Monday, 6 August 2012

About categories and solutions.

The principles and criteria by which I live my life don’t seem to fit obvious categories.

There are homesteading people.  They own/rent/work on substantial areas of land, keeping animals and growing crops.  They dry and can or bottle fruit, salt beans, and have a goal of a high level of self-sufficiency.

There are solitaries and hermits. Some of them live in woods or desert caves and forage or scavenge.  Some live in regular houses but keep a discipline of solitude for prayer.  Some live in simple shacks with minimalist utilities provision, and maybe have a wholefood lorry drop off provisions, and tend a vegetable garden.  They often dress a bit funny – with a kind of wild, John-the-Baptist trend in hair-do-s and attire.  Their clothes may be handmade or acquired by scavenging, but often with a highly-developed aesthetic sense.  Their lives are poetic and romantic, though their skills are practical and they are capable and tough.

There are groups like the Amish.  When I say ‘like’, you might think “Who is like the Amish?” but I am including here folks like the Old Order River Brethren and the Old Order Mennonites, plus some Hutterite and ex-Hutterite communities.  These opt for varying levels of simplicity and community, but what they have in common is celebration of marriage and family, emphasis on community, living in close relationship with the earth/the land, interest in home-made and hand-made, modest old-fashioned styles of dress and Protestant interpretations of the Bible as a basis for establishing the principles of daily life.

There are contemplative monastic communities (the more active ones that run institutions are so far removed from my own areas of interest that I do not go to them to learn).  These have a commitment to celibacy, simplicity and prayer.  They usually wear some variation of medieval dress.  They value kindness and speaking softly, but can be very strict and stern – very direct – with each other; this is also true of the Amish type groups.  It’s to do with holding each other to account and cultivating humility.

There are straightforward poor people who make do and mend and buy what’s cheap.  They glean, scavenge and forage from necessity.  They walk or go by public transport because they can’t afford a car.  They are frugal with utilities to keep their bills down.  They do have some things like a fridge or a telly, but not very up-to-date or sophisticated versions – they tend to have the basic minimum to allow them to have a bit of fun while spending the least possible money.  They are often very fat or very thin.

I am not in any of those categories, but I am very interested in all of them, because I can learn from them all.

There are normal people too, who drive cars and dry their clothes in tumble-driers and enjoy parties, but I must admit I have not been examining that category very closely.

The parameters of my life and objectives are these:

I love my family and like to live closely with them.

I am married.

I love the Earth and wish to cherish not damage her.

I love trees and water and sky and all living creatures; but I don’t necessarily enjoy their proximity.  I don’t want to actually live in a tree or camp in grass under the sky, or share my living space with beetles and rats.

I love simplicity.

I love Jesus.

I wish to live as plainly and frugally as I can.

I like wearing full skirts and modest tops in quiet, unpatterned colours.  I feel more comfortable with my head covered than not, most of the time; though sometimes I just need to feel the wind in my hair.

I love firelight, candlelight, starlight, moonlight, sunlight and light on water.

I dislike powered machinery, speed, noise, and socialising.

I need solitude, but I live in a shared house and value very much the web of family life of which I am a part.

I spend hours every day thinking.  I pray, but not as much as I think.

I feel a call to share the Gospel of Jesus, which I do by writing, and from time to time by teaching and preaching and, I hope, occasionally by example.

I enjoy the contact with people who inspire me the internet offers.  I enjoy occasionally to watch a film or TV programme – for instance, there was a wonderful film about the life and dilemmas of David and Miriam Lapp, a Pennsylvanian Amish couple, shown on the BBC this last week.  But in general I am very suspicious of TV because it channels Mammon, and takes me by surprise with images of torture and explicit sex.  As I loathe torture with every fibre of my being and believe sex to be intensely private, I do not wish either to be sprung on me without warning in my living room.  I would be really cross if I opened the door of my room and found people torturing each other or having sex there.  So I am very wary of TV.

I have an ambition to live without the connections of wires and tubes that hook houses up to grids.  I would prefer to have the gas and electricity disconnected and to draw water from a standpipe.  In my case this is not practical because I share a house with four other people.

The balancing act of solitude yet community, off-grid yet on-grid, Earth-loving Gospel simplicity, is the opus magnum (is that the right phrase? I mean the main big thing I do) of my life.

I am quite practical – I can cook, sew, care for animals and children, I know about gardening and nutrition and basic herbal healthcare etc – but I am not skilled in the big disciplines like plumbing and general building, glazing and roofing, carpentry and blacksmithing, care of horses.  This doesn’t matter a lot since our garden is only about twenty foot wide and eighty foot long, and our house is a row-house in a town.  So I won’t be venturing into horses and buggies any time soon.  Sadly.

But I think a lot about how to blend together living without electricity and gas as much as possible, minimising TV, spending very little money, composting, walking lightly on the earth, avoiding car use, with fitting into family life in an urban street in a regular Victorian house that has all the usual mod cons, and earning my living.

In the next few posts I thought I might share with you some of the solutions I have found to the dilemmas my choices and preferences have presented.

Today I want to tell you about the cooking solution I’ve found.  I am quietly delighted with this.

I like to cook over an open fire, and not use the electric oven.  We have put solar panels on our roof, but I like as much of the electricity as possible to be fed into the national grid.  They pay us for 50% of what we generate however much we use, so if this were about money the trick would be to use as much electricity as possible and they’d still pay us the 50%.  But I am not interested in getting as much money as I can but in contributing as much as I can to the clean energy profile of England.  So I prefer to cook without using the electricity.  Besides which I like fires and I don’t like machines so in an ideal world I’d rather we had no regular electric oven at all.

Though I want to cook on the fire, I don’t want to do this in the garden.  Our house being a row house, we are overlooked by neighbours and I am a private kind of person so don’t wish to attract curiosity any more than to annoy them by wafts of smoke.  Also I’m quite indoorsy, not a Ray Mears type so, though I love the garden, on a cold or wet morning I’d rather be indoors.

I had a Storm Kettle, and found it very effective, but my difficulty was that one has to keep tending/feeding the fire or it goes out.  This makes it quite a challenge to do what I wanted – make tea and porridge for breakfast, because the porridge needs constant attention but so does the fire.  And the structure of the fire-basket made it not very effective to cook on indoors in our fireplace (a normal Victorian-style grate).

For cooking food I had a Whitstable Bucket – which was also very effective but used up a lot of charcoal/wood and could only be used outside. 

Another drawback is that I have limited storage space (I’ll show you that another day), so I needed very minimalist equipment.  A Kelly Kettle, a Whitstable bucket and a bag of charcoal cannot be described as minimalist.  They are appropriate for someone who has a little shed or outhouse.  I don’t.  That is to say, our house does have a garden shed, but that’s the Badger’s woodworking studio and garden store.

So though I had solutions that were good in themselves, they didn’t really fit what I wanted, which was to cook on a tiny stove, indoors or outdoors, using wood not gas or electricity, a good hot burn that didn’t need constant attention so I could cook my whole breakfast without hassle once the fire was alight.  The things I had took up a lot of space, and it took forever to make breakfast.  So I ended up not using them and resorting to the electric cooker and electric kettle which felt disappointing and frustrating.  

I thought about having a hut in the garden and living there, so I would be compelled to used the bush implements, but that seemed silly: I have a perfectly good room indoors, and enough of the Earth has been covered up with buildings already.  So I kept looking.

Friends, I have had success!

Wild Stoves, who make (in some cases) and sell the most wonderful bushcraft gear, have come up with a woodgas stove (I got the pan as well that shows in the picture in this link, as the stove packs away into the pan for storage, and the pan is the perfect size for a modest amount of food).  I bought one from them mail-order, and it came very quickly, well-packed, with all instructions.  It's well-made and sturdy.

The firebowl of the woodgas stove has a double wall through which air is drawn, allowing the gases driven off the burning wood to combine with the hot air and combust.  So you get the flames from the wood burning, plus jets of flame from the emitted gases, resulting in a clean and smoke-free burn.  The charcoal left at the end can also be burned, so all the carbon content is used up in the fire, not wafted off into the atmosphere. 

Furthermore, though the woodgas stove will burn twigs and fircones and anything else you have to hand (we usually have lots – I take a wooding bag with me every time I go out), it can also be run on cat-litter – you know?  The sort made of little wooden pellets.  Now, nobody cuts down a tree to make cat-litter.  These pellets are made from the waste splinters and sawdust from the timber industry.  Therefore their use as fuel is very Earth-friendly.  A small normal bag of these pellets from a small normal pet shop cost me £2.75 ($4.30 - buying in bulk online would work cheaper of course, but storage space is an issue).  I used just about three or four handfuls from this in my woodgas stove this morning.  It lit with no trouble at all - I top-lit it with some torn-up cardboard packaging and a candle-stump - and I made a pan of porridge, boiled a kettle of water for our cups of tea, boiled another one to fill up the big thermos for hot drinks through the day, boiled an egg to set aside for my lunch, and heated another kettle of water for extra washing up water, with no re-fuelling necessary. 

On a cold morning (which this was not) I often want a little fire to sit by while I have breakfast.  In cold weather we light the woodstove in the afternoon, but feel it’s wasteful of wood to run it all day.  In chilly or dismal weather we sometimes light the open fire in the evening, and tend it carefully to minimise waste, as it’s far less frugal of wood than the woodstove.  Sometimes in the morning I burn our paper and card packaging and junk mail to give me a fire to sit by and just warm up the house.   This woodgas stove has the dual function of creating, with a very clean burn, a cosy fire to warm up the living room, and cooking breakfast (and lunch and – with the thermos – hot drinks for the whole day).

Here’s the kettle in our fireplace.  It was warm today, and I would have cooked outside, but our neighbours were getting up and had their windows open, so for privacy and to spare them any smoke (though that’s minimal with the woodgas stove) I chose to stay indoors.

And here’s my egg boiling.  The whole stove packs down into the little saucepan.  Both the saucepan and stove have their own drawstring bags for storage, so nothing gets dirty.

And just for fun, here’s my beautiful stone bowl and my rather garish silicon spoon (which allows me to eat silently).

There’s a video by Wild Stoves on YouTube that shows you how the woodgas stove works using the wood pellets, and another posted by a private individual, showing in detail how to use the woodgas stove with normal wood, also on YouTube here.  That second one is excellent, and is careful to show the burning jets of woodgas, but it is twelve minutes long.  Wild Stoves have a shorter general demonstration YouTube video here.


365 366 Day 219 – Monday August 6th 
(Day 219 of this)

 A small, useful, electric table lamp. What more can one say?  Apart from, obviously, "Bye-bye!"

365 366 Day 218 – Sunday August 5th 

We are in the happy position of having two grandsons - the Wretched Wretch who is three, and a cheerful accomplished being of one year old.  This creates its very own disposal system.  Just as the Wretched Wretch outgrows his toys, his step-relation is coming up ready for them.  Perfick.

365 366 Day 217 – Saturday August 4th 

Yes, coathangers.  From the days when I ironed clothes and therefore needed to store them in such a manner that they wouldn't get all crumply again.

365 366 Day 216 – Friday August 3rd 

 An elegant lady's scarf.  You no doubt instantly perceive the incongruency.

365 366 Day 215 – Thursday August 2nd 

 A smart cardigan.  My beautiful mama was chucking this out.  I had it for a while but was essentially not smart enough for it.
NB: In England, "smart" does not mean "clever".  Clearly no cardigan can be called clever.

365 366 Day 214 – Wednesday August 1st

A rather wonderful boiled wool jacket.  There was nothing wrong with this; I just forgot when I acquired it, at a knock-down price on eBay, that though I love bright red its vibes exhaust me so I never wear it. 

365 366 Day 213 – Tuesday July 31st

Lovely lute-backed chair we were given.  Couldn't resist it 'cause it was so pretty - but we ended up with more items than fitted comfortably into our available space.  A house, after all, is only a box.  It was gratefully received into a new home.


Anonymous said...

Something I've noted about all the groups of people that you've listed is their consistency in the way they live their life. These people seem so assured of the relevance of their way of life. Me? I just don't know. Sometimes I want to be quiet, peaceful, invisible. Other times I want to be bright, buzzing, soaring. However, whenever I am having a 'brighter' day, it inevitably leads to me crashing down into a sort of regret. On these days I tend to speak without thinking and later agonise over what I said/did. On the quieter days, I wonder if I'm justing wasting my God-given life.
I have a longing to live among like-minded people, but then again without any solitude/privacy at all I think I would go mad.
I am a conundrum to myself. The older I get, the more confused I am about who I am.
But thank you for this post.
It's been very thought-provoking.

BLD in MT said...

Oh, labels, labels, labels....and they never seem to fit just right, do they?

And may I once again say how terribly funny I find you! You have such a sharp wit.

And you more than occasionally demonstrate the Gospel simplicity of Jesus, I'd say. On that note, I have SO, SO, SO been enjoying The Clear Light of Day. I had to marvel that in a "novel" you had so clearly created a kind and gentle spiritual guide, but in the fluid flow of the story. I like the characters so much I actually am now reaching the moment where I am sad because I can tell the story is almost over.

I like the descriptors you've come up with here. Who could need any labels!? It would be nice in conversations with others though, I can appreciate.

Example: I eat honey and use bees wax because I feel they are kinder on the earth, being locally source, than a more vegan sweetener, like cane sugar, which comes from South America. Thus, I don't consider myself vegan as bees are certainly animals. But, for most people that is splitting hairs and so I just call myself a vegan for sake of ease and clarity. But, there is no label for what I am. Strict vegetarian? Vegan with ethical &/or local exceptions? It seems so silly.

Bah, labels! I like your list better. It actually shows who you are.

That is one of the tricky things about labels too, the people with them are still all different. That is why there are different divisions in almost all groups, even amongst the Amish (Old order, Beachy, Amish-Mennonite, etc. Even when we're mostly the same we defy the labels.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Kay - that's a very good point (about the consistency and assurance of relevance. Yes, they do! I have exactly the same problems as you describe. Only yesterday I was reviewing a conversation I had 36 years ago and thinking with horror "I can't believe ever said that! Why do I ever speak to people at all?"
I'd be interested to discover how, in the setting of religious community, people manage to channel and contain their natural human inconsistencies.

Hi Beth :0) Yes, I've come to the conclusion I'm better off without the labels. Hence, when my beloved Badger came home to find me a) watching a programme about Amish life and b) wearing a headscarf the other day, and not unreasonably asked me if I was entering a new Plain phase, I responded somewhat waspishly: "NO". I am sick of labels and don't much care for the baggage they are invariably attached to. Travel light, say I. Lose the labels and let the baggage be confiscated by the authorities and blown up.

BLD in MT said...

I was just watching a BBC hour long special on the Amish. They never cease to inspire and amaze me. And I think they are possibly the most beautiful, charming people to behold.

I finished the book today. Oh it was good.

I have to laugh a little to think of anyone asking if you are entering a plain know, cause you are awfully flashy as you are!!! You already seem a lovely plain and simple to me.

The Badger sure seems like such a good man.

Kay's thoughts and your response is so interesting. I feel I am constantly figuring myself out (it seems the same for you). It would really be something to have such consistency in self-perception as say, the Amish.

Rapunzel said...

I was thinking of you and your simply quirky ways tonight. Then I logged on to check emails and here you are finding even more simple low-tech ways to do things. The little stove is delightful!
We've had to spray the carpeted bedroom for fleas yesterday (ah,the joys of country life), which made the whole house now smell foul to me. I have a thing about nasty chemical smells.
The Manimal says it smells fine, but to humor me he helped drag a rather hefty futon mattress out onto the front porch.
Last night we slept with a view of the stars, and this morning we woke to the pre-sunrise whirry buzz of hummingbird wings.They like an early breakfast.
Tonight I'm sleeping out here again. It's cooler than indoors (summer heat wave here) and pleasant. There's something very elemental about sleeping outdoors, no air conditioner, no electric blanket, just old-fashioned un -altered air. The kind Grandma used to breathe.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hey Beth, hey Rapunzel :0)

I'm so glad you liked The Clear Light of Day, Beth - it was remaindered in both the US and the UK, which was sad because I had the sequel to it planned out and started, but hey, that's life. It always cheers me up when someone reads it and says they enjoyed it. Thank you. :0)

I love the idea of you sleeping out on the porch, Rapunzel. A couple of times in my life I've lived in a caravan - both times, oddly, in a cabbage patch, but one was in Yorkshire and one in Devon. When I lived in the Devon cabbage patch I had just turned eighteen. It was winter-time and very cold (I had no heating in my van, just a candle), but when I went to bed at night I loved to leave the window open so that nothing at all came between me and the stars, and it would be possible to tie a thread round a star and hold onto the other end down on Earth in my caravan. I still hold the threads from a variety of stars in my sleep. :0)

Pilgrim said...

Wow, I wonder if I can drag a mattress out on the deck tonight?

Pen Wilcock said...


If you don't mind spiders . . .

Unknown said...

I am looking forward to seeing more of your solutions, Pen. The little stove looks promising. We seem to have the same ideas about simplicity.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hey, Julie - nice to see you here x

Donna said...

Hi Ember! I've been away from the blog for too long, but it's lovely to read you again now.
I wrote a comment. It was very eloquent and interesting. And I couldn't log in, and I lost it all, and it's too frustrating to try and begin again. But I wanted to say hello, I've been here, and am looking forward to reading more!

Pen Wilcock said...

Darn! How annoying is that! I want to know what you said now! :0(

Pen Wilcock said...

To Sheila, who wrote to me about my new book "Remember Me",
Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words. I have respected your wish to not have your comment or identity made public, but wanted to say thank you for your kindness.

BLD in MT said...

That is a real pity, Pen. I should have liked a sequel I bet. Imagine the life they'd have made together! (Oh, wait, you probably already have!)

As a total oddball thought: You must know a lot about bicycles and how to maintain and repair them.

I read the part about how professional advancement and spaghetti don't go with beards and oh, how we laughed!

This conversations makes me want to buy more books, something I believe you know I have a hard time with since I work in the library. If more people had bought your book perhaps I could have learned how things all shook out in that delightful, humble home.

I'm sorry for sidetracking this awesome post to talk books.

suzycookies said...

Hi Ember!
I have finally taken the time to read your blog a bit today, and I must say I loved it! I met you through IH, and am SO new to blogging. I have set up my own called Ocean-prairie-woods, but really have no clue how to use it other than to post a few pics. Your post today resonated with me, and I am so glad I got to know you a bit more:) My favorite part was the silicone spatula! Noise is overwhelming to me as well, and I never thought to eat with silent utensils! What a concept! Thank you:) I will look forward to seeing you over at IH, and reading more of your posts here..Take care, and enjoy the warmth of your new fire! Susan

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi friends :0)

Beth - I know absolutely zilch about bike maintenance. Jabez taught me everything I know ;)
About the books, yes indeedy. Right now I have a manuscript sitting in my publisher's office. I sent it to them in June 2011. They said they'd give me an acceptance/rejection in August. Then they said September. Then in September they said they wanted to wait until August 2012 to let me know. Then I hear 2nd-hand they've made that September. The book in question is the next in the Hawk & the Dove series. The reason they're dithering is that though people love the books, the sales figures have to reach a level high enough to commit to further books. My publisher is not really a fiction publisher (though they once were), and I have no platform - I rely entirely on word of mouth from people who've read the books. I suppose readers assume books are just 'there' and don't think how they get there. I have another book planned for the Hawk & Dove series, which I really want to write, so I'm waiting to see what will happen. Meanwhile I have 2 UK commissions to fulfil, one with a deadline of the end of September, so that's keeping me out of mischief for now!

Hi Susan - good to see you over here - I enjoy your comments at Innermost House :0)
My family really can't bear the sound of a spoon scraping on stoneware (or on actual stone, which my bowl is). I looked at first for a wooden or horn spoon, then came across the silicone one. I love it, because I can cook with it (use it like a wooden spoon), eat with it, and it acts as a spatula to clean out pans, which saves on the amount of water needed to wash up.
I love the concept of living together in silence. My family of origin were very quiet people (chatty but unobtrusive) and I've learned a lot from monks and nuns in various places. Learning to live quietly allows privacy and peace to happen in smaller buildings because in effect it enlarges the space.
Thanks for stopping by to comment :0)

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh - Susan - I can't track down your new blog; perhaps the Google crawler hasn't picked it up yet? If you send a link I'd love to have a look at it x

Hawthorne said...

Ooh, I loved 'The Clear Light of Day' too! And I loved your online story with the trolls dressed as Amish people, especially the line "She listens to the quiet rhythms of life, until she can hear God singing." I made a little poster of that with a picture of an Amish lady getting her washing in, waiting for her toddler to catch her up!

Pen Wilcock said...

:0D So glad you liked those stories! x