Living off-grid implies nature, tranquillity – perhaps in a deep forest or a lonely mountain top, unplugged from the rest of the world. But have you ever thought about your own back garden as a place to unplug? As long as it has a side entrance or some way of entering without going through the house = you could have yourself a free home.
The bit of green that your kids may have dug up when they were little, and where you would host the annual family BBQ, could be the golden location you’ve been hunting for. For various reasons, we’ve had to hide the identity of the (English) subject of this story, but *Brendan fills us in on how he’s not only living in his own garden in a lush southern suburb – but he has actually sold the house to someone else, and by keeping the freehold, and selling only the leasehold, he has retained ownership of his garden and the right to live there – all perfectly legally.
“I came to be living ‘off grid’ not so much from any long-term intention or planning as from finding myself a couple of years ago in a situation where I had sold my apartment, applied most of that money to various projects and good causes and was therefore unable to buy outright a new bricks and mortar dwelling. I am strongly against mortgages, having spent ten years paying one off and seeing all too clearly the vast power the practice of buying housing using borrowed money has given to the banks these last few generations.
What I did still retain was the garden land attached to my house, near the centre of a small city, with a water supply, a south facing slope and good fertile soil for growing most crops. At the same time, friends who had bought and moved into a woodland were being told by the local government that they must take down the yurt in which they were living because it fell foul of the regulations for forestry land. They offered to sell it to Me at a good price.
I have always been drawn to the idea of living ‘off grid’, my favourite fantasies having been either a houseboat or a gypsy caravan. The combination of this opportunity to acquire a good yurt and my then circumstances easily persuaded me to move into my own back garden.
Erecting the yurt, a remarkably stable, wind-proof structure made from ash and cotton canvas, was the work of only a couple of hours. Compare that with the months, even years, of labour expended on modern bricks and mortar housing! A couple of hundred pounds bought a small wood-burning stove and flue whilst another small expenditure bought enough bees’ wax, from Payne’s Bee Farm, to waterproof the whole structure, having first been melted on the wood-burner (an annual task). That is the main structural maintenance job, best done in early autumn.
The chief housekeeping expense and work, besides preparing food (mainly vegetables and fruit grown on my land using the deep bed method – see John Seymour, ‘The Self-Sufficient Gardener’), is the getting and chopping of enough well-seasoned wood to heat the place and cook dinner. I trade food and labour with friends whose land produces abundant timber but can, if necessary, buy it with money, from a tree surgeon. I prefer to get large logs and split them myself, both for the exercise and to keep warm in the winter.
Predictably the local government wanted to inspect my yurt to see whether it required planning permission, using the pretext (likely a lie) that some neighbour had complained about what the official swiftly, having visited, agreed is simply a tent in my back garden, movable, without foundations, and therefore exempt from requiring some sort of government permission. That’s how it is with a back garden: it is already designated, in their maps and plans, as ‘residential land’.
My advice to anyone in a position to do so is to buy a bricks and mortar dwelling with a decent back garden, let the dwelling to suitable tenants who want to pay rent, council tax, electricity, gas, telephone etc. bills, and to do as I have done, which is a far less stressful, expensive, unhealthy way of life, close to nature, literally down to earth (the earth is my floor) and altogether cleaner.
I am not interested in green ways of generating electricity in my home, having no need for generated electricity, as is also true of every other human on this planet. Until the late Nineteenth Century, there was none and that was not a problem. Candles (beeswax) are my lighting, sustainably harvested logs my heating, and that’s all I – or anyone else – actually needs energy-wise, besides food, which is how people the world over have lived in similar ways for thousands if not millions of years. Even when electricity is cleanly generated it enables all kinds of distracting and harmful machinery, such as telephones and computers, to spoil one’s living space. When I choose to live off grid I am choosing not only to de-fund the harmful forces in this civilisation but to separate myself and my energy from their offerings, their technologies. Then one has time for such things as reading and art.
Altogether it is one of the best choices I have ever made. Even living in the round, in a circular as opposed to a rectilinear dwelling, is important progress, or rather reversion, to what worked fine in the past. There is a reason, besides structural stability, why dwellings from the stone houses of Bronze Age Dartmoor to the tips of the Great Plains ‘Indians’ were round, which has to do with ‘chi’, energy, meant to flow and not accumulate like dust in the corners of rooms. Energy-wise I would also advise to go barefoot in such a dwelling as much as possible, to connect better with the Earth, and to sleep on the ground and not on a mattress: I use willow matting with sheepskins on top.
There are certain ways in which I ‘cheat’, but that is from convenience, not necessity. I use a laundromat for clothes washing, but could heat water in a large cooking pot on my wood burner. I use a neighbouring dwelling for a hot bath, but likewise could use the wood burner and a tin bath I acquired. I use the public library for a toilet, but could dig my own, and likewise use the library computer, where I am typing this, for email etc., when I could, as we did back in the 1980s and 1990s and before, write letters.
It is very important to bear in mind that the most powerful artificial grid is not that of property taxes and gas, electricity, water, telephone etc. bills, but the information grid, including the increasingly wireless internet. Truly living ‘off-grid’ must involve a minimization of that grid in our lives, making sure that if we are using it at all we are doing so very warily so that it, or rather those behind it, do not use us, and always being willing and able to flourish without it, and indeed without any modern technology at all. It is a convenience, a useful tool, when used wisely, and must never be a necessity or addiction, as that path leads to ‘The Matrix’.
I live, on my land, more or less in the Iron Age, but am very interested in getting back to the Stone Age, at least the Neolithic, which is surprisingly difficult given how we have come to rely on metal tools such as saws, knives, axes, cooking pots, stoves, and therefore a good challenge.
To anyone who would like to emancipate themselves from the bricks, mortar, mortgage/rent and bills system but is afraid to do so, I would say ask yourself what is the worst that can happen and face that idea, always putting freedom before convenience and comfort. Amongst other advantages, it is one of the best ways to connect with our ancestors and with those in such places as Amazonia who still live outside this civilisation. And remember it doesn’t have to be a hermitage: I have hosted a dinner party for nine people in my 14′ yurt, which was very magical, have had guests to stay overnight and even had a man come and set up a tent inside it!
B V Parnell
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