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.)

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.)