December and January: living a little!

At the end of November last year, after a very busy end to the academic calendar, I looked around the homestead that Emma and I had been creating for 2-and-a-half years and suddenly realised that there was no more ‘building’ that urgently had to be completed (or, more aptly, started from scratch) for the first time in, well, 2-and-a-half years! So I spent the first two weeks of December focused on my Ph.D research, gradually getting used to the notion of simply living in the place, as opposed to constantly working on it.

Mid December came and I stopped even the academic research and writing and took it quite easy. Several good friends were ‘down’ from out of town or abroad; they visited us, we went to the beach together, and the general festive season spirit generally kept us going with that flow. I had been on holiday a few times since my return to SA in mid-2012, but there was always driving or camping or hiking etc. involved. During the past December-January holiday, however, there was a considerable amount of ‘taking it easier’ at home – and this certainly further established home as home, to me at least.

It was during this time that I decided to abandon the computer for all but essential tasks, and I never really found myself rushing back to it. Academic writing had to be done here and there during the holiday, and pretty much constantly since February, but this is the most severed I’ve felt from the internet for many years – and it is a good feeling. Hence not posting anything for ages, other than a final bit to chapter 3 of my research, which preceded this post.

Hike and more meditation

In mid January we did do a hike – the Otter Trail, along the garden route. A very beautiful hike and highly recommended (I believe it is rated as the top hike in SA; I see why – beautiful and relatively easy and accessible). It set the scene for a peaceful and tranquil state of mind I was lucky enough to keep nurturing when, after the hike, I went off to Worcester to serve at a 10 day Vipassana meditation course.

This marked a year since my first meditation course, which I sat as a student. It was great going back and doing 4 – 5 hours of meditation a day, and then still being ‘practical’ in the kitchen, where servers obviously have to talk. This seemed more realistic as a preparation for meditation in the ‘real world’, where innumerable distractions can linger in one’s head when going off to meditate after a busy day. 10 days of mindfulness and awareness about how one responds to ‘kitchen logistics’ is remarkably helpful at bringing a meditative state of mind into ‘normal’, day-to-day awareness.

Academic progress

I returned from the meditation course and had to get straight to teaching first year philosophy again, a job I really do love. I share the work load with my friend, who happens to be professor of Philosophy at NMMU (and therefore my boss!!). Next semester I’ll do as I did last year and solo-teach the second semester philosophy module, something I also look forward to. The move back to SA from the UK definitely paid off work-wise for me, seeing as I get by on a completely manageable amount of part-time work.

Of course, my income from the part-time work is supplemented by an academic bursary, which is certainly an opportunity not afforded to many people. Yes, maybe luck played a role in getting the bursary. But looking back, the hard work started in first year university, during which time part-time informal work led to part-time formal work, then to further studies and for a long time two part-time jobs at once, followed by full-time slavery in the UK, followed by very frugal living back in SA, during which time I wrote a proposal on top of everything else documented in this blog while working more part-time jobs, and then applying for the bursary, and only then did the bursary come about.

And the study is progressing nicely. I have just finished the fourth of eight chapters, though admittedly it is a draft in a very early phase and needs a few weeks’ more work. So it’s not really half-way! Nevertheless, I am celebrating the completion of the draft with this blog entry!

Emma and the garden

You may have read between the lines and gathered that I’m not doing too much ‘plot work’ lately. This wouldn’t be entirely true: just living here is constant daily work, like making rocket stove fires, washing dishes, doing hand-washing (though this is not a daily task luckily), dealing with the compost toilet every week, and making compost every 5 or 6 weeks (which is always quite a task). But yes, I have stopped with the building/wood-work and raised-garden-bed making that largely defined my contributions to ‘plot-life’ for so long here. My energy since the start of February has so far instead been mostly on academic commitments.

Emma, on the other hand, has not been teaching for the first term this academic year – her contract for teaching first year Sociology at Rhodes University starts again in 3 weeks or so. She has been a star in the garden though – we’re eating at least a few veggies and/or leaves from the garden daily, which makes all the difference to a vegetarian diet. Obviously it takes loads of attentiveness to plan, maintain, and ‘rotate’ a vegetable garden, so she is doing a fantastic job – especially for someone who 3 years ago hadn’t done any gardening to speak of. Her knowledge of what grows when and in what conditions is staggering, something that has come with experience and dedication and having hands in the earth. She has also just registered for a PDD – a permaculture course that will enable her to teach PDCs, permaculture design certificates.

Custodians of an acre of land

Last year we became custodians of an acre of land in an area I visited a lot and became fond of in my early-twenties. It is a hundred metres away from a beautiful gorge that contains some cascading pools accessible within an hour’s walk. There’s a lot of walking to be done in the area actually. The plot itself is on a gentle slope, and contains mainly indigenous bushes at the moment. We have so far only visited this ‘gorge plot’ for observation purposes, and will continue to do so until the path forward there presents itself to us.

We were able to pay for the land outright – as far as land prices go, this acre was very affordable. Of course, the frugal living and minimal expenses of the previous 2-and-a-half years meant that we could save money and add it to savings from previous years to make this kind of move. Hardly land barons, but it is still difficult to come to terms with the notion of ‘ownership’ of land – hence thinking about the role as custodianship rather. It was important that we didn’t get ourselves into debt for reasons to do with our views on the banking system, so we went with a small and comparatively cheap piece of land using money that we had saved over a long period of years, versus taking out a loan.

What was immediately clear was the need to cut paths into the plot so that one can get into it. After a lot of research I ended up buying a strimmer/weed-eater, heavy-duty, quite expensive, but a good machine. This was a big move for me, because I’d prefer to have acquired a scythe and avoid fossil-fuels, but realistically it would not have worked with the bush being so dense on the plot. I take refuge in the notion that it is a necessary tool that can be used for a greater good – namely, the creation of a permaculture food forest homestead. And of course, it depends on how one uses the tool – mindfully.

A set rhythm

At this stage of our time living ‘rustically’, it has become clear that rhythms develop over time. If, like me almost 3 years ago, one enters a scene and wishes to impose an idea of what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, one will likely suffer from the huge shock that the world does not work like that. There were huge ebbs and flows of energy and activity along the way, but with the groundwork now done at the current abode, the routine of previous months has been fairly consistent.

This is definitely something that one needs to be aware of when starting a venture like ours. A rough plan is obviously needed, but if starting from a blank slate like we did, then the initial stages are going to be tough and ‘hectic’. But there will come a point when the groundwork is complete, and a base develops on which to establish patterns of activity and behaviour. I think we’ve only been in the latter phase for a few short months. It’s interesting to think that, after 2-and-three-quarter years, these are still early days!

Who cares about all of the above?!!!

I suppose I post the info above for various reasons. Most importantly, between 3 and 4 years ago it was reading blogs like this one that partly helped me make up my mind that serious change in one’s life is not to be feared but instead encouraged – especially if the change is from a constricting lifestyle to one of comparative ‘freedom’. It took me a while and a lot of pointless worrying initially to really believe this and see it as true, so I hope to allay the fears of others by being able to say hey, look at the blank slate that was there to be worked with at the start, and look at all that has changed since then.

Then there is the necessity of recording information for journalling purposes. I’ve tried keeping paper journals before but I’m no good at it. In a few years, I imagine I’ll be able to look back and see the person I used to think I was and reflect on the changes – seeing as change is our only permanence! And of course, for my Ph.D I said I would keep such records for reflection upon in the final chapter of my study!

Still grappling with the broader context

Finally, I still frequently find myself pondering the broader context where, ecologically, things are certainly deteriorating, and I try and make sense of what we’re doing here, i.e. on the ‘alternative-living’ mission. We have made considerable moves to a lifestyle that, I believe, is very in-tune with the sustainability song. But, while typing the above, I received an Azaaz email reminding me that our oceans are dying. Last week I attended a talk by the chief NASA scientist who reminded her audience that there will be no ice at the both poles (possibly Greenland too) by 2050. I look around the city and see endless expansion. Business as usual prevails.

I could write a list of all the things that we don’t do and don’t have and it would be a formidable list that shows a resistance to the consumer capitalist lifestyles of instant gratification that seem to be the norm in ‘advanced’ industrial society. But even we now have two laptop computers in order to affectively do our academic jobs. We have a car, and a motorbike (we use the latter more due to fuel-efficiency), both of which use fossil-fuel, and both of which are constituted by resources that were mined at the expense of the environment; the same can be said for many of the resources that constitute parts of our humble abode.

I suppose the point is that it feels like a bit of a losing battle when looking at the broader context. I still believe that one must, as an ethical imperative, fight the fight (not that I see it as a fight, but rather an ethical venture) whether or not it is going to make that much ‘broader’ difference in the long run. When I first decided to embark on this mission, it was about making a difference in the broader scheme of things, hence a kind-of depression when I realised that people look curiously at what we’re doing, acknowledge its relevance, but simply go about business as usual. And then, of course, I still buy into (albeit marginally) aspects of the system of which I’m very sceptical. I think we’ve achieved a considerable ‘freedom’ in doing what we’re doing, and that combined with not being huge parts of the problem seems like it will have to be enough, for the foreseeable future at least.

Or maybe, as I’ve already mentioned somewhere above, these are still very early days, and in a few years the path will involve ‘broader changes’. Who knows?