One of the well-thumbed books of mine that I came across while unpacking is Four Huts – Asian Writings on the Simple Life. And of course it promptly joined others thus discovered by my bedside table, and I’ve enjoyed dipping into it once again.
In it, four writers and poets, one from China, the others from Japan, describe their house, and all live on a mountain. The smallest of the houses is just 10 feet square. The translator, Burton Watson, summarizes the common threads that bind these essays thus:
“love of nature, poetry and music, simplicity, and the quiet life. Certain unspoken questions underlie them all – what constitutes happiness in this life, how should we pursue it, what are the minimum requirements?”
In these essays written in different centuries, each of these writers presented their ideal – “a simple life lived in a simple dwelling.”
There is something indefinable about living on a mountain, especially in a small hut or cottage. Although I lived on a mountainside in Bonn, it was not as removed from urban life, as this mountain hamlet is where I am living now in Valencia. Coming from the attractions of the city of Gandia or Oliva, it is comforting to gaze from afar and see “our” mountain from the plain, its green flanks smooth as velvet from that distance, its top veiled with mist. I say comforting, but the feeling encompasses more than that, and I believe the feeling has more to do with a primordial yearning to be safe. And what more safe and secure place than one nestled within dense forests and mountains?
Living on a mountain, even one less than ten minutes drive from the nearest town, has remoteness built into it. It takes more effort for people to drive up a mountain and visit you, for some odd reason: considerably more than the same distance spread out on a plain. Why that is so, I have no idea.
Over the years while reading and rereading the Four Huts, I too yearned to live a simpler kind of life, closer to nature, much like the way of life described in the book. But it was not until coming to this montane hamlet that I fully understood, and in my own way felt, the sentiments those ancient poets and writers expressed. My current dwelling is a cottage — much smaller than my two previous ones, but with a much larger space for a garden. That is as it should be, in my mind, for a simpler life.
There are mature trees – pines, olives, a palm (rather incongruous that), a few fruit trees (citrus, cherry, loquat, arbutus) – with enough space to plant a few more: for shade, imperative in the hot summer sun; not only for their fruits. And as well, to attract wildlife. I don’t mind sharing the cherries with the birds. (They’ve helped themselves to everything except for a handful we managed to salvage, not quite ripe. Had the cherries been completely red, the birds would have been there way ahead of us.)
Other than the trees and a few shrubs, the ground is bare, but for wildflowers in the spring and a few in summer. Perhaps, there might also be more flowers over autumn and winter, when the rains fall. There are outcroppings of rock, which should make a good foundation for the kind of garden I plan to create with Mediterranean native plants. Terraces of piled-up stones alter the level of ground sufficiently to relieve it of monotony. Like the four writers, I too plan to have a pond some day.
However, it may take quite a while to have as few possessions as one of the writers – just 4 books. We’re on the way though, slowly, slowly, to a much simpler, more tranquil life.
By the way, the mystery of our neighbourhood avian entertainers has been solved. The whistler is the Eurasian golden oriole (thanks to my high-schoolmate A and to xeno-canto.org). Either a lonely male, or two males arguing about which has the longer tail (according to one observer in xeno-canto) or disputing over territory (only to be refereed by a blue tit, also ex xeno-canto). The foghorn comes from a black woodpecker, either male or female, drumming (thanks again from xeno-canto).