“There’s something about chopping wood that touches an incredibly ancient part inside us,” says Mark Boyle swinging a large axe double-handed into a log. It looks incredibly satisfying and I’m impatient to have a go myself. The weight of the tool satisfying in my hands, I’m surprised at how natural it feels to swing. I bring the blade down with accuracy and it slices clean through the dry wood, cleaving it neatly into two. It feels good. It feels like being a man.
While the rest of us putrefy at our desks sipping on Starbucks skinny mocha lattes and fretting about double dip recessions and the impending environmental apocalypse, Boyle is taking action. The 31-year-old business and economics graduate from Donegal has spent the last 18 months living in a caravan in the countryside near Bath without money, electricity, gas or running water. He forages and grows his own food and for warmth chops and feeds wood into an old burner. This is off-grid living.
A growing army of middle-class men and women are ditching their wallets, mortgages and worries and opting to live this good life. These brave pioneers have swapped their semis for trailers, restaurants for foraged food and quilted toilet paper for yesterday’s newspaper. They survive thanks to hardened sinews and sharpened instincts and claim to have found true happiness along the way.
“We are entering a post consumer age where owning stuff and being busy and working too hard will seem unfashionable,” says Nick Rosen, author of How To Live Off-Grid. According to the latest figures there are 40,000 off-gridders in the UK and more than 300,000 in the US including actors Ed Begley Junior and Kill Bill star Daryl Hannah. Even The Simpsons got in on the act recently when Homer, fed up with the amount of energy his family used, bought a windmill. “The Simpsons are living intermittently!” he proudly claimed as the wind died down along with his trusted TV.
The 49-year-old survives on anything he finds growing in the ground but is not averse to cooking up grubs, termites, lizards, and roadkill.
In his book, Rosen lists seven reasons for going off-grid. These include saving money, reducing your carbon footprint, survivalism and the need to prepare for the collapse of the oil economy. Rosen’s were primarily economic. Fifteen years ago he discovered the thrill of escaping the network after splitting from his fashion designer girlfriend Katherine Hamnett in the mid 90s. Together they had holidayed in Majorca but after the break-up he still wanted to live there despite not having the cash so so he bought a shepherd’s hut high in the mountains instead. Water was gathered in a huge amphora that fed off the roof. Electricity was from the hire car, and heating from a smoky wood burner.
Part hobo, part prophet, American anthropology graduate Daniel Suelo lives in a cave in Moab near Idaho. That is when he’s not maintaining his blog Zero Currency at the public library. The 49-year-old survives on anything he finds growing in the ground but is not averse to cooking up grubs, termites, lizards, and roadkill. Talking to me on the phone from a friend’s apartment where he is flat-sitting, Suelo softly explains that his religious upbringing led him to forego money. I wanted to be a sadhu," he says. "But what good would it do for me to be a sadhu in India? A true test of faith would be to return to one of the most materialistic, money-worshipping nations on earth and be a sadhu there.”
Irishman Mark Boyle also has no truck with currency but his motivation is not religion but concern for the environment and a belief that money has got in the way of people truly connecting. “Prostitution is to sex what buying and selling is to giving and receiving,” he explains. “People are only doing it because they get something in return not because they want to help.” He’s just written a brilliant book about his experiences called ‘The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living’ but this back-to-basics lifestyle isn’t a publicity stunt. Boyle has no intentions of returning to modern society. Instead he plans to use the book’s proceeds to build a community where he and his band of followers plan to live without the influence of filthy lucre.
The shaven head and stubble-faced Boyle isn’t what you might expect from an anti-establishment eco-warrior. Having driven from London (not very eco, sorry) to meet him, I was greeted by a laid-back Irishman who gave me an unselfconscious man-hug and insisted on calling me ‘dude’. Rather than an angry self-righteous preacher, he’s the kind of guy you’d happily go to the pub with (although you’d have to get the rounds in, naturally). He likes a laugh, enjoys a drink and loves to talk football. The latter, however, remains a guilty pleasure because of the unsavoury nature of the industry. “I’ve been trying to give up Manchester United for two years,” he admits, “but I still find myself checking the scores on the net on a Saturday afternoon.”
“I knew the lads might kill me for bringing home a film about a spiritual master,”
A decade ago, Boyle was just another business student in Galway with vague plans to use his degree to get rich quick any way he could. Then he stumbled across a cut-price copy of the movie Ghandi. “I knew the lads might kill me for bringing home a film about a spiritual master,” he remembers. The movie set Boyle off on a completely different path to his housemates. “I decided that, as Ghandhi said, I would like to be the change I wanted to see in the world,” explains Boyle, before promptly apologising for how corny that might sound.
In 2007 he sold his home to set up Freecycle a website that allows people to give away to others what they would otherwise throw away. Seven million people worldwide now subscribe to this ‘gift economy’ but nevertheless Boyle continues to search for a more ethical path in life. When he was given a caravan by a fellow Freecyclist, he decided to relinquish money and reconnect with the land. Today, inside Boyle’s caravan sits a birthday card from a friend that sums up his philosophy perfectly. A cartoon Dalai Lama opens an empty box on his birthday and exclaims: “Wow, nothing! Just what I always wanted.”
As a vegan, Boyle is more gatherer than hunter and prefers to grow his own vegetables and forage for wild food. Unfortunately for me, nettles are currently in bloom. “Just because they’re called weeds people think you can’t eat them - but they’re delicious,” says Boyle as he plucks some leaves and rolls them into a ball in his hands to remove the sting. In truth they’re OK and didn’t sting my throat as I feared (although they did give me a mild indigestion). “You have to be careful to pick the leaves that are higher off the ground,” points out Boyle as my mouth works its way through a wad of green mulch, “the ones closest to the ground have been urinated on by dogs.”
In his spare time he washes in a local stream and works out by lifting a block and doing press-ups.
Aside from Boyle’s trusted axe, there are a number of possessions he could not survive without. He uses his bicycle to travel the 34 miles round trip to Bristol where he occasionally works at an organic co-op in exchange for a bag of oats. Add some cold water and fruit and that’s breakfast sorted. Then there’s his ‘rocket stove’, made from a couple of old olive oil catering tins on which he cooks his other meals. “At first I was overwhelmed by the thought of cooking outside in all weathers,” says Boyle, “but it has become one of the joys of my life.” Solar panels power his lights, laptop and phone - although in winter this is severely restricted. Finally there’s his eco-friendly compost toilet. Toilet paper is provided by unsold newspapers liberated from newsagents’ bins. “I once wiped my arse with a story about myself” he adds. Not everyone can say that.
Some muppet once said “It’s not easy being green” and they weren’t wrong. Without the benefits of labour-saving devices Boyle often works 20 hour days just to survive. “Everything takes longer off-grid,” he explains. “I can’t just turn on the central heating when I get home: I need to chop wood and make a fire. It might take an hour before the place is warm but I love the process of starting a fire. I don’t love the process of watching TV.”
In his spare time he washes in a local stream and works out by lifting a block and doing press-ups. What about company? As a single guy does having no money get in the way of meeting women? “It’s been good actually,” he laughs. “A lot of women have been quite intrigued by the lifestyle and I’ve had more success with women without money than I ever had with it.”
As the sun goes down on a long but satisfying day, Boyle lights his rocket stove and prepares dinner. Our feast involves chard, leek and carrots he’s grown himself, potatoes obtained by work barter and a spicy dumpling past its sell by date that he rescued from being thrown out by a Bristol delhi. After eating, we sit on a couple of tree stumps, share some pine-needle beer that Boyle fermented himself and listen to the sounds of the countryside. There are flaws in Boyle’s plans, of course: like what happens when you get too ill or old to survive on your own but in this moment of quiet calm with the British weather being kind, it’s easy to see the allure of off-grid living. What’s more, if the oil wells do soon run dry as Boyle predicts, then it doesn’t hurt to get some practice in.
Available now is The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living by Mark Boyle, published by Oneworld and priced at £10.99. Click here to buy a copy.
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