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Stories - Issue #1

Crossing Borders. From London to Gotland.

Words by Paul Wu
Photography by Jessica Lindgren-Wu

Paul Wu and his family left the UK in January 2019, moving from a suburban south London home to a farm on Sweden's largest island.

I have never seen asparagus grow: these little phalluses bursting from the ground - olive green with tints of purple. My wife, Jessica, has given me instructions to harvest the two asparagus patches we have in our garden. "Clear and cut back everything," she said. I kneel down, armed with a blunt kitchen knife and a metal colander, and cut one spear after another. Jessica comes along to check my work. "Don't cut the ones which are so short. These small ones need to be left to grow. Have you even read up about how to grow asparagus?" She stoops down and breaks off the ripe asparagus spears quickly - at least 10 times as efficiently as my attempts. We live on a farm on Gotland, Sweden. It's a long, long way from my south London upbringing and my urbanista comfort zone. How the heck did I get here?

Nineteen years earlier, a snowstorm blows across Sweden's capital city, Stockholm. My first son is born at the end of 1999 in a flurry of urgent, concerned activity, his umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck. An eternity later, and as I hold his warm body against my chest I have a cliché of an epiphany: I want to be worthy of this vulnerable little bundle of trust and dependency I want my son to be proud of me and I want to be proud of myself. I examine my values, my goals and ambitions. It's not an overnight transformation, but slowly I look into what it means to be ecologically and environmentally aware – the impact of our lifestyles on the planet. Even back then things were not looking that great for planet Earth with climate change, loss of species, pollution and the insatiable hunger for more and more stuff all galloping across the sky. But what could I do? What impact could I have on a world teetering on the edge of calamity? I had no drive towards activism beyond wanting to live by my values – to somehow prove that it could be possible to live idealistically. Having grown up in an immigrant household that wanted to move as far away from any manual labour as possible and having pursued careers as a professional dancer, a journalist, and then as a television producer, I had no practical skills, no skills at all that would be transferable to a self-sustainable eco-lifestyle.

Paul and Jessica working their farm.

Jessica came from a different background. Born in Visby, the main town of Gotland, she moved to the UK when she was 20 but her Swedish roots are deep and ancient. Not all Swedes have a close connection to nature but most of them do. Fishing, gardening, hiking, boating, and generally appreciating life outdoors is inherent in Swedish culture. Generations of men and women have been raised to know how to build their own houses, grow their own food, identify the nature around them and be able to survive with what resources they have at hand. Jessica's father, Jan Erik, is of that generation. He has a can-do approach to life and to anything thatis practical that is, to me, both admirable but intimidating. Jessica's family called me a mjukis man (a softie) with tummen mitt i handen (a thumb in the middle of my hands) – meaning that I wasn't very practical. Undeterred, I did some research and discovered permaculture – an approach to life that encompasses self-sustainability, reduced waste, low effort farming and natural building. I bought the books and magazines and drooled over permaculture porn: off-grid homes with passive solar systems, thick walls of natural building materials and beautifully designed, productive gardens that supplied a cornucopia of healthy, organic food. I began dreaming.

‘I saw my youngest son bond with the smallest and most approachable sheep. She kicked him for more carrots and his seven year-old giggling outrage warmed my heart.’’

I did short courses in permaculture and straw bale house building and even built a few wood pallet compost bins. But in the end it was a superficial dip into wanting a new life closer to nature. My interest in getting back to the land grew in the soil of a privileged, city-grown sentimental view about what connecting to nature really meant (apparently this is a common perception in back-to-the-landers according to geographer Yi-Fu Tuan's book Topophilia). Although I liked the idea of being able to grow our own food I never really took much of an interest in gardening.

We had another son and life gathered pace and became more complicated, time eroded. My career making dance documentaries or makeover shows felt meaningless. Jobs were just a vehicle to earn money to buy organic Fairtrade food. Culture, television, shopping, technology and the everyday concerns of urban living – it all felt frivolous and wrong. I was judgemental about modern life and scathing about others who didn't share my eco-zeal. I couldn’t understand how anyone could justify using a tumble dryer, buying disposable nappies, owning two cars, or buying food that wasn’t organic.

Fifteen years passed. We had two more sons and the most gardening I got to do was mow the lawn. Having four children felt like an embarrassing betrayal of green principles. As did our much used tumble dryer. I was now working on films about poverty and inequality, and found that I felt more comfortable in the poor rural villages where people live simply and work together out of necessity than in the back-stabbing world of career ladders, strategies and faux democracy. My idealism felt corrupted and muted, a whisper in the background, nearly drowned out by the cacophony of daily life. Psychologically battered by the Brexit referendum result I would often browse the internet looking at organic farms, green smallholdings and off-grid properties for sale around the world. In the summer of 2018 we found a house in Gotland, Sweden's largest island in the Baltic sea where Jessica's parents live. It had thick limestone walls, solar hot water, and nearly 40 acres of land including a large vegtable and fruit garden with an orchard, a meadow and a well with clean water.

The previous owners of the house were keen gardeners and enthusiasts of traditional farming and forestry techniques. They left us with a map of seasonal instructions as a guide to give us an idea of what needs doing to keep the house and farm going as it should. They also left us with 12 sheep to look after for the next two years. They seemed happy but if they weren't I'm not sure I could tell. I would sing Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game to them – or at least the words I could remember, which weren’t many. We fed them carrots and milled grains for treats, which they nervously yet determinedly took from our hands. I saw my youngest son bond with the smallest and most approachable sheep. She kicked him for more carrots and his seven year-old giggling outrage warmed my heart.

During the winter the house is heated by a wood-burning furnace. It's not very environmentally-friendly but as we have a small forest and a meadow we have all the fuel we need so it's a cheap and sustainable solution to keeping warm. We loaded wheelbarrows of firewood, which had been beautifully stacked by the previous owners in a woodshed into our basement, and fed the furnace twice a day so that we had heat and hot water. There was a learning curve with the furnace – we struggled with getting the fire going initially and after cleaning it we left one of the doors of the furnace a little open so the house filled with smoke. But after a while it became second nature to make the fire: wake up, pad down to the basement with it's motion-detecting light, put in some kindling, paper and cardboard to start it, fill it to half and let it reach the right temperature, then fill it right up and stick the furnace in operating mode to heat the large water storage tanks.

With the help and support of family and neighbours we survived the winter and already the cold and darkness is nearly forgotten. We have somewhat failed at replenishing the firewood supply but Jan-Erik has been hugely helpful with all aspects of tree felling, wood management and garden care. His knowledge, persistence and stamina, are truly awesome and I feel such a noob as he explains to me how to use a chainsaw or a scythe. I am not afraid of hard physical work but every day challenges another part of my body: my lower back aches from crouching over and pulling weeds or clearing borders or harvesting vegetables; my forearms are in a constant state of tension and nerve-pain after using a chainsaw and pulling apart partially cleaved logs; my shoulders ache from using a scythe to cut long grass and nettles. The temptation that comes with the pride of someone trying desperately to prove themselves worthy is to try and do everything on your own.

There is an element of trial and error with everything: the first stack of firewood I made fell over in an insolent gust of wind and when Jessica and I attempted to fell our first tree it very nearly proved a fatal exercise in the blind-leading-the-blind. But for a farm this size, trying to do everything by ourselves just isn't realistic, especially when we have zero experience for much of what we need to do. Friendly neighbours with a range of unfamiliar-looking machinery, acquaintances from work with knowledge of Swedish electrical wiring and most importantly the pure expertise, willingness and manpower of Jessica's family have all saved us from total disaster.

The spring and summer have seen an explosion of growth and abundance. Jessica has planted seedlings, and there are crops that were in the ground already, but everything seems to be blooming and blossoming all at the same time. Flowers and vegetables vie for space as birdsong and the buzz of flying insects fill the air. There are poppies, foxgloves, hollyhocks, lettuce, spinach, carrots, potatoes, kale, peas, pumpkins, courgettes, raspberries, and herbs of all kinds. I am on my knees harvesting strawberries. Cars and tractors drive past reassuringly on the road behind a tall hedge that will soon need cutting. The wind blows across our flat and open vegetable patch. My two younger sons pry themselves off technology in the house and jump on trampolines and then carry bowlfuls of strawberries to the kitchen to be washed and frozen. Radishes and bundles of carrots follow. All our excess vegetables go to a local vegan cafe, a ten-minute drive away, which gives us free meals in exchange.We have two cars but one runs off locally-produced biogas. The sun heats the solar panels and we get free hot water. The boys ask to go to the sea later. It's a five-minute drive from our house and they can jump with wild abandon into the Baltic with friends they've made at the local school. The sun shines out of a blue sky and the wind blows the laundry hanging between some trees. We have no tumble dryer. I keep reminding myself that it has been just six months since we moved here, and in the general scheme of things, that is nothing.

‘‘I know I sentimentalise nature and that I have so much to learn but there is much to be thankful for too.’’

Maybe it will be all too much for us.There is so much to do every day and every day shows me my limitations. I know I sentimentalise nature and that I have so much to learn but there is much to be thankful for too. I am not alone and Jessica is my shining guiding light. I worry that things are too much for her – certainly she enjoys being close to her native soil, but I'm more than aware that having to steer me through everything is an added stress that isn't fair on her. I know I might not be cut out for self-sufficiency butI feel so privileged to be able to at least try. I pull some weeds out from the soil and the roots dangle in the air. A bee pushes into a foxglove flower and buzzes away with the nectar. The scent of a jasmine bush drifts through the air. I don't miss London. I don't miss the city. I breathe and life fills me.

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