February 2009

Here they are:

And this is what they’re doing:


We always said we’d have a few months between pigs. To take a break from the twice-daily responsibility of feeding and watering, the frequent re-zoning of land for them to clear, the dismantling and re-mantling of Ark One, and the buying of food in ever-increasing quantities.

But then we got a phone call from Marlene. Two of her sows were farrowing, she said. Could we take four little ones off her hands to give them some room – at a knock-down price?

Of course, we said. Could we borrow her trailer to take our two big ones to the abattoir – to give them some room?

Of course, she said. We could have it for a couple of weeks if necessary.

Which would give us time to fix the tractor, so we could tow the trailer out of the field.

Which meant asking Richard the butcher (and tractor fan) to take a look at it.

Which he did, before declaring the battery was shot.

Which meant digging another battery out of storage only to find there’s more to the tractor problem than a shot battery.

Which meant towing the trailer out of the field with our two-wheel-drive car, on a frosty Monday morning.

Which got stuck in the muck (oh – what bad luck).

Which meant an emergency phone call to Sonia.

Which was exactly what we were trying to avoid. But which she responded to like a trooper – albeit a trooper with a Freelander.

Which impressed the hell out of me – having struggled for 15 minutes with brush, pieces of wood and much spinning of wheels – we just hooked up the Landy and off it went.

Which means I’ll never let anyone take the piss out of a Freelander again (Sonia still says it’s a hairdresser’s car – which is true enough – she’s a hairdresser – and it’s her car).

Which is how our pigs got to the abattoir and we got to have 24 hours before our new pigs arrived – a whole blissful day, when we only had to worry about feeding and watering the horse and chickens.

Which is just long enough to drag Ark One down the field, put it back together, fence off what will be a willow trench for grey water coming out of the guest facilities, and go and collect the new pigs from Marlene. They’re very, very cute. We took pictures.

Which you’ll see later.

Got a phone call from Daniel this morning.

You remember Daniel. He’s the guy who gave us a hand when the Planning Department refused our old application.

I write ‘gave us a hand’. What I really mean is: ‘submitted an efficient, effective, astonishingly detailed attack on the Planning Department’s refusal to give us the CU (Certificat d’Urbanisme) we so clearly deserved’.

He’s also the guy who’s been giving us a hand with our new property purchase.

I write ‘giving us a hand’. What I really mean is: ‘single-handedly persuaded a reluctant neighbour to sell us their small, ugly building on an adjoining piece of land that would allow us to circumvent the previous planning refusal (the Daniel-written rebuttal for which is currently celebrating its first birthday at the tribunal in Bordeaux), before submitting a CU application to make the small, ugly building bigger and more beautiful, bizarrely enabling us to live next door to it in our yurts, while having up to 20 guests (actually, we’re only going to have around 12 tops) in yurts where we originally intended – an astonishingly detailed application that has proven to be both efficient and effective’.

Because Daniel’s phone call this morning was to tell us that our new CU has been approved. (APPROVED!) The evidence is apparently in the post (and not just this one).

The first fight is over. Me and Her Outdoors have so much tension draining from us, we feel like amoeba. Albeit amoeba with a bluddie good excuse to drink Champagne and with a huge amount of work in front of us.

But enough about us.

What Daniel is going to do now is give us a hand with our Permis de Construire.

I say ‘give us a hand’. What I really mean is: ‘submit a dossier detailing exactly what we’re going to do to the small, ugly building – which Planning cannot apparently refuse – for which we can expect an answer in about a month – after which we can start doing what we were expecting to do a year and a half ago.

That’s almost not the point. This is: I recently learned Daniel’s surname. I won’t spell it for you, but I’ll tell you how it’s pronounced: “La Man”. It’s not only significant in the United Statesian sense (“Who da man? Dan da man”), but as you may remember from school, the French word pronounced “Man” means “hand”.

If you’ve been following this blog for a long while, you may also remember that we found our land a few hundred metres (yards) from a place pronounced “La Land”.

Which is why I’m now interested in meeting the following people: “La Horse Cart”, “La Plough” and “La Free Solar Panel”.

In France, as you may have vaguely heard somewhere, there are very generous allowances for people living on low incomes.

Which is nice, as almost everyone here is poor.

These allowances (or rights) include: x hundred euros a month to help pay rent or a mortgage; x hundred at the start of the school year (per child over x) to help pay for new shoes and a school bag (or what mountaineers would normally call a rucksack); x per day during school holidays for activities clubs, so parents can carry on working to pay their eye-wateringly high social charges; x for having a baby; x a month for having a child under three… you get the gist.

Now, you’d think that earning minimum wage while supporting a family of four, plus over a dozen other animals, qualifies you as someone on low income and entitles you to some or all of those rights. But you’d be wrong.

In fact, you’d be wrong by a couple of years.

You see, rights in France are calculated on the household income made from January to January the year before last. Which means, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, it’s possible for the unwitting immigrant to fall into a bit of a hole. Especially when coming from a country with a tax year that runs (seemingly arbitrarily in retrospect) from April to April.

Our hole went like this: In March 2008, we hadn’t earned any money since July 2007. We’d been here over six months, in very expensive (by French standards) rented accommodation, with no idea if or when our World’s Most Luxurious Eco-Friendly Family Yurt Campsite project would get on the ground – and money was running out fast. We went to social services and were told that, because of our income in 2006, we were entitled to precisely no euros and no cents.

Which didn’t make any sense at all.

When pressed as to why the system is calculated in this way, we were told with a shrug: “So it’s fair for everyone”.

(If any Daily Mail readers have stumbled onto this screen by mistake, you should know that this kind of bureaucratic lunacy is not confined to the non-English. A friend of ours from Brighton told us about a time she was immobilised by an inexplicable failure of the leg. Her doctor signed her off and told her she’d be entitled to incapacity benefit. But because of the contributions made between this date and that, she was not entitled to a bean – French or otherwise. “But that was when I was on maternity leave!” she exclaimed [the punctuation’s a bit of a giveaway]. “What about all my years of contributions before and since?” The social services simply shrugged and said: “This way, it is fair for everyone.”)

Why am I telling you all this (except to make up for a sizeable lack of blogging in recent months and the fact that it was raining outside when I started this post)? Because since Christmas either Her Outdoors or the Liddle Chillen have been at home, sick. Because next week the Liddle Chillen are off school for two weeks and, as someone on low income, my manager told me yesterday I couldwouldshould be entitled to an enormous discount off the activity club, which wouldcouldshould mean we can spend some time on the land preparing for the opening of écovallée in July. All we needed was something called a Passeport Loisirs from the social services in Bergerac.

We went this morning. I was feeling pretty confident, having calculated our 2007 household income was a paltry (by English standards) 26,000 euros.

Sadly, it seems this is still far too high to entitle us to any financial help from the government. We will have to wait until 2010, to take advantage of our truly poor 8,800-euro income from 2008. By which time, if our new venture is the success we believe it shouldwouldcould be, we won’t need the extra money at all.

It brings tears to your eyes just thinking about it.

It’s very easy to lose things in the woods. Leaves blow around. You wander off, distracted perhaps by a large bird of prey landing in the chicken orchard and think you’ve come back to the same place – only you haven’t. And it’s important not to lose things like your trusty kitchen knife.

Fortunately, as you may have guessed by the headline, I’ve re-devised a simple solution to this ages-old problem using authentic neolithic techniques.

First, dig a hole around (or a square – your choice) 50cm deep. (You’ll want to pile the soil somewhere nearby – you’ll be needing it later.)

Place a sturdy piece of acacia (or similar – something that’s not going to rot down too quickly) in the hole, ensuring it is vertical on all sides, and ram the earth (I did say you’d need it) back where it came from.

You’ll never lose your knife again.

If you like, you can create holders for a number of other tools and items of clothing.

Or use your collection of posts to support a children’s play yurt with an unobstructed view of écovallée.

More on this, later.

Since our cats arrived a year and some months ago, we tried a few of the cat litter options available from our local supermarket (supermarché). They ranged in price, from expensive to very expensive, and effectiveness. In the end, we decided the costlier option lasted longer and retained more smell, so was better value for money.

That was until Her Outdoors had Another Great Idea.

I don’t know where it came from – maybe because cutting our own wood creates a lot of sawdust, or that we use sawdust in the chicken house, or that we’ll be using sawdust in our compost toilets – but I can tell you what it is: Sawdust.

We’ve litter-tested the concept for long enough now to announce that it is by far the cheapest and most effective non-product not on the market. Our cats have absolutely no problem with it (we introduced the sawdust little by little over a few days before going completely litter-free). And it is 100% compostable (although we’re composting it separately for a while before feeding it to plants).

There’s probably a gag here about reducing litter, but I’ll leave you to look for it.