It's been a while since I posted in Mud Mountain. But my thoughts often drift back there. Mud Mountain isn't simply a place, you see. It's a pocket of time. It's a certain mindset and lifestyle too. As I write the concluding chapter of my latest book Dirt Witch, Mud Mountain feels incredibly present. This story of what happened to me when I first moved onto that land in Turkey with a tent and not much else, has taken longer to complete than I anticipated. That is perhaps in part because I wasn't sure whether to let Mud Mountain's secrets go.
The Fugitives (Excerpt from Dirt Witch)
We were sitting in front of my neighbour’s house under a large shade she’d created out of a grapevine. The vine was expansive and abounding. Thick stems crisscrossed over a wire frame from which bundles and bundles of leaves pushed out.
Dudu pulled a plate onto her lap. It was filled with cracked wheat. Deftly, her experienced hands began to sort the bulgur. As usual I gaped in amazement, because there was nothing this woman couldn’t make. She was pretty much self-sufficient. She pressed her own olive oil and pomegranate molasses, she grew all her own fruit, vegetables and herbs. She made her own tomato puree and carob molasses. Her flat breads were piled up in her kitchen like a tower of enormous poppadoms, and there were endless pickles and olives and dried fruits too. She was nearly seventy, owned a hectare of land filled with trees and produce, and managed it almost single-handedly except for the summer tree watering when family would sometimes pop up for the weekend. Dudu thought this was all quite typical, but for me it was an incredible life. She was my survivalist heroine.
“Ahem.” It was Celal who coughed. His shoulders jerked upwards. The little man began to squirm on his stool, and the lines around his eyes started to twitch. It looked as though he had something of personal importance to expound. Finally he rested his tea glass on the plastic table, and made the subject of his twitching known.
“I’m gonna move into my hut next summer. I’ve decided,” he spat the sentence out onto the table, leaving it to glisten in front of us.
I blinked. Leaning back on my chair, I peered past Dudu’s house, and from there I could just about see Celal’s hut. The small wooden shack perched uncomfortably on the hillside, and depending on your point of view it was either a crime of engineering or a miracle of amateur carpentry. Celal had built it himself, much of it out of recycled materials. He’d gathered the timber and wooden cladding from another dismantled shed, the tiles were second hand, and the windows and doors were from scrap yards. It was actually rather funky in my opinion. But to live in it?
“Do you think it’s safe?” I said. “I mean, it won’t fall down on you, will it?” I glanced over at the wonky wooden stilts it was squatting upon. It resembled some sort of spindly-legged creature, and a drunk one at that.
“Bin fine for two winters,” Celal sniffed and downed his second glass of tea. Dudu remained tactfully diffident. She stood up, tucked her headscarf in once again, and poured Celal and I yet another glass of tea. Eventually, she broke the silence.
“Yes it will be just fine. You can keep all your food in my fridge, can’t you? And fill up your water here too if you need to.”
“Gonna get water from the borough,” Celal said.
“Yes, but until then…”
“But why?” I blurted. “You have a decent house in the village. Why do you want to live up here?”
“Me kids are in my house. You know, they’re a young couple. I mean we have two kitchens and the like, but I wanna sit in me own house, on me own land, with me own trees. Everyone needs their space.”
And ain’t that the truth?
Looking at Dudu and Celal in turn, I chuckled. We were a rum lot, hugging the outskirts of Yaprakli village like three self-sufficient fugitives. Celal in his hut with Apo the dog, Dudu in her house churning out a never ending stream of natural produce, and me, the crazy English woman in the tent. Lord knows why I was surprised at Celal’s decision when I was at least ten steps closer to lunacy than he was.
This need for a space of one’s own is so primal. It is such a basic yearning. A garden, a shelter, and sovereignty over your own territory. As a woman, I knew why I was going to the limits for it; In a world where the game plan has mostly been designed by men for men, I wanted a space to be free, a place where I could have room just to see who I really was, and what I was capable of. I wanted to dress how I felt like, be ugly or pretty and it not matter. But what I wanted most of all was to create my own world. One that adhered to my values.
And perhaps this was why I was surprised at Celal. I understood Dudu. I understood myself. Both Dudu and I were survivors from The Man’s World in our different ways. But I hadn’t considered that some men were in cages too. To be a sensitive, caring man, to be a man who hears the animals and plants, a man with a heart in a boarish, brutally systematic, and mostly moronic culture, is hard.
“Yes it’s great to be alone on your own land Celal. You can do exactly what you want!” I felt my grin stretching so wide it made my cheeks smart.
“Aye. I can see it is.” Celal chuckled. Apo raised his fluffy dog head and nuzzled the nobbled brown twig of his owner’s leg.
As I sat with my two neighbours, such a tenderness rose inside me. We differed from each other in so many ways, in age, gender and culture. Yet here was this bond. And it gleamed and shone like a golden thread, winding around our love of our gardens, our independence, and our space. This is the truth of being human. The powers that be can segregate us and label us as much as they want, but in essence all people, male and female, black, brown and white, Eastern or Western, right-wing or left-wing, come wired with the same underlying drives: To be free to express themselves, to love and be loved, and to grow.
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It is always in the absence of a thing that we comprehend its true value. Not that I ever undervalued my life up on Mud Mountain. But some of the things I miss, or the extent to which not having them affects me, surprise me. Eight months have passed since I left. And I am slowly comprehending. How privileged I was to have a space of my own. An uncorrupted square of Gaia to play in, to be wholly and unabashedly myself.
Now I am on the road you see, and I am on borrowed land. Every day and night. Other people’s spaces. Or no one’s. It’s very different.
How sensitive I have become to noise for one thing. And how wretchedly noisy the world seems to be! Cars, trucks, grass strimmers, washing machines, road works, cement mixers, televisions, slot machines. Wherever I go, I’m assailed by a never-ending chain of mechanical and electronic pollution that seems to bother no one but myself.
And then I stumble or rumble into a forest, or a field, or grove. Birds twitter, leaves whisper. The light drips from the grass like an alien emerald energy. And I remember what I left behind.
To co-create an Eden is probably the greatest blessing a human can have. To hold a space sacred, sense the power of the trees and the breath of the land, to forge relationships with the myriad of creatures that hop and crawl and amble over the skin of our planet, to hear the messages slipping out of the forest, to feel intrinsically a valuable part of something without compromising a speck of your truth, to have a space where you gain power when you feel disempowered, or nourishment when you feel hungry, or love when you feel bereft; these things are Earth’s gift to us.
It’s so obvious now, squashed as I am in the driver’s seat of my caravan, how lucky I have been. The last five years were the best of my life. Now, as I chug along my new road, I carry that gift inside me like a precious, rare egg.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to be back on Mud Mountain. Half a year down the line, I am more certain than ever that my choice was bang on. In fact, I’m often to be found slumped on the sofa of my van, hand clapped to forehead in relief, marvelling at how I escaped.
I still wonder how my land knew what was coming, because I heard the dirt and the branches speaking many times in the year before, as if the intentions of the collective consciousness had seeped into the earth, to be sensed, and smelt and heard.
Trees communicate via subterranean fungal pathways. They warn each other of danger, share nutrients and who knows what else? For the forest, the survival of the whole is survival. Is this what I tapped into? Or the soul of the planet itself? I don’t know.
Now, as I motor back through the British Isles, I realise for the first time in a long while I am free. To speak. To write. To think. And to imagine a garden stuffed with magic. A garden where everything is valued equally, from the smallest ant to the tallest tree. A garden of possibility and choice. A garden created using an amalgam of my power and that of the planet. Because the one thing Mud Mountain taught me which has changed my world is that we are all gods and goddesses. We are powerful. We are amazing. And we could change the direction of this sorry world in years, if enough of us only realised it and acted on it.
So here they are: Ten things I miss most about that Other life. My life on a 2500 m2 hill, all alone and off-grid in a mud home. I miss so many more things than this of course, but to list them would take forever.
The Ten Things I Miss Most About Mud Mountain
MUD MOUNTAIN BLOG IS NOW AVAILABLE AS A BEAUTIFUL PAPERBACK!
I'm so happy! Mud Mountain has just been compiled into an illustrated paperback, so now you can enjoy the Mud Mountain articles at your leisure in an armchair, on the beach or in your own Garden of Eden. There are also a couple of extra articles I've never published online in there.
Paperback available from:
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To look inside please use the Completely Novel book streamer for an accurate impression of the book.
Mud Mountain is also available in ebook format for just $0.99 until July 2017. Please note the ebook isn't illustrated, but there is a link to download the picture book inside.
I never thought I'd leave Mud Mountain. I felt a deep connection with the earth and the wildlife of my space. Building my earthbag home was the single best thing I did. Living in it was exquisite. I’d assumed I’d be buried there.
So why did I leave? Those who’ve followed this blog a while now will have pieced together much of the story. Even so, some of it has slipped through net, usually due to a lack of time to write, and because so often we can only see the relevance of certain points on the path much further down the road.
Yes, in hindsight it all started with an eerie conversation with a tree I called the Wisdom carob, which told me to let go of it all. Though I remember quite clearly shaking my finger at the tree and saying, “Well it can all change, but I’m not letting go of my land. No way! Forget it!”
Two months later in February 2016 my neighbour bulldozed the plot directly next to me ready to build a small cabin in it. Not too bad by most people’s standards. But I was used to being lost in the wilds, out of sight from everyone. Mud Mountain was my secret world, and it felt like an invasion.
So that was the trigger. The initial shove. Yet that wasn’t all in truth, for there had been other issues welling up. They had collected silently below the surface over the years, like suppressed tears waiting for catharsis.
Though I loved my land and my area, there were issues I began to tire of coping with; dodging bullets from hapless hunters (some would be literally ten metres from my house and fire into my land unaware I was even there), hearing ancient pines being chain-sawed to the ground, seeing rare birds being shot and dogs being poisoned, and watching toxic pesticides being spread over every field in the name of controlling weeds or bugs. I wasn’t the only person around me who felt the same way, but we were an outgunned minority.
Then, just after the bulldozing in February, a friend of mine who was travelling around the Iberian Peninsula sent me a few adverts for plots of land for sale in Spain and Portugal. Beautiful, rolling plots with stone huts or cave houses. As I perused the internet, I noticed something inside me had changed. The Mediterranean was leaving me cold. Suddenly, without ever having interested me before, the entire Atlantic coast from Lagos to Orkney began to whisper to me. The ruggedness of the rocks. The waves. The pewter skies with their fiery sunsets...The Earth was speaking. I knew it.
It’s easy to talk of change. Exacting it is a little trickier. My home seemed to be embedded within me. How could I let it go? So I clung to it, procrastinated, until a few extraordinary events ripped my fingers from its earthy walls; a forest fire, a sick dog, an attempted coup. It seemed the land itself was ejecting me, throwing me out into the big wide world.
And the rest is history. I sold my mud home, and returned to England with my dog in tow.
Next I bought a van, and began travelling the Atlantic coast in search of a new space, a space where nature’s magic is felt and nurtured. And where mud homes can bloom. That quest for my new Eden - an 18 month odyssey that took me from the northern most tip of Scotland to the southern most toe of Portugal - was recorded in the On The Road series.
The road was far from straight of course. There were many ups and downs, twists and turns. My beautiful dog died. I am alone once more.
Yet after 18 months of van life (which I freely admit, I began to loathe), I finally found a new mud and stone world. It is beautiful. It is powerful. And I love it. You can follow my latest adventures as I single-handedly build a new off-grid world for myself, at the Earth Whispering Blog.
It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Dawn can be much like dusk. Only colder. The darkness capitulates. A ridge of mountains pulls itself out of the night. Clouds distinguish themselves from the sky. And the world exists once more. It’s never the same world as yesterday. The night changes everything.
The ridges I spotted as day broke on the 7th of November, were the mighty caps of the Bey Mountains. Snow hadn’t reached them yet, their treeless heads were still brown. A road threaded through them. The road I was on. It plunged north westwards to the city of Izmir, slicing through bygone cities and ancient burial mounds.
Rotty’s furry head poked over the armrest. I stroked between her ears. Panting a little, she nuzzled the arm of our driver. Through the windscreen I watched bands of sky turn from lead to steel. The twine of the road grew clearer. This was my last dawn in Turkey. For a while at least. After almost twenty years, I was leaving the land of my heart. Because my heart had moved. Though where?
Twenty years is a long time. I was 26 when I moved to Turkey, a young woman very different from the mud-home building, wilderness-loving witch I am now. I married here, divorced here, moved homes, built and lost businesses. I had woven friendships, networks and communities over the years. I knew the ropes. Understood the rigging. Could make my way through the coded warrens of Turkey’s various systems.
It’s a lot to leave behind. More than just a mud home on a beautiful hill.
Yes. More than that.
It began with a carob tree whispering across the ravines of time, and a bulldozer growling at my fence. It began when I imagined building another home and felt a flurry inside my heart. It began when a friend of mine sent me photos of land the other side of Europe, when I cast my eye upon the Atlantic coast and sensed something inside me hungering. Yes, that’s where it began.
But it has been transmuted into something else. For the world has shifted into another shape. I’m not the only one moving. Turkey is on a road too, and like me it’s changed direction. One midsummer night there was this mysterious coup, and since then a good 70 000 people (at least) have been arrested. Opposition newspapers have been closed, opposition politicians arrested. It’s pretty much a fait accompli. They are discussing the reintroduction of the death penalty as I write.
I no longer enter much political debate. It’s too uninspiring. (And depending on where you live, too incriminating). The serious study of a tree or a bird offers far more light than the intellectualised bickering or emotional ranting of the political domain. Besides, it's not the focus of this blog, nor my area of expertise. But for what it’s worth (and it might not be worth much - though let's face it, few of the official pundits seem any more capable of prophecy) this is a snippet of my perspective from the inside.
Some say Turkey will become Iran. Others say Afghanistan. One or two are in complete denial and pretend nothing at all is happening. I seriously doubt Turkey will become Afghanistan or Iran. The leadership is far more ambitious (in case you hadn’t noticed). This isn’t the nineteen nineties, either. In the new world, Turkey is financially sturdy (currently 18th largest economy in the world, with a higher GDP than Saudi Arabia and Switzerland) and in possession of some business savvy. Lest we forget, it also holds the 10th most powerful military in the world, fourth largest in NATO. Socio-economically speaking, I’d start looking vaguely in the direction of the U.A.E, if you want to see where Turkey’s trajectory is headed. The U.A.E with a hefty army, a lust for importance, and a toe inside Europe.
Oh well (sigh). I expect international business will carry on as usual, regardless of human rights (Britain is already talking about trade deals with Turkey). And if you keep your head down and your mouth shut, you might just be able to pretend all is sort of alright, until they drag off your neighbour for questioning that is, or build a shopping mall in your back garden.
But for many citizens of the country, for those who can’t shoehorn themselves into the narrow social constraints of what is deemed acceptable by those in power; for women, for the ethnic minorities, for the secularists, for those who adore Turkey’s incredible nature, the artists, the LGBT community, child brides, anyone who wants to think outside the box and speak their mind, and for whom Tommy Hilfiger and a macchiatto simply aren't enough compensation...for them? Right now, the new Turkish dawn isn’t too rosy.
This has all been brewing for years of course. But like a slow-swelling boil that finally bursts, the explosion of pus is startling. I sense something I haven’t felt in Turkey since my very first visits back in the late eighties. An undercurrent of unease. And the hurried closing of mouths.
Staring through the windscreen on that early November morning, I imbibed Turkey's natural beauty one last time. The jagged upsurges of mountain rock were petering out, leaving the hills to deflate on the plains. Our jeep hummed up a gear. The sun peered over a summit, and in an instant the waves of the valley were gold-plated. The road spawned factories and conurbations. The temperature rose. Pulling off my jacket, I stretched, then reached for my bottle of water. I noted, despite this parting of ways, how inspirited I felt.
There is something inordinately therapeutic about the road. It is a continuum of reason in a mad world. A rolling sequence of reassurance. The landscape changes. Mountains disappear. Orchards flick in and out of view. Cities sprout. Flocks of birds fly overhead one minute. Fighter jets roar over the next. But the road is still there. Moving. From one place to the next. Holding your feet and guiding your soul.
The steel tube of Izmir airport pulled into view. I turned to stroke my dog still grinning on the back seat, wonderfully oblivious that she was about to fly across Europe. As we pulled up to the shiny rectangles of the departure doors, I realised something. The only other time I had set foot in Izmir airport was the first time I visited the country way back in 1988.
Smiling, I opened my passenger door. I was leaving Turkey by the same gateway I had entered almost three decades apart. Once again the lightning of coincidence was striking my path, and the scene was set for kismet. For a journey from East back to West. To new lands that whisper. New rocks with old memories. And a new Eden.
Looking for part 2 of this story? It's HERE.
So I left Mud Mountain one day, and fell into an earthbag workshop the next. Just like that. One day I was in my mud home, the next I was camping in a field, the dirt foundations of a roundhouse leering at me. And as usual I was nursing the hunch that I didn’t know what I was doing.
I’d been worrying about this workshop for months. Far more than I was worrying about moving off my land, or selling my house. Because attempting to build a house in seven days during an earthbag workshop is of course ridiculous.
“Baykal, I really don’t know if we can do this, you know.” I held the tip of a green hose and measured the circle of the roundhouse-to-be. We had just breached the month of September, but the sun didn’t seem to have caught on. It was a sky borne iron branding the top of my head.
Baykal pushed the brim of his straw hat up. “Ah come on Kerry, iss twelve people. We gonna do it. I got back up. No worries maan.” He patted my shoulder.
Back up. Those famous last words. I bit my lip and completed the circle. Baykal smiled peacefully, as is his way.
I’ve known Baykal and Feryal (the hosts of the workshop) for 15 years now. That’s a long time. That’s the only reason I agreed to such a preposterous project. I trust them both. They make things happen. But a 5 metre diameter round house (that ended up being 5.5 by the time we laid the bags) with a bathroom added? From foundations to roof? With a team of people who had never built before? Even for a maverick like me it looked fairly undoable. And there was so much that could go wrong. What if it rained? What if the windows buckled again? Would the participants be up to the task?
“What if they just run off to the beach and never come back?” Asked one friend.
So two weeks later, by the time the first earthbaggers began filtering in, with their tents and their camping mats and their absurdly incongruous dietary requirements, my nails had been bitten so far back, even the dirt couldn’t skulk under them. And it was hot. Far hotter than I had predicted. Too hot for September. I huddled on Feryal and Baykal’s terrace with the first three arrivals, squeezing myself into a rectangle of shade.
“I saw a youtube on building an earthbag earthship underground. Do you know how to do that?” Taylan sat sucking a cigarette around the breakfast table. Every now and again he’d remove it to gulp from a plastic bottle swirling with Cola and Nescafe. Taylan worked for a bank. God knows which one. But whichever it was, they obviously didn’t give him enough to do, because he’d devoured every video on earthbag building Youtube had ever published.
I allowed the question to scud breezily over my head, because A: I’m more of an ‘Erm...let’s see if this’ll work,’ kind of builder,’ and B: I had but the haziest of ideas how to make an underground earthship. I pushed some bread in Taylan’s direction.
“No no no...No carbs for me. No way. Just protein and fat,” he said smearing an egg with butter. He was tall, and I could tell from the way he sat, he’d spent far too long in an office. “Our intestines weren’t made for grains. They give you cancer,” he grinned broadly exhaling a dark miasma of smoke.
“I’m not sure I agree with that.” Emma, my vegan yogi friend tucked into her chia muesli. “I’m going to have an issue with the smoking too, aren’t I?” She said, her British accent leaping out at me in familiarity. I nodded. A lot of smoking goes on in Turkey. It’s par for the course.
“Try this Emma. It will change your world.” Taylan handed her his caffeine adulteration and grinned. It slurped ominously in the bottle. Emma shuddered slightly. She was elegant and slim. I wondered briefly if she’d know what to do with a spade.
It was then a third voice piped up from the other end of the table. Followed by a muscular arm stretching toward the cheese. “Hey, can I have some of that muesli? I’m going to need some different kinds of energy for this. I’m going to need a lot of energy. A lot of food.” Domi was from Hungary. And no I didn’t make that up. He stood and stretched. He didn’t look like he’d been sitting too long in an office. He looked like he’d just hiked down from Matterhorn.
I must admit, that first morning before the course began, every aversion I harbour of working with people was awakened; the aggravation of pulling a team of conflicting personalities together, the precarious juggling of individual needs. The sheer eccentricity of us all. We were like random pieces of a jigsaw puzzle made of razor blades. I inhaled slowly and exhaled slowly. Many times.
The day opened and closed like a camera lens. The sun marked its movement in fiery steps. Despite the suncream and the hats, I could see Domi, Emma and Taylan reddening before my eyes. It was hot. Far too hot for building.
By evening most of the group had assembled. Tents popped up all over the garden. By chance or design each was a different colour creating a rainbow hobbit’s ville of canvas. Just three participants were missing; one young woman was coming the next day. But we were still expecting two Turkish guys from a seaside town up the road.
I sat on the house terrace with Feryal. We waited. It grew colder. The stars plucked at the darkness forming irregular patterns, their angles sharp and brisk. We waited longer.
It was 11 pm when Baykal’s car pulled up to the house. The headlights flicked off, and I blinked as my retinas readjusted to the pitch. Doors creaked open, and two men staggered out. I noticed they were carrying disconcertingly small rucksacks.
“We have a problem,” Baykal threw his keys onto the table and grinned at me. They forgot their tent.” The men giggled sheepishly. “And their sleeping bags.”
“No no we found one. Someone gave us one!” said the taller of the two men. This was Kemal. He was foreboding in height and expression, and he lumbered up the terrace steps slowly. Bear-like. And flopped onto the hammock tied between the terrace supports.
Collapsing on my cushion, I guffawed. Well, what else could I do?
All too soon it was morning. The sky was a cool metal alloy. 11 glove-clad earthbaggers gathered in the foundation brandishing picks and spades. To me, used as I am to a maximum team size of four, it looked like a mud army. The dark mountain of Kemal shuffled about sniffing. His smaller friend blinked and yawned beside him. The pair had slept on the balcony and were now both sleep-deprived and cold.
“Right, we need to clear the foundation so that it’s a proper trench. The rocks come on the inside of the circle, the dirt on the outside. We’ll use it in the bags.” Eleven pairs of eyes scrutinised me. Each person would clear about a metre or so of foundation. This was the moment of truth. Would they be able to dig? I looked up to see Emma, spade over shoulder. Taylan, who was still smoking, leaned on a pick. Domi was limbering up.
And then it happened.
I don’t know what it is about building mud homes, but it does something to people. Something odd. Something beautiful. As soon as human hands touch the earth, miracles are unleashed. The dirt circle casts its spell.
Within minutes people shifted into teams. Of their own accord. Some dislodged rocks and hard earth with the picks, some pulled the rocks from the ring and others shovelled the dirt out. The foundations became a circle of colourful movement. I could see Domi’s muscles flexing in the dirt. Taylan turned, a whirlwind of energy and motivation. He ran around the circle sweating, smoking and making everyone laugh in equal measure.
“Eh, look at ‘er. Like an American soldier,” said my camera man. He was filming Emma, who clearly had held a spade before, because she was shovelling that dirt like a pro. She would shovel like that for days, striding over the earth in her Doc Martins, auburn hair pulled back. She was indefatigable.
The foundation was cleared in an hour that morning. And it was filled with rocks and rubble by mid-afternoon. I marvelled as I beheld this miscellaneous team of mud Gods and Goddesses. 5 men, 5 women, 5 international, 5 from Turkey, all finding their place. Their skills. Their strengths and their weaknesses.
By day’s end I began to see, each idiosyncrasy was a blessing, not a curse. Each individual was so valuable. I needed the muscle and the laughter, the precision and the vision, the sensitive and the tough, the emotional support, the spiritual connection, the DJ, the stamina. I even needed those damn youtube videos.
To anyone hoping to build out there, this is the key: Each team member is a dirt angel in disguise. And each has come for a reason. Mark my words, at some point in the build, no matter how unlikely it may seem, you will need each and every one. If you think you only can use a bunch of power houses, you are way off the mark. So far off the mark your walls are going to topple. Probably because you have no one to check if they’re straight. Your team will die of hunger. Or there’ll be no humour. No beauty. For magic, you need the alchemy of it all.
We had that alchemy. From day one. And it created an energy of will and manifestation that far surpassed the feasible.
“It won’t work.” Taylan sat on a cushion inhaling yet more from his bottle of brown horror. It was mid-afternoon and the group was assembled for a theory session on the terrace. “We can’t finish the house in a week.”
Murmurs rippled through the team. Everyone was squatting on cushions supping drinks and fanning themselves.
“Are you telling me it’s impossible?” I looked him in the eye raising a defiant eyebrow.
“Yes. It’s impossible. I mean, look at it logically Atulya. We have no experience. We just filled in the foundation.” He was shaking his head, brow furrowed.
It was that very moment I realised how much I need a rational sceptic. I love them. They are to me what liquid hydrogen is to a rocket engine. Feeling the power of the challenge surging into my upper body, I grinned at Taylan. I’d liked him since the moment he’d called to book for the course and told me he was going to make an earthbag animal shelter. Despite his strange paleo-caffeine diet and his lung-obliterating smoking habit, he was golden hearted and truly invested in the project.
“Ah nothing is impossible. So we’ll see, my friend. We’ll see.” I chortled, knowing from the depths of my soul that anything could happen. Anything. Because this was mud. And magic was afoot.
The first day closed with 10 earthbaggers slurping and stomping in a huge pit of earth plaster. We were preparing a batch a week ahead, so it could percolate. There was mud everywhere. In feet. In hair. All over faces. Taylan, cigarette firmly glued between his lips, chortled heartily as he opened the spigot to spray water into the mud pit. Emma helped me bolster the sides of the tarp with big rocks. It was one happy, dirty mess.
As darkness pushed us off the land, I noted happily that we were on schedule. The foundations and plaster were complete. The stem wall was Tuesday’s job, after which we would push on up on the earthbag wall. I dared believe it. Was it possible? A house in seven days?
But just as a shoot of hope began to flourish, something happened. As usual. It hovered over the seedling of optimism like a large, ill-placed foot.
“Kerry, we may be have a problem.” Baykal loitered next to me, one eye on the mud party, the other on his phone. He pushed the square of tech under my nose. It glowed in the fading light.
“Oh no,” I murmured, grabbing the phone and staring at it closer. The weather app showed a storm on the horizon followed by two days of rain. And the storm was arriving tomorrow. We had 10 people in tents – including myself – only two of which were waterproof.
“It can’t be. It’s so hot!” I blurted.
“Ah may be it doesn’t come. May be the app is wrong. Sometimes it’s raining. Sometimes nothing. No worries man. May be no rain.”
Baykal and I looked at each other and then giggled. It was the laughter of the desperate. Because if it rained we were foiled. And we had absolutely no control over it.
Of course Tuesday arrived. And so did the storm. And the rain. Tents were washed out. Some blew away. Not to mention the water being cut off.
But that is next week’s story.
STARS OF THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance).
As my final days on Mud Mountain draw nearer, I find the end of the line is the beginning. Because it’s a circle I live within. An ever-widening ring of enchantment and happenstance. The dragon of summer has flown. Rain has fallen. And the dirt has drunk heartily of it.
I swing in my hammock, draining the dregs of the place. Allowing each last message to sink in. Grandmother Olive showers me in light, and her brightness is strangely intensified now. As though she too awaits the new with baited breath. Ah the new. The unforeseeable and unreadable. Our toes have now hit the edge of this transformation. Which takes me back. To the last time I was forced to change into something new.
It might be my Mud Home that draws the attention, yet it isn’t the part of the experience I treasure most. Before the dirt bags arrived, and a roundhouse pushed its head up from the earth, I had to undergo an initiation. I had to transform, from a teacher who understood little about the land, and the animals, and earth magic, to another type of person altogether.
So with nostalgia firmly present, here is a short excerpt from my still unfinished book Dirt Witch. How much trickier it has been to define that initial journey into nature. I have struggled to articulate in a readable manner how my land affected me. So I reach out to the Mud community now, not for a morale boost (which you are always so generous to offer me), but honest feedback. Because this far down the line, I have learned value what you all have to say.
All comments, ideas, suggestions and questions are welcome in the box below.
How it all began...
The sweat was pouring. I could feel it accumulating about my hairline and in the centre of my back. Slowly, I trod the length of the slope, tools digging into my shoulder. At the bottom of the hill, a small pathway veered to the right. My path. My path to My land. Mine. I clutched that possessiveness like a toddler. Mine. Mine. Mine. Because I had nothing else to clutch.
The path slipped through clusters of dog roses. Now in bloom, their delicate pink hats rocked as I passed. I entered my plot. Then I stopped sharply and sucked in a lung full of burning air. The plot was a hostile slope of dry thistles and thorns. Insects buzzed within the morass of stalks, as though the land were a machine whirring to life; a Frankenstein. The only evidence of human kind was a small cottage the other side of a pomegranate orchard, and a row of greenhouses below. This was rural Turkey.
Gingerly, I picked my way through the tall stalks flinching at the possibility of vipers. I was terrified of snakes, just terrified. Staring at the enormous thorn bushes - great monsters baring tough green claws - I started to feel nauseous. My mind was a city at rush hour. It flashed anxious thoughts at me like traffic signals. What was I doing here? Had it really come to this? Bumming in a Turkish field?
Turning briefly, I stared behind me into the forest. It was a leviathan of twisting trunks. The word ‘survival’ drifted nonchalantly through my head. It hovered somewhere just behind my eyes. Nur and Toygar were right. I couldn’t manage this.
And then it happened; the meeting that would alter my destiny within this square of Turkish turf. Perhaps I intuited its significance. May be that was why my skin crawled and my spine shrank into a brittle line. Or may be it simply was eerie.
I was standing within the dry grass, tent bag swinging in one hand, rake, spade and pick handles in the other, when I spotted her. I swallowed very slowly. My epiglottis squeezed the saliva down, but only just. I stood still – like hunter or prey, I couldn’t be certain – eyes popping.
There, right at the edge of the forest, was a woman. At least I thought she was a woman. She might have been a beast. Yet she was familiar. Too familiar. Like a character that had somehow scratched her way out of a dream. The back of my neck prickled as I took her in. Her head was a nest of brown matted hair. She had black wolf eyes. And she was arrestingly bare-chested. She was only there for half a minute, but even those thirty seconds rattled me. I knew her from somewhere. Where? As I stared onto my slope (Mine. Mine.) the woman began beating her chest. Somewhere, far off in the distance, I heard the thud of a drum. It spoke a language I recognised, but didn’t want to.
The woman turned to me. Without the slightest provocation she bared her teeth (surprisingly white teeth). I gaped appalled. Then she stamped her naked feet on the earth. The outer layers of my persona raised disapproving eyebrows. Deeper inside, dread stole through me, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
In a second she was gone. Vanished. Into the shadows of the forest. And I was left staring, tool heads protruding over my shoulder, feeling uncomfortable and weird.
The last six weeks have been merciless. The dragon of summer has awoken. And it’s on the rampage, hurling its fiery breath down the valley, stamping its hot, horned feet on our earth, flattening us all.
Yes it has been one long bombardment; I have run from a forest fire, my dog died only to rise again like Lazarus, Istanbul airport was bombed, Britain voted to leave the EU, and we here in Turkey suffered an attempted coup. All this in temperatures that broil and bake and scorch us into twitching scraps of desiccated flesh.
If I am navigating the path through the flames with any ease at all, it’s because of one thing. My land. My marvel-packed patch of Gaia. I am in awe. Brimming with gratitude. Because the miracles and angels just keep on raining down, extinguishing the flames and soothing the burns.
But dear land. You have changed hands. There’s a new mud witch now...
It all began on Friday 14th July, the night I finally completed the advert for my house. I breathed deeply under a swelling moon when I hit the publish button, for the ad was equivalent to saying goodbye. To leaving. The heat pulsed tenaciously through the darkness. The air weighed me down. I hesitated, not quite daring yet to share the advert on social media.
The next morning I awoke early to post my announcement. But I failed again. Because there had been an attempted coup.
Here on Mud Mountain that bloody upheaval was invisible. There were no tanks or helicopters or lynch mobs nestled within the folds of the Lycian mountains. Yet even I sensed the tension. It was pulled taut over the fabric of the land like some sort of insidious shrink wrap. I’ve lived in this country for almost twenty years. I speak the language fluently. It is the place I have for two decades called home. We’ve had our excitements before, our peculiarly Turkish bloodless ‘coups’ where the army has arrested an ultra-conservative, called an election, and business resumes as usual. But this was far more sinister. For the first time a chill stole through me. Chaos felt close. Too close.
Overnight, the beaches cleared as each of Turkey’s civil servants were called back to their posts. The expressions of the locals here dropped limp in the face of disappearing incomes. An eerie silence slid along the coast. And it hung there like the dank air from a long forgotten tomb.
But I know Turkey. For better or worse, these things are soon swept under the nearest hand-woven rug. I waited two days for the dust to settle. Then I breathed again. Opening my laptop, I turned it on and posted my ad.
It was a bleak type of perfect timing. Within days I had so many inquiries I couldn’t keep track of them. Because the open-eyed have begun exiting the city, and even the country itself. I can’t say I blame them.
Within days, the first viewers of my mud home appeared at the base of my track: A couple from Istanbul stepped out of a car and into the mud. Yes mud. Because very peculiarly it had poured with rain the entire morning, and the steam now rose from the hill creases to swallow the view.
The woman was young. Raven haired. Pretty. And her partner was a small, friendly looking fellow with erratic hair. Slowly we wandered around the plot, into the forest, down to the olive trees. The couple peered at the solar system. They didn’t flinch at the composting toilet. Nor the outside kitchen. I made tea. And we chatted. Easily. Because we had much in common. Deniz concocted herbal remedies and natural beauty products. Alp worked in the music industry. And Deniz’s dad was an architect fascinated by off-grid living and earthships. Soon, I was surprised to find myself having a good time.
At least two hours later the pair rose to leave. How slowly they edged toward the gate. Deniz in particular seemed stuck at the neck of the land, her dark hair dampened by the misty air. And I chuckled. Because my land is such a beguiler.
The next day Deniz phoned. “I guess I’ve warmed to the place. I’m interested in buying,” she said. And my heart lurched.
Oh how I sobbed that night, fretting that it was all too hasty. I wondered how I should know if these were the right people. Squatting on my gazebo with the light fading, I switched on my laptop. Then I opened Facebook to snoop. But when I clicked on Deniz’ profile, I blinked hard. For what should I see, but a “witch workshop” she was organising. Witch. She was a witch? Something sang inside my chest. And the pine trees rustled.
Three days later Deniz placed a deposit on the land. I was calm by then. I knew they were the right people. Incredible as it might be, I had sold my land in less than a week.
This Sunday, a roaster of a day if ever there was one, Deniz and Alp drove back to my mud home. They had come to learn the art of earth plastering. It was late afternoon. The sun dove behind the trees, but it made no difference. The wind was a type of fire that all but charred our skin. The air itself was aflame.
Quickly, I wheeled the barrow and the sieve into place. Alp ferried the earth and water over. Deniz softened the clay and mixed the plaster. And as I watched her hands stirring the mud, the feeling that bloomed within me was one of gratitude and wonder. Taking a step back, I stared over at Grandmother Olive and heard her whisper.
As Deniz lobbed the plaster gently at the house, and rubbed it in over one or two cracks, she smiled. Then looked up at me. “Oh,” she said. “I see completely why you want to build another one.”
Later, as evening wove through the trees and settled onto the slope, we hunkered down in the gazebo. The teapot was full. The conversation flowed anew.
“Once I travelled over land to India,” Deniz said sipping at her tea glass.
I turned toward her, gaping in the darkness. “You travelled through Iran and Pakistan?”
“Yes,” she said. “Me and a girl friend back in 2008.
“No one does that trip,” I said shaking my head a little. “No one. I did it back in 2009 the other way round. It was the hairiest and simultaneously most incredible journey of my life.”
“Same here, “Deniz laughed. She was a strong young woman, healthy and able. I punched her lightly on the arm and raised my tea glass to her. “Respect.” I said. She fell back and grinned.
That night, Deniz and Alp slept on the gazebo with a happy Rotty the dog flaked out beside them. The stars shone their magic onto them, shifting into new patterns and collaborative shapes. And I sensed it. The slight movement of the trees. The reaching toward.
As the sun peeped over the forest the next morning, the first bars of gold light struck the earth. I spied a figure; Deniz treading slowly over the land, dark hair now plaited into a single braid. She was dressed in patterned salwars and a vest top with sunglasses perched on her head. Suddenly I was watching a younger version of myself. A new mud witch. And I just knew. She was hearing it. Feeling it.
It was four pm on the 8th of August that Deniz and I signed the deeds. As we sat together in the deeds office waiting for the haphazard cog of Turkish bureaucracy to grind to a conclusion, such a wave of happiness crashed over me. I felt blessed. This was all perfect. For the land. For them and for me.
“I was a bit worried in the night. I wasn’t sure I could manage all the trees. And the digging. I suddenly wondered whether I could do it,” Deniz said as we huddled on the uncomfortable plastic chairs. We watched the human movement behind the glass of the deeds office carefully, willing them to action.
“Don’t worry, the land will help you,” I confided. “If you ever feel doubt, just remember. I couldn’t even bang a nail in when I moved there. I didn’t know a thing.”
An official barked at us from behind the glass. I met Deniz’s brown eyes with my green ones. It was a good moment. Auspicious. Right.
That evening, as I lay on my gazebo with Rotty the dog panting beside me, I felt the power of this planet. The prodigiousness of it all. The unbridled love. The extraordinary. I arrived here five years ago with no money and no clue. Since then I’ve been inspired and supported to build a home, a thriving website, and a writing career. Suddenly I am in abundance, possessing a brand new skill set, energetically, emotionally and financially equipped for a new adventure.
But that’s not all. You see I’m not leaving Mud Mountain just yet. I’m still here until mid-September, because Deniz can’t move in before then. Which is perfect timing, because that’s exactly when my earthbag workshop starts. :)
(The prequel to this post is Fire Fire!)
“If the house has burned down, I’ll go to India.” Zeynep, was curled next to me on a floating wooden platform. She lives in a wooden cabin at the lower side of the forest bordering my house. Mountain spring water gushed below us, a cool, splashing solace. “Oh no! I left my passport in the house!” she said, slapping a delicate hand to her forehead.
It was the Sunday of the fire, and along with a good few in the valley, we had fled to a series of trout restaurants on water. Frankly, in the panic it seemed the safest place to wait. Zeynep’s cat was scrunched in a plastic crate in front of us. Rotty the sick dog was lolling unhappily by the river, nose oozing. The platform was a raft, an open-air Noah’s ark.
“Ah, you can get a new passport. It’s not hard,” I said, and wondered what I would do if my house was now a charred heap of clay. Go to England? Find a van and drive? But what about Rotty? She really was too sick to move.
A waiter arrived and shunted plates around. We stared aghast at the heaving table of food in front of us. No one was in the mood to eat.
The trill of a phone sounded. It was incongruously cheery on this most heavy of days. Zeynep fumbled in her bag and picked out her mobile.
There was a silence. Then a nod. “Really? Are you sure?” She spoke slowly, curls bobbing.
Once the call was over, she pulled her sunglasses from her face, and looked at me. “The wind changed at the last minute apparently, and the fire jumped the road and over to Musa mountain.”
“Nope. We’ve been saved. For now. We’ll give it an hour and then we’ll go home.”
And just as quickly as my home was snatched away, it was handed straight back to me. But I had already let it go. Perhaps that was the design.
That night, I returned to my mud home and slept, albeit it fitfully beneath the stars. The smell of smoke scratched at the inside of my nose. Musa mountain burned on, the fires gouging orange holes out of the darkness like satanic torches. Rotty the dog wheezed and puked beside me, the parasite inside her wreaking some invisible havoc. She was no more than a basket of fur-covered bones. And I felt oddly bitter. Because if there had been a choice between my dog and the house, I’d have burned that house myself.
The next morning the temperature dropped. But the humidity was a clammy veil that clung to everything. I stepped into my kitchen dragging Rotty behind me. For the second week running I cracked an egg in a glass. Stooping, I pried apart her canine mouth and poured the egg in. I wondered if Rotty could talk, whether she would tell me to back off, to let her die. She swallowed the egg with a blink and a gurgle.
Rotty’s parasite required a harsh chemical treatment, one not available in Turkey and which necessitated an extensive amount of wheeler-dealing to obtain. A week earlier, thanks to connections in the animal protection world, my local animal welfare group located a bottle, and worked round the clock to get it to me. It had arrived in a mysterious package at my vet a few days prior. I had driven to collect it on my motorbike feeling I was in possession of some secret cure for cancer.
I hated administering that poison. Rotty hated taking it. But after a week of being deep fried in a 40–degrees-in-the-shade heat wave, the upheaval of the forest fire, plus the unexpected sorrow I experienced for my dog, I was incapable of any reasonable decision. Thus, I followed the mainstream advice. Rotty was to drink this poisonous elixir for 28 days non-stop. Any failure to complete the cycle would mean the parasite would gain resistance, and she would probably die.
Around midnight the next night, Rotty and I climbed under the mosquito net and onto my gazebo. I had just administered the poison. My little dog slumped onto the carpet and promptly vomited all over it. I was so tired, so in dire need of sleep, I turfed her out of the net. I heard her next to the platform, coughing and spluttering.
A few hours later, at the crack of dawn I awoke. Sitting bolt upright, I peered through the mesh hunting the shape of my dog. But I couldn’t see her. Scrambling out of my duvet, I clawed at the netting, throwing it over my head. I scanned the land. No sign of my dog. A well of panic opened inside me, fathomless and murky with the faint but lingering whiff of death. I began running this way and that, hunting for a tuft of fur, the brush of her tail, an ear. There was nothing.
The sun pushed up pouring its heat over the treetops in a burning torrent. Breathing hard, I ran to Dudu. This was Rotty’s favourite haunt, though I simply couldn’t envisage how she could have made it all the way across the orchard. She could hardly walk.
“No, she hasn’t been here. If she had, she’d be sitting right there in front of the gate wagging her tail.” Dudu pulled a plastic stool out and poured me a glass of water. “Perhaps she wandered off and fell.” She patted me on the shoulder sympathetically.
Fell. The thought took but seconds to spawn a family of terrible imaginings. I sat down and burst into tears. “If she doesn’t turn up by tonight, she’ll have missed her medicine. She’s so sick. She’ll die,” I sobbed.
Within ten minutes I had left Dudu’s. When I pulled the gate it scraped on the concrete, and I caught Dudu’s expression, one of utter dismay.
As the sun thundered over the eastern half of the sky, I began the greatest dog hunt my valley has seen. I have no idea how many kilometres I walked that day, but it must have been a good ten at least. Charging over the rocky landscape, I crawled through brambles, stumbled into ditches, and shinned down every water gulch I could find. No Rotty. My smock stuck to me. My trousers turned from purple to dark brown.
The sun burned westward and the shadows stretched ominously. I carried on searching. As evening spread its gloom over the vale, my heart began to crack. I phoned my local sound healer friend Yvonne. “She’s gone. She’s gone!” I spluttered into the mobile. My friend agreed to treat her from afar.
Finally at nine pm on Wednesday night, I fell under the mosquito net and onto my bed. The exhaustion pulled at every muscle. But I slept little. As the sky turned from black to grey, dread plumbed my guts. Rotty had missed her medicine. The parasite now possessed an advantage. But perhaps that was no longer the urgency. Perhaps she had broken a limb somewhere and was slowly dehydrating.
Three days passed and they opened and closed like heavy, rusty gates. I spent most of them, machete in hand, going not-so-quietly barmy. Sometimes I enlisted friends to the cause and we hacked through the area searching each tiny goat trail. But each day ended exactly like the first. Once night had strangled the last drop of light out of the sky, I would collapse under my mosquito net, whimpering on and off.
At last I gave up. Three full days without food or medicine in temperatures over 40 degrees was hopeless. I made a little funeral for Rotty and said my goodbyes. I honestly didn’t know anyone could feel so much grief for a dog. It stretched on and on as far as I could see, a bleak and colourless moor without so much as a rock of meaning or a peak of hope. I no longer wanted to travel Europe in a van without my furry companion. I no longer wanted to make mud homes. All had been subsumed into the Nowhere again.
Yet even there, I could sense something else. It was far far away. Like the faintest glimmer of dawn at the farthest most point on the horizon. A strange sort of liberation. Because when it’s all gone, you are free. Free to be anything or anyone you please.
Four days and nights after Rotty had left, I cleared out her things; pillows, leashes, bones, and stuffed them all in a bag ready for the dustbin. Her kennel squatted there mocking me. I placed some flowers in a bowl of water, and laid them inside, so at least I had something new to look at instead of thinking about her face poking out.
It was one in the afternoon. Scorching. I walked into my house and turned my computer on ready to broadcast this miserable news on Facebook. The computer whirred and flicked to life. Then my phone began ringing. I almost ignored it. Absently, I pulled it toward me and spied Zeynep’s name.
“Hello?” I spoke tentatively into the speaker.
A heightened voice poured into my ear. Zeynep was nearly screeching with excitement. “Kerry, Rotty’s here! I’ve looked three times because I couldn’t believe my eyes. But she’s here. Sitting under one of my bushes!”
It took a moment for me to find words. When I did I hurled them into the phone in random clumps. “You’re kidding! Oh God..! I’m coming... Now!”
Five minutes later I was staring at my pup in utter disbelief. She was flaked out in the shade wagging her tail. On inspection I saw she was skinny and had scraped her leg somewhere. But apart from that? I had to say she looked healthier than when she left. Her nose was completely clean. No puss or blood. And it was gleaming wet.
Once again, within a week, life gave back what it seemed to snatch away. As if to remind me how tenuous it all is. And that within this all-obliterating chaos, miracles continue to swirl.
My vet was so happy to hear of Rotty’s return, he drove up to the mud home to give her some intravenous assistance.
“She hasn’t eaten a thing, but she must have found water somewhere,” he said feeling each inch of her abdomen and squeezing her flesh between his fingers. And I smiled at the serum bag hanging from one of the wooden limbs of my gazebo.
“What’s her chance of survival?” I asked. But I was calm now. Because she was home. And I’d already given her a funeral, so everything from here on out a gift.
The vet inhaled and exhaled. “Honestly, I don’t know. It’s all about her liver. If that recovers, she’ll be OK. And you’ll know if the liver is healing, because she’ll start eating. She’s fighting. You’re fighting. But it’s anyone’s guess.”
Four more days passed. I should have ordered another bottle of the poison. But my heart wasn’t in it. If she was going to die, let her die in peace, I said to myself. And I swear she winked at me when I uttered those words. But she refused to eat. I tried everything, fresh meat, eggs, fish, milk. She was beyond disinterested.
Then suddenly, she deteriorated. She was listless. Her eyes distant. This time, however, I had reached a smoother plateau of acceptance. No more chemicals. No more forcing. Perhaps she’d just come back to say goodbye. Besides, now I believed in miracles again, so I decided to call on the Great Unknown, the mysterious and unprovable.
“Can you give her one final healing?” I asked my friend Yvonne over the phone as the sun slipped behind Grandmother Olive.
“Sure, I’ll let you know as soon as I’m done,” she said.
At 7 pm a message pinged into my phone to say the session was over. At 8 pm I placed a small bowl of liver in front of Rotty. And to my complete amazement she stood up, albeit shakily, and chomped down the lot.
She has eaten every day since.
What a garden of surprises our muddy planet is. Things live and die, and rise from the ashes. Fires can randomly change their course. A dog returns from the dead. A teacher might lose her way and camp on a hill, only to wind up building herself a mud home. Five years later she hears the wisdom carob whisper "Let go of everything," it says. She doesn't want to. Because her space is intoxicating. Precious. Then the bulldozers come. She wavers. The fire comes. She acts. The morning she goes online to put her house up for sale, she learns there has been an attempted coup. So she waits two days. Posts the ad. 45 000 people visit the page in three days...
And as darkness rolls through this beautiful land, it's not hard to see why The Mud Home attracted so many. The diamonds of this country are right. It's time to run to the hills.
Life on planet Earth is a wilderness unto itself. A Great, sometimes terrifying, Unknown. Yet within that chaos there is a road. It winds this way and that, through forests and vales, leading us to safety. But that road isn't tarmac. It's made of dirt. Or earth. Sometimes even mud.
Sometimes life throws it at you. The last week of June was as unpredictable as it was calamitous.
“Erm. I feel I ought to let you know. A second fire has started in the valley and it’s moving in your direction. Very fast.”
I held the phone to my ear. As with every morning, I was sitting typing into my computer. A thick drape was fixed over the front window; a fabric aegis against a molten barrage of sun. Did I hold my breath as I walked to pluck back the curtain? I don’t remember.
Now, I knew there was a forest fire. Who didn’t? Since the 24th June, an insatiable orange-tongued hydra has been hissing and spitting in the mountains behind my mud home. It is goaded by the wind, which whips those tongues into a tree-devouring frenzy. Thousands of hectares of forestland had already been decimated by the time I took the phone call. I could hear the helicopters slicing across the valley ferrying water over the brow. But until that moment, the fire had limited its rampage to the other side of the mountain range. Our valley had been protected.
I yanked the curtain from its hook. The breath inside me seemed to stick to the walls of my epiglottis. Because there, just over a small ridge, what looked like about five kilometres from my home, smoke was churning into the air.
Let it be known, it is unwise to consume a cafetière of strong filter coffee minutes before you discover you’re bang on the path of a forest fire. There were a number of sharp spasms in my chest, and I started whirring round and round my mud circle like a trapped wasp. I drank water. I breathed slowly and cursed the caffeine. Because I needed to focus. Get calm. Get straight.
This isn’t my first forest fire. I’ve seen a few. But not driving full throttle in the direction of my home. Five kilometres is nothing in forest fire terms. If the wind continued on its incendiary path, I guessed I had half an hour to save myself, my sick dog who couldn’t walk, and... and...? To add spice to the challenge, I don’t own a car. Only a motorbike. My belly lurched when I remembered that. Shaking, I picked up my phone and called Dudu, who is as automobileless as I am. She was unflappable.
“Oh yes, I can see it. The kids are here so don’t you worry,” she said.
Ramazan who owned the greenhouses below me was less stoic. “We have five minutes. Five minutes! And it will be here.” His voice broke down. Because the fire signified the end of livelihoods, the end of homes, and the end of lives as well.
Places like Turkey (you know, Muslim, Middle Eastern places) get a nasty rap in the Western media. And that media is ignorant. One beautiful thing about this land that Westerners from afar might not grasp, is that you are never truly alone here, no matter how odd or misshapen you might be. I could have pretty much dialled any number randomly, and as long as I omitted the Istanbul code, someone would have come to save me, or sent someone else to do the same. Within minutes I had two offers of escape. While I waited for one of them to arrive, I began packing. For the most part it was easy. Though later that evening when I unpacked my rucksack again, I did ponder on what exactly I planned to do with my sander. Especially as I only remembered the head.
The reason I could squash my life in a bag in less than fifteen minutes, was due to priorities. Nothing mattered much except my dog. Everything could go up in smoke. My home could become the world’s largest cob oven. My kitchen could disappear. It would all be OK. I’ve lost and left homes before. They can be rebuilt. But my dog had to survive. I love her desperately. Everyone around me knows it.
Now, I’m not partial to these “there are two kinds of people” statements. But sorry, there really are two separate clans regarding dogs; Those that love them and those that can't see what the other group are so obsessed about. Until three years ago, I was part of the second group. I was a nature lover, but never understood how anyone could become so attached to a four-legged fur ball that couldn’t even speak, never mind discuss the meaning of life or appreciate an art gallery. I was one of those who found this pet-nurturing lark rather a lot of over-sentimental tripe. I was also one of those who would exclaim outraged, “People care more about their dogs than they do their fellow humans!” And stalk off righteously.
Hmm. Life. I love how it prevents us from clutching any belief for too long, before mashing it into porridge and forcing-feeding it back to us piecemeal.
People care more about their dogs than they do their fellow humans! The implication in this outburst is that we should save all humans first, and then move onto the animals, and then the trees, in that order. The statement is founded on extremely dubious logic, namely that there is a hierarchy of importance in which humans reign at the top. The thing is, the entire premise of hierarchy is a man-made fantasy, not a truth. And it’s the reason we’re in the environmental and social mess that we are. Because it’s nonsense. From a universal perspective, a human is no more or less valuable or worthy of existence than an ant or a tree. When we’ve killed every ant and tree, we will understand this truth wholly and profoundly.
Still, whatever our philosophical and moral standpoints, in reality the personal always trumps the ideological. When we interact with something, anything, a physical, energetic and emotional connection is formed. If personal connection is experienced on a daily basis, the connection becomes a bond which is painful to sever. And once that happens ideologies and logic fly out of the window faster than British politicians are currently vacating leadership posts. This is where dogs are rather more switched on than humans, because as a species they’ve worked that out.
Truly I have no idea how it happened, but by some devilish crook of evolutionary genius my dog managed to sneak her way so deep into my heart, I am as attached to her as most people are to their children. Certainly, I’ve spent many a star-studded night pondering why. The truth is, despite all the fear-mongering, terrorising, morale-wrecking and cynicism-spawning agents about us, we humans just love to love. Even when we shut out the world and run up a hill, we are craving it. Searching it out. Like a mirage in a desert, we see it here, there and everywhere. Because we know it’s within us, we can’t help but project it. Anything can be the mirror, or engage in that feedback loop.
First I found love in the dirt of this land. Then I inhaled it from the trees and the bugs. Later I felt it toward my neighbours Celal and Dudu. Finally three years ago, Rotty the dog appeared. With a grin and a tail wag, she scooped out a cubby hole in my heart, and curled happily up within it. Yes it felt good. So good.
And then she fell sick...
Three weeks ago, a parasite took over my little Rotty and attacked her internal organs. She grew thinner and thinner. Blood and puss poured out of her nose. Her rib cage swelled. She gave up walking.
“Have you had a dog before?” The vet said with measured deliberation, as I stood stroking her paw in the clinic.
“No,” I said. “She’s my one and only.” It didn’t escape me that the vet looked away.
I left the clinic in tears and with a prognosis of fifty fifty. Suddenly from one day to the next the Nowhere was yawning before me again. It was a well of nothing. A vast all-obliterating lightlessness. Slowly I began swimming through it, stroke by heavy stroke. The days passed. Rotty deteriorated. And the next thing I knew it was Sunday the 26th June. Smoke was bubbling over the pine ridge beyond my land. The valley was on fire.
“Hello Kerry! I’m here.” I snapped my head back to see my saviour-friend peering in my window. I waved before spinning round and gaping yet again at the smoke. It was no longer dark grey but an awful moiling brown. I took a deep breath. Then the two of us quickly and furiously shipped my life out of The Mud and into her Toyota Corolla.
Soon enough we were driving out of The Mud. The Toyota chomped at the dusty incline of my track, struggling to digest the slope. With Rotty curled on the back seat and two rucksacks in the boot, I watched the roof of my home disappear from view. Beyond it flames appeared on the horizon.
I gritted my teeth and prepared to lose it all. Because let’s face it, it wouldn’t be the first time.
To be continued...
How precious a home is. How personal. Idiosyncratic. Like a fingerprint, no home is ever the same as the next. Despite the mass-produced efforts of DIY homebases, our homes remain unique, even if our houses are not. Because a home is so much more than a brick and mortar case. So much deeper. So much wider. It’s a world. A series of concentric circles, expanding ever outward. But from what?
Running my finger over the grainy walls, I attempt to draw it all back into me. This creation. The inset beads, the painted stones, each individual window frame. For I’ve been living inside a sculpture. Many times I wasn’t sure as it morphed and grew, whether it was in fact my product, or possessed a life and will of its own.
Yet despite illusions a home, no matter how delicately and intimately arranged, is not us. I learn this now, and it is a rude awakening. As I slowly unpick the loops and peel them back from my soul, my eyes water. For it smarts, this letting go.
With each passing day another ring drops to the ground. And another. Until one day soon I’ll stand bare, shorn of possessions, stripped of my façades. Just a self. A well of being. Naked. Free. Ready to create once more.
And because I’m still clinging, twisting each loop of my home in my hands before letting it fall away, there are keepsakes. Last week, my friend and photographer Melissa Maples came to stay. She rode pillion on my motorbike, used the mosquito net as her bedroom, and partook of the stars, the dawn and the twilight. Her eye for personal detail always arrests me. Without a word from me, she caught my attachments. One by one. My life. Each chapter of the Mud story that has grown out of me, or been subsumed within me. The secret rings of the garden.
And she is a generous soul Melissa Maples. Which is why she has decided to share her glimpse into my Mud Life with not only me, but you.
So follow me. Through the gate.
It’s over here.
Atulya K Bingham
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