Rachel Laudan

The Sustainable Life in Rural Spain? Arribes and Arcadia

In my last post, I talked about the elite dream of Arcadia, a beautiful, peaceful land, close to nature and far from the pressures of city and political life. It’s been around since Antiquity. It was revived in the pastoral poetry and painting of the early modern Europe, was given renewed life by the Romantics, and continues to be potent today, shaping thoughts of a return or escape to the countryside.

One place that city dwellers escape to is Arribes del Duero in remote north-western Spain, stunning country pierced by the gorge of the River Douro that runs from Spain to Portugal. Much of the area is now a national park. Visitors glide along the river in environmentally engineered 120-seater glass roofed boats with heating and air conditioning. Guides point out the waterfowl and the griffon vultures, the oaks and the junipers. The visitors can disembark to see the local culture and sample the gastronomy.

arribes_dancers01Young people in brightly colored traditional dress dance.

man on donkey

The low-lying houses fit into the sunshine and the landscape.

Both the images above are from Arribes: Everything Else is Noise, a movie by the Canadian film-maker and artist, Zev Robinson. He was interested in these villages that went deep back into history, that for hundreds of years had produced almost all the food they consumed, as much as 80 or 90%.

Robinson recorded the slaughter of the pig, an all-important event in a traditional Spanish village going back to Celtic times.  The various languages of Spain have some 3000 words to describe the pig and its products according to El cerdo y su chachinas (The pig and its meats) compiled by Augusto Jurado (2008), not to mention 2000 stories and sayings.

Zev Robinson Arribes. Slaughtering pig

A woman held the bucket for the steaming blood, one man pulled up the head by a rope through the pig’s mouth, while three others supported and twisted the animal so that the throat was above the bucket.


Then men butchered the carcass.


And a woman, her hands red with blood, made sausage.


An old couple reminisces about the dances in the village, about the fun that was had. And then they remember: “We spent more time caring for the animals than for each other.”

The winters were hard, snow drifted over the stone roofs, the streets alternated between mud and hard ruts.


A new comer to the village reported “The animals were kept in the houses so that everyone could stay warm.” Today most of those who grew up in the village have left, fleeing a life that was hard, sparse, lacking in opportunity, and far from Arcadian.

In their place are the newcomers who are reviving the local grape varieties and planting new vineyards. With cell phones and cars, the area is less remote. Hot and cold running water and indoor toilets become commonplace.With gas or electricity, the houses can be heated without living with the animals.

Life in the countryside is being re-made in the image of Arcadia.  Soon it will be hard to find those in the Spanish countryside who remember the animals in the house to keep warm.

Just a year or so ago, in another corner of Spain, I drove into the foothills of the Pyrenees with my sister.  The single lane road wound up the mountain sides, down into the next valley.  We kept remarking to each other what hard land this must have been before paved roads and the electricity now carried in by huge swooping lines.

Then in the third valley, we came to a small village of 50 or so houses.  Each had bright geraniums under the windows and small tables outside on the immaculately level, cobbled streets.

2nd village

There was no sign of a pig or of farming, just of the cars of the people from cities who had bought up and restored the vacant buildings, and made it a center for hiking in the summer and access to ski resorts in the winter.

And what of the farming?  To support the new and more expensive life style with its cell phones and central heating, you can’t rely on a few animals and a tiny vineyard. Either you have to make substantial money from farming, which means either some highly value speciality crop or acquiring bigger farms with their economies of scale and machinery to replace human labor. Or you have to underwrite the farm with money from other sources. Can the vineyards of Arribes become economically viable. Or will they be boutique farms supported by money made on the stock market and tax breaks?

As I pondered Arribes: Everything Else is Noise those are the conclusions I drew. But you or your students if you have them might want to see for yourself. Not only is it beautifully filmed, but it treats the viewers as adults, leaving them to draw their own conclusions rather than hitting them over the head with the film maker’s message. Check out the FB page.

All photos except where indicated otherwise are stills from Zev Robinson’s Arribes.

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One thought on “The Sustainable Life in Rural Spain? Arribes and Arcadia

  1. kay

    With the current world population ratio to arable land and without industrialization, feeding the populace would be impossible. Traditional farming and farm life is mostly hard and grim, mean and unhealthy and leads to early death and, even now, without cash infusions for small operations of gentleman farmers, it is not a going operation.

    Thousands of abandoned farm buildings in many ‘improving’ countries attest to this as people have left and continue to leave, as soon as they had ANYWHERE else to go. Now these buildings are bought up by people who gained riches in city occupations and had a fantasy of the simple bucolic life — in a fashion derivative of Marie Antoinette and her milk maids and such. People so out of touch with nature and natural life that they, with her, would say to the people with no bread, “Let them eat cake.”

    … or, people who read “Walden Pond” and skip over the part where there is NO productive work done and there are idle guests most days who do not need to do anything but sit and talk — except for the days when he makes the short walk to Cambridge to chat and visit pubs. OR! if he decides to stay ‘home,’ to have some woman family member bring him a prepared lunch and take away the dirty dishes.

    Farming, whether for food or other commodities, has historically barely sustained most populations until it became industrialized and started to produce wealth on the backs of immigrant workers who could make more, at sub par wages in neighboring countries, than they could by working their own plots of land at home for food.

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