A fish rises to kiss the mirror of first light. Night temperatures have dipped and the valley is a patchwork of Autumnal embers. The reservoir whispers steam and, overnight, the frenzy of dragonflies has evaporated.
The days, though, still have warmth enough to stir fragile life. How brief the moment for some creatures. The metallic, dung-loving, magnificent green bottle fly that I fished alive from the pool, for example, has but a couple of weeks from egg to death.
And the pollinators still have fare. Our hammock-supporting nispero tree is coming into flower while the countless stalks of St John’s wort, that medicinal herb or noxious and invasive weed (depending on your leaning), still flames at the water’s edge and along banks and verges. It is so named because someone noted it coming into flower on June 24th, the birthday of John the Baptist; “wort” being an old English word for plant.
I potter. Our ravens sound an angry alarm and we look up to see them haranguing a goshawk. Two men come up the drive in search of Spanish Civil War echoes. Mother’s Garden sits on part of the site of the International Brigades’ training camp before the fateful, final battle against Franco’s Fascists in 1938. It turns out one of the men has just retired from the UN, so I change the subject from the old wars to cravings for new peace.
I vent. The world is crying out for the UN to show unity of peaceful purpose far and beyond nationalistic interests. It desperately needs certainty of funding rather than voluntary donations/bargaining tools from individual governments and donors . It has to change from the endless panics of emergency appeals that give no certainty for victims and the aid workers as to how long crucial help can be given, and to recognise that the likes of Syria, Iraq and Yemen, worsening by the day, need a long-term humanitarian commitment and funding plan. And it has to lead.
With 15,000 nuclear warheads pointed in all directions (labelled deterrents to the owners but weapons of mass destruction when wielded by others) and an annual arms trade turnover of more than £50billion we desperately need to talk. Far more pressure has to be put on all our leaders to never act unilaterally but to work tirelessly within the UN for peaceful binding solutions, for this world council to be the catalyst for compassion, consideration and action to help those in need, which is, ultimately, the most courageous, lasting and effective way to break the cycle of hatred and revenge.
It must be seen to be doing this or, if like now, be held accountable.
Further, every human being should have access to the UN, whether to be heard, to offer support or receive relief, and its significance and purpose should be transparent and properly covered by the world media.
The former UN officer sighs and agrees, palpably grateful to be in retirement.
I wave them off and realise I still have in my hand the pomegranate I scrumped from our neighbours’ loaded tree while feeding their chickens for them when they were away. Guilty as charged.
A burst from the mass choir of charming gold finches in the pine tops leads me back toward the water where a brimstone butterfly curtsies like a swallow to drink on the wing. Nearby a hairy white ermine moth caterpillar looking like a dirty bottle brush is moving apace towards the carcase of a squidged fig. A white is not one of the prolific ermine web spinners (orchard, spindle and bird-cherry) that can turn hedgerows white, but a spinner all the same, providing protection from predators.
I am learning to live in the present, taking one day at a time, eyes forward. But now, for good reason, I must slip into the past tense, look over my shoulder.
I was barred from spinning through the vineyards during harvest this year (by doctors and the boss, on account of my ongoing recovery), so instead of secateurs I wielded my camera and recorded Maggie and friends at labour. A good year, it seems. The timeless appreciation of fruiting.
How I wish I kept a camera in the car all the time.
Last week Maggie and I sat in Joe’s classroom at the high school, trying to make sense of the usual cacophony of Catalan at an evening parents’ meeting. It was the same old cheek-blowing challenge and we tootled home into the night comparing mental notes. When working as a team we can usually piece some the sense together.
Then there they were, rooting in a lane-side ditch on the fringe of the soft yellow glow of the town lights, ten feet from the door of the sleeping police station. After 15 years here it was Maggie’s first face-to-face encounter.
The five young, tan-coated boars didn’t flee. They barely noticed us. We pulled up right beside them and wound down the window. The adults must have been in the shadows of the hazel grove beyond the plain trees, but we couldn’t see or hear them.
Four of the infants continued to plough up the dead leaves, but the smallest boar stopped hunting for worms and nuts and fixed us with an inquisitive, trusting stare, oblivious to the madness and danger of our species, the self-appointed lords of all.
The pigeons are gleaning the last of summer among the dreamy swirls of perfect stubble. The mellow hay bales have waited patiently for too many weeks. Figs are falling like sweet tears. Suddenly summer slides, too steeply. Exam results have sunk in, university and college places cemented. Young people are hours away from leaving familiarity for the potentially tumultuous state of semi-independence. Parents glaze, summon watery smiles and swallow hard.
Like sunflower seeds, these once weightless wonders now tower, heads brimming with promise, thoughtful eyes searching beyond us for that imperative life of their own.
For many like Maggie and me, maybe you, it is a time of stifled dread, bountiful hopes and almost unbearable sentiment, when we are forced to face reality; that permanence is not even a breath.
Remember how we were then? Was it really so long ago that we left home?
Ella has already fledged. She has moved into eclectic student halls in Hoxton and began her foundation course at the University of the Arts, London, on Monday. Her accommodation block is predominantly for UAL students from all over the world – India, Spain, USA, China, Iran, France, Korea among the many … and it is, in part, a reunion as tentative understandings have already being forged from distance. (I concede, just this once, a use for social media. Alright twice. Skype is priceless). So there she is with new faces, trying to forge, to orientate and to endeavour to establish a kitchen cleaning rota.
Joe is on the hoof too, as you can see. How good the harmony of him and La Petita spinning through the olive grove and sunflower avenue.
Getting the old girl harnessed to the little pony cart (Joe’s 2012 birthday present) was a frustrating impossibility when Spook the piano-wire Anglo-Arab was still bounding about. He had an alarming intolerance at being alone. That, in turn, meant precious little exercise for either horse or pony. La Petita, now 24, was turning into a lazy-eyed, bow-legged barrel of wind, who chewed like a camel.
With Spook settled happily elsewhere with others his age, size and disposition, La Petita is back with us, grazing near where we work, savouring attention and shedding pounds with Joe at the reins for short wanderings. Nothing strenuous, you understand. She hasn’t looked so good in years.
La Petita is, in truth, a horse with dinky legs. Her head, girth and back were way too large for the pony harness, so we had to have the carriage shafts extended and widened while resourceful Joe amalgamated every piece of tack we could find with two of the dog’s old collars to get her – and himself – moving.
These are telling days for Joe as well, of course. Big sister is away, and a life without the unbroken immediacy of an unfathomable sibling friendship, perhaps all the deeper given our remote existence since 2001, will take time to come to terms with.
He will return to the local high school in a couple of weeks, continuing in the Catalan system for a least another year. Maggie and I talk constantly of what is for the best, where we should be, and his fulfilment and needs are preeminent in our thoughts as we try and weigh life choices.
Which begs a question: Are you among the 18 million who have seen the Ken Robinson lectures on the TED website? They chimed so loudly with our thoughts about education when we first saw them. Like his book – The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything – they define the need to think differently, to embrace and enhance creativity and innovatively, whatever age but especially among the young: to foster fulfilment and, hence, happiness.
It is no secret that we as a family are challenging ourselves again to find the best path, prepared to change everything if necessary. I have said as much before. Meanwhile we stand at the clearing in the wood, the paths fanning out around us. The thought of moving has proved too much, for now at least, for two reasons. Changing everything at once has proved too daunting, while our daughter wants to be able to come back when possible, to this our astonishing home of 12 years, to family and core Catalan friendships; an understandable sentiment given the journey she and countless peers are now beginning.
So, while Ella and her close friends have somehow managed to dance several consecutive nights away at assorted village fiestas – and budding cook Joe has begun to work his way through Delia’s new cake book – we look back on another rich Norfolk summer here.
Mike and Annabel Crook and their children Joe and Sophie have stayed six times now. Hurrah. James Proctor and Stu Dallas, who first rolled up the track when they had just taken their GCSEs, have clocked up their fifth visit and are suddenly on the verge of acquiring university degrees in philosophy and zoology.
Meanwhile, 4600 miles away, my godson Jacob has signed for a leading American college soccer team. North Dakota, and the small settlement of Jamestown for that matter, were not on my radar, but they are now.
We press on with the circle of life, soaking up the abundant goodness and nature, trying to figure out what to do with vast quantities of garden produce, chiefly tomatoes. The freezer is filling up with Maggie’s gazpacho. We have time to think about recipes, what with wee-small-hours fiesta dance music bouncing off the valley cliffs. On one unforgettable night the outdoor rock band making glasses dance off shelves finally unplugged its amplifiers at 4.35am.
Maggie used this sleepless time fruitfully, coming up with a cunning plan regarding one English vegetable we sorely miss here. Runner beans sprout well in early spring but can’t take the heat. So potted some up. They reached 18 inches in two weeks and so today we prepared the soil, constructed a cane support and put them to bed. Fingers crossed for an autumn feast.
Before I sign off I spent years seeking encounters with swallowtail butterflies on The Norfolk Broads. I think I saw three in total. Here, where are farm is a heady mess of fennel, they are somewhat more abundant On a mile walk a friend’s house I counted six, a mix of common and scarce varieties. at the sharper end of life I should also mention he moody tiger spider that lives near our strawberry patch, which also happens to be home to mean-looking foot-long green Lacerta schreiberi lizard.
A harvest is somehow all the fruitier when the picking is dicey.
The Element by Ken Robinson (Penguin ISBN 978-0-141-04525-2)
www.ted.com (and search for Robinson)
The wood burner crackles with life after damp mornings of downpour or mist, but still no hard frost as, overall, the weeks and days running up to Christmas have been in contrast to the economic storm embroiling the continent.
I continue to track Jupiter at night and ponder on Voyager, the space probe that is now 17,391,000,000km away and on the point of leaving our little solar system. Closer to home it is a metre to the kettle that’s coming to the boil behind me, a kilometre to the village, 100 kilometres to Barcelona and 1300 kilometres to my fading Dad.
Distance; a measure between two points; an incalculable feeling that can make heart and mind pound back and forth along the boundaries of reason.
The night sky here in the Priorat mountains, as in some quarters of England where one is spared the gross urban addiction to blinding electric light, is hugely relevant, numbingly complex, bewitching beautiful and no help in the matter of life. Or maybe it is.
Regardless of creed or continent I wonder how many of the 7 billion inhabitants of this tiny planet look at Jupiter and the Milky Way at some point during their journey and strive to see themselves, the human condition and our global obsessions in the context of an (as yet, maybe never) unfathomable universe.
Maybe it is the consequence of dwelling so remotely, where, like the countless dwellers on the ledge, I float in space every clear night that I go to check on the horses before bedtime; of approaching a milestone of loss.
Yes, I am feeling that distance from my father. I will be with him by the time you are reading this and will, no doubt, have walked the cliff-top coastal meadows of my Sheringham childhood. There, among the echoes, I will grapple with life choices, not least the troubling consequence of distancing myself and family from him for all but spasmodic weeks and days during the last 11 years.
He has always professed total understanding and given unquestioning support. But even so.
Whatever emotions flood, I will not be able to resist standing on what locals call The Bump (a clifftop hill, the residue of the ice age) and searching the planets and stars. Strangely, it is always a great comfort.
Which begs this question for all governments: Can we turn out some lights please? It would save a significant amount of Pounds and Euros if all that matters is economics, and it may help people come to terms with the dark.
A culinary footnote. Two women have taken over a local restaurant. Not a good time to sally forth in business. Trade has not been brisk, so we decided to offer some support. Maggie and I try and go for a lunch once a month, spreading our custom among the local hostelries where you can get three courses and drinks for circa €12 a head.
We were the only people dining, but what the heck, it all seemed satisfactory …. until the dessert. I was particular excited by the option of a rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon.
Two things rapidly became apparent. Clearly no one in the kitchen was capable of sprinkling, as not one grain of rice was visible through the thick layer of brown powder. Secondly, the same individual couldn’t tell the difference between cinnamon and paprika. You have to chuckle.
Keep well – and Happy Christmas thoughts and best wishes to everyone out there from us all at Mother’s Garden.
The striped lizard zipped up to the plateau of the waist-high olive tree stump and looked down at our dogs. Delirious, their noses fizzing with the scents of awakening life, the nutty hounds clawed at the earth and roots.
Content in the knowledge that they weren’t after a viper (and that their pencil thin prey clearly had a bigger brain than either of them) I walked on up the land to check on the ponies.
Remoli, now five, was distressed and whinnying. I’d tethered her to another olive tree half way along the track to the top vineyard, just 20 metres away from her mum, La Petita, on the longer rope with a grazing circle that encompassed alfalfa, assorted grasses, dandelions a wild vine and an abandoned hazel. Pony paradise, or so I’d thought.
Such alarm calls normally mean La Petita has slipped her halter again and drifted out of Remoli’s sight, but the old pony was still there, munching merrily. Then I saw that Remoli’s mouth and nose were swelling.
Snake. It must be. But where? Remoli was panting and straining to get as far away as possible from a small pile of oak logs half lost beneath burgeoning bramble. I prodded it pathetically with a stick and searched the area, but it was a useless. Needle and haystack.
When both ponies were back in the corral I raced past the lizard and burrowing dogs to check on the internet what drastic action to take, only to be horrified by a series of American sites that told of horses suffocating following a venomous bite on the nose. “Stick pipe up their nostrils” said one.
I rang the vet. To cut a morning to less than a minute, all turned out well. The vet was with us within the hour and administered something that settled both pony and the inflammation.
Yes, she confirmed, it most probably was a snake, but there was nothing as poisonous here as in America and she had never known of a horse dying after a snake bite.
Even so, we do have small vipers, similar to Adders in potency, and also the Montpellier, a distinctly not small serpent (up to two metres in length) with venom in fangs at the back of its mouth that will give you a nasty turn but won’t kill you unless you stick your finger down its throat which someone did, apparently, with dire consequence. The question was which had moved in.
A stupid question, of course, because given the wide variety of inhabitants on these ecological, overgrown acres it is a magnet for all manner of predators.
Montpellier it was, we feel sure now. A few days later two of these large-eyed, somewhat menacing snakes were found sunning themselves beside an olive tree, just five metres from where Remoli was bitten. It is the breeding season, so disturbing them didn’t help their disposition either. Montpelliers are known for their short fuses, and I backed away as one coiled, raised its head and inflamed its neck as if to strike.
No need to be reckless, Martin. Besides, I had barely recovered from the honey repercussions.
The storeroom now contains copious amounts of liquid nectar after my first harvest visit to the hives this year, and my ankles and calves still itch.
Like a fool, and hungry as a bear with very little between the ears, I had gone to the hives on the first calm, warm, clear day after a May storm. I usually take a little honey in mid May and some more at the end of June, then leave the bees to stock up for the winter, a rhythm that has suited everyone for five years. One hive has grown to two, then three, now four.
But golden honey rules include (as all keepers know), patience, a steady heart, timing and tucking your trousers into your boots or socks.
Ten-year-old Joe Joe was with me but I, dazzled by the amount of honey to be had, failed to note that a) there really wasn’t enough warmth in the days to draw out the bees, so the hives were packed, and b) my trouser bottoms were not secured.
As I was gently brushing the bees from the frames they were congregating on my shoes and walking north.
Joe Joe was better organised in the ankle department, but once a bee stings others immediately join in and he suffered too as his tracksuit bottoms proved too thin and he retreated, tearfully. I pressed on to tidy up and secure the hives, but all grace was gone and I Riverdanced across the meadow.
Joe Joe was being nursed by his mum in the kitchen when I staggered in,and I thought, that’s it – he will never want to go near the hives again. I, on the other hand, had to get my act together and get back out there, once the pain of the 16+ swellings had eased.
What transpired was, well, wonderful (on the whole). I returned to our little apiary later that afternoon, to apologise and to finish my work. My legs were stiff but not too bad, and by my side was my son, who flatly refused to be put off. We were calmer, better prepared and neither of us was stung again. Joe said no more about his pains as, in the shade of the wisteria behind the farmhouse, we span the frames and weighed 30lbs of honey.
I, on the other hand, could barely walk by this time. My ankles decided they had had enough punishment and I crawled off to bed.
May wasn’t finished yet by a long way. As always after an April drenching May stages its fiesta of existence. A Great Tit wafted into the kitchen and watched me writing, settling on top of the computer screen at one point. The Melodious Warbler in the pine above the corral has been beside himself for weeks, the Golden Orioles are tootling greetings in some distant chorus, while the cheeky Woodchat Shrike has returned to follow me around on the tractor as I cut the grass.
I am not the only one. In the puzzle of this life 1000 miles away we have missed our childhoods and adulthoods of Norfolk stubble fields and bales, of that great English sense of harvest done. Olive and almond groves and wavy lines of vines on ancient terraces have their own charm, yet different.
Well, how utterly enchanting, then, to find that a neighbour at the top of the valley but a mile from Mother’s Garden has grown, cut and baled straw – or is it hay? It is the first time we have seen such a local scene on such a scale and it closes distance in the blink of an eye every time we trundle past it. It could be Northrepps or Docking, but for the rugged skyline.
Now, before you all start writing to the editor saying “that’s definitely not hay, bor, that’s straw”, it was a fairly pure grass crop and they didn’t harvest any grain, so does that make it hay? Can any farmers in Norfolk tell me? I hear haymaking has started very early in East Anglia.
January 3, 2011. Barely a frost and still bone dry, to the point that we are wishing for rain. The midday temperature continues to float between 10 and 15 degrees, and the only white to be seen is the flash of a chaffinch wing.
These migrants outnumber the charms of goldfinches right now, while in the mountains yesterday, when we strolled to the ruins of a 2700-year-old Iberic village, our faces buzzing with the warmth, a red admiral butterfly emerged from the forest and settled in the sun on a bank.
Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning: Yet crimson crests have come to naught.
Mother’s Garden New Year resolutions are to take more strolls (researching at the same time more routes across the sierras wherefore to guide holiday cottage guests who have packed their walking books) and to meditate. We are mindful how valuable meditation has proved in the past, and we need it now as the workload grows not eases.
As I write, Maggie is resting after her operation this morning. A year ago she had a carpal tunnel operation on her right wrist. Today the consultant eased the pressure in her left wrist, hopefully ending sleepless nights of pins and needles and numbness.
I am itching to press on with office work and to find more chefs who want bulk fresh olive oil, but it is a holiday in the UK today. So I’ll pop the kettle on, take a mug to Maggie, walk the mutts and release the ponies to thunder back to their corral and buckets of feed.
I may even spend a happy half hour with the saw clearing another pine from the wished-for oak wood, where already birdsong has returned.
December 23. Cotton wool clouds fill the valleys and we cannot see beyond the oaks to the east of the vineyard. This blanket has staved off the frost and weighed what leaves that linger with drops of water.
The promise is clear skies for Christmas Day, with high winds from the south west.
Mother’s Garden is sheltered by a limestone ridge and the conical mountain that is named La Miloquera after a long extinct bird and once dwelled upon it. You can see it in the picture above.
But when the wind comes from the south west it shakes everything, funnelled along the valley and east to Roman Tarragona and the ancient sea.
Recent wonders have been the iridescent feathers of a monarch and a great mystery of the moon.
First there came the kingfisher, sitting on a curled finger of the fig tree, just six feet from the study window and two feet above the old wash pool where up to twenty goldfish hide in the depths. He or she cast that majestic colour twice in one day, and we wait for a further flash of blue and beauty in the corner of our eyes.
Then, late that evening, Maggie called us out into the full moon glow. Look, she said, and I followed her gaze into the heavens. I didn’t notice at first, then my jaw dropped. Have you ever, on a clear full-moon night, seen a vast perfect ring of light fill half the sky, a celestial halo for earth’s satellite?
This, we discovered, is caused by moonlight being refracted by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, and that folklore has it as a portent of bad weather.
Christmas Eve. The temperature is dropping fast, encouraged by gales that have cleared much of the sky and polished the air.
The Spanish electricity board has sucked vital funds out of our account and so I have had to nip to town to catch the deputy bank manager’s eye. Xavi is a good man who eased my money worries with tales of his childhood in the Terra Alta, the highlands to the south of us.
This morning the children have read to us from the Spanish novels that hold their eyes and minds, and this afternoon we will make mince pies to take as friendship gifts to our neighbours. With no television we will seek to contemplate, to share, to talk, to read and to celebrate family.
For all of you too far away we send love and peaceful thoughts for Christmas.
Hugs and good wishes to everyone who follows this blog, reads my books, buys our olive oil or has made their way to Mother’s Garden over the years.
Ella has just posted a little video of our book and olive oil tour to England. Enjoy.
In response to several requests here is an up-to-date photograph of the family, taken in the olive grove with our village in the background.
We are getting set for the harvest this coming weekend, when we will be joined by Australians, Canadians, French, Catalan and English for chat, steady labour, soup and, of course, Mother’s Garden olive oil.
I will also post some more pictures on our photo gallery. Promise.
Maybe it was a good thing that a fallen tree took out the phone line. Boy, has the wind been whistling in recent days, and the temperature at dawn has suddenly dropped way below t-shirt and shorts tolerance.
Being without phone or internet took our eye off the wider world and meant we could focus on our real world. Like gathering almonds, bottling last year’s wine, picking up walnuts, pressing unripe grapes for juice, planting winter veg …. and proof reading the new book, Shaking The Tree (publication date December 1, more news anon).
Under the watchful eyes of professional enologists Jose and Sandra we think our 2009 vintage is our finest – fruity, balanced and without a hint of contamination. Not that is a big deal; 425 litres in all from our little vineyards, combined with that of friends and neighbours Marta and Benet.
Wine buffs will want to know it is a blend of 60 per cent carinyena and 40 per cent garanche. It means we have enough to share with visitors through the year and to use for the bottling of fruits – plus the barn is almost clear now for us to start picking and processing the grenache (garnaxta in Catalan) next week. We haven’t treated the grapes with either sulphur or copper sulphate, but it still looks like we have a significant amount of fruit that is free of problems. We will know for sure very soon.
A short post, but will be back online in next couple of days …. possibly with another of Maggie’s recipes. Pears in red wine maybe.
Please note, though, that another 700 litres of yummy olive oil has just been bottled and shipped to England, for delivery early in October. We are taking orders now, so get in touch. We can deliver to anywhere in mainland Britain.