My off-grid life by Sam Miller

A little over ten years ago, Sam Miller was living and working in the UK. He thought he was living his dream life, and was content doing so. But then an opportunity arose that changed everything and now his whole lifestyle has changed.

This week’s post is Sam’s story, in his own words, of how he’s gone from a fairly conventional life in the UK to a self-sufficient, almost zero-waste existence in a tiny stone house in Spain. 

Over to you, Sam…


7 minutes to read

An ongoing journey

This is an interesting article to write, as I still don’t really know why I am here. It’s part of my journey, a journey that I never imagined taking a few years back. I thought that I was settled in my dream job as a garden centre owner-manager, selling plants and things for the garden. Each season I would choose ranges of bulbs, seeds and other goodies for the ever-changing tastes of my customers. I was chasing the ‘leisure pound’, never imagining that I was going to travel the world, live in several different countries, learn two new languages and become a legal resident in a foreign land.
But here I am, a little over a decade later. I’ve weathered the storm that threw me adrift from my previous lifestyle, through a voyage of discovery, life-moulding experiences and change, to be happily living in a little house with no utilities. Each day I tend the land and each day I learn more about this life. I spend my time growing food, planting fruit trees, chatting with neighbours and making friends. The best thing is that these are proper friends. The type that will build a community and believe in the lifestyle I’ve fallen in love with.

Community and day-to-day life

I guess I’m being absorbed into a subsection of the community that is already here. I’ve become one of those earthy, out in the countryside, organic, and ecological, alternative types.  I’ll appear in the village occasionally to buy fresh fish from the fish stand that calls once a fortnight or to visit the local store for provisions that have run low.  I’ll only drive to town if I have at least three different errands to run.  I’m rarely seen in the local bar unless there is a social event to participate in or if I have guests staying. But that’s not to say that I’m not sociable! Far from it – with my newly-acquired language skills I chat to people more days a week than not, frequently dining with friends or hosting gatherings here in my tiny house.

We tend to talk about chickens and goats, how the water is holding out for the veggies, what’s coming up to harvest, process and preserve. I’m in my element, having grown up in a smallholding hobby farm and absorbing so many skills as a kid.
I remember my great aunt Flo calling me a “grubby little urchin”  and assuring my mother that I’d have to “eat my weight in dirt before I’d die”. I always did have green fingers and I was happiest doing something with the soil even then.
So here I am with minimal well-water, a big tank gathering rain off the roof and terraced land with more and more water-retaining swales and berms. For anyone who hasn’t heard that term before, swales and berms are, simply-put, shallow depressions in the ground that allow rainwater to accumulate then gradually seep into the soil. 
My drinking water comes from a local spring. I collect it in large plastic water bottles that get reused a multitude of times before being repurposed into mini-greenhouses or drip irrigation devices. 

Cooking, eating and heating

More and more of my food is coming from the land.  I tend not to cook a huge amount in the summer because it is so hot here. But when I do, my outside kitchen is equipped with a twig burning rocket stove. In the kitchen in the house I have a little secondhand butane caravan cooker, two rings, complete with oven and grill that I picked up in the car boot sale for £20 several years ago. It’s ideal for one or two and I don’t feel guilty about heating the oven just to cook for myself.  When the weather is cold, the wood-burning stove comes in very handy for cooking and heating water for my hot water bottles too.  
That will all change when I build a rocket mass heater next year.  It will heat the house, provide a decent cooking surface and heat a large thermal mass bench that will release its residual warmth for many hours.  The stove will burn dead twigs, trimmings and pruning from the plot and save me from cutting down any more trees than I have to.
In terms of food storage, I have a gas fridge at the moment. It’s very good, but for much of the year I can’t justify running it just to keep a bottle of milk and a few ice cubes. So I do without it. It’s an old stone house half-built into the hillside with 80 cm thick walls, so the ambient temperature is around 13°C.  Things don’t go off that fast when the weather is cool. I’m practically vegetarian so rarely do I need to worry about keeping rapidly-perishable foods for any length of time. If I decide to eat meat or fish, I buy it, cook it and eat it the same day.

Storage, repurposing and waste

I’m a sucker for preserving jars. I store almost everything in them in the kitchen. I have recently discovered a local shop that sells all kinds of loose foods, so I can take my empty jars and stock up with loads of produce without contributing further to the waste mountains. 
The Ailuna waste check dare encouraged me to have a look at how much waste I actually produce. I was pleasantly surprised! Most stays on-site for reuse, or is repurposed into something else. Almost everything else goes to recycling and the remaining rubbish fills a carrier bag once a month.  
If I have the choice I buy food without packaging, in jars rather than tins because they’re easier to reuse. Cardboard and paper gets added to the compost. Bottles, tins and most plastic gets recycled if they have no immediate secondary use here. Any plastic bags get put back into my shopping basket and are refilled time and time again until they are full of holes and when they are no longer useful they go into the recycling as well. 
Glass jars are always welcome especially portion size ones, I make a lot of sauces, compotes and ferments.  I’m not that keen on jam but chutneys and pickles make very good use of my garden surpluses and if I haven’t got enough of anything, I make a trip to the market to make a decent batch. If I’m going to stir something for a couple of hours I want to make sure there is a decent amount to show for it at the end!  Anything that I make too much of always comes in handy to gift, swap or barter for something else. 

Food innovation and using the elements

Solar drying and dehydrating is a new found joy since I moved here. This winter I had jars of soup mix vegetables that I dehydrated in the summer sun, a surprise experimental home-made tomato stock cubes, made from dehydrated tomato paste boosted with celery, garlic and plenty of ground herbs.  The little squares of goodness store well and boost the flavour of any soup or casserole in a moment without an E number in sight. These cubes were discovered after making fruit leathers for the first time, which have been very successful with my friends and their children.  Other than that, homegrown cherries, apples, apricots, pears and hopefully next year grapes are all dried to use as snacks, muesli ingredients and for general sweet baking.
I use local almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts to snack on, in muesli and to make milk, which is so easy. The local olives are soaked and transformed into delicious snacks and pastes.
I’ve also recently invested in a mini oil press that I’m eager to try out. I’m imagining hazelnut and almond paste to mix with honey and cocoa powder for a delicious spread.
It might sound like a lot of work. But it’s joyful, satisfying work that produces wonderful flavours and beautiful smiles on people‘s faces when they eat here or receive my gift.  That is satisfaction and contentment for me to share.  We do a lot of potluck eating and each time there is something new to try.

My seasonal job

Don’t tell my boss this, but I go to work for a holiday and a rest. For a little over three months each winter I lock up my house, kiss my plants goodbye and head off to earn some money. My job takes me to the mountains and allows me the luxury of skiing on my days off. I’m part of a team that runs a piste-side restaurant and refuge style hotel in the French Pyrenees.  I love the complete change of tempo. We work really hard as a team, especially moving luggage, lugging provisions across the ski resort every morning and clearing snow when it falls. Not to mention being ready to feed anything up to 300 meals at lunchtime!
 I work all the hours I can, party very little and take crates of presents with me to keep my food costs to a minimum.  I love the buzz of energy that it produces and I also love the days off and evenings when I have absolutely nothing to do. Read a book,  surf the net,  knit another hat, chill with other seasonal workers and share stories. But it’s never anything pressing. No list of things to do, nothing pending tomorrow except regular work when I get there.
Yes it’s a break because living on the land is endless, there are always more things to do than hours in the day. There are more exciting experiments and seeds to sow, problems to solve and friends that could do with a hand.  My time is always more reflective when I’m away. It distances me from my home life and gives me a different perspective. It also gives me just about enough money to live frugally until the next winter when I do it all again.

Making biochar, which helps improve soil quality


Gratitude and contentment

I give thanks for my life and its unexpected journey.  I am so grateful to all the WWOOF and HelpX households that shared their ways and guided me into the rich life that I’m living right now. It’s rewarding, fulfilling and tasty, too!  This kind of rich is more valuable than monetary wealth to me now.  
I have sufficient to live on and the rest is pure joy.  Secondhand clothes, tools and furniture.  Everything mended, repurposed rethought and often rejected before it comes to me. I would never have thought it possible before, but I treasure the invaluable insights of sharing other peoples lives. Their joys, their trials and tribulations, their ambitions, their generosity and even their dietary ways have allowed me the chance to choose the lifestyle and the way I live today and for that I give thanks. 

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