Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Ruminations on a Seven Year Glitch



It’s hard to believe – or so I tell myself – that it’s been seven years since my family and I upped sticks and moved from Denmark to Cornwall. We hopped across the North Sea with all of our belongings as well as three cats and two guinea pigs (of which only one feline remains) and bought an old house in a quirky old town in the extreme SW of the British Isles.

Anyone who has been following my on/off blog for that long will recall that we made the move because I was worried that some sort of unexpected shock could knock industrial civilisation onto its back in a single punch. I wanted us to be in a place that would be (hopefully) less hellish than other places whenever that black swan appeared, whatever form it took. Even if it wasn’t some big event but a series of smaller ones that became more irksome with each passing year, I thought it wise to be somewhere that would have its consolations and would be more resilient than where we were.

What was clear after 2008 was that the series of financial rackets that keep modern life going were not as robust as had been assumed. By about 2010 it was clear that nothing had been fixed following the ‘great hiccup’, and that despite all the media bluster about things getting better, in fact they were heading south at a speed of knots. The matrix had glitched, but people were content to pretend that all was well again. Yet while they were reburying their heads in the sand, those who refused to drink this Kool-Aid considered our options and began to look around for life rafts on which to escape this Ship of Fools (I think that’s enough metaphors for one sentence).

For a quick recap, the story goes that I quit my safe-but-boring office job as a copywriter for a tourism company in Copenhagen, loaded up a large trailer and drove to Cornwall. This coincided with my father dying, which meant a sum of money allowed me to buy a seven-acre piece of woodland. The plan was that I would learn to be a small-scale coppice forester, and make things such as charcoal, hurdles, bean poles and other woodland products. To hustle for money, I’d also have a side-line as a translator and my wife would do upholstery jobs for clients, which is what she is skilled at. This, I hoped, would allow me to have one foot in each world i.e. the world of earning money using what I considered to be fairly pointless skills (translating, writing) and the world of learning useful new crafts that would act as a sort of guarantee for the future.

As John Michael Greer advised around the time, “collapse now, and avoid the rush.” That was the plan, anyway. But how has it worked out?

Seven years can pass in the blink of an eye, and I thought maybe it was time for a moment’s reflection on what I did right and what I did that was not quite so right during this time. Overall, by the way, I’d give myself 7/10 for achievement. Fairly average with a ‘could do better’ written at the bottom. But then I’m often pretty hard on myself, so maybe I should award myself an extra half point for effort. I don’t have any major regrets about moving to Cornwall, even if it does rain far more than I anticipated (this winter it rained almost six months solidly: I hate too much rain as it makes me depressed). Anyway, here’s what I got right in the last seven years, in my opinion:


- The woodland. Absolutely no regrets about this, even though I sensed doubt in the minds of others that it was the right thing to do. Since I bought it, I have completely transformed it from being a barren field surrounded by a plantation of oak and chestnut trees. Now, it is akin to a wildlife reserve, bursting with flowers in the spring and filled with birds, frogs, newts, foxes, hedgehogs … and even deer. I chain sawed a section down and turned it into a forest garden (having done a course with Martin Crawford in Devon), dug out a large pond by hand (now visible on satellite maps of Cornwall), planted an orchard of 35 apple trees (including rare Cornish varieties for cider making) and started a coppice rotation to provide us with so much firewood there’s always a big surplus. This and a whole lot more.



- Wrote three books (so far). My first book, The Path to Odin’s Lake, remains the most popular. Before moving to Cornwall I didn’t think I could write a whole book, but being surrounded by people who are writers and artists and other creative types somehow makes the idea of being a writer seem about as unusual as being a plumber in, say, Birmingham. Cornwall is full of places that provide inspiration – I even started another blog about it which I hope to add to this year (another side line I hope to develop is as a walking guide) – so if I am stuck for ideas I just need to go for a walk along the cliffs or on an empty beach. I’m writing another one now.

- Studying and learning. The house we bought had enough space for a study in the attic to house a lot of my two thousand or so books. Over the past seven years I’ve been up there most evenings, sitting in a comfy armchair that’s been passed down through my family, and reading an awful lot of books. I’m mostly hooked on metaphysical and esoteric material, but I still find time for a good horror novel or the latest from, say, Jim Kunstler or Dmitry Orlov. In terms of other studies, I’ve been doing a course in herbalism since last year, and have even produced my first tincture for sale (an antiviral based on elder leaf). I’ve also completed a sea kayak navigation course, done a night school class in wood carving, taught myself the basics of arc welding, figured out how to strip down a carburettor and mend a chainsaw, learned how to sharpen and use a traditional scythe, and am currently learning beekeeping, basic astronomy and how to play the mountain dulcimer. I’m really quite busy learning new things when I think about it, and hope to still be learning new things when I'm 80.





So far, so good, but what about the things that haven’t fared so well …?

- Community groups. When I arrived here, I was keen to throw myself into the Transition Towns scene. Knowing what I knew about industrial civilisation’s appointment with the grim reaper I really wanted to connect with like-minded people who felt the same way. This, to a great extent, turned out to be a mistake. Without going into too many details, what I found was that people tended to have deep-seated agendas, and that the ‘Transition’ thing was just the latest garb they were wearing in order to attain some sort of minor power over other people. After trying this out for a year or so I decided to create my own community group based around the simple concept of trees and woodlands and orchards. This was a great success … for a while. I met some nice people and we did a lot of skills swapping and had some great social events. But this too reached its apogee and began to die around the time of the Brexit vote – a reminder that the Culture Wars have so much power to destroy any sense of a coherent community. So it goes.

- This old house. Our house (here's a post I wrote about it at the time - it's barely recognisable now from the photos as we have done so much remodelling work on it), a stone-built Victorian terrace house close to the centre of town, has some good things going for it. It’s large, it’s convenient for schools, work and shopping, and it’s got a sunny back yard. It was quite cheap to buy and we’ve been working on it continuously since we bought it. Still, it doesn’t have a garden (it does has a sunny back yard, that was a carport, which we are certainly appreciating in this period of lockdown), it suffers from black mould during the winters, it’s poorly insulated, the cheap plastic framed windows all need replacing and it’s often hard to sleep with all the street noise (boy racers speeding past and drunks fighting outside the front door during the summer months). Still, it’s a home, and I’m thankful to have it, even if it does demand constant – often costly – maintenance. If I could do it again, I would go for something smaller and with a garden. Even my wife agrees with me on this point (now).

- Work life balance. I’ll admit that it’s been hard earning money since we arrived here, even though I feel like I'm working constantly. Although we live somewhat frugally, we still have had a few foreign holidays, and we run a car. Perhaps because of this we are almost always broke. We’ve even run up some consumer debt, which I said I would never do. My wife works as a carer in the local hospital (the upholstery business never worked out), while I have had a whole range of contracted employment since I moved here, including boutique hotel barman, coffee shop barista, film extra, building site labourer, financial services content editor, woodland worker, and holiday let cleaner (spot the odd job out in that list). Yes, I’ve had a whole range of jobs in Cornwall from literally scrubbing shit off rich people’s toilets to managing a team of journalists in a global FX corporation. At the same time I’ve been working freelance as a journalist/editor/copywriter/translator/proof-reader (basically, anything with words - a word whore), selling my authored books, making and selling herbal tinctures, chopping and selling firewood, making charcoal and growing woodland mushrooms and – on one memorable occasion – making a massive circuitous trip to Scandinavia in a van to buy vintage furniture with a dealer friend. Nobody said collapsing now to avoid the rush would easy … I’m probably just slightly ahead of the curve compared to many people I know who assumed their cosy office jobs would last forever (and are right now wondering if that is indeed the case).


So, all in all, I’ve no major regrets. Our kids are happy here, away from the overly materialistic culture they would have been surrounded by if we’d stayed in the city, and I’ve got great plans for the woodland (the latest one being bees). The skies are blue at the moment, the roads clear (for now) and there’s blossom on the apple trees – what more could one ask for?
-->


10 comments:

  1. Greetings.

    I've been a lurker on your blog for many years. I see that you mentioned Greer saying "collapse now and avoid the rush". I made an attempt to do so back in the 2006-2008 time frame but didn't pull the trigger (was looking at various places in Alaska, Wisconsin, Oregon, Montana, Maine for a place to land). In this "Age of Corona", it would definitely have been an advantage for isolation but that's water under the bridge.

    When I would talk to various "intentional communities" (not just transition towns), I would get an uneasy feeling about how things were going to be run. When you said:

    "Without going into too many details, what I found was that people tended to have deep-seated agendas, and that the ‘Transition’ thing was just the latest garb they were wearing in order to attain some sort of minor power over other people",

    it resonated very strongly and, I think, clarified the uneasy feelings that I experienced. Thanks for that!

    Erik Turner, Melbourne, FL, USA

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Erik - thanks for dropping by. My experience with TT was that there were a hardcore of middle class 'professional protestors' who were at the core of it, and other people (like me) would come and go like butterflies - usually leaving disappointed. The core seemed to think that some sort of revolution was coming, and that they would be at the forefront, perhaps not realising that revolutions tend to be caused by the lower ranks of society (of which there were none in TT).

      When Extinction Rebellion came along they all immediately jumped into that boat, causing the immediate demise of anything positive they had ever worked for.

      I don't think they ever realised how silly they looked. They loved talking about mass social change at their conventions, and yet all the main characters tended to be from the winning classes who have done very well out of capitalism and globalisation. They never talked about individual action or responsibility, it was all to do with complex hierarchies and 'protesting the system'. What's more, they had no clear and simple message that resonated.

      It's a pity it turned out like that because there were plenty of good practical solutions on the table. But TT never got more than a handful of converts on board because they hardly ever walked their talk (I turned up at my first meeting on a bicycle and was surprised that everyone else had driven there) and they never onboarded - to use the horrendous management speak they are so fond of - the ordinary working people.

      For me, it was an eye opener, and a learning opportunity.

      Delete
  2. Hi Jason,

    A very thoughtful summary, and indeed, I could not agree more with your final note: what more could one ask for?

    Mate, you've lead an interesting life, and you sure can hustle. But then don't you reckon that is how people got by in the distant past? My income comes from a number of small businesses, and that is how it goes if you want to pay the bills.

    Appreciated hearing about your woodland exploits. Good stuff. And respect to your wife for recognising the need for a vegetable garden close to the kitchen.

    Just for your interest, my interactions with Transition Town were sort of similar to yours. The group was quite practically minded, but the politics took it down, until people disappeared. What is with that?

    Did I ever tell you about the time I encountered other folks representing that group outside the local bakery where they were protesting the use of plastic bags? Ended up pointing out that if they didn't want to use them, stop using them. They looked a bit shocked by a practical response to a problem. This would have been about a dozen years ago, and at the time I used to take plastic containers to the bakery for them to chuck the bread into - how easy is that? But it copped a bit of derision as it was a bit outside the norm. Anyway, started baking bread no long afterwards which turns out isn't that hard. Solar powered too.

    Merlin had a penchant for learning, so you're in good company. :-)

    How are you enjoying the mountain dulcimer?

    Started growing wheat this year, and so far three seeds have sprouted. Still, it is early days fingers crossed and all that.

    Cheers

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Chris,

      Yeah, I'm content with the choices I've made - especially those that have turned out to be mistakes (because you never know ...) As one of my all-time favourite writers Kurt Vonnegut liked to say "When I die and go to heaven, I'm going to ask God 'So, you can tell me now, what were the mistakes and what weren't the mistakes?'"

      Income wise, I'm now focusing on just doing one thing rather than many. I have seriously no idea how it has turned out this way, but I've become a niche writer in the field of FX markets. Yeah, I know. I can earn reasonable money just doing that part-time, and then spend the rest of my waking hours doing the other things I like/need to do. Robert Anton Wilson writes about 'reality tunnels' and how we should philosophically recognise which one we are in. I'm cool with that, and it's flexible, so I can do the job from anywhere with an internet connection.

      That's funny about your bakery experience. I've noticed that many of the same people here who were demanding an end to plastic bags and straws are now petitioning for an increase in the availability of disposable (plastic) PPE equipment. Those latex gloves are starting to add up ... I picked up a few on the beach just today.

      Alas, my dulcimer learning has been brought to a temporary (hopefully) stop. I woke up a few weeks ago with a 'dead' finger. No idea how, but my second finger in on my right hand has gone limp and I can't feel it much. Given this is a prime plucking finger I can't really play the instrument without using it. Hopefully it will recover soon - I'm loathe to go to hospital with it as we've been told it's medical emergencies only, and I can hardly call it that.

      Good luck with the wheat. I tried a bit of that in Spain, with no real success. Three seeds is a good start!

      Cheers,

      Jason

      Delete
  3. Thanks for the update Jason. I figure the gaps in your blogging are filled with any number of projects. Glad to hear about them and looking forward to more books. i've been taking a slower collapse route as I still (for now) have that high paying office job in the city. Also my wife isn't on board with losing any of the amenities my current job and location provides. 6 yrs ago I made an agreement with an aunt and am purchasing her farm in my old hometown (6hrs away along lake Erie) at a real bargain. She'll live there the remainder of her life and meanwhile I maintain it and together we set about making it crash ready. My aunt see's the world as we do and has a lot of skills. So having me around about 5 days a month to assist with the labor gets things accomplished and helps me learn. I am ready to ditch and run there full time but this is the compromise i make until my wife "catches up" on where the world is going. I sit at my desk often hoping it all ends tomorrow and I'm forced to run up there. Then another side of me hopes for a few more years at my job so I can have the place paid off. Thanks again for the update!
    Terry

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Terry.

      That sounds like a great deal you have going on with your aunt. It's a pity you can't convince your wife to just make the leap now - I know that a lot of skills take a long time to foster, and when you get the knack of them you think "I wish I'd started learning this earlier." You'll want to make the best of your aunt's knowledge because it's in very short supply these days!

      You might be surprised to hear that my wife isn't exactly 'on board' with my way of thinking to any great extent. She likes her luxuries and home comforts and foreign trips. Her idea of fun is going on an expensive spa break in a fancy hotel, whereas mine is going into a forest and sitting under a piece of canvas in the rain listening to the frogs mating. Somehow we get on. Still, she's not exactly averse to hard work, and is pretty tough and practical. Furthermore, she's a nurse, which is handy for when I have my power tool accidents.

      If you're stuck in the office job for now you may as well make the best of it. I guarantee you'll be perpetually skint (sorry, cockney rhyming slang - meaning 'broke') once you jack in the job. I often think to myself things like "If only I'd stuck out the job another six months I could have afforded a [fill in the blank]" But you end up making do with what you've got, which is usually more rewarding.

      All the best,

      Jason

      Delete
  4. Hi Jason,

    Having a quiet day today, and am scheduling those in one day every week. The rest is work time. It's all good.

    Hey, about your hand, was that the one you chopped into with the angle grinder? Ouch! Mate, I use those tools a lot - as you may have noticed from the projects - and think about you every time I fire up one of those tools. Your story had quite the impact. If it isn't that hand it could be a bit of tennis elbow as that can produce that nerve result, but I'm no expert.

    Four wheat seedlings today! That's a massive 33% increase... Might have to save all the seeds they produce for the next crop next year, but who knows. Some of the vege rows are in first year soil and that is a tough school at the best of times. It is no small thing to create fertile soil, and have you noticed how your woodland growth gets better as time goes on?

    I would have thought that Spain would have had ideal conditions for growing wheat? It is not a thirsty crop. How are your friends over there doing?

    Cheers

    Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Chris,

      Hmm, I looked up tennis elbow - it doesn't seem to be what I have. Feeling is slowly returning but it is still swollen and limp. There is a possibility I got a poisonous thorn in it, which could explain it.

      I won't forget the angle grinder incident in a hurry! It still makes me wince when I think of it ...

      Well done with the wheat seedlings. The problem I had in Spain is that I left someone else to look after them. TBH I don't really know what happened, but they didn't grow. Otherwise, it is quite a good place for wheat to grow, as evidenced by the vast wheat fields there.

      Cheers,

      Jason

      Delete
  5. I watched your you tubes today for first time and really enjoyed them. But i am MOST THANKFUL for finding your written words. It is true, very few readers these days. Finding "the others" (timothy leary and later terrence mckenna) has been impossible for me...but these last few months...well, many are trickling in...not in person, but through this media. Likely wont last, but the written words will. As a younger person i worried about the burning of books, that didnt happen, but i had to give up on the library...less and less books, they took to selling them off cheap at monthly sales (almost took over my house, have since donated many and picked up more) I am now 63, last 4 years almost hermit like, (AND THAT IS MOST PREFERABLE) ...got chickens, garden, fruit trees...bit by bit. The quarantine made no difference to me except for the extreme irritation of seeing very sad things like people driving alone in their cars wearing facemasks. So anyway, i for one will be looking to add your written words to my little curiosity shop here. My life has become much better in early retirement (i was also a nurse, it became unbearable) It seems "the others" are quite spread out, great diversity of ages and places. Thats ok with me. I am in central florida close to gulf coast trying to turn my desert into jungle. Never a dull moment. Thanks for your words in this e-world. I am only attached by this phone, no tv, no computer, and the data plan is small. I heard about you through thomas sheridan in ireland. Fine young man.

    ReplyDelete

I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.