Why I Live in a Shed: A Sideways Response to the Housing Crisis

is a writer and songwriter based in Cornwall, UK. This is an extract from her new song-story project, which confronts social and environmental collapse in terms of living in a tin shed - Walden for the twenty-first century. 
According to my gardening client, whose father owns (but doesn’t live in) a big house with a bigger garden and a swimming pool in one of the remote corners of this island, life is a game of numbers. The more hours you work, the greater the results. The more money you have in the bank, the better you feel at three in the morning when the air is thick with regret and the only way out is death. He didn’t put it quite like that. In fact, I suspect he does not suffer too much from being awake at three in the morning. His numbers add up, after all, and he uses them to justify his existence and to hide from the pain of it.

My numbers do not add up. This is why I am awake at three in the morning, lying alone in my single bed, aged thirty-five, listening to rain, or birds, or whatever those noises are that start out normal but turn vast and terrifying when they make contact with the old tin roof that keeps the lid on my house. I mean shed. Not by any stretch of warped imagination could this be called a house. Kind people, when they see the books and the turntables and the cello and the clutch of cobwebbed and stringless guitars brought back from various countries where the sun shines more often and the music is superior, might call it a studio. They might say that I live in my studio. Although if you asked the birds, I have no doubt they would say that I live on the ground floor of their nest, and they only tolerate it because, like them, when the sun shines I sit outside on my milk-crate perch and sing.

I am lying awake trying to answer a question. It was put to me by a seven-year-old; bright, beautiful and innocent enough to expect an honest reply.

‘Aunty Catrina, why does your garden smell of wee?’

I’d been scrumping. The floor was covered in apples. Some bruised, some rotten, all ugly enough to be laughed out of the supermarkets, who don’t know the joke’s on them. Unlike supermarket apples, these apples actually taste like apples. The bitter-sweet taste of an English autumn, of bonfires and childhood and home. The tree is an old friend of mine. It blossoms unseen by the side of the road. Even though the tree has never been pruned, or managed in any way whatsoever, there is an excess of fruit. Even the worms can’t keep up.

I was wrapping the apples in newspaper and packing them carefully into boxes for the winter. Apples, when packed this way, last for months. Which is good for my budget. My niece picked her way through the apples and came to squat on the floor next to me. She tugged my arm and put a hand on each of my cheeks and turned my face around so I was looking at her.

‘Aunty Catrina, why do you live in a shed?’

‘Someone has to’ I say, handing her a twisted apple, which she gamely bites into.

‘Like I have to go to school?’

‘Sort of.’

And now it’s three in the morning.

And I am aware that my niece deserves a real answer. Because one day my story will be her story. My puzzle her puzzle. Unless the telling of it somehow changes the ending.

But what do I tell her?shed

I could tell her about all the things I wanted to do with my wild and precious life. How I wanted to go exploring. To see with my own eyes all the wonders of the world. To ride camels and climb mountains, test myself against the elements, find my own limitations, make my own mistakes. And then, when I had finished wandering, I wanted to come home and write love songs and death poems and books about fear, because I’d felt love and I’d touched death and I’d faced oceans of fear and found oceans of courage, and, frankly, after all that life I didn’t want to go inside and sit in an office working to prop up someone else’s failing economy.

I could tell her I belong to a dispossessed generation, who came of age too late, after all the houses had already been hoovered up for spares and pension plans.

Both stories are true.

Bats fly into the curtainless window. Imaginary spiders crawl up my legs. I look at myself through my niece’s eyes, measure myself in terms of all the things society holds dear — access to a hot shower, a toilet and a fridge, money in the bank, good clothes and a big television and a secure job and marriage and kids and paid holiday and maybe a pension for when I’m old, and I realise I have none of these things. Not one. And even less besides.

‘Honey,’ I could say. ‘Houses cost too much.’

And I could quote Thoreau and say that ‘the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’

I could tell her how much I long for security and a warm house with a separate kitchen, and yes, a bathroom, and thick white towels (this more than anything) but every time I get near any of that I throw it away, because what is required from me in return is nothing less than my soul, and I cannot surrender my soul, however cold and lonely it is at three in the morning.

But I don’t want her feeling sorry for me. And neither should she. I have an excellent degree from an excellent university, where I learned about everything, and it cost me nothing. She won’t have my chances.

I get up out of bed and light the camping stove that used to be in my van, before it died, and I sit on the chair that’s as old as me and made out of a tree much older and stare out at the darkness.

The kettle is boiling. I go outside and fish around in the broken shower tray, that doubles up as my kitchen, for a cup, flicking the slugs off and rinsing it under the cold tap.

Outside smells. It smells of stardust and infinity and muck and mist and October.

And wee.

And I stand there, my bare feet all wet, and I realise that what I want to do is stick two fingers up at my client and the eyes of society and everyone else who insists life is a game of numbers, and tell my niece about washing at night under a freezing tap and glancing up at the whirring, whirling constellations of planets. About harvest moons and pre-dawn skies and the sound of the ducks in the morning. About chopping wood and growing spinach and watching the sun go down slowly over the fields to the west.

I want to sing her a love song sung to me by a dying world, whose verses I heard whispered on the howling wind. Because I am afraid that if I don’t it will all be forgotten — built on, buried, burnt out and lost forever, leaving not a rack behind.

Comments
  1. Lovely words. Our traps are largely of our own making, and you have reminded me to not forget my dreams and trust in the future.
    Go well
    Gi

  2. ft Hi Catrina. Re the wee. Dig or get someone to do it for you a hole 2 ft square x 2-3 ft
    deep away from your abode. Use a separate utensil, plastic bucket or similar for urine only. dispose of in hole every morning along with all daily waste water. It works for me.
    Richard.

  3. This is like the best thing I could have read on my Monday morning.

    My life is so small, made small from the outside by those structures that are failing but still want to suck our souls on the way down and inside by chronic illness. It has dark spirals in corners that whirr down to the dead zone and beautiful, amazing gems. Just priceless things scattered all over the place, because life is nothing if not beautifully wasteful. And you reminded me of that this morning in bas relief.

    I am grateful to have found your little corner of the webosphere

  4. Wow Catrina, Such powerful heartfelt words… you described it so well. I could have been there with you…. I would love to come and meet you when my campershack is finished… Perhaps help you get more ship shaped… keep strong lady of the universe. Namaste peaches x

  5. Beautiful. Know that you are not alone. We are out there, in our sheds and our lean to’s and our leaky tiny trailers. Under the same rain and wind and great hungering love.

  6. I enjoyed reading this, Catrina Davies, and look forward to reading your book. I also liked the songs you’ve made available on Youtube. Keep following your star. PS Reading you reminded me of Roger Deakin, who wrote artfully about night rain drumming on tin roofs.

    1. This was beautiful! A friend of mine shared this with me because I lived in a van for 18 months while working to save for traveling and of course, that experience changed my perspective substantially. I read this post and see that we share in many things. Nice to meet you.

      “I am without possessions, but I am so voluntarily and therefore am not destitute.” -Siddhartha, Herman Hesse.

  7. I love this! It made me cry with its beauty and honesty, and wish I was brave enough to jack it all in and live in a shed. Thank you 🙂

  8. a stark and genuine comment on section of society that are rare as diamonds. I used to live in a shed but have since succumbed to life of reluctant consumerism. There is a unique form of happiness that belongs to this lifestyle. Enjoy it while it lasts.

    “Please don’t think that I’m not yours sort, sheds are much nicer then you thought” Nick Drake.

  9. Your life is a song. There are apples in it, and rain, and starlit skies. There are the birds that keep you company, and the earth under your feet.

    You are richer than most.

    Thank you for your writing. It heals my heart.

  10. Nice work…both regarding the writing and the music. I make music in a yurt in the woods in Wisconsin amongst drunken deer hunters and trustfunders for very similar reasons…and whenever I go back to “civilization” I find that I can spend less and less time in it…just enough to fill the coffers for another round of living without plumbing (though my GF has running water and such…so I’m only out of civilization part-time these days).

    Take heart…you’re living a more authentic life…and one that may appear to be wildly luxurious to the generation that comes after yours. I’ve been the plush office type and lived with tons of amenities…I’m happier in the woods by far.

  11. My dear friend sent me a link to this page after reading my rant and rave about how I don’t like my new job. How, even though it pays the bills, I feel fear, panic, hatred over playing the game for someone else. About how I was mad that I felt this way when I should be grateful that I have a job that pays the bills. I am working really hard at becoming self sufficient. My family and I just bought a house with mortgage at about half of what our current house is. With our current situation (my son a senior in high school) we can’t move yet and are paying for both. But the new place allows for a larger garden, lower bills and I hope for a fantastic life where I can indulge in all my dreams.

    I, too, want to be a writer. Although I have never actually written anything for public consumption, I am working on it. Thank you for sharing and letting me know I am not the only one who doesn’t think my soul is worth a big screen tv like my neighbors have.

  12. Thanks Catrina. I am writing from the warmth of one of the numerous baths I use that are not mine.

    I live in a 40 year old mobile home in the middle of nowhere in Kent. My life also smells of wee, stardust, woodsmoke, leafmould and many more not entirely lovely smells.

    You write beautifully and your words of made me feel that tiny bit less alone. Perfect.

    Thanks x

  13. Dear Catrina, I’m 66, & I also live in a (quite large) shed :-). I wouldn’t swap it for the world, I’m surrounded by trees, tawny owls, deer, red kites, and wake up to the elements when it gets light. This low maintenance life sets me free to adventure and I’m not shackled by the system. Hats off to you

  14. I too sleep in a shed, well, more like a straw barn built on reclaimed telegraph poles. But still with a tin roof! Loving the rain and listening to the wild. Soon we will do the same in Cornwall near Helston. I wonder if Owls will sound the same ? X
    Loved reading this. S

  15. Hi Catrina

    Potent questions. Seconding Richard’s suggestion and adding that use of a straw bale or (ideally) a bucket of sawdust as a composting toilet will eliminate the wee smell and the need to dig (see the Humanure Handbook online for details)…

    Also noting that you are in the heart of cob building country, perhaps the real answer to “why do you live in a shed” is “because I’m still getting around to building a cob cottage”. That the leads to other questions like how, who, where…

    Lovely piece. I’m writing about my own house building experience at the moment, hope I can do so as humbly and beautifully.

  16. Hi Catrina
    My daughter sent me a link to your wonderful blog here – clearly recognising that you are a woman and a writer after my own heart…
    I’ve lived in various weird wild and wacky situations (and dragged my five children through them) and still do from time to time. We lived in a garage for nearly a year, and found ourselves homeless in trucks, squats, tents, in communes and ‘on the road’ for two and a half years when the children were younger. But life is so much more present, when not swallowed up by the corporate machine, allowing synchronicity to steer and shape your existence.

    We now have an old house in the mountains that is ‘insalubre’ with work needing to be done – which gives me the excuse to have an old touring caravan in the garden.
    Renting a flat in town where my grandson is at school, we love to go to the garden and stay in the caravan in summer and at weekends when we can -for all the reasons that you enjoy your home.

    Your beautiful writing strikes a chord in me too, and anyone who has ever been in your situation, wedged in between a moral pillar of integrity, with very little, and a ‘sold out’ lifestyle, with allmod cons and flushing toilet. Each of us feels the dilemma – go for comfort or stay put for honesty?

    You know that it doesn’t have to be like that though. Thinking out of the box enables you to open the door to your options. Staying put for a while, as you explore your commitment, to be authentic, to know the limits and your little parcel of land – is an option.
    Loving the land as you evidently do, there are other options that can – should you feel up to dragging yourself away from the now familiar haunts of wildlife and whimsy – offer a reasonably ethical alternative – such as to get yourself a wwoofers subscription, and find a place to stay in community, until you decide what to do with your time and energy. They also have an overseas international site!

    Near where I live in Brittany, there is healthy fertile soil , and land is available at 4€ a square metre. That’s cheaper than the carpet or quarry tiles you’d put on a rented floor! I reckon it’s worth saving for, putting on a ‘tonnelle’ – a hooped plastic greenhouse for year round growing – and I know of several people who used to be truck, shed, caravan or rented dwellers, who have now turned their hands to gardening in a smallholding situation. Using a truck you can sleep in solves the problem of getting your produce to market and having planning permission to stay on the land.
    There are many other options open to you too, as I’m sure you are aware. I admire your choice to stick with what you have, for the time being – and share with the bats and tiny creatures.
    The important thing is that you are still taking the time to communicate, to share your experience, to make your music and upload it, and be the vastly creative and appreciative soul that you are.
    Hats off to you Catrina – if you spend the rest of your days enjoying sunset and starshine, morning chorus and dripping rain, the life of a poet, all said and done, is never easy, but is always far richer and more beautifully tapestried than the most sumptuous palace. Bright blessings to you xx

  17. I have lived for the last 6 years with my Girlfriend in Circus wagen/caravan (6m x 2m) in Berlin. And i find we have a much more realistic life, we have to carry our water, and have no drainage. and have tolight an stove for warmth and usually have cold feet in winter. But Its much more direct contact with resources you use. . Your garden shouldnt smell of wee, if you pee not just in one place, we have a pee pot and it all goes on the compost heap, which when turned regularly smell of compost. I have to say i really dont see this lifestyle as a hardship, its a gift to be so free from all the traps, that keep you tied to a job, a mortage.

  18. I live in a small, two-bedroom house with my father, at twenty-six, and I must say, it is a humbling experience, especially here in the west. In other countries it is common to live in tiny houses, in shacks, but here in the west, where the majority are middle-class and live in middle-class houses, it is not so acceptable. Living in my little house helps me see the grace in small things and to understand others living in harsher situations, especially in other parts of the world where they aren’t so fortunate. We may have a “housing crisis” here in the west but in other parts of the world they still don’t even have “houses.” Living in my little houses has given me many spiritual experiences similar to your own and helped me appreciate the little that I DO have. Being disabled I live off a small check each month and once my father dies I’ll probably either live here on my own on live in a small RV: either way I’ll be happy because living here I’ve come to appreciate so many things, especially the small, non-material things. I really couldn’t ask for more…

  19. Beautiful, poignant lyrics from real life…
    I will come and build you a fire bath if you like…
    Then bathing in the elements becomes the most luxurious thing you can do under the heavens and you will spend hours sitting over your fire…

    And a compost toilet for nutrient recycling is also a simple luxury…

    Thank you for your words

  20. I have come by again here and something strikes me when compared to many other blogs:

    Every single comment is full of respect, and love for life.

    This is the biggest hope I have, come true. Thank you all.

  21. I’d love to live in a shed, if I could afford the land. I think about it all the time. You’re right, you have to give so much of your soul to have all those conveniences. I have gone from 1300sf 3br/2ba to a 2br/1ba 650sf to living in a horrible house that smelled of animals where I was trapped in my 211 sf of bedroom and unfinished bath that was suffocating. I now live in a 728 sf house with a patio and shed and nice yard, and it is too big. I’m looking for something smaller, and to get rid of even more “stuff.” I’m 62, and I don’t want to have to work so hard anymore. I just want to write and relax.

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