On Water and Failure

'Alertness to nature, and our mutual relationship of vulnerability, difference and precarity, is a means of shared survival'. Permaculture farmer, Andrew F. Giles explores queer ecology, fieldwork and flexibility among the mountains in Spain in a time of ecological crisis.
runs permaculture project in northern Spain. He writes poetry, reviews and creative non-fiction and has work published in various newspapers, journals and anthologies.

El fracasu (Asturian Spanish/Bable): 1. The act of failure, 2. Something that did not have the expected result

Academia de la Llingua Asturiana

 

In the northern Spanish region of Asturias, there’s a mountain 1345 metres high, in the county of Teverga, called Caldoveiro. The high pastures around Caldoveiro are littered with big bones from wolf kills. Semi-wild herds of horses suddenly appear, galloping in winding lines through the stunted yew and holly. Further beyond Caldoveiro is a mountain pasture surrounded by rocky peaks, and you come upon it as if upon a magical land above an outside world; a large flat expanse of cropped green grass with ruins of stone shepherd huts in a rough circle around it. A lost civilisation, alive with sudden bursts of birdsong or the distant chiming of cowbells. 

This is where I come often with the dogs, a thermos, a loaf of bread, and some cheese, to think. It’s about an hour and a half’s walk up from Greyhame Farm, the permaculture project I started a year or two ago, which also offers itself as a rural safe space for queer folk and their allies, and as a creative residency. Usually, I think of Greyhame as more a place of action than words. There are dogs and chickens to feed, a mountainside to carve planting beds from, endless trees to coppice or fell for firewood, field space to clear of brambles, fencing to build, a barn to restore, wild herbs to forage, an old house to modernise, amongst endless other ideas to realise. 

The mountain is a beautiful and isolated place within a national park with healthy wolf and bear populations; and occasionally a brutal place, a place of hard work. Griffin and Egyptian vultures circle overhead all day, spiralling down from high up to feast on carrion. Bullfinches, jays and woodpeckers flit across the prau – the Asturian Spanish (Bable) word for field or land, which gives its name to the fiestas de prau, the summer parties which every village celebrates in its own way. Red squirrels skip and chatter in the oak trees. Foxes, weasels, and garduñas (beech martens) carry off chickens and kittens for their young. The word in Bable for fox, raposu (as opposed to the Castilian Spanish zorro), holds within it the fox’s rapaciousness, a wilful killer. Even the village cats, semi-feral, and in this village nearly all white, stand their own against my dogs. Some of them have mixed with the wild mountain cats, large, shy felines with great brushes for tails. 

For hundreds of years small-scale farmers of cattle, sheep and horses here have lived a transhumant lifestyle – summer in the high pastures, winter in the lowland valleys. For urban Spain, these are places of the past, places to visit your grandparents in the summer. But for me, this place also holds a sense of future: Spain’s empty and emptying rural spaces – often called pueblos fantasmas, ghost villages – filling back up with neo-rural folk with small-scale sustainable projects as an alternative to the large-scale industry required to support massive urban conglomerations. Humans as stewards of the land, rather than the land as a product for humans. 

But what’s it really like to put ecology and permaculture into practice as a queer person, and are there certain parameters that are useful when writing about it?

But what’s it really like to put ecology and permaculture into practice as a queer person, and are there certain parameters that are useful when writing about it? It’s a good place to write here, not because of the immutable muse of nature, but because you are unhinged from commentary and trends, and there’s nowhere to hide from what you’re feeling. Being queer can mean objecting to normalisation: like water, we seek out different shapes within our bodies and minds. There is a ‘failure’ to conform to what it has been historically claimed is properly human (i.e. heterosexual). We understand vulnerability and have lived precariously: experiences which help us empathise with the need for mutual assistance and can be characterised by our attention to the land. 

I’m beginning to realise that the part of me that does not conform needn’t be defined by a negative relation to society, but rather by how a mutual relationship with the nonhuman world can enrich queerness. The nonhuman is what the land gives to me to work with, and I respond joyfully with my reclaimed, nonhuman (queer in nature) spirit. It’s a beginning. As literary scholar Wai Chee Dimock elegantly states, ‘that beginning can have a future only if the nonhuman world is on board as friend and foe, a means of locomotion and a projectile into the unknown.’

In writing about the history of Spain and its novels and poetry, Spanish philosopher Maria Zambrano (1904-1991) uses water as a metaphor to describe how poetic language never solidifies, shapes and is shaped by its limitations but spills over, and cannot be held in by the mere temporal force of singular meaning. Water is also identity in the sense that any singular understanding of identity is undesirable, and like water identity is in constant flux – even, seeping fruitfully out of what it means to be human. By using water as a metaphor for multiple and ever-changing meanings and voices, Zambrano’s own writing begins to wash over and through the reader like water, ebbing and flowing, suddenly following a course that opens in her thinking like a tributary making new ground, stalling and returning to another reservoir of thinking. It encourages the reader to follow these tributaries and movements, an experience like swimming – sometimes against a current, sometimes being carried – our focus sometimes meticulously detailed – on an overhanging tree across a tiny waterfall – and sometimes backstroking away to see a whole sea of history. 

[Zambrano’s]adventures along these little burns and brooks are defined by their liquidity – even by their failure to reach a conclusion – rather than robust, strident resolutions to burning questions

In this sense, Zambrano thinks in poetry, rather than prose, and her adventures along these little burns and brooks are defined by their liquidity – even by their failure to reach a conclusion – rather than robust, strident resolutions to burning questions. Failure, in Spanish, is two words: fallo, what we might call abject failure or total failure; and fracaso (fracasu, in Bable), something that did not have the expected result. This latter sense of failure, for Zambrano, seems to be the destiny of words, and navigating failure is watery and beautiful because of this surprising potential in their fragility. When I sit near Caldoveiro with my bread and cheese and my dogs, if my actions as a queer rural person need to speak louder than my words then my words can only be as liquid as poetry, and I think failure – an experiment that doesn’t always quite work, and can then take on a different ideational form or course – is a very good shape within which to set my intentions.

Greyhame is a safe space for queer folk and their allies to work and learn. This idea came from my own experience of mental health in an urban environment. I did not only want to work the land sustainably, far from the dominance of mass-agriculture. I also wanted to create in a space different from urban LGBTQ culture, in a way that allowed the land and people to co-exist as mutual partners. If vulnerability and precarity were the psychological sensation that had characterised my life, I feel it is a sensation shared by the planet under fire in climate emergency. The holistic relationship created between nature and our response to it – labelled by some ecopsychology – is something I connect with my experience of being queer, in a rural place away from the LGBTQ urban culture If I understand anything about queer ecopsychology in practice, then, it is the wild, nonhuman synchronicity that exists in this working stewardship of the land as a permaculture farmer, following the cycles of the year, using and reusing what the land offers, and enriching the soil – and the community – through cyclical work and exchange. 

At the henge, Greyhame Farm (photo: Cliff James)

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When I first arrived at Greyhame, the prau by the house hadn’t been farmed for years, and the other had returned to the mountain, an unruly mess of gorse, bramble, nettles and choked trees. In the first year, I cleared broken trees and collected the wood for firewood or made piles as insect hotels. I made mulch piles from dead leaves, rotten wood and shifted soil in strategic places and covered them in old plastic. I made it through to the second field with a chainsaw and strimmer. Each movement of my body made me feel useful and strong, and my exchange with the land was a learning curve. I asked my neighbour to put his horses on the land, and looked down to watch them swish their tails in the long grass. My ideas were wildly over-ambitious, and the land taught me to slow down, to breathe, to watch its curves and hollows and see where trees could be coppiced into fencing. In the second year, I dug beds and used the mulch to create non-dig beds at the top of the nearest prau. I designed beds from paintings I loved or in shapes that spoke of magic – Mondrian, witch-stars, triangles, curious points. 

I shoved my hands into the earth and smelt it, rejoiced at the fat worms sliding through it. I took my top off as I dug, suddenly not minding about showing my body – there was always a purpose to it, and my only audience was nonhuman and non-judgmental. I shovelled my neighbour´s goat shit into the earth. Digging is a mesmeric process, mechanical, a meditation, and I would suddenly look up as a butterfly bounced past, lost in my work. In an urban environment I could self-medicate or get counselling. At Greyhame, I built a henge of wood with a lover who is no longer here, and tilted it to the sun. We carved shapes and words into the wood: hare, grey, loba (she-wolf), wild, path. Each old beam of wood is laden with meaning and with nothingness and I burn my fears and my hopes there when the moon is full.

Breathing, laughing, celebrating and grieving mindfully are all aspects of the work here. I sit under the mandala that was a gift to Greyhame and meditate. I write and look at the mountains. I dance in the kitchen. I dig in the garden. Or a combination of the two. I dance-dig, although the arty beds have now been expanded for productivity and fenced off with foraged wood to keep the dogs and chickens out. The second field is part-terraced now, ready to be planted, transformed into productive land for the first time in many years. 

Casual homophobia is a fact of life, even direct homophobia has formed part of my experience – so it would be naïve, to expect either anxiety and depression, or external negativity, to suddenly disappear up here in the mountains. I am not here to get ‘better’, or to eliminate or ignore homophobia within my community, but I do see how mental vulnerability is like Zambrano’s metaphor of water, not fixed or something to cure, but just a difference, an ebbing and flowing of being. I carved ‘this too shall pass’ into another old piece of wood – an unknowing gift from a past tenant – and hung it outside the front door to remind me of that. For now, I am at least socially acceptable, and live my life as productively as I can in response to the ravaging of the planet. I am not persecuted for my sexuality, nor do I have to come out or perform my sexuality in some subtle or obvious way as I used to in the city.

As I reach the high pasture with my bread and cheese, then, I don’t feel a sense of success or victory, but rather I’m just there and lucky to be there with my ideas, like my dogs, ranging and running. It’s a meditative place, and maybe for a while the machinery of society exerts less pressure. Here, my pose is not one of battle, but one of alertness. 

These ideas, as watery and embracing of failure as they may be, have purpose. Embracing failure, indeed, allows me to get on with the work as an exchange with the land, a learning process. As an idea, it also strongly resists categorisation, and the need to use words to define and control. The farm has functioned as a place for queer folk to find some kind of safe and creative space, whether it be to recover from a broken relationship, to start writing a new book, as a refuge during the pandemic, to recharge after doing very difficult social work, to gain insight into practice in a world full of outspoken theories, or to seek out a rural queer community other than organisations such as the radical faeries. These folk have understood, or tried to understand, the idea of exchange, have brought their own wonderful work to Greyhame, and allowed us to share ideas.

There have been altercations, disagreements, resentments and heartbreaks. People can wash in and out of Greyhame like a tide, but it is more exciting to observe what detritus is left behind to build with, than to keep living in an urban society transfixed by hierarchies, or a rural simulacrum of one. This feels like an honest approach to collective living, even if it often laps up against a complete vision – a utopian queer rural community that ideologically feels so watertight as to refuse failure. 

After nearly two years of digging and mulching, the garden is starting to give back, the soil is richer and I am getting better at knowing how to help my plants follow the sun around the year. This winter was particularly brutal, with a metre of snow for three weeks, huge blocks of which fell from the roofs as ice and broke my internet’s satellite dish, temperatures of minus ten centigrade at night and one night a chimney fire, the dogs and I running around like dervishes trying to work out how to stop the roof catching fire, the neighbours ignoring my cries for help behind their shutters. I poured mountain water down the chimney from a great height, suddenly looking up to the stars. The whole waterfall of the house’s past tenants – and a queer history of outsiders – rushed at me starlit, flooding my tired panicky brain, as if I was meant to welcome this swirling lineage of people who were not necessarily my ancestors, not necessarily my folk, back into my house.

Strong-minded human singularity, as it stands, ignores what it has in common with nature at its peril

Modern agriculturists have proved to be unfit stewards of the land, a project that has not quite worked out – ecological fracasu. The ‘muscular’, patriarchal concept of the survival of the fittest is less apt, in a time of emergency, Wai Chee Dimock suggests, than the ‘survival of the unfit – (the) survival of the mutual’, humans whose experience is different who do not have a certain skin colour, or body ability, or gender type – humans whose wild potential is what they share with the planet’. Strong-minded human singularity, as it stands, ignores what it has in common with nature at its peril. Alertness to nature, and our mutual relationship of vulnerability, difference and precarity – queerness as in dialogue with nature – is an empathic understanding, a means of shared survival, and a way to live mental vulnerability. 

View from the mountain (photo Andrew F. Giles)

Slowly working towards a sustainable future in this space, the impact of small-scale projects like Greyhame does not feel huge or important, but it does contain a kernel of usefulness if other folk come and exchange ideas which are then put into practice. Allowing the failure of ideas – ideas that do not quite work, and that are open to change and development – is valuable, as an antidote to human singularity. 

 

For more information on Greyhame Farm and how to volunteer, greyhame-farm.mozello.com 

 

References:
Wai Chee Dimock, The Suvival of the Unfit in Daedalus Journal (150:1), (MIT Press, Massachusetts 2021).
Margot Young, Queer mad animals: Foucault, eco-psychology and the de-humanised subject in European Journal of Ecopsychology (3), (Wyrdwise, UK 2012).
Maria Zambrano, La España de Galdós (La Gaya Ciencia, Barcelona 1982) (Translations author’s own)

 

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Our spring 2021 collection of prose, poetry and art revolves around the theme of death, loss and renewal

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Comments
  1. It is truly interesting to see that it is the small projects in remote places that do not show signs of profound transformations in the lives of living beings.

  2. Gracias Francisco Javier por tu comentario. Siempre estoy dispuesto a hablar las cosas y las ideas y los fracasos. Un saludo. Andrew

  3. Thanks so much for the beautiful writing of your life and adventures, of being as human as Nature. In the mainstream and the backwaters we can find such strong ideals which can enlighten yet turn others away without the desire to be themselves together in Nature.
    Your writing is honest and powerful and encouraging to feel into the abandoned places and the cracks in our world on edge. As a soulmate in Permaculture and living at the edge of the world (again) in the mountains of Italy (this time), your felt words helped me to see and feel myself more at home with a once held deep wound ,of being so queer as to prefer the silence and the unknown of the forest and the learning that comes with being and with failure. Thanks Regards Pete

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