Charlie Davis claims that ‘Practising your ideals doesn’t lead to living in untroubled paradise, but it does mean giving it a damn good shot.’


 

I’ve spent a night in Eden. I didn’t find it myself: Emile and Sara found it. The Scand-Italian pair had fallen in love, left their homes and chosen a place to roost in the Portuguese mountains.

It’s a hard place to get to. The track is miles long and worn to loose rocks by seasonal rainfall. It leads down into a green, quiet valley. Driving down the steep, twisting road takes all your concentration, but as it levels out you feel you’ve dropped over the threshold of the world.

I arrived in late spring when the lush vegetation was doused in a prelapsarian haze. Abundance, Emile said. The language of a permaculturalist. Grinning, he walked me through his well-tended, intricately drip-irrigated Hugekulture garden: a larder of waist-high beds wandering down the valley like shelves of ingredients.1005940_544442725619449_415322596_n

Their home is a dilapidated timber barn with two layers, but no fourth wall, like a dolls house. Below are pens layered in hay where a pregnant sow moans in the dust and dogs settle in the shade as the heat reaches in. On the corner a wooden pallet, encircled by leafy-green plants, sits below a beaten copper shower head whose black pipe reaches down the mountainside from a natural spring somewhere above.

A ladder, propped inside the barn, climbs to a curtain of wooden beads and into a mezzanine replete with textures of course cloth, wood grain and ceramic. Books insulate the space, lanterns and pendants adorn it. It’s cool and dark and smells of the spices crammed on densely hung shelves. This is the tiny kitchen to the left, clattering with pots and pans suspended above paint and coffee stained mugs. To the right is the bed, raised up with storage underneath, snug to the tight walls. Straight ahead is the only source of natural light. A small, round window out onto the treetops and across to the humming waterfall.

The goats scale the steep rugged land above the barn. They still try and steal Emile’s  vegetables, but he says the bells help him keep track of where they are.

I slept outside a little distance from the barn, under a splaying tree. The strips of eucalyptus bark, dried to a tinder, crisped under my bare feet, releasing their scent as I fastened my tatty mosquito net to the bowing branches.

It was clear. But the cold air dropped below us to the stream so the night was warm. I woke once in the night to the sound of hooves. Wild boar are notorious in the Portuguese hills and can be vicious. But the dogs heard it too and it had soon skittered up the mountain. I felt small and defenceless beneath my single layer of sleeping bag.

But the morning’s sun, the emerald green, a bowl of tangy goat’s milk yoghurt and rush of the river in the basin below made me never want to leave.

Emile and Sara were, and still are, very happy. But the picture of pure happiness doesn’t tell the whole story. Finances run short, the barn needs to be maintained, learning curves are steep, they can feel lonely and disconnected  when the road is impassable and even the most skilled subsistence farmer faces the dread of the hunger gap: the winter months where produce is scarce or buried beneath frozen soil and snow.

So, no, it wasn’t Eden, and it wasn’t all dappled sunshine and campfires. But Emile is a skilled cook, Sara makes beautiful art and they love each other. Their life is an expression of the ideals they share: ideals that have had to be adapted and compromised as Emile and Sara and their relationship has changed. Practising your ideals doesn’t lead to living in untroubled paradise, but it does mean giving it a damn good shot.

 

Charlie Davis