“Nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. In the memories of those who lived through them, the grim days of plague do not stand out like livid flames, ravenous and inextinguishable, beaconing a troubled sky, but rather like the slow, deliberate progress of some monstrous thing crushing out all upon its path.” Albert Camus
A small official sheet of paper tacked to the market door announced his death. We would have completely ignored it like we ignore other births and deaths flowing around us but for one word caught in the corner of the eye: Barxa.
The market door provides news for this small rural town and all the hill hamlets that swirl around it. Our raggedy half-wild farm is one such satellite.
This was a death we had to investigate—we knew of this man. Our farm lies on a broken road falling away from a remote village. Beyond it is a foot-path to the broad river Sil and a crumbling abandoned village. This man was the last resident of that village, Barxa. With him goes its memories, stories and secrets. This was reason enough to investigate the death: to try and collect those words before they scattered into the wind and the river. As for the cause of death, we suspected plague. Not black death, nor bubonic nor pulmonary plague, but an unrelenting invisible pox devastating Galiza, the country we live in. And so my partner and I packed our bag for the journey.
The way is lined with old chestnuts; it would take eight of me in a hand-clasped chain to reach around the oldest of these trunks. They are cut off just above my shoulders and, from each, dozens of thick shoots, now decades old, spire from the centre to the sky. The old trees, now neglected, drop spiny cases that open releasing fruits that soften and rot in the stream beds beneath. Our fingers feel through the spiny outer shell for the shiny nut inside; it’s tasty and only slightly bitter fresh. If maintained, the poles cut regularly, a pollarded chestnut tree can live indefinitely; left alone its coppiced centre decays and dies. These great ancient creatures, abandoned, are dying.
With their backs to the hill every house in Barxa faces out towards the wide river Sil, the mountains and rising sun.
At first we try to imagine the village as it was, a living community. Most of the houses, now stone piles, resurrect in our minds as roofed, hearthed and homed: Here a bread oven, there a stable and beyond, a workshop. We wind our way through the first ruins. Apples, those not found by wild horses, mould quietly on the floor. Each season here has it’s abandoned paradise of fruit with orphan orchards delivering cherries in spring, plums in summer, then peaches, figs, chestnuts, apples, and kiwis all glistening, dropping and rotting.
More than two thirds of it have crumbled leaving a small bedroom, wash room and half a kitchen floor. It’s like someone cut most of the house off with a giant knife and smeared it on the ground. With planks and wire mesh he tried to patch up the roof and attic space so that what was left could function as a very small house with a half room open to the world.
In the corner of the bedroom we found a plastic bag full of papers in old Galizan calligraphy; we had to sit a while to decipher them. We put to the side a wedding contract from 1778 and rifled through a fistful of old receipts and debts from not too long ago, everything paid for in various quantities of chestnut.
The more time we spend in the village the more we begin to feel our original orientation was wrong. We’re not seeing an old village abandoned suddenly; this village fell apart over decades, adapting and re-adapting to each change and collapse. We can’t even tell where the original paths were; the current one runs straight through the middle of another house’s bread oven. What we’re exploring is the abandoned village of a solitary man holding the last of his life together. He salvaged beams from collapsed houses to erect a structure over the outdoor bread oven, tacked metal sheeting over the edge of another collapsing structure in a desperate attempt to keep the weather out. This was the last stand between a man who’d seen off all his family and neighbours, a stand between him, nature and time.
As more of his own house crumbled he retreated further in until all that was left was a room about two by three meters. When the glass in the windows broke he placed mesh over the frame. He bodged together a sink in the half-room open to the sky and like that he lived alone waking up to mountains, owls and memories every morning until he couldn’t do it anymore.
The plague didn’t hit only this village; it wiped out the region. In all the hills around us many chestnut trees and villages are dying, the pastures and fields turned to scrublands of gorse and hawthorn.
In the 70’s and 80’s, as fascism was breaking up, the country developed rapidly. Old sleepy towns transformed overnight into city centres hungry for workers and energy. The old power structure around Franco disassembled and reassembled its same parts into new power structures made of energy companies, developers and just-add-water capitalists. Bramble and nettle crept in under the stars as lights were snuffed out up and down the countryside, more and more dead hamlets orbiting growing towns.
There are many causes for the decline of humans in the countryside but almost every single one of them can be linked to economics and to so-called development. The growth of towns and cities requires low-paid workers and with lures and lies, like an enchanted piper, draws them out of the countryside. At the same time centralisation and industrialisation revolutionises food and commodity production lowering quality but also lowering prices making age-old traditional production less economically viable. Additionally, in place of progressive taxation systems, modern capitalist economics generally favours regressive ones, like sales taxes, squeezing the millions of tiny transactions that make a small scale rural economy flow. This combined “deliberate progress” crushes country life like a giant pincer until the lights go out and villages go down under bramble.
The monuments to progress are scattered up and down these hills: crumbled stone cottages, their slate roofs smashed on the floor. The plague hit Russia suddenly and viciously in the 90’s. When the Soviet Union collapsed so did a vast number of farming collectives. Many of their houses wooden, their monuments are now mud. A thin layer of gangster capitalists found mega-wealth as “six out of every nine villages died. […] 11,000 village and 290 cities have disappeared from the map of the Russian Federation: 13,000 villages remain on the map, but have no inhabitants; and 35,000 of Russia’s 155,000 villages have fewer than ten inhabitants.”
China, a country where market economic growth and state power are completely united, is embarking on a project to rip two hundred fifty million people out of their countryside homes and villages into brand new mega-cities, paving over vast expanses of farmland. So large is the scale that the number of brand-new Chinese city dwellers will approach the total urban population of the United States.”
In this context there is no melodrama in the word plague. War, famine and pestilence present evil so immediate and palpable with instant, violent horror. Fortunately this is a plague of fewer sudden deaths but nonetheless it insidiously destroys a region just as surely as its catastrophic siblings. Economics performs its social changes steadily, and whilst most of us are distracted, until whole communities, an entire way of life, a culture, a landscape and an ecology have all completely been killed.
In Italy, Greece, France and here in Galiza and Asturias we are experiencing what many parts of Northern Europe are already well into, what Tom Pow, in his article in Geographical Sept ’12, calls, “the greatest demographic change in Europe since the Black Death.”
We shoved some chestnuts into the coals of the fire and climbed up into the half-room leaving our three dogs below to guard us from wild boar. We felt strange sleeping in the old man’s bed which was infested with mouse shit anyway so we settled down for an uncomfortable and precarious night on the rotting floor of the half-room outside. Whilst half drifting into sleep we talked of plague and remedies.
Pharmakon, the greek word for medicine, or remedy, can also mean drug and poison. Pharmakon is where we get the words pharmacy, pharmaceutical and pharmacist and yet it was a pharmakon, made of deadly ground hemlock, that Socrates was made to drink for corrupting the youth of Athens with critical thinking. Pharmaka are what every village herbalist will have collected, ground and stored, including right here in Barxa. The ambiguity of a remedy, expounds French philosopher Derrida, lays us open to peripheral consequences. “There is no such thing as a harmless remedy. The pharmakon can never be simply beneficial [….] The beneficial essence or virtue of a pharmakon does not prevent it from hurting.”
Faced with an epidemic of such proportions, the governments of Europe are responding with their pharmakon. In fact, with the exact same pharmakon that carried the plague. Economic development weakened the countryside? Apply hair of the dog development to the countryside to finish off the job. EU farm subsidies find their way into the pockets of Prince Charles, large land owners and agricultural corporations but not to centuries old struggling self sufficient villages. Here in Galiza EU money is made freely available to ‘develop’ the countryside with rural tourism.
In an age of information we can find out, if we have the stomach, that every modern thing we buy is paid for in blood. There are still children working fourteen hour shifts or more in factories to make our clothes and women coerced into abortions so they can keep working. In Honduran factories they tried replacing toilet breaks with adult diapers on the assembly line. Last year a Bangladeshi factory-skyskraper collapsed killing over a thousand workers faithfully making clothes for the western market. And the commodities pour out of the factories at incredible speeds.
Old village carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths and potters cannot compete against this furious glut of tin pot commodities streaming out from the great dark mills of our age. In the supermarket our raisins come from Iran where labour is cheap and our onions, from giant subsidised corporate farms paying pittance wages in Spain. Most can’t afford to buy from the women that still bring their vegetables to market. The old wild economy is drying up, disappearing. These evils are directly connected, not hazily, as effects of the same plague, but concretely: they cause each other. The global economy tightens its grip as it grows, the countryside dies.
Industrial farming throws patented pharmaka over soil, plants and water systems killing beneficial insects, fungi and any blessed straggling plants still hanging on next to the crops. The organic movement rose in reaction.
These days we are learning more about how fungi build vast networks of intricate links winding around the root layer of our soil systems that help deliver nutrients to plants. Anytime the earth is tilled, churned up, it destroys these incredible subterranean networks that can take over a year to build. More and more organic farmers and gardeners are turning to no-till farming, allowing the wildness of life to help us.
A natural wild economy also takes time to grow organically, just like an ecology. As a no-till garden takes time to build fertility, so small villages and hamlets evolve slowly with fragile interdependent parts; however, once grown, a wild economy has incomparable strength and resilience. People shared in hard times and traded surpluses in good ones. Capitalism throws poison on wild economies and tills up the people growing in them for blue-suited factory fodder.
The developmentalist pharmakon may preserve the countryside for business and economic growth until every last wild space has been stamped ready-for-taxation. What it can never do is rebuild that intricate organic wild village of human relations and culture that took hundreds of years to grow. It can turn the countryside into a tourist retreat for exhausted executives, but not an extended ecology with its own deeply embedded people that know it and tend it. It cannot build what it destroys.
The next morning we packed up and continued on the path beyond Barxa. It switches back and forth up the mountain side until it reaches Vilar do Mouros, a village sitting on top overlooking the long deep river canyon. Vilar do Mouros isn’t dead; a shepherd and his wife still live here. It was once a large village that had its own school and chapel but now it’ a collection of stone piles with half the houses just about standing.
We watched him guide his sheep down the tight pathway into a gated pasture. His name is Emilio and he’s 81, he says. We tell him of the walk from Barxa, tell him which valley our farm is in and listened to what life in this village used to be like. A bright, incisive intelligence shines in his eyes. From our birth dates and years he is able to work out, in less than a minute, on which day of the week each of us was born. He has a simple but effective system, marking key dates in key years with key events, the accession of the king, the birth of a sheep etc, so that he can roam backwards and forwards to find any day of the week on any date in any year. He is the last complete repository of age old property disputes. He can tell you which family owns which ruin and whether their descendants live in Barcelona or Buenos Aires. He knows he owns some land that has pine trees on it over there, but has lost track of the borders years ago. Property is starting to blur. Thanks to ancient Galizan inheritance laws land has been divided and subdivided until plots consist of slim unusable slivers haphazardly scattered about. People hang onto their tiny plots in the mountains long after they’ve moved to the cities and the disused land chokes the villages.
The shepherd’s face is genial and bright as he talks of the past but when we allow time to move forward in the conversation darkness grows. The future is black, he says; it’s all over. There is no money in the land anymore, nothing. We try to counter the bleakness. We are young and full of ideas. We can build eco-villages and workers cooperatives, rebuild the villages around and share the land rather than fence off smaller and smaller parcels until all that’s left is degeneration, dispute and death. We pull out all the pharmaka we’ve been dreaming up but the more we talk the more we see our ideas swallowed whole into empty echoes in his eyes. He doesn’t understand us: not our dreams nor our words. He turns his head from side to side and the conversation drains away in amiable awkwardness.
As I watch him amble down the narrow stone lane, opening the stile for his sheep I am overcome by embarrassment. What had been for me an abstract idea, the death of the countryside and the death of villages, suddenly becomes concrete in those sharp living eyes. My experience of the countryside pales before his. My partner and I have cleared out a small farm-space in the wild; he has seen his whole life disintegrate.
Back at our farm, exhausted, we made a cup of bitter chamomile tea. Autumn brings mist and a warm wave of melancholy, blurring the mountains and taking the ground away. You never know, when the mist clears and the seasons change, what will still be here. We live in a country that has entered a long autumn. Other parts, in the mountains above us long abandoned, already in winter.
But the only certain truth about seasons is that they never cease to turn. How we respond to tragedy defines us and defines what we will have made of our lives and this world. It defines us. We are very much in need of the existential imperative now. We are responsible for the world and with each decision that we make, we help define it. If the world is sick, then we must act to remedy it but we are scared, scared to be political and try to change the world, lest it change for the worse.
For years socialism was the word that marked an alternative to capitalism but for as many years this remedy contained the same developmentalism culminating in Chernobyl. The drug also contained authoritarian side effects. This is the nausea of our generation: we know that we need to do something to address the injustices present in our economic system and yet we’re paralysed in indecisiveness, fearful of the harmful effects of each pharmakon on the shelf.
Emilio marked the beginning of the end at October 4th 1985 when sales tax was introduced on the things people traded with each other. He never studied economics but this astute shepherd clearly observed that when the traditional wild economy gave way to an organised capitalist one with a regressive taxation system, the plague sets in.
Our generation has gained a healthy fear of pharmaka. But, starkly put, what choices do we have? The luxury not to act, not to choose, not to get political, is unthinkable. If we do not choose a path we will have one forced on us by others whose motivations are fundamentally different. In the Decameron Boccaccio describes the plague and how we react. Many surrender in the moment to immediate and final pleasures. Historical records often allude to great feasting and orgy-making in the streets of plague-ridden cities. Others run for the hills to escape the horror. But some, dedicated doctors, nurses and volunteers like those eulogised in Camus’s existentialist novel, The Plague, stay and fight.
Do we build escapist farms in the country or comfortable lives in the city, our own little eco-village paradises or havens of ‘ethical consumerism’ while shutting our eyes and ears to the plague around us? Such blindness is not only ugly, it’s short-sighted. Private havens and market based pharmaka will not stop this pestilence. What’s dying is that ancient network in which people ensured their neighbours survived in hard times. What’s dying is our connection to the land, that lifeline that makes possible a profound relationship between humans and nature. Doing nothing is choosing death.
Pow notes that, “the advent of broadband, the village offers possibilities for the skilled urban malcontent. […] but what can never be reinstated is that unity of concern and enterprise that once characterised village life.” This conclusion makes sense within the modern paradigm: drugged by economic development we may even believe it. The future, however, is far less certain than Pow makes out and each of our actions or inactions plays a role. It is exactly this unity of concern and enterprise that we need to bring right back into the heart of the countryside through the equally modern ideas of collectives and commons. It’s a vision completely at odds with capitalist development, but it’s the only vision that offers hope.
Many 20th century socialist saviours led with fire and pharmaka, blind to the side effects burning in their wake. Perhaps the deepest lesson humility has for us is that every remedy will be imperfect, every step forward will have unforeseen consequences. The next generation will have to clean up after our mistakes, rebel and throw away much of what we thought was ideal as part of humanity’s eternal drive to make life on earth more just. This humility should not stop us from acting, only from acting arrogantly.
These villages echo a haunting call. We will never meet this man, whose life we set out to see. But his life was one of millions; one more victim of the plague. His ghost followed us home after that night on his rotten wood floor. He struggled, in his own way; fighting back to keep the forces of history from destroying his world. Emilio and his wife are now beginning their last stand. If our own fightback is to be effective we’ll have to deepen and broaden the struggle to rewild and organise: to rewild our economics, restore our broken relationship with nature and to reforge social relationships free from exploitation and blood in city, town and countryside. This death is unbearable; we must answer the call. One person alone cannot save even one village; it takes a movement and it’s our generation that has to do it, to finally snap and act.
This article was first published in STIR magazine in the spring of this year. Since then the movement of the indignados in Spain finally organised itself into a political force for the euro elections. Nine months later they look as if they could win the next Spanish general election. Our generation might finally be on the move.
The primary illustration for this article was done by German Gullon, he discusses it, and this article. in Spanish on his blog: