The Top Ten Macro Myths, Part II

Last week we introduced the first part of our review of Alex Jack’s “The Top Ten Macro Myths”, examining some of the important misconceptions held by many followers of macrobiotics as well as many of its critics. We feel that this is an important period in the history and development of macrobiotics, as the movement is often held back by popular misconceptions and exaggerated claims. Fortunately Alex Jack’s little book provides some very good analysis, with the intention of removing a few of the dogmas which have inhibited the growth of this beneficial and wholesome way of life.

One source of information which is used so widely today is Wikipedia. We are often told that Wikipedia is more accurate than Britannica and that it is highly reliable. Unfortunately there are keyboard warriors out there who insist on ‘correcting’ all mentions of holistic and alternative health practices, and with regards to macrobiotics the situation is pretty bad, as Alex Jack has recently written about in his article entitled What Wikipedia Doesn’t Want You to Know about Macrobiotics (and Holistic Health).

Fortunately Alex Jack remains a fair-minded and clear-headed thinker when it comes to the subject of macrobiotics. Let’s examine macro myths 6-10.

6. Macrobiotic people never get sick.

One of the most common claims made by proponents of macrobiotics is regarding its ability to prevent and cure disease. Many books have been written about seemingly miraculous cures of people with advanced stages of cancers or HIV who reversed the progress of the disease by switching to macrobiotics. Indeed the macrobiotic philosophy itself has always emphasised the importance of diet in controlling disease. Alex Jack points out that following a plant-based diet reduces the rate of chronic disease by between 50% and 75% when compared to society as a whole.

When macrobiotics first became popular in the west our understanding of chronic illness and the importance of diet wasn’t very well understood. Today we are living with the consequences of these decades of blind faith in the powers of science, and although there has been something of a backlash to being force-fed a diet devoid of anything nourishing, today even our pets have diabetes.

Alex Jack reminds us that many prominent macrobiotic practitioners have succumbed to chronic illness. In his view, this has not been caused by “too much salt or poor quality salt, red-meat fish, deep-fried kombu, soymilk or cream in morning coffee”. Instead, the cause can be found in the general decline in food quality and the prevalence of pesticides, pollution and other contaminants in our environment and food supply. Poor air quality has been closely linked to early death, and recent studies have pointed to a rise in lung cancer among non-smokers in London. There are some things that even miso soup cannot stop or cure.

A personal interest of mine is in the area of primitive diets, which in contrast to a macrobiotic one, were very low in grain consumption (but very high in fibre). It’s worth reading my earlier post on the Hadza diet for more information on this. Alex Jack doesn’t delve into such areas at all, but it seems an topic well worth exploring, as wild foods in general contain much higher levels of nutrients than domesticated grains and vegetables.

7. Emotions don’t count.

I was a little confused by this ‘macro myth’, as I haven’t had formal macrobiotic training and I have not been exposed directly to the teachings of George Oshawa. Alex Jack argues that one possible reason that many followers of macrobiotics downplay or overlook the role of emotions and health is due to a mis-translation of the word ‘sentiment’, which meant that emotional judgement was seen as ‘sentimental’ or, in other words, false or fleeting. For Oshawa, emotional judgement was higher than blind or sensory judgement but lower than intellectual, social, ideological or supreme judgement.

As with the notion that yang is superior to yin (see previous post), negative emotions have often been seen as a symptom of poor diet or food choices. Alex Jack refers to practitioners who tell their clients that emotional issues are ‘peripheral’ (in other words yin) and don’t address the biological ‘root’ or ‘core’ (in other words yang) of the issue. And yet we can fairly easily understand that the link between emotions and health is strong.

Alex Jack writes movingly of his own experience with emotional issues, recounting a time in his childhood when he was diagnosed with asthma. The doctor prescribed a family move to the dry climate south west of the United States, but fortunately his mother had an intuitive insight and asked young Jack if anything was bothering him. When he told his mother that he felt that his baby sister was getting too much attention, Jack’s mother changed her behaviour and his symptoms went away.

8. Brown rice is the perfect food.

Back in the 1970s and early 80s my father would, on a fairly regular basis, retreat from daily life and go on a brown rice binge for anything between a few days and a week. His view was that a period of time dedicated to short grain brown rice and twig tea would act as an intensive remedy, seemingly able to cure any illness. He seemed to thrive on this strict regimen, but fortunately as children we were not subjected to such a limited diet. These days he still goes for short brown rice bursts, following a commonly-held notion among followers of macrobiotics that brown rice is the perfect food or at least close to being one.

For Alex Jack, brown rice is indeed very, very nutritious, “it is a marvellous food for body, mind on soul”. It’s hard to argue that after eating a simple meal consisting mostly of brown rice that one does indeed feel good and pure. When properly cooked and seasoned and accompanied by some simple side dishes it seems hard to beat. Critics of macrobiotics have pointed out the dangers of brown rice fanaticism, always citing the one or two people who allegedly died from eating too much brown rice. Such shrill warnings are impossible to take seriously, but the question here is not whether brown rice is good or not. The question instead is around brown rice being a ‘perfect food’.

It seems worth quoting Alex Jack at some length here, as he reminds us that:

“The whole idea of a perfect food, to my mind, is mistaken. It is like believing that there is a perfect religion, a perfect society, a perfect family or a perfect chant or song. What is beneficial in some circumstances may be harmful in others. What strengthens one person, weakens another. The quest for a universal saviour – whether theological, ideological or nutritional – is another form of reductionism. There is no magical food or drink, supplement or herb that is the answer to all ills.”

Although brown rice does indeed offer a number of health benefits this is somewhat offset by the social and environmental damage caused by rice-growing when compared to some other, similar grains, such as millet, due to the large amounts of water required and the intensive levels of effort needed. Furthermore, rice, when compared to barley, millet, sorghum or wheat, is somewhat lacking nutritionally. The important thing to remember here is that a healthy approach to macrobiotics does not fixate on one particular foodstuff or technique, rather it is about tailoring foods to local and personal needs.

9. Meat-eating creates violence.

Having spent much of my life around vegetarians and vegans, there does seem to be a common perception that there is some kind of link between meat-eating and violent behaviour. It’s obvious that meat-eating, as it involves killing other animals, involves cruelty and violence. Similarly, anecdotal observation of the behaviour of most vegetarians and vegans would suggest that such people are less prone to violence than their carnivorous counterparts.

But the question here is much more subtle and much more important than whether or not killing animals for food is violent. If we consider meat-eating at a societal level, things begin to get much more complicated and also much more interesting.

When I was still a student in school the common perception was that so-called ‘primitive’ people were much more violent and bloodthirsty than their ‘civilised’ counterparts. I heard stories of cannibals in the jungle, human sacrifice and red-skinned savages scalping peaceful white farmers. Indeed much of this mythology is so deeply rooted in our culture that it seems almost impossible to shake off. British media went into hysteria recently when the explorer Benedict Allen was “missing in a remote area of Papua New Guinea while searching for what is believed to be the last surviving cannibal tribe“. The soon-to-be-released Hollywood blockbuster Hostiles depicts wild meat-eating Indians attacking and murdering innocent homesteaders.

Such simplistic world-views are very hard to shake – from our civilised perspective they almost seem intuitive. Yet, over the past six to eight years I have begun to question them very deeply, through my personal studies into anthropology and the history of civilisation. Once we set aside the fact that killing animals requires violence, the question becomes much more difficult to explain in simple terms.

Modern anthropology has done a very good job of dispelling many colonialist myths, revealing in fact that societies based on hunting are less violent than agricultural ones. The reasons for this are quite subtle and involve a close reading of human history, but essentially when societies switch from hunting to farming a number of important shifts take place, resulting in social structures more prone to religious intolerance, misogyny, extremes of rich and poor and subjugation of the earth.

Through the accumulation of wealth only possible through farming and the cultivation of grains, a new era of rapid population growth and manipulation of the environment begins, starting in the Middle East and China and spreading to the rest of the planet through war and colonisation. The end result of the ‘agricultural revolution’ is global violence on an unprecedented scale, involving the destruction not only of other humans but of countless other species as well. This shift seems to have been triggered by moving away from hunting and gathering and towards planting and farming. I’d strongly recommend James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States on this subject, but there are many other excellent sources of information as well.

From my own research and observation the question of violence has much more to do with our relationship with Mother Earth than whether we eat meat or not. Daniel Quinn, in his excellent book Ishmael divides the world into takers and leavers. This is probably a much more useful distinction that carnivores and vegetarians.

Alex Jack comes to some very similar conclusions, but also notes that meat, due to its very yang nature, can be a bad combination when combined with highly yin foods such as sugar and alcohol. But, all-in-all, he has:

“come to the view that diet contributes about one -third of our health and consciousness. Another third comes from the environment and activity, especially physical exercise. And one third comes from mental, emotional and social influences and activities, including family upbringing, education, relationships and spiritual practices.”

10. Your face never lies.

Oriental diagnosis, especially face reading or physiognomy, remains an important part of the macrobiotic approach to health and wellness. Alex Jack writes at some length of his own experiences of face reading, describing it as a “valuable diagnostic tool”, but also reminds us that it can easily be abused. He describes episodes when he was “shocked by the number of students and clients who confided how humiliated and abused they felt by their macrobiotic teacher or other counsellor told them on the basis of their facial features”.

Alex Jack notes acutely that a quick diagnosis made on facial features can lead to those being judged to feeling wounded and furthermore to accept the diagnosis without question, leading to further ill health.

According to some macrobiotic practitioners, I am sanpaku or ‘three whites’ which can be observed by looking at the whites at the sides and underneath the eyes. Such a condition is supposedly a sign of ill health and an indicator that the patient is imbalanced and exhausted. It’s also supposed to be an indicator of an early death. But it’s also just the way I look, perhaps due in part to the way my face is shaped or something else, I don’t know exactly. In any case, I have felt the pain of such judgements which were quite hurtful at the time. I still don’t know if they revealed anything significant.

The important point here that Alex Jack is trying to make is that face reading is only one tool among many and is not the final method for diagnosis. It should be used with caution, as it can have harmful emotional consequences. He ends with an important reminder that “in the macrobiotic community, sickness is often regarded as punishment for violating the order of the universe”, and also that “this mindset is the very antithesis of ‘a loving realization of the order that governs the infinite universe’ of which Oshawa speaks.”

Conclusion

I was really impressed by this little book. Alex Jack is a serious thinker and a very compassionate and open-minded human being. I was humbled at his willingness to challenge some of the ‘macro myths’ I remember being taught in the 1970s and 80s. For anyone either interested in or sceptical of macrobiotics, this feels like an essential read.

Book review: The Top Ten Macro Myths by Alex Jack

The Macrobiotic Shop has a small treasure trove of rare and hard-to-find books on the subject of macrobiotics. These days there are fewer books published on the subject, which is very unfortunate, especially given the huge rise in veganism and environmental awareness which has taken place since the heyday of macrobiotics in the 1970s and 80s. I recently came across a slim but excellent little pamphlet by the great macrobiotic expert, Alex Jack. Since reading this very rare piece our last remaining copy has been sold, but I was able to read Alex Jack’s little book and put down some of my own experiences and thoughts on the subject.

It seems unfortunate that macrobiotics hasn’t benefited as much from the explosion in veganism, clean eating and general increased awareness in healthy eating as it should have. To me, this is a real shame, as it still has huge relevance and can provide enormous health and environmental benefits. I really am no expert in this arena, so perhaps what follows is totally off the mark. However many people in the macrobiotic community are very passionate about what they do, and it seems worth spending a little time looking inward this winter, for this is a time of reflection.

From a personal perspective, The Top Ten Macro Myths really resonated with me, as I had the mixed blessing of being brought up in a macrobiotic household during the 1970s and early 80s. I describe this as mixed because the results of this experience affected me in mixed ways. As a child, I found much of the food cooked at home to be pretty unpalatable and at school my packed lunches were the stuff of ridicule and embarrassment. I just wanted to fit in, and that was not easy being brought up on brown rice, tofu, steamed vegetables and miso soup. The rich sugary diet of mainstream America seemed a lot more tasty, but even at a very young age I knew and understood that such a diet was also terrible for health and the environment.

Despite not enjoying the culinary aspects of the 1970s macrobiotic diet, it left me with an excellent constitution. I am now well into middle age, but am extremely healthy and active. Similarly, my father, who is close to 80, is still very active and suffers from few of the health problems endemic in our society.

Thankfully the modern macrobiotic diet is a complete revolution, taste-wise. Georgina is an incredible cook and in her very capable hands the food really comes to life. The so-called ‘normal’ food available in our society holds almost no appeal to me, as 21st century macrobiotics feels superior to just about anything else on offer. And yet macrobiotics still suffers from some of its 1970s baggage, a problem which Alex Jack outlines very well.

So let’s have a look at these ‘macro myths’.

1. Macrobiotics is a Japanese diet.

This is probably one of the most pervasive myths which still lingers on. As our readers know, macrobiotics became popular through the writing of such people as George Oshawa and Michio Kushi. They spread the popularity of Japanese staples such as sea vegetables and tofu as well as some more exotic ingredients such as Japanese plums, or ume. However, as Alex Jack makes clear, they were not trying to export their own food culture around the world. Rather, they were simply describing what they had observed in their own country and asked others to follow their principles and adopt them to local conditions. Many staple ingredients of a typical macrobiotic diet have their origins very far from Japan, such as tempeh (Indonesia), and Hokkaido pumpkins (north America).

A good macrobiotic diet is typically rich in ingredients such as chickpeas, lentils, oats and barley, none of which are common in Japan. So, although there are some links between macrobiotics and a traditional Japanese diet, the link is not a fixed one and can be ‘flexed’ in either direction. It’s perfectly possible to adhere to macrobiotic principles on more common European or North American grains and vegetables and go nowhere near tofu, hiziki or kuzu. Having said that, Japanese ingredients and cuisine can add some really exciting tastes and nutritional benefits to almost any meal.

2. Macrobiotics comes from the Orient.

Alex Jack argues that rather than being invented in Japan or in ‘the Orient’ (not a term used so much these days!), macrobiotics has its origins in Europe. He cites examples such as Hippocrates and the German enlightenment writer Christoph von Hufeland, author of Makrobiotik or The Art of Prolonging Life  (1796), as well as many others, all of whom argued that food is the basis of our health and that a plant-based diet is ideal for human health. Alex Jack goes on to pursue an interesting thread, linking the pioneering work of dieticians such as Hufeland to the 19th century Japanese physician Sagen Ishizuka and later on George Oshawa. In doing so, Alex Jack cleverly links the historical threads of European and Japanese thinking on health and diet, showing how each generation is able to build on the previous one.

Sadly some of the dogma of Oshawa’s teaching led to macrobiotics to be discredited in many people’s eyes, even though the overall philosophy has a much richer and more widespread foundation and history than it it sometimes credited with.

3. Yang is superior to yin.

As a child in a macrobiotic household, I was taught about the dangers on yin foods at a very young age. For several years my father forbade many foods from our diet for their supposed yin dangers and I was often warned that I looked too yin. At age eight or nine I wasn’t too sure what all of this meant, but it seemed that to be yin was to sin. Although macrobiotics seems a little more relaxed today that it was 30 or 40 years ago, elements of the yang bias still pervade. Today I have a somewhat better understanding of the meaning of these words. Rather than standing in contradiction to each other, yin and yang complement each other and need each other. Alex Jack argues that Japan’s male-dominated culture of the early and mid-20th century led to a valorisation of typical yang properties and a disparaging attitude towards yin ones.

He even writes that Japan believed that they could defeat America in World War II because America was too yin when compared to Japan’s tough, yang culture. With regards to food, yin and yang aren’t really principles I think about too much, but it is interesting to consider diet from this perspective.

4. Cooking is the highest art.

I wasn’t as familiar with this concept as I was with most of Alex Jack’s other ‘macro myths’, but it does seem largely true that macrobiotics elevates cooking over most other pursuits. Here Alex Jack takes the view that many in the macrobiotic community place cooking over all other pursuits. Instead he urges us to that ‘today the highest art is preserving the world’s natural and organic food supply’. This is due to the decline in food quality and nutrients since the 1960s and 70s. In 2017 this situation is even more alarming, and even the Conservative minister for the environment, Michael Gove, recently stated that the UK  is “30 to 40 years away from the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”.

It’s deeply concerning when the Conservative party comes out with statements warning that:

“We have encouraged a type of farming which has damaged the earth… Countries can withstand coups d’état, wars and conflict, even leaving the EU, but no country can withstand the loss of its soil and fertility.”

Alex Jack’s view on the matter is somewhat similar, and he believes that we must each find our own path to building a better way of life, which may be:

“farming, gardening, cooking, working in a natural foods restaurant or store, writing or painting about food-related subjects, designing a web site or creating a holistic social network, and countless other ways. In brief, practising macrobiotics – reclaiming our birthright as a ‘happy, healthy, free human being’, in Oshawa’s inspiring words – is the highest art”.

From my own observation this fourth ‘macro myth’ is probably a little over-stated, but it does remind us that the path to health and freedom cannot be found through food alone.

5. You are what you eat.

Diet. People with food on a white background. Human, thin, fat. Nutrition, food. Vector illustration

Alex Jack maintains that this is the “foundation” of the macrobiotic belief system. He then links this to other competing theories of character, identity and destiny, pointing out that some would say:

“We are what we think. We are what we believe. We are what we feel. We are what we love…and so on…In all these cases, the model or paradigm is: energy in = energy out.”

Although the belief in a single road to well-being is very simple and convenient, it should be clear to most of us that there are several fundamental problems with such a mindset. Firstly, how do we know which foods are the right ones? Countless books have been written on the subject, and even within the macrobiotic community there are significant differences of opinion. And then there is the question of an individual’s personal constitution and environment which will further affect these choices. Although we can agree on principles, there are a huge number of variables which make this standpoint problematic.

Alex Jack then brings up the interesting question of what we put in our bodies, pointing out that we consume both water and air at far higher rates that we do food. 75% of our food is made of of water, yet we don’t think too much about either the quality of our drinking water or how water in the food affects the quality. The question of air quality is probably even more serious. We consume about 11,000 litres of air each day, and yet as we hear more and more regularly, the quality of our air is very poor and declining.

The central arguement here is that Alex Jack is asking us to not fall into the trap of reductionism, such as can be found in science or religion, both of which often claim to have all the answers.

His final point on this ‘macro myth’ I found to be very inspiring. This centres around the idea that:

“our thoughts and feelings, visions and dreams, prayers and blessings, can all have a profound effect on our health and consciousness in a manner that transcends, or is independent of, our way of eating.”

In my own life I have experienced this many times. We can often feel when a dish is prepared with care and love. Regardless of the ingredients that go into a meal, the intent we bring to it may be as important as anything else.

Next week I will be examining ‘macro myths’ six through ten, which are:

6. Macrobiotic people never get sick.
7. Emotions don’t count.
8. Brown rice is the perfect food.
9. Meat-eating creates violence.
10. Your face never lies.

The microbiome: an animistic perspective

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Daniel Vitalis’ ‘Rewild Yourself’ podcast in which he interviewed Professor of Genetic Epidemiology Tim Spector, author of ‘The Diet Myth’ about the time he spent living and eating with the Hadza tribe in Africa. Professor Spector started his scientific journey as a geneticist, but gradually took more interest in the subject of nutrition after a serious illness. In this absolutely fascinating interview Spector describes how nutrition is an area of science especially ridden with dogma where advocates of one way of eating or another make highly selective choices when presenting their evidence. Spector, on the other hand, comes at the subject with a very broad mind and in fact experiments with a number of diets while at the same time carrying out his research.

But what was most striking and interesting to me about the interview was the way in which Professor Spector described the microbiome and its role in human health. The importance of this organ was underlined when he spent just a few days living a hunter-gatherer life with the Hadza people in Tanzania. While I do take a lot of care with what I eat these days, I generally don’t follow scientific research into diet and human health. It’s so easy now to fall into the habit of using the latest research to back up our own prejudices, whether it’s the notion that so-called ‘clean eating’ will lead directly to an early death for faddish Londoners or that drinking coffee will lengthen your life. Or shorten it. Instead, I generally trust my instincts and, for the most part, avoid reading any stories claiming that this food or that food will have a dramatic effect on my health.

I had been hazily aware that our bodies are filled with trillions of bacteria and that these play a really important role in our overall health, especially that of the gut. This knowledge dovetailed neatly into my own interest in fermentation, an interest based equally on the enjoyment of the tastes as well as a fascination for the hidden world of yeasts and bacteria. I instinctively felt that these foods and drinks were also good for me (and are, in fact, and important part of a macrobiotic diet). Foods such as miso, koji and natto are all good examples of this.

We love looking after our kombucha microbiomes

During the interview, Spector does an incredible job of describing the scale and importance of the microbiome, a community of something like 100 trillion fungi, yeasts, viruses and bacteria, together weighing about two kilograms. To put this into context, the microbiome contains more cells than the rest of the entire human body and, at two kilos, weighs more than our brain or indeed most of our other organs. This discovery has led many in the area to ask us to think of the microbiome as a human organ in its own right, alongside the kidneys, heart, liver and lungs. And, like these other major organs we know so well, we could not live for very long without the microbiome.

Professor Spector then describes in some detail his stay in Tanzania eating a very healthy foraged diet for a few days with the Hadza. Being an astute scientist, Spector carefully takes stool samples on his trip and later analysis reveals that in just three days of living a hunter and gatherer life the health and diversity of his microbiome increased by 20%. He primarily puts this down to the wide range of foods he ate, as well as the time spent outdoors and without modern sanitation.

Which is a very long way to bring me back to the title of this post: animism. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I read a lot of Dr. Seuss. Listening to this interview brought back memories of ‘Horton Hears a Who’, the story of an observant and kind-hearted elephant who suddenly becomes aware of tiny people living on a speck of dust. The Whos cannot be seen by Horton’s friends, and so Horton is ridiculed for trying to protect this tiny community. But, as Horton reminds us in the story, “a person’s a person, no matter how small”.

Indigenous beliefs are often centred around notions of animism, or, in other words, the perspective that everything in the world is alive and is interacting with us. Even though these forces maybe invisible to us, they are powerful and interact with us in important ways. Professor Spector makes it clear that the microbiome is affected and nourished by everything around us, down to the air we breathe, the landscape we live in and our direct and indirect contact with the other living beings around us. Let’s have the humility to accept that the tiny citizens of Whoville in our microbiome have the power to make us well or unwell and that we should all do what we can to nourish them.

Mitakuye Oyasin – We Are All Related

 

 

 

A day in Edale

Last weekend I attended the level 1 plant-based macrobiotic cooking course, presented by Macrobioticshop.co.uk, at Mam Tor House (aka The Old Winery) in the beautiful Hope Valley in the Peak District.

Our small group of just seven students was welcomed with tea and raw home-made chocolate brownies and lemon verbena raw crisps (delicious!) while we introduced ourselves in the warm September sunshine. Course leader Georgina then talked us through some of the ingredients we would be working with, their importance in a macrobiotic diet and what we could expect from the day.

The first part of the morning consisted of a couple of demonstrations by Georgina during which she created our dessert of amazake, kuzu & foraged blackberries and a vegetable miso soup. One of my specific hopes from the day was to learn to work with ingredients I’d not used before and the amazake dessert fulfilled this objective perfectly.

After the demos it was our turn to don the aprons and get cooking. We were presented with a selection of beautiful ingredients – fresh, locally grown organic vegetables, macrobiotic staples from the shop and some items foraged locally that morning. Each of us was given a recipe (or two, depending on complexity) to work with to prepare our dishes, the intention being that between us we would create a banquet that we’d share for lunch.

While our dishes were cooking, Ishmael introduced us to the process of fermentation and offered us the opportunity to sample some of his home-made, flavoured kombuchas. Kombucha (fermented, sweetened tea) was a new experience for me and quite alien to anything I’d tasted before. I think it’s something of an acquired taste but perseverance brings rewards and after my initial ‘confusion’ surrounding the fizziness of the tea, I grew to really enjoy it. The beetroot-flavoured version was particularly good.

Lunch was something for us all to be proud of. It looked great and the range of new flavours, tastes and textures were delicious and inspiring. Afterwards, the theme of fermentation continued as Ishmael led a demonstration on the making of the staple Korean dish kimchi (fermented raw vegetables). After the demo, each of us was given the opportunity to select two or three of our favourite vegetables and produce our own jar of kimchi to take away with us.

The day closed with more tea and the amazake & blackberry pudding that Georgina had prepared earlier. I’m not a sweet-toothed soul and I very rarely eat desserts but I was pleasantly surprised by the amazake. It was neither too sweet nor too creamy for my taste and I’d definitely make it at home. After lingering for a while, talking and reflecting on the day, we gradually began to make our way home.

Throughout the day it was evident that Georgina & Ishmael are clearly knowledgeable & passionate about their respective subjects. The course was well-designed & structured and delivered with a lot of love & enthusiasm. Overall, the day was a great example of the sweet stuff of life – a lot of fun; new knowledge; delicious food; inspiration; art; science; meeting new, like-minded souls and healthful treats to take home.

Yurt life with the Macrobiotic Shop

A few years ago we made the mutual decision to move away from the city. It was something that had been slowly growing inside each of us. An uncomfortable feeling that the culture around us no longer provided nourishment – that our way of living was too far removed from the things that stirred us. These feelings were somewhat satiated by a move to rural Sussex. We were able to regularly see the night sky and know the cycles of the moon without checking the newspaper. We found edible wild foods on our doorstep. Yet, even so, it wasn’t a place that felt entirely right, still very close to the city and a countryside mostly devoted to the homes of the wealthy.

A year later, and a move to the Peak District, scrunched between Manchester and Sheffield, we found a new home in an area of real beauty and even glimpses of wildness: rocky cliffs, flowing rivers, big hills and simmering skies. The move north felt good. Even so, we felt ourselves drawn further north, beyond the borders of England and into Scotland. This year, to mark a special anniversary, we felt it was the right moment to briefly try out a way of life that really appealed to us. And so, a short stay at Black Isle Yurts was booked for late August. Located about 15 miles from Inverness, the yurts were hand built by the Adam family, with most of the design and build carried out by Jenny and her brother Kenneth.

Simple and effectiveWillow Yurt

We had both been anticipating the trip and the stay in a yurt, but I don’t think anything could have fully prepared us for just how special and nourishing our time there would be. Our yurt was situated about 200 metres down a wooded path, with really beautiful chanterelles there to greet us. The interior of the yurt was very simply but beautifully furnished, with a wood stove, a small table, a basic cooking area and a comfortable wooden bed. It was going to be a really peaceful and secluded several days, with  no electricity, no running water and no access by car.

The walk to Willow Yurt
Forest path
A real abundance of mushroomsChanterelles
What we hadn’t fully anticipated was the feelings and emotions which were generated by living in a round dwelling, even if only for a short time. Around the world, and for tens of thousands of years our ancestors always chose to live in circular structures. Yurts, tipis, Celtic roundhouses, African huts and wigwams are all round. As the great Lakota holy man, Black Elk, noted

“…the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars.  The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.  Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle, from childhood to childhood…”

I feel that unless you have experienced this first hand, the words can sound idealistic at best, and mystic mumbo-jumbo at worst. But I live and work in a world of boxes and straight lines:  house, car, work, train, shop, pub. My whole environment seems to consist of nothing but straight lines.  Spending time in a circle felt very natural but also very special, even more so with the natural light pouring in from the domed ceiling. Unlike a traditional Mongolian ger (yurt being the Russian work for the Mongolian one), the fire in Willow Yurt was set to one side, next to the door. A more efficient use of space no doubt, but perhaps lacking the central role of the hearth or firepit which is the focal point of so many traditional ways of life.
The beautiful roof structure
Domed roof in the morning

A jungle-like canopy of ferns outsideLattice work walls, ferns outside our window
Preparing a few mushrooms

A yurt-dweller preparing his dinner

Indeed, so blissfully meditative was the time spent there that is was difficult to motivate ourselves to explore much further, even though the Black Isle is full of interesting places to visit. We both felt ourselves slow down in both our movement and thinking. I have personally chosen to live a little more simply than many people. I have never had a smartphone, and I have been living without TV or radio for many years. I drive only occasionally and listen to music only from time-to-time. Yet, even so, I have noticed my ability to concentrate has withered over time. In that circular space, without electricity, my powers of concentration were re-invigorated. This was most noticeable in the better reading ability I had, but overall I just felt much more focussed and able to think clearly.

In stark contrast to the Peak District, the Black Isle had a real abundance of wild food, especially mushrooms, which we gathered in good number to cook some really wonderful food on a two-ring camping stove. I was able to identify at least a dozen different species of mushroom within three or four miles of the yurt, including some really excellent ones such as chanterelles, shaggy parasols, boletes and one really exquisite porcini.
Chanterelles again!
Preparing wild mushrooms for dinner

Kuksa with a wee dramThe foragers return to a wee dram
Beautiful!
A special Porcini

As well as spending time in our circle and eating amazingly well, we also managed some short trips away, including a long walk along the deserted coastline which lies just below the cliffs which bordered our yurt. Looking towards Inverness we could see the city just a few miles away, along with the airport traffic. Even though this area is relatively unspoilt, this is something that cannot be taken for granted. Locals spoke to us of their worries about plans to allow large transfers of crude oil just a few miles offshore in the Inner Moray Firth near a large dolphin habitat. Cromarty Rising, an environmental group opposing government plans to devastate the local area by bringing large oil tankers into the area, has a lot of support but their struggle is a reminder of just how vigilant and fiercely protective we must be in order to safeguard the habitat we share.
Beach flower
The Black Isle coast
Sea, sky and rocks
Looking towards Inverness

Leaving the Black Isle was something of a struggle, having so thoroughly enjoyed and deeply appreciated our time there. Since then we have been looking into the notion of living more simply in a round space with much more seriousness. Whatever happens, the warmth, inner peace and quiet we enjoyed will stay with us.

Fire