Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

New Year’s revolutions

These short and misty-morninged days around the winter solstice and turn of the year seem made for the purpose of reflecting, stock-taking, planning for the next year …

It’s one of the things that helps prevent overwhelm, this business of looking back over the last year. With the enormity of the So-Much-Still-To-Do towering over me, it’s easy to forget what’s already been done; those small daily steps that one by one make life here just that little bit more easy and comfortable.

But then I’m brought face to face with the fact that the enormity of the So-Much-Still-To-Do is entirely my own creation …

In some ways this journey I’m on seems to be a kind of fast-forward microcosmic reflection of the development of western society since the Industrial Revolution. Having turned my back on ‘modern comforts’ to start living in a yurt with no electricity or running water (at least initially), it often feels like I’m effectively going back to retread the basic steps that brought us to the present day. I don’t know why it feels like that, but I’m guessing there may be some grand lesson here about when it’s appropriate to say “Enough!”.

The first steps are to do with simple time and motion equations. If you want to do ABC (eg. build a house), then it’s less achievable if you’re spending all your time doing XYZ (eg. chopping wood and carrying water). There is that Zen proverb – “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” – and chopping wood and carrying water are profound things to be doing, not least for reminding you daily about where your water comes from and what price to the environment your comforts come at, but these daily requirements for the maintenance of physical existence take time.

The fact is, I could have said “Enough!” right away. Yurt living is comfortable. It was very easy to adapt to. Space is at a premium, but that’s an effective means of discouraging the acquisition of too much ‘stuff’.

Storing the quinta produce is another matter – if we’re to be mostly self-sufficient then a good root cellar and larder is needed – but I could have constructed these very simply and easily somewhere on the land. An outside kitchen would solve most of the constraints of the yurt’s at times maddeningly small kitchen. And etc, etc.

The yurt won’t last forever, but replacing covers every few years would likely still work out much cheaper in the long term than building a house. Or I could just proceed with my cunning plan to disguise it as an Iron-Age roundhouse, surrounding it with insulated walls and a more durable roof …

So what is it about this drive to build?

I’ve spent some of the last few days working on a Sketchup model of the main building and as I’ve worked with it, more and more cunning plans – heating, plumbing, etc – have been hatching in my head, getting more and more complex as they go. The end result should be highly efficient, demanding far less time and expense in ongoing maintenance, and create a very comfortable internal environment. A no-brainer, surely? But there’s a sneaking suspicion that at the end of the day the time, expense and materials costs – even using recycled and ‘environmentally friendly’ materials – might amount to about the same overall as carrying on as we are now. What I save in ongoing wood usage, I expend in a matrix of firebricks and metal and so on. So why?

The most simple and obvious answer to the question is that the buildings are there already. Short of allowing them to slowly collapse into piles of rotting wood, stone and rubble, they need some work to halt that process.

Then if we are to make good use of them, they need some more work to make them fully wind and watertight. Then if we are to use them for a specific purpose, they need some work to make them fit for that purpose. Then to be truly fit for purpose and justify the effort and expense, they need to be as efficient as it’s possible for them to be. Then to be truly efficient, they need an infrastructure to support them. Then to create that infrastructure, we need to build other structures … and so it goes, until before we know where we are, we’ve arrived full circle back at where we were just before our starting point.

What’s more, in doing so, we’ve succeeded yet again in insulating ourselves to some extent from Nature, despite spreading the ‘house’ all over the quinta. Water storage tanks smooth out the vagaries of flow and availability, power creates light in the dark, insulated buildings keep us warm and dry, stored food keeps us going through the winter, and always there’s that thought of a-little-bit-extra-just-in-case … and pretty soon it becomes clear how and why we’ve ended up where we are as a society today. The moment we start creating these buffer zones between Nature and our needs, the moment we start taking things more for granted.

So should I let the buildings crumble and fall, much as some aspects of our society clearly need to? “Just because it’s there” is really not a sound reason to unthinkingly perpetuate something which might need to change and I don’t want to lapse into taking things for granted. That’s part of why I’m here doing what I’m doing. Is a ‘civilised’ compromise possible? Can we step onto this ride without going full circle with it? Or can we only maintain a proper connection with Nature by a true ‘back to Nature’ lifestyle, submitting to it fully and living as indigenous peoples have lived for millennia? Is it this concept of ‘efficiency’ that’s the real culprit, or is it the little-bit-extra-just-in-case in its present insanely obscene extreme manifestation? Or does it all just boil down to the choices we make?

Am I going round in circles? Undoubtedly …

(All thoughts on the subject welcome!)

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  1. michelle January 2, 2013

    great post Wendy and very interesting questions.Its tricky…I think the form of the yurt and its position on the land is very womblike and nuturing (a space you maybe really needed at first?) whereas the building is a little removed and above it all.However the building is a lovely solid place with a wonderful aspect which allows it to feel part of the bigger, rather than immediate ,landscape and it would seem a shame to leave it to crumble…maybe have both…spread the quinta around the land incorporating the building within that but maybe in a scaled down way?Maybe fix the building but change its purpose?Will be wonderful whatever you decide I’m sure …looking forward to regular blog updates in 2013 ,a year in which ,I wish only good things for you xxx

  2. Quinta do Vale January 2, 2013

    LOL!! Thanks for your observations, Michelle! You’re right – the yurt is very womblike and the main building does have a much bigger perspective on things and it would be a shame to leave it to crumble. I asked the question though precisely because once something is set in motion there’s always this aspect of “it would be a shame” not to continue. If we apply that same logic to the global financial system and capitalism … well I’m sure you see where I’m going with that.

    The question was partly rhetorical. I’ll fix up the buildings because it’s what feels right to do AND I really enjoy doing it. I should probably put those reasons the other way round – following our passion is what it’s about, no? And I’ll probably go with the cunning plans because although it’s a deal more work, it will put a strong heart in the building; strengthening the structure and the dry-stone walls where they really need it. And I want to be comfortable in my old age when I’ll at some stage likely have a lesser capacity for carting huge bags of firewood about the place. But I think it’s very useful to keep reminding myself of what I’m doing and why because so much of it is down to simple choices. Including the choice to live simply.

    Essentially the conundrums can be solved by maintaining mindfulness and balance – if we look to our circumstances to keep us on the right track, then we’ve really got it back to front.

  3. michelle January 4, 2013

    following your passion is certainly the way to go Wendy as is comfort for that distant time of ‘old age’.Multi purpose spaces that can be adapted as required /over time may be the way to go.But yes that lovely building(big one) deserves to have some more life ….

  4. joaquim conde January 5, 2013

    Stay on it. Have fun. You’re inspiring.

  5. Quinta do Vale January 5, 2013

    Thanks Joaquim!

    Hmmm … old age … I wonder, you know, whether we’ll even get there. We have wreaked so much destruction on this planet in the last 50 years and even while knowing we should stop, have instead upped the amount of destruction exponentially. As George Monbiot recently wrote “This is pathological consumption: a world-consuming epidemic of collective madness, rendered so normal by advertising and by the media that we scarcely notice what has happened to us.”

    Governments and corporations are fiddling (their taxes, the law, all moral and ethical imperatives) while the planet burns. It’s down to the people now. As Gandhi said “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the State becomes lawless or, which is the same thing, corrupt.” But “The problem is” (Monbiot again) “that most people are not prepared to act on these beliefs. Citizens, as well as governments and the media, have turned their faces away from humanity’s greatest problem.” Is it that it’s too enormous, too overwhelming? Or too remote from the day-to-day trivia we spend our time obsessing about?

    Somehow I think it’s this I need to be paying attention to this year, because if we don’t do something NOW, the rest is just academic.

  6. michelle January 5, 2013

    ‘the rest is just academic’…..maybe it is but I do feel that people who are living such as you and others we know and don’t know are ,slowly have an influence.The beauty of the technological age is the ability to spread information and share ideas…
    .is continued development on the quinta part of this collective madness do you think or is it in fact tackling humanity’s greatest problem head on.?
    I don’t know the answer but you have a guardian status with your land and certainly you will leave it a better place if you continue as you started.The buildings are an important part of the history of the space and as such lovingly restored into usable multi purpose and adaptable spaces seems like the right thing to do xx

  7. Quinta do Vale January 5, 2013

    “Is continued development on the quinta part of this collective madness do you think or is it in fact tackling humanity’s greatest problem head on?”

    Interesting question. Probably its effect in situ is pretty much neutral. Let’s assume we grow enough trees to at least replace the firewood we would use if we carried on living in the yurt. Continuing as we are now therefore means we use what we grow. In carbon terms, what we sequester, we later release. If we develop the buildings and use more energy-efficient heating, then we’re sequestering more than we’re using BUT we have the overhead of the embodied energy in the materials we use in the building. Lots of glass, lots of firebricks, some refractory cement, some cast iron, and the fuel used in getting them all here. So from the outset, there’s an environmental payback period for the development. After the payback is complete, then the building development work is clearly the better choice, but it all depends on how long that payback period lasts coming, as it does, at a point when the planet can least accomodate it.

    However, if what I do inspires others to convert energy-intensive homes into more energy-efficient ones then maybe there is a small positive contribution from that angle. But equally well, people could be inspired to go live in a yurt! The balance – more efficient buildings or more yurts – would depend on how many were inspired in each direction.

    Bottom line though is that neutral isn’t really good enough when each of us need to be making a positive contribution (as opposed to merely cutting back on the negative) in tackling the planet’s situation, so I think I am going to be planting one helluva lot of trees …

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