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Off-the-grid

Pembrokeshire, Wales

Home is where the harp is

I am sitting in a remote mud hut discussing ‘Big Brother’. Next to me an open fire radiates its welcoming orange cast, tinging all but the brilliant whites of the scene outside, trees freshly dusted with an icy coat of late January powder. Today, unusually, the topic of my conversation has nothing to do with any prophetic Orwellian nightmares of oppression but rather the popular reality TV programme.  Two months ago I traveled to this secluded corner of west Wales in order to photograph Emma Orbach, a 59 year old lady who’s been living in this isolated woodland for over 13 years. She tells me that shortly after my images were published in the media she received a call from the producers of the gameshow asking if she would like to become a contestant on the next series.  She declined I’m happy to say, but as it turns out her off-grid way of life has garnered a fair amount of media interest over the years.

Vogue asked me if they could come and do a fashion shoot here once” she recalls.  “At first, I thought to myself ‘Why not? That could be fun to see’.. and I told them they could come as long as they didn’t bring any motorised vehicles onto my land.  However, after a few weeks of discussion I ended up having to decline my offer because they were insisting on bringing portaloos for the models.  Portaloos!  Here!… Can you imagine that?!”

It’s true, there could exist nothing more absurd in this wild place than the over sanitized intrusion of a portaloo. Emma, of course has an outdoor compost toilet in the woods near her hut.  Inevitably, my mind runs amok with farcical visions of the comedy of errors that might have ensued here had those two worlds actually been allowed to collide.  Can you imagine?!

On face value, Emma is a rather unusual candidate for this kind of alternative lifestyle.  An Oxford graduate, she grew up in a Victorian Castle in Devises. “We weren’t rich” she admits, “We were quite poor actually and my mum and dad never specifically encouraged my love of nature.  As a young child though, I do remember that I was most happiest up a tree in our garden.  Me and my brother used to eat our meals up there.”

In the early 90′s Emma and her then husband bought a remote farm house a few fields away from the patch of land she now lives on. As her children got older she recalls having a strong calling to live in closer proximity to the nature spirits she perceived around her and consequently built her first mud hut in the woods before leaving the farm to live without electricity or running water.   Emma is quick to confess that she never wanted to impose her unusual lifestyle choice on her children, especially since they hadn’t been brought up that way from the beginning.

“Living simply like this takes a lot of determination in such a complicated, materialistic consumer culture” she alludes.  “However, I’m not a purist.  My goal is not self-sufficiency.  In my perfect future, there will be a lot more exchanging of goods between people but it’s nice to have a high level of food production… If the shops suddenly had nothing in them I would probably survive quite comfortably”

Vegetarian Emma keeps chickens and goats and grows an array of vegetables on a half-acre plot just outside her woodland.  Trips to the nearby village are relatively frequent… “To collect supplies or visit my mother twice weekly”.  The journey usually involves a long walk unless she’s feeling lazy in which case she can ride bareback on one of her horses, something that has in the past raised quite a few eyebrows in the local Welsh community formerly unfamiliar with alternative folk like herself.

She is keen to stress to me that she is definitely not obsessed with only living and eating on her land. “I enjoy a cream tea by the beach like anyone else” she concedes. “But I only ever tend to travel further than the local village when I’m visiting my children or showing visitors around the area.  It’s normally a sociability thing.  I certainly don’t do it because I miss the outside world”.

Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water

Many times during our conversations I find myself referring to the ‘outside world’.  It’s unavoidable in a secret spot such as this.  Following Emma down a meandering path, she balances an alabaster jar on her head during one of our trips to collect water from the stream. It strikes me that this ubiquitous chore which I so commonly encounter throughout the world was one that I had never actually witnessed first hand in my own country before.

Getting permission from the local council for the gathering of dwellings on Emma’s land has been a long and drawn out process since a surveying plane spotted their ‘lost tribe’ back in 1998. Fortunately for Emma and her neighbours, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s progressive policy on sustainability finally resulted in the granting of planning permission after almost a decade of negotiations.  Along with the correct paperwork came a council tax bill of £63 per month for each home which Emma earns from donations received running workshops in her woodland retreat.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door…”

 Emma tells me  that her own particular method of building has evolved over the years by trial and error revealing her secret recipe for plaster as ‘clay mud and horse manure’.

“It smells a bit initially, but after it dries its fine. However, I’ve honed my technique quite a bit over the years.  The first time I tried it, the walls turned completely green after a few days with sprouting seeds!”.

“Would anything ever take you away from all this?” I ask. “What about illness?”

Emma is optimistic.  “Definitely not…but to be honest, I’d rather just die if necessary than get taken away to survive in a world away from nature”.  She recalls the council’s planners asking her how she planned to deal with this kind of lifestyle in her old age.

“I would be really happy if I just slipped over and died banging my head on a rock on the way to fetch water one day…  that would suit me just fine!”.

It’s a strangely comforting thought since there’s no doubt that in the event of a serious accident, there would certainly be somewhat of a delay before the emergency services arrived.  On my way out I ask Emma if I can return to visit her again some time. Her matter-of-fact reply reminds me not to get too carried away with my overly romantic fantasies about her isolated lifestyle.

“Just call me on the phone if you want to visit!” and she disappears back into her woods.

Please leave a message: Emma’s ‘phone box’… about half a mile from her hut

.  .  .

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