Low Impact

cropped-cropped-1villandas.jpgI am sitting at my desk writing.  The sun is shining on the patio and I can hear nothing except the ticking of the keyboard and the occasional lazy fly that buzzes in the open window.  I am driven to share the peace of the mountain valley with you.  Sharing is the impetus behind Shakespeare in the Mountains: sharing good reading, stunning walks and great food.  Yet I do not want to share at any cost.  I have some ideas about impact that I want to write about in this post: reducing the impact, being a good tenant of the land in these changing times and taking a principled stand on questions of change.

The world is changing.  There is no question about that.  Who knows whether the race to protect will outrun the race to destroy?  There is a confusing range of voices babbling on about the same global problems, from deforestation to pesticide abuse to changing labor markets.  No one can be complacent faced with these problems.  My attitude is to consider the Environment with a lower case.  I can’t save the Environment but I can do everything I can to ensure that the environment here- what immediately surrounds me- is the best it can be.

A Life-Long Commitment to Green Issues

Pisón de Fondón

Carmen came to Villandás with her husband, Lorenzo, more than twenty years ago.  They restored two houses and, since he was an Environmental Engineer working for the local government of Asturias and she has a lifelong commitment to green issues, they did their best to use local materials, traditional techniques and products that comply with the most exigent environmental testing.  For example, they waxed the floorboards instead of applying a varnish and Carmen has always looked for Fair Trade environmentally-friendly products.  They both meshed themselves into the world that surrounded them, admiring traditional craftwork and supporting artisans where they could. They suffered from frustrations dealing with some of the local farmers, who have a tendency to see the more expensive environmental options to weed killers, phosphates and animal feeds as a waste of time and money.  Yet they recognized the special peace and tranquility of a rural environment that was struggling on in spite of the big world outside.  They put their money where their mouth was by stumping up the cash to promote a new business in the village: Carmen’s Casa de Aldea.


A Casa de Aldea is a village rental property.  Carmen has been running Pisón de Fondón for a decade and a half.  When people come here, they are immediately aware that there is something different about it.  It is not just that Carmen has such a good eye for detail and cares for both the aesthetics and the cleanliness to the highest standards.  There is also something unique about the welcome they receive.  Parents with children, who come from Spanish cities in the south escaping the heat of the summer, find that their kids often prefer to spend the day in the gardens and would rather stay with Carmen than head off in the car to the beach.  When the noise of the car engine that brought them here dies away even the adults feel that perhaps it is better to wander around the country lanes and explore what is near at hand.  They go for walks in the cool of the morning and evening.  They relax beside the barbecue at midday and read in the garden.

There is a contradiction in environmental tourism.  I feel this when I go to Somiedo Natural Park.  Some people go back year after year and dedicate the full ten days of their holidays to exploring the infinite mountain paths.  Others trundle up in their 4X4s, go for a short walk, talking all the way, return to a bar for quick bite to eat and then head off for the next natural wonder.  They ask in the restaurant if there is somewhere they can go to see the bears and some irresponsible guides promise them a sighting.  This is sight-seeing.  It is not what we are about.  It is easy to caricature people’s heartfelt urges to go out and see natural wonders and mean-spirited to criticize them for wanting to do it, but my urge to work with Shakespeare in the Mountains comes from a perception that you do not have to arrive somewhere in a car and continually hop back into it once you get there.  There is enough to see and do right here in the neighborhood.  And there is something that changes in your state of mind when you recognize that you do not have to be continually going from one place to another.

I would not have to persuade the villagers of this.  Some of the older villagers have hardly ever left the region and rarely leave the village now.  For them it is rather amazing that I am from faraway England and go away to work on the Camino de Santiago.  They know all the old paths and wag their heads when I talk of them.  They remember times when the village was alive with voices and children, when there were mills on the streams and you got by on what you had at hand because that was all there was.  Many of them do not even have cars and it is extraordinary to them that I bring people from Korea, Japan and Hungary to this little corner of Asturias.  Freezers, tractors and power tools are marvelous inventions for them but they continue to use scythes to take in the grass.  Some still live as their grandparents did, right above the cows in the cowshed with all the warmth and vapors they bring with them.  And, in spite of modernity, in spite of the power tools and the government grants, country life is in decline.  They look at the hillsides covered in trees and tut, because the increasing number of trees means that there is an increasing number of fields that are not being cleared.  All the modern tools in the world cannot make it economic to live as a small-scale farmer.  It is a money economy now: you cannot barter for a mobile phone or fill your tractor with homemade fuel.

It is a curious contradiction.  The villages are densely scattered across this landscape and they are full of houses- some of them humble, some of them magnificent, many of them abandoned.  It is paradoxical that the old economy gave people enough surplus to build these grand homes that even the richest of the country folk today do not have the resources to repair.  Villandás was a village of stonemasons.  You can walk through the village admiring the details on the houses and will go away surprised and perhaps a little saddened that there are so many unoccupied.  People who are doing well here have other jobs elsewhere that are helping to support the running of the farm, but even the best-paid cannot afford to restore an old house.  It is hardly possible to support yourself exclusively from agriculture.  All the power tools that help us do more work in less time simply mean that fewer people are needed to do that work.  The recognition that there is no viable life in the villages for young people leads them away to the cities where they find “real jobs”, put their children in schools where they learn about the modern world, and where they encourage the next generation to get a salaried job that will give them financial security and comfort.  They still feel a connection to the village and might come back for a couple of weeks in the summer, but the old sense of community is lost.

Gloriously Desolate

Gloriously Desolate

This is my immediate environment.  In the midwinter it is gloriously desolate.  Sometimes my neighbor, Severo, says he is the only person in the village for days on end.  You can walk across the hills in the sure knowledge that you will not see anyone and, if you do happen to come across someone, they will look at you with a fixed intensity as if to ask where you came from and what you are doing here.  Modernity, technology and economics are making traditional features of the country landscape disappear rapidly.  In the past there were carters’ and muleteers’ paths linking all of the villages: they were laid with close-packed boulders that made a rough surface with traction.  Both the paths and the stone walls that edge them are in disrepair.  Fast-growing ash trees sprout up between the rocks and dislodge the stones of the walls.  Farmers plant posts and string barbed wire around their fields so that their animals will not walk over what remains of what was, in its time, the result of days of hard work and hard thinking- it takes some technique to make a good dry-stone wall.  The larger farmers are not interested in the footpaths.  They pressure to have concrete roads put in so that they can get their lorries and heavy equipment in to do the necessary work that will make their businesses profitable.  And, even so, they are on a knife-edge.

This is an annoyance for me because I like to walk and I would much rather walk along paths than roads.  It is frustrating to walk a path and end up having to wiggle through a barbed wire fence.  Yet I have to recognize that my kind of walking is a luxury that all the advances in technology and modernity permit.  I do not have to go out and clear paths with a sickle.  My education and experience allow me to live a life that is completely different from the lives of the country-folk around me.  I have a different relationship to money and security.  If we looked at our respective bank balances I would be one of the poorer residents in the village but I live like a rich man: I do not try to monetize everything I do and I have what the villagers would probably think of as a namby-pamby, airy-fairy softness in my view of what life is all about.  I go walking because I want to be out in the hills, not because I am going to a field.  I grow plants in the garden that I cannot eat.  I give time to art, music and literature, spend days reading when there are other “practical” jobs to be done and have come up with this quixotic project, Shakespeare in the Mountains.

Dark Clouds on the Horizon

An Abandoned Mill in on an Abandoned Path

I also spend time thinking about the impact of what I do.  That is the subject of this post.  Our range of concerns in Villandás has led us to a particular view of our impact here.  On the one hand, the village and its rural economy is in trouble.  There are dark clouds on the horizon for traditional country life.  As the rural population ages and dies the villages are going to become ever more depopulated and, as price pressures squeeze more and more small producers out of the market, the ownership of the land is going to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  If a timber company came in and paid out good money to plant the hills with fast-growing pine plantation I think a lot of people would take up the offer.  Access is difficult in these mountain valleys, but an aerial view of northern Galicia with its acres and acres of plantation eucalyptus shows that as a conceivable future.  I cannot affect that process except in the smallest of ways, but bringing new life to this village, this environment, is one way that I would like to make an impact.  A vibrant village is much more resistant to corporate change than a deserted village.

The future of these villages cannot be having a handful of cows and a pension.  There is space here for a repopulation by people more like myself; people who get by on what they can and do not always look at the bottom dollar; people who have seen the city lights and fled from them.  This would mean opening up the social structure.  For example, even though Carmen has been here for twenty years they still refer to her house as Ca’ Candida, the woman who owned it before her.  That is absurd.  If there is to be a repopulation of the countryside it will be people with different backgrounds, different expectations and different histories.  They will not want to feel like perpetual outsiders.  Modern work means that people can live in one place and work in another.  Many people, like me, do not have one salaried job, but make up their income from a bit of this and a bit of that.  The countryside has many attractions for modern professional people who are sick of city life, its poor quality of food, its degraded environment and its constant noise.  Perhaps if you are reading this on a computer in a city and pause for a moment you will hear the rush of traffic and the noise of the street:  I just heard the flutter of a bird’s wings.  That is intrinsically satisfying.  It cannot but have an effect on the many people who come here every year.  Some of the people who come to Carmen’s house look for houses in the area.

We Live in an Open House

The Reading Room in the Restored Barn

We cannot persuade people to come and live in the village, but a lot of people come here.  For example, Carmen’s rental house has already received about 50 this year, we have had 8 volunteers working in the vegetable and flower gardens, one educational project for a week and that is not counting the innumerable friends, colleagues, ex-students and visitors that pass through our doors.  We live with an open house.  Carmen is just completing a project to refurbish a barn where we will run courses, both Shakespeare in the Mountains and other occasional courses.  That will bring another 100 people here in a year.  This influx of people brings vitality and it gives us the task of thinking: what kind of impact do we want to have?  What impact will these people have on the environment?  If you were doing an audit, you might start to think in numerical terms.  For example, what are those people going to eat?  How much water are they going to use?  How much waste will they generate?  How are they going to keep warm in the winter?  How are they going to get here?  All of these questions are important and, considered jointly, they go to make up our environmental plan.

We have thought about these issues.  Our volunteers have helped us to extend the vegetable gardens so that we can offer all of our visitors fresh produce we provide ourselves.  We have a system for separating waste and we ferry plastics, glass, and paper waste to the recycling facilities in town when we have enough to justify the journey.  Organic waste goes straight to the compost.  We have installed a pellet boiler that will provide hot water and heating in the most environmentally-friendly way currently available.  We encourage lift-shares and we only have one car.  When I am here on my own I rely on the bike to get down into town.  And we continue to follow Carmen’s policy of using local suppliers and craftsmen for the basics.  Yet this is not enough.  There is a broader dimension of impact.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” I asked Carmen when we were looking at the new website.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it will change things here, if we start to have a lot more visitors.”

“I can see that.  I don’t want to spoil it by making it a circus.”

This is the reason that we have limited dates on our website.  We want people to come and enjoy something special.  Everything we do has an impact on our environment, of course, but there is a huge difference between setting up something like a conference center in the village and running ten courses through the year.  Imagine everything went swimmingly next year: would we be tempted to expand?  Yes, of course.  But we are deeply conscious of the broader impact of our presence here.  It is not just a question of the statistics of waste and heating.  It is also a question of thinking deeply about the future of the village, the valley and the environment.  It is not worth mounting a major business here if it will have a negative impact on the village, alienate the villagers and commit us to building unwanted eyesores, such as carparks and public toilets.  There are ways to grow but we like to feel our way forward slowly and not mount a spectacular business plan based on success-by-numbers.  Success is what we have already- the silence, the human and natural environment, our own well-being.  Growth and change will only be sustainable if we can sustain our own reasons for loving this place.

http://www.abrazohouse.org  Robert’s cob would not fit in Villandás


Sometimes initiatives that seem Environmental are not environmental.  This year I experimented with a website called POOSH.  I have a friend who has built a wonderful cob house in Cantabria and his trial version- a small house with a spiral staircase, an eco kitchen and toilet and a charming whitewashed feel to it- seemed to be in perfect balance with what we are attempting here.  I started to do drawings and plans in the winter using that small house as a model.  But I came up against a problem.  It seemed to me that having the most beautiful cob house in the middle of a village full of traditionally-built stone houses was not environmental at all, especially when there is an abandoned house at the top end of the very field where I was thinking of putting it.  Wouldn’t it be more environmental to raise money, buy the house and do it up, with respect for the aesthetic of the houses around and using traditional materials and techniques.  Like all the houses here it is going for a risible sum- 30,000€- but it will take me years to raise that.  The wait is worth it.  Here, slowness is a virtue.

The volunteers who have come to help here have taught me a lot about how deep this awareness can go.  I was rather proud that I had a bike instead of a car and regularly sallied down the hill to cycle the 18 km to Grado with a sense of self-righteous pride.  Miki cycled here from Hungary, went all the way to Finisterre and came back to spend a month with us in the village.  Our conversations about possibilities and potential affected the way I viewed Carmen’s project here.  As a bike pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago, he survived on 10€ per day and had his own self-righteous pride in the way that he travelled, no different from mine, except that the 4,000 km from Hungary gave him a little extra credit.  He was enchanted by this mountain valley as all visitors are and was sensitive to the arguments I put forward for NOT making a cob house.  We worked together on modelling something that will be a miniature hórreo- the typical barns of the region- using recycled wood and as we were working we discussed the possibilities.

“You have to get that house,” he said.  “Everything you have said leads towards it.  There are so many things you could do here with a good team of volunteers.”

On the one hand we have paying guests.  On the other hand, we have volunteers who live in our house as part of the family.  If I look one way I can see one vision for the future.  If I look the other way I can see another.  Neither one trumps the other.  It is expensive having volunteers as we have to pay for all the food and lodging expenses, but they help us to think of bigger projects we do not have the energy to undertake alone.  Our paying guests, however, give us the money, the hard cash, that helps to pay for these fantasies.  We need to look after them.  We need to convince them that the whole project here in the village is worth paying for and Carmen’s eye for quality and detail is key to making that a success.  The two can work together very well as, for example, when we all gather together in the patio to make paella and talk about life, the universe and everything- paying guests, volunteers, visitors and all.  Everyone takes something away from the experience.  Our volunteers have come from all parts of the world and each one has brought their own experience and energy to add to the mix.  Our guests often look at what we are doing with a mixture of fascination and relief that they are not the ones undertaking the work.

The Essential Question is What Do You Do?

The idea of having a splendid conference center and driving around in a BMW does not appeal to me.  The idea of making something of this unique situation with villagers, guests, volunteers and friends all coming to join in is something that really gets me thinking.  As I said right at the beginning, the essential question is what do you do?  Not for the Environment: that is too big and we have politicians and scientists who will do whatever they think best in that regard.  But for the environment, without the grandiose capital letter.  What can I do for this environment, this situation, this valley, this Villandás?  With ten courses a year I could afford to pay for volunteers to come and clear the historic paths between the villages.  Of course, I would have to talk this over with the villages.  Of course, I would have to struggle with the insanely bureaucratic culture of the Town Hall.  Of course, I would end up out-of-pocket.  But the end result would be wonderful: I could go for walks without climbing over barbed wire fences.  And in the deepest nooks and crannies of my heart I think, if I could get a volunteer project to clean out historic paths, it might just change the culture here in some small way; people might just come to appreciate and claim ownership of this wonderful environment and join in.

Impact is hard to measure.  You never know for certain the full impact that your words and actions might have.  In Villandás, however, this is the situation: there is a culture and a village that is in decline and there is a natural and human environment that is begging for a different treatment than the usual corporate, technological treatments we are all so familiar with.  This is our project.  It is human-scale and local.  That is what we are about.


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