It with great sadness I have to impart that Maureen has just died, last week, on Tuesday 29 October.
Maureen was and evermore will be Sofia, of MONKEY & SOFIA fame. Sofia being the magical kitten we rescued from the streets of Odemira in Portugal and who gave us so much love and affection during a very hard time while searching for our place. And just like Sofia, whoever meets Maureen is instantly touched and changed by that same magic.
She also weaved a similar spell on everything she did, having the unique ability to excel at anything, be it craft, skill, or learning a new language.
I met her at college in London in the 1970s, where we were both training to be art teachers. The first time I saw her she was hanging from the ceiling in the print room. I knew then I had to get to know this person. Two years later we were married, and since then lived together inseparably, for 34 years, until Tuesday 29th October 2013 when she tragically passed away at the ridiculously young age of 56. With so much left to give.
Neither of us became teachers, but Maureen did spend many years teaching art in other ways. Starting with the creation of a community darkroom in Wolverton, Milton Keynes. Devising the community arts events for the York Festival. Then spending 11 years as the Associate Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, heading up the community and education department, which spawned many innovative projects (such as HEYDAYS), more often than not setting the standard for others to copy and aim for, throughout the world.
In 2000 we decided to give up a conventional life and head off to find a remote piece of countryside where we could learn to live more simply, healthily, and spend as much of each day as possible being creative. It took nine long years to find that place, during which we lived in a van, a tiny hamlet on a mountain top in Galicia (NW Spain), a derelict house in the Alentejo (Portugal), in a log cabin on the beach of an island in British Columbia, and finally here. MONKEY & SOFIA was born during that period, although we had been making and selling things for many years prior to leaving the UK.
I’ve lost count how many Monkeys & Sofias have gone out into the world since then, to become companions and heirlooms to both children and adults who appreciate their quality, it has to be in the thousands. All made by her nimble hands, along with all the other toys she invented. Each with a small part of her sewn or knitted into them. I know this because so many of those buyers have since become not only very good friends but part of our family.
Three years ago, just after we finished the house and moved in, she ripped her sternum carrying a sack of flour. That took a year to heal, and seriously knocked her back. After which she discovered a lump in her breast. This was a particularly scary moment as her mother had died from the same disease and that experience still haunted her. To such a degree she was adamant from the start not to have anything to do with the national health service. Luckily though we found a local homeopath who was able to treat her, and it seemed to be working. Then this summer it reappeared elsewhere, just as she was getting ready to start afresh, including taking up cycling again, and I think now in hindsight that must have used up any remaining reserves of fortitude and strength. It didn’t stop her from making things though, and she dispatched an order of gloves just ten days before she died. To me she seemed happy at that moment, and told me that the homeopath had said she would be completely recovered within two months. Whether this is true I have no idea. But soon after her health began to fail and in the end, against her wishes, I called an ambulance. It turned out the hospital couldn’t have been a more kind or caring place, instantly relieving her of any pain, after which she slept soundly for twelve hours then simply stopped breathing, having never recovered consciousness.
Another strange thing happened during the last days. Something I think very special and magical. From nowhere a man appeared to Maureen, come to talk with her about the spirit (her words). He came every day, sometimes with a friend and a child. I couldn’t see them, but they were often there at the same time. He was a painter, from Aracena (a nearby town), in his 60s, and she an artist who works with light (her words). Maureen had recently decided to learn to paint, something she had wanted to do since a child, and was planning this as the start of her new life having beaten the cancer. I am now convinced that these people were in fact angels, and that there is a much better life for us all in the hereafter.
For the moment I want to keep this site up, as a showcase for her work plus all the wise words of her blogs, although obviously there will be nothing available for sale (except copies of the knitting book). Eventually perhaps find a way to start the toys again, albeit new ones. If you would like to be kept in touch about that please sign up as a “follower”.
I would also like to thank all her friends and supporters, who over the years who have helped make our life the magic it was.
She has gone to a better place, bless her.
Life without Maureen, so far, has been terrible. No-one talks about when this happens, and it has been so awful an experience (even compared to what I previously thought were some really nasty moments) that I am now seriously considering suicide as the best solution to the seemingly insurmountable problems suddenly dropped onto me. For despite all we have achieved in getting here it was all due to us both, working as a perfect team. I will be honest, I am not someone who can function at all alone. I need company, I need a creative soul-mate, or just revert to being an empty shell. This place also needs at least two people to make it work, 2.5 hectares is hard going. And an income, albeit small (just £3,500 a year), for which I possess absolutely no ability whatsoever to earn (especially here), Maureen having earned every penny of what we needed for the last 25 years (since I stopped work), while I took over the house-husband/ gardening role. I also have not accrued any right to state benefits or a pension. So if anyone out there has similar experiences/ advice they could share with me right now, which will be of positive help, I would really appreciate you getting in touch. I am in a state of utter shock. It feels like living in a thick fog, with no appetite, wanting to be sick all the time, totally drained of any energy, and so scared out of my mind every second that I fear for my sanity.
Anyone who has read this blog before will know of my preponderance with being here. It’s obvious really, given the completely different environments we have lived in. Plus, there are few distractions, nature all around us and very little impact from anything else. However the experience of pondering does change. We’ve been here for four years now and our connection to the place is deepening, becoming richer. We are more aware of the feelings we get from being here and how the smallest changes attract our attention. I wonder if it is just familiarity with the place or something to do with what I starting to call brain detox. I was thinking about it the other day and marvelling at all the incredible experiences people have in their lives; the travelling, holidays, seeing new things, being able to buy strange and exotic foods, visiting art galleries full of amazing pictures, music, theatre, dance performances. It seems that nothing is impossible. But the weird thing is that whenever we meet people who have been and seen and experienced, they don’t have anything to say about it all. Like the experience was something to get through and a box ticked.
So my theory is that too many dazzling twinkling new things is like eating too much lovely creamy cake. Maybe it’s like gluttony, the more we have the more we want and unlike the first taste or experience it isn’t so wonderful. Things get taken for granted like someone visiting us was preparing to take a photo of the incredible orange sunsets we have here after sunny days. But having been distracted said it didn’t matter, it was just another photo of a sunset to add to the collection. Things aren’t so significant when a new shiny thing comes along every week. But something that gave me heart happened when I was in our little stationers a few weeks back. It’s run by a local man who is always in the shop and certainly not given to foreign travel. However on this occasion he had made his first foreign journey to Amsterdam at the invitation of his nephew who is working there. Telling me about his trip the man was lit up. He couldn’t believe what he had seen, how different it was, how beautiful, how life was so different. He seemed rocked to his foundations. We talked of how much more expensive life was there and I commented that it sounded as if the trip had been worthwhile and he looked at me, something shining from within, and said it had been much, much more valuable than he had ever imagined. I could see him looking around at all that was familiar with different eyes. That’s the kind of feeling I’ve had from visiting new places probably because we have been to that many and mostly we got to stay for a time. So what is this phenomenon that affects people? Too much too often? It reminds me of how things changed from when football matches used to be the special things about Saturdays. I’m no fan but I could appreciate people looking forward to the “match” their week focussed on that day. Now, football seems to take place every night. How can it have the same magic? The seeming appetite for stimulation every day must clog our senses or cause the deadening of our ability to experience new things and really enjoy them. Our minds are so full of images, like our stomachs full of too much sweet sticky junk food we just crave more but without being able to really understand why we want it or think we’ll enjoy it. What is the answer? No more holidays, no more chocolate cake? Well maybe yes that is the answer but perhaps more important is the question why these things appeal to us, why do we want an endless flicker of images or events, what does it mean for a society of people seemingly mindlessly booking holiday after holiday, to plod around looking at all the things they are supposed to look at and then miserably go home. It’s depressing. I’m half sure people only do it because it is expected. Everyone thinks holidays are what they are supposed to have, it’s normal. Less is more is what I think. There can be wonderful, memorable moments just looking at what is around us. Looking at what nature has made in just one spot is awesome and definitely more fulfilling than hours spent in airports shuffling around the world. Find a tree and give it a hug. Be happy live simple.
photograph by Nacho Suárez Obel – http://nachosfantasticphotographs.wordpress.com
Every month in Spain there is some sort of fiesta, some saint is celebrated, usually with late nights, music and drinking. Sometimes the saint is big enough to warrant a day off work, great news for everyone. In August it is the turn of San Lorenzo and his tears. This is a really nice fiesta because even though he doesn’t warrant a day off, the way of celebrating is kind of quiet and reflective, quite a change after all the rowdy fiestas. To see the tears of San Lorenzo aficionados have to identify a nice grassy slope in a rural spot away from light pollution and, for real comfort, people take a yoga or camping mat. Then from midnight on they lie and look at the sky and before long they are rewarded by the sight of shooting stars, the tears of San Lorenzo. Many people can spend until the early hours watching and enjoy quite a show. The actual date of San Lorenzo is 10th of August, but I think that at this time of year there are more shooting stars than in other months. I don’t know why this should be so, I wish I knew more about the sky and the stars but whenever I try to understand it I realise the limitations of my brain, try as I might information just doesn’t stick. But I reckon there must be something about the coming of the autumn or some movement in the constellations at this time of year because the first shooting star I ever saw was actually in August, in Edinburgh.
One of the many wonderful things about living here is the clearness of the sky at night time. The stars are incredible, there are so many that the sky is crowded and somehow the earth feels smaller and more just a part of the whole rather than being the biggest, most important part of the universe, as we think of it.
The effect darkness has on our place is impressive because it is such a contrast to the intensely bright light of day time, but the night sky changes the character of what we are coming to know during the day. On nights of the full moon, the shadows are intense, going for a walk is possible unlike on dark nights with no moon when it’s impossible to see more than a yard. The shadows cast by the moon make a whole new world, the texture of the shadows make it feel alive in a different way than we know. What we see around us during the day and what we are hoping to become part of is suddenly dramatically increased by the sort of parallel world offered by the moonlight. We are already overwhelmed by what we see during the day and now, San Lorenzo’s tears included, the sky and that’s up there, arch over us and help us understand that we are part of something much bigger than just our earth-bound selves.
As usual it’s not until long after I’ve read something or spent ages juggling seemingly random thoughts in my head that some sort of understanding starts to dawn. It’s no new phenomena for me, it’s been like this since Phil and I started out together years ago. We were full of ideas, things we felt passionate about and ambitions for how we wanted to live as well as whole list of things we definitely didn’t want. All these ideas and thoughts seemed such a jumble, it felt as if we never had a clear vision of where we were heading. But now looking back everything fits together, everything we did clearly led to the next thing, all the experiences added up, like our working for various organisations, moving from one place to another and now being here shows such a clear path that I’m amazed we felt that we were groping our way forward, trying to get things to make sense. But that’s the benefit of hindsight, everything makes sense looking back. There is a Spanish saying which is something to do with looking back along the road you’ve travelled and being able to see what it was you were heading towards. That makes sense to me.
I wonder now, with this sudden revelation about things which feel right leading us on to other things, even if we don’t know what those things are. Maybe now I’ve realised that the right path is somehow signposted in an obscure sort of way which is how we always make the right choices. I don’t really know, but I do get the feeling that there’s something out there making sure we do the right thing, anyhow, now I have some feeling that these things happen, maybe I’ll be a bit more clued up about things when they occur and be able to see why they seem to make sense.
Making sense for me can mean that some new experience I’ve had confirms something I’ve come to believe. And it’s so satisfying when it happens. I’m sure some sceptical folk would think that I’m clearly looking to justify my beliefs and rejecting those things which don’t fit although living here our scope is pretty narrow, but it is interesting how rich it is in content despite the narrowness.
So the thing I’ve realised recently, after reflecting on this bit of hillside and its trees and birds is that I have been missing something fundamental. All this time I have been getting glimpses of how amazing it is to be here and haven’t understood that to really understand it I should be using my senses; my eyes my ears, the sense of smell and touch rather than trying to draw this natural world into my own human one where we tend to over depend on our brains to understand things. Rhythm is as much part of this as anything else, as I’ve mentioned before. City dwelling confuses our senses with its bright lights, noise and ceaseless activity. Here, we are aware of things like night falling when we can actually see the sun setting and hear the birds flying home to roost which makes us aware that night time is for sleep, for us as well as the birds. When else do our bodies get the chance to do their repair work if we don’t sleep for a good stretch?
As Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, ‘nothing worth knowing can be understood by the mind’ and I think he’s right. We have all our other senses for a reason and that is to help us understand the real world.
Living here is about living inside nature, not looking at it from outside like a tourist views a place, but actually becoming a part of it all. This is so obvious now, as everyone knows, hindsight is a wonderful thing! Plainly, being here, being aware of the smells, the sounds, the heat, the cold, is drawing us into the world around us, the real world.
I wouldn’t have said that I was any kind of bird lover but have noticed that they do seem to crop up a fair amount in these blogs, maybe they have become secretly or subconsciously significant to me. Plainly it has to do with living here because there are only us and the birds. It’s true there are other creatures around here, like wild boar and deer, mongoose and genets, some of which we occasionally see, mostly the deer but not the others so much. They all seem to roam on to our land and then roam on, I don’t know where they live but people say they move along the valley bottom and live there only coming up to find food when there’s none down there. The birds though are different. I have started to think that some of them live here, that these are their trees and they fly around this patch and roost in the pines or wherever at night time. It’s really lovely of a summer evening to be outside at twilight and hear them settling down, calling to each other and sounding different from how they do the rest of the day. It might be just my feeling but the birds seem to have a pattern to their days and maybe even their year. Definitely some of them are more in evidence at particular times of the year than others, although the idea of birds having some sort of routine might just be me trying to make some sense or order out of the lives of the wild creatures. But the array of tiny birds, some of which nested in our boxes, and were around earlier in the spring and very vociferous about their comings and goings, then just disappeared overnight, the parent birds, the babies, and all the others, we noticed then how quiet it had become around the porch where all that noise had been. I imagine they knew the horrible heat was about to arrive so took themselves off to some cooler spot, maybe in another country even.
The birds which are still here are down below us in the shade of the valley and in the tops of the trees down there. We can still hear them but they are quieter and distant, apart from at dawn or twilight. Our rural silence of early morning is interrupted by just one or two birds calling to each other, then gradually other birds join in and the dawn is filled with birdsong. It’s really something to be able to listen from our bed when the fly screens cover the open windows, hearing the intimate calls in the semi darkness. It is beautiful. It’s like the reverse of listening to them in the evening when they are settling down in their roosts.
During the heat of summer days, at siesta time in the afternoon, the birds are silent. They too are finding the heat too much. It’s interesting that our patterns overlap as they seem to. Us and the birds, enjoying the cool mornings and the closing down for the afternoons, maybe it’s a comfort to know we share habits as well as habitat. Are we becoming more like the birds, I wonder? Maybe we are, they certainly seem to have the whole thing in hand, life that is. While their supreme ease at living make our attempts seem lumpen with effort and intent. I think that their relationship to the place is always going to be richer than ours, because they occupy somewhere we can’t. We are earth-bound and they are able to fly, to see everywhere we can’t, and feel the wind in their feathers.
It’s early evening now on the first of the really hot days of summer and the bee eaters are coming up from the river, warbling their special song and wheeling as fast as swallows. We can see flashes of their bright blue and orange feathers catching the sun as it sinks to a more acceptable and less intense place in the sky. I love it, sharing our life here with the birds, I just wish I didn’t feel impelled to make sense of everything, to try and understand why the birds do as they do. I never seem to learn that it’s fine not to have all the answers and that I’d be putting my brain to better use just trying to enjoy the birds for what they are and what they bring to our lives.
If you’ve never read The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono you’ve missed a treat. It’s a lovely tale of nature and hope and, in the best tradition of storytelling, one which everyone who reads it, feels could be real and even that it should be.
I was thinking about it the other day when I’d started wondering about the first trees and where they came from. The land around us, although geographically high, wild and rocky, is covered with what we call plantations; trees planted by someone at some stage for financial gain. There are lots of pine trees planted by the local authority years ago as income for their budget and there is a type of oak whose acorns are the traditional feed for pigs. There are cork trees which every nine years have the first 10 feet of their bark removed and sold to the cork industry. And there are chestnut trees which were grown for their valuable crop of nuts. So where are all the naturally occurring trees which are just themselves and don’t produce something humans need? The oak trees do spread pretty easily, the acorns settle into the soil if they aren’t eaten by pigs and grow quickly so maybe they outpaced other trees. They are good survivors because they manage to survive the summer’s scorching temperatures without needing water so they do well in this morbid dry environment. Our bit of hillside had its share of these trees but there are also areas where tangles of wild fruit trees and brambles survive. During the dry summer these shady, green patches look luxuriant. The mixture of trees and plants protect the soil from drying out while obviously, somewhere down below the soil, there is water and the trees have sent their roots reaching down to bring it up to the surface. It’s lovely to see the interdependence of the trees and plants providing a habitat for insects and other creatures, the atmosphere in this tangle of greenness is so different from the bone-dry hills around us with their sad ranks of uniform trees and nothing else.
I’ve asked local people about what was here before these trees but no one can tell us anything apart from what they’ve read in tourist brochures about the wonderful oak tree which has proliferated here for ages and provided well for ancient people who could grind the acorns to make flour and roast them to produce a type of coffee drink. But surely, there must have been other trees, forests even. Maybe there were these oaks but there must have been something else as well and anyway, where did those oaks come from? Which beggars my question about what came first: the trees or the acorns?
There are people like us who can see that nature would never have supported monoculture. Nature is natural and naturally occurring seeds are in the air or brought by birds or animals and when the time’s right they germinate. Some people think that all plants and trees originate somewhere, that they are indigenous to a particular place, somewhere that some wise person has decreed that they came from, and that introducing strange seeds and plants into an area where they don’t currently exist is wrong. But who is to say at this point in time, where plants and trees belong or originated? After all, apple trees seem to have originated in the Balkans but do excellently well in Britain. No one seems to have thought it wrong at some point in history to introduce them to a different country. Apple trees are part of life all over Britain. However, people can remember nothing other than what’s in their area now. The collective memory seems to fail after two generations so who is ever to know about the old forests or wild woods which must have been here in Spain before?
I remember having read in Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which I have mentioned before, something about deforestation:
‘The first farming village in the world appeared in the uplands of the Fertile Crescent or the Middle East, and that mankind drove itself from this Eden in the sixth millennium BC by denuding the land. Thousands of years later, the sad story was replayed in the Mediterranean basin, especially in the hilly terrain once thickly covered by old growth forests, an ecosystem of which hardly a trace survives today. Once again, the principle villains across Greece, southern Italy, southern France and Spain were fires, goats and timber felling. A herd of goats is not only meat and milk but capitol on the hoof, hoarded in good times and sold or eaten when necessary. Able to thrive anywhere goats often create an environment in which little but goats will survive.’
This is what happens to the land when it is used and abused for profit. It seems sad to me that people here really believe that rows and rows of pine trees or hillsides full of oak trees is a natural environment. Should we listen to the purists who say we should wait for governments to come to their senses and change things with big programmes of cash incentives for landowners so that once again real nature is obliterated? I don’t think we can, although many people will ask what impact two people can hope to make by on a tiny wild bit of hillside in amidst all of this? Well, doing something rather than nothing is at least showing another way, and thinking back to the inspiring book The Man Who Planted Trees, a little can go a very long way.
illustration by Harry Brockway, taken from The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono
I’ve been thinking about ‘stuff’ this last week, stuff like things, possessions, things we own and fill our homes with. I don’t know if this has to do with watching the little birds in the trees making their nests in the bird boxes but maybe it does. The birds are so busy and single minded in their work, coming and going, popping in and out of their houses in some well worked-out relay. I have no idea how it all happens between the birds but there seem to be pairs who decide on a particular bird box, in one case I wondered if they were the same couple who were here last year because that one of the boxes was inhabited while the others weren’t. Anyway, they start work on their nests and I wondered if those who found an old nest in their chosen box, which just needed a bit of attention, were happier than those who had to start one from scratch. I’m not sure because one couple spent all afternoon removing stuff from their newly acquired box so I can only imagine it was dirty or maybe badly made or from the wrong stuff. Or perhaps the process of building the nest is a fundamental part of the preparation of laying and hatching eggs. Anyhow, the perfection and simplicity of their efforts puts us to shame with all our excesses in nest building and all its social and cultural connotations. Surely all anyone requires is a shelter that will protect us from the elements and which we can keep warm by basic means. Birds must have some superior insulation in their feathers and their little scaly feet maybe don’t feel the cold but, even with a blazing fire, our nests are so out of scale with the necessary.
When we sold up and left our old home we sold virtually all our possessions too. This was partly because we wanted to feel the lightness of not owning things but also, since we were going to be living in a van there wasn’t any space for more than the essentials. Initially it did feel liberating to know that everything we owned was in that van with us, but as time passed and the only door key we possessed was for the van we began to feel as if we had lost who we were. It was a difficult and scary time, not being able to find where we wanted to be in order to settle again, so part of our unhappiness was due to that but it was frightening not to belong anywhere, not to have somewhere we could to go back to where we had friends who knew us. People had said that we were brave when they heard of our plans but we didn’t understand what they meant or why they would think it. For us, bravery hadn’t come into it, not at that stage anyway. It was much later after a lot more experiences that I came to realise that the bravery friends spoke of was about our daring to abandon our carefully constructed life and the determination we had in trying to make a new one.
As time passes and our years begin to add up I get the feeling that our nests become lined with the experiences and values which we continue to gather until a certain time in life and then there are no more new ones to add. We are happy with what kind of person we turned out to be and without knowing it we set about ensuring that nothing new comes along to challenge our perception or to make us understand that life still has to be lived, right up until we die. We have our values, beliefs, experiences and houses full of stuff which reinforce for us who we are. Actually it was this defining which made us feel as though we were suffocating, that we were being shaped by our past and it was weighing us down. The painful, in our case, process of shedding was not something we planned, as with so much of our journey we groped our way along and tried to understand what felt right or didn’t. In hindsight what we were trying to do seems so obvious but we felt we were blindly responding to our emotions, apparently it always turns out easier to see the patterns and to understand things in retrospect.
Now we have our simply appointed hut and are very happy, even though the list of things it doesn’t have far exceeds the list of things which it has. We have learned to keep life alive, to expect to be amazed everyday by where we are and the things we see and experience and to know that not having the answers to everything is perfectly acceptable.
Our nests should be places which shelter us and keep us safe. They shouldn’t be places which we turn into a fortress of values and certainties which we then have to protect.
This fortress idea came to me as I’m re reading Austerlitz by WG Sebald in which there is mention of the building of fortifications….really fascinating:
…….it had been forgotten that the largest fortifications will attract the largest enemy forces and that the more you entrench yourself the more you must remain on the defensive……..
We may not be defending our homes against invaders but when ideas or theories new to us come our way we shouldn’t automatically feel the need to leap to defend our old, dearly held views. Maybe sometimes there’ll be a new perspective for us to consider and then to accommodate amongst our constantly and healthily shifting values which can be really exciting. Anyway, our nests should be all we need to keep us cosy and not stuffed with things we don’t need. Happily even the smallest nests have room for new thoughts.