6 Feb 2014
Your ‘Step Up’ moments: No.3: Alex Crowe
In 2006, Alex Crowe and his family went down the road to self sufficiency. Eight years later, he explains why Transition is a much better idea.
Change was everywhere in 2006. “An Inconvenient Truth” was released in cinemas. Rob Hopkins and Naresh Giangrande were developing the Transition movement in Totnes. And in our living room, my partner Clare suggested we sell the house and buy land. “Yes,” I said. Not pausing for a second.
We’d been looking for a way off the hamster wheel of 21st-Century life for ages. Brought up on a TV diet of “The Good Life”, “River Cottage”, “Jimmy’s Farm” and “It’s not easy being green”, self-sufficiency seemed the only way. It had been staring us in the face all this time. Why had it taken so long to see it?
Our Big Green Idea
The idea came almost fully formed. We would buy land, live in yurts and create a smallholding with chickens, pigs, dogs, the latest and great green technology – maybe even a natural swimming pool. We loved the idea so much, we thought other people would, too. So we planned a small-but-beautiful yurt camp to provide income for the things we couldn’t make or grow ourselves.
It was 2006, remember? There were only a few yurt camps in the whole of Europe back then – and they were all full.
Acting on instinct
The profit from our tiny house wasn’t going to be enough to buy land in England, let alone Totnes. But we found a perfect place in France – 10.47 acres of woodland and meadow, in a shallow valley 300 metres south of the Dordogne river.
During 2007, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report demanded immediate action from the world’s politicians. The Live Earth concert raised awareness of climate change around the world. The Transition Network was born. And we left the country to pursue our self-sufficient dream.
Arriving in France, we walked straight into a bureaucratic brick wall. Our simple idea, we were told, was “complicated”. “No, really,” we insisted, “it isn’t”. “I love the idea”, they said. “But someone else will have a problem with it.” More than once, we heard: “You’ll never get permission”.
Believing we were doing the right thing in the right place, we went ahead and built our smallholding. We planted an orchard, bought a working horse, introduced pigs to clear a vegetable patch, added chickens to the orchard, and were given rabbits for meat.
We learnt a huge amount from books by John Seymour and Hugh FW, and from websites like selfsufficient(ish), Hedgewizard’s Diary and youtube. But our lessons were mostly trial and error. Like Tom and Barbara in “The (superbly researched, actually) Good Life”, we felt more alive than we’d ever been. We were living fully as human beings – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Sadly, financially, it was a disaster.
In January 2010, after we’d given up on the idea of the yurt camp, the mayor finally said we could go ahead and build it.
Mud, sweat and years
With no left money for materials, we created “écovallée” from our own soil, wood and spare canvas. It was hard, satisfying work, but by that stage we knew what we were doing. Looking back at the photos now, what we achieved on our own is astonishing.
Days before we opened, we had our first help from likeminded people. We’d had incredible support from what I call the English mafia, but they all thought we were “mad”. Having permaculture enthusiasts Ben and Anna happily moving mud, rocks and wood with us was a breath of fresh air.
Loving the extra pairs of hands, and realising we were working ourselves into the ground, we signed up as HelpX hosts. We’ve since met some fantastic people with useful skills and heartening stories. Some have become good friends and reminded us that, no, we’re not mad – we’re in transition.
There is one moment, for me, that marks the end of our self-sufficient dream.
A couple of years ago, we’d hand-sown a cereal crop to cut down on our pigs’ food bill (and carbon trotterprint). We’d harvested the crop with scythes and were in the process of separating the stalks from the weeds for stooking and stacking. I was wearing a battered straw hat and a medieval-style long-sleeved shirt made from an old sheet. It was blazingly hot, and I sat down for a cold drink and a rest. The world went quiet and still. All I could hear was the sound of a horse clomping up the road 200 metres away. It was like being in a Van Gogh painting.
That was a perfect moment, right there. Pure joy.
Harvesting that crop nearly killed us and we didn’t even have the strength to bring it in. We just dragged the stooks to the orchard for the chickens and geese. Until the oil runs out and labour is freely available, working like that is just too hard. Why slave away to grow crops to feed animals to eat the animals, we figured, when it would be easier to grow crops and eat crops? It’s only really obvious when you’ve tried.
So we stopped keeping pigs. We stopped working so hard. And we started to wonder how we could live more easily.
As if by magic, transition appeared
On a (shock, horror) family outing to our local paper museum, we met lovely local artist Katya Knight, who works with recycled paper. A few weeks later, she introduced me to the man behind our local annual folk music festival and – to my extreme joy – Transition initiative.
I was so happy to meet him, he probably thought I was dangerous.
He told me that Lalinde was the first in the Dordogne to become a transition town. He didn’t need to explain what that meant. It was like Totnes had come to us! I told him how we live, what we know, what I used to do, and said I’d do whatever I can to help.
Le Transition locale
So far, I haven’t done much. I’ve helped them put a blog together, been to a few meetings, explained what it’s all about to passing English speakers and offered some good south-facing land as a space to grow food. But what’s impressed me is the energy, enthusiasm and positive attitude of the core group. In a country where the default response is “non”, they’ve got a whole bunch of people saying “OUI”!
That’s what I love about Transition. It appeals to our human drive to make the world a better place – a universal idea that overcomes the boundaries of race, sex and religion.
Our young group is working on more than we have the energy for: a system of exchange based on the “JEU”; food to share, based on Incredible Edibles; repairing and reselling items before they go to the dump. They are also planning local money, gardens in schools, shared transport and much more.
As is happening globally, the idea is spreading fast. People are moving to Lalinde because of Transition. A group is starting in the far-larger town of Bergerac, 25 minutes away. The ball is rolling – and picking up speed.
The way ahead
To me, being part of a supportive group of positive people makes far more sense than self sufficiency. Old phrases like “the more, the merrier” and “many hands make light work” are still with us because they remain true. We have a lot of work ahead and very little time.
In 2007, the IPCC gave us ten years to take action. We’re seven years into that and all we see is criminal negligence on the part of our politicians. The bureaucrats can’t help. They’re stuck in a system that’s taken centuries to evolve and can’t adapt in the months required.
We are the only ones who can put the infrastructure in place to cope with the coming crisis. In my experience, that’s fencing, building beds, improving the soil – all hard, healthy, deeply rewarding work. But others will have other priorities. If you’re already doing it, keep up the good work. If you’re thinking of getting involved, take that first step. You’ll become fitter, healthier, happier and meet some of the loveliest people you’ve ever met.
If that’s not “The Good Life” I don’t know what is.
Alex is co-creator of the écovallée family yurt camp in the Dordogne. He has blogged the whole project at www.thedevolutionary.wordpress.com, has written Part One of a book about it and tweets as @ecovallee. Ben and Anna went on to create the Figo Verde bell tent camp in Portugal.