Eizabeth Fleur Willis
how things disappear
When I started to celebrate Earth Day around the age of 16 with my family, we would turn off all the electricity in the house, light candles and play monopoly. This was our way of marking that day and, looking back, though the intention was good, it was very far removed from where I stand today and what I am prepared to do to change my life in order to support the planet. This year, not just on Earth Day but World Environment Day, I write this article whilst sitting on a blanket, surrounded by long grass, on the top of a mountain, in a community. Here, the only electricity I use is solar-powered and the ultimate goal is, as a permaculture project, to grow a food forest and enough vegetables, fruit and pulses to be self sufficient and not need to buy unsustainable super-farmed produce. I have learnt a lot of things living here. I hope to share some of my stories over the coming months when I return to London and speak about how I intend to adapt my city life and consciousness to be more considerate and aware of my personal impact on the planet. I want to keep these lessons central to my future, not just on Earth Day, or World Environment Day, but every day.
Today, I would like to share with you one story of something that I’ve learnt while being here: how things disappear. So let me start from how I found this place...
In May 2017 I arrived in the Alarve, Portugal on a whim. I came to visit a friend who I hadn’t seen in a long time with no more intention than catching up with her, and so, was unprepared for the way I would fall in love with the place that I now call home: Toca Do Coehlo, Picota Mountain, Monchique, Algarve, Portugal.
I was unprepared for the off-grid permaculture community lifestyle that I suddenly found myself in, with only basic amenities: no wifi, a toilet with no flush, and shared, well, everything! I was also unprepared for the richness of the air at the top of the mountain, the taste of the water, fresh from the spring and totally unprepared for the freedom I felt being able to walk wherever I wanted, wear whatever I wanted and do whatever I wanted! Coming from a 9 to 5 job in the city in central London, I was bemused at the thought, whilst straddling one of the highest branches of a cork oak eating porridge, that on this day one week prior, I had been negotiating the sale of an Andy Warhol while sitting in on board meetings with rich old white men. A stark contrast!
At the end of the week that I’d spent on this incredible land, I realized that after having run singing through the forests, planting vegetables with my bare hands, and outputting more poetry in one week than I had in one year, that I was also unprepared for how I would feel on the plane home. I loved my city life... but the kind of love seemed to have changed. I realized I loved London like a family member. A stable, forever kind of love that within it, sometimes allows you to become irritated, annoyed and want to run away. I felt that I had fallen in love with the mountain in Portugal, in that all-consuming teenager kind of way. I cried on the plane home, heartsick at the sadness of having to leave with no idea when I could return.
This week changed my life.
It is 2019 and I have been living in the same spot I discovered 2 years ago for 5 months now. Life in June 2019 is not the same as May 2017. In the time that it took my life to shift enough for me to become a resident of the mountain community, the community itself also shifted in unimaginable ways due to a wildfire which swept through the Algarve in August 2018. It took 28,000 hectares of land with it, including Toca do Coelho. The trees burned down to their roots leaving gaping holes in their place. The animals fled or burned. The house we lived in, the plants and fruit trees we grew, burned. I returned in early 2019 with the intention to help re-build and re-grow what had been lost. I can’t explain how bizarre and difficult it is to walk into a ruin that, not long before, you had been living a routine life in.
Those normal, banal tasks like washing dishes, sweeping floors, reading books or brushing teeth now become surreal memories. The mirror in the bathroom is blackened and cracked, the bathroom itself nothing but a shell. The bookshelf is gone, the books turned to dust and so are most of the dishes, totally disintegrated into ash.
Natural disasters happen. We learn this at school. We learn of tsunamis, tornadoes and earthquakes. This experience gave me only the smallest taste of what it must be liked to be part of a community victim to such tragedy and stricken by disaster. However, this fire was not natural. This fire was the result of the mass planting of Eucalyptus which created a monoculture designed to be grown, chopped, and turned into cheap toilet paper. (Please check the source of your toilet paper right now! If it’s cheap, or not from recycled sources, change your habits, I implore you) This monoculture created the perfect environment for dry soil, on top of which lay fallen swathes of dry bark for the dripping the oil from the tree to drop onto, which ultimately, after temperatures reached a staggering 48 degrees, went up in flame like a pile of tinder awaiting a match.
Image courtesy: The Telegraph
This lesson isn’t about that though.
When you live in a remote place, you have to walk across the mountain a lot. We follow the paths donkeys had forged over centuries, through the winding alleys and rivets of the overgrown mountain. Along these paths you would often come across small houses with barking dogs and chickens running freely. One such house was on the path that we take quite regularly to visit our friends on the opposite side of the mountain.
Before the fire we would walk past and always there would be an elderly couple and three dogs. The woman looked like my Nanny. She had short, permed hair, still brown, though it could have been dyed. She wore the same thing that my Nanny used to wear, those old fashioned housecoats or “pinnies” as she would call them. You’d also recognize them in any English school dining hall, worn by the dinner ladies. The man wore a flat cap and was fat. They seemed to be in their 70s. Of the three dogs, two were small, free roaming dogs. One black and white, he looked a bit like a beagle. The other was sandy coloured and yappy. The third dog was on a chain and barked ferociously upon our approach, I’m not sure if it was my imagination or not, but it always seemed to be a bit mad, frothing at the mouth even. It is a habit of the Portuguese to keep guard dogs locked for a lifetime on chains outside their homes. Whenever we walked past, we said hello and they waved back, exchanging the usual pleasantries “Tudo bem?” “Está boa” and sometimes they would give us lemons from their ever-plump trees. Their land was well kept, lilies growing on the front path, they had the aforementioned free-running chickens, and plots of vegetables kept in long neat rows. They seemed the kind of couple who might have won a contest for the biggest marrow, such was their acquaintance with agricultural life and deep understanding of how things grow.
After the fire, the first occasion I had to walk along this same mountain path to visit my friend’s home, which thankfully had not burned down, left me in a state of confusion. The landmarks that had once guided my way were gone. Due to the trees having disappeared, the land had slid into unrecognizable forms and the once flower-covered hills with butterflies gliding peacefully over the long grasses had turned into black, stark, crunchy dust.
Their house had burned. Their roof was gone. As I approached on the right side, I was able to take the first glance inside that I’d ever had. I saw nothing there. Empty aside from the roof tiles smashed onto the floor and blackened, cracked walls. What did surprise me was that the dogs were there. Or, at least, two of them were - the little black-and- white beagle and the dog on the chain. This time, the dog wasn’t on the chain. The couple had left and I didn’t know what had happened to them but their departure meant freedom for the formerly chained dog. She barked as she had before but this time with a far more terrifying growl. The years of being tied up had crushed her vocal chords so that they made a rasping, deep, and vile-sounding rattle. The black and white dog barked at us too. This first ATF encounter, in retrospect, was a test. As I walked, unavoidably past the house (this was the only path), the dog left her territory and ran behind me, snapping at my heel. I have to admit, I was afraid. I was in a remote location with no phone and a scary, possibly mad dog chasing me. So I stamped and shouted “VAI PARA CASA” or “GO HOME”. She did.
In the past 5 months I made it my intention to win these dogs over. I was not sure who looked after them now that the couple had disappeared. So I took extra dog food with me quite often when I passed. The black-and-white dog was the first to come to me. At first he hid his tail between his legs but after a few attempts, when he saw me coming he wagged his tail and let me pat him on the head. When he got close, she stayed away, still growling and did not trust me. I did not trust her really, so I was fine with her keeping a distance.
On May the 1 st , the Portuguese have May Day celebrations, with all the villages getting out of their homes and listening to traditional music while spit-roasting pigs. During this festival I was with my own two dogs (whom I had been charged with the care of these past months while my friends were away busy birthing the little life, who I mentioned earlier, into the world). A man came up and asked if I would like left over bones for the dogs. Happily, I agreed. When he returned, he brought two HUGE carcasses still heavy with succulent barbequed meat on – certainly not just bones! I was able to feed 6 dogs with this and then I thought about the two deserted dogs. I walked along the path this day and took their share of the bones with me. This was a turning point between her and I. She could smell the meat. She probably hadn’t had real meat for many months. The black-and-white dog set about happily chewing his part of the treat as soon as I arrived. This time, she let me walk all the way up to the house, although she hid behind the long grass, still quietly growling. I placed the meat on the floor and then backed away. I stood at a respectful distance while she slowly sidled up and took the meat in her mouth, never breaking her gaze with me. It was the first time I had really looked at her. She had golden brown fur and big beautiful brown eyes that, when not growling, had the innocent puppy dog look that dogs are so good at giving. She took the meat and fled, tail between her legs. Often aggression is due to fear.
I continued to bring little gifts of food to them and once was able to take a quick glance into the room she was always guarding – inside I saw a large bucket of dog food. I couldn’t tell how long it had been there or if it was stale, I was at least relieved that they had some form of food though. It took about 4 months for her to stop growling at me upon my arrival, but at some point after the bones, she started to just lay and cautiously watch my arrival and departure with no more than a faint growl in the throat.
Two weeks ago I walked the path and when I reached the house, they weren’t there. I called and whistled but they didn’t come. ‘They’ve gone?’ I thought. On my way home that day, I decided to walk up to the house and see if they had truly disappeared. As I reached near, I saw her, slightly hidden behind the grass. She looked doleful and did not move, but she was alive and definitely still there. Where was the black-and-white dog? He was old, and definitely not the pup he once was, but he had seemed still so full of life, wagging his tail and waddling around, being the welcoming party when she had always remained the sceptic. Something seemed wrong. The air around the place felt different.
Later that week I went back and took food. This was the first and last time she ever came to me. I walked up to the house, calling to her. She looked so different. I even questioned if it was the same dog. She seemed smaller, thinner, sadder. She didn’t growl. She didn’t bark. She came right up to me as I laid the food on the floor and she ate it without staring me down the way she always had. She was so close I could pet her. Something told me not to.
Two days ago I went back and she, too, was gone.
During the month of May, I happened to be caught in a funeral procession in the town: Monchique. The procession seemed to stretch for miles, as if the whole town had arrived to pay tribute to the departed. I asked someone, why are there so many people? Was this funeral for a famous person around here? The answer was not one I expected. Nine people had died. Nine elderly members of this mountain community were having a joint funeral this day, which was why there was such a large attendance. The fire didn’t kill anyone outright, however, in the months since this tragedy happened, many people, especially elderly, have died. The couple from the house, apparently had been re-homed in a very small one bedroom flat with no garden. Apparently they had been very unhappy and desperate to go back to their mountain home, but being old, destitute and with no transport, they had no way of returning. Conceivably, one or both of them could have been in that procession.
Have you ever walked past the ruins of a house and thought to yourself, ‘I wonder what this was like when people lived in it? How did they look, what did they do, did they have chickens running freely across the land?’
In less than one year, I have seen how things disappear.
I wanted to end this story with something more light hearted. I wanted to tell you that the flowers have grown back over the mountain paths and that the butterflies have returned. Though this is true, it actually only underlines the fact that our civilization is so fragile. Plants grow back but houses, people and animals don’t. Yesterday I went back past the house. The house was still eerily empty, so I decided to take a look around, as I hadn’t been able to before. I walked past the already filling up lemon trees toward the place where the chickens used to roam. On the left hand side of the house is a tank, filled with Lillie pads. In the far right hand corner of the tank floated something strange. It was him. The Black and White dog, drowned. It had become very hot these past weeks, and I imagine that all he wanted was to have a dip in the tank to cool down. I will go back today and fish him out. It will be undignified, it will be raw, it will be unpleasant. I care about those feelings. Nature does not. We need to put more attention to how we go forward, how we create a life that is not only safe for the planet, but safe for us too. Nature is cruel and indiscriminative; this is also something I have come to understand from how I live now.