As the sun sets in the west, the mountainsides turn into carmine rivers. But while the sierra is something from Georgia O’Keefe, the skies are Vladimir Kush, cloud stretching in surreal bands over a background of cyan. These autumn evenings always make me gasp. Standing in front of my kitchen hut, I drink what I can of the Earth art. But in minutes it fades into dusk, and I’m left wondering if it even happened.
So I turn back to the kitchen, to this little stone hut that I renovated back in 2019. It was full of mouse droppings and spiders back then. A dark uninhabitable little dust pit with soot on the walls. I took off the roof, repointed the stone work, and made it my own little piece of Earth art. Thank you, former self. Thank you. Did you hear me calling to you from over here in the future? Because the schedules have been laid to waste. I’m still not living in my barn. And right now I’m looking at these two little temporary hut dwellings with a deep sense of gratitude.
The Barn Bedroom
“Why don’t you just move into the barn?”
“I would have slept in there ages ago!”
If I had a vote for every time someone said something along these lines, I’d be running for Prime Minister (and hey, who hasn’t this year?) Yet these are good questions. The barn is structurally sound. The insulation is in, and the stove ready to burn. So why am I still in the chicken coop?
I have considered shifting over for months now, and wondered if it was obstinacy (not wholly out of the question), or perfectionism, or just laziness that held me back. But the fact is this: My new shelter has to be an upgrade. It has to nourish and support both my body and soul more than the dwelling I’m already in. If it doesn’t, it’s going to be a downward slide at a time when I’m already teetering.
Teetering. Tottering. Seeing and sawing. Because as any owner builder will tell you, the finishing of houses is a special kind of hell where completion inches away from you no matter how fast or hard you work. There are always “little” jobs you hadn’t considered that sneak out of the walls to impede you. One coat is never enough of anything. Many times two or three coats aren’t enough either. You fiddle here, and polish there. It’s testimony to the perseverance of all builders that houses get finished at all. Which begs the question as to why we all bother ?
As I place my kettle over the flame of my small hob, I consider that question. Why bother with this endeavour? My eye catches the earth plaster tree in the corner, the carefully applied lime render, the windows...and I see it. Both my why, and my mistake.
I’m not entirely sure whether it was a disease I caught from other more business-like people around me, or some sort of dormant virus that was inadvertently switched on. Whatever the cause, somewhere and somewhen in this barn adventure, deadlines began appearing in my mind. Frightening ultimatums they were, with a finality to them that suggested do or die. All of a sudden I was back in The System. Instead of joyful creation, there was now a boss inside my head, and he was an arsehole in a tight polyester shirt with sweaty armpits who thought rest was for losers and the only way to get anywhere was to work work work. It was all about being organised now, with speed and quantity the measure of progress. So I slogged without lunch breaks, made a nasty little calendar, abandoned my land, and pushed on and on, assuming as all day-job-slaves do that the reward (aka barn completion) would soon arrive. Of course, just as with so many a dodgy pension scheme, it never did.
It was autumn that rang the changes. Blessed autumn with its Tate Modern landscapes shook me out of my stupor. Realising I was in the grip of some artificially induced brain disease, I promptly gave the boss the middle finger, turned around and legged it out of my self-imposed office. Yee ha! No more deadlines or inhuman time limits. It was time for seashells and beads and mud plaster curves. It was time to create beauty again, to scythe the bracken, watch sunsets, and talk to the trees. The impact was almost immediate. The landscape sucked my change of heart into its microbial pores and gratitude wafted back out. Walnuts, flowers, parasol mushrooms, wild turnips, and of course those landscape masterpieces.
Shadows on the wall
I’ve always said I’ve learned more from off-grid building than I ever did from twenty years of spiritual work and self-help. I’m still learning. Sometimes exactly the same lesson! Oh the hilarity. My barn will presumably be a home at some point. But at the moment it’s still a building site. Not the demolition site it was a year ago admittedly, but nonetheless. And as so often seems to be the case these past years, I see in my transforming stone world the shadows of the larger sociopolitical one.
The System isn’t quite the cocksure one it used to be at the turn of the millennium, is it? That great lithic edifice of productivity and growth is listing badly these days, with a large part of the workforce showing no motivation to restore it. Why would they? For what? So they’ve turned their back on it and are building their own place now. Nevertheless the dilapidated old structure clings on, more by habit than anything. Every time they drag that fateful lectern out onto the step of Number 10, whoever is Prime Minister today parrots another version of the same old story.
“The anti-growth coalition, they prefer protesting to doing,” said the latest waste of tax-payers’ money who couldn’t outlive a lettuce. She’s talking about me I suppose. And perhaps you too. Yeees. It’s a platitude often bandied about by the caretakers of that old world, namely that those of us who don’t uphold the status quo are a bunch of moaners creating nothing of any value. That disagreeing with The System is just ruining a nice middle-class day out while offering no alternative. My entire life stands as an alternative. It’s the sole reason I share it publicly. But it’s an alternative a certain group don’t like because they can’t cream the wealth off of it.
Mr and Mrs Establishment are blind to anything but bank balances and share prices, so they’re unaware of what the rest of us are doing. And that is their downfall. Because outside that ugly juggernaut of mindless productivity, many people are very very busy. It might not be dreary functional work at the arse end of a corporation. It might not be contributing to a billionaires’ wealth, or the ex-PM’s £100,000-a-year expense account, or slapping concrete everywhere and decimating forests. But in an alternate sphere there is plenty of growth and productivity. It’s just not cancerous.
Who really makes reality?
So careful there cronies, careful. Having built worlds on a small scale for a while now, I know from hard-won experience who materialises the future. New realities are birthed by the ones who don’t give up. And the reason they don’t give up isn’t desperation or some prehistoric macho idea of being a “fighter”. It definitely isn’t because they slogged twenty hours a day without a lunch break. People don’t give up because they are in love with what they’re doing, building, or protecting. They keep going because they’re creating beauty. Beauty and love, those are the things that sustain us new-world builders, and while fear of losing or ambition may get you so far, it will never outrun the energy behind passion and enchantment.
Stepping out of my barn and away from construction, I decide to wander in the land for a while. A mass of purple dots is scattered in the grass like confetti. They are croci signalling the end of summer. Kneeling in the grass, I stare into the bloom of one. The detail and care that nature embeds into her creations is mind-blowing. She embodies the wisdom that we’ve forgotten.
Beauty. What is a world without it? What is the point? Beauty is perhaps the holiest of qualities. The most precious and sacred. Creating it is a slow, attentive, highly uneconomical and illogical process, but it bestows its own reward, and that reward is in the present moment rather than always just around the corner. Because there is a vast difference between true creativity (which is regenerative) and mindless productivity (which is destructive), between fulfilling work and slavery, between art and mass production. That difference is what planet Earth is all about.
So this is the answer to “why?” Why I haven’t moved into my barn. And why, given the challenges, I’m bothering with this project at all. Love and beauty. It’s the reason behind my curving wattle and daub wall. And my limpet shell studded lime plaster. And the sanded and oiled ancient oak window sill. Happily it was my reason three years ago too when I created my “temporary” kitchen and bedroom huts. “Temporary” just like “permanent” tends to be a fluid concept in building. So you see in order to regain my why, I had to renounce my when.
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Life becomes a magical adventure when we inhabit the wider, more natural aspect of ourselves. Join me as I share with you my own experiences and means of hearing the land around me, and how I follow her nudges.
Atulya K Bingham
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.