I’m thinking about fixity and flexibility.
It seems to me that flexibility belongs together with frugality and simplicity, with responsible and sustainable living, where fixity does not.
Adaptability is related to flexibility. Those among my friends and family who live with remarkable frugality are those willing to adapt their plans to what is offered, what’s available – what’s on the reduced counter, on 99p start at eBay, or is the harvest of the land in season. The ones who start by choosing a recipe they fancy (as the sole criterion), and insist on sourcing the correct contents, usually end up paying more, and living out of step with agricultural rhythms, so wasting more as well. Seeing what there is, and being willing to work with that, is a necessary flexibility for living simply.
A big focus of fixity in modern life is in the way we arrange our homes.
As recently as the 1960s, people who knew what they were doing built houses with store rooms on the north side, so the cold larder with its stone shelf would keep food cool and fresh. Living rooms were built on the south side to get the best of passive solar heating. Bedroom windows to the east benefited from the light of the rising sun.
Toilets were not water closets but earth closets, built with two seats not for an experience up close and personal, but to allow an ageing heap and a fresh heap. It made for a sustainable loop, nutrients grown in the garden, harvested and eaten by those who lived there, then excreted and rotted down to fertilize the land. The earth closets were for excrement – urine was more often deposited in chamber pots; diluted ten times it could go straight on the land, providing an excellent dose of nitrogen. It’s a good compost accelerator, too. Chamber pots were, as the name suggests, kept under the beds of those who used them. And what's with all this paper this and paper that - toilet paper (and those ecological demons, flushable wipes), disposable nappies, disposable sanitary products - what happened to cloths for heaven's sake? The water from soaking menstrual cloths prior to washing is almighty good for the roses. Or have we become so knotted up in self-disgust that we cannot bear to touch with our hands what five minutes ago was right inside us?
So, indoors, you wouldn’t find a water closet, nor any kind of bathroom. There was a bath, and it hung on the wall. That meant you could bathe in your bedroom, or by the fire burning in the cooking range, or even in the garden on a sunny day. Rainwater was harvested for washing, warmed by the fire that heated the house and cooked the food. My great-grandparents had a big tank to catch the rainwater for their laundry.
And for cleaning vegetables or washing dishes, a bowl on the kitchen table sufficed - no need for a plumbed in sink. Chuck the water in the veggies when you're done.
For laundry, the bath would be unhooked and filled wherever convenient. Traditionally women made a bit of a labour out of washing, rubbing, scrubbing and bashing. That’s only necessary if you want it all done and out of the way quickly – as you might if clothes were few and you needed your shirt back from the wash as a matter of urgency, or your nightdress back for tonight. But when clothes are mass produced – i.e., now – it becomes possible to adopt the more leisurely method of soaking; it loosens the dirt and makes hand-washing easy. Then the place for drying clothes is on the washing line in the yard, hence the day for washing clothes is when the weather will be breezy and dry. Another argument for adaptability. If you start by insisting washday must be on Monday every Monday, not whatever day offers favourable weather, you create problems.
Gradually, fixity increased. The toilet came indoors, right into the centre of the living space, stinking out the house with noxious odors every time someone’s bowels are opened. Whole bedrooms were commandeered as bathrooms where a plumbed-in bath and sink could take up residence instead of people. Other bedrooms were halved to make room for an ensuite bathroom.
Instead of the range heating the house and the water, and cooking the food, while offering a pleasant gathering place – ‘focus’ was the old Roman word for the hearth – a fixed boiler was installed. Then also a fridge, a cooker, a kitchen sink, a washing machine, a dishwasher, a tumble-drier, a downstairs toilet. Houses had to be built bigger … and bigger … and bigger. And yet for all their size, they offered less and less room. The room was not for the people, it was for the machines.
It didn’t stop there. Lights were no longer portable either, as gas lighting then electric lighting replaced candles and oil lamps. So more lights were needed because they were fixed in place. And then people started fixing blinding bright bulkhead security lights to the outside of their houses as well, to help burglars see their way around.
The land where a man lived became insufficient. Water closets meant piping his excrement away to foul the water courses, requiring huge treatment plants. Now he had nothing to fertilize his land, so garden centres made a fortune out of selling him, in plastic cartons, the chemicals he’d just flushed away to poison the water. He had to buy compost for his pot plants as well, having sent all his food scraps and peelings bagged up in plastic, in the garbage lorry, to that grand misnomer, "Away".
Simplicity restores sanity. A home unplugged. People who are content to sit on the floor, sleep on the floor, carry a lantern to wherever they need it, set a kettle to boil atop the stove that heats the room. Take a bath down from the wall to a convenient place, wash in it then leave the dirty clothes in the bath water for their first soak.
You can get more people in a smaller house, if you live that way. If they all have few possessions, it doesn’t feel cramped. And for space, peace, and privacy, you sit in the garden, you go for a walk.
I mean, why don’t we? How did we come to lose it? We haven’t even gained leisure or convenience as a result, only complication and affluence. A lot is said on ‘history’ programmes on the TV about how hard and laborious and dirty life is, lived that way. But it’s just not. It’s only hard and laborious if one insists on owning a lot, that has then to be curated. It’s relatively (though not very) time-consuming, maybe, as compared with just pushing a button or throwing a switch. But look, if we have to work longer hours to pay for it all, and every adult person in the household has to go out to work to cover the costs of it, and we have to spend time and money at the gym because all we do all day is sit on our bottoms pressing buttons in an office or a shop at the work place – well, maybe the old ways aren’t as comparatively time-consuming once you take everything into account.
Why don’t we, eh? Why not give it a go? Light a candle. Set a water butt up by the drainpipe. Thin out the accumulation of possessions a bit. Sleep on the floor. Bit by bit, claw our way back to something flexible and simple and Earth-friendly. Even when we can't do everything, surely we can do something.