“Sacred Sierra” by Jason Webster

If you’ve ever read one of those books where the author tells us how they turned their back on the rat race and moved to France/Italy/Spain to get back to nature and create their self sufficient haven by renovating a run down/ruined farmhouse/vineyard/mill, then you might think this book by Jason Webster is another one of those writing by number memoirs and with comical, colourful local characters, and disasters aplenty, concluding with the all round happy ending of a beautiful home with the perfect life achieved. THIS IS NOT THE CASE!

Yes, the author and his Spanish girlfriend buy a rundown mas (a small hamlet of buildings that would have supported the people farming the surrounding land) in the mountains of eastern Spain and, yes, they renovate it to live a different lifestyle, but, this book is so much more than that story. The subtitle of the book is “A Year On A Spanish Mountain”, and each month forms a chapter of the story. At the start of each chapter is a quotation from a 12th century book of agriculture, showing how the practises of farming from 900 years ago can still be applied today, working with the elements and the seasons to get the best out of the land and crops.

The natural history, geography and geology of the area are included, and we learn of the bees and insects, trees and weeds, water and rocks surrounding the mas, from the authors own experiences, as well as the encounters and meetings with the three elderly farmers who become his friends and mentors in the various aspects of bringing order back to the overrun olive and almonds trees, the terraces for planting, and the prospect of fulfilling a dream to plant an arboretum.

Religion is still a big part of Spanish society, and we are also told of modern day festivals and pilgrimages, as well as some of the history of the various religions and peoples that have occupied and lived in the area, including the Moors, the Cathars, and the story of the Knights Templar within the region.

Interspersed with local tales of fairies and folklore, handed down through the generations, these beautifully told myths and legends provide a lovely interlude between chapters.

The writing style is very readable and accessible. Too often, authors writing on this subject feel compelled to include plenty of local words and dialect within the text, trying to add colour to the narrative. Whilst there are some local words and phrases included, they are never intrusive or over used, and always translated. The descriptions of both the people and the locations are beautiful and tell of a lifestyle and landscape that may not exist for much longer.

To conclude the book is a fabulous coda explaining the trees of the region, including details of their history in the area, the conditions they thrive in, the mythology surrounding them, their medicinal properties, and their specific requirements for nurturing them. A fantastic resource, echoing the style of the book, and giving a potted history and reference guide to the trees on the land surrounding the mas.

All this adds up to, quite simply, an engrossing and evocative book, and I highly recommend it.