Back to basics: The Flemings giving it all up in search of the simple life

The first time Tomas De Gregorio had to cut his own tree, it took him three weeks before he had enough wood to get a fire going. “I’ve got much, much better at it,” says the 32-year-old, who’s been living in a caravan outside Hasselt since July. “Now, I can chop it in three days and heat my stove within minutes.”

The rusty trailer, which he obtained for next to nothing, has a small table, a kitchenette and a bedroom, though no toilet; De Gregorio had to build one outside. On the pine desk behind the stove lie two copies, in English and in Dutch, of the book that became the inspiration for his project.

Walden chronicles the experiences of American writer Henry David Thoreau, who spent a year living by himself in a small cabin on the East Coast of the United States. De Gregorio read it for the first time when he was 24, and the desire to follow in Thoreau’s footsteps has been brewing in his mind ever since.

“I think we share the same drive,” he says. “Looking for our own way of life, our own freedom. The book changed my whole life. For the first time, everything I felt strongly about was right there on paper. I’m not an environmentalist, but it was a revelation. I grew up in a city, but it just felt right to me.”

The book was first published in 1854, but its message, says De Gregorio, is still relevant today: “A lifestyle that’s as simple as possible.”

Life in focus

De Gregorio’s aim is to survive for a year on just €2,500. Once a week, he helps a local farmer clean out his stables and goes to a nearby school to take care of a garden. “During the summer, I collected wood and grew vegetables, but now that it’s winter, I become restless,” he says. “I’ve had to learn to be patient. Most of the time, I just read, go for a stroll, or make walking sticks.”

He has two hens, Mia and Witske; the third was recently killed by a fox. “I was so upset when that happened,” he says. “We’re always together. They’re like family to me.”

“I’m free. Free to think my own thoughts, free to do whatever I want.”

Since moving here, he says, he’s begun seeing life in more detail. He’s gained a new perspective on time, and enjoys the calm and silence of the surrounding fields. “When the sun comes up, it’s the best moment of the day,” he adds. “The light is just perfect, shining through the fog, as it settles. This morning the grass was white and crisp from the frost.”

A few months before he embarked on this life, De Gregorio lost his job at a production company, and soon grew tired of pursuing freelance assignments. “I had nothing else going on in my professional life,” he says. “Everything that could go wrong did.”

Any lessons? “If people only stopped to think about their lives for a moment, that would already be a great thing. Stop spending your entire life chasing money and you will gain a lot of time – that time is freedom.

“I’m not rebelling against the current state of things, just hoping to find out if it’s possible to remain on the outside. Do you have to follow capitalism or socialism, or can you just do your own thing? I believe you can do your own thing.”

When his one year in nature is up, he plans to return to a more regular life. “I’ve been going on about this project for such a long time, my girlfriend is just happy that I’m getting it all out of my system.” he says. “From now on, we’re going to do things together, head out into the world and see what happens. There are plenty of places that offer food and lodging for some honest work.”

As the night settles, he throws more logs into the stove, then reads by candlelight, before falling asleep. “I started this experiment at the lowest point in my life, but it couldn’t have turned out any better,” he says. “I’m free. Free to think my own thoughts, free to do whatever I want.”

Do it yourself

In 2008, around the time De Gregorio was reading the first pages of Walden, another Fleming, some 100 kilometres west of him, was on course to radically rethink his own way of life.

Steven Vromman had been involved with various environmental organisations for most of his adult life. Travelling across countries of the South, the Ghent ecologist met with farmers, small- time traders, students and activists; their stories confronted him with harsh reality.

“We’re consuming so much, taking away whatever little they have, from the land that we use to grow crops and tobacco to the oil that powers our cars,” he says. “I realised something was wrong and it struck me. It’s not right that some minority – a mere 20% of the world’s population – uses 80% of all available resources.”

Vromman spent two decades in the environmental sector, eventually rising to the role of director at Ecolife, a Ghent-based non-profit, where he advised individuals, companies and governments on improving their own environmental and ethical records.

The work consumed him, but progress was slow. Increasingly, Vromman found himself yearning to do more, find other means of influencing people. And then, one day, it hit him. What if, instead of encouraging society to change, he set about changing himself?

To the minimum

He promptly insulated the walls in his rented apartment, put in thicker windows and replaced the roof. He lowered the heating to 15 degrees – to the dismay of his two children – and started collecting rainwater in buckets for flushing the toilet.

To keep electric consumption down, he switched off the lights and installed a fixed bike in the living room to power up his laptop and the TV. Food had to be local, seasonal and preferably organic. Packaging produces prohibitive amount of waste, so he started buying in bulk.

Also crossed off of his list were avocados, chocolate and coffee – products that have to be flown in from thousands of kilometres away.

The measures were part of a challenge to reduce his ecological footprint – his impact on the planet – to the bare minimum.

“The footprint takes into account everything we consume, including food and petrol, but also fertilisers, transport, preservatives and so on,” says Vromman. “It’s expressed in terms of required land use.”

An average Belgian consumes around seven to eight hectares of land, making Belgium the first- or second- highest ranked in Europe, depending on estimates. By contrast, a country like Kenya, with three times as many people, uses an average of one hectare per capita. The Earth’s total capacity is estimated at around 12 billion hectares.

Do the math, Vromman says, “and you’ll realise we’d need three planets to sustain our way of life.”

Savvy and sustainable

The first six months of his rigorous regiment were turned into a TV series, The Low-impact Man, which aired on Canvas in 2008. During that time, Vromman managed to cut down his ecological footprint to 1.6 hectares and became an instant sensation in the environmental community. His blog gained thousands of followers from all over the world.

Today, the 56-year-old no longer resorts to such draconian measures. With a fully-equipped kitchen, two bedrooms and a sizeable balcony, his new apartment on Schildestraat, in Ghent, looks nothing out of the ordinary. But don’t let appearances fool you, says Vromman, who’s been living here for almost a year.

“Do the math, and you’ll realise we’d need three planets to sustain our way of life.”

Pointing around the well-lit apartment, he explains that almost every aspect of it is eco-friendly and sustainable, from the recycled floor and clay walls to the triple-pane windows that ensure minimum heat loss through the cold winter months.

All electrical appliances, including two laptops and a microwave, are powered by energy from renewable resources, while the shower and the dishwasher rely on harvested rainwater heated by solar panels installed on the roof.

Though his ecological footprint is now slightly higher, Vromman’s lifestyle remains no less savvy. His new apartment is part of a co-housing complex, which the ecologist shares with seven other families.

He makes do without his own washing machine, as several are provided in the basement, and though he still prefers cycling and taking the train, if need be, the complex has three shared cars, which Vromman reserves using an app on his Fairphone, the world’s first ethically-sourced smartphone.

He says he finds himself having more time to do the things he actually loves, like going to the fresh market every week or baking his own bread. “I’ve gained a different perspective on what’s important to me. I think it’s perfectly possible to a have good, sustainable life, without having to sacrifice a lot.”

Now his focus is on making the low-impact lifestyle more accessible to others. He quit his job at Ecolife and travels across Flanders and Brussels, hosting lectures and workshops. “A lot of people say, ‘Yes, we know there’s a problem with climate change, but what can we do?’ So I try to show them that as consumers they’re making a choice about the planet’s future.”

Local and ethical

The world, he adds, will continue to change and “it is up to us to take a stance. If we step aside and say there is nothing we can do, then it will be business as usual and things will only get worse.”

Switch to green electricity, he says, eat less meat, or become a vegetarian. Use public transport or join a car-sharing initiative. Buy only second-hand clothes and insulate your home.

Join a food network – Vromman is part of Voedselteams, an organisation that strengthens local farmers by letting consumers order groceries directly from them via webshop – or start a local exchange platform like Lets Vlaanderen.

Move to an ethical bank, like Triodos, or buy shares at ecological cooperatives. “They’re popping up everywhere,” says Vromman. “I invest in organic construction, a young farmers network and ecological fries.”

But the most important thing, he adds, is to focus on the positive. “Picture a world where we use fewer resources and produce less waste – a more egalitarian world that revolves around sharing. There’s your alternative.”

Originally published in Flanders Today

Leave a comment