Thomas Macintyre is a MSc student enrolled in the Master International Development Studies. For his MSc thesis research he spent 3 months in an ecovillage in the Ukraine, to study everyday village life. Thomas’ post is the first of a series in which he shares his experiences of the “life less ordinary” he has lived for 3 months.
Imagine if you can a little village surrounded by forests beside a little lake. Squirrels play in trees amongst the woodpeckers, frogs play hide and seek with the cranes in the lake, and when the sun has set, the wild pigs come out to sniff and dig around the fields and gardens in the village, curious as ever as to see what is new.
This is a very old village – nobody knows how old – but was given the name Romashki after a Cossack named Romashko in the 17th century, who was hiding in this area from Queen Katherine of Russia whose army was invading the country. With rolling hills and forest, this area was beautiful and remote from the political intrigues of the capital.
However, one cannot stay in isolation forever. Later this area, and the country it is now part of, was to become part of the Soviet Union. Collective farms were created, the state owned the land, and the people became clogs in a great communist machine. Once considered the most productive land in the Soviet Union, forced collectivization and a campaign by the ruler of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, to stamp out nationalism in this country resulted in an engineered famine which killed over 6 million people.
Every empire comes to an end. The Berlin wall fell, and so did the Soviet empire. The country of our village saw independence, and a painful move to a market based economy. Lack of capital saw agricultural production decrease, the mainstay of a country with a rural population of 50%. People moved to the city in search of work; the countryside began to die.
Now there are not many villagers left in Romashki. A few years ago one could only see a few old ‘babuskas’ with crumbled backs tending to their fields, while their children and their neighbours have moved to the city to find fortune, or at least a means to survive; because, as they say, ‘what life is there in the village?’ The signpost on the main road saying “Pомашки” (Romashki) had lost some of its letters, and a village which was on few maps, was on the road to die a sad and forgotten death.
But then something strange and out of the ordinary happened! As is generally the case in a good story, the heroes emerge at a time of crisis, and it must be said, now is a time of crisis. Two disillusioned souls from the depths of a modernist world broke free from their shackles of servitude, and dared to think different than a system based on conformity and repression. With backpacks carrying clothes and supplies, and with pots, pans and spades jingling from the straps outside the bags, our heroes took a boat down the Dniepro river, and disembarking, walked the final kilometers to the Village of Romashki.
Having arrived alone this couple from the city began to create a life less ordinary than most. They arrived to a run down mud and wood house they had bought for $300, and a garden of around 2 hectares covered in weeds and old sheds and pig sties. Using nothing but their bare hands and simple hand tools, they set about clearing the land, planting fruit trees and vegetables, and renovating the house with clay, sand, straw and water, and planting a garden of Eden: in their own words to each other, they were creating a “space of love” for themselves and the life around them.
The couple listened to what the earth and plants had to say, and they followed the rhythms of nature. They got up at sunrise, and went to bed at sunset. Planting and building was carried out in tact with the phase of the moon. Washing was done in the little lakes with mud substituting shampoo, toothpaste and soap. Water was collected from a well, and the electricity was cut. Dead wood was collected from the surrounding forests to make fire to cook their food and warm up their house when temperatures could reach as low as -30 during winter. Who could imagine that these people just a little while ago had been educated people in the city, with opportunities as a doctor and a lawyer to live a good respected life? Now they were almost alone in the village, following a dream to live a life at one with each other and natural world.
After a few months a squirrel which was climbing a walnut tree happened to look in through the window. She saw a woman lying on a bed of straw and a man with a long beard kneeling beside her. The woman face was tense and she was breathing hard but she did not seem scared. The man had an intense look of concentration. No one else was in the house. Then slowly, out of the woman into the arms of the man the squirrel saw a little person emerge. The little person did not cry, but was rocked slowly back and forth by the mother. It was only later in the evening, hours later, when the cord coming from the little person was cut, and the squirrel saw the man come out and bury the placenta under a plum tree in the garden. The first baby in Romashki for a long time had been born. Over time more people with these ‘alternative’ ideas came and moved to Romashki, and new life was born into the once dying village.
Four years later a young man traveling the vast expanses of the ex-Soviet Union met a guy who knew a girl who knew a guy, and through a serendipitous chain of events, ended up in the village of Romashki. There he stayed for 9 days with this couple and their daughter; a time which was to change his life. He swam naked in the lake, brushed his teeth with mud, ate the vegan food from the garden, and slept on a bed of straw. Then it was time to leave. – Maybe you will come back and write your thesis here, the woman said when the young man was about to leave. The young man hoisted his backpack onto his back and smiling to the woman (and himself) said – Da, yes, anything is possible. He was off to the Netherlands to study economic development and molecular nutrition and doubted Romashki he would have the opportunity to come back to write a thesis on this life. Happy and excited over what he had experienced and the new adventures which lay before him, the young man walked back the tree lined path to the bus stop, where the marshutka, mini bus, would take him back to civilization.
But as you well know, my dear reader, life has a funny habit of turning things on their head. The young man did not go on to study Nutrition or Economics. He changed his study to Rural Sociology. Through the study of the land and the actants who gave it meaning, the young man developed a passion for the rural. But through his classes dealing with the dynamics of rural and regional development processes in Europe, and other classes focusing on rural development in developing countries, he began to feel like something was missing. “Where is the beauty and romance of the countryside?” he thought to himself. “Where are the stories of people with agency and courage who dare to challenge the system and are living a happy life at peace with themselves and nature? Where are the stories which are supposed to inspire us and give us hope for the future? And as these thoughts developed in his mind, another image began to take form. This was an image of a village with a family doing exactly that; creating their own alternative rurality; simple, beautiful and based on a respect for the community of life around them; daring to do something different. “I want to write an account of what it means to live such a life”, the young man thought to himself”.
Remembering the parting words from the woman before he left the village, he wrote the family a letter and mailed it. A few weeks later a letter came back: “….You are welcome to stay in our house as long as you like. You may describe everything you see and feel. We are happy to share our experience with people…” After preparing what needed to be prepared, the young man with bubbles in his stomach jumped on a train and heading due east towards the land of borsh, Chernoble, and inexplicably, a village called Romashki in Ukraine.
To be continued…