‘Life begins at the end of the comfort zone.’ This was what was scribbled on a note taped to our fridge door back in Taiwan 2010. And yes, I liked the adage, because I saw it as a call to climb out of the rut, drop the known in the nearest dustbin, and trot, baggage-free after a risk. I remembered the sentence a couple of months ago, because for the past three years I think I’ve been living it in reverse. I’m starting to wonder if comfort and deep fulfilment are mutually exclusive.
If the comfort zone is a circle, or even an ellipse shape like the orbit of the Earth round the sun, then life up here in The Mud started far outside it. The moment I brought my tent up here and cleared my 2 x 3 metres of space into the brambles, I had hacked a hole into another world. That world was just about inside the solar system of my experience. I was still in Turkey after all, but it was definitely on the outer edge, somewhere just past Pluto.
When I first slept outside and grappled with washing up racks and wheelbarrows of water, comfort, both spiritual and physical, was a distant speck on a horizon I was walking in the other direction of. Everything was for the first time. It was pristine yet wild. My world was a dew drop at five am, and I
was a new born mite perched on it; shocked, enchanted, bewildered, touched. The land touched me because I had no walls erected against it. No expectations. No great vision of what it ‘should’ be. Those first months were magical. Trees muttered in crackles and rustles. Mysterious plants snuck out of the dust to feed me, or heal me. Butterflies, lizards and bugs crawled from the rocks with secret messages. The night sky was alive with other worlds. I was Alice in Wonderland.
But what is it with us humans and our preoccupation for ‘the rut’? I know very well, routines are the orderly assassins of magic, yet now, with the house of my dreams, running water and solar power, I find myself unconsciously retreating from ‘the new’ and sliding back into the dull predictability of the organised. Now that I’m all comfy in my earth-womb, like a marine in a dugout, or a one of those reptiles in their holes, Eden gradually withdraws. It's now down to my outside kitchen and bathroom keep me on my toes. While it’s uncomfortable to cook in a raging storm, it’s also incredibly visceral. I love that I have to face storms for a cup of tea, or grab my brolly to take a leak. Apparently we need to face the elements just to remember we're connected to them and enlivened by them. But even so. I feel those old days of wonder sliding from under my fingertips, and I miss them. Yes, the comfort zone is coming for me, loping and slobbering with couch-potato dissatisfaction.
Which was why I sent a wish out into the valley not so long back. ‘Don’t let me become complacent, Gaia whatever you do,’ I said. Be careful what you wish for, they say. Because life, the ol' trickster, is always waiting . . . right over the edge of your comfort zone.
Two weeks ago, something happened that blew complacency all the way to kingdom come. My novel Ayşe’s Trail took off, and I have to leave here temporarily for London. Despite this being a childhood dream come true, for the first few days after receiving the news, I was beset by deep melancholy. As I wandered about my queendom of olives and home-grown veg and lizards, I began to fret about where all this book lark was leading me. I don’t want to leave the forest, and I feel an irrational and fearful urge to cling on. This place has brought me such happiness. It has healed me. And the thought of hitting the big city, having to dress up and possibly participate, even temporarily, in a lifestyle I’ve long left behind, leaves me panic-stricken and morose.
But when fear decides a course of action, nothing good follows. Just as my garden and the forest about me changes with every year, so do I. Am I really going to hide in a cave forever and refuse to grow or put my hand out into the light. Because nothing around me accepts such self-imposed stifling. So last week I took a deep breath. I kissed the earth and hugged my home. And then I let my expectations of it go. Because that’s the only proper thing to do when you’re in love with something. Free it. And as I did, I heard the comfort zone growl, before it withdrew reluctantly back into its lair. At that moment, the wind of life was in my hair again, and adventure howled down from the hills. The moon was eclipsed, the stars swung into new patterns, and the pines curled and twisted on their roots. I have no idea where I’m going, or what will happen next. But I expect it’ll be worth writing about.
Not everyone who relocates into the wilds is content. There are many who buy land, build houses and wind up just as dissatisfied as they were before, sometimes more so. I’ve heard one or two say they felt so traumatised by the experience they moved back to the city.
Nature is an awe-inspiring, plan-crunching, target-ignoring, and largely unsentimental beast. It can also be the most accepting, supportive and rejuvenating friend. And as far as I can see, the deciding factor is the human spirit.
After ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ the next most frequently voiced question to me is ‘Don’t you get scared?’ And yes, sometimes quite frankly, I do. On a moonless winter night, a night so dark that even the shadows are in hiding, my road turns from a scenic strip of nobbled, red earth into the gulf of Hades. Occasionally, I’ll walk up that road to a friend’s house. Sporadic blips of orange poke through the rucks of the hillside opposite; lights from the hamlet nearby. They give the valley the appearance of something from Lord of the Rings, and for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I find that rather comforting. But it’s when I reach the top that the background music changes. There, at the triangular junction where my dirt track and a tarmac road meet, is the cemetery. By day it’s the quaintest village cemetery you are ever likely to see; a random clutter of small graves nestled in a mountainside olive grove. The dead occupy a glorious vista with the Mediterranean in the distance. But by night? There’s no sea view, no olive trees, only the vague outline of gravestones poking up from the inky soil. I always stride past that graveyard doing my utmost not to search out shadows moving beyond the stone wall. Then, I hear the dog, or rather the local Hound from Hell. It belongs to the shepherd who lives in the web of wooden struts and plastic up the bank. The dog has smelt my fear and is now burning a trail of snarling carnage in my direction. I start running. I reach the turn-off to my friend’s house, the barking growing closer by the minute. I flick my torch back and see the dog’s eyes; two soulless glass buttons flashing in a cloak of endless black. I can’t see the teeth. But it doesn’t matter. I know what they’re like; huge flesh-ripping, saliva-coated fangs rasping to get stuck into my leg. The torch becomes a weapon. I flick the beam towards the eyes and dazzle the dog for a few seconds. I use those moments to back as quickly as I can down the track.
Scared? I'm so mortally petrified it will take a good half hour before I utter a sentence without a swear word.
And yet, nothing at all has really happened. The dog hasn't killed me. It didn’t even reach me. There were no zombies in the graveyard, and no cold hands stretching out from the graves. If I draw the dark half of my mind to one side and peer beyond it, I see the night is an open face spattered with freckles of starlight. The darkness is a mystery that the pine trees are now pumping life into. And the sky is wise and profound. I am part of that dark, profound mystery. I am breathing it.
Alone in the wilds these things will happen. Boar may come cantering out of the forest and nose round your tent for a midnight snack. You may be faced with winds rushing at 60 kilometres an hour, and all you have over your head is a sliver of flapping canvas, or perhaps the track into your land has
morphed into a mud slick and you realise you might not be able to leave for three days. In such situations, bravado and a few positive affirmations just aren’t going to cut the mustard. Nor is a gun, a torch, or a dog. You need other sturdier tools in your psychological toolbox if you want to mitigate the panic.
Personally speaking, to truly derive the immense pleasure available from the natural world, and to be able to reconnect with it without dissolving into a blubbering wreck, I have needed a practice. And for me, that practice is meditation in general, Vipassana more specifically. Though sometimes a few yoga asanas will do the trick as well. Now, I’m not a meditation or yoga evangelist (been there, done that). The meditation malarkey is simply one of many ways to deal with the fog of fear and worry that can quickly blanket the human spirit when things don’t appear to be as they should. Other people have other techniques; walking barefoot on the earth, Tai Chi, hiking.
Once the fog clears, I can reconnect, not just with the Earth, but with the thing that underpins it all. I’d call that thing the spiritual world for want of a better phrase. The trouble with words is they drag so many connotations behind them. A word is never just a word. It’s a story. What I’m trying to allude to when I use the word ‘spiritual world’, is not a belief system, nor a religion, nor angels and devils, nor pixies and woodsprites. For me, the word 'spiritual' refers to everything that is not physical. Things you can’t see, hear, feel, touch or smell. I could use the term ‘non physical’ world, but that implies a ‘non’ event, or an absence of something. The Other world that lies beyond the senses is not a nothing, it’s a whopping great something, and without it, whether you live in a tent in the hills or in a basement flat in a honking city, there’s not much difference. Sorry, scratch that. There’s light-years of difference! Nonetheless, it’s the spiritual element that defines the quality of the experience.
The most obvious element of the spiritual world is thought; ideas, concepts and images in the human mind. Thoughts hold no physical space. They can’t be touched, smelt or seen by others. Yet they are the most powerful element of the human being and shape the very fabric of our lives. For most of us, thought is based on two drives; fear and desire. Freud called it the pleasure principle, the endless psychological struggle to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. Vipassana meditation talks about craving and aversion. Watch your thoughts for any given moment and it’s easy to see; either the mind is galloping down a track of worry and strategizing how to avoid trouble, or it’s chasing after a dream and fantasizing. And if there isn’t a memory of a real experience for the mind to grasp onto, it will use those plied to it by the media and advertisers instead.
So when you arrive in your wilderness paradise, nature will be there waiting for you with her well of magic and nourishing secrets. But will you see her? When a gale force wind begins to crush your dome tent, will you feel awe, or simply terror? Will you trust your instincts, and the movement of
the land around you? Or will you be overtaken by the images generated by any number of horror films? For me, it is often a very fine line. And the only way I can cross that line is to sit each morning, breathe, watch my mind spouting its gibberish, see through it and sense the vast benevolent power of the spiritual realm within. Without that, I know I wouldn’t be here. I would have packed my bags two-and-a-half years ago and run away as fast as I could.
One summer morning back in 2011 something significant happened. The sun had turned into a blazing white ogre. It had a pelt of fire and a stare that could fry the skin clean off a capsicum. It was the end of July. And July on the southern coast is when folk run for shade, or water, or air conditioned malls. Nothing can survive in that heat. Grass withers. Mammals flop dejectedly under trees. Even the great pines, some at least a hundred years old, no longer stretch for the heavens. Their stance becomes one of stoic endurance as a lifeless dust slowly coats their branches.
This wasn't in itself significant, however. Summer happens every year. Granted, we always forget. From the lamenting every July you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the first summer to ever see the wrong side of 40 degrees. Streets empty, people flake out in gazebos. Sometimes they refuse to get out of bed at all.
‘Çoook sıcak yaaa!’ (It‘s sooo hot!) They wail before they drop back and reach for an ice-cream.
But that July, the July of 2011, I wasn’t one of those late risers. I had to be out of my tent by seven. It was no longer because I was bounding with enthusiasm vis-à-vis any number of construction projects, nor was it eagerness to watch the pink wave of dawn roll over the mountain peaks. I had to be out, because being ‘in’ was tantamount to wrapping yourself in cellophane and bedding down in a Turkish bath.
I reached forward and pulled myself out of the canvas. Immediately I winced and grabbed back my hand. I’d branded myself on one of the tent pegs that had the misfortune of being in the sun’s path. Finally I stood up and surveyed my Queendom. It was a sorry sight, a rolling slope of yellowing expiration. The top terrace of the land, where my tent was pitched, was even worse. It was south Turkey’s answer to the Gobi. Cracks zigzagged through the waterless earth. And where there were no cracks there was dust.
I turned to head for ‘the kitchen’. It was then that I noticed it. The significant thing. There, a little in front of the tent, was a small patch of green.
I blinked. No. Nothing could ever grow independently on this broiling plateau of death. It was impossible. I moved towards the mysterious green entity in disbelief. There before my eyes a plant was sprouting. ‘Seeing is believing,’ they say. Well sometimes it’s the other way round. Now I believed, and thus I saw. As I picked my way through my desert, I found tens of these plants. Where had they come from? It was as though they’d been waiting all summer for everything to collapse, before they raised their hairy little arms and shouted, ‘Ha ha! Our turn now.’
I think I mentioned that I had read a certain book. And it stated when you love your domain, everything in it tilts towards you. After my experiences with carpet-sweeping ants and kitchen-cleaning lizards, I was gradually becoming something of a natural magic apostle. The land itself was my balm, the animals my affection. What about the vegetation though? Was there a reason this strange little plant had popped up? Should I make a tea out of it? Was it medicinal? Hallucinogenic even?
The days went by and the peculiar heat-spurning plants grew. They weren’t particularly attractive, a little like rosemary but floppier and messier. And that was unfortunate. I can become obsessed with aesthetics at times. The plant was ugly, so I began to ignore it. I think I might have even called it a weed.
Then one day I noticed this ‘weed’ cluttering about a tiny grape-vine remnant I was trying to salvage. At some point in the past either a person or a bird must have dropped a grape seed. The seed had struggled. It had sprouted. Now, in midsummer a few feeble cricket-eaten leaves were hanging desperately onto existence. Every now and again I’d throw my washing up water over them and try and talk the baby vine into surviving. Now here was this opportunistic weed cashing in and usurping the moisture! Grrr. I stormed towards the prolific newcomer with intent.
Ha! In one quick snatch I’d uprooted it. I threw it to one side. Or rather I tried to throw it, because it was sticky, as if secreting oil. Pausing a little, I noticed a smell. It was a cross between lavender and eucalyptus. I took a deep breath. The aroma was out of this world! And it was coming straight from the ugly heat-loving weed. I found the fragrance so refreshing I began to use it for washing in, a sort of natural aroma-therapy. When I did I was swept away by the cooling sense of well-being it bathed me in.
As the summer deepened, our village became steeped in such high temperatures we all developed heat rashes. Our legs itched. Our arms itched. And the hotter it got, the more red spots appeared. I washed in my weed-water. My rash vanished.
Soon enough the sun began to shed its monstrous summer bulk. As it slimmed it dropped lower in the sky. The days drew in. My herb receded back into the earth. I never learned its name. No one around here seemed to know. ‘Smelly weed’ was the best anyone could do.
Since then all sorts of other natural growth has come to my attention. I have only two acres of land but it’s a living, breathing apothecary. Some of it is edible, some drinkable. Some plants heal ailments, others nourish, some are so beautiful to look at you can’t help but feel inspired. There are gels and fragrances and poultices, berries and potpourri, colour therapy, pollen and herbs. And each month the selection changes, as do my needs. We are all–from the earth, to the plants to the animals–moving in sync.
This rediscovery of what at one time must have been common knowledge is enthralling. I’ve merely stroked the grassy surface of my wonderland. But I’m sensing very deeply that well-being isn’t something we have to struggle for years to earn. It’s our birthright. It’s where we come from. All we have to do is go home, live there and notice it.
It was May, and the evenings were still cool. My silky blue dome was almost invisible, concealed within a circle of tall grass and thistles. It was my third night in the tent. Alone. In the dark. It was a darkness unlit by neon or streetlights, a pitch deep enough to devour entire mountains.
I woke up with a start, frozen in my sleeping bag. Something was slithering along the side of the canvas. Or was it scampering? It was hard to tell. I lie there unmoving, hardly daring to blink as I listened to the sinister rustling. I thought about the bag of sulphur I had forgotten to sprinkle along the circumference of my tent to ward off such unwanted guests. Balloons of fear began to swell inside me. The indigenous animals of Turkey's south coast include the Ottoman viper and scorpions.
I tentatively slid my hand out to search for my torch. The noise continued. My imagination hurtled down a hundred critter-filled alleys, tunnels brimming with poisonous reptiles, spiders the size of rats and other beasts of unknown ferocity just itching to chew holes in the groundsheet and eat me alive, or…or simply look ugly.
After what seemed like minutes of agonizing fumbling I finally located my flashlight. I flicked it on. The squirming stopped. Hell! The beast was stalking me.
After fear, the next pit-stop on survival’s race track is aggression. By now I was wide awake, sitting bolt upright with more than a sensible amount of adrenalin careering through my system. I decided I’d rather be the hunter than the hunted.
As slowly and quietly as I could I unzipped the mosquito net door, dementedly flashing the torch this way and that like a cop in a bad movie. Still no noise. Whatever it was, was hiding. So out I crept. I stood up and turned around, running the beam frantically over the canvas. And then I saw it. The perpetrator of my insomnia. The heinous creature of my nightmares: A lizard, tiny, web-footed, verging on charming. The small reptile peered up at me petrified, beady eyes popping. I exhaled, feeling idiotic. Lizard and I stared at each other for a moment or two before I lowered the torch and crouched back into the tent. As I lie back down on my sleeping bag, I mused how despite not having owned a television for the last fifteen years I had nonetheless become yet another victim of Hollywood’s relentless fear-mongering.
Now I think about it, there is an entire industry founded on generating fear of wildlife. Horror films have been quick to cash in on the myriad of unusual fauna in the world. Anaconda, The Birds, and Jaws are but a few of the animal-based movies that spring to mind. Pretty much any creature that has the misfortune to crawl, slide or not possess fur is subject to a bizarre and completely fictitious kind of demonisation. The result is, when we’re left to our own devices out in the wild, especially at night, those monster movie images take on a life of their own.
The morning after ‘lizard night’, I stepped out of my tent and stumbled into my make-shift ‘kitchen’. In truth it was more of a food area, with a ramshackle washing up stand cobbled together from broken sticks. (Oh the many rewards of Girl Guides). But I was struck by something else. I realised as I looked about that there were no crumbs anywhere, no left-overs to clean up. In short no mess at all. Hmm, had this been what my nocturnal guest had been after?
From then on, I took time to venture out of my tent in the dark hours and observe what exactly was going on in the big bad pitch beyond my canvas. It was fantastic. What I saw was a carefully timed banquet. First to arrive were the cats. They rooted through my bin and carted off the bigger scraps. Next the field mice crept by. Finally, there were parties of lizards, skinks and agamas that polished off the crumbs. There was an owl too. It came most nights, calling into the darkness to its mate down in the valley, before making mincemeat of one or two unsuspecting reptiles, no doubt.
However, a month later something really dragged me to my senses. That summer, the first summer on my land, I would open up a large kilim onto the bare earth every morning for my morning yoga practice. Once I was done, I had to fold the carpet up quickly, otherwise the late spring wind blew burrs that would enmesh themselves in the weave. One day, I forgot to fold up the rug. I came back in the evening to see it covered in thistles and spiky caterpillar-like burrs. I groaned. They could only be removed one by one. It was a laborious, finger scratching process. I couldn’t be bothered with the task, so I left it. The next morning, when I chanced to walk by the rug, what should I see? Ants. Hundreds of them. And they had turned my yoga carpet into an insect spaghetti junction. Agh! Burrs, ants, it was hopeless. The rug was a goner.Then something caught my eye. I noticed two of the ants tugging at a burr, and another carrying one off.
As it happened I’d just finished reading a book about humanity's special relationship to its own land, or domain. I think if I hadn’t actually been living in the wild it would have written the work off as nonsense. One of the things the book stated was that when a person owns a domain and loves it, all the wildlife within the area will support them. I looked at the traffic of ants streaming across my kilim. I rubbed my chin, scratched my head, and turned around. Next I left for the beach.
When I came back in the evening I couldn’t believe my eyes. My rug was spotless. Completely and utterly. It looked as though it had been picked clean by a school of tweezer-brandishing elves. I began to look at animals in a vastly different light. I have become very humbled by them to be honest. Because all of them, even the scaliest, slimiest or most arthropod, are surprisingly benign. In fact they are not only harmless, they are invaluable, helpful little mates, and without them we'd be floundering in our own muck. I never sweep or wash the floor of my open kitchen. I leave my used saucepans out at night as well. And every morning I wake to find my band of nocturnal helpers has cleaned up the lot.
So it was that the bag of sulphur I had bought for protection remained forever unopened. Suddenly, I didn’t want to harm anything, and I believed, rightly or wrongly that nothing would harm me in return. Perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps I was just lucky. I lived outside in the wild for the duration of eight months, and the only snake I ever saw was a tiny grass snake on the border six months on. No wild boar entered the land either. My pomegranate-growing neighbours (boar love pomegranates) believed they were warded off by the smell of a human sleeping outside. There were no spider bites, no scorpion stings, no Ottoman vipers found lurking in the toilet. It was almost as though the land was blessed.
My gardener owns an enormous Anatolian shepherd called Apo. He’s the size a small lion. For reasons that no one really understood Apo would turn up on my land most nights to begin a voluntary protective watch. Did he feel the way I did? I wondered.That there was magic concealed in the dirt? Sitting by his side, I would run my hands through his thick fur and marvel how such a huge carnivorous animal could be so gentle.Together we would stare out over a starlit valley listening to the owl calling overhead and the agamas scampering below. His ears would prick up and he would bark. It was a deep, wolf-like roar that echoed out into the darkness for miles and miles.
I began to feel that this might just be what paradise is like.
Can the Earth talk? Isn’t it just a great ball of rock rocketing about an even bigger ball of combustibles? Surely it’s only humans that have feelings and sensitivity and the like. All this claptrap about Gaia, isn’t it just a long deep wallow in unabashed anthropomorphism?
At the time of my first night in the Wendy house on my land back in 2011, I wasn’t exactly a materialist. But I was hardly an Earth Mother either. I’d already lived in the countryside for a few years. And I’d seen the blood-curdling displays nature could put on. There were ghastly critters, scorpions, poisonous snakes, even ants morphed into sinister armies when they banded together to devour a moth alive. All in all life on planet Earth appeared to me to be a wheel of ferocious struggle, a relentless and exhausting scrabble to stay alive and avoid seemingly inevitable pain. I loved the beauty nature offered, but I was unconvinced of her underlying ethics. That night, as I stabbed at my campfire with a broken pine branch and felt the sweet apricots squelch between my teeth, I sensed the primitive in all her rawness.
In fact, unbeknown to me at the time, there has been a batch of research regarding the sensitivity of our planet and the various life forms that dwell on her. None is more fascinating than the investigations into the secret life of plants. Long before the new age donned its rose-tinted spectacles, a while before the more cynical post-moderns too, people were researching into the feelings of plants. Back in 1848 a certain Gustav Theodor Fechner showed that plants responded to talk and affection. This theory was backed up by Jagadesh Chandra Bose in 1900 who discovered that plants seemed to suffer from spasms when administered poison or subject to other aggressive behavior. More alarmingly, he found the same responses in metals too, which generated something of a kerfuffle. Then, later on in the sixties, the independent scientist James Lovelock, published his Gaia hypothesis. He argued that the Earth is a self-regulating, interacting organism, with all entities on the planet being compared to the separate cells and organs that make up a body. The environmentalists almost completely adopted the theory. But back in the realm of positivist science doors began swiftly swinging shut. Bose, Fechner and Lovelock are still greeted by the academic community with steely stares of skepticism. According to the mainstream, it’s all pseudoscience. Emotional, childish poppycock.
I’m not a scientist. I’m a human being. And being human is a fascinating state of play. All of us are perched upon this spinning green orb trying to deduce what the hell is going on around us. But whether we rely on our five senses, our logic, our emotions or intuition, we can never KNOW beyond all reasonable doubt. Because there is always reasonable doubt. Can we be sure that simply because an organism doesn’t have a brain, that it doesn’t possess sensitivity? Can we be certain that a massive body such as our planet doesn’t have some sort of sentience? We can’t. We can’t because our modes of understanding the world in which we live (senses, logical analysis, intuition) are limited. We can’t even prove we didn’t make the entire world up or that we’re not living permanently in a dream.
So back to the rocks and the campfire and the Wendy house that was too small for me to fit my legs in. Back to that magical night, my first night alone on my land in the Turkish hills. There I was, staring into a fire feeling distinctly cavewoman. The burning wood hissed, while the thick pines overhead murmured. Above me stars and constellations I had no idea of the name of winked and pulsated like distant lighthouses. The huge dark gulf of the infinite was out there. Space, and more space, and more. And yet here I was, this pondering human ape, my rump of flesh and blood wedged firmly onto the Earth’s crust, looking up and sensing the awe of a fathomless night sky.
Gaia doesn’t speak to us in a deep booming voice. She doesn’t send messages crashing into us with lightning bolts or flashing lights. But whenever you hear the whisper of the breeze, the rippling of bird song, the approaching bellow of a storm or the rhythmic whirring of crickets, Gaia is communicating. It isn’t logical. It isn’t empirical either. I agree with the academics. The experience is very unfashionably emotional.
I smelt the dampness of the dew on the grass. The hard ridges on my rock pushed into me. I heard an owl call out into the forest, other foreign rustlings in the grass. This is what I understood as Gaia speaking, and what I realised is that she was talking to me in a code of feelings. The message I received was clear. It was the feeling of belonging, of being finally well and truly home. As the darkness pulled in about me, it dawned on me that I hadn’t ever felt so intensely a part of a place before.
There may be a multitude of explanations for the way I felt that night. But in all honesty, does it really make any difference? Because however much society attempts to repress or belittle emotions, it is feelings, not logic that actually direct people’s lives. And if they don’t, well what miserable grey existences they are. Love is replaced by marital contracts, family bonds become obsolete, we cart grandma off to an institution and live in faceless boxes instead of inspiring hand-crafted cottages. Life without feeling really isn’t life at all. Indeed, it is perhaps pertinent to wonder - if the planet really is no more sentient than a concrete block of flats – why we all do get so emotional about it, and if the Earth has no more soul than a strip of asphalt, then why walking on the former invigorates and rejuvenates us, while the latter drains and demoralizes us. There are few things that are universally true from culture to culture, but a feeling of well-being in nature is one of them.
So, yes I admit it defied all logic. It was irrational and unscientific. It might have been a figment of my mind. If my senses were to be believed I was sitting with my arse in the dirt, high up on a lonesome mountain slope without a roof over my head. Logic and memory both informed me that there were wild boar, scorpions and snakes all about. And yet my emotions were telling another story altogether. They told me I was more at home here than I had ever been in my life. I felt strangely taken care of, nurtured even.
I decided there and then. Somehow I had to live up there.
Why would anyone move into a tent and live on a mountain for eight months? A mountain with no power, no water, and no permanent shelter to speak of.
Something has to have gone wrong.
The trouble all began with a dream, and in many ways it ended with one too. Only it was a dream I had never planned. One I hadn't expected at all.
I’m lucky enough to own a small plot of land. It sits snug within the pomegranate-laden folds of Turkey’s Mediterranean. I stare out at great hulks of mountain pitching themselves into the sea. The surrounding pine thickets whir in the balmy breeze, while buzzards loop through the blue overhead. My nearest neighbour is four hundred metres away. It’s so quiet I can hear her every word when she speaks on the phone.
Land is a bit like a child. When it’s yours you lose all objectivity about it. For me, my land burgeons with charm. It’s unreasonable, but I’m convinced it’s the most beautiful place on Earth. Certainly, not so long back, I harboured a few grandiose plans for it. By 2011, it seemed the time had finally come. My 2500 square metres of the planet was about to be transformed into a living, breathing vision; a meditation centre. It was a fantasy I had cherished for years, and I’d already had one bash at manifesting it further along the coast in the Kabak valley. I had failed spectacularly. But I’m a headstrong sort, and not much prone to heeding advice. It’s the kind of personality that either does very well or very badly, depending on the circumstances.
I wasn't the only one set on this vision either. Seth and Claire, two friends from South Africa, had recently flown in to join me in the venture. They were fellow teachers and yogis, and as such we seemed to be a dream-team; a fantastic, three-pronged super-group. We had been planning our centre for months, right down to the size of the gong at the entrance.
Spring was damp and cool that year, summer late in coming. The winter grass that adorns the steep hills of Turkey’s Mediterranean rolled in thick, green waves. There was still quite a bite to the gusts of sea air blowing in too, and they slapped the cobalt water whipping it into unpredictable shapes. Seth, Claire and I set up a temporary base in the nearby seaside village of Alakir and looked forward to attacking our project. Sometimes, however, life has other plans.
Right from the beginning, it seemed nothing would work out for us. The first setback was that we couldn’t manage to lay our hands on a car. Or motorcycle. Or licenses. So for all intents and purposes, we were grounded, stuck twiddling our thumbs a good half an hour drive from the land. It gave us plenty of time to think. And talk. For reasons no one could quite put their finger on, doubts seeped in between the cracks of our plans. As the weeks groaned by, a vague but unsettling cloud of unease began to spread through our close-knit triangle. I wondered what to do.
Then, without warning a guide appeared. He trotted out from the aphotic depths of the Lycian forests one cold evening in late March. Brian was a hiker. He had the wild look all those who spend too long in the Lycian mountains finally acquire – a look I myself would soon absorb. He could often be found a thousand odd metres above sea level, cooking rogan josh over a campfire with a copy of Heidegger in his back pocket. With his shock of white hair, caustic laugh, and sawing Australian vowels, he was what you might call ‘a character’.
I perched on a beanbag next to the fire. Brian pulled himself closer to the wood-burner. He took sporadic sips out of his mug of tea and held it neatly on his lap when he was done. He narrowed his eyes before imparting his portentous message.
“Well Doll, looks like you need to get yourself tent and spend a night alone on that land. Let the Earth speak to you,” he said.
I rubbed my hands over the stove and nodded. “Of course, let Mother Nature talk to me. Listen to Gaia and all of that.”
Yet inwardly I baulked. Really? Did I have to listen? Couldn’t I just have a fabulous plan, make colourful scribbles in my notebook and get on with it? It seemed so uncomfortable, inconvenient, time consuming; trekking all the way up to the land and freezing my butt off for a night. There was no toilet, no running water. And there were all the possibilities of trouble, too. Wild boar were common in the forests, lascivious locals even more widespread. It would be a night fraught with fear and insomnia, no doubt. Nonetheless, something somewhere in me must have seen some merit in the idea, because a few days later I was scouring the house for a tent. All that I could lay my hands on was a Wendy House, the type small children use for den-making in the back garden.
Beggars can’t be choosers they say. The next day I packed the Wendy House into a small yellow day pack, along with a blanket and a bin-liner. I filled the pockets with dried apricots and nuts, and of course a bottle of water. Off I went. Off to hear my land. The plot was a good fifteen to twenty kilometres from Alakir bay, and I’d set out far too late. The sun was edging past noon as I trotted along the water’s edge, the sea collecting flecks of gold in its wavy pockets.
When I reached the end of the beach, I spotted a tractor approaching. I flagged it down. Hurling my pack into the cement-caked trailer, I climbed in myself. It was a dusty lurching ride, but it got me a good part of the way into the valley.
Two hours of hiking later, I was closing in on the still unfamiliar territory of my land. As I trotted along the dusty track, I passed gaggles of village women squatting on their front steps in their bloomers and headscarves. Some were toothless, many were wrinkled, all wore smiles and hooted their hellos at me. Bolstered by the good feeling, I clambered through the thin boundary of holly trees and pines to get into my square of earth. Ah I was here. On my own turf. I pricked my ears up and did my utmost to listen to what, if anything, that spot of turf was saying. All I heard was a few birds twittering with absurd enthusiasm.
The first question was where to set up camp. I trudged up the slope, while grass stalks, thick and lush, brushed my ankles and calves. I scoured left and right for signs.
“Come on! I’m here. Speak!” I muttered at the undergrowth. Nothing. Just the wind gently rattling the pine needles above.
Soon, I reached a small plateau at the top of the land. Here it was utterly overgrown, hemmed in by an army of barbed thorn bushes. One corner was sheltered by three magnificent old olive trees, their gnarled trunks wrangled into knotty sculptures. I dropped my pack, rubbed my shoulders, and paced about, relishing the feeling of wandering about a piece of the Earth I could call my own. My domain. It’s an incredibly visceral sensation to own land. Frighteningly instinctive. I heard the quiet but unmistakable growl of something primal inside me, and to be honest I didn’t completely approve.
Strolling past the spikes of the thorn bushes, I stopped for a moment. They were far from attractive, their pale green claws splayed in messy clumps. Still, I couldn’t escape the sensation there was more to them. They were natural barbed-wire and as such offered a protection. It was a peculiar circle of safety, and I realised a pig or human would have trouble getting through it. Looking up, I saw the olive trees towering over me, their arms outstretched like old family, or ancestors or something. It was then that I noticed, I was grinning to absolutely no one at all.
I’d found my spot.
It wasn’t difficult to erect the tent. It was made for a seven-year-old, after all. I crawled inside it, but I could neither sit up nor lie down. It was too small. The best I could do was lay flat and let my legs poke out of the flap at the front. I just hoped and prayed no scorpions were prowling, and hoped again that it didn’t rain.
Nature is fascinating when you get into it, though. It looks so dirty and menacing from the smudge-free windows of a city. Yet once you’re in it, you forget all of that, because the earth is speckled with stardust, Green magic spills out from every niche. As the sun drifted over the top of the mountains, I felt excitement rather than dread. The Wendy House, the smell of the grass, the twisting trunks of the trees, the open sky, all of them called back long-forgotten childhood moments in the outdoors, times before a rational education had stuffed reality into meaningless boxes, times when magic had been a living possibility
As twilight moved through the trees, I decided to build a fireplace. Soon enough, I was gazing at blooms of orange sparks flying through the darkness, while munching on those apricots. One by one, the stars pushed through the night sky. I looked about, listening, still waiting for the land to speak. It was then, as I perched on a rock lost in the hypnotic dance of the flames that I heard them. The land. And the Sky.
They were talking.
Atulya K Bingham
Sick of the screen?
Just released! There is now a beautiful, illustrated paperback edition of Mud Mountain.
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine.
Want to follow my journey?