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An Interview with Jules Dervaes

Today we are pleased to talk to a very interesting man – a man on a very interesting mission; on what he describes as “the path to freedom”, where he escapes being part of the problem, to become part of the solution. Before we get started, watch the following ABC clip to get an idea of his work, and then we’ll hear from the man himself.

Craig Mackintosh: Thank you Jules. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your work. Most of our readers will have watched the YouTube movie above, so will have an inkling of what Path to Freedom is about, but I wonder if you could fill in any pertinent details the short news report may have left out, so as to round out our grasp of what you’re doing today?

Jules Dervaes: Thank you for the opportunity to express what Path to Freedom is all about. PTF is not about just one concept or issue but encompasses a total lifestyle change. The philosophy behind PTF is that a step backwards is progress, so that gives you the “direction” in which I’m heading.

CM: Although there is, today, some ‘backlash’ against large-scale agriculture, in general the last 50+ years has seen an almost systematic removal of traditional small-scale family farms. “Get bigger, or get out” has been the mantra of not just agribusinessmen, but also of the government. So, what drives you to buck this trend? I use the word ‘drives’, as it seems to me that, to do what you are doing, you would need to relearn skills most have forgotten – and, indeed, have to go beyond that to learn even more, since you’re dabbling in solar and bio-diesel technologies that weren’t around years ago. There has to be a strong motivational pull there. Some would say you’re not taking the easy path! What inspired you to begin this work, and why have you persevered?

JD: The creation of this urban homestead, Path to Freedom, was a result of my long-held beliefs in living simply and caring for the environment.

As a university graduate teaching secondary school math in New Orleans, I started to wonder about a better way of life. After I got married in 1970, I was seriously motivated to discover how I could best provide for my family. I wanted to make sure that my children would be healthy and strong and that they would be able to live long and happy lives. I believed the only way I could achieve this was to learn how to grow my own food.

the urban homestead

Inspired by Mother Earth News magazine and the hope for a new beginning, I immigrated to New Zealand in 1973, where I embarked on the path towards self-sufficiency and living off the land. I moved back to Florida and bought ten acres, where I worked in lawn maintenance and raised bees for honey. Then I moved to Southern California in the mid-1980s. As a result of a period of severe drought in 1990, I did away with my moisture-challenged lawn in Pasadena, replacing it with wildflowers, drought-tolerate plants and, eventually, edible landscaping. This drastic step of turning away from the American lawn fetish would prove to be the major factor in turning our home into a homestead.

In 2000, in angry reaction to the news that U.S. biotech firms were bent on introducing GMOs into the food system, I took the next radical step towards becoming an urban pioneer. I wanted to protect my family from this mad experiment and provide them with the real food we could grow ourselves. In the midst of the urban wilderness of Los Angeles County, I began to turn my city lot into a homestead, fanatically planting every available space to the four corners of my small world. After the first full year of gardening in 2001, my family and I harvested over 2,300 pounds of fruits and vegetables. Eventually our property would become a wildlife sanctuary, a home to citified barnyard animals, and a fertile paradise where over 400 species of flora have been grown.

the healthy fruit of low-carbon labours

After a good start with growing our own food, we advanced to tackling our energy supply by installing solar panels and cooking with solar ovens. Next we learned to brew our own fuel for our vehicle, making biodiesel out of used vegetable oil.

Why I have persevered? If you can connect serious consequences to current behavior, that’s the key to acquire the perseverance necessary to change that behavior. For example, if you’re told that the next cigarette you smoke will kill you, that should be reason never to smoke again. So when I look at gardening as a matter of survival, by holding to that vision of life or death consequences, I am compelled to persevere. When you face an issue that requires you to make a radical change in your life, the more deeply you are convicted of the consequences, the more fully you can summon the courage to see that change through to the end.

CM: You’ve given some very practical reasons for making changes in your lifestyle – including food safety and health for your children. Since these issues are not going to disappear on their own, do you feel that more people will eventually have to follow in your footsteps – and follow you on what you call ‘The Path to Freedom’?

JD: Yes. At the beginning I undertook this work to help my children. However, the success of this venture has broadened the scope of the work and has already attracted many followers who have taken similar steps to ours. As times get rougher, it will become increasingly urgent to adopt a new–but old–lifestyle. What we’re doing is showing what things are possible here and now and blazing a path that others can follow. At PTF we are not sitting still but continually pushing into uncharted territory so that all of us together can effect a real change in response to threats to our very survival.

CM: It seems that in growing a lot of your own food, and utilising natural sources for energy, you are effectively reducing the degree of dependency you have on society. Indeed, since you’re selling your excess food, society is somewhat dependent on you! How does this make you feel? Not wanting to put words into your mouth, it seems to me that you’re a little less vulnerable in a world that is rapidly changing and is facing a lot of environmental, political and economic upheaval.

JD: This lifestyle centered on growing our own food makes me feel powerful because I am steadily becoming less dependent on the outside forces that have taken control away from ordinary people. It gives me a real rush when I have learned well enough to produce a surplus harvest or not to have to go to the filling station. The degree to which one relies on the current artificial corporate and governmental framework determines the extent of one’s vulnerability, and we at PTF are determined as the years go by to lessen our dependence on unnecessary food and energy sources and other crippling ties to the system. People searching for true stability can find it in the empowerment and fulfillment that comes from learning the basic skills of providing for oneself. It is a matter of developing the old-fashioned virtue of self-reliance and having faith in the power of the “common man.”

CM: I understand from looking at your site that you are managing to produce incredible quantities of produce on a bare fifth of an acre of land. Did you just happen to live on an incredibly fertile section? Do you see your soil ‘running out of steam’ in the future?

black carbon-rich soil

JD: We started with the adobe or clay soil typical for this area. The soil was really junk. Over the years we have built up soil fertility by a variety of methods, believing that healthy plants come from healthy soil. We have “manufactured” our own soil by bringing in loads and loads of free mulch and horse manure. We now replenish the garden twice a year with soil enriched by composted manure from our animal enclosure, which houses goats, ducks, and chickens. By our practices of feeding the soil, we are improving the land each year, and thus the soil should not “run out of steam.”

CM: The corporations that largely manage our entire food chain seem to have successfully promulgated the theory that bigger is better, and that large scale farming is the most efficient method of managing our resources. Such people would perhaps regard your efforts as idealistic, outdated, delusionary, and… forgive me… woolly-headed. What are your thoughts on this?

JD: Yes, that’s me alright. My efforts are definitely idealistic, but I believe that’s the only way to make a break from the status quo, which does not take into account the true, hidden costs of large scale farming and food distribution methods. Outdated? Yes, I relish that label because I believe the new ways, which have not worked, are leading to the destruction of life on this planet. I want to return to the ways we have abandoned in our mad rush towards riches, which we term “progess.” I’m hoping to recover the good things that have been thoughtlessly discarded because of people’s desire for the latest trend, such as “bigger is better.” Delusionary? That’s a tricky term because it depends on the view of reality you take. To those who accept the reality of contemporary civilization, including the agri-business model, I am, indeed, delusionary because I choose instead to live according the reality of the earth as it has always been until the modern age. Woolly-headed? Yes, I forgive you! Woolly-headedness is a good thing when it is a result of the transitional process of leaving one way of life for another. In the process of moving towards an unfamiliar situation, you pass through an in-between stage of confusion–an inherent factor in the process of change. So there is muddled thinking when you lose your footing and experience the normal, temporary condition of disorientation, which will progressively clear up as you get your feet on the ground and become fully adjusted to a new life.

CM: Given your past and present accomplishments, what do you see as next-stage and long-term goals for your enterprise?

JD: The next area of immediate focus is water reclamation. We already practice a number of water conservation methods and have plans to install a greywater filtering system to reuse our bathtub and bathroom sink water to flush the toilet. We recently replaced our asphalt shingle roof with a metal roof and will add gutters to capture rainwater for storage in cisterns. Our long-term goal is to further the work of PTF, not only in the number of people impacted, but, more importantly, in the depth and daring of our undertakings. The details of the plan are still being put together.

sharing the knowledge

CM: From what you’re saying, and from the content of your very informative website, it’s obviously not your intention to have a monopoly on the skills and enthusiasm you’ve gained over the years. So, for the benefit of other ‘idealistic, wooly-headed people’ that are also interested in making a transition towards the healthier, greener, more independent existence you’re enjoying – what would be the top three pieces of advice you could offer?

JD: 1) Start by taking small steps, but start! People today may be prone to consider start-ups in terms of a Grand Opening, but in regards to changing your life within an all-encompassing system, the only way to do so is to have an unheralded, non-spectacular opening. It is a matter of following one step with another repeatedly until a great thing can be achieved.

2) Do not fall victim to doubt. This is easier said than done because thoughts of inadequacy continue to plague me when I begin new ventures. What helps me go forward in the face of discouragement is that I refuse to give up, and, after a fall, I get back on my horse. When the odds are stacked heavily against you, having a strong stubborn streak is an advantage.

3) You must be prepared to sacrifice to achieve results and, also, to stay the course over the long haul. No dream of any worth can be realized cheaply. The fulfillment of a dream comes only at a cost; so, at every stage of its development, you must be willing to step up and pay the price—whatever it is!

CM: Finally. A lot of people are finally starting to sit up and notice the global warming dilemma. But, many seem to almost isolate this problem – making it a separate issue to other environmental issues. Where do you see that mentality taking us?

JD: That’s a great question. Its answer determines whether we will succeed or fail. It’s all connected. A holistic approach that takes into account all areas of our lives is mandatory. In a whole life project such as PTF, you need total involvement, full immersion, and complete integration. As the world situation worsens, people will need to commit fully to a different, non-mainstream way of life. One can start a project of change whatever the circumstances, but one cannot keep straddling two positions, occupying the middle ground. To quote Theodore Roosevelt, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” Nothing less than complete dedication will do. What PTF represents is a lifestyle change, which we believe makes a difference because we are a living model where the tangible results of our changes simply speak for themselves.

CM: Thank you so much for your time Jules, and, more importantly, for sharing a few insights into the philosophy and approach you apply to your work. It’s immensely inspiring to see what you’re doing and to hear your enthusiasm.

JD: You’re welcome. I appreciate your positive response to PTF’s mission and providing this forum for getting the word out so this revolution will continue to grow. It is up to each individual to take the steps needed if we are going to have a viable, truly rewarding way of life in the future. By the process of directly working in harmony with nature, we do the one thing most essential to change the world: we change ourselves. Hooyah!


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