#196 The Art of Living Well – A Creative Life on the Land with Elisa Rathje of AppleTurnover TV
Building community out of the remnants of our fractured culture – connecting to each other and the land – is how we’ll get through. Elisa Rathje is doing just this – and making TV of the process.
In this week’s episode I’m talking to someone I met on last year’s Thrutopia Masterclass: someone who was there to explore and share ideas about how we might get through to that flourishing future we’d be proud to leave behind. Elisa Rathje is an artist, a filmmaker, a podcaster, a writer, an unschooling parent – and a homesteader whose life is an expression of her philosophy that we need to live closer to, and in harmony with, the land.
She and her family farm one and a half acres on Saltspring Island off the west coast of Canada between Vancouver and Vancouver island where she makes her appleturnover TV channel for Youtube, with short films showing the ways she’s rediscovering, or in some cases, creating anew, ways to grow and thrive on and with the land.
We’ve had some pretty hardcore conversations recently on the podcast, and I thought it was time for something inspiring, less of how we fix the broken structures at national level, and more how we can each live different lives, tell ourselves different stories of who we are and how we are… get into the detail of composting toilets and community buses and how to keep chickens and geese and sort the water… all the things we’re really going to need to learn, or relearn or otherwise bring into being as we shift forward into the small farm future that Chris Smaje was talking about last week.
So this is a regenerative episode, about regenerating our souls as we heal the land.
Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible and that if we all work together, there is time to create the future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, your host in this journey into possibility. And this week I’m talking to someone I met on last year’s Thrutopia Masterclass. Someone who came along to share and experience and explore the ideas of how we can write that future that we would be proud to leave behind. Elisa Rathje is an artist, a filmmaker, a podcaster, a writer, an unschooling parent and a homesteader, whose life is an expression of her philosophy that we need to live closer to and in harmony with the land. And if that doesn’t sound right up the Accidental Gods street, I don’t know what does. Elisa and her family farm one and a half acres on Salt Spring Island off the west coast of Canada between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. And that’s where she makes her Apple turnover TV channel for YouTube with short films showing the ways she’s rediscovering or in some cases creating new ways to grow and thrive on and with the Land.
We’ve had some fairly hardcore conversations recently on the podcast and I thought it was time for something inspiring less of how we fix the broken structure at national level and more how we can each live different lives, tell ourselves different stories of who we are and how we are and why we are doing what we’re doing. Get into the detail of composting toilets and community buses and how to keep chickens and geese and sort the water when it floods. All the things that we are really going to need to learn or relearn or otherwise bring into being as we shift forward into the small farm future that Chris Smaje was talking about recently. So this is a truly regenerative episode about regenerating our souls as we heal the land. People of the podcast, please welcome Elisa Rathje, creator of Apple Turnover TV.
Elisa, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s a real delight to be talking to you all the way from the far west coast of North America. I can’t remember where you are. Tell me where you’re based.
Elisa: I’m on Saltspring Island, so it’s right over the Southwest coast. It’s called the Salish Sea and it’s between Vancouver and Victoria, if you know those cities.
Manda: Brilliant. It sounds really idyllic. And having watched little bits of Apple turnover, it looks really idyllic. I imagine that when the storms are coming in off the sea, it’s probably slightly less idyllic. Did you grow up there?
Elisa: I grew up nearby. So folks who go to North Vancouver know Deep Cove. It’s kind of infamous. Also incredibly beautiful. So, yeah.
Manda: But you decided to go off the coast and to somewhere that I imagine you can only get to by a ferry or by a plane or something else.
Elisa: Exactly, Yeah. Seaplane or ferry.
Manda: Wow. And are there times of the year when you just can’t get through?
Elisa: Uh, it happens. It does happen. Especially if you’re on a plane. That’s super dodgy many times a year. But the ferries are gigantic beasts that generally run. It’s actually just harder now because they’re having trouble staffing, like every other place in the world is having trouble staffing everything. So there’s been some limits. Yeah.
Manda: We might get to that. Predatory capitalism dying as we speak. But let’s start with something lighter and easier. Amongst the many, many things that you do, you are the creator of Apple turnover TV. So talk us in a little bit to the philosophy behind that and behind the way that you live so that we can see how it arose, why it arose, and then we can go through how you are living and what you’re doing.
Elisa: Yeah. So I’m not a first generation farming family kind of. It wasn’t continuous. It got dropped for a couple of generations. So this is patching together knowledge, reconnecting to traditional skills is where this came from. I’m an artist and I’ve always allowed the idea to take precedence and I will learn what I need to learn to make the project. And so that kind of followed through. We moved to England at one point. My family, we’ve got two kids and my partner’s English, so we moved to London and then ended up in the countryside in Sussex. And we never looked back. I think London met so many city needs that no city would do after that anyway. And what we were longing for just I think it started with food. You know, so many things start with food. I fell in love with chickens and we had a garden. And I don’t know how it was, but it was like arriving in England in the deep history that I was connecting to there, I started studying. And it was the the world of blogging at that moment. This is over a decade ago. And so I was writing about traditional skills, and I would just get people to teach me how to make cheese and I learned to forage for elderflower and make wine and everything else. And I was learning just every skill around every part of how we live.
Elisa: I love learning how things are made and bringing it home into our own hands. And didn’t really understand at the time but now I can see that those traditional skills, they are a way of de-industrializing. It’s re localising in your own life. And so I didn’t really understand until we lived on a lake in Vancouver Island for a while. And that’s where we first got chickens and we were really growing things and starting to get into permaculture. We lived near an amazing permaculture farm and just, you know, absorbing it all and at the same time really dawning on us how intense the converging crises are. So, you know, finding this place, it’s like an acre and a half and it was it was built by people who knew they wanted to homestead. So they really put everything in place. Actually, first this whole area was apple orchard from Victorian. I’ve got some Victorian trees here, 1800s. And so everyone who’s lived here, artists and there was a Mennonite carpenter, a painter, everyone has just layered on more of not self sufficiency, it is community sufficiency, but it is having what you need right here. And so you can see it in how the buildings are made and you can see it in what plants are here and just the structures for living: root cellar, pond, studio, woodshed.
Manda: So just to go back in a little bit of the history of the island itself, was it inhabited before the white invasion? Were there indigenous peoples there?
Elisa: Yeah, this is a really important island because it is between the really major island, not as big as England, but it’s a very big island, Vancouver Island and the mainland. And so my understanding I’m on land that is unceded, it’s the HUL’Q’UMI’NUM’ and SENĆOŦEN speaking peoples. And we say that it seems quite wide and it is because lots of different groups did use and still do use this land. And it was often a stopover and the story that I was told by an elder is there’s lots of burial sites here and middens. You know, it was somewhere where you stopped and feasted before you would paddle your boat onward.
Manda: What kind of distances are we talking then, between the mainland, you and then you and Vancouver Island? How long to paddle a boat?
Elisa: I’m totally hopeless with that. I wouldn’t even know. I mean, the ferry, gas powered massive ferry, which I imagine is kind of slower, to get to the mainland that’s an hour and a bit, an hour and 15. So it’s major.
Manda: But it’s not weeks. It’s maybe a day’s paddling if you’re in a canoe, max.
Elisa: With a bunch of strong fellows.
Manda: Paddlers. And then to get to Vancouver Island. How long does that take?
Elisa: Oh, it wouldn’t be long at all. There’s a 15 minute ferry and I think they can speed up. Someone said their mother was in labour and suddenly that ferry could go really fast, but they’re being a bit more efficient, going like 20 minutes to get over.
Manda: Wow. Okay. So you can presumably see the mainland and see Vancouver Island where you are.
Elisa: You can’t see the mainland. Well, I guess you can maybe see some mountains from certain perspectives. But yeah, you can certainly see Vancouver Island. Now and then someone has this mad idea about a bridge. Please don’t do that!
Manda: No, no. They did a bridge to Skye. It’s a horrible, horrible thing. No, don’t do it. It’ll destroy everything. Also, nowadays, there probably aren’t the materials left anymore to do it.
Elisa: It’s absurd. And what’s the ocean going to do to it?
Manda: Yes, quite. The whole thing is crazy. But let’s come back to, I’m developing an image of an island that I still don’t know how big it is. Tell us in a minute how big it is. But it’s a community of artists and creators and self-sufficient people. Could the whole island be self-sufficient, do you think if something happened and you were cut off, would you all be able to survive there?
Elisa: In theory, we totally could in theory. We are 80km² and there’s 12,000 permanent residents and we expand to 20,000 or more in the summer. So this is a lot of summer residences. Now we have this fascinating history of African-American slaves who were freed, who came up here. So the road that I’m close to is named after a very important family who settled here. So a hundred years ago we were producing the fruit for the mainland. It was getting ferried over there. This was before the Okanagan really became our fruit producers. And people here, we’ve got a fantastic food culture. We’re infamous for the market. Having said that, we’re still only eating about 5% here, and so we’re importing an absolute ton. Most people shop at the grocer. Most people do not shop at the farmer’s market. There’s a lot of CSAs and there’s more and more farming. But this is a very expensive part of the world and we have seen our property taxes triple in the seven years that we’ve been here. We are looking at hotel culture, where you basically are importing your staff from off island. There’s nowhere to live, it’s all Airbnb. It’s basically take London and make it a tiny little island. Same problems.
Manda: Slightly less car pollution?
Elisa: We have tons of roads. We’re a transition town and we’ve got a really fantastic activist population and we have like old settler families as well. And there’s plenty of conflict or discussion, heated discussion about how the land should be used or protected by the trust. Right development. I helped write the climate Action plan that was, you know, transition took that on and they are implementing it and they’re doing incredible things. And we’re not incorporated so we don’t have a mayor. We’ve got all these different complicated levels, but we just brought in our own little layer of government. And one of the people on that, well, we’ve got several people, who created our bus system. Which is meagre, but it’s still there. And we just had a big rally that I felt compelled to stand up and speak at, to talk to our transportation minister because we’re trying to get bike lanes and slow down these roads. I found an article from 1960 accidentally, complaining about the speed of cars on the roads and that someone couldn’t take their horses out. So this is an old conversation. But we got rid of our car five years ago.
Manda: You as a family got rid of your car.
Elisa: As a family, yeah. So we’ve got electric bicycles. We got a cargo bike, and so I could throw a child on the back of that. Now she’s taller than I am, I do that still, but only like on a flat to go to the lake and we go jump in the lake. And it’s electric, right? So it’s not just me, but I refuse to go up the big hill. It’s very hilly here and the shoulders are non-existent. So people come here and they stop riding bicycles after having ridden all over the place. So it’s tragic, but it doesn’t have to be this way. So really I think it’s all there. To grow the food. This is agricultural land that I’m on and there’s lots of it. Water is a thorny issue. We’ve become more Mediterranean. We have these long, hot summers that the firs are hating, the cedars are hating. We used to just have a lot of drizzle. It’s always been drier on these islands than where I was. I was at the bottom of a mountain, like the most rain in BC was just near us. But there’s folks who are experimenting with growing avocados outdoors, I’m growing lemons. I give them little lights in the winter and a little curtain. Okay they almost died last year, but that was my neglect, because we’re having more extreme temperatures.
Manda: And this is climate change. We’re seeing active climate change happening around you. Wow. So can we take a bit of a step back? Let’s assume that there are some people who are listening to this podcast for the first time because there always are and who might not know what permaculture is and might not know what a CSA is. Let’s do a little bit of exploring the philosophical and conceptual underpinnings to what you’re doing.
Elisa: So a CSA is a community supported agriculture, and it’s a fascinating idea, where you buy in and tell a farmer I’ll pay you this amount of money and you’ll get your veg or your fruit box scheme through them. And the farmer knows how many people they’re going to be feeding. They can therefore plant for them and it’s direct. You don’t have the cost of a middleman person and it just creates more security for the farmer and means you’ve got incredible fresh veg coming to you. I would like to see even more models where we draw on some technology. Like, for example, well, I’m trying to grow all the potatoes, I want to produce all the potatoes.
Manda: Potatoes for the whole island or just all the potatoes for you?
Elisa: Just my family! That’s challenging enough. I’ve thrown them all under hay bales, to grow through the hay bales. So there are hay bales everywhere. I would like to see people be able to say to a farmer, hey, can you produce all this spelt grain? We’ve got all these families, we’ve got a collective mill. I have a bicycle mill in my kitchen, but we could easily have a community mill. And how about throw in some extra for the chickens, so that we have local grain? We could do that if we were organised and working together. And there’s evidence of that happening here where people have gotten together during the pandemic, with fear around an actual food shortage. They started growing on shared land or someone donated the land for it or lent it. And they have been growing all their food. They’re really, really amazing. And it came through an emergency pod.
Elisa: So my understanding is that transition here is about to roll that out, so that all of our little communities can start to get together and grow more collective food. Not everyone can do what I’m doing. Like do you have time for this? Like, how are you paying your mortgage and what do you do? Are you even interested in growing your food? Like we don’t need everyone to be interested or good at it. We just need more of us to be.
Manda: Have you got an idea of roughly the percentage of people who would need to be interested and moderately good at it to feed the rest? Because you’re on an interestingly contained area. And I think that number is going to change depending where you are in the world. But in the old days, not very long ago, in the generations past of your family and my family, everybody grew something or they had a pig in the back or some chickens. Until people were herded into towns and actively and deliberately had that link to the land cut. Everybody was good at it and everybody did do a bit.
Elisa: Yeah. Actually, one of my histories is my mother’s Finnish and my father’s German. The Finns were all on the land, they were all like farming peasants actually. My mother got chased by geese, which I now have geese myself, like, chased her to the outhouse and back again. And my father’s, they were in a village and they had the village shop and they had a courtyard and they always had a pig in the courtyard. And then they went out to the fields nearby and had strawberries. And he would go into the cellar and get fresh whipped cream from his grandmother. I slept in the attic where they had smoked the meat. It was unbelievable. And so, yeah, that history, everyone would grow something. I mean, it doesn’t make sense to import boxes of lettuce. Like it’s not that hard to grow some lettuce and go and pick it as a cut and come again crop. Like why would you want to walk further than just outside your door to get your herbs and your lettuce if you had those skills? So that’s part of it. And I think here reskilling like that is very, very, very popular. Our garden club just swamps the local legion and we’ve got incredible edible veg groups and the permaculture group. So I don’t know what percentage. I think that’s a question for Chris Smaje; you’ll have to have him on a third time.
Elisa: Well didn’t he answer it in his book? In Small Farm Future he’s saying how many people would need to be on the land. And one of my favourite inspirations before we even moved here, is Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer. They have a ferme du Bec Hellouin in Normandy and they wrote a book called Miraculous Abundance. The image on the front of their book is a shot from the air of their beautifully laid out garden. It’s like a little half wheel or maybe it’s a full wheel. Anyway, we had room for a half wheel and so I designed one of my vege gardens based on that. I’ve just made them raised beds because life wasn’t working, couch grass was invading and my brain just needed more order. So they are now raised beds, but it’s the same thing. Anyway they set about proving how much food could be grown without fossil fuels, without machines. They love hand labour. Like Charles is after my own heart. He’s there with his horses and his hand tools.
Elisa: When we moved in here, there was a ride on mower and they kept the grass within half an inch of its life. And the fleas. Oh my God the fleas were awful, my poor cat. Because there’s no spiders, if there’s no grass.
Manda: No insects, no life.
Elisa: Right? Yeah. And so we sold it instantly, sold the ride on mower. And I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I my neighbour gave me a scythe. And so I figured out how to use it.
Manda: And you didn’t cut your legs off, so that was a good start.
Elisa: Yeah. There was a shoe with a cut in it and I was like, Oh, I guess I probably sliced into my shoe and didn’t even notice. So I learned to use a scythe. But honestly, I rarely get it out now because the goats and the chickens and the ducks and the geese, especially the geese they are mowing machines. And there’s a certain kind of happiness when they pick the grass out from between something, you’re like, Thank you.
Manda: And they’re not eating all your vegetables? Because we’ve had the conversation about geese here a lot. Partly we don’t have any water. So I’m going, No, no, no, we can’t. And I think they’ll eat everything.
Elisa: Well, they won’t eat everything. They harassed my lavender. That was really weird. Like, why are you? They tend to worry things. They worried a piece of my house off. I was like, What are you doing? But I do a lot of fencing and I’ve just been learning to use more materials from the land here to make simpler fences and weaving things. Someone planted a whack of bamboo, you can see in the films. It’s insanity how much timber bamboo and timber Bamboo on chicken manure, is like crack cocaine for an extra six feet. And so learning to use the fibre on this land is really interesting. But I do fence everything away from my chickens.
Manda: But you just said about the geese picking things. When they pick things, they’re not picking between your lettuces, I’m guessing because I think they’d eat them.
Elisa: Not between the lettuces. No. If I let them, they would have the lettuces. But there’s a lot of what in permaculture you’d call a food forest. And that’s just about wonderful layering, right? So you’ve got all the different levels. You might have a herbaceous layer, so they’renot into a lot of herbs or strong flavours, they don’t want that. So they’ll be picking the grass out from around the herbs. I mean, I don’t let them walk where I’m eating something, like I don’t want to have to clean it like that. But above that, say you’ve got some nitrogen fixing berries, like a Goumi or these kinds of shrub layer, and then you go up to a tree layer. So they’re mowing around my apples because these are, you know, cider apples, all kinds of apple orchards here. And so they’re mowing there. And then above that is like a walnut, right? And then you might have vines coming up like the grapevine film. The Grape House is gone. Like you can’t see it now. It’s just a vine at this time of year. That’s all there is, is a grape vine.
Manda: Okay. So that’s a very different climate to here. I had pinned you as being sort of like here, but I doubt we’d get grape vines to grow out outside. Let’s take a step back. How long ago did you establish this food forest? You’ve got walnuts. I’m guessing that wasn’t your generation that planted those. So in a minute, I want to look at the food forest and how you managed to establish that in seven years or whether it was already there when you got there. But before we get to that, for people who don’t know, can you tell us what permaculture is, what the philosophy behind it is, and then how you have applied it on your acre and a half?
Elisa: Yeah. So permaculture is, some people express it as an ecological design. People often understand permaculture as being a bit like organic gardening, but it is actually a structure for design. And so it has several principles that David Holmgren and Bill Mollison originally laid out and they were drawing on Australian Indigenous culture and their own backgrounds in forestry and biology. And so they came up with a set of principles. And so this is what I’m drawing on. I wouldn’t say that permaculture is the only aspect of how I’m working and I think regenerative agriculture is very much drawing on that, drawing on all the indigenous ways of working with the patterns of nature. And so for me, I think the philosophy is like looking at what patterns are functioning in a healthy ecosystem and you don’t have to be applying that to a garden. I think that it appealed to me, first of all, as an artist, it appealed to me because the design sense is so strong.
Elisa: Observe and interact is a principle. So you’re not just going in there and doing stuff to a space or a life or a business or whatever. You’re paying attention and you’re spending time with the space. So in this case, I was spending time with a little bit of Land that actually many, many layers of people had already done so much. And to see like, where’s the sun? How is it moving, how is the building oriented? You know, how cold are we at this time of year? Do we need a fire? Where’s our wood going to come from? Where do we store it? How is the water moving on the property? Before you actually decide where a pond goes, you want to know like, Oh, this is getting wet in the winter and like flooding our driveway. Why is our driveway flooding? What’s happening there? What do we need to do to fix this? Like I didn’t fix it for two years because I had no idea what was actually happening for two years.
Manda: And had somebody filled in a pond? Had a pond, been there.
Elisa: There is a pond and I call it a creek, but let’s be honest, it’s a ditch. Because the theory at that time was get the water off your property as fast as possible. And there was a culvert, very old culvert now, probably 30 years, maybe 50. Because the homestead part was built in 1960 here, they started building. And so that’s where the orchard began to turn into something else. And it was an abandoned orchard at that point. So you’re taking principles like this and applying it. So as an artist, that was really compelling for me. And then I had a child quite young. We had our first child when I was 24. Everyone regarded me like I was a teenage pregnancy, because in those days, nobody was having kids. It wasn’t until I was 30 that everyone suddenly had kids and now it’s even later. And what happened with us is that we just lucked out. My dear roommate and artist told me about midwifery and it set something in motion.
Elisa: Because midwifery is that thing again. It’s taking into your own hands, taking back that power of and trusting the body, trusting in the patterns of nature and old wisdom. And so that integration then really naturally kind of followed along into attachment parenting, which was fascinating because my art practice was all about connection and intimacy. I was making these films that were facing other films, installations of me looking at myself or I once turned a gallery into a video store where you could rent videos of me like washing my face or brushing my teeth just on a loop. So you’re just spending time with that intimate and regarding the camera as if it were a mirror in that case.
Manda: Gosh that’s brave!
Elisa: And so I was playing with connection and I encountered Winnicott and Bowlby, who are British attachment theorists. But then I encountered Neufeld, who was in Vancouver actually at the time I met him. And so attachment parenting is that same pattern again; It’s like trusting your child that their needs can be met and the needs will go away when they are met there. You don’t need to force them to be independent. You actually are maintaining an attachment. So, you know, we had a family bed, I breastfed for as long as it was really needed, which turned out to be 3 or 4 years. Not like I was breastfeeding a baby, but just that kind of meeting needs in a mutual way. Stuff that people think is crazy, even now. But everyone else all over the planet does. Like infant pottying, where you’re just paying attention to signals, natural signals and taking your child to the loo when they need to go. And so I became so versed in reading those signals, the same way you read your dogs, your cat signals when they’re hungry, you know they’re hungry.
Manda: Or the puppy needs to go out.
Elisa: Yeah, puppy needs to go out. And so my second child, our second child was born. And that morning I got up, took her to the sink and made a little sound and she had a wee. And she was like, Thank you for listening. She stopped using diapers in bed by the time she was nine months old. We just stopped using them, because she would wriggle if she needed to eat, and if she didn’t want to nurse, she clearly needed to go pee. So you just don’t need diapers. Well, this sort of thing feels like to me the same thing as Okay, wait a minute. We have a water crisis on this island, but we don’t need one. 30% is being flushed away. Actually, it’s not being flushed away. It’s actually sewage that they have to treat and deal with. And then we have a storm and it ends up in the ocean. It’s revolting. But when we moved in here, the septic was torched anyway. We knew that, like that was negotiated in the price. But we didn’t replace it. We piped grey water to a bunch of hazelnuts and we get a beautiful crop and then it filters out into the pears and apple orchard around it and the bamboo.
Manda: So hang on, tell us a little bit more about grey water. So is that everything that comes through your loo or do you have a composting toilet and it’s only the fluids? People, if this is too much, you can just stop listening for the next five minutes. But this sounds really interesting because this is how we’re going to need to sort stuff out. I want to know how you knew to do this? Because I’ve watched a few videos about it, but I wouldn’t necessarily know how to set it up. And then what’s the actual logistics?
Elisa: Okay, so Gord and Ann Baird have Eco-Sense. Eco-Sense is in the Highlands outside Victoria, and these were the friends that we just fell in love with and learned so much from. And literally I just went and used the compost loo there and I was like, This makes the most sense of anything. You know, you go camping to these pits and you think that human waste is revolting, but no other animal is living like this. We just don’t have to. It’s just a sawdust toilet and a bucket. So we installed two things. One, grey water. So black water would be the toxic waste that we get when we mix faeces and urine. You do not want that, that has to be handled correctly, we understand that. Grey water is just laundry, dishwasher, shower.
Manda: Are you using particular soaps so that you’re not contaminating it with stuff?
Elisa: Yeah, exactly. It’s not hard to do. Just make sure all your soaps are reasonable and yeah, you’re not going to bleach anything, but you weren’t going to do that anyway because that would be crazy. So you, you have those systems going out and it’s going to a mulch bed, which is basically composting any of the particulate and you dig the mulch bed out again and compost that stuff. Actually, it’s already composting, put it around a tree. Put some more mulch in maybe every year and a half.
Manda: And what’s the mulch?
Elisa: Just woodchip. And then the compost toilets, I really like things to be as simple as possible. There are compost toilets that do everything for you. But my pet peeve is really anything that breaks and I have to fix it. And if it can’t be fixed or they just tell you to buy a new one. I don’t want anything to do with that. I have sewing machines that are 100 years old, because they still make that little rubber gasket and nothing else ever needs to be replaced. Like nothing. The needle.
Manda: Not too many moving parts.
Elisa: Yeah, exactly. So I like the compost toilets to be heavy on the labour for humans and low on the breakable waste technology stuff. So there is a tiny fan that does go, but if the power is cut, it does not matter. Whereas everyone else rurally here, they can’t flush their toilet. And when we had a massive windstorm, 2018, you know, 50 electric poles down, never mind all the trees, people could not flush their toilets.
Manda: They’ve got electric toilets?
Elisa: The pumps are running on electricity. So you don’t have any water if the power is out in the countryside. But never mind that. We’re flushing away all that water. So the compost toilet is just a bucket and you’re just layering sawdust in it. Actually my family are infinitely patient with me and very experimental and they’re willing to, as I say, we got rid of our car and they’re like, okay, we’ll just cycle everywhere. But I’ve got a loo diversion, my 3.0 design I’m working on, because I don’t want to carry the heavy buckets. I’m almost 50 and like a perimenopausal body is not a flexible thing. At times I work on it like I have to do yoga and stuff to make sure I can suddenly do tons of pruning or suddenly move a lot of ladders.
Manda: Or empty the compost toilet.
Elisa: And the part that’s heavy is the urine. And the thing is that also, even if you don’t have a compost toilet, you could right now do what you will see the elders do; take a little jar and go out into their garden. And we’re grossed out by this Okay, but urine is not a problem. You dilute that 1 to 10. You put it around a tree. Actually you should talk to Martin Crawford.
Manda: Food Forest Guy.
Elisa: In Devon. So in one of my favourite books, it’s so English of him, I love him. Or so not English of him, rather. He’s like, This tree could have one and a half pees a week for optimum fertility. And so you could just be taking that and feeding it to your garden, because we’re going to have a crisis around fertiliser. That’s one of the tipping points, right? We’re already having crises about where it’s going. This is not waste. I like to say that even if I didn’t produce anything else of value today, at least I increase the fertility of our land. So then the compost, we do like 15 buckets and we tip it out into a dedicated bin and it jacks up to really high temperatures, right? Our own nitrogen does that. But what I like to do is add the chicken manure because that stuff is volcanic.
Elisa: So this is to me, those patterns they’re very sensible. They’re often traditional. You know, we have this narrative that goes ‘people in the past didn’t know what they’re doing and that’s why they all died of cholera’. Right? But clearly, we’re here but our solutions are on the whole very energy and material intensive, But they really don’t need to be.
Manda: And they need not to be quite soon, I think is the thing. The energy pulse is over, the the oil is diminishing. And even if it weren’t, we can’t keep burning it. So we have to find energy intensive ways of doing things. So yes and you’re modelling this. That’s what I love is that you’re experimenting so we don’t have to. And then you’re putting out Apple turnover TV,so we can see what it does. I haven’t been down the list. Is there one all about compost and composting toilets?
Elisa: No, I haven’t made a film about compost toilets yet, so that is definitely on the list. I have a tiny little book that I’m basically writing in real time. And every now and then I release another part of it, the Journal of Small Work. And so definitely compost toilets are part of the small work. And I know that that’s probably a really major one, in terms of people’s minds and hearts and changing how we live. Kind of a leap. I get it. My kid had this idea that we could have a bucket system where it’s all collected, just like you’re recycling. So if you don’t want to deal with it, you could just have a community compost and that would be amazing. Like, why not? That’s so basic. And you’d be saving 30% of your water right there. And then if everyone has their grey water pipes…
Manda: And this went down how well with the rest of the island? Did they love this idea?
Elisa: We haven’t actually proposed it. We’re getting a community compost where the grocery stores can send any waste. And the abattoir, which we’ve worked so hard to get, so that animals don’t have to get stressed out and shipped off island. So that kind of thing is really more important than me just doing it by myself.
Manda: Sure. Talk us through a little bit of that. Because we compost here, but I am fairly OCD about making sure there is nothing in the compost that the rats would like to eat. Partly because I have been in places where you lift up the lid of the compost and seven generations of very fat and happy rats leap out and I’m listening to you talking about the grocery stores and the abattoirs and thinking, Oh, there’s going to be some super happy rats. I don’t mind feeding the rats, I just would not like them, you know, necessarily?
Elisa: This compost system is state of the art. Think cement truck turning. It’s that kind of thing. You put stuff in, it keeps turning.
Manda: It’s generating about 70 degrees and yeah. Okay. How do you keep the plastic out of it?
Elisa: Exactly. I don’t know.
Manda: Because otherwise you end up spreading microplastics all over your land, and that’s not good.
Elisa: Exactly. I haven’t been as active in the group, but Tommy and I have been running plastic free Saltspring for several years. My kids hold me to account. I became quite ill 2 or 3 years ago and we had to kind of lower some standards and just buy the spelt bread that’s only in a plastic bag for a while, even though it just about killed me to do it. But I didn’t have choices about that. So there are some things we do buy in plastic, but to reduce that microplastic going out into the garden. Going out into the world, the zero waste movement is practically old news. There’s so much you can do to live plastic free. And I think it’s more appealing, say, than the compost toilets to start with something like that. But I think you start with whatever you feel drawn to. If you’re excited about mending and learning alterations or you want to learn, like, for example, I’ve got a I’ve got a fleece, I’ve got a spinning needle, I have a fleece, I know the name of the sheep whose fleece it is, right? Like that is local.
Manda: So you’re spinning it to weave or are you spinning it to knit with or?
Elisa: I would knit with it or crochet. But weaving is compelling as well. My family, the Finns out east in Canada, they shared a loom and that was a basic community thing you did. The Finns had one loom and it went from house to house and you would produce what you needed and pass it on. I think that’s a great model. And so I think that’s the same possibility for so many things that I’m just doing by myself. But we we don’t need to; like we should be sharing those tools. We could use a lot less and not even blink if we’re sharing. My neighbour’s really into his traditional tools as well, and he has his post hole digger that he uses for all sorts of things. And so whenever I’m trying to put in more fencing, I’m like, Can I borrow your post tool? Really lovely old vintage. I love a good vintage tool, hand tool, and I can only ever use it for five minutes before he needs it back for something else he’s doing with it.
Manda: That that seems to be one of the issues with the community tool concept is that so many people get very precious even about their black and Decker drill, never mind their, you know, beautiful vintage post hole digger.
Elisa: But there’s things you probably, if you really thought about it, you’d be like, do I really want my own wet dry vac or do I just want to access one when I’ve had a flood go through my basements? And actually, when the flood went through my basement, it went through everyone else’s basement too. Then there weren’t enough to go around. And I was lucky to have my neighbour with his wet dry vac. So yeah, community model I think is fantastic. And then I find it’s such a pleasure, like a real mower, you know what I mean by a real mower? Like they spin. It’s a spinning blade and you just push it.
Elisa: I like my scythe and I like the old school and really learning that physical movement of how you’re going to cut the grass, and sharpening it and the sound of it and all of that. But a real mower is also a thing of beauty. And I think that’s the thing about all of this. When you actually like make your own pasta for the first time, with your own eggs and you’ve milled the flour. I know this feels really far fetched, but I don’t think it really is. It’s like freshly milled flour into handmade pasta that doesn’t take as long as you thought to make and tastes like unbelievable. So you realise, you know what this is like, when you grow your first tomato and you just think, I’ve been eating a shadow of a tomato all this time and I had no idea. But I think that’s the same when you take the cider pressings and you pop them in the chicken run with all kinds of leaves and hay and.
Manda: And you get amazing eggs.
Elisa: You get amazing eggs, but then you get the compost and it’s like a chocolate cake in there. And you dig that out, put that on your garden, and then it goes crazy. And then you’ve got the cider and then you turn the cider into apple cider vinegar, and then you turn it into an oxymel with honey and fermenting elderflower in it. Then you’re talking!
This is enormous pleasure. And I think that’s the thing that we need to talk more about. Taking a walk with my goats and seeing what they’re eating and taking them to the opportunistic BlackBerry to eat more of that. And they are so enjoying it and then their milk is technicolour milk, like you just can’t believe this stuff exists. And making yoghurt from that, you’re alive in a whole other way.
Manda: Yeah. And you are alive in a whole other way because then your gut biome is alive in a whole other way. There was a really interesting article. Nature does a roundup of stuff that they think ordinary people will be interested in, and the top one that they put out last week, was somebody had done a study between some forager hunter still indigenous communities, peasant farmers in I think Mexico and Californians. And orders of magnitude difference in the gut biome. And the Californians had the gut biome that was predominantly oxidative, I think I can’t remember, but basically it was going to kill you much, much faster. And I imagine if we measured your gut biome. So the gut biome is the population of bacteria in your gut. It’s a whole universe in there of things that are producing things that you need. And then you’re putting that on the garden, then you’ve got the composting toilets and you’re getting all that back out again. So you’re getting a really interesting virtuous cycle going. And I’m imagining with your food forest that you’ve got really, really deep roots by now. And so therefore you’ve got the mycorrhizal fungi going really deep as well, and you’re bringing up minerals from way, way, way down. Because I remember going to a course with Dan Kittredge a while ago and he said that, you know, vegans are having to take B12 and vegans should not have to be taking B12, it should be in everything they’re eating. But because we do this kind of strip mining of the earth with our agriculture where the roots never go down, then they don’t have that. So you must be. Has anyone done any nutritional studies to see what’s the difference between the nutritional density and capacity of the things that you’re creating compared to the stuff that you buy in the supermarket?
Elisa: I know that would be fascinating. And I also wonder about bricks, like people have these metres to test sugar levels. I mean I think what you’re getting at is actually the point for me. It’s not just the pleasure of doing all that, it’s actually that intense collaboration and that the pattern is mutual and reciprocal. So that actually you’re not thinking about how you thrive, you’re thinking about the entire system and all aspects of it thriving, so that your in collaboration with everything and everything is becoming more diverse and in more multiple relationships. And this is true whether you’re your attachment parenting or your gardening or every part of it, right? We want to be making sure our air is getting cleaner and our water is getting cleaner and our soil is getting richer. And I think of that as the collaborative pattern. I loved Eisenstein’s The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. I think when I read that it really resonated with what I had been writing about this. You know, understanding the route. I think that’s why I like the permaculture design. But I think we need to make sure we’re comprehending the roots of what’s going wrong and the roots of what’s possible.
So I read a book back in art school, Val Plumwood Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, and it’s such a great basic text. She’s actually Australian and into permaculture. She also fought off crocodiles if she was out in the bush and needed to, and survived it. I didn’t know any of that at the time, but she wrote about the structures of our culture and your podcast has laid this out beautifully already, so I really don’t need to. But you know, she talked about how we polarise. How we then create hierarchy. So we say things are extremely different from each other. Men and women are extremely different. They have nothing in common. Black people and white people have nothing in common. Not just that, but there’s hierarchy. Men are above women. And so we do that with everything. And as I’ve been writing about this and the writing started when I moved here. I’ve always written, like I’ve had a journal for decades, but I started writing in the mornings here. I was never an early bird and I didn’t write, not like that. So the writing just kind of emerged from the walls and the Land. And I think the writing is looking at this. Because I think what Val Plumwood was expressing is the competitive, the conquering pattern. Everywhere you see it are converging crises. I think underneath it you can see the competitive patterns. So the competitive pattern, if I’d raised my children like that, I would have had them cry it out.
Elisa: That’s my earliest memory myself, crying it out. No one’s coming. You’re on your own. Your emotions need to just be put away. And attachment is not dependable. You are independent and you’ve got to just do for yourself. And then in school we look at that. I unschooled my kids to preserve the attachment to themselves and their own intrinsic wisdom that we all have. We’re not buckets to be filled. We were good enough the moment we were born. And you can meet people who have no education, but they are very wise. And that is because life is enough to teach you. You don’t actually need the PhD. Go for it if that’s what you want, but the PhD is us doing that same conquering. We’re saying, I’m going to reward you with hierarchy every way through. You’ve got to beat your peers. You’ve got to beat each other. You’ve got to beat each other for a job. And everywhere, through that whole beating of each other and winning over, is that power over. And that’s the competitive pattern. And we need to move to the collaborative pattern of just seeing it differently and doing it differently. What does it look like if it’s collaborative and not competitive?
Manda: Yes. And what does it look like? We haven’t got very long left, and there are two sets of questions arising from that. And the first is I want to know a little bit more about unschooling. I just saw a Ted Talk the other day where Singapore has apparently decided that all schooling needs to be non-competitive; so they still have schools, but you won’t be graded against your peers. Your teachers will still assess how you’re doing, but everybody gets to be their own person and school is no longer a competitive thing, which struck me as a really interesting step forward. But you chose to unschool your kids. So I have friends who are homeschooling, but I don’t know what unschooling is and I don’t know how it works. And you told me before we came on air that your youngest child has just gone to college or just finished college? One or the other.
Elisa: Technically my youngest has just graduated. If she had been in high school, she’s graduated. My eldest is long off to college.
Manda: So just tell us a little bit, briefly, about what unschooling is and where it has taken them that ordinary school might not have, although you can’t run the control trial, obviously.
Elisa: So John Holt coined the word unschooling, probably in the 80s. He was a teacher in the states, trying to change the system from within. And at some point he concluded that actually that system is coercive and that people don’t learn when they’re coerced. That is fear based. And everything you put into that system is twisted. And I think this is hard for people to hear. I know it is. But if you think about amazing people that you could have learned from, but actually the attachment is all wrong. Like people aren’t attached to those teachers or if they’re not attached to their teacher, they don’t want to know anything that they’re telling them. And actually, anything that is in school can become turned off. So like you can say, Oh, we should teach this in school, but actually you’re just taking another thing and turning it off. That is the thing that the kids who have often become peer centred in attachment theory; we have a little dial, a little compass of attachment, and it should be to our parent figure. And when we go off to school, it should be passed like a baton to another parent figure. But what often happens is either you don’t have the attachment at all in the first place, or it goes winging around looking for an attachment and gets attached to a peer. And whatever you’re attached to, everything else is off. It’s protective, right? It’s a baby who doesn’t grab your hand with that attachment.
Elisa: You know, when they grab your finger, it’s a child who’s not smiling and nodding and looking in your eyes and talking to you. It’s the one that’s like crying or turning away from you or just not looking at you. Like we know attachment when we see it. You’re sitting at a table, you hand somebody something to eat. So unschooling is keeping that attachment in place. Homeschooling can be too. Unschooling specifically is looking at what a person is naturally drawn to and into and understanding that anything that we’re into leads to everything else in the world. There’s a really nice story that I read when my kid was two, and I first said to my sweetheart, like, I think this would be a great way to live. Actually, I approached him wrong. The best way to approach him is not to say, you know, school is this and that and the other thing, because neither of us had a great… Actually, I liked parts of school, but it was torture in other ways. And actually it was better to say, hey, you know, we could actually go and live in England or you could be, you know, showing them your filmmaking skills. And we did this. They made an animation every year for about 18 years. We did a family animation. And just following those interests. So Sandra Dodd, once wrote an article because she was worried about her kids. She wanted to homeschool them, but they were only into baseball, nothing else. That was their special interest and everything else was not.
Manda: Well you could do physics and biology and maths. Everything comes out of baseball.
Elisa: There you go. You can do history. You can do the history of fashion. You can do sociology. You’ve got everything there. And that’s what she wrote. And I saw that and said like, Oh, this is just art school at home. This is just facilitating your project. And whatever your project is, is probably teaching you things that you have no idea, even all the things. So my youngest has produced a graphic novel. She’s done, I think, four episodes of a graphic novel. So she needs to know graphic design, how to use Photoshop, how to tell a story, character development. She needs to understand even how people are reading them these days. She needs to look at feminism and representation, she set it ten years in the future. So she’s like redesigning the city. She’s drawing, she’s putting in bike lanes and trees and taking out a parking garage and making it a park and drawing, drawing. So you know, now and then she’s like, well, I don’t know about this and I don’t know about that. The thing is, what we need to learn to do is how to learn and once you know how to learn, you can learn anything. And John Holt wrote a book called Learning All the Time and I think Never too late. And he learned cello kind of to make the point. He learned cello in his 70s.
Elisa: To say there’s no window. We don’t need to worry about this. Just follow your interest, it will lead to everything else.
Elisa: It’s been a delight. It was the best thing I ever did. Unschooling the kids, we’ve had a good time. And life learning doesn’t stop. So that’s why I say, quote unquote graduated.
Manda: And are they still both at home on the homestead helping you with your acre and a half, or have they flown the nest and gone off to do something wild out in the world?
Elisa: My eldest fledged and and headed off to the city for a while and was kind of picking and choosing her own university classes and making her own thing out of it. But I think she’s not alone in being disillusioned by that whole process of university. Like it worked well for my parents. I didn’t expect to have a career, not a career, but like have an income coming out of art school. I was like, Oh, wait a minute, I should have studied business because being an artist is actually a business. I’m doing that now. But that whole system is also crumbling.
Manda: You’re gaslighting people at the moment, if you’re saying come and do our course and there’ll be a career for you at the end of it, because quite clearly the entire system is folding in those careers are not going to exist. So you could go and do stuff for fun because it’s fun, but because you think you’re setting yourself up for business as usual, it’s plainly not going to happen.
Elisa: Yeah, and they are pretty keyed into that.
Manda: Okay. Yeah, it would be very hard to grow up in what you’ve described to us and for that not to be the case. If you were to look ten years ahead. If your whole island made good choices and there was minimal conflict, and let’s assume that the climate stays more or less as it is, where do you think you would be as a collective, as a community and individually?
Elisa: Oh gosh. I think we’d be so happy. I really think that there’s so much struggle and there’s so much stress and it’s just a grind to get by for so many people. And even the people who seem to be thriving, the people who have been pre-approved in this culture and have a lot, I don’t see a lot of joy there either. I think that it’s really lacking. So I think actually a lot of the community knit pieces would take care of a lot of unmet needs. So I could see us with slow shared roads and being able to move in a public space that is our roads, in a safe way, so that we are connecting with each other and our villages being completely walkable. Maybe with a circuit of vehicles that do deliveries or someone can move you around the village if you’re not mobile. But you can get out safely and so you do. And having food that is really living that maybe you had a hand in producing, or that you can rely on someone else to produce if you’re not able. And to have the land be, you know, without pesticides and regenerated. So our forests actually have what they need. So we’re taking care of the forest floors and having meandering creeks and making sure that water is holding in the soil. And we’re not using it up the way we are because we don’t need more than 30% of it. And in fact, maybe we’re even catching a lot more rainwater in the first place and storing it in soil and that wildlife is really welcome in the gardens and pollinators and all of this biodiversity is continued throughout.
Elisa: And then maybe we also, because we don’t need as much, but we’ve also got these great bicycle lanes. People can come here on electric ferries that don’t have cars on them because you don’t need to take a car across like maybe now and then there’s a delivery or something, but it doesn’t have to be constant. So then our whale populations are bouncing back and the ocean is doing better than before. You know, I could see us really having a good time. I think that’s the thing. And people do this. Lots of people are having a great time. I think it’s just possible to to do this with a different trajectory, with that collaboration in mind. And we don’t have to do this all by ourselves and be struggling. We could have a system where housing costs and our needs, all of these things are much more aligned, so that we have less needs and we’re not producing waste. And so we can be in community. And frankly, my favourite thing to do with my community has to be dancing and I could just see a lot more parties, a lot more dancing, a lot more fun really. This could all be a lot nicer than it is.
Manda: That sounds glorious. That sounds so much fun. It’s odd how for me it’s easier to imagine that on an island that I have never seen, but I’m kind of imagining the scale of it. I mean, this is a place you could cycle around in a couple of days. 80km² it’s not that big. And yet you’ve got 12,000 people there permanently and you could build a good, you know, little Dunbar scale 150 people at a time, villages all interlinked. That would be amazing. And it would be such an astonishing model for everybody else. Although it’d be nice if everybody else was doing it at the same time. Obviously. Wonderful. Is there anything else that you wanted to say as we head towards the close? We haven’t talked about Thrutopia at all, about your writing.
Elisa: We haven’t talked about Thrutopia! It was incredible and so affirming. Every single week it was so affirming of exactly this collaborative model and of the small work of doing these small things in our lives and adjusting, you know, even just in our heads, like even in relationship to our own bodies or what we’re making for dinner. Like, how can this be more collaborative? I think that could have been our question, just as much as how are we getting from here to the future we want to be in? And I think that that’s the thing about it, is change doesn’t happen in these grand gestures from the top down. Or when it does, it doesn’t regularly work. David Holmgren Permaculture says, you know, it’s good to test these things on a small scale. So I’m considering myself and this place as, as testing these things out and having your loo design 3.0 and your food forest design 8.0 and like figuring out what works and then distributing it. So I think that’s Thrutopian in nature, is like relocalize it, test it out and then share it widely and share the stories of what works and what’s actually bringing you joy and health and diversity and stability and resilience.
Manda: Yeah. And find the other people who are doing it and learn from them. So u don’t feel you’re reinventing all of the wheels all on your own? Yeah, that’s so inspiring. Wonderful. In that case, I think that’s a wrap. Elisa, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. This has been so much fun and I’m going to go off and explore composting toilets again.
Elisa: Oh, good. It’s been a great pleasure, Manda, thank you so much for having me.
Manda: Thank you. And that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Elisa for everything that she is and does. It sounds such a big step on the way to where we need to go and how we need to be, to talk to someone who’s actually implementing most of the things that we talk about on this podcast. The sense of community, the living lightly on the land, the rediscovering all of the ways that we can build and make and eat and clothe ourselves, so that we are enhancing the structures of the land and the biosphere and everything around us. And yet having full, fulfilling, inspiring 21st century lives. So there are links in the show notes to Apple turnover TV and everything else that Elisa does. And I heartily recommend that you head off and be inspired. We can’t all have an acre and a half on a Canadian island, but we can all do something with a little bit of land somewhere and tell the stories of the things that are happening. Because Elisa and I met on the Thrutopia Masterclass, and story still seems to me to be everything. If we can build the pictures of where we’re going and what it looks like when we get there and the steps that we took to get there, then people will join behind us. I do still believe that. So if we need to do anything at all this week, go off and watch Apple turnover TV and then share it with your friends. As well as sharing this, obviously.
Manda: And we now have a YouTube channel. Faith has been working her fingers to bones, putting every one of what is now nearly 200 podcasts up onto YouTube. So if YouTube is more your thing or if you know somebody else where YouTube is more their thing, then please go and listen. Share. Do whatever youtubey things you do. It’s not really a space that I inhabit much, so I’m not wholly sure what goes on there. But I gather lots of people consume their podcasts on YouTube, so let’s do that thing. And that apart, we will be back next week with another conversation. Enormous thanks in the meantime, to Caro C and Alan Mills of Airtight Studios for the production. To Caro for the music at the head and foot. To faith for the website and all the extraordinary work on the YouTube channel and the Instagram that I forgot to mention. To Gill Coombs and Anne Thomas for the transcripts, because now we seem to be doubling up almost everything. And as ever to you for listening. If you know anybody else who wants to be inspired by composting toilets and unschooling and the ways that we can live lightly on the land, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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