Fat of the land

With Julian’s help, I made the move onto Chris and Maggie’s land as soon as the girls had gone to school. The girls and I would only be at Chris and Maggie’s for a little over two weeks, but I moved all the stuff I thought we’d need for three months. A couple of days after Chris returns, we’re moving into a house in the village for about two and a half months. Chris and Maggie are off to Sweden to visit their grandchildren, leaving their cat, Aris, their home and their garden in our (I hope) capable hands. And when we move into the village in the summer it will be to look after Vinnie, the coolest and most chilled out dog in Sanlúcar.

Chris is a keen gardener, and at this time of year there’s a lot of food about. As well as providing the girls with an opportunity to look after a cat, this lovely plot of land offers them an opportunity to get to know plants, to dig up or pick fresh food and to prepare it for the table.

For our first lunch here, we had a salad of lettuce, spinach, grated courgette, onion, sugar snap peas and green peppers, all picked not 10 minutes before we ate, drizzled with our own olive oil from Julian’s olive picking endeavours in the autumn, and freshly squeezed lemon juice from one of the many citrus trees in the garden. For dessert the girls ate strawberries directly from the plants, washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice.

Late in the afternoon, I sent them out to get potatoes for dinner. I followed them, not sure if they knew where to find potatoes. ‘They’re somewhere here’, I said as we reached the garden down by the river. The girls looked around. The broccoli, courgettes, onions and red cabbage were obvious, and not to be confused with anything else. But where exactly were the potatoes? ‘Is it this?’ Lily asked, pointing to a young tomato plant. Not a bad guess, but no. I directed them to a weedy-looking plant, but they were still none the wiser. I grabbed the garden fork and started to dig and almost immediately a golden potato revealed itself.

The girls were delighted. Katie took the fork from me and Lily removed potatoes from the two plants Katie dug up. Back at the house they washed the soil from the potatoes and used the muddy water to irrigate the vines, rose bushes and baby tomato plants growing close to the house. Then I sent them back down the garden for broccoli and courgette for the supper I’d planned and then up the garden to the loquat tree, to gather fruit for dessert.

We’ve lived almost exclusively off the land since coming here and every few days a new fruit or vegetable ripens, adding variety to our diet. First it was the beetroot, then the aubergine and now the tomatoes are turning deep red. What a bounty and what a delight that our friends asked us to look after their place.

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Wildlife haven

At dusk on Saturday evening the first badger arrived. Confident, showing little caution, it trotted up the garden to the double patio doors. Steve had thrown a mix of apples, dry dog food and bread on the patio, and the badger started to eat. Exhibiting far more caution than the badger, the girls and I moved from the sofa where we’d been sitting, inching our way closer to the patio doors, hoping we wouldn’t scare the badger away. We were halfway across the living room when another badger arrived. The two seemed oblivious to us and we sat on the floor, our faces pressed against the glass doors, the badgers less than metre away.

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They were smaller than I thought they would be. But then, I had only ever seen one live badger before – a brief glimpse late one night about seven years ago, when I caught a foraging badger in the headlights of my car as I turned into our driveway in Cambridgeshire. Apart from that one brief encounter, I had only ever seen live badgers on television and dead ones on the side of the road or stuffed and mounted.

Lily’s and Katie’s granddad and I tried to impress on the girls what a rare and special experience this was. While I had seen one live badger in 43 years, Barry had never seen one in 68 years. ‘Remember this moment’, we told the girls. ‘You might never have this privilege again’.

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By the end of that first evening we counted four individuals, identifiable by their differences in size and markings. One, a rather scruffy looking soul, was missing both ears and had a scratch on this nose; another was bigger than all the others.

Up close the black stripes from their eyes back over the tops of their heads are in sharp contrast to their otherwise grey and white bodies. They have terrible eyesight and even when looking straight at us humans on the other side of the glass, I could tell by their eyes that they couldn’t really see us. They were quick to respond to sound though, their long heads rising frequently from the food to look around at the slightest sound. They had very long nails on their feet, which they use to dig their setts. We sat there, listening to them munching on the food, and I felt awed and privileged to be there.

This was the first night of our week long holiday in rural Pembrokeshire, in south Wales. I had booked this particular house because there was so little else available and because it boasted badgers at dusk in the garden. Little did we realise what a wildlife haven it would be.

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The next morning, as I made my first cup of tea, my father-in-law came in from the garden and urged me to come outside. He wanted to show me something. He had taken his cup of tea and his pipe to a secluded area of the garden with wooden garden furniture. Walking through the gap he’d come upon a huge pheasant standing on the table. The pheasant was unmoved by Barry’s presence, and continued standing on the table even when the two of us came close.

That evening, after Barry and Katie had gone to bed, Lily and I sat watching television. There were two badgers on the patio and I caught a flash of orange out of the corner of my eye. A fox. Over the next four nights I watched, transfixed, as the fox and badgers vied for the food on the patio. There were five badgers in all, and some evenings all five were together on the patio. The fox, far more skittish, and with better eyesight than the badgers, was more wary of movement inside the house. Sitting quietly close to the patio doors, I waited each evening for the fox to come trotting up the garden. Although the badgers came at dusk, the fox waited until darkness had fallen. If there were no badgers around, the fox came directly to the food. Sure enough, a badger or two would arrive and chase the fox away, and over the next hour or more the fox would come, the badgers would chase it away, the fox would come again. I thoroughly enjoyed this soap opera in the back garden.

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All day we enjoyed rabbits on the lawns, and each day followed the progress of a family of sparrows nesting in the eaves of the house, the parents bringing food to their noisy and large chicks. We hoped they would fledge while we were there, but they probably preferred the cosiness of their nest to the drizzly conditions of south Wales.

Steve and Serena, the owners of Swallows Rest Cottage, where we stayed for the week, have made their property a haven for wildlife. An acre and a half of their garden is a wildflower meadow, alive with butterflies and bees, crisscrossed with the tracks of the many animals that move through it each day and night. No plastic eaves for them – their wooden eaves are friendly to nesting birds, and the hedgerows all around their property are home to all sorts of wildlife. Each evening they put out a little food, thus attracting two badger setts and some young foxes. They take a neighbourly attitude towards the wildlife in their garden – welcoming it, making it feel at home, helping it out and not infringing on the way it lives its life.

A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

Turned off, tuned out

Living on the river one can quickly become disconnected from the outside world. Especially if one has only limited Internet time, and lives without a radio or television. Life on the Rio Guadiana is idyllic – for us estranjeros at least. The days are sunny and warm more often than not, the land is rich and fertile, the villages are quiet and serene. Life moves at a slow pace and everyone – local or blow-in – has time for a chat. With the ringing of sheep bells and twittering of a hundred thousand birds in the bushes along the riverbank, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world is out there. We live a privileged life here, far from the worries and cares of the world.

I’m even more estranged from the world than most due to my limited time on the Internet. I go online every day or every other day, picking up Wifi at the library or at a cafe. I’m rarely online for more than an hour and a half. That time is spent posting blogs, studying Spanish with Duolingo, checking and answering emails. Occasionally I will download a few podcasts to listen to back on the boat – invariably Woman’s Hour and Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. If my computer battery hasn’t completely run down by then I might spend a few minutes on the BBC website, catching up on current affairs.

Twitter can be a great source of news for me. I mainly follow environmental, Arctic and Inuit-related stuff, and political individuals and organisations (that’s the only reason I follow Mark Ruffalo, honestly!), getting the news that interests me that way. But Twitter’s not much good if you only access it now and again. When I upload new tweets these days, I read them at home, but then don’t have the Internet access to follow the links to the stories.

My limited Internet time also means that I haven’t been keeping up with the blogs I follow, some of which I enjoy because of the political, ethical and moral questions they raise. I have a backlog of blogs in my hotmail inbox and I don’t know when I will ever have the time to read them.

And, of course, not having a radio or television at home means I am not exposed to current affairs and to the world outside my little stretch of the Rio Guadiana on an ongoing basis.

Now, all of this can be a good thing. Often, I think we have too much exposure to the world beyond our own home or community. We concern ourselves with things that don’t matter so much; or that shouldn’t affect our lives but do. And I’m not just talking about which celebrity wore what dress to an awards ceremony; or which pop star is dating which footballer. None of us needs that stuff cluttering our lives, no matter how much fun it is. Moved though I was by David Bowie’s death, it didn’t matter to my life that the news didn’t reach me for three days.

There are other news stories that, while interesting and thought provoking, only impact the lives of those immediately involved. Murders, mass shootings, transport accidents. Many people, including me, are often deeply moved, disturbed or worried by these stories, but they don’t alter our day to day lives. In a week we’ve forgotten about them.

But there are other things going on in the world that can and do affect our lives, or that we are responsible for or are part of the solution to. Here on the idyllic river, without daily access to news and current affairs, it’s easy to forget that there are refugees across the continent and the world, suffering, and that there are communities and nations (including the ones we’re living in) trying to find ways to cope with the influx of these refugees. It’s easy to forget that there are people losing their homes, livelihoods and lives across the world because of climate-change related droughts, fires, floods, pests and diseases. It’s easy to forget there are children in the world mining minerals for our mobile phones or working in sweat shops to produce the clothes and toys we so carelessly use and throw away. It’s easy to forget that fish, sea birds and other marine life are in immediate peril from the plastic pollution overwhelming our oceans. And so much more besides – food waste, toxic pollution, mass death of bees, the environmental and social implications of TTIP.

And I believe it’s important to be exposed to these stories, to know what’s happening, to be confronted with the reality of climate change; the relationship between consumerism, social injustice and environmental degradation; the boomerang of arms trade to war to refugee children. Because we – me and my husband, all of us – as consumers, voters, citizens, human beings, all contribute to these problems and we can also, crucially, contribute to their solutions. But if we do not know these things are happening, if we are not exposed to the individual personal stories that form the jigsaw that makes up the whole, then we can be lulled into a false stupor that the whole world is as idyllic this little stretch of river.

So I’m making a renewed effort to reconnect on a daily basis with the world beyond the river and to bring what I learn from the world into my way of living here. To renew the impact that environmental degradation, child labour, social injustice have on my consumer choices; to think about what I can do in my little life in this little corner of the world that will contribute to solving injustice and healing degradation. And for all it’s time sucking ability, the Internet is the best way I have right now to reconnect with the world beyond the river.

An educational perambulation

While we still had the hired car we’d used to get from Faro airport back to Carina, we decided to go for a hike a little farther downriver. We drove five miles back to Laranjeiras, parked the car, and we did an 8km circular walk up into the hills on the Portuguese side of the river. The 15th of November and it was already hot at 9am, the late autumn sun shining down from a cloudless blue sky. The walk took us up through the tiny village of Laranjeiras, along steep paths so narrow you could almost touch the old whitewashed houses on either side. On the outskirts of the village we passed an olive grove with tarpaulin spread beneath the trees, catching the falling olives. We were soon out of the village, the winding path taking us past scrubby bushes festooned with dew covered spider webs, higher and higher up through olive and almond groves, higher than the mist that still lingered over the river.

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The path wound down again, through the village of Guerreiros de Rio, where we stopped for coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and pastries, and then the even smaller hamlet of Alamo, where the path once again wound steeply uphill through the houses and into the hilly countryside beyond.

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The path was dusty and rocky, the olive, almond, fig and other trees gnarled and ancient-looking. There was a species of tree that befuddled us. It had acorns growing on it, but didn’t look like any oak tree we’d ever seen before. The leaves were small and shiny, more akin to holly than oak. This tree too was gnarly and twisted in trunk and branch. The one-page leaflet with the trail map soon set us straight. It is the cork oak. The first cork oaks we saw were small, but later we saw bigger, older trees, that had been harvested of their cork coats on the lower parts of their trunks. We thought of the importance of this tree to the economy of the region. How the cork from the oak tree seals the bottles of wine from the vines and the bottle of olive oil and jars of olives from the olive trees. These three trees all looking so old even when they are young are the lifeblood of the region’s culture.

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As we walked along we looked out for rabbits and hares, guessed at the names of trees, and discussed what we knew of the border history of this part of the Portuguese/Spanish border. At the highest point of our climb was a windmill which had been in operation up until the 1940s. We could still see the cog mechanism inside. That got us thinking about food and we got the girls thinking about grain, the uses we have for different grains and how important this windmill would have been to the people of the area when it was in operation.

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Katie wanted a ‘math’s challenge’, something she’d picked up from her Oregon friend Kenna when we’d been out walking a few days earlier. So we challenged her, giving her easy addition at first, and making it more complicated as the morning wore on. Lily didn’t want to be left out, so Julian threw maths problems at her and she surprised us with the speed at which she solved them in her head and with her ability to add and subtract fractions – something we didn’t know she could do.

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We practiced Spanish on each other as we walked along. Because Julian and I know slightly different things and remember slightly different vocabulary, we’re able to challenge each other with what we know. So a game ensued of saying what we knew, making us sentences, all four of us trying to figure out what the others were saying.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been struck by how much learning happens when we go walking. My family loves to walk and the stream of consciousness that is inspired by what we see in the world around us as we walk inspires us to do all sorts of learning. Maths is somehow much more fun when practiced in the fresh air than when sitting at the table with books and pencils. Spanish too. Geography, botany, agriculture, history, ecology, meteorology are all around us, and it’s impossible not to learn.

We returned home from our walk exercised in body and mind, hungry for lunch and hungry too for the things we’d discovered we didn’t know – such as Portugal’s area and population, it’s recent history, and a plethora of Spanish words that we decided we simply had to know.

Green living

by Julian

Modern consumerism and its effects on the world’s oceans has been mentioned in recent blog posts by Martina (Leviathan and Behemoth and Picking through the plastic). A lot of energy is required to power our convenience filled lifestyles – energy mostly supplied by the increasingly more complicated and risky extraction of fossil fuels. The ever growing quantity of carbon in our atmosphere has been demonstrated, by scientific methods which show a characteristic isotope fingerprint, to be partly a result of the burning of fossil fuels. The related warming of the planet produces even more atmospheric carbon. It looks like we have tipped the balance and are warming the planet at a faster rate over the last half century than at any time in the past few millennia (this is shown by methods such as Arctic and Antarctic ice core studies). As a former geophysicist and glaciologist, who has worked with climate and ice core scientists, and published academic papers on the topic, I have some insight into this and am not glibly stating stuff presented in the mass media.

I have always been conscious of the need to save energy and resources but I have rarely acted on this with any serious effort. However, I have started thinking about how our current lifestyle onboard Carina has caused us to adapt in ways that seriously curtail our use of non-renewable energy and resources. Being at anchor and living on a tight budget forces us to do this.

Here are some of the ways we have minimised our non-renewable resource use:

We have an 80W solar panel. Summer in southern Europe provides plenty of sunlight, but our panel is not sufficient to run our fridge, charge our computer and run the domestic and navigation lighting. We have to be selective about our electricity use. The fridge was the first thing to go. We don’t need it. Instead, we buy small quantities of fresh food every day and use the fridge as a storage space.

As our light bulbs and fittings failed I started to replace them with LEDs. Now all our main domestic lighting uses LEDs and this has cut electricity for lighting to less than 20% of previous use without cutting down on light. In fact, in some cabins we now have better light than before. The latest technology in LEDs has fast created a whole array of options from harsh white light to softer light and bulbs are produced for all sorts of DC light fittings.

Last year Martina and I decided to trade in our four-stroke Yamaha outboard motor for a small two-stroke Mariner, partly because the Yamaha was becoming unreliable and partly because Martina could barely lift it, so getting it from Carina into the dinghy was a nightmare. An advantage of the trade in that I hadn’t considered is how little fuel a 2-stroke engine uses. Motoring twice or even three times a day between Carina and the shore, often against a strong current, and with four people aboard the dinghy, a 5-litre can of petrol lasts two weeks.

Next comes water use. At anchor we have to conserve water and we switch from electric water pump to foot pump, which minimises our consumption. It’s amazing how little water you actually need to brush your teeth, cook food or wash the dishes. Another revelation this year has been digging out the old solar shower. We can enjoy a good hot shower in the cockpit using very little water, heated directly from the sun. Sometimes the water gets too hot so we have to be careful! We also handwash our laundry, which is not too onerous if doing a little every couple of days and the clothes dry well in the spring/summer heat.

I have started to forage again. Unfortunately, we arrived on the river too late for the spinach and asparagus seasons, but I just caught the wild fennel and there is a lot of mint and rosemary planted around the towns. The grass near the beach at Sanlucar is overrun by mint and Martina says it makes great tea. I have collected oranges and lemons from the odd stray tree, neglected and not on anybody’s land. (A lot of land around the river is fenced off – people seem to like their oranges to rot on the ground rather than people being able to collect them). I am looking forward to the profusion of figs and plums ripening, and I hope the olives, almonds and grapes will follow.

Needless to say this is a mere drop in the ocean of the sort of  reduction in consumption that we all need to do. Even environmentally conscious people such as ourselves have only taken these steps because of our circumstances rather than out of a conscious drive.

But I am pleased by our efforts that benefit both the planet and our bank balance. Sailing (rather than motoring) nearly all the way here from the Mediteranean, even passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, against the normally prevailing current, pleased me a lot. I certainly felt good about not having an expensive fill up with diesel when we got here.

The important thing is that we don’t miss the conveniences, really we don’t! Life is simple and enjoyable. Life can be pretty good without a fridge, even in the summer heat. There’s a great river to swim in, great walks along the river bank, food for free, and healthy fresh air to breathe. I’d give up my fridge for that any day.

My Fukushima – Our Fukushima

On the second weekend in May Alcoutim hosts a walking festival. I pick up a brochure and read the details of short and easy walks, long and difficult walks, night time walks, and a walk that has something to do with a pig farm and the sampling of pork products at the end of the walk – although my Portuguese is limited so I may have got this one all wrong. We walk lots anyway and the walks that I am most interested in are noted to be not suitable for children and they all start very early in the morning. The problem with early morning starts is that I either have to take the dinghy ashore alone, leaving Julian and the girls without shore access until I come home, or wake the girls at an absurdly early hour so I can be ferried ashore in the dinghy. I decide to forego the walks.

But there are other events taking place during the three-day festival that catch my eye. There’s a walking stick making workshop on the quay on Saturday afternoon and a concert by a classical guitar quartet on Saturday evening. On Friday night there’s an outdoor screening of Baraka, a movie that blew me away and cemented my environmental consciousness when I first saw it as an impressionable 20-year old back in 1993. I hope I’m still as impressionable to brilliant ideas today. So we make our plans to participate in some of these elements of the festival.

The first event I want to attend is something called My Fukushima. I’m not sure what it’s all about as I can’t understand the Portuguese description, but it’s taking place at 7pm on Friday on the quay. Shortly before 5pm we take the dinghy ashore and as we walk past the quay I see a woman painting ‘Mi/Minha Fukushima’ on the concrete, surrounded by painted hearts and flowers. I stop to talk to her and she tells me this is where the event will start. She invites Lily and Katie to add to her painting, with something appropriate to the story of Fukushima. I say maybe I should explain something of Fukushima to the girls first and they can paint when we come back.

So off we walk down to the beach and along the way I attempt to explain what happened at Fukushima and the effect it had and continues to have on the lives of people there. They know Japan, of course, because I’ve told them a lot about when I used to live there, and they vaguely remember my friends Takako and Mayu who visited us in Devon a few years ago. And they love the Japanese food parcels and origami paper that Takako sends us.

But, boy, this is hard to explain. Earthquakes and tsunamis are relatively easy to talk about, even if the girls (or, indeed, I) can’t imagine the size of the wave of the scale of the devastation. But I can talk about the dynamic Earth, tectonic plates, and the shock waves of the earthquake that caused the tsunami that caused the devastation.

Explaining what happened at the nuclear power plant is more difficult. Partly it comes from my own lack of understanding of nuclear processes, so I am unable to clearly explain how a nuclear power station works. And I realise I have to go back before that – I have to explain electricity, why we need it, why we want it, where and how it’s produced. I point to the huge wind turbines on a hill far away upriver on the Spanish side and I get the girls to think about our solar panel aboard Carina, and I try to explain how energy from the wind or sun are transformed into the electricity that powers our computers, house and street lights, and is needed to produce our clothes, toys, and pretty much everything we have. And then I talk about other ways of making electricity – at power stations that use coal or (in Ireland) peat or, in the case of Fukushima, nuclear energy.

It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand this stuff about electricity. I barely understand it myself. We need Julian to explain it simply and clearly. What I want them to try to get their heads around is that Fukushima is a human-made disaster. The earthquake and tsunami didn’t cause this abomination. Humans caused it, in their belief that nuclear energy can be clean and safe; in their short-sighted short cuts and budget-driven corner cutting; in their inability to see into the future by looking back into the past; and in their hubris that flimsy human-made technology can withstand the power of the Earth. Heady stuff for six and four year olds. But Richard Williams started Venus and Serena early in his quest to create tennis champions. Why shouldn’t we grow environmental warriors in the same way?

Katie painting

Katie painting

We return to the quay for the start of the My Fukushima event. The woman we have spoken to earlier has laid out tins of paint and paintbrushes and she invites everyone to add to her painting. Lily and Katie don’t need to be asked twice and soon they are covering the concrete with hearts, bunny rabbits and angels. Other children join in, adding more hearts, flowers, Portuguese flags and more besides. In a moment of inspiration I paint a Japanese flag on the ground, but replace the red sun with a red heart.

The mayors of Alcoutim (Portugal) and Sanlucar (Spain) make brief speeches and a Japanese woman who lives in Sanlucar translates the inscription on the book My Fukushima by Taro Aizu, which is the inspiration for this whole project. We are then all invited to cross the river from Portugal to Spain. The small ferry makes three crossings to bring us all to Spain. From the riverbank we slowly walk through Sanlucar. The village has been transformed into an art gallery (as has Alcoutim), displaying copies of paintings by artists from around the world, inspired by Aizu’s haiku and gogyoshi poetry. The poignancy of fields bearing crops of cesium 137, of a crawling baby in a nuclear fall-out mask, of an old man on his deathbed, is palpable.

IMG_20150508_211024We proceed to the cultural centre, next to the school, where original artworks form the same collection are on display, together with a display of artefacts recovered from the devastation of the tsunami – a child’s shoe, a suitcase, photographs.

The paintings are moving, but what moves me even more are Taro Aizu’s poems. Here’s a short selection:

To protect them
I’ll never let them eat
Local vegetables

I can’t believe
They are contaminated
By the cesium winds
These green, green
Rice fields

We’ll sing a song
And dance again
Around the blossoms
In our hometown
Fukushima, Fukushima

Humid night
‘No nuclear plants!’
I shout, I shout

May my prayer
To the universe
Give me not only consolation
But the power to abolish
All atomic power stations!

The genetic heritage
Not contaminated
By cesium
Is a precious gift
In my dark cell

We slowly make our way back to the river where the ferry awaits. We are transported across to Portugal once more where the other half of the exhibition is hung in the Alcoutim cultural centre.

IMG_20150508_211651Why do the people along this river (and elsewhere, where the exhibition has toured) care so much and are so moved by something that happened four years ago in a country on the other side of the world? I can see the similarities. Elderly and middle-aged farmers, self-sufficient on their small-holdings, in lands that are beautiful and precious. Loss as a result of the tsunami is devastating, but it’s happened before and amidst the loss and the sorrow, it can be understood. But the invisible and insidious devastation wrought by the breakdown of the nuclear power plant cannot be so easily made sense of. This is a human-made monster whose repercussions will reverberate through the generations.

This is a sorrow and a horror that could be visited on any of us at any time, whether we live in Japan or Spain or Portugal or Louisiana or Ukraine. The people who live close to the land – the farmers, the fishers, the hunters – have never forgotten the power of the Earth. Those who have the audacity to build nuclear power stations, or drill for oil under our oceans, or frack for gas under our homes – have forgotten the Earth’s power. And because of their forgetfulness any one of our communities could be the next Fukushima waiting to happen.