You might think you need to travel far into the outback and beyond to achieve this. Not so.. Last week I drove a few kilometres out of Silves and visited a couple that do just that.
Kerstin and Gerd are a German couple who have been in Portugal for 40 odd years. Their children, now grown up and off on their own adventures, grew up here. They live in the most enchanting place, and as if to illustrate that point, as I was walking down to their house to meet them I heard a rustle in the bushes and out ran a deer. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. I’ve never heard of a deer here in the Algarve before. But according to Kerstin, who also appeared magically out of the garden, they are not only around - but they are also quite a serious nuisance. They sneak in and eat all their vegetables when they aren’t looking.
Kerstin led me down a path into what can only be described as her magical secret garden, where she showed me all the vegetables they have been cultivating, and that the deer find so delicious. Neatly made beds of tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, pumpkins, all kinds of cabbages, spring onions; you name it, they’ve got it, and more! And that’s before we even get started on Kerstins specialty - herbs. She’s famous for them and sells them (along with their many surplus veggies) at the markets in Lagos and Silves.
Kerstin told me that herbs are good for the body, mind and the soul.
They are the natural medicine that us with our many lotions and potions and pills and powders seem to have forgotten. After all, most medicines are simply a concoction of various herbs but in a ready made bottle with all sorts of less natural things thrown in. Kerstin explained that this is not the same at all. They lose a lot of their power that way. It’s the same with the herbs you get in the shops and that’s why people these days are losing faith in the healing benefits that herbs provide. She was taught by her neighbours who used to grow herbs, but have sadly passed away (but whose legacy Kerstin is continuing), that herbs are at their most powerful when they are first harvested. After the second or third time the dosage of the natural goodness has been greatly diminished. With this knowledge of how to truly harness the plant’s powers it’s hardly surprising Kerstin has got a reputation for being the ‘herb witch’. And her natural magic seems to really work, as she appears to be the picture of health and told me she has never once had to go to the doctor here.
Gerd, her husband, who I met later and was equally healthy looking, explained that the soil in that area is extremely acidic and so in order to get the PH right they have to mix in piles of chalk into the soil. I said that we have the opposite problem where I live in the central Algarve, and our soil is extremely alkaline. Gerd said the types of soil vary widely throughout the region and he has long since wished he could reach down with a pair of giant hands and mix up all the earth from across the Algarve as the end result would surely be perfect soil all round.
Kerstin and Gerd do most of the work themselves and would ideally like to get a community going where people can all live and work together. I asked them if maybe they could get some volunteers in to help? They explained that it’s difficult, as a lot of the work is quite tricky to explain and get the hang of, and by the time the volunteer is fully trained up, they leave.
This living off the land is clearly possible, but it is certainly challenging. Deer aren’t the only animals with an eye on their carefully cultivated crops, wild boar also roam the mountains and launch a stealth attack at. It’s the trouble with living wild, and until they can afford to put a fence up, Kerstin, the herb witch, showed me one of her ingenious incantations designed to keep the wild creatures at bay. The spell involves chopping off a bit of their hair and dabbing it with perfume, and then hiding it in strategic places around their crops. The boar who have a particularly good sense of smell get one whiff of ‘Chanel number 5’ (for example) and sensing human presence decide it’s not worth the risk and call off the vegetable raid.
Unfortunately they also fall victim to fires. There’s been a few terrible ones in recent years that have ravished the region. However, with an astounding show of bravery they have refused to leave, choosing to stay behind and armed with little more than a few hose pipes have managed to fend off the flames and save their home.
It sure is a wild life this living wild. It clearly brings many challenges. But just the indefinable look of.. well, a zest for life, that you see sparkling in both Kerstin and Gerds eyes makes you think that it’s worth it. We should all try and get some dirt under our fingernails and live a life that’s more in communion with nature.