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Boreen - KilbarryMy favourite boreen - near Inchigeelah. Photo credit: 'Celtic Memory Yarns'

A Sustainable Planet - or Just a Midsummer Night's Dream?

Blog by Chris Crowstaff, Safeworld founder. June 2012.

While publishing articles on the Rio+20 summit, and thinking about all the different aspects and apparent complexities of sustainability, I got to contemplating something which has always seemed very key to me.

What do we really need to be happy? And if we, in the 'developed world' are really honest about what we actually need and simplified our lives accordingly, would there be enough for everyone?

I have been asking myself this question for a long time - probably since I first left home and started reading books on the subject: Ghandi's autobiography, and less well-known but equally influential for me, 'Wanderers in the New Forest' by herbalist, Juliette de Bairacli Levy, Peace Pilgrim's autobiography, and several others.

I spent the next decade attempting to live more and more simply, closer and closer to nature, and reducing my expenditure, until I ended up in rural Ireland - first in a tiny cottage, then a semi-derelict house in the mountains, and finally a small caravan, purchased for £100, on land rented for £10 a week, where I lived for the next three and a half years.

It was a very basic and extreme lifestyle but, so far as I am concerned, the experiment worked. I was consciously happy. Some days were hard, but some days are always hard, and they were hard in a simple and physical way - I was living very much in the moment, nothing complex for my brain to worry about. And I had time to appreciate the happy moments. And to appreciate every moment of my son's early days - for that is where he was born, by candlelight in a snowstorm.

When it came time to leave, I did so reluctantly and with sadness. Family commitments called. I needed to be closer to my parents, for their sake, and also felt my son needed to be closer to his family. For all that our lifestyle in Ireland felt natural, it never felt natural being so far from family. But while I appreciated being closer to them again, there was also a feeling of leaving behind a magical dreamworld and coming back to 'reality'.

Ireland - or, rather, my life in Ireland, is still very much with me in everything I do, and has left a lasting impact on me. And also on my son.

I don't advocate that everyone should live the way I lived there, but it has certainly given me a different perspective on life in the 'developed' world, and actually I question the term 'developed'.

So what do I mean by basic and extreme?

I mean I didn't have electricity, car, television, computer, telephone (hardly anyone had mobile phones in those days), and of course there was no fridge or washing machine.

There was a gas cylinder which lit the soft gas lighting in the caravan, though when the gas ran out we were reliant on candles - as when my son was born!

Thoughout the night, a small night light burnt in a little lantern hanging from the ceiling to provide some light.

There was always heating available, whether or not there was gas, for there was plenty of timber lying around in the neaby woods, for the wood-burner in the caravan.

I didn't use disposable nappies. Water was heated on the wood-burner and cotton nappies were washed by hand, usually outside, as were our clothes and bedding. I did as much as possible outside, whenever weather permitted, including washing dishes, and let them dry in the sun. I had two tree-stumps - one for placing a pan of warm water on, and one for rinsing out clothes or leaving dishes to dry. My son would help with the washing.

There was fresh spring water. The landlord had once intended to build a house on the land, and had piped water down from his spring, and part-way up a tree where he'd fixed a tap. The tree had grown around the pipe and part-way over the tap. So, for a while, our water came out of the tree! Eventually, it was piped around the caravan into our sink.

The post arrived at any time of day, brought to us by the local dairy farmer, and delivered to our biscuit tin by the gate. There was no address as such, just names, and the village. Post was always exciting; it meant letters from friends and family. There were no bills and no junk mail.

There was no public transport, and shopping meant an eight hour walk once a week, unless someone stopped to offer a lift in their car - in Ireland called a 'spin'.

There was a trip to the city once a year, and less than that, a trip back to England.

I would get up with the sun and go outside, whatever the weather, before and after my son was born, and do yoga and t'ai chi, and to wash. I didn't drink caffiene at the time, and I craved my morning routine like I now crave my morning cup of coffee.

The lanes ('boreens') were quiet and safe. I walked for miles along boreens, and off-road across moorland and up mountains, with my baby in a back-carrier. Or cycled along the boreens on my big tricycle with baby in a child-seat on the back, with his little helmet. He'd be reaching out and asking me for hedgerow fruit along the way - 'aga', his word for 'apple' which he then expanded to be applied to any fruit: blackberries, haw-berries, bilberries, elderberries, wild raspberries and strawberries.That would be alternated with drinks of 'mummy's milk'. Consequently, travel rarely meant stocking up with food to carry, and never bottles of milk.

He also ate flowers: heather, wild rose petals, clover. And leaves: young hawthorn leaves (traditionally called 'bread and cheese'), wild sorrel, dandelion, clover. He was never far from my site and I never felt he was in danger of eating the wrong plants. I also grew many plants on the patch of rented land, which was about a third of an acre and totally uncultivated, which meant starting from scratch, but fun and kept me busy. My son started gardening, also, as soon as he could hold a trowel. I planted several trees on the land and, each evening, walked around on the paths I'd made, visiting each tree with my son.

On his first visit to his grandmother's house on a trip over to England, she had picked flowers from the garden as a centre piece for the dining table. He leant across and picked one to eat - presumably assuming it was part of the meal.

In the Autumn, he liked to have 'purple porridge' - porridge with blackberries warmed up in it. I did a lot of baking. I was vegan at that time, and also avoided refined flour and sugar, so I had to be inventive. I made wholemeal biscuits, sweatened with molasses or malt extract, and shaped them into animals, tractors, even farmers! For a long time, my son referred to 'raisins' as 'eyes', for this was their function in the biscuits! He also loved wholegrain rice, cooked slowly with nettles ('gypsy spinach'). There were always plenty of friends dropping by, to share his biscuits. Friends of course always just turned up without prior warning, for without a telephone, there was no other way - and it was a continuous excitement that friends might turn up at any moment.

The weather was kind the two summers my son had there, and he was even able to be bathed outside in the summer months. It also meant he could be outside wtihout nappies, and so no nappy rash! After washing and gardening, I would spend hours outside sketching, or reading the Tao te Ching, Krishnamurti or Chang Tzu, while my son played. Or sometimes we would go to the nearby rivers or lakes, where mum could take a refreshing dip, and relax in the woods. Mostly, I walked barefoot and my feet became tough.

He and I shared a 'bed' - a fairly narrow bench covered in foam, under which were kept his toys, which I alternated daily - putting some away and getting out others. He loved listening to me reading books too. The bed converted to a seat in the day-time. On rainy days I would spend hours reading to him and playing. Night-times were easy, for, if he woke, he would literally help himself to milk while I slept.

At the time, I was a book cover artist, and also wrote and illustrated occasional articles. It was never a problem, sitting at the little table working, while my son played next to me. I even mastered the technique of feeding him at the same time, alternating the hand I used for painting!

So those were some of the ways in which my life was basic and extreme. But it is all comparative. Many people here in the developed world roll their eyes when I tell them, and exclaim that they could never live like that.

However, for a large proportion of the world, such a lifestyle would be a major step forwards.

I had fresh spring water on tap in my home, a bed, bedding, heating, windows, a gas cooker as well as a wood-burner, gas lighting, bicycle, and the baby had toys, plenty of cotton nappies, and a bath tub. We had food and clothing. My clothes were given to me by friends who had finished with them, and they were lovely clothes. Letters arrived safely. The area in which I lived was safe: the local community was generous and welcoming in the extreme, and I was able to wander for miles freely, as a woman, with my small son. I had some paid work. And the climate was very kind indeed, in the 'Emerald Isle'.

So I had my basic needs met, and more.

I would be the first to say that I coudn't do what I do now, living like that.

I admit that I am stubborn - and so when people told me I wouldn't be able to keep that lifestyle once I'd had a baby, I was determined to prove them wrong. And I am glad that I at least proved something to myself: that I could be content with living simply, and that my son positively thrived with that lifestyle. However, I do also admit that, in order to 'give' anything back to the world, compromises need to be made. To do what I'm doing now, running an international womens' rights organisation, I do need electricity, computer, internet, a bigger space, telephone, time-saving amenities, including a little car, and so on. But I still try to live as minimally as I can. And I like to think that the experience has taught me that I can be happy with very little in terms of possessions. It also taught me the value of time. I had been wealthy with time in Ireland. Time to notice being alive and appreciate the beauty and fresh air that I was blessed to live in. And others, too, seemed to have time to say hello, or to wave at strangers when they passed by in a car.

I do find it very hard to comprehend the 'need' which drives people to run corrupt organisations, to abuse others through power, to allow the desire for huge corporate profits to blind them to ethical considerations. Try as I do, I find it hard to imagine what drives them. I can only conclude that they have never really discovered how to be happy. And so, for opportunity to live simply, I am very grateful. I am also very grateful indeed that I never went without my basic needs, and neither did my son.

Is it just a faery-inspired dream that humanity is evolving and people will increasingly discover simpler ways to be happy? Which will inevitably mean that there will be more resources available for those who don't even have their basic needs met?

I actually don't believe it is just a dream. Otherwise, the work to which I now devote my life would seem very futile indeed. I can foresee a time when the word 'developed' does not mean that a small proportion of the world over-indulges at the expense of the rest of the global community. And it will be a happier place, as a result.


And God shines on the
Inchigeela Hills

In the casting of the clouds' shadow
The Sleeping hills dance in light
The lakes mirror
The Glory of the Heavens

Mother Earth clothes herself
In a mantle of green
Nature's myriad voices
Hum in Harmony

Ancient memories live here
'The Wind that Shakes the Barley'
Finds Peace and forgiveness
In this hallowed spot

In the broad expanse of countryside
Enlightenment expands
In the fertile garden of the mind

Moments of Communion rest
Easily here
A feeling of Sacredness
Envelops the Soul
And God shines on the
Inchigeela Hills

Carmel Kehoe

 Poetry from: Joe Creedon's Paintings Gallery