After 7 months living on a tiny farm in rural Finland, it’s fair to say that some days I am lonely.
My gaze drifts frequently from laptop screen to the small wooded hillside I can see from my desk. Last week, as I wrote, four roe deer picked their way delicately along the ridge, merging seamlessly with spruce and birch, winter chanterelle and bilberry. They padded forward, single-file, of one purpose, connected through ties of blood, instinct and mutual aid.
As they ghosted between tree trunks and out of view, I had a moment of reflection. How did seeing those beings make me feel? There was the initial sense of elation I always get when seeing wild animals, the rush twitchers and hunters alike feed on, time and time again. Then a misplaced sense of achievement, such as an Edwardian butterfly collector might have known; another tick on the list of animals ‘bagged’.
So far, at the beginning of our new life here this has included moose, European beaver, raccoon dog, hare, swan, crane, a beautiful Northern goshawk feasting on one of our chickens. I watched her for an hour as she meticulously made the most of her quarry; my initial outrage mellowing to admiration and to a need not to disturb this essential meal. I work daily at my sense of gratitude, my fortune to live among these beautiful creatures, in this beautiful place.
The lingering sensation though was one of difference, of otherness from those creatures, and as it happens, from many beings in my own species.
The notion of trade is inherent in all of life’s choices. Trading up, working at a trade, an exchange of goods and services. Until 5 years ago I had understood the undertone of the word trade to be one of getting what you want, normally via the exchange of capital, of money. I had felt for years before, with increasing disquiet, the keen societal expectation of economic progress, of being at the bottom of the ladder looking up at the rear ends of those more fabulous than me, straining to get higher and higher, rung by rung. Trade always felt aggressively acquisitive to me, and it appeared that I wasn’t very good at it.
But then my wife, small boys and I made our first serious speculative trade and I realised that I had it all wrong and, as the Finns put it, we were climbing arse-first up the tree. We packed up, left the cooperative bakery we had founded, sold our house, left friends and family, gave away most of our belongings and moved to Catalonia, to live in a 28m2 yurt amongst dusty ochre hills; trying to really walk the permaculture walk.
And when I analysed this trade, I realised something important. It was as much about what we were prepared to lose as what we might gain.
Trade in a capitalist system is a desensitising process. When true value is replaced by monetary value we societally glaze over. 300,000 dollars or pounds or euros to buy a house. It’s a lot of money, but that’s what banks and mortgages and jobs and debt and the endless towering ladder above us are for. We become desensitised to the actual trade at stake. 30+ years of our toil in exchange for shelter. This pattern repeats for all our personal basic requirements; food, water, warmth. We mutely accept this status quo, this trade, as an inevitable prerequisite of human life. All the while discreetly averting our eyes to the flip side of the exchange, the dirty answer to where the money comes from in the first place. Where the real value lies.
Yet another trade-off and the biggest loss of all, for all.
Capitalism is the mechanism by which the natural world, our living planet, is raped and murdered in order to create wealth for a very few human beings. We can dress this up any way we like, but that is the raw truth of the deal playing out, and our genteel acquiescence is tantamount to an Auschwitz guard dipping his gaze as the desperate hoards trudge past to their ashen graves.
So, what if we inspected this alternative truth to the trading game? What if we accept that trade is about loss, not about gain? What if we stopped climbing arse-first up the tree and instead started looking directly at the beautiful verdant boughs before us?
What if we made loss the true value of trade? Then things get interesting again.
Place your perceived valuables on the exchange scales to determine their actual worth:
On one brass pan goes your career, specialisms in narrow fields of expertise. Then your large house, your Caribbean holiday, your gym membership and your Audi, your air-freighted food, your air conditioning, your social status and its anxiety.
On the other scale pan is placed gently:
Four pensive roe deer, a calloused beetroot muddy from the field, aching muscles, one glass jar of fresh goat’s milk, dirty fingernails, a clearer understanding of the what, how and why of that day’s work, 8 hours of deep black sleep.
The balance tips…
We made our trade — not that we ever owned the Audi mind you — and started a process of giving up what we thought was important in order to try to find what we now know to be invaluable.
The transition from media workers, to community bakers, to Catalonian olive farmers and now to Finnish permaculture homesteaders has been humbling, exhausting, deepening, bruising. Life is no easier than it was, just differently difficult. Days are long, money has become more and more scarce, the physical work has intensified over the years. Life can be frustrating and disappointing and hard. The feelings of loneliness and of otherness are often confusingly intertwined. By moving countries, cultures, iterations of our existence, we have left behind loved ones, friendships, familiarity, but also our place within the current consensus. We have positioned ourselves metaphorically and physically on the outside of ‘normal’ life.
It has not been easy by any means but I have to believe it has been worthwhile. We have found solidarity and encouragement throughout the years. Other souls sickened by the insidious way of the world, seeking a route back home, to themselves, to a simpler joy, to their place in the natural order of things. And we have, slowly, begun to find our own way home too.
I believed that we would dig in on our homestead in Catalonia, that our regenerative instincts would find allies in practice and knowledge and that that part of the world would remain our long-term home. But the Great Unravelling, the disintegration of our climate, the decimation of our companion species, and all the political and social turmoil wrought by such carnage are happening too fast. We felt outpaced by negative change, unable to adapt and respond adequately enough, soon enough. My wife needed to feel safer, feel home. Knowing all that we know about the true state of the planet, we made the next trade. We lost our Mediterranean farm, our friends and colleagues, our acquired language skills, our nascent sense of community. We moved North again, further this time, to Finland, to Johanna’s homeland. To a place where we believe we really can dig in, and where most importantly, we feel our boys have the best chance to thrive.
But once again, I’m new. I’m linguistically and culturally illiterate in my country of residence. No, that’s not entirely fair. In our near 20 year relationship I have visited Finland many times, eaten the food, participated in some of the customs and traditions of rural Finnish life, but still… Once again we have purposefully positioned ourselves outside of the insanity of mainstream Western industrial thought and action. Outside the social prestige of full time employment, outside the expectation of the big house, the sleek car, the lauded career. We have come here instead to try to find our true place; to try to learn how to live at the beginning of the end of the age of stupidity; to try and give the ultimate legacy to our children — the ability to live in harmony with this desperate keening planet of ours.
It is probably many lifetimes’ work to fully unlearn and rewild and relearn again, but somehow we must start that journey collectively or face the ensuing chaos fully unprepared, and then undoubtedly succumb to its brutal force. We must lose many, many things in order to gain only the most precious few.
My wife and I think constantly about the what ifs, the if onlys. What if we had started this in earnest in our early twenties not our late thirties? If only we had been in one place for all that time, building a truly regenerative life, what might we have achieved by now? But, as our good friend would say, everything is as it should be.
And then while researching this piece, I discover that the word trade has another ancient meaning lost to modern minds and lips. Meaning that offers new interpretations, new connections:
Trade: Late Middle English (as a noun): from Middle Low German, literally ‘track’, of West Germanic origin; related to tread. Early senses included ‘course, way of life’
a: obsolete : a path traversed : way
b: archaic : a track or trail left by a person or animal : tread
My eye drifts once again to that wooded hillside beyond the fields, my thoughts to roe deer traversing their own path, leaving their own tracks, making their own trades. Our own journeying a subtle resonance of theirs.
And in that fleeting, peaceful moment, I feel a little less lonely, a little less other.