It’s a romantic idea for many people who decide to move to the Alpujarras: buy a plot of land, perhaps fix up a ruin, maybe even get some livestock, put in some solar panels, and grow your own veg.
If you take a walk around the countryside here, especially in spring, you’ll be astonished at how abundant the wild or semi-wild sources of food are here: almonds, olives, oranges, mandarins, lemons, figs, mulberries, quinces, pomegranates, grapes, persimmons, loquats (so quickly bruised you rarely see them anywhere outside of the places they are cultivated); higher up in the mountains there are apples, pears, peaches, cherries; closer to the coast there are bananas, mangoes, custard apples…
There are hippies who almost – almost – survive on, say, the almonds or ruby-red pomegranates that ripen in the mostly unattended fincas, or the figs that drop by the wayside from enormous shady trees that spread out their coral-like arms over garden walls, or the grapes dangling from vines that creep over dusty orange stone ruins.
But the reality of trying to live self-sufficiently, even in such a fertile place as this, is very hard. Taking on this housesit – or rather, sheep-sit – is proving to me just how difficult the peasant life is. Last night we were rushing between farmacies and vets looking for a cure for one of our ewe’s mastitis. Unlike the mastitis I had dozens of times while breastfeeding, it is apparently much more serious for sheep, and potentially reason to cull an animal.
Time for a bit of Home Economics. These sheep are East Fresian milk sheep, which are renowned for being good milkers; on a good day each one will yield 1 1/2 to 2 litres of good quality, delicious milk. But if you were to sell that milk, you’d only get 1 euro a litre, or the equivalent for cheese (once the whey is drawn off, you lose a good quantity of each litre, probably two thirds).
So once you’ve factored in buying oats and straw, watering the land to keep it green enough for the sheep to graze it, then vet’s bills, and the work of milking, feeding, housing, shearing and finding a ram of the right breed to cover the ewes, you find that really, you aren’t keeping the animals as a business; it’s a hobby.
Or rather, it’s a labour of love. I have to admit to having a bit of a special moment with my sick sheep today as I was trying to get rid of some of the milk in her engorged, sore udder. Usually they’re pretty mercenary, kind of “Gimme the oats!” while you get on with milking. But this time she kept lifting her head, seeming to ask to be stroked on her nose and talked to softly.
I don’t know much about sheep psychology (if that isn’t actually an oxymoron) but it was one of those moments that make me realise how deeply feeling animals are. Then I saw she’d wiped snot on my trousers. But it was a special moment nonetheless.
After finishing with milking, I went inside and started ‘work’, translating an instruction manual for an industrial gas cooker. Some friends dropped by to talk about making a film. The flickering light of the intellectual world seems at once distant enough to be alluring and mind-numbingly boring enough to be meaningless.
I can’t give you a clever economical illustration of why it no longer makes financial sense to run a farm. But something has very clearly shifted in the century since Europe began its relentless drag into the Money Machine; now, if you want to live ‘the good life’, have solar panels, keep chickens or goats and grow your own food, you still need to have internet connected and work online to earn the money doing something technological or commercial in order to bankroll your ‘peasant’ existence.
But where have the peasants gone? Even the old toothless goatherds are driving dazzling Suzuki 4x4s – and I haven’t a clue how they can afford to keep up the monthly payments on them. Even the most economically aware twenty-something starting him own eco-farm in order to escape the much-loathed ‘system’ is wired up to facebook and YouTube, where he can observe the banks crashing around him and feel somewhat insulated from the stress associated with bank-dependence – but he’ll never be entirely free from its clutches.
Decided to aim for self-sufficiency is a moral decision rather than a financial one. Whatever you gain by cutting your costs you’ve already spent on installing expensive solar panels, or just by buying land. The point of it is not to break even financially; it’s to reclaim the responsibility for your life, your expenditures, you consumption, to become aware of how much effort and time and know-how is necessary to produce ANYTHING, even one tomato or a lump of cheese.
That consciousness is an exponential one; with each new discovery and shock comes another, and it opens out your horizons to every aspect of our daily consumption: water, firewood, FOOD. It takes the norm of taking such things for granted and dramatically inverts it.
If you haven’t cut wood and let it dry the year before, you have nothing to burn to keep you warm in winter. If you haven’t thought ahead and planted the right seeds, in the right places, with the right fertiliser, you won’t have tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, potatoes…If you leave your chicken coop exposed to dogs or foxes, you’ll lose your chickens and therefore your egg supply. If you don’t notice when the 1-year-old lambs of your ewe are still suckling roughly and have thereby caused their mother to get mastitis, you have a vet bill and possibly a dead animal on your hands.
On paper, this lifestyle is not one that would attract many people. It is hard, physical work; there are all sorts of unforeseeable factors that could wreck your productions (severe storms, packs of wild dogs, solar panel thieves, poison leaking in from neighbouring farms, plagues of insects devouring your fruit and veg); and it stimulates your University-educated intellect about as much as the adverts between soap operas.
But back-to-the-landers are devout believers of this path, not only as an antidote to the resource-guzzling lifestyles that are so inescapable in cities and towns but as a spiritual path, a way of regaining a connection with nature – both outwardly and inwardly. There’s nothing like the joy and satisfaction of putting hands to earth and nurturing a seedling to fruition. You gain a deep respect for the earth and its rhythms, its harmony – its music – in closing the theory books and going out and experiencing it.
So we are a peculiar cross-breed of peasant and techno-geek. One foot in the realm of mass commerce and e-technology, one foot in the bucolic bliss of fruit trees and gardens.
The peasants are not revolting – they’re evolving. (Well, OK, we are a little bit revolting. But only when we get sheep snot on our trousers.)