My life changed overnight. A long overdue cold and rainy night. Suddenly autumn became winter, and not a moment too soon. I pulled my duvet and pillows from the small hut that has constituted my home for the past three years, and trudged through the mud into my barn. I’d hurriedly strung up some Christmas tree lights the day before, and bought a nifty little rechargeable lamp to boot. Despite the half-finished walls and the power tools loitering in the corners, it all felt rather luxurious. As I slumped in my comfy chair – the best fifty bucks I’ve spent this year – listening to the stove crackling and the rain drumming on the skylights, my mind began to hum. Heck! This wasn’t how I’d thought it would be. At all.
No power once again. No water on tap. No bathroom or kitchen in the barn. These were the things I’d been sure I needed to make the move worth it. They seem fairly fundamental after all. Yet as I reclined, one eye on the flames licking the logs in the woodburner, the other on the wet clouds rising and falling over the mountains beyond the great barn windows, I felt happier than I had in many months. I had a new vista and it was utterly bewitching. From somewhere fathoms under my soul woke up and stretched quickly into my body. My muscles twitched as motivation returned from afar. And my eyes? Like Bedouins at a desert waterhole, they drank and drank and drank.
It always comes back to the same thing really. What we think we need and what we actually need are two divergent roads. What we actually need is simultaneously simple yet curiously individual. What I actually need is not what you actually need, and vice-versa. This is why the idea of standardised homes is awful. But that’s already been said, so I won’t bore you with my Ideal Home gripes, because there lies a deeper trouble.
When you’re off-grid, the topic of needs is so close you can feel it nipping at the backs of your Wellington boots almost daily. You don’t just sit and contemplate it. You live it. It’s a concern you wade in every minute. What do I need today? Tomorrow? Next week? And in which order? You learn that the order of these needs changes with the seasons, the weather, your age, and your mood. Some needs outlive their sell-by dates and find themselves shunted off the shelf by other needs. Others are a constant.
But here’s the real clincher. What off-gridders and out-in-the sticks home builders soon come to realise is that half the time we don’t know what we need until we're miserable. Even when we’ve been at this gig for years, we can be caught on the back foot. We’ve been poorly educated by consumerism and commercials after all, much of which survives on the back of fabricating false needs and offering false solutions. Then there are those Great Thinkers, who so often seem more desperate to construct some gilded philosophical system, than to get out there in the dirt and experience the reality of it all.
This is the juncture of course that the dreaded Maslow, would usually enter the Mud stage. But I'm often having a pop at him, so I’ll put him to one side for today and have a swing at the rest of the Great Thinkers instead. Why keep it small and nuanced eh? It’s not like they do, with their wide sweeping, traumatising revolutions and Big Ideas.
The social and economic sciences are mostly concerned with human needs, and how they can be met in the most efficient way. Not to mention the audacious notion that an intellectual behind a keyboard knows better than you or I, farmer-builders on the ground, what our needs are and how they should be met. Don’t be fooled. These people never know better, as history very clearly shows with one disaster after another.
Why do the Great Thinkers inevitably cause so much pain? To use their kind of parlance, the trouble is and always was three-pronged: First, most of them have been ploughing mindlessly forward on the steamer of materialism, oblivious to the icebergs of the non-material smacking against their hulls. Second (and often linked to the first), they got our needs all wrong (or massively oversimplified them). And third, most importantly in my opinion, the rest of us were naive enough to listen to them. It’s been a trident of calamity that’s poked the hide of humanity for most of the modern age, and for all I know, other ages too. Everything from the Cultural Revolution to the Nazis, from Pol Pot to Jordan Peterson, from the American Dream to George Monbiot’s Regenesis, all of them mushroom from this astonishingly arrogant spore of presuming to know what humanity’s needs are, concocting some hare-brained (and they are all hare-brained in the end) solution, and “persuading” enough people to buy into it.
It pains me that we tend to give our power and autonomy and life juice away to this never-ending chain of non-solutions. Because needs are not something you can boil down and distil into an essay, or scratch on a blackboard, or structure neatly into a stripy pyramid and play academic Jenga with. But hey, what do I know? I don’t sit in a comfy office all day with someone cooking my dinner, washing my clothes, and basically taking the brunt of my physical needs off my plate for me. Ahem.
Yes, what do I know hey? I’m just a lone hag on a hill who will spend a couple of hours writing this, before going off to chainsaw the firewood. Then I’ll build a window, and fill in the last remaining gap in the wall (because it’s chilly now, folks). If it’s still light after that, I’ll dig up a couple of parsnips and inhale the rich aroma of the earth. Then I’ll cook a curry, light the fire, sit in my barn, and stare at the stars. Parnsip curry? Aha! When you pluck from your own land you don’t follow the established rules of cuisine any more than you do those of Ideal Home. You use whatever the hell you have. And do you know what? Parnsip curry rocks.
After dinner, I’ll make a herbal tea and ponder on this and that. Perhaps I’ll read a book, or write a little, or meditate. Each step in that process will be crucial to me for reasons that often can't be tallied in a statistics table. Depending on the moment, the stars are as important as dinner. The space to create as important as the heat from the fire. The silence to think as needed as my barn walls. There were times this week when I felt that my earth plaster sculptures were nourishing me more than the parsnip curry. Because on planet Earth all is as valuable and needed as everything else. It’s a truth our hierarchical mindset has trouble coping with.
Yes. That first night in the barn, I lay in my new bed and gazed at my earth plaster bas-relief bathed in candlelight. The way the light fell onto its contours suddenly made everything worth it. The stars blinked through the skylight. In the unplanned and auspicious way typical to life on Earth, Orion’s belt happened to be dead centre of the window. The three studs gleamed and winked at me from light years away, and how connected it made me feel. Sleeping beneath the stars is something we were designed to do. It’s a need most of us don’t know we have, until we experience it and sense the impact it has on our psyches.
I had stalled moving into the barn because the fundamentals just weren’t there. But the fundamentals are so much more than we realise most of the time. Sometimes the eyes of our souls are far hungrier than our bellies, and without that spiritual food we slowly grind to a halt. Beauty, wild nature, peace and quiet, solitude, space, a barn, and a wood burner with a kettle on it. Today, at this particular time-space coordinate these are my primary needs, followed in an hour or two by good clean food and water, a sweater, and a pen and paper. My laptop will be needed tomorrow morning when I want to write. All the rest is secondary or tertiary right now. Comfort, fancy clothes, money, status, and human contact all seem terribly underwhelming from the here and now. But tomorrow who knows?
Dawn arrived and as the first strands of light stroked my eyelids, I opened them to see luminous pink bands of stratus running the length of the sierra. The scaly green peaks stretched the length of the barn window like an ancient reptile. It was as though the future had looped round to the past and formed a backdrop that was both sci-fi and Jurassic. The power of the vista sent all thought running for cover, and the torrent of my soul rushed in. I realised how well I’d slept. For the first time in months and months, I jumped out of bed. Suddenly the barn was no longer a terrible burden, but an inspiration.
Maslow didn’t put earthen plaster or starlight anywhere on his pyramid of needs. Adam Smith didn’t take them into account either as far as I’m aware. Nor Freud. Do you think the Great Thinkers of today have it any more buttoned up? Personally, I’d steer well clear of anyone with a Big Idea and a solution for the whole world that fits in a book, especially if their hands are suspiciously clean.
We are such incredibly complex beings living in a world of intricate marvels. Our souls stretch like the wings of a Monarch and our emotions twist and spiral in arresting murmurations across the skies of our awareness. The mysteries within and without us will never be pinned down, and to say we just need work, food and a roof over our heads is an insult to our existence.
Yesterday I thought I needed running water and a bathroom more than a view. Today I see I was wrong. So I couldn’t say what anyone needs most at any given point in space and time, let alone the whole planet. I have got a good idea about what we don’t need though. What we don’t need is more Great Thinkers coming up with all-encompassing solutions. There are no all-encompassing solutions and the Big Ideas are the problem. I sense we're in a time that won't tolerate these lunacies any longer, because a threshold is quietly being crossed by humans who no longer trust authority.
But hey, don’t listen to me! For God’s sake don’t listen to anyone except the whispers of your own soul, the wing beats of your emotions, the cries of your body and the tremors of your heart. Whenever I'm unsure I listen to the trees and the rocks and the birds. I touch the soil beneath my feet. Because both the need and its fulfilment are unique to each person, each moment, and the very ground we stand on. Each one of us is as important as a philosopher, with a million creative answers within us. Only we know what we really need and what the next best step forward is. And we should beware of anyone or anything who tells us otherwise.
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Atulya K Bingham
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.