food utopia/ food dystopia


February 2012

photograph by Alvaro Sanchez-Montanes
All good things are wild and free” Henry David Thoreau

The light barely comes into the carcass of the old construction site. This time of the year the vines cover the façade, perfectly substituting the high tech sunshades that were installed here 20 years ago. All this high tech technology to make panels that follow the sun, shade, and produce energy at the same time. As if my tomato plants don't do the job. And even better.

It's June, probably around my birthday, as the days seems to bee much longer since last week. I do not have a watch any more. I sold it ten years ago, to get some asparagus seeds from the black market. It was worth it, for sure. I would not be able to feed my kids with ipads, flat screen tvs or the SUV. I do feel sorry for the families that thought this whole food crisis was just a prank, made up by the corporate food chain, to make people buy more.

It never made sense to me. Even the people who stocked their pantries with ready-made meals, mixes for brownies in a box and cans of all sorts, had run out of them in half a year's time. We had our fair share of emptying shelves, but it was our local greenhouse's and plant market's. It was also the DIY shops that we headed to, to buy wooden beams, heavy duty nylons and chicken wire. I knew our food needed to be protected. When people were feeling their freezers with dead animals, I pledged for a goat and a pair of chickens. My husband was too terrified by the media fuss to be amused by the fact that we kept the poor animals for two months on the rooftop. Luckily, it was spring.

Two months. That is how long it took us to make up our minds that the hunger would strike the city much sooner than the people thought. The day we had finished packing everything, we saw from our balcony a man cutting and eating bitter oranges from a side street tree. We knew it was time to say goodbye to our urban life. When people start foraging around the city like wild animals, the future is not going to be pretty. Mainly because street tar and pavement stones are not known for their fertility.

We rode on our bikes for three days to reach my grandparents village. Our son was 4 years old and luckily could sit safely on his dad's bike, watching if the trailer behind was still joined to our weird caravan. I had to carry our baby daughter wrapped against my chest and was terrified all the way of a possible accident and of course, their future. On our way, we could see city dwellers walking like flocks to the agricultural areas outside the city and searching for fruit trees. It was too early. No car was at sight and had not been the last six months, as the wreck formerly known as European Union had run out of fuel and Middle East allies. We did not mind that so much, but knew we would have to do this trip one or two more times, to bring back all our stuff, including the chickens and the goat.

My grandparents' house was luckily still standing proud on it's stone walls with the wooden sunshades hanging like heavy eyelids. Despite a door missing at the basement, it seemed like a safe shelter. The village had changed a lot though, since the last time I was here. Lot's of abandoned buildings were standing around, totally alien from the natural scenery, reminders of an era of economical growth brought to the country by foreign businessmen, who saw local nature as a nice reflection on their mirror covered office buildings. I could not believe in my eyes. A tiny village of two-floor stone structure, with an equally old elementary school and a Byzantine Church, threatened by the shadow of three identical office building giants. I felt a relief mixed with guilt that the era of growth ended so abruptly.

Once we were settled in and my husband started the second trip to bring back the rest of our things (mainly seeds, the animals and a canner), I had the chance to take a tour to the abandoned office buildings. The elevators were not working any more, but I took the effort to climb up until the top of the 18 floor structure. I did not mind the stops we had to do for my 4 year old -or my back- to take a rest. It was a chance to look around. It seemed that the buildings had never been used. No signs of furniture, just dusty floors and the plugs all ready to be connected to computers that would now never arrive. And then, I noticed under a piece of mirror façade that had broken and let light directly into the building, a patch of moss with tiny yellow flowers. So, things could actually grow here!

After the first week in our stone-wall fort and with the weather helping us out, we had managed to meet our neighbours, farmers since many generations before, and shared with them the idea of using the old buildings as green houses, to extend the yields for more months. The village, hidden between steep mountain slopes, did not have a great abundance of agricultural area, and with the food crisis becoming more prominent, they all agreed that some extra food could never be bad.

We tore down the cold façades, built structures that allowed the natural light in, used the manure of the animals to create thick layers of compost on each and every floor, suitable for planting even deep root plants. As the elevators were not functioning any more, we set up wooden platforms that allowed us to move seeds and crops to the top floors, avoiding the stairs. We got wet by sweat, by the spring rain, by tears of exhaustion and loss of hope. We got burnt by the deceiving sun. Our hands became harsh, our nails dirty, our clothes torn.

And one day, at the beginning of June, we smelt oregano. Our herb crops were coming to life and we were too worried to observe it. But the fragrant air awakened us. I will never forget that day, as we stood together, a team of 10 people, at the top floor of the abandoned office building, looking first to our herb crops inside, and then outside the nylon, to the sour cherry trees, bearing their first fruit. I felt as creative as I could ever be, looking at all the life around me. I realized that my son and my daughter would not have memories of all the struggle. They would not know the primal purpose of the buildings that now grew our food. I felt they were lucky. They had the chance to explore a different way of life. The pains of my generation resulted to the freedom of my children.

It has been 5 years now that we live in this village. The population has somewhat grown. Some city dwellers from the close-by cities joined us, building their homes from earth bags and learning from our experience. As I see them digging the mountainsides and trying to tame them, I am wandering if we start making the same mistakes all over again. Still, my faith in humanity is restored whenever someone asks my mud covered daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, and she casually replies “well, when I grow up I will be strong enough to take care of my own goat and maybe ten ducks”. She reads, she is tarting to learn how to write and she observes. And that is all she needs to be happy, I am trying to convince myself. She is becoming taller everyday, like a sprout, and winter is coming again. Our cellar is full of cheese heads, roots in baskets and fruits canned in jars. I find myself wondering how hard it is to make threads from our lambs' wool.