Off-Grid Explorations Part 2- Almond Picking in The Garden of Eden
Our off-grid road trip in Aragón continued with a weeks stay with ex-corporate high fliers Paul and Hermine in the mountains of Calaceite, a small village in the heart of España vacía. What was it that made them ditch their corporate life in favour of the simple life in the mountains of Spain? And what else were we going to learn about the realities of off-grid living?
After our stay with Max and Nic at Freedom Farm, we continued our off-grid explorations, this time visiting a project that was close to the neighbouring village of Calaceite.
As we entered the village, it struck me how different this village was in comparison to Maella, the closest village to Max and Nic. In contrast to Maella, Calaceite has a lot of tourists wandering around the old town and the majority of the old buildings restored.
Maella had had the authentic feel of the realities of rural life in Spain: many houses for sale, crumbling walls and balconies that looked as if they could fall down any minute. Calaceite on the other hand had a lot of new Casas Rurales for tourists, restored buildings and a few posh-looking restaurants. In short, it was clear that there was a lot more money here.
I immediately began to feel self-conscious of my unstyled hair and half-washed clothes- I felt like we stood out like sore thumbs as ‘off-grid hippies‘. Whether this was true or only in my mind remains to be seen, but I was suddenly very aware that I hadn’t looked in a mirror for a week.
In the campo or countryside, these things didn’t matter at all, but now being in civilisation again made me feel very self-conscious.
To make matters worse, we were about to meet Paul and Hermine, our new hosts. How could I meet new people looking like that?
However neither Paul or Hermine batted an eyelid when we met them in the central car park. They were more concerned about our small ford K.A that we had rented for the trip. Was it going to be able to make the journey down the 8km dirt track that leads to their house?
After a short discussion, we decided to give it go. It had managed to get to Max and Nic’s place alright and the track to their house was quite a bumpy affair-maybe it will be ok?
As we drove we passed row upon row of olive groves and almond trees and the views as we meandered through the mountains were breath-taking. Luckily, we managed to arrive at their place with the car still in one piece and were even more surprised when we found out where we were going to be sleeping.
“This is your room”, said Paul, pointing to a large, bright bedroom with big windows overlooking the mountains.
You mean no tent, no sleeping bags, no camping mats? A real bed? Score!
We were really going to be sleeping well tonight!
In fact, the whole house was a surprise. With two floors, an open plan lounge and kitchen area and a beautiful outside patio, for an off-grid house it was very much like a ‘normal’ house. After being in the tent for a week, it felt like a 5-star hotel!
Rebuilt from old stones recycled from other abandoned building buildings in the area and built into the side of the hillside, it had a very rustic feel. Big rocks made up one wall of the kitchen and living room, making it into a kind of cave.
In fact, the house even had a storage space that was an actual cave, a space that extended deep into the hillside where they stored last years olive harvest. That beats an Ikea cupboard for character hands down any day of the week!
The Back Drop
Their land extended for four hectares, with row after row of ancient olive groves, dotted with around 20 almond trees. The house was perched on top of the hill with 360-degree views all around, with a river at the bottom. Behind the house was a flat circular space that included a small workshop space, a fire pit, a picnic bench under the shade of the trees and the veggie patch off to the right.
“Wow this is really something”, I thought.
What it lacked in terms of the cosiness of Max’s and Nick’s valley it made up for by vistas stretching far into the distance. It was a more developed space than Freedom Farm, less wild but no less beautiful. It had the feel of being well-loved and well-used; designed with the intent and well-practised eye of someone who knew how to make a big open space into a home.
Culture in the Campo
And indeed this was the case. The original owner of the land was a lady called Claudia, a German artist who had bought the land in 2006 and lived there for around 14 years. The house was full of her work: paintings on the walls and stacked on shelves, handmade light fittings and sculptures.
Similarly to Max and Nick, she also had humble off-grid beginnings, since she had lived in a caravan whilst she had the house restored. Her caravan now sat vacant in one of the olive terraces, which would have once been a beautiful campsite complete with a compost toilet and solar shower.
With such beautiful views and living so close to nature, you can see why someone would be inspired to create art here.
A Change of Hands
Unfortunately, Claudia had to return to Germany a number of years ago, since she began to suffer from arthritis.
Since then, her son has been in charge of the place, but he doesn’t want to live there himself, yet he doesn’t want to sell. Making matters more difficult, he lives in Germany too, which makes maintenance of the place impossible. And as I discovered with Max and Nick, off-grid properties deep in the countryside can be vulnerable to thieves.
The solution? He invites people who would like to try this way of life to live there for a very minimal cost, just to have people occupy the house and maintain the land. The lucky new residents can then do as they please- grow vegetables, keep chickens, harvest the olives and almond trees for their own consumption, even keep sheep if they wanted to.
And this is exactly the lucky break that Paul and Hermine took advantage of when they heard through word of mouth that there was a German guy looking for people to take the property on. Knowing a good opportunity when they saw one they jumped at the chance and within a few weeks, they had moved in.
Previous to this they had been looking for a place to rent in the area with very little luck. This gives them a great opportunity to experience this way of life whilst they look for their own land to buy to start their own off-grid project in the not too distant future.
Wwoofing Around the World
Paul and Hermine came into this alternative world of off-grid living through their various adventures around the globe volunteering on different types of projects. From Morrocco to The States they have had a wide variety of experiences to prepare them for this new adventure.
But what motivates someone to have this kind of working holiday? Why not just go to the beach or a new city for your holidays, surely it is more relaxing and enjoyable?
For them, they see wwoofing and work away as an opportunity to travel, meet new people and learn about different cultures whilst also learning about a different way of life and picking up new skills.
However, they weren’t always interested in this way of life. Previously, they both had very well paid corporate jobs and a comfortable lifestyle. So what made them trade it all in for the simple life in the Spanish countryside?
From Corporate to Campo
For Hermine, she has come to a point in her career where she no longer found meaning in what she was doing. She told me how previous to wwoofing, she had been working for a big car company in Germany, collecting data for human resources and writing reports.
However, the reports she spent so much time over got sent to far off places within the company that she had nothing to do with, separating her from the results of all her hard work. This made it difficult for her to get any sense of satisfaction from her work and over time, she began to lose a sense of purpose.
“What is the use of all of this?” she wondered, not convinced that any of it was really of value. All that time spent collecting huge amounts of data and for what?
Then there was another thought in her head that added to her dissatisfaction: “I don´t even like cars, so why do I work for a company that makes them?!”.
This sense of conflict began to weigh heavily on her, and she started to suffer from depression. Eventually, she made the brave decision to leave her job and took some time off to recuperate. She spent a few months in a retreat centre where she was able to get the help she needed and also learn more about yoga and meditation. She recalls that it was difficult at first but soon enough she began to see the world a little bit differently.
It’s the small things in life
There was one particular practice that she learnt that really stands out to her: the daily gratitude pebble practice. In the beginning, she doubted it’s usefulness and felt like it was all a bit ‘woo-woo’. However, over time, she began to experience the positive results that these kinds of practices can bring and still practices mediation now.
The gratitude pebble practice went like this:
All the participants were given some little pebbles every day to keep in their pocket. The idea was that each time they saw something or experienced something that they felt grateful for, they took one pebble and put it in their other pocket.
At the end of the day, they were asked to see how many pebbles they had switched pockets. The aim was to give them a physical representation of all the little things during the day that they had shown appreciation for. Therefore retraining themselves to be more present and spot these little moments when they occur and be grateful for them.
It may sound simple to some but for the people involved who had been suffering from mental health problems for a long time, it gave them a tool to use to help them to see the world through different eyes, helping change thought patterns and habitual thinking.
One particular anecdote that stood out to me was when Hermine told me how for her, the most beautiful thing about the practice was seeing other people quietly put a pebble into the other pocket. She said that it was beautiful to witness to the gratitude and healing of others- a special and intimate moment shared.
Slowly but surely, as a group, they all begin to take more appreciation of the small things in life and they all started to get better.
An Introduction to Farm Life
It was during this process of recovery that she met a girl doing some wwoofing in Germany. Up until that point she had never considered country life as an option for her but something about this girl’s experiences sparked her curiosity.
So she tried it out for herself and went to work on a farm as a volunteer for 3 weeks. When she arrived and was shown around, the owner of the farm told her that one of her duties was to feed the animals in the morning, one of the less glamourous jobs.
But Hermine loved the experience and found the simplicity of waking up and feeding the animals really nourishing. And as it turns out, chopping wood and being close to nature helped her to regain her sense of purpose and she started feeling better and better.
After this experience, she began to travel around and volunteer at a wide range of different projects. She went from specialist tomato growers in the Balearic Islands to yoga centres and eco-building projects in Spain, all the while feeling happier and healthier.
Univeristy Graduate to Farmer
She does admit though that some of her friends and family found it difficult to accept the fact that she had left such a ‘good job’ to ‘do agricultural work for free’. In fact, one friend commented to her “So you spent all those years at university to end up chopping wood?”.
However, this wasn’t enough to deter her and if anything was illustrative of a mentality that she had fortunately left behind. She was surer than ever that the corporate life in the city was not for her and that the money and success that society celebrates was not always a sure-fire route to happiness.
Luckily, her partner Paul also felt the same way. He worked as a consultant for global companies, helping them to simplify and refine their systems. He had what many people would consider to be an enviable lifestyle- a big 5 bedroom house, a high profile job, endless opportunities to travel around the world and stay in posh hotels for free.
But he was tired of it.
“The system sucks you in”, he told me one day.
He went on to explain that in his experience, as you earn more money, you expand your lifestyle accordingly, meaning that it takes ever more maintenance and funds. And before you know it, you have gone so far away from the basic necessities of life that you lose all perspective and you are trapped in a lifestyle that can be difficult to remove yourself from.
“In the end, the lifestyle starts to take on a life of it’s own”, he says.
So on his birthday this year, he made a big decision:
15 years ago I said that I would quit my life of global commuting for corporates and do something very different. I came across a post from a crazy woman from the north of England and adapted it on my birthday this year (in quarantine). Tomorrow, I leave the city for good and start an off grid life.
Fortune favours the brave…
In fact, this is how I first became friends with Paul. He wrote to me out of the blue on Instagram asking me if I minded if he adapted my declaration that I had made back in January and use it to make his own. Flattered and more than happy to help inspire someone to take bold steps, of course, I said yes.
Since then he has been tremendously supportive of me and my dreams and so when the opportunity came up to visit him and Hermine of their new land it seemed like a great opportunity to turn an Instagram friend into a real friend.
And I am so glad that I did because the week we spent helping them out on their project was full of new experiences and discoveries.
One of the top jobs on the list was to harvest the almonds. Previous to this the only time I had ever seen almonds were in the nice little plastic bag in the supermarket or in my breakfast muesli. So the chance to actually pick them off the tree seemed exciting and fun.
And the first tree was exactly that. It was a real novelty to see what the almonds looked like on the tree and experience the whole process from the moment they were harvested to when they arrived in my cereal.
The outer case was fun to pop open and sensual to touch with an almost-velvet feel, and the colours of the case ranged from lime green in some places to bright pink in others.
The ones that were completely ready to be picked came off the tree easily and had already popped open, revealing the inner shell of the almond in an enticingly seductive fashion. Some times there was a surprise caterpillar that had made its home there, or a spider or a few ants.
Each almond was a universe in itself. I felt like a child unwrapping a kinder egg- what was I going to find inside this time?
However, as the sun rose higher over the hills, the novelty soon began to wear off. It was great for the first tree but when I thought of doing the same 16 times over, I began to think again.
The sound of hand-picked almonds sounds very romantic but 3, 4, 5 trees in under the hot sun and the romance soon disappears. Then it just becomes bloody hard work! And that was before we started to de-shell them to get to the actual almond!
Shake it up
Now I could understand why the local almond and olive farmers used machinary to harvest their fruits.
At first, when I heard that they use a machine that clamps the trunk of the tree and shakes it hard, my first thought was “oooh how violent! The poor tree!”. The traditional way of the pre-industrialised farmers seemed a lot more pleasant. They laid out a net at the base of the tree and with a big stick knocked the almonds or the olives down.
They would come together as a group and harvest everyone’s fruits within a few days. As the saying goes, more hands make for light work!
This seemed like a more wholesome approach- more natural, less aggressive, community-spirited. Plus, more contact with the fruit of the tree and therefore more appreciation for the eco-systems, the tree, the Earth…surely?
However, a few trees in and I was trying my best to manually shake those almonds off those branches!
“Sorry tree, I’ve got to get these almonds off the quickest and most efficient way possible! We´ve got 10 more to do and it’s already 35 degrees and it’s not even 12’O clock!”
The Reality of Farming
That was when I started to consider the realities of working the land. Maybe having a few trees for your own consumption is fine- hard work and but get some friends together and it could be a good laugh. But if I was making a living from selling almonds and olives, with hectares upon hectares of trees to harvest…hmmm the picture starts to look a bit different.
I realised there is absolutely no way that farming olive or almonds on an industrial scale can be done without the use of machinery. Not just for the sheer hard work and the amount of time it would take, but later the price you would get for literally the fruit of your labour would mean you would be earning nothing but cents per hour.
And machinary costs money- a lot of money. Not to mention it relies on fossil fuels to run on. If the only way we have of harvesting our food is the use the use of fossil fuels, what will we do when it all runs out?
Hmmm some interesting new insights were coming my way, questions that I didn’t- and still don’t- know the answer to.
Now I was beginning to understand why there was so much abandoned land all over Spain.
Over the course of the two weeks that we were exploring the province of Teurel (the part of Spain which is so depopulated that it has its own political party named ‘Teruel Exists’) we saw mile after mile of abandoned olive groves and almond trees. Land left to the perils of time and buildings destined to become the pile of bricks that they once started out as.
‘España vacía’, or empty Spain is a reality.
It was both saddening and incredibly interesting to explore these abandoned lands. Who were the people who once tended to these groves? When was the last time someone from the owner’s family had stepped foot here?
Some lands had been abandoned longer than others, with the natural fauna returning to rewild the areas that the tractors had once ploughed and flattened. The olive trees left to their own devices began to grow outwards from the base, becoming bushes rather than trees. I wondered how much this was a mixed blessing- a sad reality for the rural population but maybe a happy relief for the local eco-system.
The Garden Of Eden
In our free time, we explored some of the mountains, the mysteries and secrets that lay hidden in these abandoned fields. One morning we set off on a route that crisscrossed over the hills, leading us into small villages as we crossed the border into Cataluñya. We had left without much breakfast, in a hurry to get going whilst it was still cool.
But we needn’t have worried about getting hungry. As we walked we passed fig tree after fig tree, blackberries galore, walnut and hazelnut trees, pomegranate bushes and grape vines- all abandoned. So we, of course, did what any hungry human would do and ate as many delicious figs, juicy blackberries and protein-packed walnuts as we could!
I had never experienced such abundance before. To walk and eat free food off the tree felt so wonderfully good that I found it hard to believe that all of this was just left for the birds and the insects to feast on.
I began to really appreciate the expression ‘bounty of the earth’. Having lived quite an urban life my whole life and not having ever really seen first hand where my food comes from, it felt almost miraculous to have all this food growing abundantly.
Not to mention the natural wealth of the landscape. The river was deep enough in places to swim in so after we returned from our hike, hot and sweaty and with no one else around, we did the only thing there was to do and go for a skinny dip in the fresh mountain waters.
No chorine, no screaming kids. This was just a slice of heaven on Earth and we were swimining in her heavenly waters.
With the birds flying overhead, the brightly coloured dragonflies, the small darting fish and other the strange river creatures that I had never seen before, I felt like we were in some long-forgotten paradise.
Paul and Hermine really had it good here! What a gem they had stumbled upon! Sure they had a lot of work on their hands- chopping firewood for the winter, preparing the winter vegetable garden, harvesting the olives and almond trees, not to mention figuring out how the water supply was all connected.
But what a beautiful place to live in and what a great opportunity they have to learn more about what living off-grid is all about, gain more knowledge and sharpen their skills.
Co-Creating through Time
Towards the end of our stay with Paul and Hermine, they took us to see the original camp site that Claudia had used when she first moved to the land. Now sat rusting amongst the olives trees, it was being slowly taken over by the wildlife.
It had an eery feel to it, with some of her clothes and paints still there, along with an old TV and even old works of art. Everything revealed a little bit about the person who had first called this place home many years ago.
Amongst the boxes and the art supplies, I found some rolled up papers. When we opened them up we were surprised to discover the original plans for the land, hand-drawn with artistic flair.
On the diagrams were a few German words that Hermine was able to translate: ‘House’, ‘Yurt’, ‘Vegetable Garden’, along with drawings of the fire pit and picnic table. It seemed that Claudia had had a clear vision for her land. It was somehow curious to see how these original plans had manifested into physical form and interesting to see that some of the features of the land were not just happy coincidences but actually part of the original design.
Paul and Hermine didn’t know much information about Claudia but I can’t help but be curious about the woman that came here on her own almost 15 years ago to make an alternative life for herself in España vacía. Now living off-grid is becoming less and less alternative, but back then she must have been quite a novelty.
Thinking about what some of Hermine’s friends had said when she was starting out on this path, I wonder what Claudia’s friends and family made of her decision to move to rural Spain. I wonder if they believed in her vision or whether they thought she had finally gone crazy and said: “the artist has finally gone mad!”.
Whilst we may not know much for her life there, I do wonder what she would make of the new plans and designs for the space that she had created, or even what she would think of someone writing a blog post about her and her creation.
Either way, we may never know but what I do find beautiful about this tale of courage and creativity is that Paul and Hermine, along with all the couples that have temporarily taken up residence at the property, plus all those that will do in the future, all of them are in some way co-creating with Claudia through space and time.
Consciously or unconsciously they all part of the history of this magical property and land, each adding their own footprint for others to follow and build upon, evolving the vision that Claudia had originally set out create.
It just goes to show that sometimes you have to take that leap into the unknown and see what happens.
And that takes courage.
In Paul and Hermine’s case, it may have been a lot easier in many ways for them to continue the life they were living before. They had a good income and all the supposed securities that that brings. Something that they don’t have now- they are going to have to come up with some way of making money in the long run.
But they didn’t let the unknown factors put them off and instead they decided to use what money they had and take a chance. And that chance led them to being in the right place and the right time and has allowed them to experience this amazing property in this amazing scenery. And I have to say, I very much admired their gumption. And envied their good luck!
It just shows that great opportunities are out there to be snapped up, but in order to find them, we have to be out there, searching for them and making them happen.
As Paul said in his declaration, “Fortune favours the brave!”.
Our dreams don’t just fall at our feet. But maybe they will if, through our own efforts, we find our selves in the right place at the right time, with the right attitude.
Overall, our stay with Paul and Hermine had given us a lot of food for thought and more insight into the realities of life in rural Spain. We experienced first hand a little bit of what almond harvesting and olive tree maintenance were like, as well as learning about the design of an off-grid building, water collection and pump systems.
But what sticks in my mind most are some of the conversations we shared and their openness and generosity. I find it truly remarkable that people that had previously never met can go from being strangers to housemates, sharing every meal with each other for the best part of a week.
In this world of separation and polarity, it is a testament to the capacity of the human heart to open to others.
Who knows what the future holds for Paul and Hermine, or for the property itself. Who will be the next lucky people that Paul and Hermine will pass the baton on to?
This is yet to be seen but one thing is for sure:
Claudia’s dream lives on.
A big thank you to Paul and Hermine for hosting us and sharing this newfound opportunity with us. Also, a big thanks for not just opening their space to us but also for sharing their stories, knowledge and wisdom. You both provide a great example of what wwoofing and workaway are all about.
If you would be interested in volunteering with Paul and Hermine on their off-grid project you can find them on their workaway page: https://www.workaway.info/en/host/363773711318
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