Every day I close the doorway to my old barn with a line of rickety posts that are supposed to act as a gate. And every frickin’ day my hens find a way in. At some indeterminate point I’ll hear one of them chattering to her feathery compatriots, or the clang of a tool they’ve dislodged, upon which I charge down, huffing and growling and yelling at them, before turfing them out. The hens then run up the hill, bottoms waggling, gossiping amongst themselves like primary school kids caught pilfering from the stock cupboard.
My birds know very well the barn is out of bounds. I’m sure of this because a) their eyes roll guiltily when I catch them, and b) I hide and watch. When they think I’m out of sight, they’ll scuttle straight back down to the doorway, study the wooden slats, peering this way and that to find a gap. Then as soon as I show up to throw them a faceload of glower and reprimand, they stop in their tracks and gulp. Grrr.
But here’s the thing. In truth while all this bugs the hell out of me, it also makes me grin. Nature is shamelessly non-compliant. It’s a total scallywag, and I love it.
The great biorascal
It’s not simply the hens that are thoroughly mischief-making. I found a nettle growing into my camper van this week, and an arm of ivy burrowing merrily through my earth plaster. The mouse in the kitchen has just eaten the gas stove warranty, a wren is building nests in my brand new roof, and the vole has gobbled up every one of my broad beans. This onslaught of biospheric anarchy should irritate me. Others would lay traps or poison. But what’s the point? This is nature. And in five minutes there’ll be another mouse or vole to replace this one, because Gaia isn’t compliant and doesn’t bend under authority. Heck, nature doesn’t even recognise authority in the first place. This is why when I pull up a half-gnawed onion, I find myself chuckling. These miscreants inspire me.
Too bad humans have lost touch with their wild side. We could do with a bit more natural non-compliance in the human world, if you ask me. Apparently a lot of people like being led, though. They like being told what to think by billionaires, and reneging responsibility for their lives.
Nature doesn’t do politeness. She is raw, and often rude. She is the great boat-rocker. Yet she is also fair and holds a deep loyalty to her own. We’re going to see that soon, as some sell out and others don’t. History shows well, social acquiescence and “common courtesy” are often the conduits of abuse and horror. Good little girls have been told to comply when sleazy old men kiss them. If they say they don’t want to be molested or have their body violated they are apparently rude or bad. Good little boys have been told to be tough and emotionless and murder the “enemy”. When they say they don’t want to, they are apparently cowardly villains.
But what is this good and bad that society is so sure it has a hold on? Following rules like Nazi officers (and good ol' general public) did back in 1940? Following the letter of the law as many environmental protectors haven’t been doing since the ’80s? Following social norms in a bid to out do our peers, or from fear of becoming outcast?
I watch the sunlight grace the thousands of wriggling hazel arms in my copse, each one stretching and winding in its own way and yet respecting all the others in the ecosystem. This wood is now brimming with birds. The tree tops twitter and squawk and sing with such exuberance, I find myself laughing. Nests have blossomed without even considering a building permit. There is no single authority in that wood. No top-down leadership. No committees making the rules. Despite this, it's a mutually supportive yet striving community, with a balance between the individual and the group. This is because each tree and bird is plugged into the planet’s intelligence, so doesn’t need government press conferences or police officers to tell it where to go.
Human rules are different. They’re neither organic nor responsive. They doubt our innate wisdom, assume we are all out for ourselves, and keep us towing a certain uncreative line. Personally I prefer nature’s pathways. I prefer the freedom to be wild and mischievous and alive. We’ve been told mayhem will ensue if there are no laws, but who’s doing the telling here? Could it be those same people who are merrily trashing forests, selling us back our drinking water, and hiding the devastating effects of their pesticides?
Thank you Turkey (again)
I haven’t been compliant for a long long while. Perhaps in some ways I never was. When a good friend of mine told my dad recently he’d lost a power battle with me, he roared with laughter and said, “oh I lost that when she was about five.” So it was apt that I moved to Turkey, a country full of non-compliants like myself, where you routinely see people heartily puffing on a Marlboro under no-smoking signs, or cars parked brazenly beneath no parking signs. I remember when the government banned ashtrays from restaurant tables in a bid to stop smoking. In the blink of an eye restaurant owners had made ashtrays on legs which stood by the side of the table instead.
Ah Turkey. I’m grateful to you for showing me with wit and humour the art of non-compliance.
Life on the edge of The System
I’ve been hanging on (and sometimes falling off) the edge of the system for years and years. Turkey was mostly unsystemised when I first arrived there back in the late eighties, with well over half the economy “black” and untaxed. I left when that began to change, and I saw it was driving down the same mindless concrete highway that I had run away from. I know where that road leads to.
According to the world at large, I’ve been doing everything “wrong” since I was 26 and abandoned my state education career in London. I was told by older colleagues I’d never be able to “catch up” if I left, though no one could really explain what or who I was catching up with, or why that was so important. Within three years, I was working four days a week in the then eyeball-achingly beautiful city of Antalya, calling the shots on my hours, living a stone’s throw from the beach, and earning about three times what I would have done back in the UK education system. Agh! Don’t listen to these fools. They know nothing.
To be free, or on the margins of the system, is a beautiful thing. I will never return to that defunct, destructive, soul-and-body-crushing machine whatever they threaten me with, because I know they have no power over me. I know the natural intelligence within me has it covered. The zombie administration is going to have to run to keep up with those of us scampering down the natural paths. I haven’t seen it do much running though since I’ve been back here in Europe. It’s about as nimble as a sauropod in quicksand. Meat Loaf could sprint faster in a wet suit and flippers.
What is non-compliance?
One thing it took me a long time to understand is that non-compliance isn’t the same as rebellion. It isn’t the same as protest, as dear Maxim in Taiwan showed me about ten years ago now. Non-compliance comes from a very different place. It’s a psychological space where you know the other has no power over you. You know you are in the driving seat, and simply don’t do what they suggest or imply you should. You just don’t comply. It’s not noisy or aggressive or demanding everyone else does the same. Why should anyone be compliant to my non-compliance? They shouldn’t, and they won’t be. I don’t need the rest of the world to be like me to experience my truth. Good job, all things considered.
So if you can’t swallow the many uninspiring narratives of the day without a touch of indigestion, and don't feel particularly enthusiastic about everything to go back to ecocidal, slavery-condoning, war-mongering normal (230 000 dead in Yemen alone for example, but may be they don't matter because they're not first world, right?) don’t waste your energy trying to convince the mainstream world to “see”. We are all creating our own realities here. Some people didn’t like that idea for some reason, so decided to let other people create their reality for them. Absolutely their call. But that doesn’t change the fundamentals. We’re Gaia’s children, literally forged from her substance and intelligence, and when we’re aligned with that very non-compliant planetary power, when we hear and act not on the fear created by those with vested interests, or the pressure of the herd, but on the intuitive hunches within our very bodies, we birth our own brand new enchanting worlds. Those two realities are like oil and water. The greasy hand of fear and obedience just can’t get a firm grip on self-belief and intuitive action. It slides straight off into the great machine to lubricate the pistons and cogs of the productivity engine. Meanwhile Gaia’s streams flow where they want to, the grass grows no matter how much it is strimmed, and my hens continue to ferret out new ways into the coveted domain of the barn.
Yes it's a beautiful moment to be alive.
***Many thanks to my dear dad for accepting me for the non-compliant creative that I am. I am lucky. Many people are cajoled and coerced by their parents to tow a certain socially acceptable line which is in direct conflict with their mental or physical well being. I was never pushed to do anything other than what I wanted to in this life, and that is a great blessing.***
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I was awoken by an ethereal chime. Blinking, I rolled over in the warm nest of my duvet. It was my phone. A few muscles in my torso lurched and yanked themselves to attention, because I knew who it was. The foreign police office.
Hesitating a moment, I let the phone ring one more time while I gathered my wits and my words. It’s bad enough dealing with a bureaucrat when you’re fully conscious, but duelling with administration in a language you’re still rather inept at, when you’ve just woken up? I didn’t rate my chances too highly.
“Hola!” I tried to sound chirpy.
“Esta la señora Bingham?”
And thus el señor Foreign Police Officer began to put me through my paces. “I’m sorry, we can’t accept this insurance policy,” he said. I repeated back to him to make sure I’d understood correctly. “No acceptan?”
“Because there is a limit in this policy for the days in the ‘ospital. And no enough coverage for expenses.”
I was caught between teeth gnashing despair at the fact that I still – after three weeks of slog – hadn’t cleared the insurance hurdle in my residency gauntlet, and glee at the realisation that I had understood everything he’d said. At the very least, these dealings were good Spanish practice.
“So what is an acceptable limit for expenses?” I pushed on, determined to eke some irrefragable information out of the call.
“Hmm, no es concreto.”
“No es concreto? So how did you decide this policy wasn’t okay if there’s no concrete rule?” I sat up in bed and fought the urge to lob my phone at the door.
“Well, it’s a bit low.”
I breathed slowly and deeply, and tried to circle my opponent. “Right, so just for the sake of argument, roughly what figure would you count as not low?”
El señor of the pencil-pushers wasn’t so easily cornered. Politely and carefully, he voiced his conclusive response. “I don’t know.”
Aghhh! I could feel something hot and bitter rising in my guts, so I dug my heels in a little deeper. Hell! At the very least I had to make a dent in the bureaucratic machine, wedge a small spanner in between its mindless whirring cogs, a toothpick even. “Right. But you must have seen insurances before and passed them. So can you tell me a company which offers health insurance that you like?”
There was a pause. El señor seemed to be scratching his head. “To be honest, I haven’t seen this before. Most of the people ‘ave official jobs or are students, so it’s different.”
I crashed back on my pillow and pulled my duvet up to my chin, before admitting defeat. I’d not even achieved the tiniest of chinks in the armour. Not so much as a scratch. When you’re an independent attempting to slip between the soul-shredding wheels of The System, you have to be nothing short of a ninja to find a gap. I hadn’t found it yet. Groaning to the very depths of my being, I hung up.
I’m no greenhorn when it comes to residency applications. This is the fourth I’m obtaining in my life, and it’s always a protracted kind of torture for an immigrant, because desk jockeys the world over live in an alternate universe in which neither reality nor humans matter. It’s a blip in the space-time continuum where the only truth is boxes on forms, ticks, stamps, and signatures.
As I flung the duvet back and huffed my way into the bathroom, I uttered a few expletives. Though I did still have my favourite weapon lurking up my dirt-filled sleeve. Stubbornness. If you can just hang on and keep pushing long enough, sometimes, just sometimes, even The System’s pistons break under the strain.
The following week I trawled every insurance broker in the vicinity, collecting policies. The company whose policy I’d already signed up for agreed to change theirs to limitless days of hospitalisation too, all while shaking their heads and muttering that they’d issued at least three hundred of these to residency seekers and never seen a demand like this before. Soon I was ready. I flexed my fingers, limbered up, and prepared myself for my fourth trip to the big city in two weeks.
Now, government offices in Spain run on interesting timetables. In fact, everything in Spain does. Opening and closing times are arbitrary and idiosyncratic, the windows for action incredibly narrow. I’m surprised they haven’t made an app for it. “Esta ‘app’ierto?” is an opportunity just waiting for a Spanish techie. For building permits, for example, the office in my locality is open between exactly 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on a Tuesday or Thursday. That’s it. Turn up on Friday, and you’re stuffed until Tuesday. The Foreign Police (an hour’s drive away) grace us with their mostly grumpy presence between 9 a.m. and 12 noon. I’m telling you, hitting these official slots requires dedication of focus.
Twas just over a week ago, and after a sleep-deprived drive through the rush hour traffic of Gijon, I parked up and began the now-familiar hike to the Foreign Police Department. It was freezing, the air caking onto my cheeks in icy wads. Soon enough, I was sitting on the half-broken chairs, clutching my number, along with a cohort of other disenchanted residency seekers: The Syrian sisters who cackled loudly behind me, the pretty Chinese student who glared in silent fury at the inefficiency, the young Nigerian chap who was so agitated he kept walking up to the desk, and then would be ordered to sit and wait a bit more. I’m an old hand at this game, but even so. All the Zen in the world doesn’t detract from the psyche-mauling truth that despite not being a criminal you’re wasting days of your life being treated like one. Days. Weeks. I tried not to think about it as I waited and waited and waited for my number to be called (because the electronic number system was broken and no one knew who was supposed to go when).
Finally my moment arrived. The weary young woman who inevitably supervises the extranjero desk sighed when she saw me, and I took some pleasure in that. Was I wearing her down? I thrust the five policies under her nose, and asked her which would be acceptable. She gathered the papers and disappeared behind a door, presumably to ask el señor of the early morning wake-up call.
Minutes passed. More minutes passed. I closed my eyes and meditated. Finally she returned.
“No. No. No. No.” The policies struck the desk one by one in disappointing thuds. She shook her head gravely, and then raised a couple of hairs in her right eyebrow. “But we could accept the old policy if they add ‘no limit of ‘ospitalization’ on it.”
“What about the expenses being too low though?” I asked.
She shrugged and cocked her head in the direction of the secret inner office. “He said it’s okay, but you must come back with this new policy, and a receipt from your bank to show you’ve paid it.” I nodded. And oh how happy I was, as I danced out of the Police Department for a coffee and a tortilla. Alas! My jubilation didn’t last long.
The next day I drove to my insurance broker (in another town in the wrong direction) to collect my documents. Now, I always try to be generous about people in my writing, but I’m afraid in this case exasperation wins. Hasan the insurance broker was one of the most incompetent lumps I’ve ever had the misfortune to deal with. Truly, I exaggerate not. It would take a good five WhatsApp messages to clarify exactly when he’d would be in his office, and even then I’d turn up and two out of three times he wouldn’t be there.
This time, after climbing the office stairs and pushing the 1980s shiny wooden door open, I was amazed to find the man actually in the office. He briefly flicked his head at me, and began distractedly printing off the new policy details while blabbing on the phone to his friend.
“I need a receipt,” I said, when eventually he hung up.
“You get it from the bank.”
“Yes but it was a week ago and the payment still hasn’t gone through! Can you call the company and find out why?”
“Oh it will happen, don’t worry.” Hasan waved me away.
So I waited another week. As you do. Nada. Not so much as a cent moving from my account. So I inhaled deeply, and made the journey yet again to Hasan’s office (the 7th so far), because if you don’t see people face to face, nothing happens. The rain was driving hard, and by the time I’d walked through the town, my jeans were wet through and my boots were squelching. I entered the wood clad room bedraggled and dripping. Naturally, Hasan wasn’t there. So I took a seat and explained my predicament to his colleague.
“How strange. The payment should have gone through. I wonder if there is a mistake,” the young woman said.
“I’m sure there is a mistake,” I replied, pulling off my coat and wondering if the steam billowing out of my ears was visible yet.
Hasan’s colleague scanned through the policy, soon pulling out the IBAN number of the account that had been charged. The problem was obvious even from my side of the desk.
“I don’t know where he got that number from, but it isn’t mine.”
“Not your IBAN?”
At that moment, useless Hasan entered the office. His colleague waved the paperwork at him and expounded the details of his cock-up. Meanwhile a terrible feeling stole through me, because I thought I knew where Hasan had found that mistaken IBAN number. Flicking hastily through my bank transfer receipts which he was supposed to copy my account details from, I soon found the one I was looking for. I’m afraid, this is the moment I lost it.
There is only so much patience a human possesses. Only so much. Standing up, I pulled my index finger out, feeling six weeks of frustration rising up and pouring out through my eyeballs. “Look Hasan, you’ve copied my landlady’s IBAN number onto that policy instead of mine!” I so wanted to add, “you lazy, deficient half-wit!”, although I think that point was probably conveyed telepathically.
Hasan mumbled and blathered a bit, gaped at the numbers as though they were figures in some arcane sudoku puzzle, and finally said, “yes I see. You’ll have to call her and tell her to return the payment.”
“No Hasan.” I said, still standing. “You have to call her. Right now.”
He shifted and squirmed, before pulling out his phone. I could see the sweat forming around his hairline. His colleague lowered her head, and the room turned rather quiet.
That night I drove back to the coastal town I’m holed up in for winter, still fuming. The moon was full and eclipsed, or so I heard, because the Asturian sky was thickset with clouds rendering the more distant movements in the solar system invisible. As I walked to my door, I huddled to fend off the rain, which was driving even harder than before.
It was just before midnight when I peered out of my window and saw something odd sticking out of the river. It looked like a massive metallic elbow. Opening the latch for a better look, I realised the water level had risen preposterously high, and that the river was roaring. A crowd of people had gathered at the bank too. Something was afoot.
The rain continued to hammer down throughout the night. It was a gnashing snarl of a downpour, the likes of which I’d never witnessed here before. I awoke the next morning to see that the river had burst its banks and flooded the road. In fact, every major river in Asturias overflowed that day. Towns were evacuated. Roads closed. I saw the wayward metallic elbow was in fact the canoe jetty and gang plank which had been completely ripped out, and were swaying upended in the river.
As I gazed at the sheer power present in the cascade of the river, suddenly I felt grounded in a way I hadn’t for weeks. Because there is a higher authority than The System and its desk-bound army. There is a higher authority than the ruling elite, too. As I listened to the drum of the rain, I mulled it all over. I’ve spent six weeks (about three or four days a week), have driven over 1000 kilometres, and spent about 800 euros, trying to legalise my status. And I still don’t possess the idiotic photocard that The System erroneously thinks proves my existence.
Am I coming full circle? Because I’m remembering Mud Mountain, and why I shifted off-grid in the first place. There comes a point when the risk of being non-legal becomes far easier to survive than the pain of the bureaucratic process itself, you see. Once freedom has been tasted, you don’t opt for the chicken coop again, Europe, UK, or otherwise.
The tide has pulled back now. The water level has receded. But as I watch the resident flocks of white egrets happily taking advantage of the freshly wetted meadows, and the migrant storm petrels fishing (without papers) out at sea, I wonder how we humans got ourselves into this enslaved mess. My land is waiting just up the road with her three water sources, her bounteous earth, her wood to burn, her rocks to build with. She cares not a hoot about jurisdiction and cards and obedience. Her only demand is relationship.
Ah poor, old, decrepit System. Don’t cry if we leave you behind. You are unable to evolve, unable to adapt. Your steel claws are becoming blunter, your promises of security lamer by the day. How long before you lose us completely? How long?
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Atulya K Bingham
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.