, the most basic of which is physiological – the need for food, water, warmth, sleep and, er, other bodily functions.

In a civilised affluent society we don't have to think too much about those things. Flush toilets remove our waste and take it somewhere nameless, where someone faceless does something unknown to it so we never have to think about it again. We buy our food neatly packed in boxes or wrapped in cellophane. Clean water gushes out of our taps. Shops sell cheap ready-made clothes to keep us warm.

This is clearly all to the good – Maslow is right, it's pretty difficult to achieve your full potential if your body is in starvation. But when our basic needs are so easily met is some fundamental instinct thrown off balance? I don't have the answer to that, of course. I only know that when I create something rudimental out of nothing, I feel a deep sense of well being. For instance, I knit. Out of two pins and a length of yarn I can create jumpers, socks, scarves and hats. I'm not the only one – there are a lot of us about. Some people still even take needle and thread and make garments. Why do this when we can go to Primark and buy a sweater or tracksuit bottoms for £3.99?

In the same vein, people hunt, camp, grow vegetables, keep chicken, make honey – in short we do things that are time consuming, sometimes difficult, often messy, all in the name of keeping in touch with our basic needs – because in a world of hotels, supermarkets and pre-packed eggs, we don't have to do any of them.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that by standing in the rain watching my water barrel fill up I am connecting with some primordial survival mechanism that feels a need to be connected with. It doesn't necessarily mean that I am going mad.

Yet ...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

All coming out in the wash

Living in a washing machine-less world makes getting white school polo shirts clean something of a Herculean task.

Well, OK, not quite Herculean; it doesn't really equate with capturing the Erymanthian boar, for instance, but it's not far off, I can tell you.

A colleague recently asked 'washing machine or vacuum cleaner?' in a 'George Clooney or Brad Pitt?' type conversation. I pointed out that I was uniquely placed to answer this question since I have had neither for more than a year now – and I can tell you unequivocally that I would take a washing machine over a vacuum cleaner any day.

Sweeping takes about the same amount of time as it does to vacuum, especially when you factor in all the stopping and starting to deal with bits of Lego or apple cores that have have been sucked up and are blocking the hose.

Washing without a machine, on the other hand, is a complete pfaff involving either hand washing or launderettes, neither of which remotely compare with the convenience of the modern front loader.

Take these shirts, for instance. My daughter only started school recently and I bought two to be going on with. These were meant to be supplemented over the summer, but predictably M&S had run out.

So if one gets dirty, it can't wait until launderette day. I therefore decided to hand wash it. I didn't want to use our precious drinking water, so went to fetch some from one of the barrels that is stationed around our lovely new awning roof.

I filled a bowl, then noticed it contained a number of wriggly tadpole sort of things. I looked at these thoughtfully for a while, then concluded they must be mosquito larvae, which explains why there are so many of the damn things flying around of a night biting people while they sleep.

Much as I might have wanted to boil-wash them, I didn't want splatted insect larvae on Zena's new shirt, so I went off in search of a strainer. Once they were removed, I stood at the sink for ages applying vigorous kneading and pummeling actions to the shirt. Then I tipped the suds away, and had to fetch more water, strain out more larvae and fill a bowl in order to rinse it out.

It must have been at this point that the shirt came into contact with a small dollop of curry that had gone unnoticed on the outside of the bowl. Despite being a very small dollop, it left a large yellow smear in several places. This, I only noticed, when I was hanging the shirt on the line.

For a while, I performed a little dance of rage around the washing line. Then I fetched the strainer, sifted out more baby mosquitoes and went through the whole process again.

Washing polo shirts
Normal women do not have to do this sort of thing in this day and age. But actually, it is not so long ago that hand washing was commonplace. In the 1950s, my mother used to stand at the sink for hours hand washing my eldest brother's nappies. Even in the early 1970s when she had a new-fangled twin-tub, I remember that she still used a mangle. Washing clothes and linen took up the best part of two days of her week. Women before that used tubs, dolly sticks and washboards. But even the washboard was an invention of the 18th century – prior to that cloth was soaked in a 'lye', a mixture of ashes and urine, before being taken down to the river, even if it was frozen, and being beaten with a wooden bat. And, of course, there are many women across the world who still do wash clothes in the river.

So if I ever do get a washing machine again, I will love it and give thanks for it both on my behalf and  that of the millions of woman – and the odd man – whom it has liberated from a huge amount of drudgery.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Smelling a rat

Humans, we are told, are never more than ten feet away from a rat – and I am sure that living, as we do, in the middle of a field is likely to bring them closer than that.

But we have never seen one and only heard something that sounded like gnawing once, so I was prepared to remain in blissful denial until provided with any evidence to the contrary.

Evidence came in the shape of some strange animal droppings we found under a pallet when we moved it recently. The cats can't get under the pallets and wouldn't, I hope, dare do such a thing there anywhere. And they were too big for the desperate purgings of a mouse being vigorously toyed around with by needle-sharp claws. So, I reluctantly concluded that they must belong to a rat.

This theory appeared to be backed up this week when it became apparent that something was eating the cat food. I had left this in the awning, for some stupid reason; I think the cats were annoying me, they usually do. So it was that when I opened the door of the caravan one evening, I heard something crunching its way through the Whiskas.

Call me slow, but I figured that this was irregular, since both cats were asleep in the caravan.

I opened the door wider and in the light saw a dark and disturbingly large shape ambling away slowly, nay, insouciantly.

I shut the door quickly and addressed the caravan occupants. 'There's a freking rat out there the size of a Shetland pony,' I said.

I was somewhat freaked out.

Ten minutes later I opened the door again. The creature had returned and was knocking back the cat food. I shut the door – next time he was going to die.

I spent the next ten minutes whipping the dog up into a state of nervous frenzy. 'Where is it?' I said excitedly spinning round and looking under things. 'Where's that big old rat?'

Oody – faint of heart
With the dog primed, I flung the door open. The dark shape looked up from his dinner and headed off reluctantly. The dog backed into the caravan, lips drawn apologetically over her teeth, tail wagging despondently between her legs. It was a poor show.

The dog, I should remind you, is half a bull terrier – half an English bull terrier to be exact. A dog so menacing in appearance that it was picked to play Bullseye, Bill Sikes's nasty-tempered sidekick in the film, Oliver!. Oody doesn't have a temper, or a lot of courage come to that – she is a dog deeply in touch with her inner chihuahua. She is scared of rats and a lot of other things besides.

So, I was forced to head off to bed with the vermin issue unresolved. Once there, I sat upright, covers pulled up to my chin, unblinking eyes on the large hole in the door made by the cats as their own personal entrance system.

Soon I heard the unmistakeable crunching of cat food. I rang Gully who was still in the caravan. 'It's out there,' I hissed.

The door banged open and he came flying out torch in hand. And there, frozen with fear and blinking in the light, was a hedgehog.

So I could sleep easy after all, happy in the knowledge that I have a cute little helper hoovering up the slugs and snails in my indoor garden. But I am under no illusions that there might not be a rat ...

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Conkering one's fears

Summer is over, the camping stuff is packed away, the evenings have a definite autumnal chill – and I am becoming vexed on the subject of spiders.

We spent last autumn in the caravan, which, thankfully, appeared to be a spider-free zone. In fact, I didn't see a single one. But this year, we are sleeping in the trailer and that is a different affair altogether. Large cobwebs stretch above the door and on the underside. Cobwebs that can only have been put in place by something large and muscular – and her mates.

This theory was borne out recently by the Sad Demise of the Pretty Spider. This was a little lime green arachnid who was pottering about among the struts that hold up our new wooden awning. It was a nice day and the sunlight that came through the roof highlighted his colour. I watched as he busily – and happily, I felt – made his way along a long strand of web that I took to be his own creation. 'Ahh,' I thought 'what a clever little chap, isn't nature wonderful!' Nature, at that point intervened in a not wonderful sort of way, when a large and violent spider pounced on my little friend and had him bitten and done up like a kipper before I could say 'Oh'.

My boys, meanwhile, have gleefully taken a book out of the library bearing the title The World's Most Horrible Deadliest Spiders Ever - or something to that effect. Its pages contain gruesome close-ups of eyes and jaws interspersed with descriptions of how prey is reduced to liquid before being sucked up. Just in case this doesn't freak you out enough, there are pictures of injuries arising from spider bites: limbs with large holes containing rotting flesh or swollen extremities oozing pus.

The common house spider:
hideous, ain't it?
My youngest loves this book and has had his nose in it ever since it left Crediton library. He is a generous lad who likes to share his pleasure, and thus it is presented regularly to me for my delectation. I am required to answer questions such as 'If a venomous spider bit the dog, how long would it take for her to turn all mushy so it could eat her'. I was forced to read the whole book to him in the car on the way to the station in the uncomfortable knowledge that I would be sleeping on the floor in someone's attic that night.

And, of course, the spider season is about to begin and our trailer feels somewhat exposed.

This silly fear of spiders is something I feel I should conquer – it seems daft to be living off grid in an outside sort of way and being squeamish about our eight-legged friends. Such weakness makes me feel unsuited to our lifestyle; I should be the sort of person who can pick up a spider with interest and conduct a short nature lesson. But then I am always thinking I am unsuited to our lifestyle – I am easily left feeling inadequate by any woman who can change a tyre, wield a bow saw, or any other practical application I am unequal to.

So, vexed I must remain although I shall take steps to help myself – spreading conkers and spraying citronella about - and above all, getting rid of that horrible book.