Starting to make space for something more
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Before you ask, no, I don’t feel cramped. Nor do I miss my old stuff. Or feel isolated. Indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) the multi-channel bombast of bigger, brighter, more connected, the transition from apartment in city to tiny house in forest has seemed like a massive step up. Think, less is more, small is beautiful, etcetera. Deeper still, decamping from 24/7 disposable convenience to (literally) dealing with my own shit has sharpened my appreciation for the enormous privilege I enjoy. Even if, according to the stats, I should be poor, I now feel wealthier than ever.
People routinely pay more per night than I do per week to holiday where I now live. The much-touted tree change is happening right outside my door, close enough to hug. Fresh, relatively unpolluted air flows in through the open windows of my diminutive home office. As I type, kookaburras laugh. With me, it seems.
Not to crow, or rub it in, but you get the point. Living in close proximity to what we call ‘nature’ – as if it were somehow separate from us – has upsides no amount of brand promise and megaplexy proliferation can hope to match.
However, the greenery and all its beauty are not the only point of this exercise. There are plenty of huge houses and shiny SUVs within easy aspirational distance of my downwardly mobile trailer in the trees. My new street may well be a forest-fringed dirt road, but this in itself does not preclude highly accessorised modernity.
To be clear, mother nature is still largely outside, composting toilet and curious ants notwithstanding. Neither am I pretending that my new life represents a moral or political rejection of the old one. In fact, I would classify this shift as moving towards, rather than running from.
- Furthermore, my recently downsized life still has room for the likes of Netflix, 24 t-shirts and single origin coffee nerdery. Tiny House living in 21st century Australia is not an entirely renunciant pursuit. If what I am doing here can be characterised as going without, it is a decidedly comfortable form of deprivation. (The lesson, if there is one, is about the relative nature of things like tiny and lack, or indeed simplicity and minimalism. I speak of these things knowing that my parents – and billions of others across human history – grew up regarding what I now call a little as a lot.)
In truth, the core driver of my decision to leave behind a highly desirable bayside locale for life in a small town in the hills was less its picturesque qualities and more its attendant sense of lightness. Giving away most of my stuff not only removed the clutter of habitual accumulation but made room for a different kind of abundance. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, the first 50 days of tiny house living has proved incredibly spacious. As I guessed they would.
Squeezing yourself into to a cross between a shipping container and a caravan – main living space, cubicle bathroom, and a ‘crawl in’ loft for sleeping – forces a practical economy of choice. Limited floor and storage space render hoarding and collecting redundant. When there is literally no room for sentimental keepsakes and vast music libraries…out they go. Same for cookware. The one pot meal is the new cuisine maison; because thirty years of accrued saucepans were never going to fit into my new, much smaller cupboard. (Although somehow I still have four chopping boards. WTF?)
But here’s the thing. As I was busy giving away the vast majority of my worldly goods in the lead up to the tiny move, their departure was met with sheer relief. Dropping bags of clothes, kitchenware and soft furnishings at the local charity outlet felt like weight loss. Even the disposal of long cherished collections of CDs, books and DVDs, (numbering in their hundreds), elicited sighs of unburdened delight. It was as if I had spent years of careful gathering simply to prime me for the joy of letting go. More than a purge or detox, it was a release. I never really understood how heavy all that dusty furniture was until I no longer had to lump it around.
- In truth, I had undergone a similar shedding after my marriage broke down in 2004/5, and I had decamped from a huge and well-stocked house to a single bedroom in the tropics. Although I remembered the process intellectually, I had forgotten how good it felt.
Post-move, the relief of shedding has now morphed into a deepening calm. Like pressure being lifted. Wings unclipped. What I do not have I cannot lose. I no longer need wonder how I would cope with the loss of so much stuff. The answer is: easily. Almost as if I never had it in the first place.
A life of less things is not a life of lack, it is a life of liberty. Sounds corny, I know; but the lightness in my heart, the clarity in my thinking and the tenor of my mood are testament every day to fact that this season’s must-have goodies will almost certainly become next year’s storage dilemma.
Although the dimensions of the tiny house won’t stop me buying new stuff, there is now a solid ceiling on the amount I can reasonably entertain. Moreover, the cosy aspect of the space reminds me that it is the nature and level of future acquisition that most requires re-calibration – for it is one thing to shed the old, another not to habitually desire the new.
Yet, however spiritual and awakened that all sounds, there was one aspect of my former life that I was even more eager to jettison. Co-habitants. No disrespect to the people involved, (one wife and several housemates), because they were almost without exception easy to live with; but flying solo is so much better. Thus far, coming home to an empty house has been nothing short of a blessing. That the closest thing I now have to roomies are an army of inquisitive ants is a step up from…well, I’ll leave it to your imagination, if only to protect the guilty.
While true that – as a single, 50-something, increasingly misanthropic man squirrelling himself away in a possibly malodorous bolthole in a forest – I now tick several boxes of genuine concern, I am yet to start stockpiling weaponry or contributing to forums in the more paranoid corners of the internet.
Although my mother and every psychologist and neuro-scientist I have ever read warn of the pitfalls of severing social connections, I would argue that there is a clear distinction between dangerous isolation and sustainable solitude. My brain doesn’t seem like it’s turning to mush just yet, and I am not currently planning to storm parliament with a cadre of man-child crusader wannabes.
So far, so good on that score. The tiny house has yet to bring on cabin or any other kind of fever, ideological, apocalyptic or suicidal. Besides which, living alone in a small semi-rural home does not necessarily prevent one from going out to lunch with friends. At least it hasn’t yet.
This is not to say that everything is perfect. Luckily, I did not seek out the tiny life hoping for a shoebox utopia. Downsizing to this extent certainly has its issues, not the least of which is the notorious humidity of tiny houses. I have already taken delivery of a parcel of silica gel packets, hoping to keep the aforementioned two dozen t-shirts from turning mouldy, and used the dehumidifier that came with the property to extract several cups worth of excess moisture from the tightly enclosed domestic atmosphere. (I am forewarned that this will be an even bigger problem in winter.)
Then there’s the shit. Mine. Composting away at barely more than an outstretched arm’s length. Fortunately, there is clever Scandinavian design and plentiful coffee grounds to keep the smell at bay. However, when the bucket fills there is nothing for it but to heave kilos of unflushed poo outdoors, there to let it steep in the sun before ferrying it further to either ‘green’ waste bin or suitable ditch. Though I am yet to be overwhelmed by fumes or struck down by E-coli, there remains something vaguely unsettling about so directly dealing with your own shit. After a lifetime of flush & forget, the weight of one’s waste is a reminder of realities that we mostly prefer to wipe away.
After 50 days though, I am getting used to it. Before long, the sound of plop & sistern will start to seem strange.
I am, however, less certain about acclimatising to the presence of my new Myrmecological buddies. Since moving in I have suffered more ant bites than I can recall in my previous 56 years. While I understand their love of sundry crumbs and other food opportunities, I am bewildered by their nightly penchant for joining me in bed. Having critters crawl over you as you try to sleep is primally unpleasant. Waking up to the nip of formic acid being injected into your armpits is even less fun. The remnant itch is not that great either.
As if resident insects, mounting faecal deposits and incipient dampness were not enough, there are the routine risks of living on a forested hill. Pretty though trees are, they can catch fire, and they will drop limbs. (The majestic mountain ash on my doorstep has already offloaded an enormous, potentially widow-making branch since I arrived in its shadow.)
My attitude here – as it was to the move itself, and life in general – is cost/benefit. To date, the ledger is well in the black, and the dividends of tiny house living are flowing on a daily basis. If the balance flips, I trust myself to realise it and respond accordingly.
All of which brings me to the most clear-eyed (and perhaps astonishing) revelation of the last 50 days.
This is not forever.
It is already apparent that I will one day leave this little patch of arboreal heaven. I may tow the tiny house with me or leave it for the next incumbent. Perhaps I will re-embrace flushing toilets and city lights. Maybe the desert will call me.
None of that matters today, because the important thing is to acknowledge and be comfortable with change, with fluid circumstance.
Prior to moving, I spent fifteen years living in the same apartment block. Over the last seven weeks I have been adapting to a new reality. I am in the process of recreating the rituals of my days and re-examining my various priorities, in addition to discovering new physical and figurative landscapes. It’s not like my life is unrecognisable, but different enough to hit the reset button. If nothing else comes of this move, this is the pay-off.
Every morning I wake up surprised. Oh that’s right, I live here now. And I walk outside to stand in the middle of the dusty road, where I breath in the air of trees and feel the mountain cool air.
Oh, that’s right, I live here. For now. Thank you.
NB: I am taking an undeniably child-like delight in my tiny abode. It’s like all my eight year old cubby house dreams come true – except with adult add-ons like fridges and four-burner stovetops. Cute, cosy and cave-like, it is a solitude seeker’s delight. I feel like the cat nestled in the sanctuary of the cardboard box with a comfortable view of a world I can choose to keep at an easy distance. (Purr.)
PS: In the interest of accuracy, as I post, it’s been 55 days. But hey, who’s counting?