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How, then, must we live?

Sara Forsstrom
18 December 2003

I want to share a remarkable story with you.

It is all the more remarkable because it is about real lives – real lives being lived for years in a way that many modern city people like myself would regard as irresponsible, romantic, idealist and impossible.

But I saw Jyoti and David Fernandes with my own eyes. The lives they lead may indeed be romantic and idealist – but they are neither irresponsible nor impossible.

Their first daughter was born in a house-bus as Jyoti and David toured France on the lookout for an affordable spot of land to settle on. Jyoti, of Indian origin, was born and grew up in the United States, where she finished university before marrying David, who is British, and coming back with him to Europe.

Jyoti and David, then both in their early 20s, were fed up with what they call ‘materialistic life’. They wanted to live a more truthful life and had well-defined ideas about what that would mean: to buy their own land and do small-scale, organic farming. Land in France was as expensive as in Britain, so the couple decided it was better to return to England where they had roots.

To buy farmland in England means to buy a farmhouse with land at a price that is made up of both assets. A price too high for the young couple.

However, they started to build on their dream anyway, making their home in the ecological village Tinkers Bubble in Somerset: a cooperative with twelve members and plots of land which are cultivated in common without any use of pesticides or fuel-driven machines. The inhabitants sell their organic produce in local, weekly markets and cover their expenses with what they earn. They generate their own electricity for lighting and other basic needs – a small windmill and a few solar panels are enough for the job. In this village everyone has built their own house – though I am tempted to call most of them shelters; everything here is truly alternative.

In Tinkers Bubble, Jyoti and David gained five years’ experience in both ‘organic farming’ and ‘alternative living’. Their efforts to purchase land, their fight against the authorities to secure the ecological village, and Jyoti’s activist work with The Land is Ours campaign were a further training in law, public administration and civic resistance.

This wealth of experience fuelled their ambition to have their own land which they could work effectively and free of time-consuming processes of communal decision-making. They continued to look for affordable land and finally they found it. A loan from an ecologically-friendly bank enabled them to buy 42 acres of land overlooking the sea and the beautiful hills in the neighbouring county of Dorset.

In August 2003 they proudly made the move – out of Tinkers Bubble and onto their own land. 42 acres! Ours! Wonderful! No house, well, there was not enough money for that right now, but they will build one eventually.

When I arrive it is mid-October and the Dorset air is quite chilly, though a friendly sun still warms in daytime. I have come because an article Jyoti Fernandes wrote for openDemocracy made me want to interview her about her work. I arrive in the semi-dark of the early evening. Jyoti comes towards me from the field where she has collected some ingredients for the evening meal.

We go into the ‘kitchen’ and start preparing dinner. The kitchen is a home-made and very well-built tent equipped with a small table, gas stove, oven and kitchen utensils. Fresh vegetables lined up on a bench make my tummy grumble.

The couple gained more than experience in Tinkers Bubble – the family grew too. I get acquainted with one child after another, and I am mute from amazement. When I think I have seen them all, David returns to the ‘room’ proudly carrying a bundle. “This is my baby,” he says and shines, as he shows his 10-week old daughter. There are three other daughters: 2, 5, and 7 years.

The food is ready and we bring it into the main room of the house: another home-made tent. It is round, like a wigwam, and warm, with wood burning in the chimney. There are gas lamps in the ceiling and candles on a table. There is a simple bed, a sofa, a bookshelf and a few chairs. And a lot of blankets.

We sit on the floor around a wooden tray and enjoy the rich, tasty, Indian-inspired meal. The occasion is joyful. The family is glad to have a visitor, and I feel happy over such a generous reception from complete strangers. It is quite late and the children have a hard time deciding between eating and falling asleep from exhaustion. Soon, they are not alone.

The next day, Jyoti talks and shows me around the fields: what she is growing on them now, and the plan of what she is going to grow over the next few years. The future of the family’s new farm is laid out in the smallest detail. There will be hens to produce eggs, and at least one cow to provide milk. Already, Jyoti sells this summer’s sweet corn and other vegetables at the weekly village market.

To supplement the family income Jyoti also sells home-made soaps. It was largely soap money that enabled her to travel to India in early 2002 to make a film about Vision 20/20, a ‘development assistance’ project funded by the British government in the state of Andhra Pradesh which promises to undermine the livelihoods of small-scale Indian farmers.

David works the land too, but what he enjoys most is woodcarving. He has built all the chairs and most of the furniture in the temporary house and he is planning to build a real wooden house soon. “By January we need a house,” he says, “by then it is going to be cold.”

It is now December – a time of reflection, purity, fertility. I often think of Jyoti, David, and their children. Their serene, joyful faces, their full-hearted laughter, their skills and determination, their warmth. Most of all I think of the genuine love that floats like an aura around this family, a love that I am sure will carry them through the winter, whether they have managed to erect their house yet or not.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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