Does our individualistic way of living deny us some of life's most simple joys?
This is a question I have been asking myself since visiting a community smallholding in Cornwall. I was invited there by a friend at work, who has been living in a caravan on the land during the summer. Imagine the Shire from The Hobbit with more roomie dwellings, and that's the best way I can describe Cotna Eco Retreat. The lush green valley is bursting with vegetables and berry bushes; umpteen ducklings waddle aimlessly by the stream; friendly dogs and cats greet me along with several friendly humans. It is idyllic, nothing short of paradise. I was invited into the barn - made with clay and hay bails - for coffee. This is one of the communal areas, where WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and paying residents share a kitchen, living room and epic wood-burner.
As I am given a tour of the land, the farm, various houses and dwellings, I suddenly feel incredibly relaxed. The whole place is so far removed from the real world, and being part of it feels like taking a long exhale. But I wonder, are the residents of Cotna out of touch or rather much more in touch with true reality? These sweet and smiling people may be out of touch with my version of reality - pubs, supermarkets, 9-til-five jobs, the media - but they are far more connected with other important aspects of life.
They are connected with nature, living from season to season and cultivating the land. They experience the circle of life, hatching ducklings and burying yard cats. They use sustainable energy with compost, solar panels and wind turbines. They are connected with human nature and the body, what it means to share space, belongings and food. Nothing normalises human nature like the "change over" of buckets in the compost loo (full disclosure, I've never used a more odourless toilet). Reality is, I believe, a choice.
The notion of individualistic living has become the norm in our society, through which we may be denying ourselves the benefits to be had from living co-dependently; living as part of a tribe. I say this as someone who has recently gone from living with just two others during a quiet year of lockdowns, to opening the house up to five others (and one toilet, I might add).
I was naturally nervous about this change and abrupt lack of solitude and privacy - about people taking my food or using my favourite mug. But on the very first night evening that my new friends moved in, one them made a big pan of risotto and shared with everyone present, a few guests included. We sat in the garden amongst boxes and camping chairs and a growing number of beer bottles, squished around the picnic bench and ate together like a family. We ate and we shared in a way I'd almost forgotten existed. Food and eating unifies.
So used am I to cooking for myself at a time that suits me best and eating alone, that I'd forgotten this ritual as old as humanity. Its etchings are ancient on our bones: to build one fire, and make room for all. To feel supported and revived by feeding each other because it was shared and made with the purest intentions.
Living alone has been found to put you at greater risk of a host of health problems, such as depression, heart disease, stress, diabetes, arthritis and memory decline. There are emotional, psychological and social benefits to be gained from things such as sharing, frequent communication, touch, and indeed not eating alone. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and yet we often encourage independence, viewing it as a sign of success. Some societies still practice shared child-rearing, supporting the importance of interconnectedness of generations and all aspects of life.
This is not to say that we should all quit our jobs, whip our clothes off and go frolicking into the woods forever, but there is truth to be found in this reverse-extreme way of living that so many of us would find alien. These things are still important and always were, but are easily forgotten in our "reality": community, sharing, respecting and benefitting from the seasons, and most importantly slowing down.