The Lowdown Souls: Old Moon in the Arms of the New


Oxford Botanical Gardens. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

  Autumn encroaches. In tiny increments it pulls its covers up higher each night; dusk always seems to surprise us, as if it really oughtn’t be doing that.
  Nostalgia for summer tapers every conversation, string vests and grown-up blonde dashes clung to in the hope that warmth really will return. It’s as though we haven’t lived through this every year of our lives, that as far as we have heard, as far back as our genetic memory serves, this is something new and vaguely frightening.
  Lanterns are lit, ghouls shooed away with rituals that keep their attraction. And the gravity that follows the upward throw of any dense object brings it crashing down towards us, unprepared and flapping our hands.
  Perhaps other people deal better with autumn than me. Reading a book on Biodynamic gardening, I was reminded of how obvious these things should be – if, that is, any of us spent long enough in the elements to remember that this downward pull is only the other side of the cycle that everything turns. The moon waxes, shines, wanes, disappears. The waters in us and every other moving thing rise tidally towards it, dropping back when its magnetic allure fades.


  This month, the triply descending cycle of autumn, new moon and (squeamish men look away now) an unusually well-timed period brought it all home to me. I could almost feel myself being lowered into my grave. I felt profoundly sad, a feeling I am rarely overwhelmed by, being more partial to the natural highs of laughter, growing things, creativity.
  But I cannot describe how much I valued feeling so low. I had the distinct sense that it was a kind of preparation for death.
  The day after descending into my grave, so to speak, I went to a Red Tent evening at a friend’s house – well, yurt. (Don’t tell me you didn’t realise I was such a hippy.) After the usual hugs and teas and catching up, we went straight into the heavy stuff: menopause and death.
  As one woman, a nurse, pointed out, we Brits do death very badly. We prefer not to think about the finality of our earthly lives, concentrating on practical matters – healthcare, wills and testaments, inheritances (those enticing burdens that make a relative’s death seem confusingly attractive). We do the usual British thing of not wanting to cause a fuss, to go and hide somewhere with our grumbles and get out from under other peoples’ feet. So the elderly get packed away in homes, anaesthetised to numb them to their mortal process. Is it more to ease their suffer or to protect us from the sight of someone going, fully aware?
  Spain is so different. Elderly parents, dotty and deaf as they come, are dutifully cared for by grown-up sons or daughters, taken out to events slowly on unsteady, slippered feet, forgiven for wandering off and falling asleep in strange people’s cars. This is the comedown after a lifetime of general good health, of being in service to other people: it’s an expectation that is becoming harder to honour as the grip of the Northern European work fetish tightens.


  As my biodynamic gardening book maintained, winter is a time when the garden appears to be dead, but there is just as much going on beneath the surface as there is above it during the rest of the year. Life is dispersed among millions of micro-organisms, microfungi, worms; more than that, there is a quiet in this temporary fallow period that is an essential antidote to the activity and production of the rest of the year.
  I like being around old people. They offer the long view, neutralising my anxiety about getting to where I want to be quicker (in that self-defeating tizz of wanting to be somewhere than isn’t the present moment).
  If I live to be 80 (God willing), I’m less than halfway into my time here. What does it matter than I don’t have my book of poetry (self-)published yet, my novel finished, my album recorded? Let alone the deserts I would regreen if I had the chance, the disadvantaged youth I’d educate, the single mothers I’d support with all the millions of pounds I would have if any of those projects miraculously became huge successes. (Ha ha.)
  I find I can end up turning from one goal to another with such dizzying speed, and always with the same urgency, that I drive myself closer to the ground – which is probably right where I’m needing to be.
  Just as wholistic health looks at the wellbeing of the body rather than treating symptoms, and permaculture (or biodynamics) says “Look after the soil and the soil will look after you”, the soul needs lowness – not only to remember how beautiful it is to be high, but for the value of lying fallow and being nothing.
 And the moon is generous when she returns: when we can see the dark lacuna of the ‘old moon’ beside the glowing curve of crescent, it’s known as ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms’.


(If all that sounds too depressing, follow this link for things to grow through winter:

The Heavy Fog Dreaming

Aboriginal hollow log coffin

I’ve finally got round to reading Bruce Chatwin’s ‘The Songlines’, a recollection of his wandering through Australia and encountering nude snorkelling Irish priests, sunburnt survivalists with dodgy guts, and of course – most interestingly of all – the Aboriginal people whose Songlines he is on the trail of. Drunks, mavericks, jokers some might be, sleeping under corrugated iron ‘humpies’, or laughing in a bar with beer mats embedded into knitted hats, or brawling slowly, patiently, with broken bottles under a relentless, lethal sun, the undercurrent of Aboriginal culture was still the mode of living that they had successfully followed for millions of years become the white men arrived.

The Songlines are the tracks that embroider the landscape with the songs of the ancestors who walked the earth singing everything into existence. As they walked they strewed the land with souls, and when a woman steps on one of those spots while pregnant, the foetus experiences its second ‘conception’, marked by its first kick, which designated the totem it will have for life. Songs are the maps that mark territories, the currency that can be exchanged for rights of passage, and even a melodic description of the lay of the land.

Every landmark, pinnacle of rock, outcrop of eucalyptus in the scrub is the site where an animal ancestor went back into the mesh that separates the eternal from the mortal. It would be sacrilege for them to inflict any kind of crime against this beautiful, song-studded earth.

Reading this puts me into a near-hallucinatory state of wonder. Of course! If you are a nomad, obliged to move from place to place in search of pastures and water and thus dependent on the open spaces that form your roof and walls, your understanding of nature would have to be close to telepathic. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any more you.

Then I go online, where the hypnotic rhythm of bad news sends me into a different kind of trance. Fracking. The Keystone XL pipeline. Conflict minerals. Brazilian logging companies rounding up the Awa Indians (of whom only some 350 are left) and shooting them. Epidemics of birth defects due to agrochemicals. Even’s German depot has come under fire for neo-Nazi working conditions.

It is becoming clear that every commodity, from gold to oil to gas to slate to wood to books to vegetables – vegetables! – is a cause of suffering in the world. Every time we buy some gadget or frock or piece of jewellery that we have been conditioned to want, there is a chain of murder, theft, and injustice that trails all the way back to the spot where the Earth was forced to yield its treasure, where human beings were obliged to give their time, sweat, and blood for the brief clink of money – usually in someone else’s pocket.

Where have our Songlines gone? Back when we were all nomads, as we were for at least 99% of human history, the touch of our feet on the earth must have stitched it to us in ways we cannot comprehend today, so rare is it for our bare soles to come into contact with concrete-free soil. Would we have had in England a Ladybird Dreaming, or a Milk Cow Dreaming, or a Heavy Fog Dreaming? I wonder what kind of totemic being we might have now. A Chocolate Wafer Biscuit? A Car Tyre? A Wet Wipe?

Perhaps it is true, as George Carlin says, that the Earth will survive a long, long time after we have gone, that “the Planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas”. In the meantime, though, we still have to live with ourselves. And everything else has to live with us, too. It’s not just about Saving the Planet, even; it’s a case of refinding our songlines, the threads weaving us together and in and out of our environment. Every act that revives our touch, our physical experience of the world, brings us back to that wondrous apprehension of how very small we are, and how in need of each others’ mercy.

That, against all the rhetoric of free-marketeers, is where happiness lies. Not is being big and flashy and better than everyone else – how easy it is for ballooning pride to burst! – but by being compatible with life as a whole, interactive, interdependent, intercompassionate. There would be no necessity for all our poisonous trades in glittering stones and metals and black liquids were it not for our desires for them. The less we are reliant on the world of big business, the less we are compliant with it. So, I would like to sonorously announce, the answer to the world’s multifarious ills is quite simply this: to find some joy wherever it causes no harm. Joy cancels out greed, and with it a host of other sadnesses.

Here are some things that I think not only pay tribute to our need for less need, but also gave me a glimmer of joy in the process. Please feel free to add your own! (Simple 55w solar lights from a plastic bottle and water) (Make your own solar oven) (Bicycle powered washing machine) (DIY solar panels) (Light powered by gravity) (All sorts of clever upcycling and eco tricks in Spanish) (Particularly loving Elvis the hamster charging Peter Ash’s mobile phone) (Ice in the Sahara! Really!) (The Eco brick project in Latin America) (DIY eco-friendly projects) (Over 100 success stories from around the world – there is hope!)

The Danger of School Bell*


School is big in our minds at the moment, and it seems that it is not far from the news either. This week, two news stories have thrown up a curious question for me.

First, there’s been 14 year old Malala Yousefzai’s shooting. An outspoken blogger for the BBC at a tender age, and the first person to be awarded Pakistan’s National Peace Prize, Malala was on a bus on her way to school in Swat Valley – a heavily Taliban-controlled region of Pakistan – when Taliban gunmen stopped the bus and shot her in the neck and head.


The people of Pakistan immediately came out in massive demonstrations of support for Malala and condemnation of the Taliban. Malala is currently in Birmingham, England, where is seems she is slowly recovering. It is interesting to note that Malala’s school is actually run by her father, and is one of only a few schools for girls that dare to operate under constant threats from the Taliban.

Then, last night, I received a plea from to ask the Canadian government to put 15-year-old Amanda Todd’s cyber-bullies to trial after the teenager committed suicide. If you watch the story she poignantly tells through pieces of paper on YouTube, you are thrown (back) into the cut-throat world of high school popularity politics. Not only was she hounded and humilated on Facebook with a leaked photo of her breasts, making her change schools several times, she was then beaten up by a gang of teenagers for a regrettable fling she had had and left in a ditch.

It gets nastier: utterly depressed, too anxious to leave the house and constantly cutting, she drank bleach in an attempt to kill herself. She was taken to hospital where they pumped her stomach. When she returned home, her Facebook profile was full of posts from her tormentors: “She’s so stupid, she should’ve drunk a different kind of bleach”; “I hope she reads this and kills herself.” The really sad part of this story is that she actually did.

OK. So on the one hand, there are girls in Pakistan defying murderous terrorists to go to school. On the other, there are girls whose very attendance at school means exposure to pretty much the same kind of cruelty. The Taliban had guns, while the Canadian kids only had words, but the horrible truth is that the words had more the desired effect.


Great photo story from the Guardian about schools around the world:

What is going on here? The contrast is making me wondering if schools are universally good for children. Both cases are extreme, but Malala is not the only girl with restricted access to schooling, and Amanda is certainly not the only developed world teen who has been scarred by her schoolground experiences.

My husband commented: “People always want what they can’t have. It used to be that parents forbade their children from going to school, because they needed their kids to help with the harvest.” (Spain’s 3-month summer holiday dates back to this time.) “Then kids are desperate to go to school, they’ll escape and go in by themselves despite the punishment. The first act of democratisation has always been sending children to school, even though parents don’t like it.”

It’s not for nothing that Europe is now practically devoid of small-scale farmers, which forces food production into vast greenhouses, such as the ones that coat the Almeria area in a frighteningly uniform sea of plastic. Not only are they an ecological nightmare (chemical fertilisers, pesticides, masses of plastic dumped afterwards), they also hire immigrant workers for a pittance, who cannot get papers and are therefore seriously marginalised in society.


But ecology’s loss is economy’s gain – in theory. Since the fall of Franco’s fascist dictatorship in 1979, Spain has experienced an accelerated opening to the world wide markets. A huge amount of EU money has gone into building motorways across Spain to transport the food grown in the above-mentioned greenhouses to the North, where food production is lamentable low.

With democratisation came obligatory schooling from age 6, and socialist policies under Zapatero meant that millions of Spanish youths could attend universities on scholarships. Spain now has an abundance of photographers, media consultants, dance teachers, artists…and 25 % unemployment in places like Granada.

There’s no way anyone could say that education isn’t a good thing overall. Literacy alone opens up the world to small mountain communities like the one I live in; I read on a woman’s shopping bag yesterday the phrase “Leer is vivir dos vecez” – Reading means living twice. Illiteracy is still a problem here. My old neighbours, a goatherd and farmer woman in their seventies, used to walk an hour to town in the evenings to attend literacy classes. Our local cobbler still has to get me to read the labels of products in his shop.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if Caveboy’s daily resistance to school isn’t for a reason. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy spending five hours a day in a concrete, strip-lit box with thirteen yelling, tantruming, wooden brick throwing children, having to colour in inane pictures and rip out shapes from a workbook. How is that beneficial to a child’s development? We do far more interesting, educational activities at home.


What I worry is that the educational standard of the western world is one that is focused on results, marks, passing exams, achieving certificates to stick on walls, rising up tables, improving chances of material success. This is government-think, not humanity-think. The individualism inherent to this system breeds loneliness, greed, anxiety, fear of failure, and the neglect of those who fall through the net.

Daniel Goleman in 1995 wrote a thesis about emotional education in preschool years, quoted in this web essay by Dana Kirsch:

The preschool years are crucial ones for laying foundation skills, and there is some evidence that Head Start can have beneficial long-term emotional and social effects on the lives of its graduates even into their early adult years – fewer drug problems and arrests, better marriages, greater earning power. The Kindergarten year marks a peak ripening of the `social emotions’ – feelings such as insecurity and humility, jealousy and envy, pride and confidence. Children in the youngest grades get lessons in self-awareness, relationships, and decision-making. Some of the most effective programs in emotional literacy were developed as a response to a specific problem, notably violence. As a society we have not bothered to make sure every child is taught the essentials of handling anger or resolving conflicts positively – nor have we bothered to teach empathy, impulse control, or any of the other fundamentals of emotional competence. By leaving the emotional lessons children learn to chance, we risk largely wasting the window of opportunity presented by the slow maturation of the brain to help children cultivate a healthy emotional repertoire [Goleman, 1995].


What is the purpose of education? Is it to increase productivity – not least for the parents, who need a place to leave their children while they do jobs that their kids cannot participate in? Or is it to produce healthy, well-rounded, sane individuals who have a good shot at being happy throughout their lives?

Like anything, I suppose, the answer is a combination of the two. Subsistence farming, as I blogged about here previously, is not economically viable any more. While illiteracy might spare a teenager from hateful comments left on their Facebook page (indeed, it would save them from a lot of aimless, time-wasting surfing on the world’s favourite brain leech), it’s abundantly clear that people can’t get on any more without having a certain level of education.

Still, it makes me wonder: are schools in fact producing brainy but ultimately inhumane creatures who can only contribute to society in economic terms?

I’d be fascinated to hear about your experiences.

* The title is an allusion to a Spike Milligan joke about the ‘Danger of Work Bell’ – look him up if you need a good laugh after all this!

Is She Dreaming? Or Is She Dying?


Farewell, Rambinos.

It’s been a pretty intense time on the El Cura ranch. The heat of August soared to 46 degrees centigrade (that’s 115 Fahrenheit to alla y’all), and while some of us were metaphysically dying in the heat, three of the sheep we are looking after on our house farm-sit literally died from it.

The first one I found in the bunker underneath the alberca/swimming pool. It was dusk, and I had left Caveboy with my parents to take down to the Sufi watering hole for iftar (yes, there were actually people fasting from food and water in this heat). Usually I give the sheep food (hay or ‘forraje’, dried herby grass, plus oats and water) at sundown, and put them into their shed to keep them safe from wild dogs.

But while counting them up, I kept trying to make them add up to eight, and getting confused at only finding seven. Cavegirl was meanwhile yawning and rubbing her eyes, hungry and dinnerless, but nevertheless determined to ‘help’ me. I was in a rush to get to the iftar meal, and ended up running up and down the hectare of land looking for the last lost lamb.

Finding the prostrate woolly figure of the poor beast under the swimming pool sent me into a state of total panic. What the heck…?! My husband was away working at a festival in Portugal, I was on my own, my kids needed to eat…in a mad flap I ran about looking for the right course of action. OK, ring the sheep’s owners…and then what? The only sensible answer that came back was to go have something to eat and wait for morning.

Dead sheep number one buried, I thought my turn as sheep-sitter was already looking pretty bad, when a few nights later, just as I had just got my kids to sleep, I heard a tremendous clattering and baaing going on in the barn.

Still in my stripy PJs, with a pitifully small bicycle lamp in hand and a swell of trepidation in my chest, I crept out to see if someone was trying to steal the animals, or a dog was eating one of them alive.

But the most peculiar thing confronted me. One of the lambs (a full-grown ewe, really) was lying on her side, running like a stabbed bull. Her hooves scraped the wooden sides in a hollow, futile gallop; her teeth were grinding, her head thrown back, eyes swivelling up in white-striped terror, foam frothing at the side of her mouth.

Stunned, but strangely set into pragmatic mode, I went back to the house in search of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, the only thing I could think of that might calm her down as it has done a hundred times on my tantruming kids. It did the trick; the gallops started coming in waves, interspersed with peaceful lulls in which she panted in a a paralysed trance.

I also did the other thing that comes to mind when trying to calm my kids down, which was to sing them the last few chapters of Qur’an in a lullaby voice. Slowly the gallops became less insistent, the pauses for breath a little more protracted.

I started wondering what on earth was wrong with her; I was reminded of an experiment on cats I’d seen a film of in which scientists had removed the part of the brain responsible for paralysing the body during REM sleep. Sleeping cats were filmed acting out physically all of the actions it was obviously dreaming about – running, biting, hunting. The thought crossed my mind: Is she dreaming? Or is she dying?

Despite the puny LED light shed by my torch, what struck me about the musty, dung-perfumed atmosphere of the scene was its primordial, almost Biblical nature. How many times must this have happened in the past, in exactly the same way? The other sheep were absolutely calm now that their shepherdess was there (oh, how naïve sheep are!) and carried on munching their hay blithely. Meanwhile, her legs became stiffer and stiffer – presumably the root of the Spanish expression for ‘kicking the bucket’, ‘estirar la pata’ (to stretch out one’s leg). Perhaps that’s where’ kicking the bucket’ comes from too.

It was abundantly clear now that she was dying. A powerful peace descended on us, and I was overcome by the sensation of what people describe as an angelic presence, in that way that precedes the verbal formulation of it being angelic. In my tearful, sleep-deprived state I felt almost as though I was witnessing the birth of Jesus, in an anachronistic barn that had landed on the wrong continent in a malfunctioning time machine.

I finally left her to her dying stupor, and somehow the peculiarity of the experience ebbed to the sort of stoical acceptance worthy of a weather-beaten peasant farmer, or even, perhaps, a sheep. The lamb had been born in that barn, so it seemed kind of sensical for her to die there too. Life and death are, after all, both threshold experiences, opposites ends of the roll of film but double-exposed, different panoramas both taken with the same lens.

“Only ewe….”

Now slightly inured to the visceral, animal vision of death – this time, according to the vet, it was caused by septicaemia – I was better prepared (though pretty dismayed) to see another lamb wobble dangerously on his feet as he came down to the barn a few evenings later, collapsing as he arrived. I had to grab him under the belly and hoist him into the shed to be able to close the door, but he stood there in a daze, not rooting around int he boxes of hay like they usually do.

The kids were picked up by their dad at 10pm that night; I had to get him to heft all 50 kilos of the poor beast out of the shed onto the cool ground in the light of the car headlamps before they went (much appreciate it, ex-Caveman). I then put on my gingham lycra campesina superhero outfit and sprang into action, making phone calls and racing into town to find rehydration salts.

En route I co-opted a few friends who gave me packs of salts and sugar, and another who obligingly came down with her son at 11 pm to help lift the lamb’s head up while I shoved a syringe of salty sugary liquids down its throat. Over a litre went down in 40 ml doses, sometimes trickling out straight away as he had lost the strength almost to swallow. His teeth chattered against the plastic of the syringe; a heavy fever had already set in. He lolled his head back, panting, dragging his legs back and forth across the grass, making straw angels in the dirt.

At midnight we all withdrew. There was nothing else to do, short of sleeping on the manure-imbued earth beside the barn to keep watch over him, but I’m afraid I couldn’t muster up the saintliness for that. In the morning I went straight over to see if he was OK, but he was exactly where I’d left him, immobile, eyes dusty and frozen, his oily wool coated in icy dew.

Dramas aplenty for one week, you might think. But no, this is the Alpujarras, land of pirates with green moustaches and hippies selling balls of enchanted mud in the market – anything that can go weird, will!

So two days later, due to various bureacratic headaches, and probably a truck-driver who has just now decided to go on holiday, the carcass of Rambino number 3 is still lying under a plastic window blind on the edge of the land, rotting (I am waiting for the campsite next-door to start complaining of the stench). Yes folks, now is not a good time to come and visit Cavemum.

And to top it all off, in the midst of that bubonic hum, together with my new friend Ricardo – a seriously cool old man from the mountains who doesn’t bat an eyelid at this sort of thing – I helped sheared the remaining five sheep this morning…with my kitchen scissors. Actually he used my kitchen scissors, I used my sewing scissors; I had to wash off the greenish lanolin with Ecover afterwards.

Shearing a sheep by hand is quite an amusing experience. Pinning them down is one thing; one of the feisty mamas carried Ricardo halfway across the land while he clung onto its collar for dear life. Then we had to tie three of its legs (leaving one free so it can still breath alright), and get to work snipping away a two-inch deep layer of wool so dense and encrusted with mud and God knows what else that it seems we were chopping up a very unsavoury hippie’s foam mattress. Twice a sheep protested by spontaneously pooing all over the mounting heap of wool.

It took an hour and a half, during which time we bantered about life and drugs and divorce and farming and Kenya and brain tumours and all sorts. Nothing like a tough physical job and a conversation with a weather-beaten man of the earth to set you right. After a vigorous cold shower (my gas bottle is empty), I left for the market feeling on top of the world,remembering why I was drawn to a life on the land in the first place. It’s real life, in all its shiny, delicious, stinky, hilarious glory.

Well, I have blisters from the scissors on my writing hand, but one thing’s for sure, it’s going to make for good material. (Writing material, I mean, not fabric. I don’t think I’ll be washing that wool to make felt with anytime soon.)

To Be A Desert In A Monsoon

Rio Guadalfeo, Órgiva, las Alpujarras, Granada.

Summer in the Alpujarras is all about water.

Neighbours have been known to break out into fistfights over whose turn it is to use the acequia, the snowmelt that gushes down from the mountains through carefully dug and maintained channels to the smallholdings in the valley below. From the beginning of June through to the end of September, smallholders get a turn using the water, however long it takes them to water their land (say, three hours to do a third of a hectare) – although that turn might come at four o’clock in the morning.

When it’s your turn, though, you jump at it. The acequia is the difference between this valley being a lush, green paradise where fig trees snake colossal grey limbs up into huge shady labyrinths, mulberries splat you in the face with their fat juicy berries, and orange groves infuse the air with blossom in spring and fruit in winter, and a rocky, yellow plain so dry that firefighters have to suck whole truckfuls of water out of the river daily to keep forest fires at bay. Helicopters overhead is bad news; it means someone’s house has burned down and a mountain slope around it too.

Acequia at work

‘Doing the acequia’ is an utterly magical experience. You open the little metal gate that channels the water to your land, and suddenly you have a powerful, roaring torrent of icy water that you have to rush about diverting so that it reaches the trees and flowerbeds and veggie patch without sweeping everything away. Kids strip off and splash around; little waterfalls appear between terraces of land. On the hottest day experienced in Orgiva in recent years (40 degrees or higher) we did the acequia and the whole place was easily five degrees cooler instantly.

Stream above Capileira. Gives the word ‘cool’ a whole new meaning.

I write this now while fasting; I haven’t drunk or eaten in the daytime now for two weeks, bar a few days when the heat really did get too much for me. This is my first Ramadan for four years, during which I was either pregnant or breastfeeding the whole time. It’s strangely energising.

The first week or so was rough but I have more energy now than I did before, I’m not freaking out at my kids any more, I’m calmer and more patient (let’s see how long it lasts); the process of temporarily wasting away means your body gets a chance to clean out some crap via your pores before having to cope with digesting more food. And with it, whole rafts of negative mental states wash over you with shocking strength and then ebb away to practically nothing. It can really send you into a blissed-out trance, even while you’re cleaning bottoms and puddles of wee ten times a day.

But one thing that fasting heightens is the phantom sensations of taste and texture – specifically, for me right now (can you tell?) the feeling of quenching a raging thirst with cool, abundant water. I feel like a piece of arid land with trillions of seeds buried dormant beneath the surface; one good soaking and they spring into life, coating the tinderbox earth with a thick, moist layer of vegetation.

So when I break the fast at dusk, watching the the pink light disappear from the mountain tops before me, a litre of liquid in various forms (iced hibiscus tea, 0.0 % beer, juice, or just cold Lanjaron spring water) goes down with startling alacrity. I timed it yesterday; one litre of water in seven and a half minutes. I must have had a desert on the inside on my body that absorbed it gratefully in seconds; my skin even felt plumper afterwards.

Many people will think it’s too extreme, and it’s true, in a way, but like any test of endurance, you will always be astonished at how easy it was after all, how much stamina you had and didn’t know it, how much resolve that was there, just waiting to be necessary.

Our lives in the developed world are a doddle compared to those of women who traipse for five miles under African sun to fetch a pot of water and carry it home on their heads. The very fact that we have water piped into our houses means that we waste it. If we had to carry it five miles ourselves, would we leave a tap running while we brushed our teeth? Would we let a single drop go to waste?

Stream above Capileira

Arduous as it may be to fast for a whole month, to shine up a copper pot you’ve got to rub it hard. And the payoff, every evening, is to feel what it must be like to be a desert plain under a monsoon. There is a hadith that says that when a person breaks his fast at the end of a day, there is nothing between him and Allah. Union with the Divine tastes of cold, pure water after sixteen hours’ drought in the baking August heat.

And by God that tastes good.

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.)