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Bringing Europe’s Rural Villages Back to Life by Bridget Ryder

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Bringing Europe’s Rural Villages Back to Life

The village of Prada de Sierra in Spain has won its right to exist thanks to the Spanish court system. Not much more than a hamlet in a wide bowl of the southern slopes of Mount Irago in northwest Spain, the tiny, rather isolated community, with no paved road, using only solar panels for electricity, had never been entirely abandoned. In 1992, it had been officially declared uninhabited and taken off the map at the request of the town hall of Santa Columba de la Somoza, the municipality it belonged to administratively. After years of fighting for their existence, the residents there once again enjoy legal recognition, now that a judge ruled to reestablish the town’s status.

The basic narrative of rural abandonment is well-known: in the nineteenth century, industrialization undermined the self-sufficient, subsistence, agrarian, cottage-industry economy on which villages thrived, and their inhabitants left for cities, even if many were not completely abandoned until the mid-twentieth century. With them, sadly, went the peasant life that was the backbone of the Europe conservatives hold so dear. In these communities, religion, the natural family, hard work that dirties your hands, self-sufficiency, scripture and saints’ stories, hand crafts and artisan processes, national history—in a word, a traditional way of life—thrived for centuries. With the shift to a mostly urban existence, much of that tradition, and its virtues, was lost. 

The narrative of rural revival is more complex, though, caught somewhere between modernity itself and an attempt to escape it. 

These days, deciding to live in a rural village is usually a deliberate choice, often made by those with enough capital to swing it, enough wit and toughness to withstand it, and either a desire or a necessity to leave the trappings of urban modernity behind. As lovely as it is to see far-flung hamlets of stone houses reinhabited, it is also sometimes difficult to find in their tenuous revival a genuine re-founding of the traditional Europe of which they were originally a part. 

How many times in Prada de la Sierra are numerous old proverbs repeated? Are seasons and holy feast days still used to measure time? Today, “Por San Blas, la cigüeña verás, y, si no la vieres, año de nieves”—a part of folk wisdom that correlates the end of winter with the return of storks around the feast of Saint Blaise, February 3rd—is probably the only one that Spanish school children might know, that is, the few who live in places like Prada de la Sierra. One can move back to the village, but recapturing the mentality and the experience of its original inhabitants and their pre-modern milieu is another story. As far as Biblical and saints’ stories go, with Prada de la Sierra’s Church still closed, residents there have little chance of encountering the sacred legends that provide rhyme and reason to their life’s work.

So, what should conservatives strive to preserve, or even more importantly, what can truly be preserved? Technological advancement and scientific knowledge rarely go backward, and despite our best intentions, it is difficult to resist much of the ease and comfort of modern life. We developed it to relieve suffering, to satisfy our desire for comfort, and to experience freedom from the eventualities of seasons and nature. 

Our spiritual sensibilities are different, a deep love of all that is traditional notwithstanding. They’ve atrophied somewhat: the kind of hagiography represented by the Golden Legend—a beloved mediaeval collection of the lives of the saints full of breathless miracle stories—does not capture the modern imagination with quite the same exhilaration it once did. 

Still, there is value in a return to rural life, to moving back to abandoned villages. The conservative historian Christopher Dawson points out that over-urbanization is a sign that a society has worn itself out, and there is no doubt that Europe is turning into a fragile tower teetering on the blocks of a few massive cities. A return to rural life is an essential part of cultural renewal, though I fear it may only happen by force through some form of collapse of our current system. Then, hopefully, through the grace of God, we will find a few saints nearby to come to our aid, help us rebuild on fundamental virtues, and remind us of the stories, the Tradition, we have forgotten; even if—not unlike the solar panels on the rooftops of Prada de la Sierra—what emerges is somewhat different in form from the original. 

Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.