Back to the Land (and Vegetarianism) – The Great Hippy Blunders

In 1974 I and about 30 other young dreamers bought a magnificent 1200 acre farm in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. We were going back to the land, like thousands of earth-children throughout the western world. We were going to feel the earth between our fingers and toes again. And the sea – Sandy Bay was on our doorstep, the sea teeming with abundance. We would till the soil, make art and music, love each other and share.

Back to our roots.

Forty years later, it’s a pretty miserable scene. Not that much tilling, less art and even less sharing. A hell of a lot of bickering over insanely trivial issues. An underground river of venomous gossip and grudges lasting decades.

Just like thousands of its counterparts around the world. Why?

In a nutshell, because they were never our roots. They weren’t anyone’s roots. In fact they were, ironically, further from our roots than our urban lifestyle. Even that didn’t tie us down to a few people on a few acres.

Three events widely separated in time have provided me with the understanding why this enterprise was doomed to failure.

First, in 1967, I went to a film festival in Brisbane which ran a documentary I never have, never could, forget. Someone with a 16mm camera and a tape recorder spent weeks in the Australian bush moving along with an extended group of Aboriginal hunter gatherers. I recognised the most natural lifestyle I had ever encountered and the sanest, happiest people I had ever seen. Unfortunately, a few years later, swept up in the beauty of Moehau and the energy of making a new community, I forgot.

Earlier this year I walked the Camino de Santiago, hefting my pack on my back every morning and walking fifteen to twenty miles.

And this week I heard an extract from a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.

For 200 millennia, more or less, we lived like pilgrims on the Camino. We had no fixed abode but did have a sense of a larger sphere in which we moved. Every morning we rose, gathered our few belongings and walked. It is no accident that a human child learns to walk around about the time that it gets too heavy to be carried any distance.

By and large the females gathered and the men hunted, but there was a fair amount of cross-over in response to what was available. No rigid plan; rigidity came with farming. When the fish were running everyone fished. When we came across an abundant vegetable resource everyone gathered and feasted. At night, we lit fires and ate.

Becoming farmers cursed us well and truly. We had to defend what we invested months, years, accumulating. Warfare and violent death became normal. As farmers, it wasn’t enough to simply create food. We had to build storage and then build defences for the storage. Powerful parasites called priests and their soldiers descended on us and demanded tribute. We farmed the land and they farmed us. Groovy. Soon populations grew so large that the door to a return to hunting and gathering was closed forever. We were trapped in a miserable, everlasting lifestyle. Little wonder that religions still make a virtue of large families and call birth control sinful.

By comparison, when a hunter-gathering clan ran into a superior competitor it moved out of the way, instead of fighting tooth and claw to defend … what? We didn’t have anything to defend. There was always more space because hunter-gathering prevented over-population. You simply could not have six children, it wasn’t viable. I have no idea how they prevented large families, but they did.

These are our true roots, and the real reason, I believe, why almost everyone who sets out to do the Camino finishes it, no matter how unlikely that may seem at the outset. It’s in our bones, our blood, our genes. Pushing on, keeping going – we’ve been doing it literally forever. And of course it is the reason why we feel wrong, unsatisfied, down, in the days after we stop. We have just spent a few weeks doing what we were designed to do since the dawn of our species.

One of Harari’s many theses is that mankind didn’t domesticate cereals 10,000 years ago – cereals domesticated mankind, very much to our disadvantage. We got a grossly inferior diet and a host of diseases – arthritis, digestive disorders, bad teeth, under-nutrition due to mineral and protein deficiencies and more. We lost, the cereals won, becoming the most widespread and successful plant group in history. The life and diet of the hunter-gatherer is constantly diverse. We had hundreds of different foods, changing with the locale and the seasons. As farmers, we inherited a miserable and insufficient handful. Vegetarianism, from an evolutionary perspective, is dietary self-flagellation. Enjoy.

It started with the dog, 10,000 years ago. In all likelihood someone found a wolf pup and raised it, discovering that the creature grew up identifying the human as its pack leader, driven to obey him or her. Then pastoral animals, then cereals. The wheat snuck up on us behind a bunch of cute animals. Fiendishly clever!

The biggest loss was that we became not only sicker but sadder, because we no longer spent our days doing what we had evolved to do – move constantly, see new things, deal with a constantly changing environment, walk, walk, walk. Homo sapiens, as you discover on the Camino if you’re paying attention, is a walking machine. People become utterly, stupidly happy walking the Camino. It’s now being said that the cure for almost everything is to walk two miles a day. Close but not enough – it’s more like three or four miles. And I do. If I don’t my happiness declines quickly.

The other big hit we took was over-work. We are absolutely not designed to work eight, ten hours a day, and doubly-absolutely-not designed to do the same work every day. (Walking isn’t work. It’s more like breathing with your legs.)

Eat meat, fish, and everything else that nourishes you. Consume all the parts of the animals you eat. Walk everywhere and (this is what I learnt from the aboriginal film) look around constantly, observing, thinking. Those aboriginals saw from two hundred yards away a goanna sitting on a rock that I couldn’t see from twenty. Take lots of rest, and share what you have. Accumulate as little as possible.

Live as much like a hunter gatherer as you can. You will flourish.

It really is that simple, because ten millennia is the blink of an evolutionary eye. It’s yesterday. We are still hunter gatherers where it counts.

And of course, don’t be so foolish as to voluntarily surrender to the tyranny of the cereal by putting roots down in the soil. Roots are for plants.

Hang on, I hear you say. I know happy farmers.

Really? I don’t. But I know farmers who are happier than their counterparts running the rat-race in the city, being carried around everywhere like shopping, heaving with 21st-Century insecurities. Farmers are outdoors a lot of the time, they have space, they don’t have a boss. Not bad, as modern lifestyles go. But their relative contentment isn’t in the same league as those Aboriginals wandering under the sky. They appeared to me to be transcendently happy, showing all the signs of a complete absence of inner conflict, living a Buddha-like existence in the permanent present.

We’re just not designed to spend our days walking 50 yards to the orchard and another 50 to the gardens, spending hours there doing back-breaking work, go back to the house for meals and sit around in the evenings on our bums talking and watching TV. And seeing the same handful of  people, the same set of scenery, year in year out. Thinking that would make us happy was a terrible mistake.

Not one I personally made for long, I’m pleased to say. A few months living in another community building a Buddhist temple was enough for me. I learned that living and eating communally, seeing the same faces everyday, was my particular hell. I had no idea I could come to hate someone because of the way they nibbled their rice.

Peace, man.

Might as well address the other common thesis, that we are ‘evolving to a higher state of consciousness’ which involves the peaceful, non-violent path of not eating animals.

For starters that is a gross and ignorant mis-use of the word ‘evolve.’ The only path of evolution, the only one, is adaptation by natural selection. So we won’t even start to do that until we start preferentially selecting mates on the basis of their vegetarianism and within those unions have more children who out-survive those of meat-eaters. Out-survive, in evolutionary language, has nothing to do with length of life. It means, technically, we will have more grandchildren who live to child-bearing age. One, it isn’t happening and two, if it was it would still take 50 millennia, minimum, to produce the slightest physical changes, the vital one being developing the herbivore’s ability to synthesise the essential amino acids from plant sources. Without complete (animal) protein we need to have all 9 essential amino acids in our system at the same time. Studies have shown various combinations of plant foods can provide these provided they are all consumed on the same day. To really thrive on this diet takes knowledge, effort and the availability of a wide variety of high-quality plant foods such as one finds in health food stores. I consider a lifestyle dependent on health-foods stores that bring together, year-round, food from all over the planet both unnatural and undesirable.

Evolving to become natural vegetarians has not even begun and is highly unlikely to. It would take an extended famine, during which one individual would strike luck thousands of times greater than that needed to win a national lottery and experience not just one but several gene mutations enabling that person to produce the necessary enzymes. It is theoretically likely that this person would thrive and have many healthy children when everyone else was starving. The gene would be rapidly dispersed through the population by preferential choice of mate and we would have evolved to become vegetarians.

Aint’ gonna happen.

Tale of a Shirt


Sometimes an object becomes so special that it just deserves its own special tribute. This is actually three objects, all of the same design. In 1992 Linda and I went to the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s equivalent of Ascot. While there I bought two identical, expensive white shirts made of Indian khadi (handspun, handwoven fabric, lionised by Gandhi as the quintessential, noble item of Indian cottage industry.) What brilliant shirts! Loosely woven, cool in the hottest weather. I loved them.

Fast forward 22 years. One has vanished, the other is looking decidedly frail. We are off to India when, almost at the last minute, I realise this is my chance to have them copied. Woohoo! Into the suitcase it goes.

Darjeeling, March. Opposite my hotel is a little tailors’ shop – two men wielding ancient machines, with a third, foot-cranked one to cover for the frequent power outages. Tailoring in India is often a Muslim occupation, and I spot a calendar with Arabic writing on the wall. Putting my best foot forward, I greet them with ‘Salaam eleikum.’ Back comes ‘Eleikum salaam.’ A good start.

They inspect the shirt. Yes, no problem. This is good news – the neck and yoke are, despite their apparent simplicity, clever and complex, the reason they sit so well. I want three. Yes, no problem. How much? 350 rupees – £3.50. I’m hardly likely to quibble. How much fabric? They measure, look at me, suggest they might be improved with a little more length, give me a number.

Off I toddle to the Government of West Bengal khadi shop. Bizarre. In spite of Gandhiji’s emblematic khadi being, like mine, loosely woven and white, there isn’t a single length of white fabric in the shop.

Down to the bazaar. Nope. Nobody sells white khadi, or anything that looks like it. One particularly friendly trader suggests that ‘Sa’ib might find this an acceptable choice’ and shows me incredibly fine, soft, white, almost transparent pure cotton fabric, doubled over on the roll, i.e. very wide.

“Hmmm. Perhaps. What is it?”

“Bed sheeting, Sa’ib.” It’s perfect.

Because of the double width, he recalculates the amount needed. I huff and puff my way back up the mountain, gasping in the thin air, to the tailors.

“Atcha. Good. But not enough for three.”

I’m not up for another climb. Living here in my 20s, even as a weed of a junkie just released from three months lying around on starvation rations in a Thai prison I never suffered from the altitude. Now, 65 years old and fit, it’s exhausting.

“Is there enough for two shirts, one with a double layer?”

He brightens; clearly thinks this a good idea.

“Yes, Sa’ib.”

Two days later I pick up three shirts of the same design – one single weight, one double weight, and the skilfully repaired original, thrown in gratis.

An entirely lovely transaction.

Three weeks later I am in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago. What am I wearing? The double-weight shirt. It’s superb – soft but strong, warm in the sometimes chilly early spring, breathes better than any synthetic, dries quickly. But comes back with a blue stain across the back from my back-pack. I treat it with a product for whitening ladies’ underwear, which replaces the blue with a yellowish stain, which I treat with a good soak in bleach and voila! – a spotless white shirt again.

This is not the shirt in the picture. That is the single-weight version. Back in England, in a heatwave, I walk in it, charging up hill and down dale at 7 km/hr, my daily regime since the Camino and the reason I have gone from a 38″ to a 34″ trouser size and from intermittent depression to persistent cheerfulness. It is once again a brilliant garment. I can wash it, hand-wring it, hang it on the line for ten minutes and chuck it on again, its residual dampness dispelled by my body heat in minutes.

What a complete, simple pleasure it is to have these shirts. No-one would look at them twice, but they are gorgeous, swimming with history, precious beyond rubies.

I love them.