Thursday, March 19, 2009

Keeping it Simple

We came to France for a simpler life. It sounds easy, a goal that should require nothing more than a shedding of things, perhaps a reorientation of priorities. But living a simpler life has proven challenging in some unexpected ways. It takes more patience than I had imagined. It requires physical fitness and mental discipline. And, as it turns out, a simpler life requires a lot of complicated equipment.

When I was first browsing dreamily through John Seymour’s Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency I had different ideas. It all seemed so natural – the book is filled with lovely illustrations of hoes, spades, axes and scythes. A scythe, that’s what I wanted. To spend hours and hours on the land, scything and reaping and threshing and shunting, I wanted nothing more than to live in a world of obscure, hearty Anglo-Saxon verbs. And I was itching to go out and buy all the obscure Anglo-Saxon nouns to do it with.

And it’s amazing just how many of those nouns, Anglo-Saxon and otherwise, I need for even the most basic of tasks. Take firewood. Yes, our ancestors managed to keep the home fires burning using wood processed with axes and saws, but having tried it, I understand why they tended to die young. Today, if you’re cutting your own wood you need a chainsaw. And then of course you want a spare chain, files and perhaps a grinder for sharpening the chain, and a trestle or sawhorse for cutting the meter-long stacked logs into smaller sections for burning. Bigger logs need to be split, so you get an axe, but for even bigger ones, it’s best to get a sledgehammer and a wedge – preferably a neatly twisted one like I’ve got so it splits the wood more easily. It’s all satisfyingly heavy and conveniently cool-looking.

For maintaining the grounds the chainsaw is useful, but it doesn’t stop there. You’ve got brush to cut, grass to mow, branches to trim. You’ve got a garden that needs digging, weeding, planting. Fences, gates, patios need fixing. All this requires massive amounts of gear, much of which involves at least an electric motor if not a combustion engine. There’s the hedge trimmer, the brush cutter, the various power hand tools, a compressor. After the chainsaw, my favorite bit of equipment has always been my jaunty blue tractor-mower. I ride around on it all summer mowing grass and all winter hauling logs. It is my mid-life crisis red convertible, and it makes me happy.

But even the tractor’s place in my heart has been usurped by something new.

We came here with ideas of living in harmony with nature, of reducing our footprint. But it’s not always easy, and ever since we moved in we’ve been plagued by the question of what to do about the terraces. You see, the terraces around our house and holiday cottages are packed earth covered by locally-quarried gravel, an inexpensive, low-impact and very French alternative to paving. But weeds spring up, and the surface area being too big to simply pick them all by hand (believe me, we tried), we have in the past had to resort to chemical weedkillers. But finally I have discovered an environmentally friendlier solution, and yet another piece of equipment.

Some clever person has come up with the idea of destroying weeds by inducing thermal shock. Simplicity itself: a metal tube with a handle attaches to a long flexible hose, which in turn attaches to an ordinary gas bottle of the sort used for gas stoves. A six-inch flame bows out the end of the tube, and you simply hold that flame over the weed for a second or two, until it starts to wither. The shock kills the weed, but does not pollute the environment. In other words, I’ve bought myself a blowtorch.

I spent a very happy and only moderately dangerous afternoon scorching weeds the other day, and I’m totally hooked. This thing is great. Not only does it eliminate unwanted plants, but it’s capable of obliterating pretty much anything in its path – dead leaves, twigs, pets, inquisitive children, all bow before the power of my butane-fed jet of fire. I’m busy dreaming up all sorts of new uses for this new toy. Bonfires will be a piece of cake from now on. Previously I have struggled to perform what should be a simple task of igniting a large pile of dead branches. No problem now, with my portable arson kit I’ll be incinerating garden waste as fast as I produce it. It’s not quite subtle, but after a few humiliating experiences of watching my fires dwindle before accomplishing the job, I’m done with subtle.

I’m not the only one who gets worked up about this kind of thing. I’ve noticed this tendency among both the local farmers and the expats who move here, this obsession with equipment. It’s normal enough – you’ve got a job to do, you need the right tools, but clearly there’s more to it. Farmers here go into massive debt just to own a lot of farm equipment that they could much more efficiently rent as needed. I scoffed at first, but once you’ve seen one of these modern grape harvesters at work - huge sci-fi contraptions that straddle the rows of vines and pick the delicate grape clusters as they roll along – it’s hard not to get drawn in. In cities, people have fancy cars and granite countertops. Here, we’ve got machinery.

But I’m content with what I have. My blowtorch is a small and relatively simple device, but it does the job. And best of all, as I torch plant after plant, weed after insidious weed, into ashes, I can do so with a sense of satisfaction in my heart, knowing that the path of devastation I leave behind me is non-toxic and totally environmentally friendly. I can feel like I’m doing my part.

But the gratification of my pyromania is a definite bonus. 


J said...

Oh my God, this is hilarious! And macho! And hilarious. And I do fear for your cat.

JH said...

It feels like this could turn into a collection of short stories in about 9 weeks. Please consider this. Haaaa- and your tags are almost as much fun to read as the column. My verification word below is "dingst". I am not sure why I find that amusing, or even if it is an actual word, but he. he. he.

Joy H.

Sophia said...

And I fear for any obnoxious guests this summer . . .