Life is a dynamic piece of art, and we create it in the same way we might a painting or a novel. Inspiration and dreams swirl in the cauldron of our souls. But to make them real, to bring them forth into the physical world, we need tools, skills and materials.
Some artists possess excellent technique, yet struggle with originality. Others are swollen with ideas but begin to flag when it comes to buckling down and honing their craft.
No guesses as to which side of the equation I tend to fall.
“OK so how do I download this app then?”
I was sitting in a cafe with Kieran. It was a raucous tavern of a place with a huge flat-screen television on one wall, a bar lined from end to end with drinkers, and copious amounts of internet. It was only six o’clock, but some men were already slit-eyed and staggering.
“Tool Box. Here you go. Download that. It’s got everything you could ever want on there–altimeter, compass, ruler, abacus, magnifier, spirit level. Is it installing? Awesome. You’re away.” Kieran picked up the plastic menu from the table and began studying it. “Wonder what this hamburger is gonna be like. I’ve tried a lot of hamburgers, you know, some have really good patties, but the bun is crap, some put nice lettuce and stuff in it, some don’t. I hope this is a good one. I could do with a good hamburger.”
I only half heard because I was lost in the array of foreign icons now cluttering my screen. “Mirror? Why would I want that?” I felt my forehead rumpling.
“Yeah some stuff is stupid. Who needs a mirror?” Kieran turned to look in the direction of the kitchen again.
“No. No. I meant I just use the camera on selfie mode. I thought that’s what everyone did.”
Kieran paused for a moment, one eyebrow pushed up, reflecting on how to comment. Fortunately at that moment a plate full of hamburger and fries was pushed under his nose to distract him.
“Decibel meter?” I said, staring at my phone, still very much at sea with my Tool Box app.
“Oh yeah that’s cool, you can see how loud it is in here. Just press start.”
I dutifully pressed the blue button on my screen. A moving graph appeared. The line bobbed up and down. “It’s between 60 to 80 decibels,” I reported.
“That’s loud.” Kieran said between mouthfuls.
I placed the phone on the table and pushed it slowly away from me. Reclining back on my chair a little I looked my old friend in the eye. “I know it’s bloody loud. We’re shouting at each other. Oof this tech, it’s ridiculous sometimes.”
Kieran chortled. “Yeah, but the altimeter and the compass are useful. South. We want to know where south is, remember? Don’t knock it.”
And thus Operation Land Hunt continued.
Kieran and I ploughed all over Asturias in my van, enduring far more early mornings than either of us were apt to. I squeezed the truck along tiny village roads, forced it up steep gradients and along precipices. One day we met Jorge, the next it was Juan. And when we tired of land sellers, we simply arranged for them to send us the location, and we trudged with our wellies and raincoats up to the plots ourselves. We saw eagles and stone huts, heard tales of wolves and bears. The slopes were gruelling, the rain persistent.
After a month or so of this caper, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying both of us had had enough. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’d lost the thread somewhere. I was all apped and mapped, I’d learned how to duel with estate agents and how to send a location via WhatsApp, but the intuitive signs were now missing. Each plot was all right, but nothing really spoke to me.
“Okay, last one,” said Kieran as he hauled himself into the passenger seat once again. It was a cool, dreary morning in late December. He pushed his rucksack behind his chair, and pulled off his hat. “Today is the day, Kerry. We’re gonna find something today. I feel it.”
I must admit, I didn’t. It was ten o’clock and all I felt was grumpy.
A couple of hours later we were navigating a curlicue lane, just wide enough for my van and not a lot else. The scenery was breathtaking. Middle-Earth-style mountains heaved into the clouds. They were enormous green sorcerers with flowing capes of moss and grass. Villages huddled upon their shoulders like flocks of stone birds.
“Do you think I can park here?” I stopped in front of a gate which led to a grazing field. It was the only space I’d seen at the side of the road.
“Yeah, I think so. Not as if there is anyone around, is it?”
I pulled the hand brake. We jumped out of the van and pulled on our rucksacks. It was at that very moment that a jeep drew up next to us. A woman wound down the window. I thought perhaps she was going to tell me to move, that I was blocking her access or something.
“Hello!” She called out cheerily. Kieran and I both looked up, startled. It was clear from her accent she was from the UK, and you don’t hear too many British accents in northern Spain. You don’t hear much English full stop, which is just one of the reasons I love it. “What are you doing here?” the woman asked. She was in her mid fifties, wellie-wearing, and looked like she could hike a hill or two without much sweat. Two dogs' faces crowded at the car window, all licks and sniffs, and I ran over to stroke them.
“We’re actually going to look at a plot of land up there.” I pointed up the hill. “Do you live here?”
“Yes yes! I’ve been here seven years. Oh, I love it. Lovely people. Go for it!” She grinned, before winding up her window and pulling away.
I turned to Kieran. Something popped in my chest. “That’s the first time I felt an invitation. The first time a place has whispered, stop a minute, come closer,” I said.
“Told you. Today is the day!” said Kieran, and charged off up the track, full of gusto.
Three hours later we were climbing down the hill. I was waving my phone in the air, feeling a little vexed. The altimeter was showing 200 metres, which was plain nonsense as we were almost at the snow line.
And the property? Yet again it had been almost right, but not quite. It was too steep, and too exposed. Sighing, I shut off my phone and squashed it in my rucksack. Without the technical issues, the landscape enthralled me. The mountains surged upwards in huge whorls, and they were stuffed with caverns and brooks. There was a feeling of beauty in my chest. And I realised with relief that I was sliding back into the mysterious flow of destiny.
We had hiked halfway back down the mountain, and were just admiring the a smooth, open piece of land, when a fellow appeared in front of us. Abruptly. Oddly. Because the track really was quite remote and lead absolutely nowhere. He was a youngish chap, swarthy, and he stopped as we passed.
“Hola!” he said. “Han estado en las cuevas?”
Kieran and I looked at each other. “Caves?” I said, suddenly becoming excited. “There are caves here?” I then proceeded to torture the poor man with my terrible Spanish for a minute or two. He graciously put up with me. Apparently there were prehistoric caves just behind us, though you’d never have known. There was no sign. Not even a path.
The man carried on up the track and we carried on down it. I grabbed my friend by the arm. “Kieran, I can’t believe he stopped us and pointed out the caves. Caves are one of my signs!”
Now, Kieran being an open-minded sort of a chap never rolls his eyes or dismisses The Way of the Witch. Indeed, he casts a few spells himself from time to time. And this is why, from time to time, he accompanies me on my missions, because he doesn’t kill the intuitive.
“Caves, eh? Pretty freaking weird he popped up like that.” Kieran stopped striding for a moment and scratched his beard. “So what are the other signs, then?”
“Well,” I said, “when I was driving through France on the way here, four things were coming to me: running water, prehistoric caves, a certain angle of sunlight hitting the land, and the sound of church bells.”
“Sunlight, for sure. We need that.”
“Yes, but I had no idea of how crucial that was back in France. It is massively important here. Maybe more than water.”
“I agree. You can sort the water. I mean, it hasn’t stopping freaking raining for a month! But without sun, you’re done. No solar power, growing veggies will be tough. Hmm. Church bells, eh? Good one. Well, there was a church down there. We passed it on the way up. Maybe the bell will ring?” Kieran grinned and then squinted in the direction of the village we’d passed. It was now visible again, the stone houses gripping the ridge tenaciously. “Yeah, you need to cruise with both strategies, I reckon. Use the internet and all that for some stuff, and groove with magic for the rest.” Kieran said.
We both began walking again. The sky was a cold tide of mist drawing in and out of the valleys, and I zipped up my jacket.
It was just as we reached the ‘main’ road where I’d parked the van, that Kieran stopped in his tracks. “I don’t freaking believe it!” He said. “Look! Another camper has parked behind you.”
“What? How? There’s no space. And who the hell would be up here? And why?” I peered down the road to glean a closer look. And then I paused. The camper van was a bright green Scooby Doo contraption. And I’d seen it before. So had Kieran.
“Do you remember, we saw that van pull into that town car park behind us when we went for coffee?” Kieran pulled his hat off.
“Yes. Yes I do. You know what? I’ll bet they are climbing in those caves. I mean, why else would anyone come here?”
“Yeah.” Kieran’s eyes widened. “Whoa! There’s definitely something going on here. Definitely. You’ve gotta come back and check it out. Go talk to that English woman. What was her name? Maria? Mary? Something like that. Told you. Today is the day. You’re on track, Kerry. You’re on track!”
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Many thanks as always to the Mud Sustainers and all those supporting this site. Every pledge is appreciated.
It took a friend to lure me out of my comfort zone. That was before a cold slap from winter finished the job. And it had been so very agreeable there, sitting at the edge of the Atlantic, watching the world go by. But the rhythmic curl and splash of the ocean had lured me into a passive stupor.
“Come on, let’s find you some land.” Kieran, an old friend from Turkey, pushed his many rucksacks into the van, then hauled himself into the passenger seat. There was something terrifyingly focused about him that morning. I don’t think I’d ever even seen his face in the forenoon light before, and this decisive burst of action on both our parts indicated the seriousness of the mission at hand.
My old friend yanked the heavy door shut, and I turned the ignition. Thus I was dragged out of the warm, wet arms of la Costa Verde, and into Operation Land Hunt.
“I’ve talked to the dude on Whatsapp. We’re meeting him tomorrow. Got more leads too. Whatsapping ‘em is the way. I just tell ‘em I’m using Google translate, and it’s all sorted. They send a map of where to meet...well they should...Come on dude send me the map! Don’t tell me the land is next to a white house! I mean, how am I supposed to find it like that?”
Kieran is a New Zealander, and he had arrived in northern Spain armed with an impressive artillery of maps, apps, inmobilariar websites, and land hunting strategy. Back in the day on Mud Mountain, he’d helped me many times; chiselling, rock shifting and dog-sitting. But his most useful asset has always been to spur me into action. I won’t deny, I needed a little spurring.
“Oof! I can’t believe a real estate agent doesn’t know how to send a location on Whatsapp! I mean that is freaking crazy. How can you not know that?” Kieran’s brows jerked together like two tousled soldiers in a trench.
I hugged the steering wheel, and remained silent. Because hey, I wasn’t quite sure if I knew how either.Until then, my approach to land hunting had been rather different. I had spent a month drifting about the north west coast of Spain somehow expecting the perfect plot to waft out of the Atlantic mist and in front of my windscreen. Or for a tree to extend a serendipitous branch and point to my new Eden. Or to simply stumble into it, upon which the sun would shine alluringly onto its verdant slopes. The upshot was nothing had happened. Nada. So now here I was with the land hunters’ answer to James Clark Ross. Naturally I was bewildered.
A few hours later we were striding through our first plot of land. The excitement was palpable despite the dripping sky. There was a tiny stone bothy, and acres of lush, peaceful space. Something was happening. At last!
“Ah lovely land. Lovely! I mean you could use that hut to live in. No one is going to find you up here. Eucalyptus. Eco-nightmare of course. Not good for the area, but useful. Burn it. Build with it. Good strong wood. Fuck it, you could sell it! South facing. That’s what we want. You wanna download this app Kerry, got a compass and an altimetre on it. 420 metres high. Perfect! Not too high, not too low. Agh so annoying! The freaking compass doesn’t work on my phone. Which way is North?”
I blinked like a deer in Bear Grylls' headlights. “Erm, if the sun came out we could tell...”
But the sun didn’t come out.
The land owner moved in and tapped Kieran on the arm. He was a white haired fellow used to walking. This had been his mother’s property, and presumably his grandmother's too.
“Muy soleado! Muy soleado!” He said.
“It’s sunny. He reckons the land is sunny.” Kieran pulled his hood up and began hiking off into the Eucalyptus trees.
“Donde esta el mar?” I asked the Asturian. He, like pretty much everyone I met in northern Spain patiently unravelled my pitiful Spanish. Then he pointed and babbled yet another string of syllables I didn't understand. The sea was north. That meant the land was south facing.
There was only one problem with this wonderful piece of Gaia; no water. And that for me of course, suffering as I have for two years without a tap or a stream, is a deal breaker. I turned and sighed.
But it was at that moment I caught sight of something beautiful. The land seller had rolled up his trousers, taken a scythe out of the bothy, and was now pulling it in sweeping strokes through the ever-burgeoning grass. The fresh damp air made his hair gleam and his cheeks glow. It was an evocative picture. The man had a relationship with this space, and wanted to tend it even though he was about to sell it.
As I watched him, my mind cast its nets back to Mud Mountain. My heart began to ache. I cannot tell you how much I missed my old space at that moment. There is nothing like being the guardian of one of Gaia’s gardens. My muscles yearned to dig and build. My soul pined for the silence.
Suddenly, quite unpredictably, the sun deigned to push briefly through the rain clouds. A shimmering yellow light coated the length of the land. The grass fell in glistening waves. And yes, the land owner was right, it was indeed muy soleado.
To be continued...
Do you enjoy this blog? If you'd like to express that you value The Mud Home and would like it to continue, consider making a pledge on Patreon towards the running costs. When you do, you automatically join the special Patreon feed where I post photos and details of how this quest in unfolding in real time. It's a space where you can ask questions and connect with me more personally.
Many thanks as always to the Mud Sustainers and all those supporting this site. Every pledge is appreciated.
Atulya K Bingham
"This is such a compelling book. It will make you want to abandon everything you know, move to the forest and commune with the trees and earth." Luisa Lyons, actor, writer and musician.
"Inspiring and beautifully written."
The Owner Builder Magazine.