December 2013


At the risk of sounding like Swiss Toni from The Fast Show, self-sufficiency is a lot like perpetual motion. It seems like a lovely idea, is probably impossible, and almost completely useless. 

Considering impossibility

In Christmases past, I used to argue with a friend of mine’s dad about perpetual motion. “Alex,” he would say while shaking his head and re-filling his pipe. “You haven’t considered entropy.” (He’s a nuclear physicist – they say things like that.) And he was right. I only recently looked it up.

But fundamental laws of physics aside, I am happy to concede that if a perpetual motion machine was invented, it would serve no useful purpose. As soon as you started to draw power from it – and why else would you be building a machine – I suspect it would stop working.

So it is with self sufficiency.

Ignoring the grim reality of the self-sufficient life for a moment – the making of clothes from your own wool, the exposure of your crops and animals to the vagaries of the weather, the impossible number of skills you would need to master, the relentless work – as soon as you wanted to draw money from your labour (to pay property taxes, exchange for school meals etc), I’m sure your carefully woven life-support system would unravel.

What’s the point?

And what’s the use of self-sufficiency anyway – even if you did achieve it?

Sometimes I read that producing food for yourself and your family is a right-wing thing. It smarts because, although I’m nowhere near that end of the political spectrum, there’s more than one grain of truth to it. (Selfish sufficiency might be a better term.)

Like many people who have started working towards having control of their own food supply, of wresting control for their destinies from amoral corporate bodies and faceless bureaucracies, I could not happily feed myself if other people went without. Like the Ubuntu legend (you know – the one where African children all win a basket full of sweets by approaching it hand in hand), I could only be truly happy if everyone else was OK, too.

Which is why, in 2013, like God facing the irrefutable evidence of his own existence in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, self-sufficiency as a goal vanished in a puff of logic.

I have to say, it’s a bit of a relief.

A much better idea

No doubt following another fundamental law of physics, a new goal rushed into the aspirational vacuum in my head. This idea, which if it’s any good should need no explanation, I’m going to call: Community Sufficiency.

You’ll be reading more about this in 2014, and experiencing some of it if you come and stay in écovallée.

In the meantime, I hope you and yours have a wonderful, happy mid-winter festival, Saturnalia, or whatever else you choose to call the celebration of our hemisphere’s darkest day. After tomorrow, the light’s coming back, it’ll soon be spring, and the future is ripe with possibilities.

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The Mark V website for écovallée is now live and looks like this:

écovallée screen shot

Click on the image to visit the new site right now.

I really enjoyed doing this, although it meant many hours spent in front of a screen. My only regret was loading enormous images into the WordPress media library, which had to be re-sized and re-loaded when the whole site was nearly finished. (My advice: Choose a reasonable size at the start and stick with it. I went for 400 pixels high, which is no doubt unnecessarily big. But everything in écovallée is over-engineered, so that goes with the whole spirit of the place.)

Huge thanks again to Luke Seall, who helped me again this morning when the site on my local server had to be moved to my web host. If you’re looking for a website designer, you should see if he’s got some time free. I know he’s busy until next year, but that’s only a couple of weeks away.

The wood I mentioned below arrived yesterday and looked like this (the pallet is mine, for scale):

brasse of wood

In volume terms, it’s one “brasse”, which is four “stère”, each stère being one cubic metre. It’s oak that’s been dried for a year and cut to 40cm lengths to fit our fire. When stacked, it looks like this (the wood’s on the right and is two rows deep):

wood stacked

With this small pile on the pallet, ‘cos I didn’t have time to rearrange the lefthand side of the wood store.

wood stacked 2

In financial terms, it was €250 cut and delivered. A friend told me he gets a brasse delivered by a local farmer for €160, but it’s mixed and has a lot of chestnut. (We’ve only just started burning oak and immediately found it lasts twice as long as chestnut and burns hotter, too.)

I’ll let you know how long it lasts. I’m hoping two months.

Lots going on at the moment.

Her Outdoors is doing Christmas markets most weekends. There are more stallholders than punters, which isn’t great. But the owls and moose are selling well.

I’m taking a break from working on the website (which is hard ‘cos it’s nearly finished) to learn 40-something mainly rock covers for the band I just joined. The first gig’s on Friday in Sarlat and I’m erring on the side of being over prepared, which should take care of the stage fright I used to suffer in my 20s.

The mayor dropped by the other day to talk about a few things, and invited me to join her team for next year’s elections. Which is an interesting turn of events. In exchange, she’s going to help raise the profile of écovallée. I’m making connections with various local tourist attractions anyway and it feels right to become more recognised in France as well as the UK.

The weather’s turning cold, which means thoughts turn to firewood.

Because I’ve been working this year, I haven’t had time to cut what we need. So I’m buying in some wood from the outside – €240 for four cubic metres of seasoned oak cut to 40cm. It’s our first winter fuel cost since 2008, so I can justify it using man maths. But I don’t know how long the wood will last and I’ll still need to find some dead standing for this year. They say this winter will be the coldest for 100 years, but they got the summer forecast completely wrong (thankfully – after a rainy start it was glorious and warm until November). With all the poison our atmosphere’s trying to deal with, I think it’s anyone’s guess.

Mushrooms didn’t really happen this year, which was a shame to put it mildly. I saw two parasol mushrooms and only a few field mushrooms, although I discovered a harmful-but-not-poisonous field-mushroom lookalike. (I didn’t eat it, but learnt to recognise it.) A friend found a lot of “Trompette de la mort” which we’ll have to look out for next year.

Sticking with nature, there are still plenty of leaves on the trees. The chestnut are almost bare, but the oak are grimly hanging onto theirs.

That’s all there’s time for now. More on all of this later…