The Peasants Are Evolving

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.

What the land looks like when you haven’t watered

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.

“Who ewe calling snotbag?”

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.

Alright, no need for mass wisteria, it was only a bad pun…

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.)

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4 thoughts on “The Peasants Are Evolving

  1. I find this so fascinating! We live in an economy that seems to preclude small farming – and small farmers seem to be the ones who are most close to the rhythms of nature and have the insight and respect to leave it relatively undisturbed. At least that’s my impression. It’s interesting that it’s almost a luxury to have a small farm where you live – like a hobby sustained by another more lucrative job or a labor of ideology and passion which results in not a little bit of deprivation. Where I live it’s a necessity that people are desperate to escape. It seems to me that a the educated and progressive thinking set (myself included) are wistful for an existence that many in the world are yearning to escape.

    Ironies aside and despite the possibility that this might not be an a scaleable solution to our environmental problems, it’s inspiring that people are acting on their convictions. And always lovely to see such a beautiful part of the world. Great post!!

    • Mama Mzungu, I think so often about the lives of East Africans and wonder how in the hell we have got to the point where this is NOT to model for a sustainable world. I mean, with a few adjustments, for clean water, decent sewerage etc…but seriously, I have never seen such down-to-earth, practical, loving, gentle, kind people as the ones I met in Kenya and Tanzania. The way the mothers in particular would just swing a baby on their backs and get on with life without getting ruffled – I just have the hugest admiration for women like these! I do believe we all have that kind of earthy mama in our genes. But then the city gets under our skins and we ditch the material hardness, but spiritual softness of living in nature (living amid LIFE) for the material ease, but spiritual drudgery of living as part of a money-making machine. It’s Babylon all over again. Ack, I must stop or I will go on and on about it. In any case, thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to leave thoughtful comments. Kila la heri!

  2. This just blew me away? Where is this wondrous place that you live in? Is it Europe? This is amazing. One day I will plant a place like that. I have a question.

    A friend of mine has an Almond tree. I gathered a bunch of Almonds and they have all sprouted and now I have about 20 little almond tree seedlings. Is there a variety of Almond tree that you can’t eat? Do Almonds need to be toasted before you eat them?

    Just wondering. I don’t want to get my hopes up about these trees.

    • Glad you liked reading about it Clotilda! I live in the Alpujarra mountains near Granada (Spain). It’s unbelievably fertile because of these snowmelt channels which the Romans began but the Moors massively extended and refined. If you have a smallholding you get a turn (about three hours once every 8 days or so) and this torrent of ice-cold water comes down some channels and you have to direct it with shovels and bricks and things so it soaks your land. Mostly it’s olive trees (which barely need watering) but lots of almond trees grow here too, as well as oranges and lemons in the better-watered areas. I’m not entirely sure if almond trees are like apples or citrus in that they return to the wild varieties (in the case of almonds, bitter as hell) when you grow them from seed, in which case you would be able to get a good root stock off your seedlings – don’t throw them on the compost – but you might need to graft on a sweet variety. Let me check up on that and I’ll get back to you. I am a bit obsessive about these things as well. I want a forest garden too!! I want to live like the Garden of eden where you just open your gob and something falls in it… We currently have sheep (great for manure) but not much gardenable space. Incidentally you can eat almonds green, there are recipes that call for green almonds but you can just pick them off the trees and take off the skin and eat them, they are more watery but still yummy. Otherwise you can wait til the husk is dry and hard (I used to have a tree of a variety that you could open by hand) and just eat them straight. Toasting them makes them pretty extra yum but you don’t have to. Good luck!

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