What’s in Your Favourite Sandwich Then?
Dai Rat, Dai Fox, Dai Mole, are pseudonyms once used by a man who knew a lot about sustainability and living a subsistence lifestyle. He was in his middle to late sixties when I knew him back in the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s. He lived in an old cabin surrounded by a small wood on the side of a hill.
Dai’s unique homestead was cleverly hidden on the southern edge of the Black Mountain range, on the southeastern side of the 519 square mile Brecon Beacons National Park. “Dai’s World”, as I called it, was my idea of a Welsh Shangri-la, but without James Hilton’s immortals. He shared his basic rural life with four dogs: Molly the bloodhound, Jack Russels Milly and Tilly, and a wire-haired terrier called Rastus; they lived outside in kennels all year round, as did his ferrets and polecats.
The remote location lessened the chance of uninvited strangers stumbling into Dia’s World. Dai treasured independence, privacy, sustainability and his subsistence lifestyle. His biggest nightmare was people poking their noses into his business. He cooked in the open on a wood burning stove and survived admirably without the benefit of electricity and many of the services we are so reliant on in our modern lives.
Clean, cold, sweet, spring water poured from the steep hillside above Dai’s cabin and flowed conveniently through his property, providing water for general washing and cooking. An ingenious rainwater collection and filtering system, constructed from beer barrels, pipework and sand filters, served the inner needs of the cabin. The toilet was a hole in the ground affair with a small hut constructed from wattle and daub perched above it; moss served as an environmentally friendly toilet paper substitute. Environment-friendly was probably an unknown term in Dai’s day.
Dai lived a frugal life; he had done so for nigh on 50 years. I knew of no one else, locally, capable of bettering him when it came to country crafts and countryside wisdom. Dai was the local go-to-man if you had a severe vermin problem: if you could find him that is! He was an expert at perpetuating his lifestyle and saw nothing wrong in trapping a fox in one area and relocating it close to a chicken coop in another. I remember one fox, in particular, repeatedly returning within a few days to the place where it had been initially trapped. Dai was forced into relocated the fox further and further away until it eventually stayed away for good. A quickly returning fox is bad for business and cast a shadow over Dai’s competence.
Many years ago, Dai’s family were farmers. Bad luck and money problems forced the sale of the ancestral home when Dai’s parents passed away. A small wood owned by the family, and set apart from the main farm, was retained as “Dai’s World”.
I was Dai’s unofficial and irregular apprentice; he took advantage of me at every opportunity – in the best possible way, of course. This competent, wily old man did not suffer fools gladly, nor did he offer second chances easily. I think Dai’s life philosophy was “Be better or be prepared to be bettered.”
Making contact with Dai was not easy: he didn’t possess a telephone. I don’t think that he had a mailbox, either. Being protective of his hunting and foraging grounds and hard-learned country craft knowledge, Dai often surrounded them in ritual and mysticism. Messages were left here and there, at the local pub, or with someone that knew someone who knows him. If Dai were interested in the job, he would turn up on the doorstep in the guise of a countrywise paragon. He was well able to, metaphorically speaking,” creep out of the woodwork” when necessary. He revelled in his almost mystical reputation.
No, Dai was not what most people think of as an ordinary chap. He served a local niche market. Traditionally educated, he undoubtedly was, but not beyond local school levels. His knowledge of practical subsistence living and sustainability was unrivalled. His understanding of how nature interacted with his local environments was more valuable to him than diplomas. Dai could quickly and easily come up with a single pheasant for his dinner, or a dozen for the trusted local butcher.
Now you might wonder what a gnarled country poacher has to do with modern nature conservation. Well, I will tell you! Nature and wildlife flourished around Dai. He redistributed and encouraged rather than taking from life without a thought for the consequences of his actions. This country pest controller knew his local environment and what it was capable of supporting. If something was lacking, I think Dai would try to provide it – within reason.
One summer weekend, Dai invited me into his world for the first time. He gave me detailed instructions on finding his homestead. “Well, now youngun,” he began. “You’m aturn laft afore thar girt oak, upside Jones’ Farm; you’m know thar one? Oh, ar! Jest past thar porker field!” It took me ages to find Dai on the next Saturday morning. If I hadn’t the good sense to call in at a farm and ask the farmer’s wife for directions, I wouldn’t be relating this story now.
I couldn’t have had a stricter interrogation if Mrs Jones, the farmer’s wife, were Dai’s minder. Anyway, I must have passed muster because when I followed her directions, I found Dai weaving hazel fox traps in his wood.
I was not expecting what I saw that Saturday, long ago. The workspace was tidy and well laid out, with a dozen or more neatly sawn and stacked log piles placed around the perimeter. Basket traps of many designs and sizes hung from trees and racks. I didn’t see his cabin immediately. I saw a large out of control bush and only realised it was his home when he sent me there to collect a bow saw. I soon realised that Dai was a lot more than a trapper of pests, but I didn’t understand what he really was until years later. Dai had dedicated his life to becoming a one-man nature conservancy.
Ultimately, we all need something to put between two slices of bread; there is no escaping this fundamental truth. I imagine people baulking at the image of a rat sandwich, but the little fellas are readily available in vast numbers. Rats reproduce very quickly and are easily processed. Anyone capable of reasoning constructively can envisage what may be down the road for us on the light bites menu. Obviously, the new product will be called something other than “rat sandwich filler”. Such an explicit name will not sound at all appealing to us clean-living mollycoddled town an city dwellers. Call the new rat product something like “high protein 100% English meat sandwich filler endorsed by someone famous” and it will soon catch on. We already eat a variety of insects without being aware of it.
Dai lived at the time when dead animals were hung outside shops with their heads, tails, feet, feathers and fur attached. A time before the invention of plastic wrapped sandwich shaped sandwich fillers. A time when children associated beef with cows, pork with pigs, and chicken meat with chickens. Supermarkets have destroyed people’s understanding of food origins, as well as its natural taste.
So Dai may have embarked on his low impact subsistence lifestyle to minimise stress. Perhaps after spending the first part of his life on the farm, he couldn’t bear to be away from the area. I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that Dai’s life seemed to suit him. Even when approaching the grand old age of seventy, he still appeared to be enjoying himself. I certainly don’t remember him as slowing down. In my mind’s eye, I see him as being strong and nimble.
I have now returned from holiday and will be back to marsh related topics shortly. 🙂
Other posts about Dai Fox: