”See? If you give it food, you have a cat.”

Water, data, heat — ecological connections at a household scale

Alexandra Stef
Aug 8 · 7 min read

A couple of months ago we planned two weeks of off-the-grid living in my partner’s grandparents’ village. A place remote not so much by bumpy road as by weak connections to cellular signal and running water.

The grandparents’ house is the last on a little side road branching out from a dirt road stemming from the paved one, where village names are announced. A couple more hours’ drive and we’d be in Ukraine. Or Moldova.

Past the house, the forest begins.

The line between domestic and wild is marked by a wooden fence. Roses and cornfields are a couple of meters apart. On the roses side sits the house with its outbuildings — a summer kitchen and a storeroom. On the other stand the tool sheds, the toilet, the livestock and the field.

Each turns a benefit: the making of doors, disposing of waste, vigilance (although a fox was recently missed by the tied-up dogs; -9 chicken), eggs and chicken meat, beans, carrots, onions, tomatoes, parsley, beetroot, pumpkins (for roasted seeds, the cultural equivalent of popcorn), cucumbers, cabbages, bell peppers, raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, plums, pears, apples, sour cherries, walnuts. Plus corn, loads of it. A farmer market’s worth of fresh produce. Past them, the undomesticated forest. Fire wood and grazing land for sheep and cows. Occassionally, for deer. Less often still, for grown-up grandchildren who still know their way around the creek.

We came here to work the 9 to 5 shift remote, then have the night shift to write without distractions. So far, neither part of the plan is going according to schedule. But the unplanned is abundent.

Three meals a day, made from scratch. Each with at least 5 participants around a table, facing each other. Attentive to what they serve into their plates (some observe the fast, some eat ”of sweet”, foods of animal origin) and to the timing to invite for more. The delicate art of refusing without offending (yet to master). No screens. No walls. Juices and crumbles dripping on the paved garden floor picked clean by the elusive cat or by the chicken at their dinnertime release into the garden ”for grazing”. A 3-phased dishwashing station — from water bucket to detergent bowl to rinsing bowl.

Spending time with the grandparents, walking barefoot, nailing in a new fence door, picking ingredients for the guacamole straight from the field (avocadoes and lemons have yet to make it into the local portfolio), chasing the desperado chicken who keeps escaping the shed, hissing for the cat, scratching the allergies to fatty foods once familiar, all happening at a pace of their own.

As is writing things other than intended. Not quite the masters thesis in anthropology, but not too far from it, either. Reflections and interpretations of the shorter kind.

Here are a couple, on the explicit connections to vital resources made invisible when you live in urban environments your entire life.

The connection to water via the fountain at the end of the road, where the valley, exploded with corn, transitions into the forest. The guardian to this resource are other villagers. They use the same source of water, so conspicuous consumption is out of the question. Fountain water is for drinking, cooking and washing up. It’s rainwater, which everyone collects, that is used for watering the roses and, occassionally, the field (to save the very few — drough, as most natural conditions, is inescapable).

My connection to water is the faucet. It was late in my teens that I discovered the pipes delivering this water and where they came from, and only got as far as the building’s basement. The guardian to this resource is an institution. It controls a network larger than I can picture.

The connection to data via a keypad mobile phone where evening calls fill grandma in on what her two children and their families are doing. The extended family (sisters, second nephews) checks in weekly. She keeps tabs on everyone, makes appropriate puns and teases, and informs grandpa only of the truly newsworthy. She’s 91.

My connection to data is through a smartphone that doubles as a laptop, which makes it all I need to do 90% of my work. 90% of that 90% is internet-based. Which makes my work dependent on a screen, electricity and an internet connection (with the government as its guardian?). It took me 3 days to understand what the ”you are not your work” mantra might allude to. I think it means that you can do things other than work and not count them as time wasted. You can talk, eat, read, sleep, fetch water. If work is staring at a screen, coding words into a keyboard and feeling anxious, things-other-than-work is moving your body, resting your body, looking at things happening live, smelling things, feeling the sun, then the cold.

The connection to heating energy is through the forest wood. I have yet to discover what that resource circuit looks like, but I know that the guardian is the state via forest rangers, overzealous ones. As a testament to the worth of wood in this and larger ecosystems, its policing: 95 year-old grandpa was filmed by a forest ranger while cutting a dead branch from a cherry tree. His land, his cherry tree, not his right to cut from it. Lots to chew on here — big things like property and exploitation and rights and proportionality.

My connection to heating energy is electric, via cables that carry it from sources unknown to me. Ironically, it is mostly used to cool down the apartment in the scorching hot summer days, by air conditioner. In this chirpici (a mix of wood and adobe) house we’re in, mid-august, the room temperature is just right.

In this household ecosystem, the connection between need and resource is easy to see. You sow the input and eat, store or trade the output. You see the infrastructure and the full chain of production and consumption. It’s alive, kicking and quacking. Food, water, protection, shelter. Material connections are eco-logically arranged, optimised for best use. Waste is something that urbanites bring into this quasi autarchic system as bottled water and plastic-wrapped sliced bread.

This is an image of ecology and circularity when those things were first naturalness, then precariousness, now hipsterdom. Downshifting, eco-living, homesteading. Ecological constraints are driving them all. We’re just better at branding now.

And ecology extends to social arrangements, all the way to personhood.

In this village living, there seem to be reliefs for two big modern pains. One is relief from finding purpose. You don’t have to question the reasons for doing something, since the doing is determined by the need — to eat, to sheltered sleep, to extend controlling power over natural resources (granted, the reason for having children might have acquired more idealistic meanings). As the doing comes from the needing, the being comes from the doing.

The other is relief from right timing and decision-making. You do or don’t do things because the time is right or wrong for them. Time is outside of you. It's climatic time. It’s religious calendar time. It’s social time. Animal lifecycles time. Field working time. Cheese curding up time. Fasting time. Feasting time. Mourning time.

The cat went missing because the food got scarce. ”What will it hunt, if it gets its food from us?!” said grandma, puzzled by the suggestion to feed it. As the grandchildren left cheese and fish bones around, the cat returned. It’s around, still. ”If you give it food, you have a cat.” What kind of cat, it is yet to see. Is it still a small predator of rodents or is it a house pet that needs feeding in exchange for presence?

What kind of humans, when you give them invisible infrastructures and untraceable food, it is yet to see.

Alexandra Stef

Written by

Communities ally. Exploring participatory public innovation. Bucharest-based.

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