A thoughtful conversation with a nature guide in the western Algarve – in Sagres, to be exact – went something like this:
Me – For me, this area is unbelievably beautiful, but I can understand why young people have the need or the desire to leave it to make money or satisfy their curiosity.
She – Yes, and often they are encouraged to do so. You know, I work in schools and sometimes I try to get different generations together. So I got a local woman of ninety years old to show the schoolchildren her garden. She was fit and well and she tended this beautiful garden that provided food and flowers. It was small but it was simple and perfect. And I thought, why isn’t that a worthy aim in itself? Why should that kind of life be denied to young people? Why can’t we dignify the process of making a garden, of growing food?
I’ve been writing this blog for three years now, and I’m about to stop – I’ll come to that in a minute – and while I want to stop, I’m also glad I started it, because it has helped give shape to the past three years and has given me, at least, a record of how I, and we, felt about this move, and why we did it and what it meant. Looking back, a pattern has emerged that I didn’t see at the outset. I wasn’t following a plan. It was an impulse. It was an impulse that grew out of being with my father when he died and gaining a visceral understanding that life’s strongest quality was that it was finite, that it would come to an end. This understanding, deep, sad, but also oddly freeing, was my father’s gift to me. It was a seed sown that grew quickly into a desire to sell up, to leave the big city, to leave stressful jobs and, on the basis of a short holiday in the Algarve, to move here. It didn’t make obvious sense, but I was impelled, and Husband was compelled, and it quickly became clear that it was as desirable an option for him as it was for me. A lot of people said this move was brave but it never felt like that.
The Algarve is a very beautiful and, in some areas, unspoilt place to live, especially if you manage to find somewhere quiet, like we did, but still not far – 45 minutes’ walk or about 15 minutes in Rollie, the Renault 4 – from a thriving small village. We went there on Friday night. Someone we know was playing music, keyboards and bongos, along with a drummer with the full kit, and it was a brilliant night. What is a café by day becomes a pub by night with all ages in it, and people anarchically smoking, and the woman from whom we pick up post in the junta de freguesia turning her hand to serving beer and making gin and tonics. At least, she made me a gin and tonic, while saying that she didn’t know how to make it, and that meant she made a very fine one and wasn’t mean with the gin at all. The very best part of the evening, though, was before we got there. Just a short distance outside the village, less than a kilometre, we were startled by movement beside us on the dark road. Seven wild boar, five of them humbug-striped piglets, were scrambling up the embankment to get out of our way. Nature is alive and well here, even if the hunters will be out to try to shoot them one day.
In all those years of living in the city and mostly enjoying the endless stimulation, I hadn’t realised how much I missed the natural environment. I had an undiagnosed craving for it: both physical and mental. Physically it was my lungs making the loudest complaint. Mentally: that’s a bit more complex to analyse and I don’t have the space here. A friend once said to me that all culture – the arts – was nothing but a substitute for nature, for man who has separated himself from it. She was quoting a writer I can no longer recall. It seemed a slightly outlandish idea then, but not now.
The city may be endlessly stimulating but it is also endlessly demanding: it insists that you consume, that you keep up; it forces you struggle to move through crowds, it forces you to struggle to breathe. It forces you to forget what really makes the world go round, which isn’t endless economic growth, despite what the newspapers and radio tell us. I tune into Radio 4 from time to time, and I am still dismayed at the need to report whether the UK economy has grown and by how much. According to the most recent report I heard just a couple of days ago, most of this limited growth was down to consumer spending, but that was all to the good, just so long as the confidence was kept up and the people kept spending, be it money or credit. The further away you get from this notion, the more powerfully insane it seems to be.
We have got rather far away from that. I find I want things much less than I used to; I need artificial/cultural stimulation much less, too. Having plants and animals growing all around me is stimulating. I have planted seeds and green shoots have appeared. Miraculous. I made lots of mistakes – and have many more mistakes to make, too – and one of those was planting too many seeds all at once. The profusion of shoots for which I feel responsible is rather overwhelming. Gardening advice is to thin them out. Thin them! That’s a euphemism for killing them, these tiny scraps of miraculous growth-potential.
Oh, I do have a tendency to take things too seriously.
I can see three stages, now, in our life here. The first was marked by curiosity. An abundant yellow flower with clover-like leaves coated the hills around us the first winter we lived here. I couldn’t identify it to begin with. It took me a while to pin it down as the Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae. Naming it was an important first stage in my life here. The fresh green cover it gave to winter land seemed such a good thing.
By the second year, I hated the plant. It was ‘a highly invasive weed’ that took over ‘disturbed land’. It was taking a hold in our garden. I spent a lot of time pulling it out by the roots. This second stage was characterised by activism. We were protesting against the plans to explore and drill for oil and gas in the seas around the Algarve and on the land. Learning that these contracts were in place was a terrible shock and we were determined to do all we could to stop them.
By the third year, I started to see the Bermuda buttercup in a different light. It was a pioneer. It came to disturbed land to clothe it fast; Nature hates bare soil. The oxalis came to sink roots and stabilise and nourish the exposed earth. The bare track made across our land by the builders of our swimming pool became covered with the yellow flower, and I looked upon it favourably. When it started to die down, many other plants – weeds, too, to some of you – started to fill up the area that had been rescued and made more habitable by the Bermuda buttercup.
Our third stage here is characterised by acceptance – not a giving in but an acceptance of limitations. I’m even more conscious that the ever-increasing speed of human ‘growth’ is destroying the very soil we live on. I’m signing petitions and marching against the destruction of the environment and the hastening of man-made climate change when I can. I’m still utterly opposed to the Algarve being turned into a region of hydrocarbon production, and I know the government cannot be trusted because they respond to the same ‘economic-necessity’ argument as everyone else in power around the globe. But I’ve also come to understand that what we do here in our backyard is what matters most. We – Husband and I – are only a short way into our lives here. We have so much to learn; perhaps we will never stop learning. What matters to us is to leave this patch of land a little better than we found it, with richer soil, all the better to hold and release water (and sequester carbon), more microbes, more growth of every botanical kind, more insects, more birds, more life . . .
I’m still not above a bit of natural engineering when I can and I was very happy when I managed to dissuade the barn swallows from taking over the red-rumped swallows’ nest. Now we have both birds. We can sit on the veranda at the front of the house and have barn and red-rumped swallows swimming through the air around us and filling it with their distinctive voices. Soon they will be raising young. The red-rumped swallows have learnt from their mistake of last year when the tunnel entrance to their mud nest faced our front door. Now they have canted the entrance around by more than 90 degrees so that it faces along the length of the veranda. In fact, it faces where the barn swallows are. This might be passive-aggressive.
Golden orioles have arrived in the valley with their eye-catching lacquered yellow bodies and black wings. Bee-eaters float overhead, their sound like children practising playing the recorder. Nightingales sing from stands of cane by the river. Birds everywhere are in full voice. I’ve only just noticed that a bird can sing without opening its beak. A blackbird, its beak full of nesting material, sang a beautiful song this morning, the movement of its throat the only clear evidence that it was the source of the music.
Writing this blog helped me understand what we were doing, it helped me to keep in touch with old friends and even to make new ones, but now is the right time to stop. After all, I have so many things to do.
‘I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.’
Henry David Thoreau