mUD MOUNTAIN BLOG
Back in 2011, I found myself camping alone on a remote
Turkish hill. There was no power or water on the land.
It was the start of an adventure that profoundly changed
my beliefs about what is enjoyable, or possible...
The lid of the night is fixed firmly over the sky. The stars peer through like thousands of shiny, white eyes. The lights of Alakir burn in the distance, faraway lanterns rocking gently in a sea of pitch. And then it begins.The muezzins start the call to prayer, their voices wafting between the mountains; an audible morning mist. Too bad if you don’t live in a Muslim country. There’s nothing quite like their haunting dawn arias.
Back in 2011, when I was living in a tent, that potent pre-dawn awakening was a ritual. It changed the flavour of my entire day. But after a while I moved into my mudhouse, installed solar panels and light switches, and forgot all about dawn just like everyone else. I would smile when I heard the muezzin call, roll over and go back to sleep.
Yet nothing stays the same in life, does it? Which subconscious demon it was that drew me to the idea, I don’t know. One way or another fate conspired, and I did something I had said I never would. I adopted a dog, Rotty. I would kiss goodbye to those lazy, late mornings there and then.
All too soon, it became obvious. The call to prayer was Rotty’s cue. Before daylight had so much as stretched a finger over the horizon, she would begin to whimper, then howl, then bark – anything to get me out of bed. How I cursed her! I tried everything to restore the previous order of mornings; I reprimanded her, ignored her, put her close to my bed when I slept outside (she licked me to death in excitement), put her in the kitchen (she cried so mournfully I had to get up). I buried my head under my pillow. I moved inside my earthhouse to drown out the noise. She scratched my doors and wrecked my walls. Finally, I threw in the towel.
‘Agh! Have it your way, Rotty!’
I got up.
I remember that fateful first morning well. The muezzins’ chorus coiled around the valley. Rotty’s whines spiralled in sync. I groaned. I blinked and stretched. Then I began to fight my way out of my mosquito net. Now, the mosquito net is both an indispensable and simultaneously devilish contraption. It is designed for use by sober, fully-functioning individuals with 20/20 vision. For reasons known only to mosquito net makers, there is no emergency exit. And this is why, if you have to evacuate your net in a hurry, you will fail.
After much flailing about, I gave up trying to find the net's opening and slid commando-style under one edge. Bang! I rolled off the bed, onto the floor. Half of the web came with me. There was some bad language. I disentangled myself, pulled myself up and promptly tripped over Rotty’s lead. After all this, I staggered stroppily in the direction of the bathroom. The turmoil was all the more unbearable, because Rotty was leaping about squealing in excitement. ‘This is all YOUR fault!’ I grumbled, shaking my finger in my pup's face. She sat her bottom in the dirt and wagged her tail inanely.
It was a routine I was to enact every day from then to the present. Even now, each dawn call to prayer, I curse the day I got a dog. Then I fight a blind duel with the mosquito net, fall over a shoe, grumble at Rotty, and stomp off up the hill with her bounding along behind.
But after a few steps, everything changes. From way off east, light begins to pry open the lid of the night. The stars close their eyes one by one. Mountains appear from nowhere with cloaks of fur pulled over their jagged, old shoulders. Birds crank up their morning twitter. I can literally feel the
Earth coming alive. Rotty and I will have walked for no more than ten minutes before the sun pushes over the ridge of Moses mountain. And when it does, the entire valley is washed pink, and then copper, then gold. I turn to Rotty. Now it’s my turn to grin inanely. ‘Oh I’m so glad you got me up for this!’ I gush.
I wish I could say that Rotty winks smugly here. She doesn’t, because Rotty has no idea why I wouldn’t get up at dawn in the first place. Everything that’s not nocturnal gets up at dawn. It’s only humanity that has gotten out of the habit. And it’s true. Ever since I have been rising with the sun again, I have been feeling extraordinarily well, both in body and mind. There’s no doubt about it, we are designed for that rhythm. Sales of Prozac would plummet if people simply went to bed and got up a bit earlier.
Which brings me to Winter Time and the invidious reversal of daylight saving. Yes, it’s that time of year again. As if we didn’t have enough trouble rising with the sun, the government orders us to put the clocks back an hour. Am I the only one to find taking an hour of daylight from a highly productive time of the day, like between 5:30 pm and 6:30 pm, and then wedging it into a predominantly useless time, say between 6:00 am and 7:00 am, fundamentally flawed logic? From the groans I hear each year, it seems I’m not alone. ‘Ooh the nights are drawing in now!’ We say. There are scowls. ‘I hate it when the clocks go back, the days are too short.’
I’ve often wondered why we do it at all. Back in the UK, there are a couple of minority groups (farmers, and an extinct creature once known as ‘the milkman’ that only people of a certain age will remember) that dislike daylight saving, because it means darkness until 10 am. And on the basis of
those dwindling voices, the entire country puts the clocks back. Other countries like Turkey follow suit so that they stay in sync with European business hours. Yes, we on the Mediterranean are essentially reversing the hands on our timepieces, because a deliverer of milk in 1970’s Yorkshire wanted to see the sun rise before he finished his shift. On this basis, one might ask why we don’t put the clocks back eight hours instead of just the one, that way night-shift workers in Asda would get a fair deal on sunlight too.
Such is life in a centralised system. And that is why, this year, I decided to put an end to the tyranny and rebelled (nothing new there, some might say). The last Sunday in October came and went, and my clocks remained unchanged.
I wasn’t entirely sure how the experiment would unfold. But it soon became apparent that the advantages of holding on to daylight saving are many, and they multiply when you are the only one to do it. Not only do I still enjoy daylight until half past six in the evening, but the banks now open at ten and close at six, which is a lot more convenient if you ask me. No longer do I arrive in town and find the Post Office about to close for lunch. And whenever I meet up with someone, I’ve always got another hour to spare.
Yet now of course, out from the night of convention, another more profound truth dawns; the arbitrariness of clock time. Yes, be it Winter Time, Summer Time, or Greenwich Mean Time, do I really need a chronometer to schedule when I eat, sleep and work? Hmm. I’ll let you know the answer to that next year perhaps, when I throw out my clock instead.
Ten days ago I hurt my knee. It’s a recurring injury exacerbated by car driving. The repetitive tension while pressing the gas pedal has caused inflammation of my knee tendons. Hmm. Am I the only one seeing the metaphor?
Being the obstinate sort that I am, it’s taken a while for me to accept that I might need to slow down a little. I really don’t want to. I have so many plans and ideas, and I’m itching to bring them to fruition. No chance right now. My knee has given up the ghost, temporarily at least.
So, with all this immobility, there has been time on my hands for a little reflection.
A few mornings ago, I took time to stretch my ailing leg. Stepping onto my wooden platform, I struck a few yoga poses. I inhaled the clear, late-spring air. Looking over the yellowing hill, a slope that was as verdant as a rainforest a month ago, I was reminded of how quickly things change. This plot of land, the valley, in fact our entire worlds are perpetually dynamic pictures.
As I finished my yoga session and lay in relaxation, I heard a flurry of activity from the pine tree next to my kitchen. A swirl of bee-eater birds rose like a plume of electric blue smoke. The cloud pulsed in the air. It looked like a genie, inhaling and exhaling.
Bee-eater birds migrate from Africa in late spring. As their name suggests they munch on bees. My village holds a huddle of bee-keepers, which is why these attractive and vividly-marked birds grace us with their presence. Naturally, bee-keepers and bee-eaters are not the best of friends, and the locals will routinely pull a shot gun out whenever they see a bee-eater swarm in the vicinity. Seeing as both bees and bee-eaters are dwindling in numbers I’m ambivalent about the ethics of that. But I’m not of the shooting disposition. And the bee-eaters choose my pines to overnight in.
As I lay on the platform post-yoga that morning and stared into the sky, I was mesmerised by those bee-eaters. They circled and dove directly above me, creating a living, moving display of such beauty and precision it was almost hard to believe it hadn’t been choreographed for the purpose.
My mind returned to my knee and the gas pedal, to driving at break-neck speed after goals, to all the grand plans of my life, none of which have ever turned out how I thought. This adventure, the mountain-house adventure, is an anomaly in my life. It was never planned for. It was never on my ‘to-do’ list at all. I had no great vision of building my own home because I had never considered such a thing could ever give me so much pleasure. But this space apparently didn’t need a plan. It was almost as if it grew by itself, a little like the wild grape vine next to my toilet.
Before this home, I thought I had to do yoga, to breathe and meditate, and follow a set path, in order to find peace and happiness. I was driven, hot on the trail of the elusive goal of enlightenment that so many people bang on about. But awakening is everywhere. It surfs along the sunlight that illuminates the leaves, it flirts with the movement of the air, it thrives in the plants bursting through the soil, it lives in us too.
It’s all quite peculiar really. My bank balance is fairly pathetic. I have no romantic relationship, no prestigious job, no luxury car. In fact I have none of things the powers-that-be would have us believe we need to for success or happiness. None of this matters one iota, because however it appears on the outside, on the inside I feel overwhelmingly complete, almost as though I’ve made it.
I think life is like the bee-eaters. It swirls and dances and makes us gasp in wonder. Things appear and disappear in their own time. Often when we look back over our shoulders, we haven’t a clue how it all came to be. It’s almost as if it just ‘happened’.
Even so, every now again I’ll still kid myself into believing there are things I have to do. I’ll look life in the eye and issue it a few ultimatums, things like, ‘the kitchen MUST be finished by next month.’ or ‘We’re going to get that plaster on, whatEVER it takes.’
And life looks at me, nods ironically and grins. ‘Really?’ it says. ‘You think so?’ Then it’ll give me a knee injury. Or send a deluge of rain. Or make my car break down. Because the picture of our lives can’t be forced or mapped, or even perhaps imagined. We are both creators and creations simultaneously .
I still do yoga and meditate. I still drive too fast as well. But honestly, it was participating in the creation of my home – a home that listened to the Earth – that was ultimately the most enlightening.
It was May, and the evenings were still cool. My silky blue dome was almost invisible, concealed within a circle of tall grass and thistles. It was my third night in the tent. Alone. In the dark. It was a darkness unlit by neon or streetlights, a pitch deep enough to devour entire mountains.
I woke up with a start, frozen in my sleeping bag. Something was slithering along the side of the canvas. Or was it scampering? It was hard to tell. I lie there unmoving, hardly daring to blink as I listened to the sinister rustling. I thought about the bag of sulphur I had forgotten to sprinkle along the circumference of my tent to ward off such unwanted guests. Balloons of fear began to swell inside me. The indigenous animals of Turkey's south coast include the Ottoman viper and scorpions.
I tentatively slid my hand out to search for my torch. The noise continued. My imagination hurtled down a hundred critter-filled alleys, tunnels brimming with poisonous reptiles, spiders the size of rats and other beasts of unknown ferocity just itching to chew holes in the groundsheet and eat me alive, or…or simply look ugly.
After what seemed like minutes of agonizing fumbling I finally located my flashlight. I flicked it on. The squirming stopped. Hell! The beast was stalking me.
After fear, the next pit-stop on survival’s race track is aggression. By now I was wide awake, sitting bolt upright with more than a sensible amount of adrenalin careering through my system. I decided I’d rather be the hunter than the hunted.
As slowly and quietly as I could I unzipped the mosquito net door, dementedly flashing the torch this way and that like a cop in a bad movie. Still no noise. Whatever it was, was hiding. So out I crept. I stood up and turned around, running the beam frantically over the canvas. And then I saw it. The perpetrator of my insomnia. The heinous creature of my nightmares: A lizard, tiny, web-footed, verging on charming. The small reptile peered up at me petrified, beady eyes popping. I exhaled, feeling idiotic. Lizard and I stared at each other for a moment or two before I lowered the torch and crouched back into the tent. As I lie back down on my sleeping bag, I mused how despite not having owned a television for the last fifteen years I had nonetheless become yet another victim of Hollywood’s relentless fear-mongering.
Now I think about it, there is an entire industry founded on generating fear of wildlife. Horror films have been quick to cash in on the myriad of unusual fauna in the world. Anaconda, The Birds, and Jaws are but a few of the animal-based movies that spring to mind. Pretty much any creature that has the misfortune to crawl, slide or not possess fur is subject to a bizarre and completely fictitious kind of demonisation. The result is, when we’re left to our own devices out in the wild, especially at night, those monster movie images take on a life of their own.
The morning after ‘lizard night’, I stepped out of my tent and stumbled into my make-shift ‘kitchen’. In truth it was more of a food area, with a ramshackle washing up stand cobbled together from broken sticks. (Oh the many rewards of Girl Guides). But I was struck by something else. I realised as I looked about that there were no crumbs anywhere, no left-overs to clean up. In short no mess at all. Hmm, had this been what my nocturnal guest had been after?
From then on, I took time to venture out of my tent in the dark hours and observe what exactly was going on in the big bad pitch beyond my canvas. It was fantastic. What I saw was a carefully timed banquet. First to arrive were the cats. They rooted through my bin and carted off the bigger scraps. Next the field mice crept by. Finally, there were parties of lizards, skinks and agamas that polished off the crumbs. There was an owl too. It came most nights, calling into the darkness to its mate down in the valley, before making mincemeat of one or two unsuspecting reptiles, no doubt.
However, a month later something really dragged me to my senses. That summer, the first summer on my land, I would open up a large kilim onto the bare earth every morning for my morning yoga practice. Once I was done, I had to fold the carpet up quickly, otherwise the late spring wind blew burrs that would enmesh themselves in the weave. One day, I forgot to fold up the rug. I came back in the evening to see it covered in thistles and spiky caterpillar-like burrs. I groaned. They could only be removed one by one. It was a laborious, finger scratching process. I couldn’t be bothered with the task, so I left it. The next morning, when I chanced to walk by the rug, what should I see? Ants. Hundreds of them. And they had turned my yoga carpet into an insect spaghetti junction. Agh! Burrs, ants, it was hopeless. The rug was a goner.Then something caught my eye. I noticed two of the ants tugging at a burr, and another carrying one off.
As it happened I’d just finished reading a book about humanity's special relationship to its own land, or domain. I think if I hadn’t actually been living in the wild it would have written the work off as nonsense. One of the things the book stated was that when a person owns a domain and loves it, all the wildlife within the area will support them. I looked at the traffic of ants streaming across my kilim. I rubbed my chin, scratched my head, and turned around. Next I left for the beach.
When I came back in the evening I couldn’t believe my eyes. My rug was spotless. Completely and utterly. It looked as though it had been picked clean by a school of tweezer-brandishing elves. I began to look at animals in a vastly different light. I have become very humbled by them to be honest. Because all of them, even the scaliest, slimiest or most arthropod, are surprisingly benign. In fact they are not only harmless, they are invaluable, helpful little mates, and without them we'd be floundering in our own muck. I never sweep or wash the floor of my open kitchen. I leave my used saucepans out at night as well. And every morning I wake to find my band of nocturnal helpers has cleaned up the lot.
So it was that the bag of sulphur I had bought for protection remained forever unopened. Suddenly, I didn’t want to harm anything, and I believed, rightly or wrongly that nothing would harm me in return. Perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps I was just lucky. I lived outside in the wild for the duration of eight months, and the only snake I ever saw was a tiny grass snake on the border six months on. No wild boar entered the land either. My pomegranate-growing neighbours (boar love pomegranates) believed they were warded off by the smell of a human sleeping outside. There were no spider bites, no scorpion stings, no Ottoman vipers found lurking in the toilet. It was almost as though the land was blessed.
My gardener owns an enormous Anatolian shepherd called Apo. He’s the size a small lion. For reasons that no one really understood Apo would turn up on my land most nights to begin a voluntary protective watch. Did he feel the way I did? I wondered.That there was magic concealed in the dirt? Sitting by his side, I would run my hands through his thick fur and marvel how such a huge carnivorous animal could be so gentle.Together we would stare out over a starlit valley listening to the owl calling overhead and the agamas scampering below. His ears would prick up and he would bark. It was a deep, wolf-like roar that echoed out into the darkness for miles and miles.
I began to feel that this might just be what paradise is like.
Atulya K Bingham
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