Living on a vegetable patch

Many years ago – well not really, but it feels like that, I lived in the middle of nowhere in Spain. To be precise, it was a valley in northern Almeria, a valley between two villages, Velez Rubio and Velez Blanco. We were closer to Velez Blanco, which was an old Arab village 1,500 metres above sea level. In winter the clouds would be so low you could feel them on your face! It was freezing in winter, -7 degrees Celsius, and ludicrously hot in the summer, up to +45 degrees Celsius.

There was little rain but plenty of water from Muella, the mountain which overlooks the village and the valley. Drinking water was accessible from two fountains in the village. Water for irrigation cost very little; it arrived through a series of narrow gated channels which fed the olive groves, fruit trees and vegetable gardens.

Vegetable garden. Photo by author.

The method used to water olives, almonds and fruit trees was to flood the land. To water around four square kilometres, it took about two hours of wading through mud and using hoes to create channels on the land.

This was hard work, but not as hard as harvesting olives and almonds. The latter was done by covering the ground with nets first; then we climbed the trees and proceeded to beat the olives to the ground and crate them before delivering them to the village olive press. Experience of everything to do with the land counted volumes here, as in my case it took three of us a whole month to clear 26 olive trees – a week’s work for the more experienced villagers.

The two years my partner and I spent in Velez Blanco were among the most wonderful in my life. I had gone there to recuperate from cancer, away from the crowded noisy streets of London – and I loved it. I loved the open spaces, the mountain outside my bedroom window, the everyday blue skies… Even when it was freezing, the sky was invariably blue and in the night, the clear sky was full of stars. And, of course, the olives and the different fruit trees – apples, pears, red plums, green plums, figs, peaches, apricots, cherries, pomegranates and grapes were scattered everywhere.

One only ate seasonal food, lots of it.

Like this, for example. Photo by author.

I learned that left on their own, fruit and olive trees tend to have alternate bumper and slow years. I learned that growing your own vegetables and fruit was very hard work. Weeding, digging, ploughing, fertilizing, laying down irrigation systems, watering, harvesting. Picking beans and harvesting potatoes were probably the hardest. We grew seasonally, of course, but summer and autumn were the best months and we could eat courgettes, peppers, tomatoes, melons and artichokes picked right before cooking. The difference in taste is indescribable.

I had never really thought about seasons in terms of fruit and vegetables, or how much labour went into producing a few pounds of tomatoes or a few water melons. But it wasn’t just food, it was also a time of creativity.

Apart from making fruit jams, yoghurt from fresh goat’s milk and drinking olive oil like water, I also became a scavenger. I would spend hours at various rubbish dumps searching for wood, tiles, tyres, anything that I could use in the garden or house. Trees were pruned and their branches chopped to be used for firewood. Even in a place like rural Spain, waste was enormous – people threw away everything, as the upwardly mobile sought out items that were new and modern in place of the old and strong.

I cannot say I lost touch with my environment because I grew up in the city, first in Nigeria then in England. But my two years in rural Spain opened up new possibilities for living in different ways. However, the real challenge is to be found not in rural areas but in the city: how do we bring sustainable and collective living to the city?

In this month’s New Internationalist, lawyer-turned-campaigner Polly Higgins calls for radical changes in the way we deal with ecological crimes:

‘We’re all interconnected, interdependent. Lose the planet and we lose our habitat and means of survival. We have a vested interest in retaining the intrinsic wholeness of our planet. Laws, such as the law of ecocide, can be a strong bridge to get us there.’

Of course, this requires varying degrees of sacrifice, depending on where you are now on the scale of ecological perfection. But ultimately, it has to be done. The alternative is more wars and poverty, as more and more land and seas are killed off by corporate and consumer greed.

27 November is Buy Nothing Day. Let’s extend this to Buy Nothing Week. And please no secret stocking up on extras – just your usual groceries and then buy nothing for the week.

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