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...
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?