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New Statesman, May 2009

If you have ever yearned to dip bread into your own earth-scented olive oil, to plant a wild forest of oaks over hillside terraces of stone and then infect them with extravagant dreams of future truffle harvests, this is a book stuffed with toxic levels of life-inspiration. It is also refreshingly clean of those dreary litany of complaints masquerading as humour by which an Anglo-Saxon travel writer has customarily financed the construction of their second home beside the Mediterranean by whinging on about local builders, estate agents and lawyers.

But it would be foolish to attempt to follow in the footsteps of Jason Webster and his Sacred Sierra too closely. For this is a man with three best-selling books about Spain under his belt (Duende, Andalus and Guerra), who can speak and play guitar like a native, survive cocaine binges and police chases and has a flamenco-dancer from Valencia as his live-in lover. Nor is Sacred Sierra a handbook for going green in the hot hills of Spain. It is a literary creation not a guide and it seems likely that Webster's fascinating series of encounters and adventures with his two archetypal neighbours, Arcadio (the silent, peasant farmer with a cornucopia of venerable skills) and Faustina (the blissed-out hilltop hippy sage full of the wisdom of the ancients) are labels which allow him to explore the old traditions and beliefs of the hills even if some sleuthing through the acknowledgements page might allow us to guess at some of the living characters from out of which they have grown.

But this is not to diminish the achievement of Sacred Sierra, for the book consciously offers up a variety of voices, including a selection of free-standing folk tales, which add texture to the basic plot line of Webster working his way through his newly-acquired land over the twelve months of a calendar year. One of the most successful of these additional voices is that quarried from the Kitab al-Falaha, which can best be compared to a Muslim Georgics. It was compiled in the 12th century by a Moorish gentleman-farmer from Seville, a cornucopia of advice collected from his wide reading married to a tangible love for his country estate. It was rediscovered in the Escorial palace library in the eighteenth century and though it aspires to be useful, some of its most memorable advice now reads like a form of magical paganism, such as incubating coriander by burying the testicles of a goat in the soil.

This 800-year-old voice from Moorish Spain does also provide a charming harmony of tone to that of Webster and his girlfriend (a travel-writer and a dancer) who are also city-based types, equally enraptured by the scents, colours, tastes and stillness of their new rural existence. Fortunately Webster is too honest an observer to offer up just his experience of this "good life' and his horizon embraces other deluded "neo-rurales' - city-folk running to the countryside for a season in their lives, setting up of ill-fated Ashrams, dope-gardens or illicit stills. In particular Webster succeeds in painting an affectionate portrait of a disintegrating commune of Spanish free spirits, whose most militant eco-warrior member is suddenly converted into a bible-basing missionary.

The spiritual weft to the rural weave of the book is formed from Webster's exploration of the immediate historical hinterland of his little hill farm in the company of a series of wacky local guides with an enviable capacity for drink and the time to enjoy very long, very late, Spanish lunches. For a collector of old beliefs and customs like myself, this is all fascinating territory, be it the mistletoe gathering at the old end of the year (St Lucys day), the pig cult of San Antonio the Abbot, the link between wild almonds and the Attis castration cult, or that of Artemis of the wild places with the Virgin Mary, all wrapped up in a near continuous search for mountain springs, oracles of the Iberian mother goddess and the sources for the worldwide cult of tree worship. So much so that the back pages of my review copy are black with scribbled notes and page references. But he never exchanges enthusiasm for pedantry, and is able to observe the debris of porn mags on the floor of a shepherds hut with just as much interest as the devotional images of the Virgin Mary tacked onto the walls. Or how a local raconteur succeeds in reducing the legendary battles waged between the left-wing bandit-heroes in the hills and Franco's police state into a much simpler narrative: "the maquis would terrorize the villagers by night, the Guarda Civil by day".

To help hold all these elements together into a coherent story Webster evokes a series of external threats against his Sacred Sierra, first from energy developers and town planners, then from drought, devastating winds and finally from a terrifying forest fire. This is good page-turning stuff, though the real worth of this book is rooted in his well attuned craft as a listener, for "you have to find and look after the stories, or otherwise they will be lost. And you make sure other people hear them, so that maybe one day they'll tell them to someone else." In Sacred Sierra, Jason Webster has made himself into an honoured link of this chain.

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