Ana rifles through some old boxes in the loft producing a pile photographs from the 1990’s. The shots look classically desaturated as one would expect from a cheap snap of that decade. From one view, an image taken from across the valley, four nondescript white tumble-down buildings in need of repair perch on a barren hillside. The area looks more like the side of a quarry than any part of the Andalucían countryside. Only a few random olive trees can be seen in each image. The land is otherwise clear and devoid of any noticeable, prominent vegetation - a blank canvas, but one where the artists had a clear vision.
Ana and I came to Spain in mid-March to sit out lock-down in the town of Gines, just outside the city of Seville. Our ultimate aim, once the restrictions eased, allowing us to leave the city limits was to move to a special, secret place I’ll simply call “El Campo”. The story of this secluded family country commune dates back some thirty years. Like us, the parents, uncles and aunts would have been in their early 40’s when they purchased this hidden place, away from the road and five kilometres from the nearest village. The buildings in the photographs were to become the family’s second homes and over the course of the next three decades, the quarry façade grew gradually upwards into a forest of bio-diversity planted by scores of family members.
The house at the top of the hill belongs to Ana’s immediate family and in recent years has rarely been visited. Our task, alongside changing our living environment from town to country, has been to work on the house and to attempt to grow our own food. Our lives have always been spent outdoors or on the sea, but having now spent three weeks in El Campo, we have realised a clear difference between living an outdoor lifestyle and actual country living. Actually, living in, rather than just visiting this environment gives us far more time to absorb our natural surroundings. Here we can sit for hours outside to listen and take in those details that we might otherwise have missed.
Leaving the property and walking down the hillside and towards the valley floor I push low branches aside from fig, peach, pear, avocado and pomegranate trees. I navigate the irregular mossy steps that wend to meet the flood plain where Ana’s uncle and aunt live beside the shallow fast flowing river. It’s humid under the canopy of the trees in May, with sounds and sensations more akin to a rainforest than Andalucía. Windfall fruits are squashed on the floor and the smell of flora changes as we pass each plant and tree. In front of uncle Nonio’s house at the bottom, a spread of projects are in progress, laying outside on hand made work benches. Remnants of welding work and chain saw activity sit in front of his workshop and inside it, a cave of tools and machinery hang from the walls and ceiling. Nonio, is an interesting man with a happy face and demeanour to match. He is from the documentary film business and when my Spanish improves further, I can’t wait to hear more about his work in that field. Nonio appears to have a head full of knowledge, has craftsman’s clothes and hands, with examples of creativity about his property to match them. His terraced garden is full of organic produce - garlic, several types of tomato, chilli and the smell of homemade bread in the oven leaks from his home. A path runs along the river and it is easy to spot fish from the bank and with a rod and line, it’s easy to catch them too. A woodpecker, or “pájero carpentero” intermittently hammers at a tree trunk in the distance and a cuckoo calls every few minutes.
Back at the house atop the valley, a pair of Golondrinas, or swallows have made their homes under the roof of our porch. We have studied these birds progress from their nest building activity through to feeding their young and eventually they’ve become used to our presence, continuing with their daily routine of nothing but work. Observing the area, it reminds me of life on a coral reef. The smaller birds, like small fish, flit about the trees while heron, stalks and kites cruise higher, patrolling the sky like the larger predatory fish species would “in the blue” as we call it in diving terms. In the morning, through the open bedroom window, we spot vultures climbing out in a circular motion over the east facing far side of the valley as the morning sun begins to generate thermals by heating the land.
Spring flowers distract our eyes from an otherwise green landscape in front of the house. Yet, this kind of colour variety is short lived in Andalucía, as the approaching summer begins to cruelly scorch the life from any land below the trees. Each household tends their own vegetable garden and so we follow suit – clearing a tangle of over growth and preparing the soil to begin putting in young plants that we have acquired from Nonio. Finding a spare spot in front of the property, I make my contribution to this established land by planting a lemon tree. Standing back with my spade I imagine it’s size in another 30 years’ time, feeling satisfied with my tiny contribution to the planet.
Early mornings and evenings are my favourite times to be outside here, when the light comes from the horizon. In the morning the sun throws its low beams through the trees beside the house and in the evening, it layers a red glow over the forest on the far side of the valley as it begins to set. These are also ideal times of day to explore the quiet hiking trails either side of the family commune and across the river. During the night, owls call from tree to tree and the frogs by the river begin their nightly noise. The sky, free of light pollution is blasted with stars and passing satellites are frequent. The routine is the same every day.
Despite this idyllic sounding isolated location, we are still of course slaves to our digital duties of work, spending the hottest parts of the day indoors fiddling with devices. This is simply a seasonal dwelling too, which we will leave when the summer temperatures become too fierce, driving us north again to seek a cooler climate with our van. Regardless, it is a place where when the computer and phones are switched off, one can forget about the outside world entirely.
I guess for the family who live here, some of them part time, some permanent, the story of “El Campo” isn’t so remarkable. Yet, for me to have seen what they have collectively achieved over the last 30 years, naturally enhancing this quiet place is testament to what a small group of people can do to rejuvenate a section of our fragile planet and in a reasonably short space of time. That once desaturated featureless photograph we found in the loft has since been filled with a deep green vibrance and without doubt this little piece of earth feels to me, better for it.
Words – Will Appleyard
Images – Will Appleyard & Ana Rancaño