As of yesterday, my family and I - my partner Pete, two small children (Ohli, 8 and Anoushka, 4 months) Lucy the dog and Silo the cat - are officially homeless. We rented out our family home and the new tenants moved in yesterday. Here we are, sitting on my mums sofa, with all of our belongings that we think we’ll need for the following year stacked in bags and boxes on her living room floor. As crazy and unlikely as this may sound, this is (more or less) part of our plan, one that has been permaculture designed from the start, and one that has been in the making for ages.
Just before I met my now partner Pete I booked myself and my son Ohli one-way tickets to New Zealand. I was searching for home, a search that I’d been on for quite some years already. I’ve lived in many different places; a ramshackle house made entirely from bamboo and mangroves on a wild tropical beach, an adobe mud hut in the middle of a mango forest, a crumbling Catalan ruin surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, a high rise apartment deep in Bangkok, a draughty Scottish farmhouse community.. and many other interesting and dull places in-between, such as here, in the suburbs of Sheffield. The other day I calculated how many times we had moved house since my son was born 8 years ago. Eleven times. Eleven times! And that’s not including two long periods of travelling overseas. I love the adventure of travelling and the excitement of new places, but for the past few years I’ve come to realise that now all I’m looking for is the right place for us to stop.
Last year I went to an exhibition in a museum whilst travelling in Darwin, Australia. There was a video showing interviews with aboriginals from across the Northern territories, and they were being asked what was important to them. ‘My connection to my land is all I am’ one woman said, barefoot in the Earth, her native red soil all over her face. ‘Without it I have nothing’. Tears flowed down my cheeks. This was the thing I was desperately longing for; knowing my land, my home, my roots. Growing up in the suburbs of a northern industrial town didn’t fill me with pride or connection to my homeland. In fact, as soon as I was old enough I escaped as far away as I could, with a vow to myself never to return. It’s only over the past four years, after returning here to be close to family when my previous relationship was breaking down that I’ve learnt to balance a little love into my love-hate relationship with Sheffield, and see it for the thriving, creative, green city that it really is. But my deep feelings of uncertainty of being here are hard to shift, and I don’t want to stay permanently. We’re too far from the ocean here. I look out of my bedroom window and I see rooftops where I long to see forests and vast sunsets. Buses choke the streets on my way to take Ohli to school, and I worry my cat will be hit by a passing car. Basically, I long for more wildness, for all of us. But if home isn’t home, then where is? How do we find the place that we can start to grow roots?
By some magic Pete and I have a similar vision of what we are looking for, and so over the past couple of years we’ve been working on an escape plan. Our shared vision is quite simple: we want to move our lives back outdoors, working the land, fingers in the soil. Pete’s a natural builder and carpenter, and dreams of finding some land to build a home from scratch. Ohli wants to live in a treehouse and have an outdoor swimming pool filled with fish and ducks, which I think sounds great! I’d like to find a place that has enough land to host permaculture workshops and courses and even maybe a nature school for children. I work as a permaculture educator and designer and a lot of my work is with children, and I’d love to have a space that could welcome regular groups for immersive experiences. Living outdoors means more connection with natures cycles and seasons, and finding a more natural, slower pace to our daily lives. Our children growing up with mud between their toes, the sun bringing out the freckles on their faces, windswept hair and the knowledge of what they can eat from their wild landscape. Does this mean moving somewhere with more freely accessible land and a climate more in-keeping with an outdoor lifestyle? Maybe, but not necessarily. I’m not sure where we’ll end up or what we’ll find there. It’s not just a search for a new place, but a search for a new lifestyle that we’re really looking for, one that feels out of reach with our feet planted in the city.
On to the design plan. Pete and I looked at our personal and joint strengths, bringing to light things that could help us along the way, such as Pete’s carpentry skills, our imagination, our freedom to move through both being self-employed or our networks of friends around the country and beyond. We then looked at our boundaries and the things that might hold us back, such as our fear of the unknown, our lack of free time or our overly optimistic budgeting. We talked through each boundary and practiced some solutions thinking, finding ways that we could overcome each of them. This gave us an action plan of things to work on and left us feeling much more positive and empowered than we would have if we had begun to dwell on our limitations.
One way we decided to tackle our fears was to make a conscious choice to create a really thorough design plan, so that we could fully trust in our decision making process and to document our thinking. This way if either of us had a wobble then we could look back upon the route we took to come to our choices. We both took on the actions that would best suit our particular skills, such as Pete leading some kind of live in vehicle conversion and me taking care of most of the research. Over the following weeks we made several PMI analyses of the different options of how we would travel around and how long for; would we take short trips to likely places at weekends or give up our home and just hit the road? Would we take a bus, caravan, camper van, or little car, yurt and trailer? We looked at these options, took our time to think them over using permaculture principles to guide us, did some more research and over time the best route for us to take started to show itself.
Last year whilst travelling in New Zealand we spent 6 months living in a very small camper van, and we observed a lot about the joys and infuriation’s of living as a family in such a small space. There was certainly a lot of ‘applying self-regulation and accepting feedback’ going on that helped us to retain some threads of sanity, and I do feel that we’re more resilient now as a family from exploring our boundaries so intensely. We have taken the lessons from that trip into consideration this time around in both the trip planning and design of our live in vehicle. and we are making sure that we factor in enough independent time during our time away, doing the things that make us all thrive as individuals. We’ve spent a lot of time considering how we can integrate all of our personal needs as well as our needs together as a family – where we finally choose to be has to be right for all of us, including the changing needs of an 8 year old.
We’re planning in lots of time on our journey for lazy days on river banks, bike rides and treks through all kinds of nourishing wild places, and visits to lots of friends with similar aged children. As for home-schooling, Pete and I have some nightmare memories of miserable days last year trying for hours on end to encourage a wilful 7 year old to open his Waldorf sketchbooks, put crayon to paper and put down his transformers. We surrendered to working with his nature instead of against it, accepted his fiery feedback and discovered that as an unschooling family we were all much happier!
We’ve managed to work with the seasons in our planning, we’ve nested and designed over the winter whilst the spring brought the arrival of our daughter Anoushka. Now summer is beginning we are about ready to start our adventures. Our journey plan has evolved, as we realised that we are not only looking for a place for us to settle, but also looking at the different possibilities of how a new life could look for us. We both have friends living all across the UK, Spain and Portugal living in a variety of interesting ways. Some in abandoned Spanish fincas and Portuguese villages, some in yurts and caravans, some on the edge of funky Devon towns, some regenerating agricultural fields, some living on remote Welsh mountainsides. We’re hoping to visit all of them and get a taste of what their lives are like before we decide what might fit our family the most harmoniously.
We’re stacking as many functions into our trip as possible whilst being careful not to take on too much. I want to use the time to deepen my network of co-creators to work with in the future, and also to keep learning about permaculture from everyone we stay with and the different landscapes we find ourselves in. I’m also planning to share what we find through writing articles and blogs along the way. My son and I are learning tree ID and bird language, and I’m looking forward to developing some home-school permaculture sessions together to enhance the kids curriculum that I’ve been collaborating on over recent years. Pete is looking for inspiration for a career change, so we’ll be following his flow and seeing where that may lead us. And Anoush, well, she’ll be working hard on snuggling up in a sling with us wherever we go.
Our designing has led us to converting a high roof van and a bell tent. The van is small, but big enough with some of Pete’s ingenious planning to fit all of us in comfortably, and small enough to be economical to travel long distances. The bell tent should hopefully meet our need for extra space when we need it and means that one of us can go off for solo adventures (or even go to work) in the van whilst the other can base and spend time with the children. Pete’s converted the van with nearly all reclaimed and upcycled materials, many items are multi-functional and everything that could be handmade has been.
Now the time has come to leave, we’re all excited but also hoping that we won’t be on the road for too long, it’s a funny thing going off travelling when actually all we want to do is to stay still. I’m very aware that the main route to feeling the connection to place I’m longing for is just to stay in one place long enough to make deep and lasting connections, build community, and develop all the things that we are looking for in a home. This trip is about finding the place with the landscape, local culture and just the right blend of everything else so that we can create all the things that we are looking for. And when we do, I’m going to dig my feet deep into the earth and finally put down those roots.
(This was originally written as an article for the UK Permaculture Association magazine)