STUMBLING around in pitch dark, crashing into furniture, risking a broken neck as I felt my way blindly down the stairs, all in aid of saving the planet … Sustainable living comes in many shapes and forms and there are downsides!
The house I was staying in, although in a small village, was ‘off the grid’ quite literally. The two solar panels and rudimentary battery system weren’t enough to power the house through the night. The owners’ solution to the problem was simple: lights out after dark!
This was an aspect of eco-living that could take some getting used to …
Being here was all part of a grand plan, however. I was on a quest to discover what it really meant to ‘live sustainably’ in Spain and whether it was the life for me. In order to do this, I volunteered to work several hours a day for people who claim to live ‘sustainably’.
This, I reasoned, would allow me to both see more of the countryside and to gain some valuable, hands-on experience.
I set off in early March, arriving at a rustic finca and eco-guest house in the mountains outside Girona. In return for helping the owner – a no-nonsense Yorkshire-woman – with her poultry, dogs and organic garden, she provided me with accommodation and three square meals a day.
My first morning was spent ankle deep in duck ‘do-do’! The straw on the bottom of the duck cage, matted together with ‘guano’ which was liquefying in the pouring rain, had to be raked up and transferred to the compost heap. The smell was so noxious it made my eyes water and my stomach heave. But, I had to remind myself, this was exactly what it was all about.
The smell notwithstanding, I grew quite fond of the ducks. Their cheerful waddling and perky, upturned tail feathers never failed to make me smile – never more so than after a day down the disused well.
The previous owners of the property, taking the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to waste management, had filled the well with thousands of bottles, broken plates and cans over several decades.
My host now wanted to haul it up – bucket by bucket. So down into the bowels of the earth I went, with a bucket on a string. I never did find out the purpose of the exercise because, once the ladder that had been put down the well had reached its full extension, I could go down no further. Project Clean Well was abandoned, leaving untold tons of rubbish down there.
Over the next few weeks, however, I learned about the incredible lengths my host had gone to in order to leave as light a footprint on the planet as possible: investing in solar panels to heat water and treating ‘grey water’ by channelling it through a series of cleverly-designed ponds.
The last pond was clean enough to attract birds, bees, frogs and insects, all of which would help to keep a healthy pest/predator balance and make pesticides unnecessary in the garden.
Weeds from the organic vegetable garden and food scraps were fed to the chickens or composted; ash from the fireplace was spread around the fruit trees as a natural fertiliser; plastic water bottles were re-purposed as miniature greenhouses for winter salads.
Considering her huge efforts to pursue an ecoliogical lifestyle, it struck me as odd that when her own garden was not producing enough fresh vegetables and she had to buy extra, she did not choose organic.
When I asked why, she wrinkled her nose and said, “I just don’t like the way the organic stuff looks. It’s all shrivelled up and manky.”
It certainly wasn’t the only occasion that I found people practicing other than they preached.
In Tarragona I met a charming Dutch couple with a beautiful country home on the banks of the Rio Ebro. Enthusiastic advocates of natural living, they had left high-powered careers behind to live more simply, albeit very comfortably, in rural Spain.
Their house was fully solar-powered, they ate almost exclusively from their orchard and vegetable garden or exchanged surplus produce with neighbours, used only vinegar for cleaning and made every effort to patronise small, local businesses. However, they did not catch and store any rain water and insisted on drying laundry in a tumble drier – even on the sunniest days!
Moving on to a lush green valley in Cadiz where a waterfall provided unlimited fresh water, making the soil incredibly fertile, I expected to find fruit and vegetables growing in abundance.
But the lack of any irrigation system meant that, each day, the owners had to spend several hours moving a single sprinkler around the vegetable garden at 20-minute intervals.
This laborious process meant running up a steep hill to turn the tap off, running back down to move the sprinkler, then running back uphill again to turn the tap on. As a result, the owners weren’t keen to make more work for themselves by planting additional crops.
By June, with the sun beating down and the land drying up, the threat that forest fires pose for those living in remote, rural areas became starkly apparent. I found myself on a large neglected property in a densely-wooded valley, several kilometres down a very rough track.
I could neither see nor hear any sign of human life and there was no phone coverage or radio reception.
It was no surprise that the people living there continually scanned the skies, looking for any sign of smoke, helicopters or small planes, and argued passionately about the need to clear the undergrowth to mitigate the spread of wildfire.
What was surprising, was that they had decided to empty and paint the water reservoir at the start of summer, yet had not bothered to refill it!
My journey is not over yet but a few things have become clear along the way: achieving any degree of self-sufficiently requires hard – often monotonous – work; living in remote rural areas has its appeal but it can also be isolating and lonely.
Most importantly. though, there is no single, ‘right way’ of pursuing a greener lifestyle. Different people have different priorities, resources and approaches.
What is certain is that even a few small steps in the right direction are better than none at all.