Tuesday, September 04, 2007

(we invited our volunteer, Sam, to write a guest blog … )

Self-Imposed Slavery: I knew as soon as I arrived that there was going to be a fair bit of work cut out for me. There was the list of jobs that had been prepared for my friend Emily—the volunteer that never materialised—with the additional task of restoring Stuart’s and Gabrielle’s faith in volunteers. Not being shy of a bit of hard graft, and having had plenty of voluntary experience during my adventures around Europe over the past 3 months, I was confident that I was up to the job.

Lugging big lumps of stone, heaving straw-bales, lobbing logs into the trailer, all of these I found bizarrely satisfying. Especially as I had just spent two weeks engaged in pleasurable, but not very productive activities in my home towns of Brighton and Rennes, partying myself into a state of mild ill-health. It was highly restorative to get my blood and body into action again, in the good Breton countryside air, surrounded by the therapeutic sights and sounds of a permaculture smallholding. It was doubly refreshing to be spending time in their little forest, as I am a woodsman at heart. Perhaps a little over-qualified for such slavery, I had the chance to rise above my station by providing Stu and Gab with some advice for their woodland management activities. The wood is small, relatively young, but with plenty of potential for coppice produce, forest gardening and amenity benefits, all three of which feed nicely into the preservation and promotion of woodland bio-diversity.

I also had the opportunity to engage in one of my favourite activities: tree planting. With a weeping willow sapling under my arm, we strolled through the wood, until I chose a spot by the riverbank, ideal for such a fine tree as, once it is well established, it can dangle its branches in the cool fresh water, and provide shade to happy picnickers. I always feel that the planting of a tree gives one a long-term connection with a place, and it’s also important for me because, after 5 years in the tree-surgery business, cutting bits off, I am keen to redress the balance!

My bird had less feathers, but more goo inside…

Another highlight for me, was the drawing of a goose. My dietary situation at the moment is a bit of a mixture. On one hand I am interested in ethical eating: feeling confident about the processes involved in food production from beginning to end. I saw the goose gabbling that very morning; then experienced very directly, the processes involved in getting it ready for the oven; finally getting to eat the delicious meal that I had a hand in (literally!) preparing. On the other hand, I also practice ‘Freeganism’, i.e. if it’s free, I’ll eat it! This meal fitted into both those categories. Freeganism has links to the traditional French practice of gleaning (collecting food from fields and orchards that has been missed by the harvesting process) the traditional west-country practice of scrumping, and the more contemporary phenomenon of ‘skip-diving’. All of which are a means of recycling the excessive and unnecessary ‘waste’ that our society produces in abundance.

The Wages of Benevolence Of course, the work I have been doing here can in no way be considered slavery. Firstly, I pride myself on my high degree of emancipation, and secondly, I received much in reward for my labours: fantastic, home-grown, local foods, expertly cooked by Gabrielle, kept me fuelled all week long (not to mention the beer and wine) good accommodation in the yurt (these dwellings are always a pleasure to sleep in, as well as being somewhat more luxurious than my 11/2 man tent) and great company, with plenty of stimulating discussion, tales of past experience and laughs shared by all.

On the Saturday evening, I had an unexpected taste of the local culture. My hosts were away having dinner with friends, giving me a chance to enjoy a peaceful evening of reading, writing, and relaxing. Or so I thought. As I went to bed down in the yurt at about 1am, I thought I heard a rather large car stereo pumping out beats and bass. On closer listening, it was the unmistakable boom of a sound-system, coming from not so very far away. Being always ready to sniff out a party, I decided it was a chance not to be missed, so I hopped on the bike and headed off down the country lanes into the night. After 15 minutes of cycling, stopping to prick up my ears, and adjusting my course, I arrived at a rave party. The locals were somewhat intrigued by my arrival (I was soon introduced to everyone as a pedal-powered version of Forest Gump) and seemed to rather enjoy the chance to blether away in thickly-accented but perfectly capable English. This was in between the moments when they suddenly became deeply mesmerised by a particular glowing light, or the back of their hands…

By far the greatest benefit of being a ‘Benevole’, is the education and learning that one receives. A whole wealth of little details, techniques, and solutions become apparent, simply by getting stuck in. It helps a lot when you are with people that do their best to pass on information and explanations, as well as being constantly prepared to learn themselves, Stuart and Gabrielle being fine examples of such folk. In particular, I noted how well they work with the community in which they live – exchanging their produce and their services with their neighbours, and thus cementing beneficial relationships and good friendships. These are ‘elegant solutions’ to problems, as Stuart calls them, as they work towards the equitable benefit of everyone concerned. I also took great heart from seeing a project like this in its early stages (which are often the very hardest times), that has already achieved a great deal despite the obstacles, and will only continue to improve. ©Sam Ansell 2007