The Bricoleur (or why it’s good to become a regular MacGuyver)

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter”

Bill Mollison (Grandfather of Permaculture)

Bricolage is the French art of using what is at hand.  The skill and capability of the bricoleur turns the unwanted into something of value. Thus resources are endlessly recycled into an ever increasing array of products, tools, solutions and equipment.

I am a novice bricoleur. I don’t know why I have gravitated towards this way of living. Perhaps I watched too many MacGuver episodes as a kid (that would be exactly one). Perhaps I have hoarder tendencies? More I think this relates to an appreciation that our linear production and disposal chain is very brittle. We have very cheap disposable products now, but our children inherit a heavily polluted world where resources and materials will be very scarce. It’s like we are in a giant race to turn beautiful natural things into toxic spent junk!

In part I’d like to pass the homemade bricoleur torch to my son who I hope will have sympathy for healthy natural ecology and the skills to turn trash back into treasure. I also think the process of father and son out in the shed learning how to solve family problems with found materials will be more educational, interesting and beneficial for both of us than watching cartoons on TV or playing the video game Warcraft together (from two different rooms in the house).

I now measure my life in terms of what I can produce as opposed to what I will buy. With every bricolage success and every failure, my sphere of knowledge and skill expands. Even failure makes me more confident in my ability to fix, repair or reuse the things that I have found around my cheeky little hamlet. I say cheeky because I don’t stop at the boundaries of my property. Like a magpie bird that collects shiny trinkets I will happily reconnoiter and recover things from around the neighbourhood that are being wasted.

My goal is not to become entirely self sufficient. That seems unattainable and lonely. Instead I am looking to revive the abilities of my grandfather and my father and pass them along to my son. It wasn’t so long ago that all families were engaged in bricolage as a core component of everyday life.  Our recent ancestors were bricoleurs of the finest caliber. Their innovation, invention and husbandry skills allowed them to tame nature in small family bands. Waste not want not was their motto, but we have forgotten how to make our own beer, how to build a new wardrobe, how to make vinegar, how to compost or how to harvest our grey water.

We need to overcome our waste a lot want a lot culture and rediscover the bricoleur in us all.


Curb excessive consumption. Be happy.

“That happiness is to be attained through limitless material acquisition is denied by every religion and philosophy known to humankind, but it is preached incessantly by every television set”

Robert Bellah

Belief System Teaching
American Indian Miserable as we seem in thy eyes, we consider ourselves…much happier than thou, in this that we are very content with the little that we have –Micmac Chief
Buddhist Whoever in this world overcomes his selfish cravings, his sorrows fall away from him, like drops of water from a lotus flower – Dhammapada 336
Christian It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God – Matthew 19:23-24
Confucian Excess and deficiency are equally at fault – Confucius X1.15
Ancient Greek Nothing in excess – The Oracle of Delphi
Hindu That person who lives completely   free from desires, without longing…attains peace – Bhagavad-Gita 11.71
Islamic Poverty is my pride – Muhammad
Jewish Give me neither poverty nor riches – Proverbs 30:8
Taoist He who knows he has enough is rich – Tao Te Ching

Source: Worldwatch Institute

Simple solutions complex problems

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple”

Bill Mollison

Instead of eating fresh vegetables from a local garden we transport cows, pigs and chickens thousands of miles to process in factories and then sell at over inflated prices in hyper large supermarkets.

Instead of riding a bicycle to a workplace around the corner we drill deep into the earth for black goo that we refine and transport to the far side of the world to burn in machines that crawl around our cities slower than a horse and cart did 100 years ago.

Instead of resting in small affordable shelters that we have build ourselves from material at hand we construct huge multi-room dwellings that we cannot afford to suck in and consume irreplaceable materials from every corner of the globe.

Instead of leading lives that are inherently physically active we spend thousands on pills and gym memberships to overcome the inactivity that we have engineered into our everyday.

Instead of visiting our friends and spending time talking we fritter away thousands of dollars of coal burnt in monstrous pollution plants to exchange superficial and inane twitter posts from our phone in an attempt to escape from our dreadful alone together social existence.

Your turn! Finish the sentence in the comments box below:

“Instead of …   ”


The veil of secrecy

“Of all African animals, the elephant is the most difficult for man to live with, yet its passing – if this must come – seems the most tragic of all. I can watch elephants (and elephants alone) for hours at a time, for sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea”

Peter Matthiessen, The Tree Where Man Was Born

A current affairs news show in the last week reported that we will soon live in a world without elephants.
Some 40,000 elephants will be slaughtered this year alone in Tanzania by poachers that will sell their very lucrative tusks on the black market. Sadly, Tanzania is not alone. The decimation of elephant populations is a worldwide problem.
The report concluded that the trade of ivory is escalating rapidly with the rise of the middle class in China. Ivory chopsticks are all the rage apparently. The problem isn’t about Chinese economic expansion. There will be many people in western countries with piano keys made from ivory, or with carvings or necklaces in their homes even though the trade in tusks has been tut-ted at for some time now.
As I watched this report I felt angry and confused. Surely people would prefer live elephants in the world to a stupid ivory trinket on their mantle?
The answer is of course almost everyone that doesn’t live near elephants would prefer live elephants, but unfortunately the pointy end of the ivory trade is hidden from the far distant end user who is simply looking for an attractive decoration for their house. Unfortunately our lust for pretty trinkets supports poaching, local violence, murder of authorities, intimidation, illegal trade and eventually the eradication of the majestic elephant.
With all of the nasty parts of this chain hidden from view it is easy to continue to desire and buy ivory, but if it were all laid bare it would be impossible for people to see ivory ornaments as a thing of beauty.

There are a lot of these veils across our eyes. Few of us have probably never heard of minamata disease (and fisheries companies work very to delay our awareness) so we continue to inadvertently ingest high doses of mercury from their sea foods. Meanwhile fishing cartels also continue to decimate aquatic populations as spoil that gets caught in their drift nets.

We continue to wear cotton garments because we are not personally exposed to the pesticides and toxins that are a staple of the production chain. We do not see or experience the effects these toxins have on the people, the plants, the birds and insect life and on the land where cotton is produced. We just see a nice skirt or a cheap sweat(shop)shirt

We love Greek yogurt, but perhaps many of us would not if we knew more about the toxic waste generated in the production process. For every 150 gram pottle of yogurt produced over 7500 grams of waste is generated. Trouble is nobody on the planet knows what to do with this nasty very toxic waste product. The current solution is to put it in a drum and tuck it in the ground for our kids to deal with. Like many other things the burden is shifted to the a future generation (our children and our grandchildren).
Our family has lifted the veil. We have a low harm buying policy and we make it our business to know as much as we can about who we are doing business with. There are some products that we have become horrified and angry about. We have stopped using them overnight. No matter the cost or complication to our lives . We simply won’t perpetuate the cycle. In other cases we have been pleasantly surprised and still others we have been disappointed and are in the process of changing (once we find the best alternative).

You can chose to ignore the evilness and violence that your consumption enables or you can decide to actively support the good guys (like these folks) who have made it their business to make the world a better place.

Your world. Your choice!

On ‘work’ by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)

[The following is an excerpt taken from the wonderful novel ‘Three men in a boat’ written by Jerome K. Jerome in 1889. Highly entertaining reading!]

It seemed to me that I was doing more than my fair share of work on this trip, and I was beginning to feel strongly on the subject. It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to work, mind you; I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me; the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.

You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me; my study is so full of it now that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.
And I am careful of my work, too. Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation that I do.

But, though I crave for work, I still like to be fair. I do not ask for more than my proper share. But I get it without asking for it – at least, so it appears to me – and this worries me.

The invaluable value of happy tenants!

“Home isn’t a place. It is a person”
Stephanie Perkins

Our family code includes a belief that sharing happiness is a secret ingredient to the good life.  As property investors I can tell you that happy tenants make all the difference.

We try to provide the highest quality and nicest house that we can then we rent it out slightly below market rent. This means that we have a large group of families and we can choose from.

We complete regular rent reviews, but quite often if the family are lovely we won’t raise the rent. We write them a note telling them what the market rent is and that on this occasion we won’t be increasing the rent. We always related it to things that they are doing to take care of the property, to improve it and to make our rental their home. Once renters start treating your property as their home you are in a very good position.

When we do have to raise the rent it comes as no surprise to the tenants and we’ve found they take it very well because they feel that it is a fair deal. They have probably looked around and so they know that are onto a winner.

We also provide small gifts on the holidays, thank you notes if we notice they did something (like mow the lawn or paint the letterbox), lend them tools to do simple chores, and sometimes money to help improve the property (all to our mutual benefit). We also encourage planting a garden as we’ve found many tenants have never grown food before and really get a kick out of it.

Over time we build a relationship with our tenants that is akin to the relationship we have with our neighbours. Unfortunately some landlords just look at their tenant’s as either numbers on a spreadsheet or as a necessary annoyance. When we were renting we had more than one landlord just aching to screw us out of as much money as they were able. I guess they were mad keen on getting that SUV, but when was the last time an SUV gave you a lobster, helped you paint your house or gave you a hug?

Life is about happiness. It is the essential oil that can keep business human. Happiness is gained by openly giving and sharing not taking or screwing people over for a couple of extra bucks. Happiness flows from the quality of the relationships we have with all of the people that we encounter.

Perhaps we have just been very lucky all these years attracting the perfect tenants. Maybe there is some truth in that, but we don’t think so. We have actively invested time with the families who inhabit our homes. That said we have still done well financially while enjoying ourselves and meeting very nice people.

We’ve really enjoyed the landlord experience.

We think nice guys tend to finish last because they’re too busy making friends along the way.

Make your freedom list under the next full moon!

“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be”
Abraham Lincoln 

A few years ago I wasn’t very happy. I wouldn’t say I was depressed or even unhappy. I just wasn’t happy. I wasn’t content. Life was happening to me. I’d fallen into a job and into a life. Everything happened on autopilot. It was very much like walking around in borrowed clothes.

Recognising the ill fit of my lifesuit was a life saving event. Between meditation, staring out into the sea, a little tree climbing and some kite flying I compiled a list. The list was of full all the things that I thought I would do if I had the money (read freedom) to spend my time however I liked. Question was what the heck did I really enjoy anymore? I had been living a role so long that I’d forgotten who I really was. To help myself along I imagined what I would do with my time if I was in full control and there were no negative trade-offs or adverse consequences of doing or not doing things.

What I discovered from this exercise was marvellous and eventually set me on the course towards voluntary simplicity.  Over 90 % of the things on my list were free or cost very little money. Yet here I was working very hard to shop even harder. Throw in eating, the odd bike ride, sleeping and a few showers and that was my life. Very boring. My list was exciting to me, but my life was very boring. Very, very boring indeed!

Your list will be different. Probably not so childish. Maybe more luxurious. Maybe more frugal, but it represents your life. The one that is lost in the fog of work.

Here are some examples from my list of the things that I would do if I woke up and had the day to do as I pleased:

  • Run in the forest or in the hills.
  • Ride a bike. A mountain bike.
  • Sex with giggles.
  • Swim in the sea.
  • Spend time with my friends and family.
  • Tinker in the shed.
  • Tend a fire (particularly a big bonfire with a tent nearby).
  • Read a book (preferably on a beach or a balcony).
  • Draw or write.
  • Complete home improvements and house maintenance.
  • Redo the garden in edible landscaping.
  • Take a nap in a hammock.
  • Kick a ball about.
  • Drink ale (the compost of the soul!!) in good company.
  • Tramp or hike.
  • Browse a library.
  • Just sit on a hilltop and watch clouds.
  • Nowadays I’d add – play with my kids or go on a date with Ms Simple without the kids!

Add up the total annual cost of all of those things and it is probably less than $100!

Yet here I was vigorously climbing the career ladder instead of trees or hillocks! I was working very long hours and making lots of money like a good little producer-consumer. So it struck me. How much would I actually need as an income if I rebuilt my life around my pleasures and passions [turns out a heck of a lot less that I was making at that time].

During that week I asked Ms Simple about her list. It was very similar (except it didn’t include giggling or sex 😦 ). We mapped out a week including things like eating and washing clothes and other chores. We also ensured large blocks of time dedicated to our interests and passions. We costed this up and then reviewed the week adding some work. The work would fit around our life. Not the other way around. We also planned work that was sufficient and compatible to support our life. When we were finished we looked at each other like dummies both wondering why we hadn’t done this year’s earlier. The difference between our life and our preferred lifestyle was night and day. Under the full moon of that night we transformed from corporate zombies to excited teenagers!

If you are unhappy with your life start from bottom up. Redesign your existence around what you’d rather be doing. Map out each day of the week. Cost this way of living out and then turn your mind to the task of figuring out the most efficient way to fund your new lifestyle.

Start thinking about work for what it is…life support.

Work to live. Don’t live to work.