Getting this post started feels a little bit like riding a grasshopper—some great leaps are required in the framing. Please bear with me, dear reader!
One of the aspects of modern life that makes a mockery of any claims I might make to a simple life living from the land and doing no harm is the amount of waste that makes its way from our home to the Ecowerf recycling plant (the web page is in Dutch but you’ll get the picture). At least it doesn’t end up in a landfill, I tell myself. Then I think… I’d better check (after all, if you find it on the internet, it must be true, right?). And lo, it seems that Ecowerf sends its PMD to Indaver for sorting and processing into pellets that can then be made into other things. My superficial mind feels better about our minimal participation in consumer society until I think of the energy that goes into all that making and using all that industrial kit and the buildings that house it. Then I settle. This is what it is for the moment; getting all indignant doesn’t help.
(Reader warning) Now a bunny hop over to the next plank in my framing:
Catching up on what’s been blog-worthy in Dorpsstraat while I haven’t been writing is a matter of scrolling through screens of photos and noticing what stands out as I hold that question in my mind. I was not expecting to be revisiting humanure again so soon (it seems like it makes an appearance in every other post…) but that’s what leapt out at me, so here goes.
The thing with the active ingredients of human excrement is that they eat through wood in no time. This means that we were regularly faced with decrepit and crumbling humanure hoppers (the only thing still holding together was the blue nylon rope!) in need of replacing. Back in early spring, Ria and Simon returned from an expedition into the outside world with a trailer full of what could only be described as very solid slabs of grey plastic, which they proceeded to assemble into a spacious 3-compartment humanure processing arrangement that will probably keep its shape as long as nuclear waste. You will have guessed from my framing of this post that this noble plastic construction issued from the recycling process described in the links.
A lot of framing for a short post – but the photos tell the tale.
As I sit down to write, with the intention of publishing another post on the Dorpsstraat blog, I wonder whether anybody will read this. I have withdrawn from most social media, so have no way of advertising the novelty of an update. Is anyone still following the saga? Or has the deafening silence of the more than two years that have passed since my last post prompted our few faithful followers to conclude there’s nothing to see here and move on? And yet, this might be a message in a bottle that washes up on the shores of a random plane of attention somewhere, somewhen, someone… bringing medicine.
… And what years they have been, those two years of radio silence from Dorpsstraat: from where I sit (in a place I couldn’t have sat a few months ago—but that’s another story) they have been years of collective, global insanity. Those most spared from it, I suspect, have been those who have been living most intimately with the land, in sober simplicity. I suspect, too, that that will continue to be the case, only more so!
During these two years, I, for one, have scarcely left this place, barring a weekly trip to Diest to pick up our order from the ‘buurderij’—a local farmers’ initiative—and shop for essentials (and chocolate!). I have been entirely reliant on my housemates and the land and its denizens for embodied company, and I have not lacked. Online social life has been both satisfying and meaningful. Ria, Simon and myself have been immersed in the beautiful unfolding of Collective Presencing, a powerful manifestation of Ria’s life work which has begun to bear fruit in many unimagined ways (more about that later, too!).
It’s hard to know where to start after such a long lapse in writing, but when I contemplate that question, I land with a desire to sing a hymn of appreciation for the fellow humans with whom I share this hearth and home. I cannot speak for who they are, only they can do that. What I can do is bear witness, from my perspective, to the ways in which their unique contribution—the ways in which they embody our operating principles (ask for what you need, offer what you can, do only what you feel like doing)—have shaped and shape our daily lives and this place we call home.
Let’s start with our latest arrival, Simon. First drawn here by Ria in March 2019, Simon has doubled the amount of Englishness in our community, bringing us up to par with the indigenous Flemish. He has been industriously learning Dutch since his arrival, so we can all communicate directly with each other. A cornucopia of warm and generous hugs at any moment of encounter, Simon’s eye has spotted and tended technical details of plumbing and drainage on the land that we had been scratching our heads over and kicking down the road since we arrived here. He has brought the delights of home-baked sourdough bread, pizza, curries, stews and exceptionally yummy jams, his muscles and stamina (and his pick-axe and mattock!) to the uprooting of stumps (the sloe bushes keep getting out of hand) and chopping and shifting of firewood; his meticulous design thinking and building skills have contributed to the betterment of life (more on that later, too!). He is ever available to lick the bowls when Chrisje is baking, polish off the left-overs, and lug yellow buckets down the stairs. His generosity and willingness to take a financial risk have allowed us to embark on the next wave of structural improvements to the place (to be continued…). And last (for now) but perhaps most awesome of all, he had the courage to step into a existing community, embracing the challenge of engaging in domestic relationship with not one woman, but three.
Chrisje brings beauty to everything she touches. Thanks to Chrisje, wherever one looks there are quirky decorative features to draw the eye, there are mown paths through the wilderness and parts of the land which are soft and green and inviting to lounging in the shade with a long cold drink. Thanks to Chrisje, things get painted, oiled, maintained. Thanks to Chrisje, the windows get cleaned, the rubbish and recycling get put out on time, we never run out of cooking gas and our shared living space is way more spick-and-span than it would be if I was left to my own devices (although it wouldn’t be fair to say we don’t all clean up after ourselves and each other regularly)! Thanks to Chrisje, all the little birds in the neighbourhood are fat and happy throughout the winter and early spring, and the picture windows in our living room are like an avian aquarium, where we can sit for hours watching a diversity of feathered friends zooming in and out for snacks and bickering with one another (that’s mainly the greenfinches!) During these two years of lock-down and withdrawal from the world, Chrisje has been the one maintaining most ties with family and friends in the surrounding community, regularly supplementing our degree of domestic sophistication with treasure from the kringwinkels (second-hand shops) in the towns she frequents. And I haven’t even mentioned the baking! Chrisje likes to feed people (as well as birds), which can be difficult when living in a household with individuals with diverse nutritional preferences, but she knows how to tempt us all with her gorgeous cakes and tarts, and her soups are sans pareil. Whenever guests arrive, there is something deliciously decadent waiting to greet them. Nothing makes a person feel welcome like freshly baked cake!
Ria is most often to be found (when she’s not in her ‘office’ on calls with interesting folks all over the world) outside on the land. She often says she never knows what she will be doing when she puts on her gardening boots in the morning and steps out the door. I am frequently amazed by her stamina, as she forages for things that are asking for tending, from dawn to dusk, come rain or shine. It’s thanks to Ria that the land has the “shapes” it has (so different from when we first arrived here). She is a form-giver, sculpting sit spots and habitats here and there, as conditions suggest, inviting life to do its thing in even more beautiful ways. It’s thanks to Ria that we are very well supplied with a wide variety of high-quality veggies for a large part of the year and there are flowers everywhere you look. Until recently, it was almost always Ria who took care of a steady supply of empty, clean yellow buckets for our two composting toilets. In all weathers, without ever complaining! (I always think our injunction to “do only what you feel like doing” gets stretched a little thin when it comes to emptying yellow buckets in the depth of winter…). Ria is also the one with her eye on many of the burdens of the homeowner. She keeps an eye on what needs tending, tends to be the one who coordinates any work that needs doing that we can’t do ourselves, and will do (with Chrisje, and now also Simon) much of what we can. Ria is networked in with a lot of the local organisations dedicated to tending wildlife and growing gardens, so she will always be found sharing goodies at local seed exchanges, or taking delivery of the seeds she will be planting all year, grains for the chickens, etc. I could go on…
Helen (that’s me) brings you these blog posts. And so I’m also responsible for the long silences! Of course, because it’s me who’s writing, you can only ever gain partial perspective of what unfolds here—seeing it through my eyes. I’m the one who doesn’t end up in the pictures because I’m on the other side of the camera. That’s how I like it. While I am aware of some of the roles I play in this little community (some obvious, others invisible), there are many that I am oblivious to: you’d have to ask the others! For one thing, I guess I’m 50% responsible for a lot of the hugging that goes on around here (my Flemish sisters aren’t great huggers when left to their own devices). Being the one with the regular income, I have been quietly paying off the mortgage and building loans over the last 12 years—by the end of the year we’ll be debt free! For the same reason, I bring in the money whenever I can—by no means always, but, in the spirit of “offer what you can”, that has most frequently been what I have had to offer! I lack many of the skills that the others bring in to shaping the place. One thing I am, though, is a harvester. Thanks to me, the shelves in the cellar are full of chutneys, pickles, preserves, jams and jellies, juices and syrups, dried herbs and tinctures. The bookshelf in the living room sports a lengthening row of picture books, one or two volumes per year, documenting our shared life here since the beginning. I maintain the patches of flowering meadow and obey the silent requests from the woodland for grooming and maintenance. And I hold space: for the beautiful souls who live here (including Twinkie the cat, and the chickens and all the wildlife), for the wild edges and the trees, and for the place as a whole—the entity that is “Dorpsstraat 136 te Ransberg”.
One thing is clear, and I wake every day thankful for this blessing: with its ups and downs, this little community works. And what makes it work is our interdependence. We need each other to live well here, and we know it. So we each give unstintingly of ourselves because that is who we are, and that is what we do.
Ten years ago today – 24 April 2010 – Ria and I set foot for the first time on the land we now call home. Back then, Ria was living with me and my kids in Wolowe Saint Pierre (Brussels) and Chrisje was living at the Koningsmolen in Eliksem. Now all three of us are well rooted in Ransberg, and Simon has joined us as Ria’s partner.
It goes without saying that a lot has changed in ten years. We have changed, the house has changed, the land has changed. And all of those changes have been, it feels, for the better. This place has been such a nurturing, spacious and magical partner in the unfolding of our lives together. I would like to pay tribute to our shared adventure with some then-and-now pictures bearing witness to all that has transpired in 10 years.
The changes are even visible from space – Ria, above all, has shaped the land, installing vegetable beds, flower beds, fruit bushes, the green house…
The front facade has perhaps changed the least: new windows, a new front door, a new roof…
In early February this year we invited friends over on 2 consecutive weekends to help out with our ‘woodland management’ work. This meant taking out some of the trees that have grown up naturally on the land – in the part beneath the ‘cultivated zone’ that produces our food.
It came as a shock to me, as we were preparing for this undertaking, to realise that we three human denizens of this place hold such very different perspectives on what I call ‘the wilderness’.
In permaculture, it is considered core practice to leave a part of the land wild: “The principle of zoning in permaculture is that whatever is in most need of human attention should be placed closest to the centre of human activity. The furthest zone is ‘zone 5’. It is the wilderness… i.e. the place where the needs of wild plants and animals take top priority. Yields of produce for human use are only taken when to do so benefits the wild species, as when a flower meadow is mown for hay. Every permaculture design, however small, should have a zone 5.” (taken from Permaculture UK’s knowledge base). Over the years, ‘zone 5’ at Dorpsstraat 136 has become a gorgeous profusion of over-the-head greenery, wild flowers and trees – primarily birch, but now other species are starting to come in. It is also the burial place of my cat Ninja, who’s benign shade now presides over the grove in the centre, stalking ethereal moles and mice. In the summer it is a sun-dappled, fragrant, rustling, buzzing, chirping paradise of cool presence, where the Earth Power is thick enough to cut with a knife. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
Our work days went well – the first day, Fernando came and helped, the second day Momodou, Eike, George and Stella showed up. We are so grateful for their presence! Everything got done in friendship and ease. In between cutting branches and carting brushwood to the boundary fence, I ran around ahead of the chainsaw, touching in with my condemned friends, to let them know what was about to happen (in a bit of a panic, to tell the truth!) My human friends were indulgent and understanding. I had some moments of trauma when I tuned into one of the felled birches and felt its shock. I had to sit and process the intensity through my body for about 15 minutes, until it subsided.
When I tune into nature, I receive information, communication. Sitting astride the downed trunk, drenching my father’s big white handkerchiefs with my generic grief, I learned that trees are not like humans: cut off a human’s head and the sentience of the whole ceases. (There’s still a whole lot of life that continues inside a human body after death, but that’s another story.) Cut down a tree, and it gradually stops growing. Whatever life force is in the roots flows out into the underground community of the woodland. Whatever sentience is in the tree – and there is plenty, believe me! – continues in the logs, in the twigs, in the leaves, as they compost down into the soil, nestle into the body of the brush wall, dry in the log pile, and finally find their way into the fire, where that sentience transmutes into the flames and whisks away up through the chimney and into the night sky. To me, that sentience feels just like love. It is unconditionally warm, forgiving, mild and wise.
This profoundly unscientific understanding has helped me sense more deeply into the nature of the living systems that support and surround us, that we normally consider (if at all) as so much ‘environment’. Most of the folks that I know don’t tend to switch on their relational sensory systems for what lives outside of the human sphere. One of the strongest impressions remaining with me like a haunting since the second work day is the picture of our friends striding around, efficiently and joyously “getting it done”, oblivious to the possibility of treading on sacred ground, terminating the lives of living beings. I am in no way reproaching them for this. There was nothing in our invitation to them that would bring this dimension to their awareness. I sit with my own failure to frame our enterprise in any way. We just all went to it, without any of the hosting practices that normally hold our work together and give it significance and meaning beyond the banal humdrum of the everyday.
The rawness of my heart as I write this tells me that next time it will be different. I can hope that I will approach our next work day, whenever it transpires and whatever it involves, with more consciousness, and absolutely trust that our friends will know how to hear and honour that request and invitation to tread with care and intention on this Earth. The more I learn from this small piece of wilderness, the more my being expands and comes alive with the scintillating life, love and wisdom that surrounds us. If I am lonely for company, all I have to do is visit the woodpile. When I do, though, I have to be sure to take my handkerchief!
July 1 to 7 2018 – For a while now, it has felt as if our place and our micro-community have been ready to invite more guests in to enjoy the peace and beauty of this land. The garden is burgeoning with multihued (predominantly green) goodness, the trees are groaning with ripening fruit and our faces are stained with berry juice. There has been no rain for weeks, the skies have been blue all day with ecstatic displays of colour around sunset, serenaded by orchestral swellings of birdsong – punctuated by the tones of the wind chime as it is stirred by a cooling breeze. All this is leaving us in a state of aesthetic arrest, with minds without words, peaceful hearts and nourished souls.
Ecstatic displays of colour
Into this paradise, Nadine and Anna have joined us for a week-long writing retreat. Nadine is sleeping in her tent down at the bottom of the land, and Anna is ensconced in her old bed in the front room, which has now been done up to offer guest accommodation. A few days in, we can see a pattern to our days together – predictably structured by mealtimes! After breakfast, those of us participating in the writing retreat circle up for our morning check in under the wild cherry tree by the pond. How are we doing? What intention do we hold for our writing? What do we need from each other in support of that? We scatter to the four directions and do our own thing until lunch time, when we come together around a table laden with deliciousness lovingly provided by Chrisje. Afternoons are for writing – or for napping! – with a sweet treat at four (the famous Flemish ‘vieuruurtje’), culminating in a light, early dinner with good conversation, followed by a gentle slide down into contemplation of the sunset and sleep.
It is fascinating to see that what might appear to be a single pass-time (writing) has manifested in such different ways in each participant in this retreat. Creative expression in the context of the ‘transformative writing’ of fan fiction (Anna); calls for tender, portfolio pieces and blog posts (Nadine); editing book chapters, journaling and blogging (Helen); shaping articles and blog posts (Ria); global communication (arranging logistics and travel arrangements) and avoiding writing altogether (Steve). Each according to our needs and predilections.
One evening we had an after-dinner online conversation with veteran writing practitioner Christina Baldwin near Seattle (in her morning). Rather than talk about what we were writing, we touched into many different aspects of the why’s and how’s of the art. We covered quite a vast territory: from the notion of leaving traces (on paper) for the future, to how to dance with writer’s block, to journaling as a daily practice, to the power of storytelling. Above all, it was sweet to reconnect with a distant friend for a meaningful conversation.
Retreat as pop-up community
One thing has become abundantly clear from this experience: the preciousness of having time and space, in simplicity, in nature, to align ourselves in the practices of community. Being together, sharing certain activities – checking in in circle in the morning, preparing and sharing meals (here in the Dorpsstraat we have the added bonus of Chrisje’s generous offering of her culinary gifts to the community), collective inquiry into whatever is the calling question for our retreat – with ample room for individual autonomy in between.
This beloved place has again shown its delight to be hosting people into the community of all beings – so much life is present here, comfortably alongside the human. All those who come here are nourished, humbled, awed and bathed in the beauty and abundance of well-stewarded nature. Perhaps this practice of pop-up community will be a more regular feature of our life here on the land, as our Home Place grows into its next level.
It’s that time of year again! You are welcome to come and visit us between 13.00 and 18.00 on Saturday 2 and Sunday 4 June. Ours is one of the 250 gardens participating in this years outreach organised by VELT, the Flemish eco-gardening association.
We have flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruit bushes and trees, a pond, chickens (well, one chicken), some discretely integrated landscape art, plenty of wilderness and even a trampoline for those who want to kick their shoes off and blow off some steam – followed by refreshments and pleasant conversation if you want to hang around.
The address is: Dorpsstraat 136, 3470 Ransberg (Kortenaken)
Uncovering the tank requires spadework… Luckily, Ria knows where to dig!
I don’t do ‘new year’s resolutions’. But in 2018 I will be writing regularly here, where for the last few years my energy and attention have simply been elsewhere. Not that I haven’t been present and engaged on the land and in the house – I just haven’t been writing about it for the rest of the world.
For a personal update – on 1 January 2018 I became a(n albeit prematurely) retired person! This month sees me relinquishing my final home in Brussels (I’ve lived in 7 different ‘communes’ in my 30 years there) and moving lock, stock and barrel to Ransberg… shedding many locks, stocks and barrels on the way, to a variety of appreciative new homes.
What has stood out for me in recent months of life at 136 Dorpsstraat has been a more intense and intentional relationship with our ‘neighbours’. I don’t mean just the folks literally next door, but people that we have encountered over our years here who share the same kinds of concerns about finding alternative ways of living that consume fewer resources, shorten the production chains and stay as close to ‘nature’ as possible, all the while regenerating a sense of community. We have discovered that there is much to learn from and with each other and much enjoyment to be had in just hanging out together in companionable creative activity. I’m sure I’ll be sharing more stories about these good people and their passions as the year progresses.
The story that is living inside me for this post, though, relates directly to one of the core intentional practice patterns of The New Life:
“Offer what you can and ask for what you need.”
I think it goes without saying that it is easier to practice generosity than facilitate that practice for others… by asking for help! In this instance, the Kosmic Agent that invited us into practice was a block in the drainage pipes leading away from the septic tank that normally protects us from any direct relationship with our grey water and the goodness that flushes down our one ‘conventional’ toilet. This new situation brought it back up into our kitchen sink, followed, a few hours later by an almighty, gurgling burp and, much more alarming, a fragrant pool spreading out from under the fridge – suggesting a leak in a pipe under the stairs that we cannot get at without demolishing part of our living room. Oops…
We were quite a few days without showers or baths while scratching our heads over how to get to the bottom of the problem. Perhaps the septic tank was full and needed emptying? Did that. Phew! Now we can wash ourselves again… But no. Repetition of same unsavoury and worrying symptoms.
Head-scratching with Guy
The usual reflex (at least in ‘civilised’ society) is to call the plumber. But when you’re out in the country and not attached to the main sewage system, this can add up to major expense. As it happens, all our current pocket money and piggy banks are being channelled into the renovation of the two front rooms (in preparation to receive my stuff from Brussels), so that was a solution to avoid. However, while calling the plumber is a nice, clean, transactional interaction, where money changes hands and there is no further obligation, asking for help freely given implies an ongoing relationship of reciprocity and mutual obligation that society at large seems to have lost the capacity to sustain.
We are lucky, therefore, to have a delightful ‘go-to’ man for these technical problems, in the person of Guy who lives down the road at the house with the Oxfam banner fluttering outside the door and all the chickens in the yard (that you see only when invited inside). And Guy, when applied to, has one of those black snakes that you can feed into dark pipes and, if propelled by pressurised water, will eat its way through blockages (provided they aren’t brick walls…). The source of pressurised water, though, was not forthcoming. We didn’t have an attachment to connect the snake to the hosepipe. And the tap feeding the hosepipe isn’t what you’d call pressurised. So another step was needed.
Since Ria was busy papering the walls in the front room and doing her quarterly taxes, Chrisje was unwell and out of energy and Steve (my beloved, nomad-on-a-visit partner) doesn’t speak the language, it was up to me to overcome my trepidation, arm myself with my ignorance and Guy’s snake, and go ring at the bell of the neighbour on the other side – Geert – whom observation over the years has revealed to have every imaginable piece of kit a householder and smallholder might require – to ask if he might have such a water-compressor gadget… which, indeed, he did. Along with a snake designed to fit it!
Steve being a true-blood hero
Intra-species communication among humans being what it is (a very hit-and-miss affair), I had to go back round there three times before we managed to get the contraption working. Yesterday, finally, Steve put in the wet, muddy work to bore through the blockage and restore the flow. Ria and Chris celebrated by leaping into the bath tub later that evening (well, we had to test the system, yes?!) and lo, when the plug was pulled, a lovely glugluglu ensued, with NO reflux and NO burp.
All that remains to do is return all the loaned equipment, with thanks and some appropriate home-made token of appreciation (a pot of raspberry jam comes to mind), and an expression of desire to remain in neighbourly relationship on a more regular basis.
It feels good to share this story – as the first of many, now that I have the spaciousness and the calling to revive this humble blog, which is so dear to my heart.
On the afternoon of Friday 19 June we welcomed Pierre and Leslie, Joost, Melinda and Christina. Anna, Chrisje, Michaela and her daughter Gabriele and myself joined in the making. Heather and Chrisje both stepped in to support me in the kitchen.
The weather was cooler, there were moments of rain. Everyone found shelter and the show went on.
Saturday was marked by two momentous occurrences. The first was a visit from Ton Akkermans, who had taught Gabriella, Quentin and Heather the bowl-making craft, together with his partner Carolina. It felt like such an honour to have the whole lineage of this sacred work present at this special time in this potent place. In the evening we held a solstice celebration, with a sound weaving by Heather, Gabriella and Quentin, followed by supper and a fire circle. In addition to our workshop community, we welcomed Christina’s partner David, our neighbour Claude and Matthieu with his son Nicolas. The workshop closed on Sunday with another crop of beautiful instruments, duly initiated and set to travel off to different corners of Europe.
The experience of the Forge@Ransberg has worked in subtle ways on this place and our shared story. It is my hope that Chrisje and I can build up some facilities here to continue the bowl-making work independently, with support from Ton, Gabriella, Heather and Quentin. The workshops are certainly something to repeat.