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A Disconnected Way of Living

By Patrick Chew

Michael Zair, 74, sits in his living room in Tinkers Bubble, Somerset.
 
Ed Gold
Michael Zair, 74, sits in his living room in Tinkers Bubble, Somerset.

In 2005, social documentary photographer Ed Gold visited a small community in South Wales where residents lived in yurts. He had always been fascinated with Mongolian Yurts, and, after a “what the hell” moment, decided to make the most of the opportunity and lived with them that summer. He used it as a base to make trips to other nearby communities, and eventually produced an art book entitled Positive Futures, the first in a three-part series that has taken Gold over 11 years to produce.

80 pages. 192 black and white photographs. Over 2,500 miles covered. Positive Futures documented the faces and stories of Britons engaging in what has become an increasingly popular lifestyle choice—off-grid living.

But more than just an art project, Positive Futures represented a homecoming of sorts for Gold. “As soon as I started to live in this way, I felt totally at ease,” he explains. “As though it was an answer to one of the many questions I had about life.”

Credit: Ed GoldInside Dave Cotterell's yurt in Mansell Gamage.
Inside Dave Cotterell's yurt in Mansell Gamage.

Living off-grid was what Gold had unintentionally been doing his whole life. “My father is Victorian in his attitude and thought children didn't need to be around, that they should be seen but not heard. So when I was eight, I was sent to boarding school,” Gold recounts. “It felt like I was locked away. I was in prison.”

The more Gold was told to conform, the further he travelled from home and the more extreme his adventure became. His life, like his first job, which was to build walls out of stone with no cement in the far North of Scotland, is unorthodox, to say the least.

Today, Gold lives in an unheated farm barn that was built in 1450. “It’s unheated, but at least it’s rent free,” he says. He gets by on £8,000 a year and has seven bags, with everything he owns—mainly cold weather clothing, camping kits and cameras.

Credit: Ed GoldOutdoor communal kitchen in Tinkers Bubble, Somerset.
Outdoor communal kitchen in Tinkers Bubble, Somerset.
Credit: Ed GoldMerlin, 41 in Steward's Wood.
Merlin, 41 in Steward's Wood.

The romantic in him would claim that his agile way of life means he is, at any given moment, ready for the next adventure whenever, wherever, and however. The realist would insist that he’s in a position where he needs less money to afford the things he doesn’t need. “I asked myself if I really needed to live in a house that costs a lot and uses a lot of resources,” Gold explains. “Not relying on governments and being self-sufficient is so attractive for many reasons. Living off-grid is the step in the right direction, given the way different countries and governments are handling things. Everything has to do with competition, corporations, and money. People in power are being more fraudulent, more temperamental, more predatory, more authoritarian, more racist, and more factionalised.”

That diatribe, along with the laundry list of things going wrong in the world, is echoed by the off-grid communities and residents that Gold has visited as motivating factors for choosing to unplug and move

At this point, it is easy to write off off-gridders as, for a lack of a better word, whingers who can’t deal with the realities of life, and simply choose to run away from everything. “Well,” Gold replies. “Some also say off-gridders are doomsday preppers and survivalists, stockpiling canned food, weaponry and ammunition. Others may think people living in off-grid communities aren’t doing so by choice, that they’re poor and dirty. People tend to generalise and form uninformed opinions about what they don’t know and understand.”

Credit: Ed GoldMaren, 41, with her children in her home in Land Matters, a permaculture community in Devon.
Maren, 41, with her children in her home in Land Matters, a permaculture community in Devon.

The off-grid movement, as Gold explains, has less to do with sacrifice and giving up material things than it does about living responsibly and finding ways to consume less energy. “It’s about living with a lower impact and a lighter, smaller footprint. If you’ve got heaps of money, you can buy as many solar panels and wind generators as you like and have four freezers and continue to consume as much energy as you did before. Nothing has changed. Someone planting their own one by one metre vegetable garden on the roof might be considered more off-grid.”

With that, the off-grid lifestyle takes on greater meaning, and moves away from whatever tinfoil hat conspiracy-driven factors. While some don’t ever leave their communities, others have jobs in regular society or have children attending public schools.

On his most recent road trip in August last year, Gold met 54-year-old Lucy Harrison in Kingston, London who owns a multi-occupancy house, and someone who’s actively involved in the Kingston Permaculture Reserve at Knollmead—the second oldest permaculture reject in the UK. “Knollmead is literally a community garden where everyone is welcome irrespective of their skills and time,” she explains. “I've got a network of friends here and I have my job here so I don't feel ready to go somewhere else and start again. I think I've just struck a balance in my life with living near a park and growing vegetables. I have gone off to live at communities but I am drawn to come back here. It's because I like the connection to people living in an urban space and that's one of the most important things to me.”

Credit: Ed GoldLucy Harrison, 54, and housemate in her multi-occupancy home in Kingston.
Lucy Harrison, 54, and housemate in her multi-occupancy home in Kingston.
Credit: Ed GoldTimmo, 42, in Coed Hills rural artspace.
Timmo, 42, in Coed Hills rural artspace.

On the other end of the off-grid spectrum is 74-year-old Michael Zair who Gold met in Tinkers Bubble, a 40 acre-hillside woodland community in rural Somerset. The only permanent resident at Tinkers Bubble, Zair has been there since the community’s conception in 1994. “I've been here 22 years so I've been saving the government a lot of money on housing benefit. My family is here, everybody. Nine babies have been born here.”

Ultimately, for all his talk about Tinkers Bubble being a template for the imagination, Zair does concede that he will leave one day. “I don't think I miss anything from living in a house but there will come a time when my hip joints will struggle with the uneven ground here. And if I have an operation for a hip replacement, it will take a while to recover and I will be quite dependent on other people.”

Regardless of the extent of each person’s off-grid practises and lifestyle, it is self-sufficiency that seems to be the common thread. “Almost everyone I met living off-grid was doing so because they are unhappy with the direction society is going,” Gold explains. “People want to take control of their lives and not feel as though they have to confirm to what other people expect of them. Most just want peace and the only way they can find it is to do their own thing without being controlled by the government.”

At the end of the day, Gold is advocating a systemic change against integration and globalisation, incidentally, the very things driving our lives and world at the moment. A tall order, you might think, but one that begins with consuming a little less, which gets the ball rolling toward breaking free from the reliance on money. “It’s a start,” Gold says, which, if you ask anyone, is perhaps the most difficult part of getting anything done.