The Clearing is a vision of the future in the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Caretaker report

20 April 2017

Ella and Elliot

Caretaker Report 2 - Dome Sweet Dome

We had a fantastic time staying at The Clearing for five days as voluntary caretakers, living off-grid with limited resources and imagining how we might have to start living in the future. As young city-dwellers, it took us a little while to get used to how things work, and unfortunately it was nearly time to leave once we felt we’d fully got the hang of it. We would happily have stayed longer. But most importantly we survived (!) and left feeling much more alive.

(I spent some time reading about geodesmic domes in books that were in The Clearing’s library. These photos are taken from a book called Shelter, first published in 1973.)

CONVERSATIONS WITH VISITORS

Visitors were very intrigued by the structure and curious as to what we were doing there. Initially reluctant to make their way in through the gate, they were very eager to come inside the dome and garden once we invited them in. Often surprised at how cosy, warm and well-insulated it was inside (which we had been too), they were surprised to see how comfortably we could live with such basic resources. A lot of visitors expressed their envy of us being able to live like this (though they probably meant for just a few days rather than forever).

There was one visitor however who assured us that he’d hate to live like this and loves the comfort of his own semi-detached home that was passed down to him by his parents. He asked us if we missed the TV, telling us that he has just bought a new 40 inch one that he is still waiting to talk to Virgin Media about installing. He proceeded to ask us for advice on how he can get it set up.

We had some interesting conversations with visitors about climate change and what the future might hold. It was a strange conflict, wanting to invite people in and chat with them about these topics and the project whilst at the same time just wanting a spare minute to continue cooking the lunch you’ve been trying to finish for the past 2 hours. At times we felt a little bit like a novelty display in some sort of zoo of human history (or future), where in fact we actually genuinely trying to get enough wood cut before the sun goes down to keep us warm for the night!

A favourite question from children was ‘Where do you go to the toilet?’. They were always disgusted when we explained to them how compost toilets work. Our favourite quote from a child – “I hate wood.”

HEATING AND EATING

Being so vital for our survival, WOOD definitely stands out for me as the thing most central to our experience… learning about it as a material from trial and error, which types are best to burn, where best to find and collect it, how best to cut it, the lush smell of wood smoke permeating everything, etc. Though on the one hand, we loved the labour involved in having to produce our own means of energy, we found that chopping wood was very time consuming and energy depleting, which at times could be quite frustrating...

… especially without the best tools or knowledge of how to use them properly. We somehow managed to break two mallets on our first day. Whoops.

The time consuming and physically intensive chore of chopping wood made us think a lot about where our energy comes from that we need in order to eat and be kept warm, how disconnected we are from its source in modern day living where it is so quick and easy to turn on the boiler, stove or tap (and also how expensive it can be).

It took us a while but eventually we got the hang of how best to start a fire and maintain it throughout the day (but only after having left a cardboard box too close to the woodburner to catch on fire – thank god for the smoke alarms). It was lovely to sit outside at night cooking on the fire and looking up at the moon, stars and bats.

In terms of food, we quickly ran out of the few fresh things we had at the start of the week and so eventually resorted to eating canned beans, though we made this quite tasty with herbs we picked on the grounds (including rosemary, thyme, chives and mint). We also foraged for nettles, dandelion leaves and garlic mustard from around Compton Verney’s grounds, as well as milk, out-of-date sandwiches and sachets of black pepper from the café.

BUILDING/MAKING/PLANTING

We spent a lot of our time making additions to the encampment that would make the place more pleasant and useful for the next caretakers.

We were intrigued to find lots of Oyster shells along the banks of the lake, which we suspect are left overs from the local otter. I cleaned some of these up so you could see the pearly texture and colours underneath and tied them together to make wind-chimes to hang in the trees next to the dome.

We also planted some kale seeds to go next to the mustards seeds that had been planted by the occupants before us. Hopefully the next caretakers will look after them well and soon they’ll be ready to harvest.

We also made a raised flowerbed/cool boxes out of scraps of wood, old window frames and a lick of paint, and planted sunflower seeds in there to grow up the fence at the entrance to the encampment. There were no gardening tools in the future so we had to make do with spoons for digging.

We happened to discover a full nest of eggs and a mother duck nesting in this pile of branches and twigs just next to the encampment. They were very well camouflaged so we made a sign just to make people aware not to jump on the pile.

It felt fantastic to have to be more resourceful and practical and using your hands through more simple living which is more in touch with nature, our surrounding environment, and the materials and objects we must interact with. With this DIY approach I felt more in control, autonomous and less alienated in having to meet my basic needs for survival. Our stay was both relaxing and bloody hard work, and on leaving I felt revived, rejuvenated, grounded and calm. I noticed this much more on return to the city, and realised that I need to adapt my way of living, both for my personal well-being and for the well-being of the planet.