I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.
On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.
Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.
When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.
We need Nature.