Ten years in the mountains
(My sincere apologies for not posting for several weeks. Much of February was very bleak due to health worries but we are back in the saddle again now. Here is a longer post to try and make amends. Martin) A decade ago, in the pitch black early hours of a knee-knockingly chill and damp winter morning, we bumped up a farm track one thousand miles from England and the great Mother’s Garden adventure began. Can it really be so long ago? Some things have not changed. One fat corner of the farm is as much a tangle of brambles and neglect as it ever was. The seasoned face of the old house, like the surround-sound of birdsong and the ever-changing hues of the Catalan forest and crags, easily mesmerises. The driver of the little heating fuel tanker still sucks on his (cold) pipe. Women in slippers and aprons continue to sweep their pavements. The same old magazines, now bleached to almost white, remain in the newsagent’s window. The lime green Renault 4 still chugs past. I still think I can make it as a writer. But I only have to look at the children (and in the mirror) to appreciate how relentlessly Old Father Time plods his way, and perhaps wonder if he has had two hip replacements and a course of horse pill multi-vitamins. Much has changed, in truth, mostly for the better. Spain has just banned smoking in public places for starters. Mother’s Garden is a tad more organised, with the ruin restored and holiday cottage established. We have launched the Mother’s Garden fresh olive oil business which is starting to make serious headway. I have written three books. We have made the acquaintance of hundreds of people from around the world. There again, there has been the coming of the Euro which, like decimalisation all those years ago, was a smoke screen for a hike in the cost of a coffee, kitchen roll and every other essential. If you have followed this chronicle over the past eight years (thank you) you will appreciate the pains and gains, be they physical or financial. I feel that Ella and Joe Joe rise head and shoulders above all things important, save one: First and foremost, I want to mention my Maggie. I want to say how much I love her, and to thank her. She instinctively knew and still fully appreciates the immeasurable good of our decision, the worth of which is greatest in two shining young minds gifted with languages and schooled as close to the natural world as we could have hoped, in a rural Latin culture that treasures time for family. Yet, for Maggie more than anyone, there is always the weight of distance from our family, history, friends and broader fulfilment. Maggie has given the most to make this radical choice work. And we still attempt too much, frequently struggling with the daily lists and competing imperatives of self-reliance – where to turn first, the farm, the olive oil, the holiday house, the writing? One thing is for sure, after ten years we are clear it is time to start figuring out how to square the circle. With Shaking The Tree published in December we trundled home at the end of our snowy 4999km England book and new harvest olive oil tour to be greeted by two unsavoury Christmas surprises - a seriously grotesque electricity bill and a hike in community tax that curled my hair. It didn’t help that we were both on our knees and unable to shake foul colds, but we rallied, looked at the hard facts and decided to put the lion’s share of winter and spring effort into the fresh olive oil business. It has unlimited potential, every person who has ordered has re-ordered and we are blessed with a growing list of fantastic chef clients. But first we wanted to breathe, so with the blessing of Christmas sun and a sweet breeze we walked the mountain behind the farm and sat and looked down on our village and on to the distant sierra lined as it now is by hundreds of wind turbines that, of a night, flash like fairy lights. All journeys down to the coast seem to coincide with the transporting of some vast blade or the great trunk of another turbine of Swaffham proportions as this country presses on with harnessing the wind that sweeps down from the central plains. How we yearn to apply more green energy here at Mother’s Garden. We have solar water heating, but solar and wind power are what we want and need, but for the cost. One day.... The world is changing apace, of course, but I think I am slowly losing focus. I genuinely cannot cope anymore with the pace, the race to squeeze gain out of every minute, every being, however tender their years: The cultivating of a hugely profitable mass obsession with possession and gloss and little time for community, common courtesy, compassion and what we could achieve should we set our warm hearts and great minds to it. Sadly, despite the good voices and examples of our essential society, we continue to strangle it, and the measure of our ingenuity is how with every stride we merely extend further the margin by which we fail the next generation. The question is, what can you do save adhere to the moral voice, and teach the wisdom that it a greater joy to give than to receive. This is how horrible we are. We do not have a television or Xbox: NintendoDS and Wii machines have not and will never be allowed. Joe does not have a mobile phone, yet. The children have one computer which is in the office, and have access to the company laptop when I am not working, but are not allowed one in either of their bedrooms. Downloading of any programmes or games, or Ella’s access to Facebook and YouTube, is gently monitored. No, our son doesn’t have a Facebook account. Games involving guns or any sort of violence are emphatically banned. And we try very hard to keep computer time in balance with real life (this is where the grind of unpalatable policing may arise). In fact, we have gone one painful step further. A couple of weeks ago BBC Radio Four’s book of the week was The Winter Of Our Disconnect, in which Susan Maushart tells of what happened when she, single mother of three teenagers, yanked out all the modems, hid the mobiles and, basically unplugged her children from the information age for six months. It is truthful and entertaining and loaded with proof, if any was needed, of what a damaging addiction new media can be, so we played a recording of it to our children during several mealtimes. They listened. They even laughed and appreciated what we were doing, before double checking with us how much more time were they allowed on the computer that day. Ms Maushart’s book strikes a chord like the gong man at the beginning of the old Rank films. She nails it when she describes that parental despair at watching offspring being sucked into cyberspace and, more importantly, being starved of the life skill, and the fun, fulfilment, resolution and depth of expression that is real communication. I’m sitting at a computer writing this, of course, and the only way we could replay The Winter Of Our Disconnect was by logging on. We are not grumpy Luddites. Our income, our survival here on the farm depends significantly on the internet. We need it. And the children most certainly need to be aware of it and know how to master it rather than the reverse.