From February to December 2017, the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery hosted a collaborative artwork by Alex Hartley and Tom James (who published part of his Future Manual here two years ago). Inspired by the utopian communities of the 1960s, the Clearing is a geodesic dome constructed from reclaimed materials on the shore of a lake, and occupied year-round by a succession of ‘caretakers’ – an evolving experiment in reskilling and living off grid, ‘a reconstruction of the future as it might be.’ For nine months this space hosted workshops on making fire, growing food, baking bread, keeping chickens, brewing mead, navigating by the stars, and how to die. I spent a week as caretaker there at the start of October.
The day before I come to the Clearing I’m in a car crash. I’m sitting in a traffic jam when another car slams into mine, stoving in my rear bumper and giving my friend whiplash. For almost four hours the following morning – which I wanted to spend packing supplies for my week off grid – I’m on the phone to insurance companies and filling in online forms. My car’s a write-off, apparently. I try telling them it’s fine apart from a dented rear end, but they want to take it away for scrap. They say it’s not worth fixing.
The timing’s perfect, actually. It’s a great example of the stupid culture the Clearing was built to move beyond. This experiment is an insurance policy – or part of one, at least – against the larger, longer crash that awaits us all, when the whiplash will be global.
I arrive six hours later than planned, my car written-off but roadworthy – it should be a contradiction in terms – arriving at Compton Verney just ahead of darkness. Amber is leaning on the gate. She’s lit the woodburning stove and put the chickens to bed. The structure is beautifully simple, containing only what it needs, but enriched by twenty-seven weeks of the things that people have offered to it: small repairs and beautifications, improvements, adornments, ornaments, artworks, tools, implements, paintings, books, sculptures. Someone has whittled an oar out of wood. Someone else has built arms for a chair that didn’t have them. There’s a jar of homemade elderberry syrup and a single chicken’s egg. There’s a feather quill and ink made from charcoal. It smells of woodsmoke, sawdust, wax. As soon as I step inside the dome I feel myself, very slowly, starting to breathe out.
Amber tells me what I need to know and then leaves me to work out the rest for myself. I pull up a chair and sit outside, on the deck over the lake, and let my buzzing urban mind catch up with my body.
There are things to do. Many things – small things, but important. I must feed the stove. I must make my bed. I must light candles. I must cook. I must order my supplies. I must see what books are on the shelf. I must make an inventory of the foodstuffs others have left. A busy evening lies ahead, filled with necessary tasks, but it’s a different species of busyness from this morning’s work. Instead of quoting my policy reference number for the sixteenth time, I must boil some water for food. Instead of being put on hold, I must put myself on hold.
The borders of the lake turn dark. Bats flicker in the sky. The water is extremely still. There is nothing blacker than the blackness of yew trees at night.
I wake to a clear autumn day and a slick of brown oak leaves has covered the outside decking. The chickens whitter curiously at my new face peering through the wire. Released from the coop, they rush forth to scratch around their world. By the time I’ve returned from fetching water they are far down the shore, exploring the offerings of the night. I boil water in the Kelly kettle and when it bubbles over, popping the cork lid from its mouth, they rush back in a state of high excitement. Four eggs are waiting for me in the snugness of the coop.
‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Don’t peck that, it’s hot.’ ‘Don’t go in there, that’s my house.’ Less than one day here, I’m already talking to the chickens.
I eat their eggs by the lake and gaze across at the grand stone mansion on the facing shore. The house and the dome seem to stare at each other, one through tall imposing windows and one through triangular plastic panes, as if they are sizing each other up. The house seems very far away, a symbol from another world, absurdly obsolete. Glass and steel skyscrapers will appear like that some day. When you look with certain eyes, they already do.
After an hour of sitting and watching, I’m seized by a sudden frenzy of small reorganisations. The dome, filled with seven months of leavings from past caretakers, suddenly feels cluttered, confused. I have a desire to simplify, to make the space my own. I move the oak leaves off the table. I sweep away carefully placed acorns. I clear a space on the shelf to line up the books I’ve brought. I put my tomatoes in a bowl. I wipe away old cobwebs. When I’ve finished, the changes I’ve made would be meaningless to anyone else, but they mean a lot to me.
Being here, I’m starting to see, is not a passive experience. It’s an active engagement with place, a negotiation of the point where I end and the dome begins. Already, when this work is done, that point feels clearer.
Wood is the afternoon’s job. First I carry the big unseasoned logs from the pile under the yew and chop them into smaller logs. Then I chop those into smaller logs. Then I stack those in the shed and move the seasoned ones to the dome, tessellated behind the stove, and split some sticks for kindling. The air smells sweet with chopping. It’s a steady procession of wood getting smaller and smaller in size from one position to the next, whose ultimate and inevitable destination is the fire. Then it will get smaller still, ending up as nothing.
‘Prometheus stole fire from the gods,’ says an old lady casually when she comes to look around. But stealing fire is the easy part. Keeping it fed is harder.
There seems no rhythm to the day. It is oddly jointed. Rather than doing one thing at a time I seem to be doing many things, constantly interrupting one task in order to start another. I sit down intending to write and find myself in the vegetable patch, wondering where the chickens are. I start to boil water for coffee and realise I’m cutting wood again, or sweeping dead leaves from the door, or standing up reading a book in the centre of the room. I chop half an onion for a meal but before I chop the other half I go for a walk around the lake to see what the Clearing looks like from the other side.
It looks like exactly the kind of place I’d want to walk around the lake to explore if I were standing here not knowing what it was. It looks like an improbable dream. On the way back I find watercress, and pick some for my meal.
I can’t find the chickens at dusk, and search anxiously through the grounds. Then I remember what Amber said – they will put themselves to bed – and that’s exactly what they’ve done. They are perched trustfully in their coop, waiting for me to close the door so they will be safe from the black of night. I shut them in, then go to the dome to do the same thing to myself.
The morning brings waves to the lake. The water is black-grey. Wind rushes through the trees in long rhythmic blasts, a deeper noise in the oaks and sharper in the willows. The chickens haven’t laid any eggs and I notice the straw in their coop is filthy, so once they are out pecking around I sweep it out for the compost. I take a large amount of pleasure in laying a bed of new, clean straw, scattered with dry leaves, imagining the pleasure they will have when it is cosy. Half an hour later I return and two eggs have been laid.
The wind gives trouble to the stove. Its vacuum suffocates the fire and drags smoke back down the flue to burst in thick puffs through the vent, filling the inside of the dome with a grey, choking cloud. The smoke alarms start to blare. I shut them off but they start again. I fan the flames in the grate but the wind extinguishes them once more, driving another gritty cloud into the room. I can hardly see the walls. Eventually the fire takes and equilibrium is restored – the chimney drawing as it should and the smoke-demon expelled. The grey cloud slowly dissipates, turning blue in the light and wafting out the door.
My clothes and hair reek of smoke. My eyes are red and itchy. A visitor comes to look around. ‘It smells like the Iron Age in here,’ he says approvingly.
The smoke is gone by the time that Caroline comes to join me here. The dome’s population doubles. Now I’m in Amber’s role of showing her where everything is, how everything works, what everything does, why everything is here. It gives me a sense of proprietorship but also one of letting go, a gratifying push and pull between owning and sharing.
Despite the clouds and threat of rain we build a fire and cook thick slabs of marrow on the grill. Food tastes better here. The chickens are magnetised. They take clumsy leaps at the flames to peck the sizzling vegetable until we banish them to their pen. They appear unbothered. Later, when the rain hasn’t come, we sit on the deck and watch the light leaching from the sky. Caroline finds a fishing rod made from a willow branch, baits its hook with chorizo and casts out the line. No fish bite. We are glad of this. A heron skims the water.
Our world has shrunk quickly here. Even crossing the woods to the car park comes as an unpleasant shock – getting into my car and driving half an hour on motorways feels positively insane. After roundabouts and ring roads I find myself in a suburban cul-de-sac in Coventry, a displaced hermit reeking of rain and stale woodsmoke. I am here to visit my granddad’s girlfriend in her old people’s home. She turned ninety-six this year. My hands are the colour of bark. My hair smells like a bonfire. Kitty doesn’t seem to mind. She reminisces about my granddad with tears in her eyes and flirts with me outrageously. Occasionally she calls me Steve. Three hours later I leave, dazed from the overheated room, having consumed quantities of biscuits and weak cups of tea, and have the reassuring sense that I am returning home. On the drive I suddenly realise I should have taken Kitty too. An afternoon surrounded by trees and chickens and the rush of wind would have been better for her soul. It would have lodged in her memory like a peculiar dream.
Under the reddening sky, Caroline is fishing. She has swapped chorizo for worms. Still the fish don’t bite.
When darkness falls the dome becomes a hemisphere of candlelight. Fields of stars are visible in the blackness through the panes. I hope that if I reach ninety-six I’m somewhere like this, not somewhere like that. If not, at least the world allows me to be here now.
It’s all still a very long way from a sustainable future, of course. Our drinking water doesn’t come from the lake but from the taps in the gleaming facilities next to the visitors’ centre. The lake is full of Weil’s disease, and health and safety came down on that like they came down on the compost toilet and the coracle someone built, now sadly decommissioned. Half our food comes from packets and tins. We’ve picked a handful of tomatoes and runner beans from the vegetable patch, but that harvest’s over now. We’ve failed to catch a single fish (perhaps we willed ourselves to fail). We’ve cooked over embers in the cob oven, on the woodburning stove and in the drizzling dark over an open fire, but we’ve also brought a mini gas stove, which is definitely cheating. There’s a solar panel to charge a phone, and wifi drifts intermittently from the mansion over the lake. Occasionally a visitor likes to remind us of these shortcomings: ‘You wouldn’t have that in the apocalypse, would you?’ ‘You’d be lucky to find yourselves here when the world falls apart, with loads of firewood and a lake all to yourselves.’
It’s true. We would. But that isn’t the point. The Clearing isn’t an arrival, but one point on the dimly glimpsed and obstacle-strewn descent ahead – not a perfected vision of the future, but a place with a slightly clearer view. It’s a negotiation between the world as it is and the world as it might be – an attempt to articulate something we may not have the language for yet. It’s the start of the story, and that’s enough for now.
Our last night. Caroline carves a chess set from a willow pole. I hammer in splints of wood to fix the axe-head that came loose in this afternoon’s round of chopping. After dark we walk in silence on the grey path through the black trees, wondering if we will see a badger. We see three. They are only a stone’s throw from the Clearing, huddled with their noses together as if they are making a secret pact. As we approach they merge with the darkness and are gone.
To find out more about the Clearing (its past and its future), see here.