Pulling vetch out of the thyme
velcro-fingered cleavers clinging
borage and bees for company
I rack my brain for that one word
in Spanish that manages to
hold this feeling in its palm.
It isn’t satisfactorio,
enriquecedor, or realizador.
I am, as they would say,
walking on the branches
dragging fingertips across
the cliffs and valleys of the bark
but never quite holding the trunk.
It was a funny Sufi woman with
stained buck teeth who sold buttons;
she used the word once
when I gave her a ride
and it struck me but never
fully stuck. Unless
I made it up.

Pulling chickweed and
out of the land’s most farflung lips
there is the orange-black striped slither
of escalopendra through the grass
each leg a scorpion’s sting,
and there are
hundreds of them.
I wait in the hammock for it to pass
and root around in the archives
laced as dead leaves
in search of the match that
kindled this joy. It must
be a word for every
dirt-nailed dervish
hitch-hiking seeker
wild food forager
punctured by needles
from cardoons and nettles
hunting on still

Pulling pink-tipped white
earthsmoke out from
the charcoal of sodden earth
– to slice and douse in vinegar
and steep and strain and dose with –
this word buzzes round my head
bumbling about its business.
It is a word that predates
dictionaries, anyone
who digs enough will know
what it feels like
before the mouth
has had its way with it.
Orange blossoms. Nectar deep in
berryish buds burst
to pale trumpets: the smell
insists you close your eyes
the better to inhale it.

I can live without
knowing how
that word went.
The feeling is



Lutfi and Ruby Ridwan’s Halal Organic Farm

There is pressing debate going on in the Muslim world in the moment – well, one of the more interesting ones, at least. It’s about what really constitutes ‘halal’ food; much of what is sold as such is actually the worst kind of battery farmed chicken, pumped with hormones (even porcine ones) and water to plump them up, antibiotics to keep them vaguely healthy despite the horrific conditions they have to live in….and then slaughtered en masse in machine-driven abbatoir with a tape of Qur’an playing in the background. Hardly what I’d call a religious ritual, unless the religion is capitalism.

On the other hand, the recommendations surrounding the food we eat, from an Islamic perspective, go way beyond just slitting an animal’s throat. Animals, fish, plants and every living creature falls under the khulafa (or custodianship) of human beings; therefore, we not only have to care for these creatures, but also the soil, air and water that keeps them and us alive. Animals in particular should not see or even hear other animals being slaughtered, or even hear the knife being sharpened; they need to be especially pampered for the last few days of their lives, and the knife must be so sharp they do not feel the incision.

With regard to horticulture, so much imagery about gardens and orchards abound in the Qur’an that it really makes you want to get your wellies on and go gardening. The astonishing feat that nature performs every day, every minute, infinitessimal shreds of matter bursting into life and creating not only food, medicine, fibres, oil and dozens of other things, but also hundreds of other seeds to do the same all over again, is really enough to give you some kind of green-thumbed epiphany.

I watched this video and remembered why I am living in the sticks!

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 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.)

Las Acequias: Veins of the Alpujarras

Autumn is in full swing here in Spain; the grapevine at the bottom of our land has turned a heavenly pumpkin orange, crunching brown at the edges; bougainvillia is shedding its three-fold paper lanterns to the high winds, each one a different shade of fuchsia, violet, ochre, or something in between, and each leaf carrying a tiny twisted seed. Jasmine is still exploding into ecstatic white windmills.

The Bougainvillia's last gasp

Though the oranges on the trees are still green, this house saluted those gorgeous round baubles that dangle juicily like little scattered planets:

Orange on the edge

The eucalyptus wood we talked through this afternoon was lush with greenery, the last few whisperings of the acequia gushing along the path on its way to meet the river. We were trying to cut across the countryside to the little place my mother-in-law had rented on the other side of town, Shamsie on Caveman’s shoulders, baby Rosa in a rucksack on my back, dozing off.

Caveman and boy

We got stuck at a reedy marsh, wood spears blocking the path: None shall pass. The road was tantalisingly visible above, but we had to turn back and tramp up another hill. I thought of the Sherpas I’d been watching on a Michael Palin documentary the day before, hauling twice that weight at more than 6,000 metres. Tried not to complain, told my inner whingebag to shut its trap, and was rewarded by a cunning little short-cut that led along another acequia to the main road. Acequias, from the Arabic as-saqiyya (saqaa is to quench one’s thirst), are the canals that slope along the sides of the mountains carrying snowmelt to the smallholdings. Originally cut by the Romans but massively extended by the Moors, they are what turned this valley from the wild, semi-barren string of crags into the lush hills we see today. As such they are (almost)* universally respected, and one can always walk along them; they cannot be bought and are common property.

Acequia hard at work

Water rules all here. Three solid months of torrential rain last winter made the ordinarily dry Rio Chico burst its banks, ripping metres of earth away from people’s bankside gardens, undermining house foundations and carrying hippie vans off into the river. Yet without it there would be no greenery, no fruit on the trees, no almonds or pomegranates or olives or oranges, no reason for tourists to come and rent houses and bask beside swimming pools, gazing up at fountains of bougainvillia and jasmine spilling over walls. There would be no colour. What can destroy us also makes alive.

Pommes de Granada

* The exceptions (surprise surprise) are big businesses. Lanjarón, the waters sourced above the town of the same name, from the Arabic al-‘Aynu Harun or Aaron’s Spring, are bottled by the company that sells it nationally, owned by Danone. Elsewhere in the Alpujarras (from al-Bushra, Joyous News), acequias have been hijacked by the ravenous thirst of the greenhouses, lying like vat rippling plastic lakes on the warm slopes by the sea. The acequias high above the towns away, from public view, have too often being cemented, preventing the vegetation of the high slopes receiving any water as it passes by. These slopes are now brown and dry, trees dead, olive and almonds groves begun five centuries ago rendered barren. A great film about the Alpujarras and the water systems here is El Canto del Agua, in Spanish and English, by Lilian Simonsson, Kirian Scheuplein and Isabel Wolfes (