The God of small choices


Up here in the mountains, with snow all around us, there isn’t much to do. So the day resolves itself into a different kind of rhythm – a rhythm of small choices: do we go out for a walk? Now or later? Shall we do that small chore now … or later? Hey – it’s lunchtime already. How did that happen? Better put some more wood on the fire.

Sounds boring.

But it isn’t – it’s liberating.

Up here, you can do what you like. Nobody’s monitoring you. You can take stock, forget about everything else and get lost in the stillness, almost complete peace and quiet up here.

I don’t really know why we came here, to this hideaway in the hills of Quebec province. I suppose we were thinking that we would learn about whether we could handle living in an isolated place, attempting a low-impact lifestyle.

We came to the “Inuksuk” project on a “Workaway”, which involves volunteering on a project in exchange for board and lodging. The project is a quite remarkable attempt to create a low-impact hamlet of wooden dwellings: there are two log cabins but this description doesn’t do them justice – they are large buildings that could house up to 14 people each. In addition, there is the “Hobbit House” – a single-room dwelling built into the hillside that sleeps 5 comfortably – plus a small cabin plus a geodesic dome, all made out of wood.

The second large dwelling needs a lot of work before it’s finished but in the snow there’s no construction work going on at the moment. We are helping to do other things, like stacking enough wood to see the houses through the winter. Our host is Benoit Lasalle, the self-taught architect and builder of these amazing constructions. You have to see them to believe them.

Benoit has also installed a crafty bit of kit to keep the houses heated and to supply them with hot water: he calls it the “Rocket stove” and I’d never seen one before I came here. Basically, a wood-burning stove heats a cylinder (what looks like an old oil barrel in these cases): it’s super-efficient and anyone can make a basic version out of a barrel or similar tank: see for a version made using an old hot water storage tank.

Rocket stove: the combustion chamber is on the right-hand side

The Aprovecho version of the stove – used in Latin America for cooking – won the Ashden Award a few years ago.

In the Hobbit House, the same principle applies, only in this case the exhaust gases and excess heat from the stove is drawn through the house via a kind of ducting arrangement before exiting through the chimney. The ducting is essentially a hollow masonry wall (like a Roman hypocaust) which is heated by the stove and releases heat to the house. I’m no engineer but I can tell you that it seems to work.

So what can we learn from this?

It is possible to build using genuinely sustainable, natural materials. It is possible to live a very low-impact life, provided you have the natural resources around you to support this or can be connected to low-impact, low-carbon sources of energy and food.

On the other hand, living in a more remote location means you need your own means of transport; you still need to drive to the shops; you are more likely to suffer power cuts; unless you are completely self-sufficient in utilities (electricity, water, sewage) you still need outside services to make your way of life viable. So we need those services to become zero-carbon and totally sustainable – I wonder how we do that?

A few blogs ago I said that we need a radical system change – that was wrong: we need a radical systems change. Every system in our lives will have to change. That’s what the fools at the top don’t yet realize.

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