To live off-grid is, in its most elemental sense, to live at the source. It is to disavow the flows of urbanisation and globalised markets, to diminish our distance from the natural world and to overcome the modern myth of our separation from it. To experience food, water, energy and shelter as provisions of the land and skies, is to restitute the core of our identity from the grips of the neoliberal hegemony. Away from the bright lights and concrete a shift takes place, and these vital resources cease to exist as commodities for us to purchase and consume, and take on the dew-cast glimmer of a spider’s web; threads of sustenance that weave us into a complex and diverse ecology.
I’ve spent the last three years living off-grid at an eco-project in southern Spain. As the rhythm of my days became embedded in the land, I began to sense how our ability to survive there is interconnected with and indeed contingent upon the healthy functioning of the ecosystem; the presence of multiple species of plants, insects and animals; and crucially too, upon the legacy of our moorish ancestors, whose centuries-old innovations in agriculture have enabled life to thrive in this arid region. Our community spans both species and time, bound together by the same abiding needs for food, water and warmth, within a cycle that is driven and sustained by reciprocity.
And whilst this is true for all life, modern lifestyles- which remove us from the source of our sustenance- displace us from this natural cycle of generous exchange, instead shaping behaviours which take greedily from our ecosystems, without replenishing them. Living off-grid is an attempt to redress this imbalance, so that whilst the land provides us with all of our basic needs, it is our responsibility, in turn, to conserve these resources and maintain the conditions for life to flourish. In this way we ensure that not only we, but other species and future inhabitants of the land, can continue to experience its abundance.
The passing from one season to the next is marked by the harvests; the anticipation of seeing a fruit set from its flower, ripening in the sunlight until ready for picking. From figs to pomegranates, avocados to oranges- each moment of the year is defined by the particular sweetness of each fruit. In autumn the olives are picked and pressed into liquid gold, oil that could be sap, so full is its flavour of greenwood.
The gardens bloom and provide food throughout the year, but at the height of summer there’s more than can possibly be eaten. The glass drying room, strung with racks of fruits and vegetables; grape bunches hanging from the walls, intoxicates with its hot, sweet air. Tomatoes and fruits boil away in the sun, reducing down to conserves and jams to line the shelves of the pantry. By November, there’s barely room to move in there amidst the hundred or so pumpkins crammed into every nook and cranny.
This is nature’s dream of abundance, and though it is something we seem to have long taken for granted, the capacity of our planet to sustain life is being relentlessly undermined by the extractive abuse of our ecosystems, threatening to reveal a dark underside of scarcity and destitution.
The high-input, homogenising nature of modern farming has greatly contributed to this degradation, diminishing natural resources and biodiversity, and accounting for 75-80% of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.
Fundamental to low-impact living is, therefore, the sustainable production of food. This means creating agroecosystems where a diversity of life can thrive, and where the nutrients that we take from the soil with each leaf or fruit that we harvest, are continuously replenished.
At the project, large swathes of the land are left uncultivated, with a thicket of willow and brambles along the riverbed providing shelter to the rodents, birds, and families of boar. The wild and the weedy are also integrated into the gardens; there are borders of tall grasses and wildflowers, and growing amidst the crops can be found borage, chickweed, purslane and fennel, which attract pollinators and can also be foraged for food.
There is no use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides- the extensive application of which in commercial farming has drastically diminished populations of non-target insects, with knock on effects throughout the food-chain. The plants and trees instead pullulate with a vibrant array of insects- many of them beneficial: shield-bugs that shimmer bronze, luminous green spiders and amber-coated bees.
Perhaps most vital is the health of the soil, fundamental to plant growth and resistance to pests and diseases. Throughout the year there is a steady process of mulching, composting and the sowing of green manures- which transfer nitrogen from the air into the earth. These methods restore nutrients and create habitat for a host of worms, woodlice and mycelium, which thrive in the dark layer beneath the leaf-mould. Feeding, burrowing and networking, these organisms in turn break down the organic matter, further improving the quality of the soil and enabling the transfer of nutrients to the plants.
The return from growing food in this way goes beyond the wonder of flavour and sustenance that can be picked fresh each day. Its most nourishing yield is perhaps the experience of walking through the gardens in the purple light of dusk, sensing the throng of life and the palpable health of the land.
The hot, and increasingly arid conditions in this region have long demanded the careful use of water. The inhabitants of the mountain today benefit from the legacy of the Islamic civilisation in the Iberian peninsula (711-1492), which transformed the topography, turning steep slopes into snaking terraces, so that rainwater could be captured in the land and erosion would be prevented. A system of communal irrigation channels was also installed, to carry snow melt down from the mountain peaks via the communities living below, to re-enter the hydrological cycle lower down.
The water is the life of the land, and wherever the channels run, there is a density of growth; poplar trees and running bamboo, and the banks are a perennial green. The life of the community is preserved within this system; it is the traditional conception of water as a common resource. The neighbours are joined in a social contract to care for the water, meaning its fair distribution, with a watering timetable at the height of summer, and a commitment to looking-after the channels.
These ancient methods might be considered some of the earliest examples of permaculture- the careful study of an ecosystem and an astonishing comprehension of the earth’s cycles, leading to the design of a life-provisioning system that respects the integrity of a place and which has been sustained for centuries.
The heritage of these mountains holds a timely wisdom, and as if carried through the ages on the waters, finds continuation in the spirit of sustainability at the heart of the project. Water on the land is harnessed for use with careful observation of its flows, and is then returned clean to the earth, using natural filtration systems of rock and sediment.
On average it takes 14 litres of water to flush a toilet, which then undergoes a lengthy cleaning process, often involving chemicals and which if not properly treated, as in many places across the world, is a severe pollutant to our rivers and oceans. Off-grid, compost toilets are used instead- no water, just a layer of sawdust or dry organic material is added after each use. They can be used for several years before being emptied, and when the moment comes you are left with a nutrient-rich compost which is free of pathogens and can be safely used as an organic fertiliser for the trees.
Central to the ethos of off-grid living is the sustainable production and use of energy. Pioneers have long been developing renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, which can be produced and managed at community level: solar, wind and hydro.
From the inception of the project 20 years ago, its creator has worked to raise awareness about climate change, accepting volunteers on the agreement they will arrive by means other than flying- which emits vast quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Over the years, hundreds of volunteers have made the journey from all over Europe: Italy, Norway; Germany, by bus, boat and train, inspiring in many of us a more thoughtful approach to travel.
The majority of the energy used on the project is renewable and locally produced. Each of the houses is fitted with a solar-electric system, which with enough panels and sunlight is sufficient to power any household appliance. However, certain electrical items are consciously foregone- instead of a fridge, there is a stone store-room which keeps most produce fresh; clothes are washed by hand, and there is no television or wifi, which allows time to unfurl in creative spontaneity.
On bright days- which is most in southern Spain- food is prepared on parabolic cookers, which reflect the sunlight to harness its thermal energy. Water for showering is also solar heated in a closed-loop convection system. On greyer and colder days wood burners are used, and though the pollutants produced in combustion means this isn’t the perfect solution, burning wood is carbon neutral, and on the project is sourced sustainably. The olive trees are pruned each year, which improves yields and simultaneously provides firewood for the following winter. New trees are also planted every autumn - increasingly more tropical varieties such as avocados and guavas, in response to the ever warming climate.
The various houses on the land are constructed using local, natural and recycled materials. Most are cottages built in the traditional flat-roofed style of the region. The walls are made from stone and the roofs from a cane similar to bamboo, laid and tied tightly between the rafters, which forms a ceiling redolent of the waterways where it grows in abundance. Earth is mixed with sand and lime to render the interior walls, and, being heavy in clay, creates an impermeable layer for the roofing.
Another of the houses was built with straw bales- a highly economic and efficient means of insulation. The structure which followed it- a donkey stable- experimented with the locally abundant Spanish broom, as a substitute for the straw. Walls were built from recycled pallets, and we used it to pack out all of the cavities to create the insulating layer.
The use of natural materials imbues these buildings with a magical sense of liminality; the distinction between inside and out is blurred and even when closing the door to the cold night, the earthy whisper of the land breathes in through the walls.
The underlying motivation to all of these actions is to survive and live in a way that does not jeopardise the ability of future generations to do the same. This is embodied in a more immediate sense by the transient nature of the community living at the project. At any one time, many of its inhabitants are short-term volunteers, meaning that much of the work they carry out is for the benefit of future volunteers, who they might never meet. And they in turn, will benefit from the work of those that preceded them. The hard work of the olive harvest throughout the autumn months provides oil for the following year; figs, apples and nectarines, laboriously harvested in summer and made into jams will be provisions for the winter to come; and the sowing of seed in Spring will bring fruits many months down the line.
In this way, the daily rhythms on the land instil a notion of futurity, shaping a sense of responsibility for a future that stretches out long beyond our own short experience. This is a formative lesson for strengthening sustainable attitudes and revolutionary in an age where short-term thinking has such a pernicious hold over our socio-political order; more than half of the atmospheric CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels has been emitted over just the last three decades- that is, since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which committed UN nations to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
The experience of living off-grid laid bare to me the innate relationship between the health of the land and our own physical wellbeing. But beyond this I sensed something deeper about the way we are sustained within the ecosystem; the ecological web provides not only for our physical, but our mental and emotional strength too.
A gaze exchanged with a fox at first light; the sound of seed pods shattering in the summer heat- these are things which restored in me a sense of joy and awe, a sense of connection to the world. I came to experience the land as a source of resilience, and unceasingly it was there, with its bounteous gifts- orchid and birdsong, feather and bark- to lift me from the dark.
This wild place, and others like it- where nature is loved, and allowed to thrive- are fundamental in these times. To engage with the environmental crises we are facing today can often lead to feelings of despair, anger and inertia. Yet places like this enable us to engage in a different way, through joy and celebration, nurturing the roots of our rebellion.
We do not all need to live off-grid in order to create a connection to the natural world, for it is innate within us. Yet, as with any part of us that we wish to thrive, we must nurture it. The commodification of the natural world which has led humanity along this inexorable march of destruction has succeeded in doing so by creating a mirage of separation between humans and all other life. And so, to simply go outdoors- to walk, to touch and smell the richness of the world, to remember what is our innate embeddedness in a complex web of ecology, is a radical step to de-weaponise the forces driving us towards extinction.