We got up early to take a brisk walk at dawn around the village and are finishing by wandering up the ancient Roman terraces, to forage for Cornelian cherries. My wife Leah and I are accompanied by a young couple, who have bravely taken the risk of coming to spend some months on the island while they are in transition, deciding where to live. I say ‘taken a risk’ because it is the autumn of this (first) year of Covid, they could end up getting stuck. We find a cluster of small trees and fill a couple of bags, pulling the branches down with a beautiful hooked stick which Finn found on the walk up. The autumn air smells sweet with cistus and oregano in the early morning dappled sun. The cool deep greens, contrast with the pale yellow of grasses dried out by the summer heat. Overhead I glimpse what I call ‘my mountain’, the biggest peak visible from the village. I was compelled to try and climb to the top the first time I came here – I was foiled by maleficent goats, but have since succeeded. Benevolent, it stands above the terraces of this small mountain village – a stage, nestled in a mountainous amphitheatre. I think it was this mountain that told me to come here, to commit.
Despite all this beauty, the polarities of life at the moment are inescapable. I talked with a friend back in the UK recently about some of the difficulties with my life here – an ostensibly idyllic life, on ‘permanent holiday’ on a beautiful island in Greece. I was aware of this pressure that I should be enjoying myself more. I do know that I am in a very good place; in many ways this is the perfect location in which to spend these Covid days. We are very ‘isolated’ from the virus – there have been only one or two cases here – but perhaps not from the implications. My friend pointed out that it was an ‘act of resistance’ to enjoy one’s life in these insane times. And it’s true, I came here inspired by Charles Eisenstein’s notion of a kind of ‘radical hedonism’, where you really think through all of your options in every decision that you make, trying to orientate yourself towards what would be most beautiful, what would be most enjoyable, most freeing. This is not mere selfishness. It is a seeking for more life, more life-fullness and integrity, for myself and the people in my life. As D.H. Lawrence wrote:
Men are not free when they’re doing just what they like. Men are only free when they’re doing what the deepest self likes and there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.
Transitioning to a new ecological ‘lifestyle’ – the reconfiguration in mindset and body that is required, the challenges that arise – is not easy. The shift brings Leah and I to some difficult places. I have to try and remember why I came here. Was it so that I could learn to enjoy life more, to be more at peace with myself and with the world, to become more integrated with the Earth? It was certainly so that I could feel more grounded and connected to the land and to the food that nourishes me. I was tired of only making art for money, the treadmill that leaves little care for personal growth. At least here I can be closer to the subject I want to paint, I can spend more time in the immediacy of painting from life, outdoors, rather than in a studio. But the fact is, I don’t really know why I came here, other than because the mountains told me to and I was listening to them. There was no ‘rational’ reason, at least not from the perspective of the world I grew up in, apart from, perhaps, the ambitious kind of hedonism of the ‘80s which said: ‘follow your dreams and you can have everything (material) you ever wanted’.
Perhaps if I could align myself more with the rhythms of the world, the need for resistance would be less felt.
Leah and I were at a stage where we wanted to commit ourselves to something. Making a commitment to more beauty seemed reasonable – my artwork deals in the beauty of nature. That’s what I sell back to city people who are disconnected from it, I suppose. The place we almost chose in Italy would have made much more sense: geographically, and because we both speak Italian. But something was pushing us, this time, to really listen to our hearts. Maybe a survival instinct. Inspired by radical rewilder Finisia Medrano’s book Growing Up In Occupied America – in which she describes her life, living on the ancient Native American ‘hoops’, trying to restore and replant the native foods they relied on along those nomadic trails – we chose this island. This part of it desperately needs replanting and, from our patch of land, we can just walk openly up the mountain. Eventually we hope to host art, nature and healing courses and to grow and forage a lot of our food. It will take time, because the steep land is so overgrown and the terraced walls are collapsed. Some of the local people are encouraging about our learning the native flora. This knowledge, of course, wants to spread its own wild seed, by stealth.
One of my biggest struggles is an exhaustion with feeling ‘at odds’. At odds with the dominant culture, with ‘my’ culture, as well as with certain aspects of the traditional Greek/southern or eastern European cultures. Trying to be OK with being odd/at odds, especially as a gay couple, after having become used to living in the open-minded Bristol art scene. The Orthodox church is decidedly anti-homosexuality in a country which, as our Greek-American friend pointed out, ‘invented it all’. Negotiating the dance between what is OK for me and what is OK for everyone else seems to have made me increasingly tense in recent years, and now there is the added challenge of the small village environment where everybody knows each other’s business. The dance metaphor seems to help. We came here wanting to do several things in older ways, to re-learn, to remember. Some of the local people are a little confused. The look on our Albanian builders’ faces said to me: ‘what they chattin’?’ when we tried to explain to them that we didn’t want a flush toilet because we wanted to build a compost one. Once it had sunk in, they laughed, saying that it is like in the old Albania, when you would go up the mountain. They put the piping for a toilet in for us, just in case.
Leah and I try to be OK with being overly emotional or ‘sensitive’ about the environment, in a place where people don’t necessarily care. Illegal dumping takes place around the island, much of it from the big hotels, or local renovations. Men with beachside businesses come in from the cities for the summer season and sell drinks in plastic cups with straws and don’t take care that the waste is removed from the beaches.
Parts of the landscape here are so very beautiful they almost make me cry. Ancient plane trees with bulbous formations and pines with giant snaking roots intertwine with giant rocks in one of the mountain gorges that still just about manages to fulfil the island’s water needs during the tourist season. This gorge is now my new art studio. But these scenes are in stark contrast to the parts of the landscape that are really struggling to maintain life, which also make me cry. The contradiction screams out to me: ’What is it you are choosing: life or death?’ As if the choice were mine. A huge fire devastated a third of the island’s trees five years ago and the topsoil has been washing away with apocalyptic rain storms. The fire and rainstorms, exacerbated by mining projects lead to many homes and cars being flooded by mudslides last autumn.
Desertification is moving northwards quickly in Greece. This isn’t ‘climate change alarmism’, this is basic ecology. The pattern from the southern islands is clear. All the trees go, the soil washes away, the rains come less, the islands run out of water. A cartoon recently posted on the environmental group for Thasos shows mountains with a load of tree stumps from cut down trees, with a flooded village at the bottom of the valley and a man saying: ‘It’s not our fault, it’s the nature’. The last time a big fire happened, 30 years ago, trees grew back eventually, but mostly only the highly flammable pines that had been previously planted for the timber industry. There is a sense that regrowth is really not going to be so easy this time. And the proliferating ’wild’ goats that nobody wants to take responsibility for are getting hungrier and thirstier for green shoots.
With time to examine, I come starkly up against the darkness and the storms in my own mind, experiencing what Jeanette Winterson called a ‘battle for the sun’ in a place where the sun shines most days. The art world as we once knew it is in total disarray, with the last of this year’s fairs having just been cancelled. There is no real outline of how I should be spending my time and what my routine should be. I have always been very goal-orientated and very good with my ‘time management’. But all that seems useless here, in a place where things will happen when they happen and there is no use getting frustrated that they are not happening sooner. Resistance is, at worst, an aversion to something, a fruitless conflict.
Feeling like the prince in Sleeping Beauty, holding the sword of discernment and clear-sighted vision, I spend days battling through a jungle of thick brambles at the back of our house, knotted up with new trees growing almost horizontally to try and reach the light. This is not our land, but it clearly hasn’t been cut back in years, the overgrowth a fire hazard, as well as blocking our view of ‘my mountain’.
For five weeks now our builders have been digging a trench on three sides of our house, drilling through massive boulders that the building rests on, to go down to nearly three metres. Last autumn it rained solidly for 18 hours and we were up all night filling and emptying buckets of water trickling in through the rock downstairs, the rock which turned out to be a set of massive boulders. The works are to put a structure in to stop the water coming in the house, but they feel violent: the house has stood this way resting happily on its boulders for 150 years. And then we ‘moderns’ come along, expecting to use the basement, which would have been a pantry or animal shed, as an actual room.
Everyone has an opinion. The old man who sold us the house, also clearly anxious about the scale of the works, stops by to tell us he is sceptical that this solution will work. ‘I lived in this house for years’, he explains, ‘and sometimes there was water that came in, yes’. Now he tells us. Living as he does in a house infested with cats and rats, perhaps his view is that we should accept water coming in occasionally. But I am not sure if he experienced the deluge we had last autumn. We can’t say how many centimetres came in, because we were baling out all night long and most of the next day. I would like to ask him if he has any better ideas, or whether he is just enjoying a habitual scepticism. But I don’t.
The night after the third day of drilling we awoke to the house moving. I thought our house was collapsing, the works having destabilised its foundation. It was an earthquake, the first I have ever experienced since being here. The builders were hoping for no rain during the works, but a few days later the heavens opened at midnight and a river started pouring straight into this trench. Another sleepless night, only earth and rocks between the river and our bedroom. It seems symbolic: as if my foundations are being dug up, shaken to the core, deluged and reconstructed. I have never owned a house before, it feels overwhelming; scrambling my way up to adulthood, physically and psychically, at the age of 38.
Since the compost toilet is not finished yet, most mornings I make the biggest act of resistance that I can and take a small walk up the mountain to complete my morning ablutions. The soils and water of the world urgently need our love and attention, but they are rarely mentioned in the mainstream human babble. Only outrage and cynicism gets fuelled, even in ecological matters. The least we humans could give back to the earth is the minerals or seeds, the fluid that move through our bodies. And yet, sometimes I question my sanity for caring. Resistance is, at best, a commitment to the struggles of living outside the box, true to your deepest values. So, while I pause to wait for the clarity of how I should be spending my time and the opening up of the path to Dionysian happiness that I’m sure this mountainside has to offer me, I perform the most humble act of resistance I can conjure, which, for the moment is replenishing the soil every morning near my little patch of mountainside. Little do our Albanian builders know that I am actually going up the mountain. But then, they still do too; I spotted one of them not far from our garden.
Perhaps resistance, and the fighting that is loaded into that word, has become too exhausting, too emotionally expensive. Perhaps there is some other way. So, I intend to dig my little hole every morning with a sense of reverence, of holiness and communion. It is the only option now that I am too tired for resistance; the compost toilet and corresponding processing area will take as long as they take to be completed. I have remembered, in the meantime, that if I were an animal in the wild, eating local seeds, then some plants would probably grow directly out of my mountainside deposits. So I have started planting some Cornelian cherry seeds alongside, saved for this purpose. This place, not so long ago, was a symbiotic food forest, a garden of Eden. The part of my brain that is indoctrinated still resists: ‘You are wasting your time; you have no idea what you are doing and whether it will actually work’.
But I am trying to learn to not need immediate evidence or validation that my small acts of love or attention are worthwhile. As the Tibetan teacher Pema Chödrön says: ‘When the resistance is gone, the demons are gone’.
Fine artist, writer, musician Abigail McDougall, based in Thassos, Greece and Bristol, U.K.