I should not talk as much about myself if there was anybody else I knew as well.
from Walden, or Life in the Woods by Henry D. Thoreau, 1854
I was searching for something different when I found the off-grid way of life, but I didn’t know what.
I was a journalist, specializing in environmental stories. But this was in the 1990s and mainstream media had little or no time for subjects like pollution caused by factories, or the dangers of pesticides. “Why don’t you, just for once, bring us a story about a kidnapped baby, or something simple?” an embittered news editor once snarled as he spiked my carefully researched and potentially libellous article about pollution from a factory making a well-known brand of photographic film.
Things are better now. Global warming gets a lot of press these days — partly because you can’t pin the blame on any one organisation. But newspapers and TV current affairs programmes still fight shy of anything that might accuse a specific business or product of damaging the environment. And in the perfect storm of climate change articles and documentaries that tell us how to turn off lights, turn down thermostats and prepare for the bad times ahead, there is still little or no mention of any need to radically change our lives, or rethink our habitual over-consumption; it is still all about maintaining what we’ve got but with just a little belt-tightening.
Back in the 1990s, I was out of step with mainstream concerns but didn’t let this bring me down (I still don’t). I lived in a squat in central London, so overheads were low. Freebies, from sample products and launch parties to foreign junkets, rain down on journalists. Had I really put my mind to it, I could have lived completely for free. As it was, I walked from my Holborn squat to the parties, and wrote my stories. Some of them were even published. Each winter I escaped the freezing flat by writing travel articles.
Then my focus shifted. I started a relationship with a fashion designer who had a holiday home in northern Majorca. This was long before leisure flights were identified as eco-sinful because of the carbon in jet fuel, so we flew off for weekend breaks with not the slightest cloud over our conscience. Our favourite village was Deia, international summer playground for writers, actors, models, businessmen and artists. The parade of vain people was a comical backdrop, but not the main attraction. I loved the area for the same reason they did: it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Majorcans wrecked the other side of the island with uncontrolled high-rise hotels, but over here the rule was strict: you could only build in the local style with local materials. Even superstar Michael Douglas was ordered to tear down a brand-new $1 million granny house on his huge estate near neighbouring Valdemossa. Beyond a ridiculous number of restaurants in Deia itself, there was little development. You went to the area to swim in the tiny coves, and wander the hills in the company of a few sheep.
My relationship with the fashion designer lasted slightly longer than a vapour trail, and after it ended the thing I missed was the soft air tinged with the scent of orange blossom and the sweep of the mountains down to the Mediterranean. I wanted my own home there. But I couldn’t afford it. This was 1995 and my savings were just £10,000, from my first TV documentary. Staying on the sofa beds of friends, I searched fruitlessly around the outskirts of the village. These days there’s a German estate agency every 500 metres, but before the local government tunnelled a fast road through the mountains, property deals were rarer.
I was getting nowhere until a friend introduced me to Señor Bisbal, known to us all as Baseball. Among his many activities, which included farming and antique dealing, Baseball was a registered real estate broker. A wizened seventy-year-old for whom no deal was too small, for weeks he drove me around the area, his narrow, tanned face showing no emotion as I rejected one option after the other. We shuttled between Deia and the richer and less ostentatious neighbouring village of Fornalutx, viewing a range of shepherd’s huts, some built of dry stone wall, others hewn from the granite of the mountains, or made of olive wood. They had certain features in common: at least a century old, they were perched on ancient rights of way, had one room, no water, no electricity, and were inaccessible except in the tiniest of cars, or by motorbike (or on foot — though that was never an option I attempted). But none of them matched my fantasy.
I was considering applying for a mortgage to buy a sensible house in a lower-priced area, or waiting until I was old and grey and presumably had more money, when Baseball contacted me again. He was still set on helping me catch my dream, and the latest place was the most inaccessible of the lot, inconceivably high up a ridiculously rutted mountain track. But with each hairpin bend my heart leapt higher, and as we hit 700 metres above sea level, before I had even seen the place, I had decided to buy it.
“It” turned out to be a tiny structure built of dry stone wall on three sides, the fourth being the face of the mountain cliff that towered over it. That’s right, the wall actually was the side of the cliff. To this day, as I drive my tortured hire car up the winding lane I still wonder why I bought it. Did I really need a twenty-minute hair-raising drive up and down the mountain every time I wanted supplies or company? The answer was “yes”. It was exactly what I needed, and it’still is. My ability to spend time on my own, just relaxing, had taken a real beating with all those launch parties back home. Here was a place where I could raise the virtual drawbridge, chill out and be alone — somewhere hard to enter, and therefore hard to leave. You were never going to get any writers and artists up here! International or otherwise.
There used to be a sixties phrase, “only connect”. Get stoned, talk all night, and merge your mind with the collective unconscious. Then in the 1980s science fiction writer William Gibson had his Neuromancer characters “jacking into the matrix”. For a while we were entranced by the idea that we could be connected to the world all the time, having one-on-one conversations with everybody on a twenty-four-hour basis, always and for ever. Now the ever-growing Internet is no longer the object of infinite possibility, it’s just another resource for our lives and a tool for our work, albeit one that has made it possible to be at your desk on top of a distant mountain. The twenty-first-century challenge is how to disconnect, how to pull back mentally and physically from the endless merry-go-round that is modern life. I wasn’t looking for a simpler, eco-way of living. I wanted to grab back what social change has stolen from us, or rather what we have stolen from ourselves — a sense of place, of being here and now.
The Majorcan hut was my way of disconnecting, and it’seemed to suit my needs perfectly. No utility bills or maintenance charges or mortgages. No sense of obligation to go there regularly. The smallholding had survived for a thousand years; it would continue on its humble way whether I was there or not. There were hundreds of trees on the mountain: gnarled olives, statuesque pines and reassuring figs and tamarinds, as well as unidentifiable species that one day I plan to categorise. Each winter the wind blew hard, and one or two fallen pines would fulfil my heating requirements for the following year. Below ground level, the hut sat on top of an amphora — not a natural spring, but a rainwater receptacle the size of another room. The water ran down the mountain onto the roof of the hut, through the gutter and into the amphora.
Because there was no source of fresh water, the price was right: ñ7,000. These days it would cost ñ7,000 just to rebuild the amphora, and ñ20,000 to replant the olive trees, never mind the hundreds of metres of dry stone walling it was now my duty to maintain. The vendor was notorious locally — as I would discover later, long after two of his many brothers had retiled the tiny roof, stuffed cement into the gaps in the dry stone walling, and erected two telegraph poles like giant sentinels looking along the gulf of the valley towards the sea. I planned to hitch a yacht sail to the poles and attach it to the hut, increasing the amount of covered space, but I forgot to creosote the poles and within a year they had rotted away.
It is harder work, for sure, than just turning up at a luxury villa and flopping down by the side of the pool, but more of a change and a break for that. Admittedly there have been trips when I have arrived late at night in springtime, after the winter rains have finished but before the summer has dried out my encampment, and have not been able to face scrambling down the hillside from the road at the top of my land to the damp hut. On these occasions I have slept in the hire car for the first day, or even two, and have woken up to find families of locals out on a weekend walk through the hills peering in horror through the dusty window. Once, when I was lying naked in the sun outside my hut, a nextdoor neighbour suddenly appeared high up on a crest and began yelling at me in Spanish. I could only understand part of his rant, but it was to do with my habit of sleeping in the car upsetting his mother. (I discovered, by the way, that the Ford Ka is the best for sleeping in. The back seat folds down flatter than others, allowing one to sleep until well past sunrise.)
Only the smallest class of hire car can pass easily between the olive trees lining the road, but again, that was all I could afford. Sometimes I walk up the mountain when I first arrive and use the mobylette (the olive picker’s motor scooter of choice) for shopping trips. But when I have to bring up supplies, the car is the modern mule. I am guiltily aware that an old-fashioned, real-life, four-legged mule would be better for the environment. The plane ride and the hire car alone spew far more hydrocarbon back into the atmosphere than any minor savings I might be making through my unconventional retreat, but at the time that was not an issue. A decade later, and I have become adept at living this way — at least for a few weeks or months at a time. I have a fully fitted outdoor kitchen, with butane fridge and cooker, as well as a built-in barbecue. Some of the rainwater is pumped up to a tank on the roof of the kitchen, so I even have running water of sorts. There are drawers full of torches, camping lights, candles and candlesticks of every type and size. There’s even a wind-up record player and a stack of old 78s. And if I want The Libertines or Blondie, there’s always the hire-car stereo.
On occasion I stay up the mountain for days at a time, just thinking and dreaming, and watching the tiny dots of cars driving along the seafront far below. The longer I’m there, the less I want to listen to music, and the less I want to make shopping trips down to the town. It was at times like these that I learned to value edible plants, especially the wild asparagus that sprouts at various times of the year like a succulent grass………………….
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