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From Asian art to zebu: an alternative life of Swiss luxury

Thomas Brunschwig and his four dung producers. He says the money he makes from selling their dried pats means they are self-sufficient. Dahai Shao, Swissinfo.ch

Thomas Brunschwig leads an unconventional life. He is a self-confessed outsider who has found his sustainable, spiritual paradise in a Bernese farmhouse filled with various Indian and Chinese instruments and sculptures – and four zebu cattle.

This content was published on August 29, 2021 - 09:00

The first thing Brunschwig, 62, does every morning is visit his four Indian humped zebu. He then feeds the fish in a tank on the second floor of his 220-year-old farmhouse, 20km south of the Swiss capital.

“The world is like a chessboard. Most people want to live on a white square. I go to a black square. It’s relatively cheap,” he explains in his typically cryptic-philosophical manner.

To buy agricultural land or buildings in Switzerland, one must be a farmer or raise livestock. Not being a farmer (he did an apprenticeship as a hat maker), Brunschwig decided to raise zebu, but not for profit.

They produce neither milk nor meat. In fact he says the only useful thing they produce is dung, the fuel of fire in the Vedic religion. “Technically, if I calculate the income from selling dried cow pats, they are self-sufficient.”

Various Indian and Chinese Buddha statues are dotted around the property, with one room having been turned into a Hindu temple, but when asked about his religious beliefs, Brunschwig is silent for a moment. “I believe in beauty, and beauty is true,” he eventually says.

The farmhouse and surrounding land is certainly beautiful: the wooden building is nestled among lush forest, perfect for foraging for fruit, vegetables and plants. And the zebus share their home with countless butterflies, frogs, snails, lizards and spiders.

“Everyone sees luxury differently,” he says. “My water for life comes from mountain springs. There are solar panels on the roof. The fuel used for heating in winter is wood from the forest. Environmentalists could describe it as low carbon, but that’s not what I’m after. It’s not my plan. It’s just a side effect.”

Fatherhood in Ticino

Brunschwig was born in Rüschlikon, Zurich, and left school at 16 – he says all his knowledge and skills are self-taught. He was in a car accident aged 17 and has only been able to work 50% since then.

He says he receives a very limited disability allowance every month, but this couldn’t cover living expenses in Zurich, so more than 40 years ago he moved to the southern Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. He bought a plot of land in a forest for CHF80,000 ($87,200) and taught himself how to build a house for CHF70,000.

During his 25 years in Ticino, he used his income from millinery and his disability allowance to stay at home and raise his three children with his wife.

“The time you share with your children is very short; you have to enjoy it when it’s happening,” he says. “Ten years later, no one will care how much money I’m making today. But what I can teach the children will stay with them throughout their lives.”

Outsider but not a recluse

After meeting his current partner, Brunschwig decided to buy a house in German-speaking Switzerland, negotiating the farmhouse and a couple of hectares of land for CHF280,000.

He says he has been an outsider since he was a child, but he denies being a recluse. “I chose to switch from one express train to another,” he says. “In today’s globalised world, no one can escape. I pay taxes like everyone else. I just chose another path: instead of rhythm and speed, what I need is space and freedom.”

Since 2000 Brunschwig has been a member of WWOOFExternal link (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), providing food and lodging for city-dwellers wanting to get in touch with the countryside and learn about organic agriculture and ecology. In return, guests do whatever they can to help out. No money is exchanged.

“Many people today want careers, families, travel and holidays all at the same time. Life has its own rhythm. Living in the forest, learning and feeling the rhythm of nature, is the best teacher in life,” he says.

“Admiring the roses in my garden, the wonderful atmosphere when the cows are ruminating – this is sustainable happiness, sustainable luxury.”

(Adapted by Thomas Stephens)

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