The Big Dream and the Reality
This was never my Big Dream, huddling alone on some remote hilltop, building shelters out of mud with my butt hanging out of my trousers. No, embodying Bob the Builder didn’t once appear on my bucket list of things to do before I die. If you had told me about fifteen years ago that this is what I’d be doing in the future, I would have rolled my eyes and groaned. Or laughed. Or blinked in bemusement before trotting off to the beach.
I did have a Big Dream once though. It was an incense-stick waving, flashy-toothed rapscallion that sauntered between yoga mats like the Second Coming. My dream, you see, was to run a new-age spiritual centre. You know, some mini Turkish version of Findhorn or something. I sort-of made it happen too (not in Findhorn dimensions obviously), only I soon realised my Big Dream was actually a Big Nightmare. I can honestly say, I loathed every single minute of running the hilariously named ‘Shanti’ Garden (it was about as shanti as the Battle of Naseby). Within a couple of months, I was chain-smoking in the kitchen and hoping no one would turn up. By the time I escaped, I had racked up a bevy of debts, a dash of PTSD, and an acute aversion to yoga teachers.
So much for Big Dreams.
Those who’ve read Dirt Witch know the rest. They know that I didn’t end up blissful on Mud Mountain by design. It was initially an act of desperation. I was burned out. I had no money left. It seemed like a good place to recharge my batteries while I worked out what to do next. Build a house out of mud? Nope. I had never even considered it, certainly not as a potential builder. It just sort of happened in response to a set of circumstances.
Life is life. Sometimes we have no idea what would make us happy, or what wouldn’t. Sometimes disasters are the best thing that could happen to us, while Big Dreams are the worst. Whatever decision we make, the force of Gaia weaves her magical threads through it, and turns it into something else.
I write all this because a few things have occurred to me this month. First: I’m absurdly content up here in my chicken coop bedroom, still without a hot shower, fridge, or washing machine. Happier than I ever was in the rather nice flat I rented down in the rather nice coastal town last winter. Second: Not everyone would feel the same way. Third: While I’m so glad my lifestyle inspires people, opens mental doors, and challenges the ‘comfortable’ assumptions of the modern age, I’m aware it can become yet another one of these flashing-lights (albeit LED)-adorned Big Dreams. In my experience Big Dreams can cause a lot of anxiety and strife.
“Be cautious. I moved from London to splendid isolation and it was a horrible, lonely, difficult, ‘where is everyone?’ vibe. Sometimes it's a fantasy. It's taken six years to vaguely normalise,” Rob Smith commented about his experience with life off the beaten track. He’s a far from being the only one. I know a few people who definitely didn’t thrive in the sticks.
No one particular lifestyle is for everyone. And if there’s one glob of ludicrousness I see in our faddish, commercialised culture, it’s bandwagonism. Because there is a kind of ecological one-upmanship among certain well-heeled income brackets that the more cynical forces in the market pander to.
One of the major issues in sustainability is that we are eight billion people, and when all eight billion do the same freaking thing, massive imbalances occur. Think hemp is great? It won’t be when they start hacking more of the Amazon down for hemp plantations because the latest wave of green consumers have decided that’s the new thing you need to pass through the (sustainably-sourced) pearly gates.
No, nothing is a particularly good idea if the whole world does it, and then chucks it out because another eco-fad has come in. That includes lifestyles. I’ve seen way too many people head for the country and then wreck it in pursuit of that Big Off-grid Dream. The rural life works for some (usually more introverted, less social types who find it hard to function in the ‘normal’ world). It works for people whose bodies enjoy plenty of physical work, and who are fairly self-referencing. But for others, for people with partners who are not on board, for people who are very risk-averse, for those with certain health issues, and those who enjoy plenty of social interaction, it might not be for them.
Living the Dream
I love dreaming because for me it’s about reaching beyond the edifice of the known, and sowing the seed for something new. But dreaming isn’t the same as the Big Dream...
It’s yet another balmy morning here in northern Spain, with winter not quite sure whether to bother or not this year. I stretch under my ash tree, the sunlight icing the rocks and peaks, while the valleys and towns below still snore under blankets of mist. My mornings are sacred to me, and God help you if you interrupt them. This is my time to hear the planet, hear my trees, and hear myself. It’s my time to step out from the under the grinding pistons in my head, and attempt to open up to something new.
Sitting quiet on the grass, I breathe. Through the peace, I hear a plucking below ground. A mole or a vole, no doubt. A finch flutters into the arms of the ash tree, and I spy a lizard scuttling up its rutted trunk. As images and ideas fill my mind, this graceful tree soothes me, and I wonder: Does all this wildlife dream, be it big or small? Do animals have imaginations?
Do Animals Dream?
It will sound batty to most, but when I sit very very still and observe the actions great and small of the plethora of creatures on my land, when I hear the first bee busying himself in the first dead nettle flowers, or watch a lone beetle determinedly strike out for the interior of my kitchen, or listen to the mice setting up an elaborate multiplex in my roof, scurrying here and there, gathering this and that, so organised! Or when I hear the owl coo for his lover through the dusky woodland, or the wolves caterwaul eerily into the night preparing for a hunt, it seems highly implausible that they don’t have some kind of game plan.
Traditional 20th-century science, from its whitecoat standpoint in the sterile lab, would say all this is not a plan or a vision or an ‘idea’, just instinct. It would say the mole or lizard is simply at the beck and call of genetic programming and nothing more. But most academics don’t spend their lives in the wild simply watching these creatures left to their own devices. They generally imprison them in labs and torture them. If you locked me in a cage and tortured me, I doubt I’d show you my creative genius either.
If Gaia were just one big deterministic program, as the voices of old used to say, life wouldn’t be life, it would be death. There would be no creativity. No problem-solving. And no individuality. There would be no adaptation, no opportunism (which nature is Queen at), no evolution at all. The incredible thing about life is that it creates systems and structures that outgrow themselves, that stretch beyond the limits of what they already are.
But the question is, can this creativity happen without dreaming? Without a vision? And where do all our dreams and visions come from?
I think dreams come from the pulse of life itself. Its shimmering strands push through this planet and into every living being, nudging them to deepen, heighten, expand, become more sensitive, more complex, bear fruit, create, discover, evolve, and regenerate. Life isn’t just a physical matter phenomenon; if it were we wouldn’t be able to think, or imagine, or envision. Because despite the weird tendency we have to think we are separate from the rest of the planet, we are its expression just as much as a volcano or an eagle. So if we can dream, then dreaming is something the planet either developed or adopted.
When I wander the ruts and furrows of my land, I’m sure this place dreamed of me as much as I dreamed of her. And through our dreams, the web of Gaia rippled and rolled, drawing us together. Somewhere deep and wide within and without us all, there is a vast imagination waiting to be explored. But we can only dream within the limits of our mind-systems. Voles don’t dream of trips to Mars (I don’t think…); wolves don’t dream of bathrooms with hot water. In the same way, our human dreams are still like rats forced down the narrow corridors of our minds. They aren’t really free. They exist within a given mental structure.
The mindset we find ourselves within right now is all about categorising and splitting things into polarities. Good/bad, success/failure, right/wrong, me/not me. It’s extremely hard for us to perceive things any other way. But as always with life, we have outgrown ourselves. We are in the process of dreaming ourselves out of that disjointed mindset. The planet, and the force of life running through it, already exist beyond that separation paradigm, and they are dreaming us out of it too.
This is why everything in the world looks pear-shaped, from politics to the environment. Our imaginations are stuck in lab cages. Either we’re trying to impose Big Dreams of salvation on the world, or warring against Big Nightmares of perdition. But it isn’t about that.
I learned rather painfully back in 2008 that Big Dreams go wrong when they are over-exalted, when we think they will be some sort of Promised Land, or that they will save us, or save the world, or something. Because we are seeing them in the light of success versus failure, good versus bad. Yet life herself doesn’t dichotomise in this way. There’s no right or wrong for Gaia – just lots and lots of ideas, experiments, and exploration.
A Small Idea
Someone in our lovely patron group wrote to me this week because the Big Dream wasn’t happening. The land in the country with the house wasn’t to be. So this particular person had decided instead to take a less ostentatious step and just buy an inexpensive non-building plot of land somewhere, a small place to connect with nature and camp sometimes instead.
When I heard this, something rang so true within me. It’s such a beautiful idea. For what it’s worth, for me the most important thing isn’t the off-grid home in the mountains at all (though I love it). It’s communion with the land. Because that relationship and that conversation are extremely powerful. Or therapeutic. Or healing. Or transformative. It’s the place we perceive the dreams of life. We don’t have to lunge into some massive off-grid adventure to experience it.
To stand in a small area of dirt that you are sovereign in is priceless. A space you can protect. That you can nurture and not poison. That you can grow things on, play in, camp in, sit in, meditate in, make art in, connect with spirits and animals in. And when I gaze at my ash tree, I feel her nod. Because each square metre of this rocky wonderland we call Earth, is a world in itself. It’s precious. It matters. The relationship matters. Not the Big Dream. Not the heroics. Not the happily-ever-after delusion. Only the living, breathing interconnection can move us beyond what we already are.
I discuss a lot about sovereignty, sensitivity and the object/subject paradigm with Amisha Ghadiali in the Future is Beautiful Podcast. Feel free to listen to the conversation.
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Atulya K Bingham
Author, Lone Off-Gridder, and Natural Builder.
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.