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...
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Moving home is always going to be a challenge. Moving countries even more so. And so many folk are on the move right now. All over the world. Changes have taken place in the way nations and superstates are organised. They resonate with some. They don’t resonate with others. And if you aren’t resonating with your surroundings, you are left with a stark choice. Stay and adapt, or pack your bags and leave. The common sensation is displacement. And the reason for this is that we are not isolated lumps of flesh, but woven into the very tapestry of our environment.
But what next? If you are looking for a new home, how do you choose where it should be? How can you tell if any given spot is ‘the one’?
I dug a toe in the sands of Galicia. The beach was a geological masterpiece. Over the millennia, the Atlantic had chiselled the rocks into monuments. At this end of times’ long trajectory, they towered over the shoreline like a backdrop of Gothic abbeys.
Yes, the aptly named Playa de Les Catedrales wasn’t built in a day. What the hell of any value is?
It was here I sensed a slowing down. I had been driving along northern Spain’s A8, which while presumably not the most dangerous highway in the world, definitely qualifies for a place in Europe’s top 10 insane road engineering projects. It’s basically one very long, very high viaduct. I always imagine the road planners meeting for the A8 proceeding thus;
“Right folks, how can we build a highway through Asturias? It’s 200 km of sheer ravines and peaks.”
“I know! Let’s just slap the thing over the top!”
“A highway on stilts?”
“Yeah. The mountains can be the stilts.”
Slow nods all around the table. And the A8 was born.
But I was out of Asturias now. The A8 had come in to land. Grassy hills rose and fell like the body of a snoozing green bear. The road was an elastic band that my van was pulling. I knew as soon as it reached its stretch limit, it would ping me straight back.
Within a week I found that limit. Unsurprisingly, it was Santiago de Compostela. End of The Camino. End of so many things. As I wandered about the cathedral for the umpteenth time, gazing up at the intricately sculpted nave, the stone pillars and porticos, I saw the mirroring. From one catedrale to another. The inspiration ricocheted from rock to basilica. From nature to city to nature.
So back I pinged. Back to the shores of Galicia and the structures the Atlantic had carved. Back along the A8. I waited for gravity to drag me down and let me fall somewhere. But where would I settle? Where?
Finding a new space doesn’t happen in a day. Nothing of any value does.
To arrive somewhere, anywhere, and decide in an instant whether or not its ‘the one’, is the mental equivalent of bulldozing a plot of land before you’ve even set foot in it. Because there is no ‘one special space’. There are infinite spaces. Infinite homes. Infinite new worlds to create. It’s down to us to connect with them. And eventually commit to them.
Finding a new space to live is to start a relationship. First there is attraction. Then tentative invitations, accepted or refused. We begin a conversation with our surroundings. We listen, and we speak. With each passing day we learn a little more. The land learns a little more. The folk we encounter learn a little more. Do we trust? Do they trust us? Thus the relationship begins.
The leaves turned brown. Chestnuts appeared. Rain began to fall. I circled between Galicia and Asturias. Round and round. Feeling. Smelling. Sensing. As the season turned from late Autumn to winter, I noticed I was still here.
Many thanks as always to our growing group of Mud Sustainers and all those supporting this site on Patreon. If you'd like to follow this journey as it happens, or to simply express that you value this blog and would like it to continue, consider pledging and joining the Patreon feed where I post more photos of my journey in real time and my thoughts as they arise.
In this blog I openly share my personal experience. Generally it is met with kindness and generosity, and I am always very happy to hear your comments, ideas and experiences. Whatever your opinion please voice it respectfully. I don't engage in rudeness or negativity in my life or on this site. It is simply deleted.
Sacredness. This is what we have lost. It’s not the only thing to have been mislaid on the long, dry road to the 21st century, but it’s pivotal. Without it, all is cheap and lacklustre. Without it, we are floundering in the lowest, most profane dimensions of ourselves. Nothing satisfies us. Nothing has value. The beautiful garden of our planet, the animals and plants we eat, sex, other human beings, all appear a type of consumable junk with no intrinsic value other than the temporary gratification they afford us.
When something is sacred it is seen as holy, possessing divinity. It is so valuable it becomes inviolable.
Mud Mountain was sacred to me. Each bud of each flower, each dew drop, each ant and each owl cry meant something to me. Each fold in each leaf, each tree branch, each vegetable I grew was handled with care. There were many personal reasons for my seclusion up there in the Turkish hills, but the sacredness of my land was one of them. I wanted to protect it from a cohort of humans who couldn’t see its preciousness, who seemed only to want to devour it as some type of tourist attraction.
Sacredness. The interesting thing about sacredness is that it is only when we bestow it upon something else, that we are blessed by it. It is a gift from our souls to the world, which is then magnified through matter and showered back a hundredfold upon us. Then we become sacred. And to feel sacred is to embody the highest dimension our ourselves. We become true sovereigns of our worlds.
All this has come to me in Spain. Northern Spain. Where my quest to find my new sacred space is unfolding.
As I drove over the Pyrenees and along the chiselled cliffs of the Bay of Biscay, the land grew a lush plumage of grass and ferns. My van was a white ship rising and falling over a green, velvet sea. I clutched four emblems in my hands. Four clues I had gleaned from my journey through France: Caves, church bells, running water, and a certain angle of golden sunlight. These emblems became my totems. They became sacred. And sure enough, that sacredness illuminated a trail.
Parking on precipices, in streets, on beaches, I felt the texture of each region. The rocky aloofness of the Basque country, the green congeniality of Cantabria, the mountainous drama of Asturias. I revisited places from my first trip here in winter to see if they held messages for me. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t. Caves called out to me left, right and centre. I hid in their darkened bellies sensing my thoughts heard, and my emotions felt. It felt sacred.
The Atlantic drew me to her. The smell of her intoxicated me, the surf washed me clean. Meditating, I pulled the wisest, most mystical parts of me to the fore. And the land began speaking.
It was then of course, that I happened upon the sacred space.
I cannot name it, and nor do I need to. There are enough sacred spaces for everyone. Vortexes of the Earth’s power exist all over the planet. Everywhere. Even in cities. This wasn’t a city, though. I was wandering through a wet Asturian forest, birds trilling and whooping as though I were in the Amazon. It was early. Mud oozed. It was a forager’s delight. Nettles, wild mint, clover, chickweed, plantain and moss burst from the ground and rocks. Mushroom caps pushed out of from dead leaves. A small river looped in and out, and I followed it to the sea.
On reaching a bluff, I pulled off my shoes. As my toes sank into the cool sand, the waves embraced the rocks. To the right of me three enormous openings beckoned from a rock face. Walking over, I entered one of them, soon finding myself in a wide, nobbled cave complex. One cave. Three openings. And through those openings I once again spied the wisest parts of me, this time reflected in the rocks.
When finally I waded out of the cave and into the silver of evening, a brew of mist was rising from the sea. All at once a flock of gulls rose around me, thirty of more of them, floating on the evening air. They circled me, feathered kites bobbing, rising, falling, rising. And I wept. For how can anything be this exquisite?
This is not my land of course. This is not my own special place. But it is a sacred space. Sacred spaces sing. Because they have been neither polluted nor violated, they reach out and embrace. They whisper. They inspire.
Galloping back to my van, I waited. For I can sense the vibration of a place simply by the words it drops into my mind. I opened my laptop, and let my fingers touch the keyboard. Magic surged through me. I reeled from the force of it. And from that mysterious soup that forms when human consciousness meets Mother Earth, this post spontaneously emerged.
This post has come to you thanks to the Mud Sustainers and all those supporting this site on Patreon. If you'd like to follow this journey as it happens, or to simply express that you'd like this blog to continue, consider pledging and joining the Patreon feed where I post more photos and thoughts as they arise.
And so the road beckoned once more. As late summer flirted with autumn, I heard the call. It was my land.
I haven’t met my land yet. I don’t know where she hides, nor what she looks like. But she called. Or cooed. Or was it that she sang? Suddenly, from the cosy security of my Dad’s lounge in Essex I ached for the wild. For old trees with old secrets. For a babbling brook. For the aroma of rich, musty earth.
I had to find my spot of wilderness.
It was a blustery cloud-swept morning that left. I arrived in Harwich port where the cranes tore mercilessly at the stratus. They were huge mechanised raptors pillaging the shoreline, clanking hysterically as they worked. The waterfront was the epitome of the modern world. A world made by people who value different things than I. A world where magic, beauty and sentiment have few places to hide, and no currency to bargain with. A world of systems, logic, levers and pulleys.
That world is not my world. But I am not homeless, because as soon as I distance myself from a city, or a computer screen, or a newspaper, my world reappears. It is waiting for me. It never left me. There is a covenant between our hearts and this planet. And by our will, love and imagination our worlds arise.
As I sat in the spacious belly of the ferry, my van tucked neatly into the floating car park below, through a porthole I watched England being sucked out of sight. The clouds thinned. The sea flattened. Sunlight flicked over the water. And I felt the pull. There was a grace in that light. A guidance. A summoning.
It was evening when I rumbled off the gangplank into the Netherlands. I motored slowly. This time I felt none of the restless haste I had in the winter. Because my land is there. Waiting. And all that could happen has. There really is nothing but The New ahead.
Soon the slick highways of the Netherlands and Belgium had disappeared from the rear view, and I was once again cruising through the motorists’ heaven that is rural France. Miles and miles of smooth, fresh tarmac with very little on it. Rolling fields. Old stone bridges arcing over untroubled rivers. Sun-kissed villages. Patisseries and crêperies and cafés and tabacs. It’s another type of civilisation here. A province where money and success are no longer Gods. Where shops are closed more often than they are open, and where things take their time. Beauty counts. Art counts. Digestion counts.
And faster than I could have hoped, the land touched me. It was as if the road was a tendril striving for the light, twisting and stretching though a landscape of secret signs. There was no longer just me navigating the outside. We were a multitude of interwoven intelligences.
My heart was full. I was on the right track.
I hadn’t planned to visit the Dordogne. I hadn’t planned to visit anywhere in particular. But a peculiar stone round house on a roadside drew me to a halt. I turned off the road and parked, sniffing the air. The weather was whimsical, glorious sunshine playing hide and seek with heavy, driving rain. Currently, it was the sun’s turn in the sky, so I left my jacket in the van, and strode over to look at the stone house.
On closer inspection I saw the small stone building was mortarless. With its conical schist roof it resembled a stunted wizard, or a rocky sufi. The structure was too tiny to be a dwelling. And with no obvious information on it, there wasn’t much more to learn from it. So I walked back to my van feeling a little ignorant.
It was then, there in the small car park, that a sign caught my eye. I trotted over to it, hoping it would tell me about the stone structure. It didn’t. The sign was adorned with maps and photographs, an outline of the Dordogne (which I was on the very outer edge of) replete with prehistoric caves, ancient villages, and other sites of interest. I studied the pictures and the map. My eye fell upon the cave of Lascaux.
Lascaux is a prehistoric cave housing ancient paintings from 20 000 years ago. I’d visited a similar one in Spain – Altamira cave – and the experience had left an impression on me as the artwork was astounding. Indeed upon visiting it, Picasso famously said, “After Altamira, all is decadence.”
Pulling out my phone from my pocket, I checked where Lascaux was on the map. It was in the opposite direction to the where I was heading. But this was a treasure trail, I could tell...
Because I had run out of water and was needing a shower, I didn’t want to camp wild that night, so I scanned the virtual map again for a campsite in the Lascaux area. The least expensive one I could see was in a village about an hour away from where I now stood.
And so it was. I buckled myself into the driver’s seat once again, turned the ignition and pulled out of the car park. The sky darkened and sank onto my van. Within seconds the road was a splashing river, and my windscreen wipers were groaning.
An hour later the sun had carved a reasonable groove into the cloud once more, and I had arrived in the most charming rustic village. It was an oasis of natural tranquillity. A thick flat river coursed happily beside my pitch, and I was lulled to sleep by the sound of gurgling water.
I never reached the cave of Lascaux. I was too taken by where I was. There was an evocative ancient church in the village. When I sat inside, its cool walls soothed me. And each evening as its large old bell struck, I was reminded of something, somewhere. Stone homes, tiny nobbled passageways, and a prehistoric cave a 5 kilometre hike away. One with ancient houses in, not paintings.
Two days later, I left the Vallee de Vezeres. The rational mind was scratching its head. What did it all mean? The old church? The river? The dancing sunlight, and the troglodyte city? But on another level entirely, both my heart and soul, with their fingers dipped into the intelligence of The Beyond, had already spotted the clues. Though it would take a few more days for me to see where they were leading.
A feisty wind tore at the cliff face. Head down, shoulders hunched, I pushed along the bracken-stuffed trail. I’d reached the north west corner of Scotland. It was another planet up here; a buffeted, watery world that swam green and grey from the shore.
People were few and far between. Petrol stations scarcer. I hadn’t sensed this depth and breadth of remoteness since Turkey. Britain may be a crowded island, but almost everyone is clustered in the southern half of it.
I grinned as I hiked. Because I was on a quest. Scoraig was my destination, an off-grid community huddled on a distant peninsula in Wester Ross. It was a landscape of names pulled out of a fantasy novel, and I was revelling in it.
As I drank in the clouds, I wondered what an off-grid world might look like in the UK. In this case, only the truly dedicated would ever find out. The road to Scoraig is an arduous, sheep-obstructed thread; coiling up mountains and plunging into lush valleys. I had considered abandoning the visit a couple of times the previous evening as my fat van teetered along the narrow tarmac, listing like a ship in trouble.
Where the road ended, the trek began. Three miles or more of it. All along a jagged stone dinosaur of a precipice. It was amazing. A spatter of rain hit my face. I saw the dark body of the sea thrashing against the rocks below. And then finally a few stone shacks pulled into view. Even I, weathered soul that I am, muttered “hard core”.
“There are about 20 crofts here,” Davy led the way to his house. With his long auburn beard, he looked suitably Celtic. Though he sounded more like he was from Nottingham. His small son bounced on his back relishing the wind whipping at his hair.
“Are all the crofts off-grid?” I asked.
“Yes, you can see the wind turbines. We’re really lucky. Hugh Pigott the turbine specialist lives here too.” Davy pushed open the door to a large stone house.
“Are you Scottish?” I asked, because hey, I was curious.
Davy laughed. “Yes, I’m born and bred in Scoraig. But because people have moved here from different places, Scoraig now has its own accent.” He pulled off his boots. I bent and untied mine.
As soon as I walked into the living room, I felt a warmth. A familiarity. The aura of a self-built home is always palpable. A woman my age sat on the sofa.
“Welcome!” She smiled. Her eyes and skin were fresh. Something happens to people’s faces when their souls are in their bodies and their lives.
Oh what a happy day I spent on Scoraig! We gathered our lunch from the burgeoning vegetable garden. I gawped enviously at Davy’s wind turbine and towering battery bank. Finally we discussed the advantages of no road access, before eating the best food I’ve tasted in a long, long while.
“You know I’ve got about 10 or 15 people who’d like to hear about earthbag building.” Davy said as he collected up the plates.
“Really?” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t even see that many crofts from the window, let alone people. But they were there. Hiding in the folds of the hills. As I soon found out.
Half an hour later we were sitting in the community centre with 20 Scoraigians; old and young, men and women, from all over the British isles, yet all choosing this remote off-grid world, a world modernity views as quackery and hardship. With the exception of communes, it was the first time in my life I’ve sat with so many people living a similar alternative life.
I was miles away from Mud Mountain in a completely different climate, on a completely different sea. And yet I felt at home.
It was almost ten pm when I threw my pack on my back and made for the door. But darkness was far away in Wester Ross. It was an ever-twilight dreamland. I wandered back along the craggy ridge, belly stuffed with home-grown food, mentally nourished, invigorated and alive. And I all but skipped the three miles back to my van.
It’s such a simple idea. A house. A family. A garden. A community. So unostentatious compared to the glitzy trappings of fast-track careers, bloated bank accounts, and great ego-propping acquisitions. So uncomplicated. And yet so fulfilling.
People like to blame the system and the government for the polluted carcass that is urban modernity. And that’s convenient. But we create the system. We fuel it. We are it. And with every pound or dollar we spend on a given product, we vote for the direction it takes. I’m not wagging the finger, because I too am a part of it. Nor am I advocating revolution. What difference would it make when people’s minds and souls are so contorted out of shape they don’t even remember who they are? Or the possibilities open to them? Right now? At this very moment? Skirting along the edges of this selfsame system?
Back on Mud Mountain, I heard many times that it was impossible to do what I did in the West. Especially the UK. It’s a small, crowded place after all. I harboured my suspicions, but I held my tongue, and waited until I saw for myself. After two months or more or touring, I’ve seen. And what do you know? It all looks oh so familiar.
There are hundreds of examples, each unique in shape and form, of folk creating beautiful worlds for themselves in the UK. Community buyouts like on the Isle of Eigg, hidden mud homes in forests, local hutters’ groups, eco-communities who band together to gain permission for self-build natural homes (Tinker's Bubble is just one example). Unlike Turkey, you don’t have to be under the radar for many of them. Some even manage government funding!
Similar possibilities exist everywhere else in the world too. Everywhere. For the most part, the greatest obstacle we face is not the system, nor the government, but the limits of our minds, our addiction to the (un)comfort zone, and our lethargy.
Fair enough if this isn’t the lifestyle you want. I respect that. We are all different. But if it is your dream, if you want to thrive in nature in a house you built yourself, pay no heed to the throng of hopeless whiners telling you it’s impossible. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
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“The birds were talking to me. It was an entirely different kind of consciousness.”
I blinked in the twilight at the bright-eyed fellow stoking the fire in front of me. Yes, the stove was burning. In the last days of June. Because this was the isle of Skye. I had pushed further north up Scotland’s west coast, to places that cling to daylight’s fringes. Places the sun barely leaves. Solstice was only days behind us.
“I lived in the forest for four years,” Ludwig said. He was a fellow with a piercing stare. I recognised it. The eyes of wild people are always brighter. Sharper. Uncompromising.
“What did you live in?” I glanced about the spacious wooden house. Evening was slowly sliding beneath the roof, smudging its lines. I couldn’t believe I was chatting to someone else barmy enough to completely lose themselves to nature.
“Erm, I rescued a 100-year-old tent from the skip, and made it waterproof using resin from the pines from the land. People came to help. I hardly used any money. About £25 a week. Sometimes I busked. That was hard work.” Ludwig closed the stove door, and wandered over to a shelf. Reaching up, he grabbed a cardboard box and placed it on the table.
“Did you grow your own food?” I asked, peering into the box. It was full of pieces of birds: Claws, feathers, wings. I blinked, and recoiled slightly. I couldn’t quite decide if I was talking to Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf.
“Not in the beginning. That took a while. People brought me food sometimes. Other times I foraged in bins. You wouldn’t believe what people throw out.” Ludwig pulled a chair from under the table opposite me.
“Yes, the West is nuts! It’s not like that in Turkey. No one in my village would have thrown anything half decent in the rubbish. Not even bits of old wood.” I felt a warm glow as I remembered my village back in Lycia. How my neighbour Dudu would covet plastic bags and water bottles. How we’d fight for fallen trees.
Dusk settled into the corners of the house. Ludwig sat back and grinned. He was far from his forest now. Just as with me, Gaia had nudged him along. And it was hard not to view it as a promotion. Because the homestead we were now chatting in squatted within 15 acres of land, all of which was now under Ludwig’s stewardship. It was one of Skye’s most secluded peninsulas and comprised a clutch of coves, beaches, and ensorcelled forests. Otters and seals dipped in the green water. Spirit eyes peered at me from the trees. It was one of those special spaces. Where nature and humans create alchemy.
“What’s this box of dead bird bits for?” I asked at last, unable to ignore it.
“I use it for teaching. It’s great for children.” My host pushed the box a bit closer. I stuck my hand in and rummaged about in the grisly, ornithological lucky dip. A game is a game. You have to play.
“Which bird’s feather is this?” I asked pulling a black and white striped plume from the box.
Ludwig sat back, formed a bridge out of his hands, and shrugged. “What do you think?”
I shifted on my chair. “I’ve no idea. I’m hopeless with bird names, especially in this country. I haven’t lived here for 20 years.” Well, I thought I’d better have some excuse for my ignorance, didn’t I?
“Which part of the bird is it from, do you think? The breast? The wing? The tail?”
I turned the feather over and stroked it. It was soft and silky. “I’m not sure. Not the breast. But could be the wing I suppose.”
Ludwig’s face was deadpan. I held the feather up, and peered even closer at it, hoping to see the bird in it somewhere. But no amount of hard staring drew the answer out. Turning back, I asked again, “Which bird is it?” feeling my eyes straining in curiosity.
Bilbo Gandalf shrugged and sat back. He was giving nothing away. I pulled my chair closer to the table while I racked my brain, trying to haul out mental images of black and white stripy birds that might live around the Scottish west coast. None came to mind.
Eventually, the bird collector stuck his hand in the box once more. He pulled out two more stripy feathers, much longer than the one I was holding. Then he bunched them all together and held them upright. Immediately I saw a tail.
“Pheasant! It’s a pheasant!” I grabbed the three feathers and stroked them lovingly. “Well, that was a bit tricky, you have to admit,” I chuckled. Carefully replacing the feathers in the cardboard box, I mused on the art of teaching. The patience required. How brilliant teachers always stand back and allow students to own their learning experience.
“What do you have in mind for this place?” I asked at last, pushing my chair back.
Ludwig’s face became animated. “I want to create a living, breathing example of permaculture in action. I’m a qualified permaculture instructor and have been teaching it for a while now. But my real passion is to get more people to reconnect with nature. To really feel it. Because without that…”
I moved to the edge of my chair, and gripped the wooden handles. Twilight lingered in the windows creating lucent holes in the dingy walls. “Yes, I feel exactly the same way. We’ve totally lost the connection. No one feels it. That nature is their home. That it’s full of magic.”
“Yeah. And you’ve really got to abandon yourself to it. It’s not a head game. Not something you can read a few books about.” Ludwig stood up and reached for the wine.
“Exactly!” I chimed in. “You’ve got to get your arse in the dirt and put yourself on the line. Because if you don’t, you never feel nature come through for you. You never really trust her.”
Through the windows I saw a silver glow had descended over the trees. They stretched silently into it. The house was a carved hollow in a fantasy weald. A witch doctor’s cavern. Birds cooed outside, their haunting twitters tumbling from the air in a melodic rain.
“Oh no!” Suddenly, Ludwig leapt from his chair. Even through the murk, I could see his face was aghast. “I forgot the chickens and the ducks! The pine martins will be out. How did I forget? I never forget.”
I stood up too, shuddering at the thought of the chickens, huddled on their roosts, waiting in terror for the predator. It was well past eleven, time to return to my van. Stuffing my feet in my wellies, and my arms in my raincoat, I followed Ludwig outside. The sky was an eerie swirl of mist. Pale. Glowing. Dripping with the spells of dusk.
As we cantered through the mud and the moss, I felt the forest speaking. And it was in a hushed voice of relief. Because she knew she was lucky. That a guardian had arrived. And that he had ears to hear her.
Ludwig Appeltans is a very well qualified and experienced permaculture teacher. I can personally attest he knows what he’s talking about. He runs the Earth Ways permaculture project, aiming to reconnect people, land and nature.
Read more about Ludwig, and the Earth Ways organisation.
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It was but a few days ago. I was huddled on a small boat tethered to a jetty on the Scottish island of Mull. The weather was amazing in its sogginess. Mostly it rained. And when it wasn’t raining another strange kind of element would descend. A freezing gloop that swallowed the mountains whole and turned skin into cold slime. It was well into the month of June, but I still had my woolly hat on.
“Is this normal?” I asked the small lady next to me as we rose and sank with the waves. She chortled, and a few freckles disappeared into creases. “Oh I thought the weather was quite a good,” she said. I blinked and wondered what on Earth she could mean. Back in Turkey no one would have even got out of bed on a day like today, never mind stepped on a boat. Even if it was to see puffins.
Oh the puffins! The puffins!
But more about those in a moment.
Now, you may at this juncture rightly be wondering what I’m doing in Scotland. Wasn’t I in Portugal? Well, yes. But the Atlantic has pulled me northwards. First it dragged me back to northern Spain, to Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria. From there I boarded a ferry to the UK. And then I drove further north again.
What is this calling? I don’t know. Is it the Celts? Or is it the ocean itself, the fresh, cool smell of which bewitches me? While the Mediterranean is a cultured sea. A sea of trade, art and thought, the Atlantic feels ancient. Wild. Stuffed with seals, whales, and semi-crazed mariners with matted, white beards. It’s a mist-cloaked hide upon which a thousand myths are written. And in which a thousand spells have been cast.
No wonder then that the puffins live here too.
Squeezing myself out from my chair, I trotted up to the wheelhouse of our boat. The glass was spattered with drips, and through them I spied a grey speckled hump of rock approaching. I marveled at our group of weathered day-trippers, hoods pulled down, a platoon of multi-coloured Gore-Tex battling the elements. Giant telephoto lenses and binoculars swung from necks and shoulders. These were serious bird watchers and wildlife photographers. People on a mission.
Now, it’s a rare day I’ll join a group. There has to be something very special out there to compel me to share a floating cupboard with thirty people...
“Ladies and gents, here we are. Lunga of the Treshnish Islands.” Our skipper spoke with weary authority as he pulled into the beach. His first mate leapt ashore, rope in hand.
“When you get o’ the boat, walk up the steps. We always recommend you carry on walking to the end o’ the path to see Harp Rock. But no one ever listens to us. They see the puffins, and become somehow hypnotised…Mesmerised…Puffinised...”
I thought he was joking.
Once off the boat, I picked my way over boulders, gaping at the landscape. Lunga was a mysterious, fog-shrouded place, stuffed full of barnacles and limpets. The rocks grew green hair. You slipped on it wherever you trod. One by one we stumbled and skidded over the shore. I stared at the pools of cold water beside me churning with brown vipers of seaweed. And I shivered.
Single file, we all clambered up the muddy path. The sky drifted over us, and it began to pour with rain once again. There was some huffing and murmuring. Then suddenly we reached the top of the bluff. And we all became quiet. Silent in fact.
There lining the precipice were rows and rows of orange and red patterned beaks. Some poked out of burrows. Others gripped grass or sand eels. The beaks turned toward us. They twittered excitedly. The puffins didn’t fly away. They weren’t bothered by us at all. On the contrary, I got the distinct impression they were rather pleased to see us. Many birds flew in from the sea, landing much as I might if I grew a couple of stumpy wings and hurled myself from a precipice. Others strutted to and fro like tiny waist-coated butlers.
I fell onto the sopping ground. And just as the skipper had predicted I was mesmerised. Everyone was. No matter that the grass was soaking, the air freezing. No matter that our clothes were now streaked in mud. The puffins had us rapt.
Eventually, I remembered the wise old skippers’ words about the Harp Rock. Up yonder. With a groan and a stomp, I tore myself from the puffin ledge and continued along the path. And that was when things turned sour.
As I slid along the escarpment the talons of a black thought appeared through the wet air. They curled and clawed at me. Puffins are a vulnerable species. A terrible regret gripped my heart. We had to be disturbing these dear little birds. How could we not be? Just because they looked like they weren’t bothered by us, didn’t mean they weren’t. And after us, more damn tourists would follow. And more. Until...
The further along the path I walked, the more upset I became. The talons scratched at my conscience. I hate humans, I thought. We are nothing but a bunch of selfish, destructive arseholes. Our curiosity is killing the puffins! We are wrecking their peace and quiet. Tramping all over their habitat. How could I have come here and participated in this?
Suddenly, a cacophony of squawking drowned my thoughts. I had reached Harp Rock. There it jutted from the water like an enormous raptor’s tooth. But it was ablaze with so many birds as to be invisible. Kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, shags, and puffins all squawked and screeched and zipped about it. The air was a vapour of birds.
A mighty wind shoved up the sheer cliff edges, and for a moment the rain backed off. As I stood gaping in amazement at this storm of winged bustle, I watched the puffins scuttling into their burrows. They were more timid here, with none of the comfortable prancing of the puffins back at the beginning. These were jumpy, alert.
Eventually, I turned back. As I skidded along the oozing track, I wondered if this charming bird would survive us.
Back at the main puffin ledge, just beneath another leaden belt of precipitation, I spotted Lunga’s warden. He was a young chap shrouded in a navy blue sou’wester, and was cheerily impervious to the never-ending rain.
Sitting on the grass next to him, metres from the puffins, I spoke up. “Aren’t we disturbing them?” I said. “Do you think we should be up here?”
The warden turned to me and grinned. “No. They like us.”
I sighed somewhat exasperated. “How do you know that though?”
“Well, every year the scientists come here. They stay for a month in huts over there and tag the birds. What they’ve noticed is that the breeding rate of these puffins on this ledge, the one where all the visitors come, is far higher than anywhere else on the island.”
My mouth fell open. “Why?”
“They don’ really know. But one guess is, it’s because we’re keepin’ predators away that would otherwise eat their chicks. So they feel safer.”
I sat for a moment, a thousand light bulbs popping on in my brain. And I was once again reminded of my lizards on Mud Mountain. And the animals at Tamera. Because these puffins exhibited exactly the same relaxed behaviour. The same confidence. The same apparent will to interact with us, communicate with us.
And it was, I kid not, at that moment that three puffins walked right up to me and began touching beaks. Another ruffled its feathers and jumped out of its burrow to watch.
“Bottom line is they wouldn’t breed more if they were disturbed. S’far as I know, no puffin on this ledge has ever been harmed by a human, so maybe they’ve worked out we’re safe,” said the warden. “I’m the last out of here at night. When everyone’s gone, the puffins are no’ like this. They don’t hang around outside showin’ off. They’re either hidin’ in their burrows, or out at sea. And when they see the first boat of the day comin’ they all fly in from the water in a mad flurry. It’s really funny.” The young man chuckled and pulled his hood down a little as the rain drove in.
“Do you think they’re acting up to us, to get us to stay?”
“Could be. They’re really clever. But I think they’re also curious about us, like we are about them,” he concluded.
A puffin began strutting in my direction, eyes on me. Then it turned and stopped next to a woman nearby. The small bird hung about her feet, rainbow beak twitching up and down, stepping closer and closer. And just like that the darkness lifted from my world. Because I realised the puffins saw us humans in a very different light than I did.
And perhaps these charismatic little birds have a point.
Though we may currently be in the grip of a dramatically destructive, self sabotaging psychology, humans are not actually congenital parasites. We have the capacity to be it all. To choose. To create not just our destinies, but our very selves. And when humans choose the role of guardian over exploiter, when they choose to connect with their environment on an emotional level rather than try to control it, when they opt for balance over greed, nature responds very fast. And it is wonderful to watch.
Slowly I stood up. I could see our boat heaving over the teal waves toward the shore. And I walked towards it. Like everyone else, I was grinning from ear to ear, utterly puffinised.
More Atlantic Puffin facts:
1. Atlantic puffins nearly always stay with the same mate for life. Both meet back at the same burrow year after year, and they share the egg incubation and hunting duties.
2. Some puffins don’t join in the mating game and stay single forever. You may or may not be surprised to learn these puffins live longer than the other mating puffins.
3. Puffins can be very old. Some reach over 30 years of age!
4. Atlantic puffins are quite capable of digging their own burrows, but if they find some other animal (rabbits for example) to do the heavy work for them, they’ll happily move in to these burrows and refurbish them instead.
5. Despite looking highly unaerodynamic, the puffin can fly up to 55 mph. It achieves these speeds by flapping its wings frantically (400 times per minute).
I always enjoy your comments, so feel free to add them.
There is a special place down in Portugal that has achieved the impossible. A place that is making miracles and creating water (And let's face it, we could do with a few miracles, right now). That place is called Tamera.
Last month, while on my four-wheeled odyssey of the Iberian Peninsula, I decided to pay Tamera a visit. As I drove the length of Portugal’s wave-thrashed coast, one thought appeared often. It winged its way along the sculpted rocks, skimmed the surf, and dove between the green rucks of the Atlantic. "What is life?"
The force of life is baffling. How it comes into being. How it moves. Why it bothers. For us on planet Earth, life is inextricably linked to water. Oh and didn’t I know it as I chugged southwards? How many times would I peer up at my caravan’s water tank gauge to see that accursed arrow in the red?
Pushing my van into 4th gear, I sped away from the sea and into the hills, to the region of Alentejo.
Tamera was founded over forty years ago by a group of like-minded folk who bought up a large plot of land in southern Portugal and founded a small society. It is a solar-powered, sustainable world based on peace and love, and a few other things generally deemed utopic. In fact Tamera’s byline is “Realistic Utopia.”
Now let’s be honest here, my dog has just died, I’m far from Mud Mountain, Turkey has become a dictatorship, the UK has just voted away my EU citizenship, and all over the Western world borders are slamming shut faster than a climate denier’s eyelids. The last thing I was feeling when I strolled into Tamera was optimism for world peace and love. My mission was to learn about water solutions. Having suffered for two years on Mud Mountain without water, I wanted to view first hand Tamera’s revolutionary water retention landscape.
But Tamera has another way of speaking to you. One I hadn’t heard for a few months now. One I was badly missing. And I was reminded, the water solution – beautiful as it is – isn’t the ultimate solution.
It was April, and as I wended my way through the rolling slopes of Alentejo, spring was everywhere. The hills were speckled with the white heads of rock roses, and I grinned at the telegraph poles. Each one was capped by a huge nest of twigs. They were fat straw hats in which a stork sat cosily, beak pointing outwards, waiting for her mate to bring her some food. Yet it was already a feisty 28 degrees, the sun coursing over the hills in hot golden rivers. I noticed many of the roadside springs were dry.
Desertification is encroaching upon Portugal. And just as in most places, this is caused by a consortium of inappropriate agricultural techniques, deforestation and modern water (mis)management systems. Unfortunately for us all, most mainstream water engineers are still stuck in the 17th century; the universe is a machine, only instead of God we now pull the levers. They approach our planet’s water as if it were a plumbing system laid on for our convenience. Massive dams are constructed squandering huge amounts of concrete and thus energy. Ecosystems are destroyed in the process. The water table enters a state of severe imbalance. Droughts worsen. In the face of these disasters, the current engineering ‘solution’ is to repeat this insanity on a bigger scale, because apparently humans are still club-wielding numbskulls, knuckles dragging in the now waterless dust, and bigger is always better, right?
And then there’s permaculture, which doesn’t see the planet as a machine, but as a dynamic ball of life...
Tamera is permaculture in action.
My van bumped along a dirt track. It twisted and turned spewing a haze of dust behind it. Suddenly I spotted it. Solar panels. A yurt or two. A strawbale structure. Two lakes. I had arrived.
I slowed down, wound down my window and gawped at the water retention lakes. Yet what was most striking them wasn’t the lakes themselves, but the myriad of life that surrounded them. Grass, flowers, trees, saplings, shrubs, vegetables. It was an oasis of green vitality in an arid scrubland.
How did they make the lakes?
The lakes were designed by the Austrian agricultural rebel, Sepp Holzer. On the lower part of the land, two lakes were excavated. They were not sealed by concrete or any other type of artificial membrane, but banked by clay to stop the excess water running away in the rainier season. It’s important that the pools are lake-sized not pond-sized or the water evaporates (which is exactly why my bash at one on Mud Mountain failed).
How do the lakes work?
Water retention lakes are only ever effective when part of a water retention landscape. What’s that? It’s a landscape with no rainwater run-off, when each drop of rain sinks into the land, is taken up by plant life or the earth itself. Previously the Earth was covered in dense vegetation which allowed a precious humus to form. It is the humus that sucks up the water like a sponge before allowing it to slowly seep back into the ground.
There are many aspects to a water retention landscape; terracing, lakes, holistic grazing management, swales and more. But it’s far beyond the scope of this post to explain each one. And seeing as the information is available online for free, and written by folk with far more experience than me, it would be a crass reinvention of the wheel. But for those wanting the details (or to argue the toss about why classic water management projects cause droughts), download Tamera’s detailed PDF.
For the living proof, you can view the before and after photos on the Tamera website. In ten years the space has been entirely transformed.
But hold on there! The water solution isn’t actually the solution.
Now I know people love to geek out on these types of solutions. But to obsess over the lakes and the swales, to focus only on the most obvious physical structures of Tamera’s landscape is to revert back to the dam-building engineer mentality. It’s missing the point. I'd go as far as to say, after my own experiences on Mud Mountain, without Tamera's founding principles, it wouldn't even work in the same way. Because, the Earth is not a machine, and it’s not something to be solved. It’s a responsive organism.
What are those principles?
When I sat at one of the water retention lakes’ banks, it hit me. I hugged my knees under a pine tree watching dragonfly wings shimmer, butterflies flitting overhead, birds slipping so close they almost touched me. And I wept. I was suddenly back on Mud Mountain, in a space of beauty and love. Because this is how it was on my land too. When humans love the earth they live upon, when they truly see each part of the ecosystem as equal and valuable, when they build a non-violent relationship with it, something magical occurs. It’s alchemy. And nature becomes something else. Wild animals scuttle about with a relaxed confidence that is palpable. Flowers bloom. Trees bear fruit. And the ground oozes healing. It is this type of environment that makes anything possible. Life burgeons from deserts. Balance is restored in a matter of years. Miracles occur.
Tamera’s water experts say they can create their scenario anywhere in the world. When you see Tamera, when you move away from a screen and live it, it’s obvious it can be done anywhere, though Tamerans would be the first to agree that the water retention lakes are the least of it.
Who knows what life really is. But one thing is for sure, it thrives not only on water, but on connections, relationships and love. Oh how obvious this is when you've lost something you love! Everything responds to care, respect and attention; be it human, animal or plant. When human love and the love of the planet join forces, Edens are created.
Spaces like Tamera show the structures of urbanity, with their conveniences and comforts for what they are: Barren, love-starved, polluted, ugly, noisy hell holes. After four months in what feels like exile from Mud Mountain, I simply cannot fathom how people stand it. It’s hideous. It’s banal. It’s soul-destroying. How could anyone live in that and not feel depressed? It’s a complete and utter excommunication.
As the birds of Tamera chirped in delicious excitement of yet another day alive, I remembered what I had to do. I remembered what the point was. Because I’d lost it there for a moment.
My space. The Earth. Eden. I must co-create it again. Because there's nothing else like it.
Dedicated to my dear friends Sue and David, without whom things would have been very different.
They say you don’t know who your friends are until the chips are down. I’d say you don’t know who strangers are either. Or even an old friend you haven’t been in touch with for years. Or her husband whom you’ve never met. You don’t know who anyone is until the chips are down.
“Hello lovely! Ooh look at you! And this is Rotty? Oh what a sweetie! Let’s get her settled upstairs first, and then we’ll come back down and fetch your things.” Sue hugged me so tight it made me laugh. Her dark hair fell over her jacket lapels. Brown boots clicked on the tarmac. There was a splash of Spanish flamboyance to Sue. She hadn’t changed a bit.
“Are you sure it’s OK for her to be in your flat? We’ll be fine in the van if not. Really.” I looked at the horizon. The rain had cleared, but the sky remained swollen and dark on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela. I inhaled the smell of eucalyptus from the forests around, while Rotty sniffed about the van, shoulders raised in two furry triangles, head lowered to the ground.
“Oh yes! I’m hoping she’ll persuade David to get a dog too. I’d love a dog. I still miss my dad’s old Labrador, Sam.”
And with that we all turned and made for the apartment block door.
Two days later, the three of us we were huddled at the vets. It was a spotless establishment, with all the pet accoutrements of the first world. A dark-haired woman in a white coat walked quietly into the room, a thin slip of paper curling in her hand. She shook her head and began speaking.
“She says Rotty has stage 4 renal failure,” Sue translated. “The leishmania has attacked her kidneys.” My old friend put her arm round me, her face drooping in glumness. Tears dug at the corners of my eyes. Leishmania requires an aggressive chemotherapy type treatment which is horrible to administer. Rotty’s kidneys were shot to bits. We were on the road, and she couldn’t travel.
“But...but last time it was worse than this, and she survived!” I said. “She went down to 14 kg.”
When the vet received the translation, she stared at Rotty hard. “It’s unbelievable. It was a miracle then,” the woman said, shaking her head gravely. She was right. The events of last summer had been a miracle. And now I believed in them.
As we walked back to my van, Sue held my arm again. “Don’t worry. You can stay with us until this is sorted out.”
“Sue, I came for a day or two. This could take weeks!”
“My dad has a flat on the coast. If it comes to it, you can go there. But for now you need to be here near the vet. I don’t think David will mind.”
Would he have said if he did? Because David was a nice guy. Seriously.
Thus began two dramatically upsetting, powerful, exhausting, heart-warming, shocking and amazing weeks. It was as if the universe threw everything into the drum of that fortnight, from best to worst, and span it at 1000 rpm. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Now I don’t normally put too much stock on human beings. We’re a fickle, callous bunch at the best of times. But over the next two weeks, my faith in human nature was steadily reconstructed from the bottom up. It can’t be easy to house a grieving person plus their dying dog in your attic flat after all.
Yet somehow we all got on. It was like our North London flat share all over again. Sue was the working girl, so she was out most of the day educating the Galician youth in the tongue of the Angles. When she wasn’t at work, she could usually be found in the living room, surrounded by towers of files and text books. Every now and again, her head would rise out of the nest of paperwork. “Ooh I don’t know why I always seem to be surrounded by work!” She’d wail before sinking below the marking again.
David was a quiet, meditative chap, which was fortunate, because there wasn’t too much room left in the conversation once Sue and I bit into it. He taught taekwondo in the evenings, and that left us both at home in the day times. Often we’d meet for lunch and have a chat over a nice glass of Alburino.
“He won’t tell you himself, so I shall have to. You know he was the Galician taekwondo champion four years in a row,” Sue said one night at dinner.
David grinned rather coyly, and slid his spoon toward the pan of homemade aloo gobhi on the table.
“He also studied the Camino de Santiago for his thesis. Many strings to his bow, this one.”
“Oh I’d like to do that one day.”
“Well, let me tell you, once people walk that road, it seems to hook them. They just keep coming back to do it again and again. Or different bits of it. It never leaves them.” Sue munched contentedly on some rice.
“There are many roads. Many Caminos,” David murmured mysteriously. He placed his fork carefully next to his plate.
“Tell me more,” I said and reached for my wine glass. “When did the Camino thing start?”
David stood up and piled our plates on top of each other. He spoke slowly and deliberately. “They think it was a Pagan way. May be it was the path to the sun. Because the ending, it is in Finisterre.”
“The most westerly point in mainland Europe,” Sue clarified, pushing her plate away.
“So it’s like Christmas and Easter. They slapped a Christian ritual onto a pagan one.” I chortled and banged my wine glass onto the table.
“You know how it is. Made it easier for the locals to swallow that way.” Sue grinned. Abruptly she turned around. “Oh flower! Come here my little perrita, how are you?”
Rotty wandered into the kitchen and visited each of us in turn, tail wagging. Then she flopped onto the floor by the table. We all looked at her. I suppose it was obvious. But because she’d returned from the brink before, I just didn’t believe it.
Ten days after I arrived at Sue and David’s, Rotty...well...what actually happened to Rotty? What happens to any of us? It is life’s most important mystery.
We are not often honoured enough to watch a good death from start to finish. Human deaths are all too often closeted in old people’s homes, knotted up amidst wires and catheters in emergency wards, or ripped to pieces by violence. And this is tragic because when life evacuates a body, a profound power is released. I witnessed that power. In a dog.
It was the small hours. The witching hours. The hours all supernatural things occur. From somewhere within the thick of sleep, I sensed someone staring at me. Heaving my eyelids up, I vaguely made out Rotty, nose almost touching mine, gawping unblinkingly at me. I reached for the light, and sensed my dog wanted me to move next to her, which in itself was unusual, because she hated sleeping next to me normally. So I laid beside her, head on her cushion, stroking her ears. Her features relaxed. Then for a full hour she stared at me so intensely I thought she was reading my soul.
Rotty was standing at the gate of the mystery. And she knew.
Yet here is the thing. The vet had already told me Rotty’s hemoglobin count was so low she would die any time. She couldn’t understand how my dog could still walk, or poop outside, or indeed do anything. But my dog was walking. She had walked out of the vet that very afternoon, head forward, eyes focused with the determination of a marathon runner.
Groaning, I heard Rotty pulling herself onto her legs. She began pacing the room, claws clipping on the parquet flooring like a deranged tap dancer. “She needs to pee,” I thought. So I hauled myself up and opened the door.
It was barely six am, and the air outside was still inked out with night. Rotty sniffed the darkness, as though she were smelling the stars. Finally she peed, then turned to walk back to the car park. It was here she ran out of steam and slumped onto the tarmac. Bending down, I scooped her up into my arms feeling as sorry as a dog owner can.
Minutes later we were back inside the apartment. I placed my Rotty gently down on her bed. And then it happened. Suddenly her body heaved. I gaped aghast as she took a three or four rasping breaths.
I don’t really know what I saw leave Rotty in the moments after her last breath. But something did. Her essence drained out of her. And yes consciousness leaves gradually, it’s not an on/off-switch affair. You could see it pulling out of the cells. Then at some point, the body that was previously animated, became a piece of meat. No Rotty. No life. No awareness. Just a carcass. I’m still left clueless about it. What was it that left? And where did it go? Can something that powerful, an energy that vibrant, suddenly vanish into thin air? It certainly didn’t feel like it vanished. Because the air in the room was full for a good two hours. But what with?
Now there are all types of words and definitions and theories you can slot into the gaps here, religious, scientific or otherwise. But when you witness it, if you are honest, you are left simply not knowing.
What a mystery death is. What a strange and uncharted land. An unknown laced with signs and meanings, stirred by the hand of fate. My dog made it to Santiago to Compostela and died, her pilgrimage apparently complete. Yet it brought to light how incomplete mine was. I watched something leave my dog’s body, but I didn’t know what it was. Her light perhaps? The light we all carry along the Camino of life. But what is it? What are we? What is that essence that holds the rest of our being together? Because if we don’t know this, and we don’t even bother to research it, then what the hell are we doing?
Ah Santiago de Compostela, city of spirit, how kind you were to me in my hour of darkness. Every single one of your inhabitants, from the vets, to the crematorium, to the random acupuncturist we phoned to obtain herbs, to my dear friends Sue and David...each rose to the occasion. Every single one did their level best, and then a bit more. Compassion and integrity stole through your alleyways, both medieval and modern. You hummed with them.
For a month I couldn’t leave. I drove round the Coast of Death, to the most westerly point of mainland Europe. The rocks roared with messages. The sea foamed and churned in time, before I circled back to Santiago. I walked the Camino too, and saw spirits, ghosts and more. The light of millions of human pilgrims seeped into me, until I rediscovered my own.
Eventually it was time to leave. To reach into another place. Portugal stretched in front of me like a golden finger of promise. Yet as my van crossed the border and the soft green slopes of Galicia slid into the rear view, something told me I was coming back.
Atulya K Bingham
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