The perspiration dripped from my face as I pushed the wheelbarrow. The earth track that lead down to my land was scarred with ruts and craters, and the barrow wheels wedged themselves into each one. Each time they did I had to pull the weighty metal cart out of the hole and take a run at the offending hillocks. At the entrance to the property a stony path plunged downwards through a mess of brambles. On reaching the incline, the barrow promptly gained a mind of its own, rattling out of control down the slope. I galloped after it, hanging onto the handlebars for dear life, suffering scratches and stubbed-toes for the duration. I clung, because that wheelbarrow held within it the most important thing in my life. In fact it held the most important thing in the whole world. I now realised only too well exactly how fundamental that thing was because my land seemed to possess none of it. That treasure was water.
One way and another I’ve endured a trying relationship to water throughout my life. Either there’s too much of the stuff or too little. I’ve been on the wrong end of floods, terminally dripping ceilings, furred up water pipes, wild boar bashing through pipelines and now, very conspicuously I was in a drought. There was no running water on my land. There were no streams or well springs either. It was May, and I had one more rainfall to go before summer took the Mediterranean in its fiery, waterless grip. Everyone said living on my mountain would be impossible.
“Olmaz!” came the cries from all quarters. “Olmaz” is Turkish and translates roughly as, “You can’t or shouldn’t do it.”
Did I mention that I was a headstrong sort? That it had its pros and cons? It’s the bane of my life, but when someone barks the word “can’t” at me, I find myself driven by this insatiable bent to ignore them completely.
It was now nearly a month after my first auspicious night on the land. I’d hired a car to transport as much of a camp up to the mountain as I could. However, the track was in such a state of dusty furrowed imperfection that the little Fiat Punto proved ill-equipped to descend all the way to the land itself. I had parked it a hundred metres uphill. Bit by bit I wheeled or carried down a tent, mattress, sleeping bag, rucksack of clothes, a pick, rake, spade, scythe, washing-up bowl, teapot, and now a 30 litre plastic tank of water. How long would 30 litres last? I wondered. Well, that all depends on how you use it.
And you use it a lot. An awful lot. With the obvious exception of oxygen, water’s the thing we rely on most in the world. H2O. Liquid diamonds. If you’re breathing, you need it.
As I scanned the huge grasses and thickets of spines my first task loomed in front of me. I had to clear a space for my tent. Eyeing my three new garden tools, I wondered which to choose. It may or may not surprise you to learn I had absolutely zero experience with DIY or gardening when I moved onto the land that summer. I couldn’t even bang nails in. I’d never planted a seed. The only thing I could lay claim to was having taken part in some terracing. The Mediterranean is riddled with rocks, which, when you know how to use them, prove incredibly useful. First the stones are dug out with a pick and used to form a wall. After that the earth is raked forwards to create a level surface. It’s a timeless system that’s been employed since the ancient Greeks 2000 years ago. The only trouble is, it’s very thirsty work. I looked at my small plastic water container. It looked back at me impassively.
I grabbed the scythe and hacked away at the rampant undergrowth, dry grasses and thorns that came up to my shoulders. Then began my first foray into the art terracing. After a few rock-crushed fingers, and the onset of blisters it dawned on me that I should have bought some gloves. Still, what a feeling of accomplishment it was to see my paltry two metres of ‘wall’ manifest out of the earth, even if in retrospect it did look more like a rickety row of enamel-chipped teeth. It was baking, and I was drinking non-stop. I eyed the water tank again. Two litres down, twenty-eight to go.
I should point out here that in actual fact there wasn’t really much of a risk of me dying of thirst. My closest neighbour was 400 metres away, and the handy public tap (of which there are so many in Turkey) was wedged 800 metres up a sharp slope in the graveyard. Nonetheless, unless I revolutionised the way I used water, things were going to get exceptionally inconvenient.
The sun had now shimmied behind the mountain signaling that afternoon was over and evening approaching. I tipped a little water from the tank into my hands to clean them, and watched it trickle through my fingers and into the mud.
It was time to establish camp proper. I grabbed my new £30 Carrefour tent, and set about making what was to become my home for the next 8 months. True, that tent changed positions more often than a mainstream politician. Even so, the bargain canvas far surpassed all expectations, and would survive well into the next year, until finally meeting its maker in a wrathful storm.
As the sky thickened with darkness, and the distant lights from Alakir bay flicked on one by one. I realised I still hadn’t eaten. By now I was almost staggering about in exhaustion, having done at least six or seven runs with the wheel barrow, land terracing, camp founding and the like. The easiest thing I could think of preparing was a sandwich. There was more hand washing, then tomato washing. I ate, and drank. Made myself some tea. I was now down to 25 litres with the washing up now towering menacingly in the shadows. I was also filthy.
Night had well and truly fallen, and I was almost sleeping in my hiking boots. Dragging the plastic tankard of water next to the tent, I crouched and stuck my torch into it. I calculated I could spare about ten litres for a shower. Ten litres. It’s a piffling amount, but that was all I had. I needed water for breakfast in the morning, and I didn’t like the idea of completely running out. Turning around, I briefly caught the last outlines of the great pines that bordered the land disappearing into the pitch. I decided to forego my wash and sleep in my own grime.
As I pulled off my work clothes and lay on my new bed, how cosy it felt. The kilim* on the floor was both warm and homely, the foam mattress as comfortable as any bed. I reached out for a last slug of water and wondered briefly how long I would manage to live up there like that. I wondered how long it would take me to get connected to the municipality supply too.
One and a half years on I still have no running water. And I’ve no longer any intention of getting any either. An earthbag house has been built, tons of earthplaster made, plants planted, bathrooms erected and dismantled, animals fed, meals cooked, washing up done. After that first night I think I managed to shower just about every day. You see, we humans are made of water, and water always finds a way. As I sit here in my earth covered roundhouse tapping away my story, the winter rain is driving down. I can hear that deluge hammering on my roof and gurgling into the newly installed water storage tanks below. I receive no bills. There’s no direct debit. Water just comes. For free. As it always has and it always will.
But how have I managed until now? I’ve managed by being thrifty. Water really shouldn’t be used just once, and there is a three-step system in operation in my kitchen.
Step 1: Clean water is used for washing vegetables. Step 2: Semi clean goes in the washing up bowl. Step 3. Dirty water goes on the garden.
You need to be using bio-degradable detergent for such a program, but my basil plants thrived on the washing up bowl throw outs for more than eight months. In addition, I have a composting dry toilet, which abhors water, and I plant trees that are as thrifty as I am; Olives, almonds, carobs, walnuts, and figs are highly sustainable in hot dry climates. Laundry was never the great problem I imagined it would be, as rocks and mountains care little about your wardrobe so you can wear the same thing until it stands up and walks away from you.
Water is the most important thing in the world. When it’s no longer there that fact becomes very very clear. It’s crazy how much we waste it, and pollute it and take this luscious resource for granted. So next time you leave the tap on, take a moment and spare a thought for me ;))
*Kilim – Traditional handwoven Turkish rug.
Atulya K Bingham
Sick of the screen?
You can now get a beautiful, illustrated paperback edition of Mud Mountain.
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine.
Want to follow my journey?