It’s been a long pasty summer of doughy skies, where the frontier between cloud and horizon has been hard to discern. For the first time since I moved to these parts, I’m looking forward to autumn. To clarity. To fires and quiet and early nights. And to some sort of conclusion to this messy year, a year snarled by a million straggly ends and zero tidy knots.
Fox knew all this of course. Beautiful treacherous Mr Fox. He’d been watching me from the darkened arches of the hazel copse after all. Some say Fox is the Trickster. Others say he’s a spirit guide. But sometimes Fox comes to tie up those fraying ends. To conclude that which we humans are unwilling to. Because Nature is less sentimental than us, always ready to slough off what doesn’t work. No matter how hard we cling, Old Gaia will pry our fingers from the old.
“Hey, have a couple of courgettes!” Brian called from the gate. I ran down to collect my latest winnings in the neighbourhood potluck. Reaching the entrance, I handed him a small pot of jam made from some peaches he’d given me days earlier.
“I’ll come and cut the rest of those brambles this week,” he said, looking typically sun-thrashed after a summer of hay baling. “Just waiting for a nice day.”
I grinned. “Ah thanks! It’s so good to see the land again! I thought I’d lost it.”
Brian turned around, and Julia waved from the jeep before turning the ignition. Good neighbours are gold dust when you abide in nature. Gold dust. I'm swimming in it up here.
I set off back up the hill feeling fortunate. Sadly, it was short lived. For when I reached the brow of my dear land, there in the long grass, half hidden by the dry-stone wall, my chickens were bobbing up and down like a handful of feathered ping pong balls. It took me a minute to register what was happening.
Priscilla the Snow Queen hurtled in my direction, followed by her now adolescent brood. Everyone was squawking for dear life. I counted the birds. Priscilla, Cengiz Khan, Amber, and Lawrence. One was missing. A lurching sense of doom flooded my stomach. Penny Black, the little one who had looked like a penguin when she hatched...my favourite...she was gone.
I shepherded the troop up to the chicken run. It's a rare sight these days. Swathed in rows of electric fence, the chicken estate boasts more security than the Crown Jewels, because hey, this wasn’t Fox's first visit.
Yes Fox, I’d known you were casing the joint since that surreal morning back in July when I’d awoken to a strange noise coming from my bedroom door. Remember that Fox? Remember my trousers? Where are they now eh? Because I saw you, albeit bleary-eyed, as I peered from my bedroom window. There you were, fur gleaming copper in the early morning sunlight, wrestling with a pair of my jeans before dragging them into woods!
Afternoon was tipping into evening, and the slope was turning the colour ofboiled spinach. Clutching at straws – or perhaps their fraying loose ends – I walked down past the barn and the stone wall, to have one last look for Penny Black, or at least some evidence of what had happened. I suppose I got it, because there was Fox wading through the grass, scapolite eyes staring at a part of me I myself couldn’t see. It was a look so piercing, it made me shudder from my crown to the soles of my feet.
Suddenly, with our eyes locked like that, we touched on another plane. And I sensed that Fox wasn’t just a small red chicken-killing hound. He was something else. A spirit of the land. One of nature’s shape-shifters. I could feel it all around us, the cool brush of the phantasmagoric. The sky was turning vaporous now and wafting towards the earth, and at that moment Fox and I were all the world.
“You took my chick, you bastard!” I yelled, the anguish fighting inside me. I stalked towards the mutt, intent on catching him. Fox didn’t budge. His rusty fur glistened in the evening air, fat tail coursing behind him like a dowsing stick. The markings on his face were sheer perfection as he held my gaze. Such beauty! It was hypnotising.
Still I kept striding, until I was three metres away. Finally Fox ducked his head. Faster than I can remember, he slipped over the stone wall, and vanished into the shadows of the woodland behind.
Night fell fast, and a full moon began to rise hauntingly from behind Dragonback Mountain. My ash tree stood still, soaking up the remaining twilight. The landscape was something from a fable. I was no longer in the human realm but the Otherworld, where trees talk, moonlight casts spells, and spirit foxes do Gaia’s bidding.
Dropping to the ground, I winced. Blackberry thorns were stabbing my butt, and I’d lost the little chick. Poor Penny Black. Why her? Why take a little life so innocent and young? These are the questions all of us who live in the bosom of the land must ask. And it is here we are forced to make a choice. Are we going to live by Nature’s rules, or by artificial ones? Are we choosing the riskier living world of quest and adventure, or the ordered death-world of algorithm and program?
Trudging up the hill, I pondered deeply. Suddenly I wasn’t sure. The gridlines of my faith were shifting beneath my feet. Yet deep down I knew what I’d always known, that despite it all, Fox wasn’t my enemy. The land was speaking to me, and firmly.
The next day I called Julia. “Can I give you my chickens? They’re all going to be picked off if they stay here. Fox is back, and not giving up.”
“Yes yes, bring them this evening,” she said, generous as ever. “We’ll take them. Our grey one is all alone anyway...” Her voice trailed off, and I bit my lip. The predators are everywhere after all.
It was mid-afternoon when I let my chickens out for one last run on the land, albeit under my watchful gaze. Off they trotted, jumping and scratching as if nothing had ever happened. I looked at Priscilla in her resplendent white plumage and felt a pang.
The air turned a little chilly as the shadow of the great ash trees lengthened, their dark bony fingers reaching over the land. I turned my back. Just for a minute. And at that very second Priscilla let rip. I spun round. Fox had leapt into the fold. He saw me, but carried straight on! Aghast, I charged full pelt, not at Priscilla but at Fox. He paused, shoulder blades raised, head lowered. He was measuring. Could he get his paws on Priscilla and bring her down, before I reached him? He decided he couldn’t, and fell back.
Now I was in the tricky position of having to move four panicking birds back into the run-fortress without Fox picking one off. This was of course what Fox was banking on. Chaos and panic were all to his advantage. I stood between the predator and the prey, waving my flock upward. Fox darted behind the wall. I stared in trepidation as he sniffed the air, gauging the chickens’ exact whereabouts by scent. It was a race now.
I galloped uphill. My four chickens jumped onto the roof of their mud coop, which was unhelpful. One by one I picked them up and threw them into the run. I’d just closed the door when Priscilla squawked in terror once more. And to my disbelief, there was Fox like an apparition, scratching furiously at the base of the run.
Now I hurled myself at the power pack and flicked on the electric fence. Then, stick in hand, I belted round to Fox. He legged it under the fence, but was zapped, upon which he turned and stared at me once more. My hair roots twisted in my scalp. Something from the Otherworld was here. This was the look of the Reaper, of Death himself.
“Leave them here and I will take them all,” he was saying. “There is nothing you can do. I am magic. I am the force of Nature.”
It was like a dream. The way he was appearing and disappearing. The speed. The stealth. Fox possessed superpowers I couldn’t match. I was a bumbling mortal, and he was a daemon.
I waited until nightfall, until my hens were in some sort of half sleep, eyes vacant as the spark in them made its nocturnal journey to the Otherworld. One by one I squeezed them all into a cat carrier. Then I drove them a mile up the mountain to Middle Earth, to my neighbours and their new home.
How silent the land is now. How strangely spacious the days, free from the clutter of feeding and coop cleaning. An end has been tied very conclusively. By Fox. Who has of course vanished into the thinnest of air now his work is done.
But while I sense the eerie gap that has opened around me, I also feel the caress of Gaia. Running my fingers down the ash tree’s bark, I watch the sky turn unicorn silver. The vista has turned the deepest emerald, with peaks appearing and vanishing into cloud worlds like fairytale cities. I inhale the sweet air, and the earth speaks to me; not in words, nor through image, but in that other ancient language we Gaians speak, even if we’ve long forgotten how.
Nature is immortal and always finds a way. It’s not just because Nature is ingenious (which she is), nor simply that she’s tenacious (no one persists longer and harder). But there’s something more fundamental to Nature that the rationalists never grasp for the simple fact they don’t believe in it. The natural world is in fact supernatural. And when you live alone on a mountainside, watching deer leap through your trees and badgers waddle under starlit skies, witnessing the fantastic and the fearsome, hearing owls call and wolves howl, when you sniff the air, see wild horses on precipices, and look deep into the eyes of both predators and prey, you know. There’s something far more extraordinary going on, something that artificial intelligence has no chance of assimilating, nor old-school ‘Science’ any hope of understanding.
Immortality, shape-shifting, invisibility cloaks, extra sensory perception, interspecies communication, enhanced strength, wall-walking, sixth, seventh, and eight senses, magical cures, and telepathy. All these magical powers exist in the natural world, along with many more. We’re not spectators living outside that world and looking in, despite what biology class told us. No, Nature is within us and without us. It’s our family, our home, and our very bodies. Those supernatural powers are ours too somewhere, if we can just remember where we left them.
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Life becomes a magical adventure when we inhabit the wider, more natural aspect of ourselves. We have the power to change the course of our lives, our landscapes, and to thrive well beyond the limitations of our (failing) modern systems. It’s about sorting out what’s truly natural within us, from what’s not.
Join me as I share with you my own experiences and means of hearing the land around me, and how I follow her nudges.
Summer is always the worst. The days too long, the grass too fast growing, and winter never ceases to jab at the edges saying, “get ready for me, I’m not that far away.” This summer the sky opened wide and blue like a shark’s mouth. The brown teeth of the sierra ringed my world, chomping at the hot flabby days. Green slopes yellowed in desiccation, and I’m sorry to say I desiccated with them.
After three years of this barn lark, of squeezing my life into a couple of hen coops, of no hot water, no mod cons, nothing even vaguely labour-saving even on the horizon, I’ve reached the husk of myself. The trouble is, that hasn’t stopped me. The great pendulous carrot that is “Moving Into My Barn” has been hanging just near enough to entice me, but just far enough to elude me. Typically, the going has been incremental.
Summer slid hot and distended over the months. While the rest of Europe dry-roasted, we slow-boiled. My muscles grew steadily heavier, my body slower. I kept going. Every day I did something towards that barn: cutting wattles, weaving them, building wardrobes and pantries, mixing plaster, sanding wood. The bedroom began to take shape. It encouraged me. Bismil, a Turkish friend, came to help a few times. It boosted me further. Things turned the corner out of the cul-de-sac of the impossible and I started to find places my eyes could rest that weren’t entirely overwhelming. But ultimately we only have so much energy. It’s probably the biggest lesson of off-grid living that we all have to learn. Time isn’t the overlord; it’s energy. And the longer you’re in the game, the more precious that energy becomes.
It was Hilde who broke the camel’s back. She got sick and died, and it was one enervation too many. Finally it happened. I burned out. Thus I broke like a wave on a rocky beach. There was so much foam, and the undertow so powerful, I couldn’t see the shore. So I drove bleary-eyed from the seaside, away from tides and winds and big stone barns, towards other bodies of water and other lands. Towards the mountains of Portugal.
“I’ll show you the watering tomorrow. Right now I just want to chill out for a bit.” Tiffany sat opposite me on the picnic bench in denim shorts and a flowing blouse. She pulled at the ring top on a bottle of beer. We clunked bottles and drank.
I scanned this new world. Courgette plants wriggled over bracken mulch, huge cucumbers dripped from hazel tripods, and clusters of ripe cherry tomatoes glistened temptingly on vines. Hot dry air burned my nostrils, and for the first time in months my skin wasn’t toad-clammy, but warm and crisp like tanned leather. It felt good, to be honest.
Taking a swig of beer, I gazed out at the lilac sky. It was as smooth as silk, only broken by an eerie plume of smoke rising from behind the mountain.
“Another fire,” Tiffany bowed her head. “It’s so sad. A quarter of the park has gone, all ancient forest.”
I blinked. The bubbling smoke looked like a pyroclastic cloud from a volcano.
“We need rain so much. We’re praying for it. I’m not going to lie, this year I almost considered giving up. Off-grid burnout. There’s so much to do, and I have to earn a living too. And then the water shortages, and all these fires...”
I nodded. “I’m right there with you. I’m broken, to be honest. But do you really think you would leave?” I could hear insects whirring in the woodland, and the healing aroma of the pine trees began to work its magic on my sinuses. Just sitting here was therapy.
Tiffany pulled a batik scarf over her shoulders as the temperature started to drop. “How would I give this up? I don’t think I could go back to that other life.”
I nodded. “Me too. I lived in a flat for eight months after I left Turkey. I was miserable. Here there’s the land, the nature, the beauty, the clean food and water... What was your vision for this place, you know, when you first bought it?”
Pulling her salt and pepper hair back, Tiffany straightened, her face came to life. “I wanted it to be a healing place for women, like a retreat with a yurt or cabin they could stay in and meditate while I bring them food.”
My eyes widened as I heard this. My idea of heaven.
“But...” Tiffany waved her beer at the staccato of beautiful terraces flowing with grapevines and massive fig trees. The moon was rising now over the mountain, and the entire vista turned mythical. “But I don’t have enough money for more infrastructure. I need a shower, and at least some basics.” Her voice trailed off. My thoughts and feelings followed them, and I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I needed a rest, but surely this was more of the same. More roughing it. More discomfort. I eyed the bell tent I was going to stay in and then the chicken coop, and felt my throat catch. I was tired. So tired.
Three days later I was plucking a ripe cucumber, feeling very differently. The morning sun gilded the burgeoning vegetable gardens and my skin was sucking up the UV hungrily. My muscles were softening, my head quietening. There was space around the jagged edges of me now to move, to think, to breathe. Chickens pottered about in the terrace below. The grapes were ripening. And the pond rippled with bulrushes and frogs.
The pond was my favourite element in Tiffany’s gorgeous off-grid world. That there could possibly be such a beautiful little body of water in a drought of this severity seemed a divine blessing, a glistening oasis of hope hiding in a barren fire-beaten outback. I stared into that pool often and was reminded of fairy tales. It was fed by spring water, brimmed with insects and amphibians, and it smelled muddy and pondy with damson flies flitting over it like messengers from the faerie realm.
Then there was the water mine. Every day I collected drinking water from a tiny cave in the rocks. Depending on the time of day, any manner of creatures would come hurtling out: bats, birds, bees, flies, and then there were the strange water spiders that skated on the surface in clumps. They would crawl all over you as you sank your bottle into the pool.
In the evenings as I stared around Tiffany’s land, the plants stretched higher and greener while the huge granite boulders hugged us. This land was so happy, so loved and so loving. I was moved and rejuvenated by it.
The Simple Life
Many people move to the sticks, but few and far between are those who can let go of their high-impact over-complex lifestyles and really hunker on down with the earth. Few are those who keep it simple. Few are those who are willing to use a composting toilet, who care about underground water seams and what they’re doing to them, who talk to trees, who do their best to refrain from bulldozing or destroying, who will go slower rather than faster. Few are those who truly love the land, the dirt, and nature. A lot of folk seem to just want free power, and a pleasing backdrop to copy and paste their former life onto. And it’s a free world, so I make no judgement on that, but it’s simply not healing or inspiring for me.
However, after a couple of days in Tiffany’s very basic little off-grid Eden, I was thoroughly smitten. Nothing was wasted. Everything reused. In many ways the house wasn’t “naturally” built, but everything was upcycled and recycled, and that caring effort in and of itself was emitted by the building. It was humble, but real. All soul and no façade.
The Vinegar Mother
It was the kitchen though that was the mother of the space. A true witch’s lair, with shelf upon shelf of jars and bottles lining the walls. Tiffany had created this kitchen, and forged the shelves from driftwood. There were ample worktops, utensils, pots and pans. It was a kitchen made for and by someone who cooks real food— not crap from a packet, not processed poison, but real food. This was a workshop. A lab.
There were homemade confitures, pickles, marmalades, and herb salts. Calendular flowers were drying in a corner. There were jars of home-grown teas and herbs, tinctures and oils. And no doubt if I’d looked hard enough I’d have found “Eye of Newt” and “Bat’s Wings” somewhere on those shelves too. But it was the rather terrifying creature in the demijohn that was the show-stealer. Every day I would pass this Frankenstein and shudder. What the hell was it?
“That’s the vinegar mother. I’m having a go at making it using a kombucha scoby,” explained Tiffany by text. I blinked at the jar, half expecting an eye to open in it or something.
The week rolled on. I noticed I was healing, and this was odd, because just like chez moi, there was no washing machine or fridge or mod cons. There was enough power for lights and a laptop but nothing more. I had to carry water, feed the chickens, and I slept in a tent. But despite all this I began to feel I didn’t want to leave. It made me consider my own beautiful land back up north, and whether it really is the land and this simple life that makes us burn out, or something else…
I wanted it to be a healing place for women, like a retreat with a yurt or cabin they could stay in and meditate while I bring them nourishing home-cooked food.
Tiffany’s vision rang round and round my mind that week, because from the housesitter’s perspective the vision was already a reality. This already was a healing retreat. Tiffany and the land had brought me nourishing home-cooked food. I had for the first time in months enjoyed time to myself without interruptions or construction tasks, duties or responsibilities. I wondered how I’d become so burdened, and how to re-simplify.
All too soon my stay came to an end. Tiffany returned to the helm of her magical one-woman earthship. Meanwhile I considered my own vision for my own land. I had wanted it to be a sanctuary, a place I could live in solitude, meditate, and hear the Earth. Somehow I needed to ditch the extraneous noise and find the silence in myself again. And the joy. And the magic. Perhaps I needed to be a bit more like the vinegar mother. A bit more sour. A bit more freakish and intimidating. Perhaps I needed to protect the precious resource of my energy with a few bats and spiders like the water mine. Because the jobs never end in an off-grid world. There’s always something worthy you could be doing, and always someone or something that needs assistance. But while parts of us are infinite, other parts of us aren’t. Those parts of us require as much care as the very land we are guardians of.
Time to remember. Time to remember our bodies are just as much a part of Gaia as the lands we hold in our care. If we can't protect and nurture them, then what exactly are we doing?
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Enjoy my stories?
If you enjoy my writing and would like to support it (and me), do consider making a pledge on Patreon. All patrons have access to a video land report showing the latest progress, and can ask questions.
Life changes dramatically when we inhabit the wider, more natural aspect of who we are. Each of us is a Gaian being plugged into a highly intelligent planetary network of life that constantly sustains us. We have the power to change the course of our entire landscape, and to thrive well beyond the limitations of our modern systems if we can sort out what's really natural within us, as opposed to what's been programmed.
Join me as I share with you my own experiences and means of hearing the land around me, and how I follow her nudges.
Something weird happens when you follow your intuition, take the leap, and move onto the land. Things go wrong.
Two friends have recently bought land and moved onto their new spaces. One is in a tent. One is in a stone house. Both are essentially camping at the moment. Both have just been tested. A fire burned down the first friend’s fence within a week or two of him buying it. The other amiga is stuck in a mire of water and power issues. The solar power system isn’t working as it should, and the creek has dried up. Classic! I remember when I first arrived on my land here in northern Spain and was tested just the same way. I couldn’t get my van into the land at first, and then I couldn’t get it out. It’s still stuck there to this very day!
But why the hell does this happen? Did we all make a mistake? I mean we listened to the trees and rocks and rivers, we’ve come in with all the best intentions, we’ve acted on our hunches and taken a chance. Why are we now being slapped in the face?
It all came back to me this month as northern Spain entered a heatwave like no other I’ve seen since I arrived here. We are usually privy to a thick helping of mist in June and July, but not this year. The clouds have fled the skies as though they’re infected with something, giving the sun a free pass to scorch the earth.
I sheltered at the door of my barn and watched the sierra. It stretched brown and sharp like a rusty saw blade. And there in the middle of that view was Jose Manuel dressed in a bright pink t-shirt, scythe over his shoulder, surrounded by floored nettles. He was a portly, conspicuously un-grim reaper.
“Primero hacemos el cimiento.” Jose Manuel placed the scythe against the barn wall and grabbed the pick instead. He stood back and took a nice deep swing at the ground. Cimiento is not cement as I first thought when I heard the word, ears pricking up in alarm. Cimiento is the foundations.
Pulling my hat down, I ran up onto the rocks. The limestone was already throwing the heat back at us aggressively. “Aqui aqui” I pointed to where I wanted my wall. “Con una curva!” Swinging my arm in an arc, I indicated where my curving wall would be.
“Una curva, ah si.” A soupçon of a smile slid into the far corners of Jose Manuel’s mouth as he bent down and hauled a boulder out of the way.
It was about midday, but the sun was only just limbering up in preparation for the serious mid-afternoon heat rally. Already I could feel my t-shirt gluing to my skin. How Jose Manuel could dig in this weather was beyond me. I knew this first day was going to be arduous. The foundation always is. The undergrowth is cleared. A trench is dug. And then the most enormous rocks are shunted into place. It’s difficult and slow. It’s a test. Because as Jose Manuel will tell you, if the foundation is right, the wall will stand for years and years. If not? It will fall.
The large frame of my stone mason vecino dripped in the heat. We both turned redder and redder. It was a flaying, and I wondered if I might simply burst into flames like a pine tree in a forest fire. As the land baked, I remembered back to the beginning of this adventure. I remembered The Test.
It was 2018, and I’d just purchased my land. My noodle was rammed full of hilarious schedules and plans of course. I’d concocted all sorts of visions of me living on my land in the summer in my camper, which was going to double up as a materials carrier, and a beach dwelling, and, and, and...
Then within about two weeks of completing the small driveway, my van blew up. It never recovered. And so I was transportless. Unable to move. Unable to carry materials. In order to buy anything I had to walk a mile to the now conspicuously shopless village, and then either hitch a lift or call a taxi to the town. If I wanted to go further, I had to catch a very infrequent bus from said town. A trip that would have taken me forty minutes in a car was taking about four hours. Before long, I was gnashing my teeth in frustration.
But why had this happened to me? I’d followed every hunch and listened to every frickin’ leaf and pebble. How ashamed I was to have to ask my dad if he could help me buy a car. How fortunate I was that he could and would. Even so, for a good two years I would glare at my nettle-throttled campervan and yell, “But why? Why did you do that?” I couldn’t see a single good reason for the betrayal even if I did enjoy driving my new car.
Roll on 2020 and the world suddenly stopped turning. Borders closed. Ferries drifted to a halt. No one was going anywhere. How glad I was I had a reliable car then! My old van always needed mechanics, and for about a year they were mostly closed. Deep snows came. We were cut off for a month. What a stroke of good fortune I’d stored my food supplies in that wretched campervan!
I learned. The Test is tough love. It arises because we’re being shown where the weak points in our structural setup are. And at some point in the future we’re going to be reminded of this test. If we deal with it well and solve the issue at hand, our future self is going to thank us.
Nothing material exists without structure. Plants, bodies, roads, cells, websites, rivers, and dry stone walls all have structures. It’s the framework that supports life in the physical world. Structure often gets a bad rap in the floaty, energy-focussed realm of what was once the New Age. But without structure, there is nowhere for energy to flow, no platform for ideas to be expressed, no trellis for a vision to grow upon. Nothing manifests. It’s all just a blob of wishy washy blah blah blah that oozes about and clogs the drains.
Understanding structure is one of the things that makes the difference when you begin any kind of project. It’s the art of seeing what supports what, and how things develop and strengthen. There is an order things move in, and it’s there for a reason, because one part of a creation supports the next. You can’t tile your roof before you’ve installed the joists, so it makes no sense to spend hours measuring exactly how many tiles you will need before you’ve even bought your timbers.
Misunderstanding how structure develops is what causes so many problems for people when they first move to the country or try and build themselves a home. Folks spend far too long worrying about details in their project which are a long way from fundamental. Yes in theory you could plan everything down to the last detail. But do come back to me and let me know how you got on with that, because in my experience there are 101 factors we don’t see until we’re deeply within the process. Life isn’t static. All sorts of things are going to happen that we couldn’t ever imagine. Things we thought were vital prove not to be, and vice-versa. If the past two years didn’t teach the West that, nothing will.
Where’s the glory?
The foundation is of course the first thing to be built in any structure. It’s the prep work, and it’s a long way from the sparkle and glory we expect when we’re building. It’s a bit tedious, it’s difficult, it’s time-consuming, and worst of all it will never even be seen. No one will ever come to your house and say, “ooh nice foundations!” They will never congratulate you on your plumbing or your waste water system either. These are the fundamentals I’m afraid the ignorant take for granted.
So get used to it if you’re creating anything. Before you start there’ll probably be a test, more likely a whole flock of them. It might be that nothing appears for a while. Things won’t go to plan. And you’ll have nothing to share on Instagram. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be digging the ground, straightening out a lot of issues, stabilising and solidifying. Hopefully you’ll be learning plenty too, especially that you are not in control, that your plans are a bit of a joke, that your head has never got it covered, and that building anything is a lot harder than it looks.
Nevertheless despite it all, I expect like me you’ll still wind up thinking the whole thing is a laugh, definitely a lot better than that other synthetic existence where you are never really tested in a positive developmental way. That dull grey expanse of doom where the learning curve has long flatlined, and your “excitement” is some riskless virtual pursuit cordoned off from the oxygen-replete heart of real life.
The sun finally began to pull behind my barn, giving the shadows space to stretch. They grew quickly now from stunted slithers into umbrageous towers. A stone wall was on the verge of existence now, the foundation stones lining the jaw of the earth like molars.
Jose Manuel dropped his stone chisel onto the dirt. “Marcho!” he said, which was how he always ended the day. Sometimes he said it after three hours, sometimes after five. But when marcho was uttered, the work day was done. That particular heat-lashed day, I was done too quite frankly. I felt as though I’d been in the ring with a fire monster. Even so, I was satisfied. The foundation was in and in well, which was a very good thing. Because hey, this was going to be quite a wall.
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“Eggs. Let’s see. Erm, I think these are fertilised.”
Julia’s hand hovered uncertainly over the egg holder. About a dozen eggs of varying sizes and hues hunkered there next to the aga. My neighbour arbitrarily picked out five as though pulling numbers out of a lucky dip. I placed them in cardboard box and shrugged.
“We’ll see,” I said, not particularly convinced they’d turn into anything.
Such was the blithe act of fate that separated those five eggs from a future in a frying pan. Yet this wasn’t the only random act in a succession of randomness that conspired to create life. I suppose it all started with the fox.
A brush with death
It was a soupy old day back in late May. My mountain was lost in a brume so cloying the rocks had come out in a cold sweat. I was pottering in the kitchen hut trying to avoid it all when I heard a terrible squawking from the chicken run. The last time I’d heard such a din was when the wildcat called by.
I reached the run to find a sleek, rust-grey fox pinning Priscilla hen to the floor. The coop was swirling with white feathers, and my other two hens were running around, well...like headless chickens, I suppose. Fox looked up. Then she looked down, undecided as to whether to attempt to eat Priscilla before escaping, or not.
Fight, flight, freeze. Priscilla chose the latter. She lay paralysed beneath her executioner, wing to brow, like a platinum victim in a tacky murder story. After some grappling, I wrenched open the wire and clambered into the run. Now it was fox’s turn to panic. Throwing herself repeatedly at the upper rim of the run, Fox somehow found a gap between the wire and the bird netting, and with an agility that awed me, she slid through. The last I saw of her was a bushy tail and her hind legs disappearing into the mist.
Incredibly, Priscilla stood up at this point and waddled over to me. I checked her over, amazed to find her unscathed, no doubt saved by her feathers. By the look of the coop she’d possessed enough to fill a duvet. But the event had etched a deep impression on her chicken mind. She spent the evening standing about looking very thoughtful. Do hens consider things like the fleeting gift of life? Do they have life missions they want to complete? I’m not a hen, so I can’t say anything for sure. All I know is the very next day Priscilla turned broody.
I didn’t want any more chickens, which is why when my neighbours passed by I asked Julia, “Would you like some chicks if she sits on the eggs?”
Julia scratched her ponytail absently. “Hmm. Yes, all right, why not?”
You see, no one was particularly invested here. It was a “whatever” kind of an act. Hence that evening five random eggs were picked from the egg holder like Countdown numbers (I’ll have two from the top and three from the bottom please Carol). I hustled them away to my land. As darkness engulfed the hen coop, I pushed the eggs under Priscilla. Her chicken eyes widened in joy.
Death and life
We usually say life and death because we see ourselves as living before we pop our clogs. But I think it’s the other way round, we have to die before we live. Only when something is lost, can something new be born.
The following week I went away and left my hens with my neighbours. During that time Frida (Priscilla’s mum) died – or rather disappeared into the woods never to be seen again – which is an appropriate ending for my most adventurous chicken. As always when one of the roost departs, there’s an eerie chicken-shaped gap. Hilde hen, bottom of the pack yet ironically the longest survivor, wandered forlornly around my land on my return. Frida her playmate was missing and Priscilla was currently useless as a friend. Despite moving coop twice, my snowy Queen of the Picos was still sitting resolutely on her eggs squawking at all those who dared approach.
Without dear Frida, a bird vacuum opened up. Suddenly there was a lack in our strange community. Something missing. The winds of destiny were swirling, drawing new life into the space...
Three weeks. That’s all it takes. It’s an absurdly short amount of time to turn an omelette candidate into a living, breathing, sentient creature. And when you observe it, it sort of blows your mind. I’m a big egg eater, usually munching two a day, so I’m intimate with these perfectly eco-packaged nutrient bombs; the richness of the yolks, the strange gloopiness of the albumin, soft boiled, hard boiled, over-easy or scrambled, I love an egg. When I hold one of these calcium capsules in my hand it always feels a little magical, a little fairy tale.
Three weeks. 21 days. Priscilla sat calm and happy while Hilde moped in sorrow. I began to pray that something would come out of them just to give Hilde some friends.
The Great Hatch
On the eve of day 21 I peered into the coop, pushing Priscilla off the eggs to see if anything was happening. Nothing. No noise. No crack. I groaned and shut the coop door. I won’t lie, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the Great Hatch. The last time I’d found myself embroiled in this business one poor chick couldn’t break out of the egg, and the late Frida hen had pecked it to death. Such harrowing atrocity wasn’t what I’d expected in a cutesy chick birth. Then again, these eggs could be duds like with my first broody hen. Perhaps nothing would happen? A part of me began to hope so.
But life doesn’t hinge around our gumptionless hopes, or what part of us feels. What manifests as our lives derives from a responsive web of clear intention, willpower, and sheer luck, which we share with many other beings. I wasn’t the only one with a horse in this race, and definitely not the most invested. My intention and willpower were nothing compared to Priscilla’s or indeed the life forces currently awakening inside the eggs.
The next morning I returned. Then I heard it. A distinct tapping sound. I bit my lip. Breaking out of an egg is a slow old process fraught with hazard and difficulty. For your information (should you find yourself in an egg one day) it takes a good 24 hours to hack your way out of an eggshell. So prepare yourself for a marathon, not a sprint.
By evening I saw the top of one of the eggs on the floor of the coop. That meant the hatchling was half in half out...Gulp. Later I returned with bated breath. Gently I pushed Priscilla up. She squawked but didn’t peck. Then I saw it! A golden fluffball hiding beneath her. I could hear more tapping too.
Over the course of the next three days the eggs hatched one by one. Unlike the previous batch, this lot seemed to have read the instruction manual before embarking on their great escape, each one scissoring off the egg top smoothly, then step by step demolishing the rest. By day 23 we had four little chicks tweeting and buzzing round the coop. What a motley crew they were! Every single one was a different colour: gold, yellow, brown, and black. The smallest one looked like a baby penguin.
What this haphazard jumble of fluffballs will turn into, I dread to think. Last time it was Priscilla the brahma after all. But one thing I do know is that life can be very random at times. Each of those chicks is here only thanks to a succession of flukes, and could easily have turned into a tortilla instead. Had the fox not broken into the coop, had Julia’s hand swayed a little to the left or right, had Priscilla not sat so patiently and determinedly in a time of great upheaval, had the shell been too hard or too brittle, had the cockerel fired blanks, had I simply said no, and had no doubt a million other factors that merged and met and twisted into the thread of life not happened, then those chicks wouldn’t exist.
Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly said something along the lines of, “I’d rather have a lucky general than a skilful one.” Whether or not he really said that, I know what he means. Most of us understand that without the oil of good fortune greasing the wheels of our effort, we'd be grinding to an ignominious standstill. So sometimes in times of chaos it can seem our intention or resolution is of little value. What’s the point in trying if it’s all down to luck, after all?
But what is luck exactly? A certain serendipity may be the happy link in a chain of reactions that makes a dream appear, yet in truth it’s more often our foggy intentions, our wishy-washy focus, and our lack of gumption or belief that ruptures the process. Sometimes life does say no. Sometimes it crashes our worlds to force us out of a rut. Sometimes road blocks appear and divert us onto a new path. But just as often life waits and watches. Do we know what we want? Are we willing to go the distance for it? Do we believe in ourselves and value ourselves enough to go for it? Life is sentient and interconnected. In some ways I think life is our Gaian self. It’s the natural field of our existence which merges with that of all the humans and creatures we come into contact with. Other beings are a part of us just as we are a part of them, and whoever holds the most resolute intention makes it happen, no matter how small or feathered they are. Yes, we share our creation spaces, which is why it’s important who exactly we’re sharing them with.
So kudos to Priscilla Queen of the Picos this month, for knowing what she wanted, committing to it, and winning hands down in the reality creation space of our home. Not that she’s the only winner, mind you. Look at those cutesters bringing a ray of chick sunshine into my day!
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“People hid here in the civil war,” Farmer Quilo had told me one sun-gilded autumn day the year I moved onto my land. The leaves on the ash trees were starting to shrivel and the landscape was going to seed. “All these barns and huts,” he swept his arm around the yellowing vista like a Wellington boot-wearing emcee. “People ran up here from the town to escape.”
I stared at the barns scattered over the hillsides, all in differing states of disrepair, and imagined them harbouring frightened families. None of them contained fireplaces or chimneys, so how did folk survive?
“They just lit the fire straight in the hut. Terrible smoke of course. That’s why the wall is black in this one,” he said, pointing at the soot-covered stones in what was to become my temporary kitchen. “Negro, muy negro.” He shook his head.
“Hacian queso tambien. Queso ahumado,” he said, pointing to the stone shelves at the top of the wall and explaining how they’d smoked cheeses on them.
Unlike many around here, Quilo loves talking about the history of the landscape. He was a miner for much of his life, so he has a penchant for digging below the surface. There are so many stories related to my land, I’ll save the rest for other writings. But suffice to say, the threads of human history run back a fair way with these barns, which are somewhere around 200 years old according to the locals.
I’d wanted to renovate an old building since my mud home days in Turkey. I could see it had the potential to be a nature-sensitive way to build. It’s recycle-reuse-repair on a house-size scale after all. A virgin habitat is not being destroyed to make way for yet another human property. The structure already exists. It’s simply unused. Unloved. And in need of some TLC. Right?
Yeees. That was my high-minded opinion from the sun-thrashed windows of my mud hut in hot dry southern Turkey. It was a time and place where very little of the old was being salvaged. Indeed one often felt it was deliberately buried. The old was where dark secrets, hardship, and poverty lurked. It was often deemed better to submerge it under a ton of concrete, rather than unearth Allah only knew what. In many ways this is the story of Spain’s lost villages too. Painful histories lurk in the stones and under the terracotta tiles. Though rather than sink them under a dam(n) project or a motorway, the pueblos of Spain’s interior are largely just abandoned. The past is left to rot*.
Be Careful What You Wish For:
Sooner than I could have ever imagined, my high-minded renovation idea turned into a reality. I left my mud hut in Turkey and moved to the north of Spain. A piece of land drew me to her. It held three ancient huts. The larger structure was an old barn with stone walls wavier than a winter sea. It was a rickety nobbly old thing, stuffed full of musty sheep’s wool, rotting straw, and wolf spiders. The roof was hanging on by the skin of its rotting rafters, tied into existence by a thick bit of wire round an ash tree trunk.
I will never forget sitting under one of those ash trees back in 2018, the day before I put in an offer. The moon was exactly half full and half empty, and it rose from the east like a distant ship. As the light drained out of the sky, I stared and stared at the front of the barn. There was a significant crack from top almost to bottom. The walls were splaying outwards. The thing was only surviving out of habit, and the task of repairing it looked utterly impossible.
I remember saying to the tree, “I don’t have the money or expertise to do this. It’s a massive job.”
I remember the tree replying, “It will all work out, you’ll see.”
Thus I bought the land and became the new guardian.
But trees aren’t the only ones that talk. Buildings whisper too. They hold the stories of the past just as the land does. Spirits linger in the nooks and corners, while old energies reverberate about the spaces. Did my barn even want to be renovated? Or did he prefer to crumble into the dirt in peace, taking his secrets with him?
Once I’d moved onto the land, I sat with my barn. I ran my hands over the old stones. They were choking under the yoke of some of the most poorly applied cement mortar you are likely to see. I sniffed the air and studied the wattled mezzanine where the sheep’s wool was stored. I listened to more stories, and heard more secrets. But my barn never felt creepy to me. What he felt was excited, as though he were looking forward to a bit of razzmatazz and glory.
“Ha! I’m your woman!” I said to Barn. “Razzmatazz is my middle name.”
Had Barn possessed hands, he would have punched the air.
Restoration, Conversion, or Transmutation?
It was September 2020 when the roof was ripped off. I had a dream I’d co-formed with my aging stable. He was going to retain his character and still be unabashedly barn-like, yet with majesty and…razzmatazz. But once the roof was off, it became clear Barn was neither straight nor square. At all. He was a trapezium. Some walls were bowing out. Some had no mortar at all and were just resting on the limestone rock of the land. Some still sported the earthen mortars of old.
“Is it safe?” I’d asked Brian, who was doing the roof and happened to be an engineer.
“It’s been sitting here for two hundred years,” he said. “And if the roof is on, it will no doubt sit a hundred-odd more at the very least.”
We scoured the walls and the cracks. It was all sound even if it didn’t look that way at first sight. I breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no need to take walls down and rebuild them. Barn could stay intact, just with a new hat on.
There were issues with this of course. Adding a roof to a trapezium meant that somewhere it wouldn’t sit straight. In the end we decided to tilt the roof, so that the east-facing most visible side lined up, but the other side didn’t. Naturally whenever anyone sees it, the first almost parrot-like comment is, “But it’s not straight.” I feel Barn glower. I try not to glower along. Because some things are a lot more important than a straight line. Things like personalities, characters and souls. I don’t want to live in a box. Barn doesn’t want to be a box either! Those stones have been sitting there for two hundred years. They deserve some respect.
Nonetheless I worried. Was I doing Barn justice? There were things that didn’t quite go how I wanted, and that I’ll later no doubt change. The plastic drainpipe is sacrilege, but I couldn’t source or transport metal ones, and it was simply too urgent to mess about with rainwater seeping into the interior. Despite these bungles though, when I look at my stonework and mortar work, I feel pride. It took months and months for me to dig out all the old concrete by hand, then mix tons of fresh lime mortar by hand too, and repoint adding bling and sparkle here and there.
So those hoping for a strict restoration will be disappointed. The past doesn’t want to be resurrected here, not even with a bombastic gloss over it. But it doesn’t want to be buried either. Nor forgotten and discarded like a geriatric uncle in a home. It definitely doesn’t want cement thrown all over it. The ghosts need to move on to better futures, and the energies be free to transmute. In fact I don’t think there’s such a thing as a restoration really. All history and all memory is reconstructed every time we think about it. Our pasts are in permanent flux.**
However, those hoping for some slick Grand Designs barn conversion thing with modern fads dictating, and the past all painted over, will be disappointed too. This isn’t slick. Or straight. And definitely not fashionable (thank God!). I wouldn’t call it a barn conversion. I’m not into converting anyone to anything, even if people project that onto me. I’m into empowerment and freedom and people standing on their own feet and in their own hearts and connecting with the amazing environment they live in. So you see, this is something else. It’s a barn transmutation. Because barns are beautiful, fundamental, crucial structures in our world. They are earthy and grainy animal places that underpin our very survival. This is a Barn transmutation because Barn has changed me just as much as I’ve changed him, and I see now we are both the better for it.
So here we are. I haven’t done it yet. The interior holds more work than I dare contemplate right now, and knowing me I’ll fart-arse around with the exterior plenty more once that’s done. Even so, we narrator-builders must celebrate the completion of an episode. Because that’s what these projects are: long sagas filled with chapters.
As I turn this month's page Barn is finally glowing. The non-aligned roof is testimony to the incongruity between modern standards and organic growth. The new windows framed in the old oak roof timbers depict clearly what supports what. And those ancient stone walls built to no code nowhere, without foundations or cement or drainage or damp courses, well...after two hundred years we see. It took a year of repointing by a hag on a hill, but they’re basically as good as the day they were made, supporting a new roof, a new interior floor, and so much more.
So Barn is having the last laugh here, with a brand new future ahead that no one ever expected. He isn’t a sad story that’s been run away from, or a shameful secret to be whitewashed. He’s a distinguished outbuilding that has sheltered animals and people and food in hard times, that has survived two world wars, a civil war, Franco, and now even modernity and hyper-capitalism. He has bucked the system and lived to tell the tale. For a while there it looked pretty desperate with the roof all but collapsing on him and no one taking care. But hey, it can all change in an instant in this life of wonders. True he has wonks and bulges and wrinkles and faults, as do I and you. We have lived through many adventures after all. But we are not simply the result of our pasts and definitely not just the victims or perpetrators of them. We are something far wider and broader than our histories, with the possibility to transmute at any minute.
Anything can happen. At any time. Turn the page my friends, it’s another chapter. And no, a handful of billionaires are not writing it. Or building it. We are. Every minute. Every day. With everything we do and say. And it looks like we’re neither into restoration nor renovation thank you very much. We’re into transmutation.
* This is not a criticism of the coping strategies of largely traumatised populations. None of us wants to scratch off the scab of an old wound. All nations deal with their inevitably uncomfortable pasts in different ways: whitewashing, forgetting, burying, abandoning, or rewriting with pomp and glory and exporting wholesale (like good old England, for example). And all are hyper-sensitive about that fact:)
**Oliver Sacks has made plenty of studies on the rather fluid nature of memory, as mentioned in his books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, or An Anthropologist on Mars, or as outlined in brief in the article below.
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Atulya K Bingham
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