Et in Utopia Ego

I’ve just got back – well, a few days ago now, but I’ve just got back and recovered – from the Utopia experiment, on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s a longish train journey from London, but I’ve always liked trains, so it wasn’t much of a hardship – especially since we broke our journey in Edinburgh and I could get some more reading material. (Harry Potter and the Last Book in the Series; The Queen’s Fool; The Sharing Knife, book 1; Singularity Sky.)

We (that is, Ewt and I) arrived in Culbokie in a rather stereotypical light drizzle, and turned down the (rather steep) hill next to the Culbokie Inn. Wild cherries to the left of us, rape-fields and harebells to the right (though the Scottish call them bluebells) and raspberries lining the lane down to Utopia. Johanna, who’d come to meet us half-way up the lane, led us around the corner of the barn, past a few piles of interestingly random crap (something that would turn out to be a common theme for our time there) and a huge graffiti-style ‘Utopia’ sign. We sat in the barn – a cosy, cluttered, sort of place – with the others for awhile, and then went for a wander around in the rain. After all, we figured, we’d best get used to it. The garden’s a lovely place, though without any signposts – we were just classifying and signposting everything when I left. Through the gate, past dill and rocket, rhubarb and broccoli, broad beans and peas, lettuce and carrots, and row on row of late & early potatoes ripe for deflowering and/or greedily eating up. We weren’t going to get all the cabbages, the Cabbage White caterpillars were already getting enthusiastic, but there were still plenty for us. Some of the pigs came down to say hello, but the youngest set of piglets were still being shy.

Just down the hill from the pigs, past the beans and the outdoor fireplace and around the Mongolian yurt, there’s a small, overgrown herb garden. We set to poking around, calling out what was there – angelica, lemon balm, garden mint, peppermint, Russian tarragon, wormwood, and what we thought was probably St John’s wort.

Down the hill from there, past a pile of firewood and another of parts for the half-renovated signal box, along a steep muddy path by the burn with a few lengths of slippery, wobbly planking as reinforcement, there’s another. The Heart Garden, it’s called, and nobody’s got around to yanking out the remaining pieces of hippy crap – after all, who needs candles, bent branches, and sheep skulls when you have lavender, sage, and two kinds of thyme? The two yurts down there look good, small but comfortable, if not insulated, and there’s a plank bridge across the burn and through the bracken to a composting toilet.

Tinker Burn

That’s one I took sitting on the bridge, looking up the burn into the overhanging greenery.

One thing about the yurt I slept in did rather bother me, though. I rolled over in bed awhile later, and saw something long and white. I thought, Hang on, we’re being all natural and sustainable here, why’s there a power cable poking up through the floorboards? And who made that connection in the middle, and has he been properly reeducated about safe wiring techniques? There’s clearly nothing going through it, or it’d’ve burned the yurt down already… let’s follow it and see where it goes.

It went to bare copper on the inside, and on the outside led down behind one of the steps down to the burn. Since the greenhouse was on the other side of the path, this looked normal enough… except that it didn’t come out again. Impelled by sheer morbid curiosity, I looked inside the greenhouse, and found this above the door.

Magic hippy electricity

Clearly, it’s magic hippy electricity that works on the natural power of the wood and the earth.

We’d got a few hours before dinner on the first day, so I started poking around, looking at the selection of tools & equipment and writing up a list. If only I hadn’t then lost the list, we’d have a proper inventory, but at least things got organised as we used them over the next few weeks. Then I got bored and went off to look at the wobbly path down by the burn, and then found myself pulling it apart to fix it. Didn’t take long, with a couple of the others to help out, and it ended up a bit more horizontal and a lot less slippery in the rain. (We found a toad under one of the steps, a large black one with red eyes. I have a picture, but haven’t uploaded it yet.)

A week or so later, I got irritated enough with the steep slippery lower section to fix that up too – I put in some planks to make the front faces for steps, scythed down a few swathes of bracken for filler, and brought out the mattock to level them off. Now it’s a half-dozen more or less horizontal swampy morasses, rather than the slippery deathtrap it was before. That took about an afternoon.

I’d been spending most of the intervening time doing woodwork – making a few little things here and there, preparing some wood stain (vinegar and rusty nails make ferrous acetate, which reacts with the tannin in strong tea to give an interesting greenish-brownish-black) and putting together the parts to make a pole lathe. I didn’t finish it in the end, due to emergency projects (see next) but there’s enough bits there – and entirely from parts scavenged from the firewood & recycling piles – to prove that technology bootstrapping is entirely possible and indeed easy.

The last piece of ninja engineering I did was to build a composting toilet.

Composting Toilet 1

Part of the original work on the site involved digging a notch in the slope down to the burn and putting in three breeze-block & concrete cubicles as drop shafts for a toilet block to be erected on top of them later. Each one’s 2240mm high, 970mm square, with an open top & front (and that’s an awful lot of excrement and sawdust) so I figured that we might as well put in a temporary solution. This was, admittedly, sort of urgent – the cesspit had overflowed that morning, and the path down to the existing composting toilet was dark, overgrown, wet, and treacherous at night. Especially while drunk, which seemed to happen fairly often. A few sketches, some scavenging, and some saw work, and we had the platform structure you see above. My favourite part of it is that I found an actual toilet seat, sitting in the middle of one of the recycling piles. It needed a new hinge, but otherwise it all worked out fine. Didn’t have time to slot it into the cubicle myself, but I suspect the others will have done that (and possibly worked on the steps & path down to it) by now. Oh, and possibly put a roof and door or something on the cubicle. They tend to help.

One particularly significant experience came this last Sunday – we killed and ate one of the surplus cockerels. You can see him (alive and well) at the top here, and he was very tasty with sage & rosemary. It was an odd experience, and I very much didn’t look forward to it, but it’s one of those things you more or less bargain on when you’re a meat-eating hippy, and it felt like a moral imperative to join in with the other two. None of us had done it before, and it took quite a bit of talking about it and working up to it beforehand. We decided to do the deed first thing in the morning, catching him on the way out of the hen-house (he really didn’t want to come out) and holding him down on the chopping-block. I’d sharpened all the kitchen knives the night before, so we decided to use one of those on the basis that it would most likely be more humane than trying the neck-breaking technique for the first time. (Mind you, we really should have thought to look the procedure up in Seymour beforehand rather than afterwards. Next time, we’ll remember that chickens come with instructions.) It took Tommy about two or three seconds to get through the spine, and it was rather gruesome watching the body twitch and convulse. I strongly suspect that either neck-wringing or a sharp hatchet (I’d sharpened that too, but not to the same standards) would be the way to go.

Watching Tommy draw, and listening to him talk about the philosophy behind graffiti, was fascinating, and we’ve given each other a few new ideas. Celtic graffiti is an interesting concept, there’s a lot of intersection between modern graffiti and the old Ogham writing protocols. Will have to experiment.

TMN Mural 1

I’m planning on returning, but not in the winter, not unless there’s a great deal more insulation by then. Being cold at night at the end of July is something I can fix with an extra blanket, but if I try to sleep in an unmodified yurt in January I’ll be in serious trouble.


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