La Sorga

My female driver – the first of my etire journey – takes me out of her way, up the mountain and into the driveway marked `La Sorga’. It is gone 8pm, cold and dark. She wouldn’t hear of me walking the rest of the way. I walk towards the faint voices and even fainter light behind some tree-shaped silhouettes. The light and voices are coming from what appears to be a wooden cabin, but turns out to be part caravan, part wooden construction. I knock lightly on the glass door, thoroughly surprising the inhabitants whom I discover have never heard of me and were not expecting anyone at all. The `owner’ of the place is away. It must have been him I was emailing and he hadn’t mentioned I was coming to the others. But it’s ok – the more the merrier!

I am introduced to everyone: Caroline is French and has been here only two weeks herself. Antoine and Laura are a couple who met here for the first time two months ago. Antoine is a sunny-faced guy from Belgium and Laura is German and almost always laughing. Then there is Ash, a New Zealander who has been here the longest. He is currently on crutches having slipped in the woods about a week ago and badly twisted his ankle. Ash is freegan. He spent a bit of time squatting in London and also used to work at Pogo Cafe. We probably know some of the same people – small world! Christoph is the only one who doesn’t speak a great deal of English. He is a bit of a clown and always up for some fun and games. I think I will definitely get on with everyone here. We are all around the same age and I cannot help but think that La Sorga feels more like a youth hostel than a community. There are no permanent residents here at present and it all feels rather transitory. This is great for me as a passer-through but I’m not sure how I would feel about it if I wanted to stay for longer.

I arrived in time for a dinner of spaghetti bolognese. Laura is vegan too, so all evening meals will be fine for me to eat. It is decided that I will share a cabin with Christoph. This turns out to be my own double mattress on a mezzanine above where he is sleeping, with my own lamp, a window and bookshelves. Hurrah!

Day 1 – Friday
Porridge for breakfast. Already I can tell this is my kind of place! The morning is spent moving an enormous pile of wood from the front entrance. It has been given to us by a neighbour apparently. It is the last thing I feel like doing after a full day of hitchhiking, but I dutifully take wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of wood behind the caravan for stacking.

I am expecting more work after lunch, but find that everyone goes off to do their own thing. I end up `sunbathing’ in my polo-neck jumper and two pairs of trousers on my rollmat near to the front drive. A peculiar place to lie but with a lovely big patch of sun. A big white tom cat – clearly the bravest of the five feline residents and one of only two who are not blind – comes to sit beside me – then on my book – then on my back, where he gives me a lovely massage. We remain firm friends after this.

I have discovered that La sorga has some strange contrasts: a compost toilet, wood burners and permacutlure principles – but also running water, a boiler, internet and – bizzarely – a washing-machine!

Day 2 – Saturday
There is a market in Le Bugue, the nearest town, on Saturdays and Tuesdays. The market shuts at midday, so that is when we need to get there – to ask the market people for any unsold food they are throwing away – kind of a cross between skipping and begging. Four of us walk down to the main road with the intention of hitching in pairs. Two cars pull over at once – success!

I’m told there is usually a lot more and people seem dissapointed, but we manage to fill a few carrier bags. Antoine has a tip-off about a field where a lot of corn has bee cut and is being left to rot. He and Laura head off to pick some while Caroline and I return home. They arrive hours later with sacks of the stuff. In the field was enough sweetcorn to feed the chickens for a year. We will go again another day and get more.

Since I arrived people have been talking about the party we will go to on Saturday night. The time has arrived and I am almost reluctant to go. I have not enjoyed the last few parties I have been to and not drinking means always being on a different wavelength to people at parties. I have not drunk alcohol for six weeks and have been attempting to abstain for three months. I even spent my birthday sober. Something about the surroundings and the people weakens my resolve and the minute I get in the door and see tables covered in bottles of free booze I pour myself a large glass of champagne and have done with it.

The party is wonderful. It is in a shop which has just opened. It is not-for-profit and runs solely on donations – everything from clothes to toys to computers to furniture – which they fix up and sell on at an affordable price. It is huge and bright and clean and beautifully decorated with a large Mongolian yurt frame (no canvas) at one end, filled with cushions, paintings and information about various projets, of which La sorga is one. A stage has been set up and the bands play some excellent folky stuff that we can’t help but dance to. I am properly warm for the first time in a week and go right down to one layer of clothing. Antoine takes to the stage at regular intervals – a bit of drumming here, a little singing there. He adopts strange squeaky voices and somehow manages to fit in with the rest of the band – at least mostly! We can’t help but dance – all except poor Ash who spends the eveing on one of the sofas with his twisted ankle. There are plenty of children and people of all ages. I am very glad to have come and also very glad for my champagne. Bad girl.

Day 3 – Sunday
I am informed early on that this is our day of rest. Suits me fine. My first hangover in six weeks and I am feeling guilty about drinking last night. I console myself by reasoning that it is still the longest I have ever gone without drinking (since age 15 anyway). I turn down a glass of walnut wine in the evening, to the shock and dismay of Christoph, who claims it is a traditional French drink and I must at least try it. I feel a little better with myself for refusing and feel certain that I can now go on to abstain for another six weeks.

Day 4 – Monday
I was originally planning on leaving today, but I was going to Barcelona and heard by email that the squatted community I wanted to visit there is at capacity until February. I will stay here for two days extra and try to visit Barcelona on the way back.

Christoph left this morning, so now there are only five of us. It seems there are even fewer as Antoine and Laura spend most of the day in their little house and Ash is ill in bed. The skipped paella is suspected but unconfirmed as the culprit and is consequently fed to the cats, much to their delight.

Another lazy day. I spend most of it reading `Frech Phrases For Dummies’. I must sound very odd to the others, sitting in the corner muttering phrases like `What a lovely dress!’ and `peaches are my favouite fruit’.

By evening I am feeling a bit rested out. I have done little but sit for two days. I go for a stroll and nose around some of the other structures for the first time. I also finally make frinds with one of the blind cats and end up with a trail of cats following me around the grounds pied-piper style.

Day 5 – Tuesday
I woke up late – almost 10am. Last night we had a projet meeting and chastised ourselves for doing so little work this week. We resolved to go into town early for the market. On entering the caravan I discover that I am first up. Hmm, strange. I entertain myself while waiting by washing-up and watching the chickens outside.

The cockrel and one of the chickens have escaped again. They are strutting and waddling around on the wooden platform outside the caravan. I witness my first ever chicken-rape scenario when the cock forces himself on top of the squarking, flapping hen and holds the wobbly red bit on her head in his beak to keep her down. I am shocked. After he’s finished she shuffles her feathers violently and he struts about crowing loudly. What a cock. He struts over to a nearby plastic bucket and stretches his head to peer over the brim. On finding it is filled with pieces of sweetcorn he pecks one out onto the deck and gobbles it aggressvely.

Eventually the others emerge. Caroline and I hitch into Le Bugue while Laura and Antoine finish breakfast. There is something good in the air today. The first car we see pulls over before we have even made it to the main road. A man at the market breaks open an orange and gives me half as I pass his stall and another sticks his tongue out. Perhaps it is my pigtails. Caroline says I look like a little girl.

We fill all three backpacks and three large shopper-bags with food. Lots of it skipped from the supermarchè and market and some more we actually paid for, like the indispensible yeast extract and some apples and broccoli. Some of us have been feeling a little lacking in vitamins. I buy almost €5 worth of olives as a treat for us all to go on the pizzas we are making tonight. Today is also Bread Day, and that means pizza also. Yum.

Tomorrow I will leave here early in the morning and hitch down to Ecodharma. It’s strange leaving here – in a way it was just one stop on my way to Spain, but I have stayed longer and settled in more than I expected. I wonder if I will return?

La Sorga’s page on Intentional Communities Website (how I first found them)
La Sorga Wiki

A Working Retreat at Ecodharma

G threw the land-rover up the mountain, pointing out the sights to me… “This is the start of the land we have been using.” I am immediately struck by his choice of language, careful not to claim ownership of the land. He may have paid money for it, but how can land be owned? It’s indicative of the mixture of radical politics, ecology and Buddhist ideas that brought me to this place.

Guyhyapati, (or ‘G’), has been here eight years. He saw the south-facing slope of the valley from afar while out climbing and knew it was the place. He found the man who owned it in the village, persuaded him to sell it, raised the money and now here he is: recounting the story to us eight years later. G flicks his long grey hair to the other side of his head, exposing the shaved part underneath. He speaks gently, confidently. We sit around the kitchen in that house that G first bought. The ‘land we are using’ has now extended to cover a much larger area, including six houses, though most are little more than ancient dry-stone-wall structures with rotting tree-trunk beams attached. This kitchen is currently the only part of this house that has been done up, although there is another beautifully renovated house some friends are staying in further down the track. G mostly lives in the yurt just behind the kitchen. It seems obvious that although eight years have passed, this is a community in its infancy. G wants it to grow slowly and sustainably.

A typical day at Ecodharma:

My alarm goes off at 5:30am. Groggy and cold I pull myself from my sleeping-bag and grab a pile of jumpers. We meditate at 6am in the small dome just down-slope of the yurt I am sharing with Lucy, a girl from Manchester I became friends with instantly. I do the first forty-five minutes of meditation and then return to the yurt to practice yoga looking out over the mountains as the sun rises. On a warm day I can remove a couple of jumpers at this point.

I make my way up to the kitchen and am greeted by warm smiles and nods from those already pottering around the small kitchen making breakfast. I have become quite fond of porridge mixed with crunchy cereal and runny mulberry jam. There is always a kettle boiling or pot of tea stewing. Olive oil sits in a little metal oiling can – for lubriacating the pan-fried toast along with the homemade jams. There is fruit too. Apart from the clinks and clatters there is silence until all are present and have eaten. I watch the army of cute but wild kittens playing with whatever bit of food they have managed to snatch from still sleepy humans. G rings a bell to signal the end of silence. We take it in turns to speak whatever is on our minds, how we are.

After check-in we work out jobs for the day. The people who arrived before me had already levelled off some new terraces and begun making a fence to keep any wild pigs off whatever veggies might get planted there. I learn how to use a pickaxe, a backhoe and some other tool with a funny name. I learn a bit of plumbing stuff too and install a new shower (tap resting on wall in private area). All water comes from the spring that runs through the valley, other than the foul, stinking washing-up water which comes from the roof – rainwater mixed with rotting fruit.

After a few days G realises heavy work is not my strong point and I am moved onto painting and kitting out the beautiful new Mongolian yurt for a woman who will soon be beginning a six month solitary retreat. I learn that sanding before painting is a good idea, what a ‘key’ is and how to wire up a solar panel.

We finish work at 2pm, although two finish early to cook lunch. We have a rota for cooking and cleaning and I sign up for a mixture. We take turns to cobble together experimental feasts for the others. The food here is a locavore heaven, all fruit and vegetables are grown locally and even the bread comes from a squatted social centre 17km away who grow their own organic wheat. Peaches come from a workers co-op nearby. The valley itself produces a huge array of herbs as well as plums, mulberries, blackberries, apples, figs, mushrooms, rosehips, various nuts, honey and more.

There is free time until 5:30pm. I alternate sleeping and reading with the odd walk or chat.

In the evening we have study – more like a fervent debate. What is Ecodharma? What are the five precepts? How do radical ecology and Buddhist ideas fit together?
Sometimes we sit in the meditation dome, sometimes the kitchen, often G’s yurt. I suspect I’m not the only one who likes that option best – sitting around in the warm, teapot in centre, grandma cat on somebody’s lap.

We eat supper around 7:30pm. Usually soup, sometimes toast. If we’re lucky, G will make his special chocolatey-almond dessert. After supper there is often a puja or meditation period before bedtime.

I read by candlelight every night before sleeping, listening to the sounds of the crickets, birds and other inhabitants of the valley. There is a small candelabra hanging from the ceiling of the yurt. If I get back after Lucy I can see the yurt lit up like a beacon to help guide me home.

Because you’re Worth It!

Because you’re Worth It!

I was talking to a girl about my desire to live without money. I’m still far from money-free but am down to living comfortably on around £25-£30 a week (minus housing benefit).
“But you can’t live on that!” From her reaction you’d have thought I just told her I was paying my way by robbing banks. “I mean,” She continues, “I need fresh organic vegetables and yoga classes and…” she reels off a list of things that she believes she needs lots of money for… “And you need that too… you deserve it!”

Aaah, I see. This is about you, not me. This is similar to the kind of reaction sometimes provoked when I mention I’m vegan – immediate defensive mode and a string of arguments against my chosen way of life, often ending up with the statement, “you can’t tell other people what to do!” No, I wasn’t. Are you?

Why is it we humans so often take somebody else’s difference as a direct attack on ourselves? Is it because on some deeper level we look for sameness with others of our species and are deeply offended if we don’t find it?

An extreme example: I was reading in the news this morning about a girl who was repeatedly kicked in the face and beaten to death. Her boyfriend who was with her was also beaten into a coma and has now reverted to a childlike state, afraid of leaving his house. Their crime? They were Goths. A group of teenage boys set upon them for no other reason than that they looked different. The ambulance men were unable to tell the genders of the couple because their injuries were so severe.

The word ‘deserve’ is a dangerous one. Do I ‘deserve’ to eat organic fruit and veg? Is there anybody who doesn’t deserve to eat organic fruit and veg? I recently gave up alcohol for a month and then conned myself into going out on the piss because I ‘deserved’ a break. Did I then deserve the hangover which wiped me out for two days and then turned into a cold? Did the assholes who kicked that girl to death think in some way she deserved it? Who gets to decide what we deserve? Surely what’s important is what we need? Do I need money? Not necessarily. Do I need food, shelter, clothing and a warm place to sleep at night? Yes. Do I deserve that? Hmmm…

One of the reasons I ‘need’ so much less money these days is that I’m no longer a wage-slave. Back when I was working I thought I deserved all kinds of stuff because I had been working so hard, or because I was hung over, or because I was hungry and couldn’t be bothered to go home to eat. Marketing really prays on this kind of mentality… ‘Because you’re worth it!’

Worth what? Worth entering into a cycle whereby I’m earning money just to pay for all of the stuff I deserve to buy because I work so hard?

Post Peak Panic?

One of my ever-growing volunteer ‘jobs’ is an organic wholefood co-op at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project. We get stuff through the Infinity Foods catalogue and sell it at not-for-profit prices, plus people can order stuff at the wholesale price.
On Thursday morning last week while ‘working’ there (more like shopping while helping others to shop really), I possibly witnessed my first post-peak-oil-panic-buy. A guy came in and spent £69 on three 25kg sacks of rice to put into storage. He openly admitted he was doing it because he’s uncertain how much longer rice will be available. Eeek!
If this turns out to be the first of many panic buys, surely that will hasten the food shortage and inflate the price of grain still higher?
If you don’t know what I’m talking about please read this and then this. I know the basics of peak oil but it will be much quicker and easier to understand if I just refer people to the experts rather than attempt it on here!

Meanwhile I have now made it to the allotment twice. I now know how to plant peas and also how to ‘green mulch’ (I think that’s what it’s called). I’m also growing some stuff on my windowsill at home… well, the mint hasn’t completely died yet so there is hope… and I’m sure the tomato plant will keep it company now, even though they are only about an inch high each and can’t see one another over the tops of the pots yet. Still need to buy some potting compost for the basil, lavender (I know you can’t eat that but it will make my flat smell lovely) and thyme. Does anyone know where I can get veganic peat free compost???

100 Trees

I spent the weekend at Gleneirw, a small community in Wales with a big plot of land, complete with ancient spooky farmhouse with a thousand rooms and corridors, very little electricity and an outdoor compost toilet.

Seven people and a dog, we drove over from Brighton in a rattly van for a tree-planting weekend and to check out the community. I have decided to visit a few such communities this summer as well as doing my usual festival circuit, so I jumped at the chance when I heard there was a place for me in the van.

Saturday morning at 10am we trudged through the rain into the field adjacent the farmhouse in our raincoats and wellies. By lunchtime I was just about getting the hang of it. Slice the earth open with my tree-plating doodah (long handle, flat, slightly pointed blade pointing straight downward) and wiggle it from side-to-side in both directions to create a hole. Repeat two or three times to make hole deeper. Stick tree in hole along with cane. Place mat around base of tree and peg slit together with corn-starch peg thing, then peg each corner. Twizzle boingy tube around base of tree and then let it ping into position so it swizzles all the way up.

Repeat over and over and over again.

Not sure how many we planted over-all but being pedantic I decided to count mine. I counted exactly 100 trees. I feel all proud. I think a lot of those trees will be used for coppicing so it’s not as fantastic as it could be and we did drive all the way there to do it, but still!

I pledge to plant many more trees in future. I think one thousand would be a good number. Imagine that! 🙂

Hen’s Angels

Tap tap tap tap… the rhythm of beak on welly. You get used to it after a while. That and the gentle murmur of clucking. It’s actually quite soothing.

We are four girls from Brighton come to Henfield (yes, really!), to help Linda with her few hundred (thousand?) chickens for the day. They are everywhere you can imagine, roosting on piles of dust-laden furniture, atop decomposing vehicles, in barns. Imagine a post-apocolyptic-Mad Max-style future, after the world has become over-run by chickens. Imagine a surreal version of those easter egg hunts they put on for kids. At Hen Heaven the hen’s can lay whenever and wherever they like – sometimes in some very obscure places! A lot of the birds have stopped laying altogether, meaning they would be dead if they hadn’t been saved by Linda. In fact almost all of these birds would have been killed by now if they weren’t here. Unfortunately they can shit wherever they like too and we had the thankless task of scrubbing and scraping and getting covered in chickenshit dust.

Linda made us omelettes for lunch. I have been vegan for over a year. Obviously I had thought about this before coming. I can see no ethical argument against eating these eggs, but it still felt strange. Even as I ate the omelette I questioned if it was the correct thing to do. Am I still a vegan? What does that title mean? Should I follow guidelines in order to call myself that, or am I to follow my own ethics? Is there a word for my new dietary behaviour? Perhaps it’s time to leave these labels behind, but of course that doesn’t mean I am to change my principles.

I became vegan because I want to live as much as possible in accordance with the principle of non-harm. I would not eat eggs from anywhere else. Even ‘free-range’ does not really mean ethical – the birds have marginally more room but they still get slaughtered after a certain age. I had been hearing about Hen Heaven for a long time and know a few otherwise vegans who eat these eggs, but I still wanted to come and work here and see them for myself before I ate them. My pondering continues.

The Power of Voluntary Actions

I have been helping a friend with her finances. She called me up yesterday and we got to talking about volunteer work, which I see as the heart and soul of money-free living.

I volunteer a lot – probably enough for it to be considered a full-time job. I work in a cafe, a bar, a library, a food co-op, an allotment (in theory) and do a lot of environmental work which includes putting on events, researching, writing and attending a staggering quantity of meetings.

The thing is, when people ask me “what do you do”, I don’t know what to say. Aside from the fact that I question the whole notion of “what do you do?” meaning “where do you work?” and all of the underlying assumptions that includes, I genuinely don’t feel like I “go to work”.

I don’t look at my five hours of “work” in the cafe, for example, and think – hang on, I’ve just done five hours work which at minimum wage would mean I earned about (whatever it is at the moment) and that means I have to consume X amount of food and drink today in order to feel like I spent my time well. I think what I’m aiming for is to contribute to everything I take from – but with time and energy rather than money. I don’t have a way of working out how much of one thing equals another. I want a volunteer-run, not-for-profit cafe/bar to exist, therefore I will put as much energy into it as I can.

It’s because people do this that things like that do exist. If everyone measured their time according to tangible rewards there would be no social centres, community projects, activists, or affordable not-for-profit spaces… only a lot of Tescos. I know there are a lot of ‘clone town’ / ‘ghost towns’ now that are just a lot of Tescos, but I think there is also a movement against all of that which is pro-community, and community involves (to me) putting in time and energy just for the love of it, because that’s the kind of community we all want to see.