Yurts & Olives

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
– Abert Einstein

Every footfall on the scorched bare earth triggers a volley of locusts and cicadas. From the front door of the yurt to the front stairs of the house I march ten abreast with the beasties. I’m confounded by the number of insects the grass harbours: thin on the ground and brittle as ice cream cones though it is, it manages somehow, to provide a perfect launching pad for long-legged insects that ricochet off my head and shoulders. It’s a small frontier to cross. I hop from the shade of one olive tree to the next. I can’t for the life of me get used to the heat, or the sensation of insects bouncing off my flesh.

In the southern Peloponnese a maximum daily temperature of 40 degrees Celsius is predicted for the next ten days. At 8pm it’s 37 degrees. At 10pm, it’s just as hot. Richie, Terry, Sarah, Mark and I eat horta (wild greens), tomatoey green beans, and roast potatoes with lemon and rosemary on the balcony, wearing nothing but singlets, shorts and a gritty film of sweat: wash it off, and two minutes later it reappears. We wake up early and go to bed late, compensating for the lost hours of work between 11am and 7pm when it’s essential to take rest indoors – outside is no man’s land – only the locusts and cicadas can endure it.

Richie and I arrive at Horo Project off the back of 3 lively Greek urban couch surfing experiences. It’s jarring to be back on the land. We’re here to volunteer. Mark, Terry and Sarah have been on site for ten days, and are expecting another 6 people to arrive in as many days. It’s clear upon arrival that they are anxious and het up; not entirely sure what to do with themselves, or us. Within hours of arriving a meeting is called to decide upon house rules and a schedule for the week. The outcome is as follows: 6am rise; minimum 5 hours of work p/day; a small daily financial contribution for food; help in the daily running of the house and the cooking of meals; assistance with the course… and in return, we receive a place to stay and the opportunity to attend a 9-day Eco-Village Design Course for free.

For the following five days Richie and I are kept busy erecting yurts, making meals, tidying the garden, designing shady outdoor spaces, attending meetings, and negotiating a place for ourselves amid the unpredictable milieu of alter-egos, archetypes, and peacekeepers. Personalities emerge; other personalities emerge to keep them in-check; edges are pushed; fuses blow; common ground is found; and time for relaxation and celebration is agreed upon. This is what community-living is all about. It’s hard work, but I don’t know that we have an alternative – at least, not for the next three weeks.

Lesson one: How to erect a yurt

During the first phase of designing our overland journey from England to Oz, Richie and I devised individual ‘skill flexes’ using Xmind software, plotting a range of skills we felt we possessed, as well as others we would like to cultivate. My mind map ranged all over the place: proficiency at carpentry, coppicing, natural building techniques, learning a language, sourdough bread-making, non-violent communication, and blogging. Richie, on the other hand, wanted to flex his skills in the direction of permaculture design, spiral dynamics, musicianship, community-living, bee-keeping… between the two of us, there wasn’t much that we were NOT up for trying.

Learning how to erect yurts was a skill that neither of us had listed on our flexes, but one that we were excited, nonetheless, to hone. Within three days of arriving at Horo we’d gone from yurt-dunces to burgeoning professionals; halving the time it took us to erect a yurt from floor to ceiling, and discovering all sorts of clever ways to get maximum effect for minimum physical exertion – Richie even grew accustomed to holding the crown of the ceiling aloft while I fitted spars from opposite directions – an act as dangerous as knife-throwing considering my aptitude for precision aerial work with slots and grooves. Thankfully, no blunt-trauma damage was inflicted, and by the end of day one, we had our very own 10 foot yurt to show for it!

There is something peaceful and harmonious about living in a yurt, as we found out on our visit to Cornwall last year, where we stayed with our friend Henry in a community of yurt-dwelling renewable-technology students. We were appalled to learn that the local community was attempting to evict Henry and his friends from the land; complaining that the wood and fabric structures were an eye-sore, and that their presence in the landscape would attract ‘undesirables’ to the area. Probably they were pissed-off that the students had found a way to side-step expensive halls accommodation and the straight-jacket of bills: gas, water and mains electricity. Independently, off their own backs, they’d established a friendship with a woman whose partner had recently died, and was open to sharing her garden (and life) with a rag-tag team of university students who were only too happy to help around the garden and provide some much-needed company.

In a country obsessed with ‘travellers’ and ‘gypsies’ Henry and his mates were doing a brave thing – and having a great time in the process – learning to support one another with their studies, interact with the community in meaningful ways, provide support and friendship to a marginalised member of the community, manage daily tasks such as cooking and maintaining a vegetable garden, as well as sharing responsibility for the care of an albino pygmy hedgehog! Each member of the community (5 in total) had a bicycle, which he/she rode to university in preference to driving or taking the bus (even in winter!). It’s an option that I would have liked to have had all those years ago when I was bouncing from one share-house to the next in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, trying to work a weekend job and accumulate as many ‘High distinctions’ as possible.

Admittedly, England’s climate is more suited to yurt-living than the Peloponnese. If we’re not out the door by 6am we risk being roasted alive. Only after 11pm is it safe to return to the yurt; and only then, with the door thrown open, the crown cover off, the window open and the mosquito net pulled down tight. Sometimes, through the open aperture of the crown we catch sight of a star or a bat, and from our bed we can see the place on the horizon where the sea meets the Taygetus Massif.

Last night during a fitful night of slumber, Richie and I received a visit from a family of foxes. They mewled and screeched outside the white canvas walls of our yurt, before slinking off in the moonlight across the adjacent olive grove. The earth of the adjacent field is red and bare. It’s customary here to plough the earth to reduce the risk of fire. Very little animal life survives in this environment, except the hardy cicadas, grasshoppers and the occasional fox or falcon. We speculate over what the land might have looked like before the monoculture of olives, and whether there is an intelligent way to support polycultures in this arid region. We wonder, also, if more people in Greece will begin moving back to the land, perhaps even living in yurts, when the crisis increases its stranglehold. Returning to the land is a theme that arises in many of the conversations we have with people here in Greece. There’s more than enough backyards and arable land to grow more food than the nation needs to feed itself; enough sheep and goats for feta; and fresh water too.

But as our friends in Thessaloniki and Athens pointed out to us during our recent couch surfing experiences, returning to the land is not necessarily deemed a desirable thing to do… not by a nation of predominantly urban people – it would be viewed as ‘regressing’; a return to primativism.

I myself am not sure that would be the case. We’re different people now, different to our parents and our grandparents too, and our ways and needs are different. But ancient techniques and modern technologies are not necessarily incompatible – not if we combine them intelligently and creatively.

As the heat of the day fades off my back, and night creeps in to sooth my mosquito bites I find myself wondering whether we can evolve quickly and intelligently enough to deal with the impending economic, social and environmental disaster. In my thinking, the system is flawed and Greece will only be the first affluent western nation to fall. It’s the Titans versus the Olympians all over again…

The Greeks strike me as people who appreciate life, and live it with grace, humour and spiritedness. I wonder if they can provide a model, like they did thousands of years ago when Plato and Socrates were scratching their pates over the problems of justice, governance and good citizenship, of how a just and harmonious society can be created and maintained. It’s not up to Greece to show us the way, but their transition is our transition too; and their addiction to economic ‘growth’ is an addiction we all share. I wonder what might be possible if we can ween ourselves off the fat promise of economic ‘growth’, and find ways to value and nurture our collective human assets – social, cultural and ecological.

It is in the context of this unpredictable and foreboding social and political situation that Richie and I find ourselves drawn to Horo to participate in an Eco-Village Design course. It feels like the right time and the right place to be exploring ‘alternative’ ways of living. Here in the house and garden at Horo we’re a handful of people, but we’re open to the possibilities that ecovillages may succeed in uniting “two profound truths: that human life is at its best in small, supportive, healthy communities, and that the only sustainable path for humanity is in the recovery and refinement of traditional community life” (Robert J. Rosenthal, Professor of Philosophy, in Jonathan Dawson, Ecovillages: New Frontiers for Sustainability). By practicing, on a small scale, the skills and attitudes that will help us address the problems we’re facing on a global scale: sharing resources, managing the preferences of each individual, helping re-build a sense of community, being proactively ecological, we feel hopeful that we, private citizens can be the change we want to see in the world.

I don’t believe that money equals riches. I believe in the combined power of ancient traditions, modern technologies and a timeless spirit. I believe in soulful living. I want to help give rise to abundant, thriving and diverse communities, where education, wellbeing, creativity and ecological regeneration are a means as well as an ends. I believe in the currency of kindness. I believe in Greece.

(in response to all the earnestness… here’s a picture of me shamelessly taking part in the Greek national pastime of drinking freddo cappuccino…. let’s make our coffee and drink it too…)

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Filed under Culture, Earth Care, Food, History, Philosophy, Social Justice, Travel

7 responses to “Yurts & Olives

  1. Kay

    Excellent, Nina, likewise the final words in our W.I. prayer are ” and don’t forget to be kind” sending you both lots of love, take care of each other, Kay xx

  2. Thank you once again Nina for a lovely window into your travel experiences.
    You had me laughing my head off with the first part recounting the people wrangling and yurt building. I’ve been in that brown hot heat where every move is accompanied with the insect cacophany and sleep seems impossible until the cool early morning midnight shift. Any waterholes nearby? Haven’ heard ‘het’ for a while and know that one in a group of hotties.
    Wonderful to see people getting together to share philosophies and experiences and consider possibilities for future life. Had a few tears in the last half thinking about indigenous communities worldwide and the battle they face to remain on their land and in their age old survival systems.
    Have you found any wild asparagus or is that a cool mountainous plant.
    Are you near Kardamyli? Do you feel any ancient ghosts dancing and singing in the moonlight?

    Look forward to meeting up one day and spinning some stories.

    • Nina Gartrell

      Yes Janey – Richie and I are also looking forward to re-connecting with you when we return. We will be sure to come ’round for a banter. Richie is also keen to have a sniff around your garden – I’ve told him about the beautiful exotic scents and shapes and colours that pop up out of pots and around bamboo groves – and he’s keen to see them in action. I hear Mum, Dad and Julian paid a visit to the studio last week. I’ve seen a haul of (shipwrecked) Byzantine ceramic plates here on Castellorizo with pale green, blue and ivory glazes, swirls, figures and faces that cross the boundary between ancient and modern. They reminded me of some of Michael’s pieces… hope you are keeping warm. We’re still scratching those mosquito bites! Reading a great book at the moment recommended to me by a Greek professor of political science, called ‘Caliban and the Witch X

  3. “I will wade out till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers. I will take the sun in my mouth and leap into the ripe air, alive, with closed eyes.”
    — E.E. Cummings (via e-s-k-a)

  4. hhoffman.pt@gmail.com

    What a thought provoking piece Sis. Again I admire your sense of adventure, your bravery for throwing yourself into the unknown and taking risks. I am sure you reap abundant rewards because of this. Hope the personalities are blending harmoniously and you and Rich are enjoying your time learning more about sustainable living. I can feel that oppressive heat (and those mozzie bites!) from here… bless our presently cooler climate in Oz!

    So much love to you xxxxooooo

  5. Gerd and Kamala

    We’re still with you all the way – yet another brilliant fragment of your inspiring travel. ‘ Communities’ piece reminds of Kibbutzim based on Marx’s “Produce what you can, take only what you need”, functions in small communities as you emphasize.
    Keep taking our love with you Kamala, Gerd and Lea

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