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?