The evening of April 2, 2019, saw Neha and I stumble out of our car and unload our two cats, (Sheila and Pebbles, siblings, age 11) some basic luggage, and move into what we hope will become a sustainable homestead near the village of Pethuparai, in Kodaikanal Taluka, Tamil Nadu. We drove up from Goa, via Bangalore and we were tired, cranky and mildly dehydrated. The car AC packs up religiously after 400 kms of highway travel. We had done 500 that day, with the two elderly cats, remember.
Despite our travel travails, we were excited. This was Stage 2 of our plan to move out of the city and take up a more sustainable, independent, and ultimately more productive (we hope) lifestyle in the hills somewhere. Stage 1: Knowledge Gathering had taken up the past year and a half. We’d traveled and worked at a few farms across the country, landing up eventually at Peter and Rosie’s permaculture food forest in Asagaon, Goa, where we had interned for almost 9 months. We were finally ready to set aside our training wheels and do this for almost-real. While we weren’t committing to buying land just yet, we planned on making the switch to being permanent residents as soon as possible.
The house we moved into is a stone structure, two bedrooms, each with an attached bath. It sits on a rocky outcrop, and the bedrooms each have a balcony with a superb view of a valley and hills on the far side. Somewhere in the middle distance, a river winds through the valley. Its only presence is a soft murmur when the wind is right — it’s invisible to us in our perch.
The front of the homestead is where we hope most of our food will come from. A sloping patch of ground faces the front. On the left, (facing away from the house) is a stand of trees: avocado, gooseberry, caduca and guava. The ground has recently been gifted a few tons of sandy topsoil, courtesy our landlord. To the right is a 15,000-litre water tank, which had a measly 1,500 litres in it when we moved in. A strip of bare ground borders the right side of the house.
The rest of the land available to us (around 2 acres) is overgrown with trees: some native species, lots of caduca, and some gooseberry, guava, and hill palms.
The day we signed the lease for the homestead, a forest fire swept through the land and burned off pretty much all the underbrush, leaving a black, blank canvas. When we were done picking our jaws up off the floor, we realised this was actually a blessing. For one thing, we could now see what the land actually looked like. It turns out we have a decent slope along the side of the house and even an annual stream, downslope of our 15,000-litre tank
These then are the tools with which we have to build our self-sustaining homestead. Our initial goals are manifold:
- Set up a garden to grow as much of our own food as possible, as efficiently as possible, as quickly as possible.
- Set up systems to feed the garden as it feeds us. Systems like poultry keeping, composting, a beehive, and minor earthworks to channel water and lock it into the ground.
- Build structures for utility and enjoyment, like a cob oven, a mitti fridge, perhaps a toolshed or even a composting toilet.
Over the first six weeks, we’ve come some part of the way towards accomplishing these goals. We’ve been sidetracked along the way by having to figure out what life in the hills is all about (hint: emergencies, unexpected events and a whole lot of time and expectation management). On the plus side, we’re making steady progress on the garden. Our nursery is set up and the first seedlings are poking their heads up out of the potting soil. Another huge plus is the arrival of our dog, Miko (1.5 years old) who was driven up from Goa by Neha’s parents and brother. She’s adjusting well to the shift and both Neha and I are doing our best to train her up for a working life. Those monkeys won’t shoo themselves away!