My husband and I were pottering along quite merrily living our off-grid life, and we wrapped up very, very warm last winter, gritted our teeth and got on with it. This winter, we have a one year old son. Everything has changed, and we are learning every day. Being responsible for someone else puts biting north winds in a draughty house into a new perspective but fortunately, our little boy seems to have a sturdy constitution! Certainly, there are challenges to choosing this way of life. But the positives of a simple life in tune with nature far outweigh the negatives.
A friend asked me recently if our little one was afraid of the dark. Well, no, was the simple answer, given that he spends a large proportion of his time here in semi-darkness. Candlelight is not the best light for finding missing items, but it does lend a peacefulness and stillness to our evenings and provides a perfect winding down ambience to bedtime. Plus, sharing a night sky with a little person really is magic – their wonder at a sky lit up by stars and moon. I hope that as he grows he will learn, as his parents have, to navigate in the dark with improved night vision (something we taught ourselves by stumbling along the river path to the local pub a half hour away!).
Living an off-grid life promotes your body’s natural rhythms. When we first moved here, we were surprised how tired friends got when they came over and the light started fading (or perhaps it was our company?!). In winter, our bodies naturally want to hibernate and the encroaching darkness facilitates that. In spring, we feel our energy increasing as the days become longer. Our little boy hasn’t quite got the hang of the fact we sleep until the sun comes up yet, but he is content to lounge around in bed with us until there’s enough light to officially be called ‘morning’…
We always knew that we would co-sleep as a family, but we weren’t aware of the fact it would be a necessity. Co-sleeping has meant that we create a family nest of warmth, snuggled up together in bed. When the winds are really blowing a gale and it’s bitterly cold outside, I simply cannot imagine our son sleeping in a cot on his own. When he wakes in the night and it’s pitch dark, he only has to reach out a hand to know we are right there beside him.
Living this way entails an extraordinary amount of organisation. Anyone who knew my husband and I before we became parents knows this isn’t something that comes naturally to us… But we’re working on it daily. Hand-washing our son’s clothes and nappies each night and hanging them on the range to dry is vital, rather than leaving the laundry until there’s a stinking heap to be tackled. Keeping on top of the Rayburn and making sure it doesn’t go out keeps us busy too, but thankfully our son loves watching us chop up wood and has even started to mimic our actions – a little wood-chopper in the making! Making sure we have candles ready to light and wood and coal ready to burn is vital when we get in after dark.
A healthy immune system
The temperature of our house fluctuates depending on what direction the wind is blowing in, but it’s fairly safe to say we live at lower temperatures than a centrally-heated home. Research has shown this is better for building a strong immune system (hey, that’s what we tell ourselves). When we are cold, we wrap up warm in the house and eat lots of ginger. We have three cats and a dog, who not only provide cosy warm lap blankets, but also help to promote a healthy immune system in our son.
Before parenthood, our lives as a couple were fairly simple. We both loved walking, cooking and eating together, reading, woodwork (my husband) and knitting (me). Our evenings have always been spent in conversation with one another or the pursuit of some creative activity or curled up on the sofa with the animals. As a treat, we save up solar power to watch a film on the laptop with a bar of choc! Now I am happy that our son enjoys the simple pleasures in life: being read to, cuddling up on the sofa, making his own music and being carried in the back carrier on a walk. The real pleasures lie in having connective time with one another with no distractions to interesting conversations and adventures.
A relationship with the natural world
Our lives here are governed by the outside world. If it is sunny, we have some solar power and can catch up with emails and work. If it’s raining or the wind is blowing off the sea, we know about it at the front of the house. If a storm is blowing in, we have to make sure everything is secure. When winter’s north winds pick up, we know about it in the bedrooms at the back of the house. Living so in tune with nature can drive us to distraction at times when the house is springing leaks from every nook and cranny, but a breath-taking sunrise on the sea more than makes up for it. I hope that our son will learn about the ever-changing and miraculous world outside through this constant engagement. He loves his daily explorations in the countryside around our home and we can’t wait to share the changing of the seasons with him.
One quality that we have in abundance here is stillness. Without electronic interruption or the sound of traffic, we are able to pick up all the sounds of the natural world. The wind moving the tamarisk trees on the roof, the geese flying overhead, the waves crashing on the sea wall, the cats stretching and yawning: all of these little sounds form the background of our days. It was magical watching our son take in all these new sounds for the first time, his eyes wide with wonder when the rain lashed against the windows in the night or a blackbird started singing in the garden. Stillness also comes in useful for an energetic one year old: when he gets fractious and agitated, he seems to find nothing more calming than being carried into the garden to watch the clouds.
We know we won’t live in this house forever as we only rent it, but each day here has been a blessing. It has inspired us both to choose a life in tune with nature and the seasons, wherever we end up living in future. I hope it has also given our son a memorable start in life and taught him about the miraculous and wondrous natural world all around him. Having started life in this way, going to ‘on the grid’ homes must be a source of wonder: is there a little fairy behind that light switch working magic?! I know I sometimes think so, and still can’t quite get over the apparent magic of electricity. One thing it has certainly taught us is to value the commodities we often take for granted: heat, electricity, and water. Even if we do end up back ‘on the grid’ one day, I will always be grateful we had these early experiences as a family.