I’m grateful to the swallow on the sundial. In the delicate beginnings of another day we wake again to the cacophony of golden orioles feasting on tear-drop figs, accompanied by whistling bee-eaters spiralling above.
Outside the storeroom door I drop cat food into an old frying pan for the two barn felines, and lazily lift my gaze up above the muscat grape vine. The swallow sits near the tip of the angled iron rod protruding from the mottled lime render, soon to cast a shadow and tell us the early hour, plum centre on the forehead of the weathered house.
It sums up Mother’s Garden, the common quest to weigh time and consider the natural waypoints to a fulfilling existence. I tiptoe back into the house to get my camera. The swallow bides and I thank it. Then, just to its right, an oriole alights on the dead branch crown of a crowd of fig leaves. The fat tree has a bald patch like Friar Tuck. Most days I glimpse a flash of gold as the fidgety orioles whirl about, never still for more than a breath. But now I am holding my camera. There is just enough light, just enough time.
Bind weed clouds the log pile, life swamping death, and trumpets its victory through a plethora of white blooms that unfold with the warmth. How stupid the word we have for plants that don’t fit our narrow values. Just a few days ago a typically curious, keen-eyed six year old Bavarian boy, staying with his family in our cottage for a few days, and like all little people hungry for real adventures if given the chance, stopped me on our nature walk to marvel at the yellow flowering of a succulent thistle. The intricacies of things we rarely notice crowd the senses. How raw and rich the world can be to young eyes, uncluttered minds, if time and will can be cherished, nurtured.
The valley steadies its breath, paces itself as the heat of midsummer sucks energy from Englishmen. Hounds and felines flop too and busy ants must make a detour round a lazy tail.
What follows may not be palatable but it is the truth.
Rats come and go. The population is thin most of the time, far thinner than any city, but spikes occasionally when, naturally, there are rich pickings on the fruit trees. These creatures, mostly of the night, take their life in their claws and figs in their teeth. It is impossibly hard for them. They flourish for a few days and those that prey on them circle and close in.
Raptors eye for daylight risk-takers, ring-tailed cats crouch in the dark, and snakes move in. A mostly black western whipsnake (coluber viridiflavus) a 5ft wonder to behold, ignores Maggie to bide in the shade of a drystone wall near the woodpile. It is taking a mid-morning risk, for the birds of prey are partial. The circle of life spins. Ripe, half-eaten figs fall to warm earth, hungers are sated.
Yesterday the sweat was blinding. I was at the hives for nearly two hours in the seamless heat, talking quietly, taking a little honey, repairing frames and delicately transferring one family of 50,000 from one broken hive to another, newly repaired. Only a tiny few lost their patience with me.
Ella was at my side. We finished, gave thanks and wandered away as slowly as we had come, brushing the last remaining bees from the heavy frames in our hands. Joe helped in the farmhouse hall with the spinning, and then Maggie and I filled an assortment of jars with more than 25lbs of chestnut dark, simple goodness that will last us the year as well as afford us the joy of gifting to friends. Always seek raw honey from untreated mixed farms with healthy hedgerows if you can, where the bees have a host of options, a chance to thrive away from mono crops. Honey that has not been heated or processed in any way contains natural vitamins, enzymes, powerful antioxidants and vital natural nutrients.
After our labour scores of bees filled the air close to the barn door where, on a yet to be cleared work bench, Joe and I had been repairing frames and affixing the sheets of wax. As I put tools away and tidied the surplus frames, smiling Ella wandered slowly through the thick air, simply attired for a cooling dip in the pool.
I took myself off up the land, through the eye-height fennel and shin-tickling growth. We have set a fourth hive in the almond grove. No residents yet, but I will put a spun-but-not-spent honey frame in with the new wax sheets as an invitation, a welcome. The bees will come, for sure. Also patiently waiting for signs of their arrival were the iridescent bee-eaters, decorating a pine. Their numbers grow, yet somehow all is in balance. The humming of the honey-makers swells in equal measure.
PS: See our Mother’s Garden Facebook page for Maggie’s latest summer recipe. We’d be delighted, too, if you were able to share the news, blogs, recipes and fresh olive oil from Mother’s Garden.
Midsummer, languid, the day stirred by the faintest breath of eastern breeze. Look closer and our Earthly peers, the multitude of insects, birds and mammals, are drinking in the zest of the mellow first hour of long shadows.
Golden oriels warble and whizz through the pines. A pair of hedge sparrows has left the family shoal and the security of the reef of holly oaks and wild olives next to the chicken run to make whoopee on a windowsill. Oxygen is alive with winged wonders and I have clocked my first western marbled white butterfly of the year.
I potter with the terriers Ted and Tilly on loose leads. They know the rhythm. I water and talk to my sapling olives and then dwell happily in the vegetables. Maggie joins me and we harvest runner beans, a moment of the greatest cerebral sustenance. For years we have tried to grow runner beans. They always reach for the sky, flower but fail. Last year I couldn’t even be bothered to pull up the roots.
But this year those old plants shot again. I watered and sprayed them, building another bamboo frame, enjoying the meditation but not holding out much hope. It is too hot here, too dry, however much I give them to drink, or so we thought. Maybe that is the secret. Don’t plant seedlings, but leave the old plants to die back, to come again and again.
New red pontiac potatoes jewel our plates. It has been a very good root crop year, for a change, and the wild boar have not come a calling.
The paths and track, remoulded by the crashing storm last week, harden again. Memories of the trauma are slipping away, but we must go to a neighbours to pick her ripening apricots that were pitted by the hail.
Our storm-blasted village made national television news. Hail in late June and the most rainfall anywhere in Spain in the last decade. Farmers in our valley face grim grape and olive harvests this autumn. We too, but our vast fig trees seem to have offered a little protection to the vines. We shall see. My pulse has settled again. What will be will be.
Another storm is coming, but of the human variety. In towns and along the coast road bright shacks have appeared like pop-up kitchens in London parks. Only they are peddling deafening wares – explosives for the all-night firework festival of Sant Joan, from nightfall today to birdsong and ambulance sirens on tomorrow.
Already piles of combustible rubbish are growing in villages and naughty boys are lobbing bangers in the streets, the portent of thunderous fun and roaring fires on the one summer night in the year when firemen and medics are particularly twitchy. Like running before the bulls, the risks never stop the ritual, the upholding of Iberic traditions that defy caution and define identity. Let’s hope no flames are fanned and that our luck holds.
I must go and post an olive oil recipe. Maggie has been making parsley oil, perfect for our new potatoes, for marinating meats and simply for spooning on to her fresh bread. Quick and simple goodness, and such flavour. Mmmm.
If you would like some fresh olive oil, let us know.
Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, doors blown off hinges, terrified chickens; horizontal hailstones that rattle on tiles, these are a few examples of the world going wild.
June the 17th. Nearly two inches of rain in under two hours. Yes, hail too. We hunched in the dry, comforting ourselves by comforting our old hound Biba who cannot abide the gods rearranging their furniture. Gashes in the iron red track bled with the torrent. Then the clouds lumbered east, chased by two of the flying boats fighting the lightning-strike forest fire 15 miles south-west of us. Yesterday the sky was stained like the nicotine pub ceilings of my youth. The wind propelling the storms was fanning the flames. Latest count, 1000 mountain-top acres torched.
Today’s moisture-madness may have extinguished that fire, but the crackling could have started another. We wait to find out. Once, a tree that took a direct hit, burned at the core, then toppled two days later when all was dry again. Wwoof.
I paddled out before the final drops, certain that our cottage guests (Japanese and Australian) would have rivulets running from windows across the terracotta tiles, and that the normally dry swimming pool motor would be submerged. Right on both counts. I mopped, then with the sun on my wet back I steamed as I tried to get a small submersible pump with pipe attached down into the opaque depths beside the floundering pool pump. I jiggled the pipe too much and it came away in my hand. A fountain of dirty water hit me full in the face. It stopped the steaming for a short while, though.
What damage to the tiny olives forming on the trees, the young grapes on the vines? Maggie met a friend in town and the tale from her family farm was grim. The shadow of the storm will reach to a poor harvest.
You wonder, though, don’t you, when those gambling the economy against ecology, share prices against sea levels, power lust against the force of nature, the fat and greedy now against the increasingly sick future, are shamed for their woefully limited reaction to the glaringly obvious. History will damn them, but that is no help now.
Ella is home for the summer . We are four.
I will post again in a couple of days. Keep well.
April rollercoasts on. Downpours, pulsing heat, clouds spilling over the mountains like frothy milk from a boiling pan. Gales then breathless calm. Life rushes headlong, while I stand in the vineyard and wait to watch the wonder of a myriad of wild flowers opening to the sun.
The laughing wrynecks and the frenetic serins leave the pre-dawn chorus to the warblers and blackbirds, then fill the bright hours with their calls. The family of short-toed eagles come lower and lower scanning for snakes in the myriad colours and riches of spring. Swallows surge north. We await the bee eaters.
The pollinators are thick in the air, and the dew pearls the countless funnel webs of the grass spiders. What speedsters these eight-eyed funnel weavers are, darting from their lairs to dine on blue-winged grasshoppers or other insects that drop onto their fishing nets.
We have set another hive, in the almond grove this time, in penance. A swarm took up residence in our loft. I squeezed after them into the darkness, even chiselling away part of a wall to try and reach the queen bee in the slim hope of settling her and her entourage somewhere else. But they were down a narrow, dusty shaft clogged with water pipes. Arm wedged, only my fingertips could reach them. I failed.
No stings, though, until yesterday. Wandering back from the far side of the wildflower meadow with another fistful of wild asparagus, I cast too close an eye at the comings and goings of our older hives. Two of the four hum with life and I must tend them, perhaps moving the vacant dwellings up to the almond grove. How mesmerizing the essence of life that is a tireless bee community. Too much so. I drifted closer and was nailed mid-forehead.
Sitting at the kitchen table, rubbing a clove of garlic on the sting, Maggie and I indulged in our constant reflection on the diverse joy and immeasurable wonder of the nature that swirls around us, somehow tolerating and thriving despite our footprints and human clumsiness.
We will leave the grasses and flowers for the insects and continue to channel our energies and water from the spring into the vegetable garden where peas, broad beans, lettuces, onions, courgettes are up and running. We still have half of our 30 kilos of seed potatoes to plant and, as ever, I’ve not quite come up with an irrigation system that fills Maggie (or me) with confidence. So, on every evening dog walk, I surreptitiously dampen the patches of dry soil with the aid of a watering can.
Eight more olive trees, lost for decades to wilderness, have been freed and pruned, and a bee orchid has popped up to celebrate.
There, in that fingernail-sized bloom, is everything that matters about Mother’s Garden.
I must press on. A shipment of fresh olive oil leaves for England today and I must alert our lovely customers. If you would like to join them just let me know. There is, by the way, a new post on our business facebook page about the joys of fresh olive oil and fresh asparagus, now coming into season in Britain.
Keep well – and remember, our cottage is available should you want to visit. See here for availability. Late deals for May and early June. Just ask.
Olive tree prunings roll like tumbleweed on windy days. Everywhere the eye lingers on blossom, be it the snow of almond or the candyfloss of cherry and peach.
We rise with the dawn frosts and drink in the champagne air as we race to prepare the groves for the growing and ripening seasons, mulching or burning the cuttings, sometimes baking potatoes in the hot ash. Two hours out on the land sets us up for breakfast and all the broad challenges of Mother’s Garden.
In recent days we have started to find the first wild asparagus; delicious sautéed in fresh olive oil (want some?) and served with our hens’ eggs.
Time presses. Maggie polished off the vineyard pruning single-handedly a month ago, but we still have 20 or so of the 200 fruit trees to do. You sense the surge in life gathering pace every day. It pays not to dwell on the detail of the challenges, particularly in our neglected vegetable garden, but we will get to that this weekend.
There has been little time to hang about, but I have been, tackling rock climbing for the first time.
We live in arguably the most significant climbing area in the world, and anyone serious about the sport will have heard of Siurana which is 20 minutes from us. Nearer to home there is a beautiful hermitage on a red rock outcrop overlooking the sea, and behind it you will find several knee-knocking ascents that a 55-year-old novice would be an arse to attempt.
“No dramas.” With Maggie watching, wincing, I and Joe were pinched into some excruciatingly tight climbing shoes, given a safety briefing, harnessed to a rope and then prodded upwards by two Australians who love nothing better than figuring out how to defy gravity.
David and Melissa, geologist and lawyer from Brisbane, have been with us for three months and we wave them off tomorrow. Fantastic folk. They have worked so hard for us and we have loved their company. Recently married, they have been on a year-long European adventure, weaving across the continent from one climbing site to another.
On a rare day off the farm, they thought I and 13 year-old Joe could handle a cliff ranked a “5”, whatever that means. We did, Lord knows how. Then they lured me to attempt a “6”, which was going reasonably well until, 30 feet up, the vertical face became an overhang. I dangled, twisted, gritted then gave up and abseiled back down. The annoying thing is, the whole business is weirdly addictive.
Have you see Jupiter, king of the planets and currently the brightest gem in the night sky? We have had mixed fortunes. One night we stood in the cold waiting in vain for gaps in the scurrying clouds but were treated instead to the calls of nightjars. The scops owls are back too. The birding is, of course, a major treat at the awakening of the year. The woodpeckers are setting the tempo and the surround-sound cacophony of song is delicious.
On Monday we were called to advise some investors who were acquiring a vast olive grove close to the Montsant, the Holy Mountain. This vast limestone ridge, rising to 3000 metres, dominates our tiny county. When the work was done we didn’t turn for home but continued to beyond the ridge, to the peaceful valley beyond it. There, high above us, six griffon vultures rode the sky.
Talking of olives and the wonderful fresh juice of the fruit, we have just shipped a supply to England, so if you would like some, please get in touch or visit our online shop.
Oh, and bear us in mind if you would like to get away for a few days, to walk these mountains, sit under an olive tree and listen to the birds. The holiday cottage is available.
It is early. Another peaceful December day of edifying treasures begins. Golden light gushes through the mountain pines and kindles the silver haw frost. All glitters in a breath of beauty, even the battered wheelbarrow waiting beside the wood store.
Birds charm the blue sky. The last of the fig leaves begin to fall from boughs, followed by random pearls as the sharpness of sunrise quickly melts to green and brown.
All good things pass. But not hope. There is so much nourishment for the senses and spirit when I remember I am a human beings and should, well, simple just BE once in a while.
Suddenly, so few words left in 2013. Every syllable must count.
All people who live close to the soil have similar hearts, priorities and understandings – a grounding, or need for it, that is seeded in everyone. The similarities overshadow the differences, especially when set beside the memories of our rural English childhoods and those of our parents. I have talked of journeying back in time and it is true.
How lucky we have been to find and be able to share Mother’s Garden. We have had more than 1000 visitors now, from all continents.
There is nowhere like nature, and more so any garden which we tend, to offer an immeasurable security in an insecure world; a sense of place. However tiny, even a crowd of pots or a single yard of soil, can hold the truths, lessons, fulfilments, beauty and peace of mind to infuse life with an indefinable calm, a measure of existence.
This has been my home for nigh on a quarter of my life now. Goodness.
What more have we found here beyond perspective? I always say, simply, time. How scarce it is. But we have had the years, hours and seconds of Ella’s and Joe’s childhoods for which, like all, there can never be any going back: the privilege of disconnecting as much as possible – seeking to shield as much as possible – Ella and Joe from the vortex of immoral, de-stablising commercialism until they have had a chance to find their feet, their voices and a real understanding of what happiness should mean; that it does not have a price.
The hope is that in the muddle, shadows and rush of a wider world they will have an inkling of where to stop, breathe and be revived in times of need: To not be afraid to walk along in nature, but be sustained. We dare even to wish they may do more – join the calm, clear voices challenging and pressing to change a system of gross economic obsessions that threatens to suffocate fundamental human values and rob society and its core – the family – of key securities. I firmly believe most people sense this need, deeply.
The native North American Iroquois Indians have a golden rule, a binding law. It is known as the Seventh Generation.
This ancient nation never makes a decision without considering how it will relate to the welfare and well-being of their descendants 140 years in the future.
“What about the Seventh Generation? Where are we taking them? What will they have?”
In the current context it hardly bears thinking about, but that is the point. It has become so critical that most people do feel driven to think about it, to question.
I firmly believe the blind-eye world is coming to an end, driven by the paradox that in an age-of-plenty there is a palpable struggle to survive, and the pit-of-the-stomach knowledge that we are living beyond our physical and mental means, while some people on the beset planet have gross wealth and others starve.
As for the Earth and the Iroquois, imagine that 2000 years ago they or the Romans had cracked the atom and harnessed the power. What would the world look like now? The proliferation of nuclear with its implicit dangers and gross, ageless consequences have not stopped us because we crave the power now and, bottom line, there is money to be made. How have we somehow blanked out that which is unpredictable yet inevitable – violence, be it human, geologic or climatic? It is not and never will be a stable world yet we persist with today not tomorrow.
Forgive me but I have to say these things, as much in hope as anguish. So much good is being discussed
I am writing more than ever now. My four books have been followed by screenplays, and perhaps next year we will be able to tell more of the feature film based on my English novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy, the book I came here to write.
In tandem with Moon Daisy, a project now being co-run by two film companies, winter has seen me begin work on another screenplay – a love story set here among the vineyards, olive groves and mountains of the Priorat in southern Catalonia.
While we continue to consider the following chapters of our lives, we have decided to walk the same path a little longer, opening the cottage to visitors again in 2014 – come and stay why don’t you? – while pressing on with our burgeoning fresh olive oil business.
With assistance from friends around the world we now have a business Facebook page, new labels, a revamped website (all comments welcome as we seek to improve it) and more and more customers who appreciate how special fresh extra virgin olive oil can be.
We have even taken a deep breath and sent some wonderfully fresh new harvest oil home to England for Christmas, so get in touch if you would like some. A rare treat.
Must go. We have a young Australian couple staying and helping on the farm and we are clearing some flower beds beside the front door. A beautiful horseshoe whip snake has just emerged out of the front dry-stone wall of the farmhouse to bask in the December sun. Nature could not be more close, or wonderful.
Keep well. Give yourself some time this festive holiday. Think about the Seventh Generation. Happy Christmas from us all here at Mother’s Garden, and wishing you and the world a peaceful year ahead.
There is nothing in our gardening library about late-season gleaning being hazardous. Oooooooooooooh that hurts.
The vegetation behind the farmhouse, once an orderly patch of colourful produce, now an all but abandoned knot of wilderness, took its time to clock that winter was pending.
The woody tomato, aubergine, pepper, melon and courgette plants may have keeled over and been swamped with weeds but they refused to give up the ghost. Up until a week ago we were still finding trug-loads of edibles beneath the riot of growth.
I suppose this is hardly surprising given the ludicrous autumn warmth (still 20+ degrees – 68F – most days) and the outpourings of our reformed spring. Until last weekend – more of that mildly moist sojourn in a moment – we’d had no serious rain since May. The reservoir was full though, so we were letting the water run on to the garden in the olive grove at the rate of 1000 litres an hour. That’s cheering for the rows of olive trees (which we are harvesting as you read this), but it has landed me in not one but two pickles.
Wild boar scent wet earth and make a beeline for it. What was once a pleasant late-night, star-gazing, 75-metre stroll to the pony corral to give La Petita her hay treat turned into a canter while wearing the alarmed expression of Private Fraser out of Dad’s Army.
I normally take the dogs with me but the other night I left it very late, too late. The mutts were snoring and I ventured off on my own. Fool. It was gone midnight. Halfway back to the house there was an angry grunt right beside me and I immediately leapt into action, sprinting to the back door like Usain Bolt.
For some reason the beasts didn’t up all the vegetables, so we continued our gleaning despite having precious little space left to store/freeze it.
That, however, has been the least of my worries. The peppers, which were meant to be of the passive variety have cross fertilised and turned aggressive.
A few days ago Maggie had me sitting at the kitchen table facing a large pile of green and red peppers, an empty bowl to my left, another to my right. Now, I’m not impartial to spicy food and can devour the occasional pencil-width, little-finger-length green chilli, so this was clearly a job I should handle. On reflection, maybe “handle” wasn’t the right word.
All I had to do was cut a little bit off the end, munch and decide it if was hot (left bowl) or not (right bowl). They also needed to be de-seeded and chopped up ready for the freezer.
It all started promisingly with three sweet peppers and I upped the pace and dropped my guard. Six consecutive sticks of dynamite later I had lost the power of speech…and my eyes were itching.
Yes, I should have worn gloves. No, I shouldn’t have rubbed my eyes. And, yes, I should have remembered which bowl was which.
Staggering painful, isn’t it, to realise just how long the spice stays on your figures, and how short your memory is when your eyes need a rub? I’ve been lying awake blinking and sucking air in through my teeth, thinking there must be a way to use the chopped peppers to dissuade the boar.
I need to tell you about the rain. Last Friday we were harvesting olives in our t-shirts. Then on Saturday the world turned upside down and it started snowing….which turned to sleet….which became stair-rod rain…. for 48 hours. Here they measure rainfall in litres per square metre. We have more an 240 litres, which is twenty four centimetres or, in English money, nine and a half inches. Blimey. That said, it is wonderful. The land can breathe, and maybe wild boar in search of soft earth will not swing by so often.
As usual we have failed to get to grips with the unmanageable quantities of benign quinces lying all over the place, but we at least we have not wasted one of the Muscat grapes (juice), and have squirreled vast reserves of walnuts, almonds and hazels. November breakfasts invariably begin with a squidgy ripe persimmon, a rare treat that will come to an end any day now, while another flavour of the month has been the rovello wild mushrooms from the pine forest.
Amid all this plenty there have been shoulder-rounding failures. The English runner beans feast never happened. Well, four pods to be precise. Despite our care and the favourable conditions only two of the 20 verdant, cane-high plants managed a flower apiece. What went wrong there? Answers on a postcard…..
We continue to pointlessly pluck innumerable cabbage white caterpillars from the ravaged cauliflowers, but we simply knelt and wondered at the swallowtail caterpillar Joe found on a fennel stalk. An observant lad, our Joe. His appreciation of the true world order rather than just the manufactured one is, for us, an essential counter-balance to the lure of comatose electronics.
Question – how many of you are aware of the new and vital Wild Network in the UK? We are supporting from afar. It is the wonderful harmonising of 400 charities and organisations nationwide who are chorusing for children to swap 30 minutes of television and computer screens every day to try and re-connect with nature; to raise their fitness, their alertness and, ultimately, their well-being.
Hal-le-lu-jah. You know how strongly we feel about this, having written in my books and in this newspaper that it is one of the fundamental reasons we moved to Mother’s Garden 13 years ago, when we ditched the TV and began leaving the back and front doors of our new home wide open.
I don’t know how anybody can fail to see the worth of the Wild Network. In a mad, economy-crazed world any galvanising movement to sell the idea that the great outdoors is the ultimate adventure is long overdue.
Beyond the awful thought that, somehow, children who are far more interested in “leading” fictional, sedentary lives in some surreal on-screen game are losing the life drivers of communication, energy, curiosity and true fulfilment, is the damning fact that this torpid generation will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Our generation is responsible. We have to find a way to, literally, reverse this disconnection.
See for yourself and – watch the short video online http://projectwildthing.com/film or see if you can source the full video on this website or through a local DVD outlet. Add your voice.
Ella has been home from London for few days, her first break since starting a film foundation course at The University of The Arts. We walked the valley and meandered down to deserted, dreamily peaceful beach a stone’s throw from artist Juan Miro’s farm; a world away from the rigours of our land and, indeed, the crowded banks of the Thames. Actually, it rather reminded me of treasured autumnal, pastel days of my youth, living within the sound of the North Sea – those still moments on the shiny sand when the world seems to hold it breath.
But before I go I have to tell you what we saw on Maggie’s recent birthday. We had lunch out after visiting Santes Creus, the vast, significant and rather beautiful Cistercian 12th century monastery about an hour from us.
The restaurant was buzzing and Joe was particularly impressed by a large, opulent Cadillac parked outside. We left at the same time as the car’s elderly owner who was being waved off my all the members of staff. Curious, I asked if the gentleman was significant in some way. Yes, they replied. He’s 90 years old.
He surged away and we followed him down the lane at a safe distance, watching the weaving Cadillac as it headed for the motorway. Then I started to weave too. The road was a mess of patches and dips and he was inch perfect in navigating through them. Had I been wearing a hat…..
We now have a business Facebook page with almost daily updates and photographs from the farm. Check it out. https://www.facebook.com/mothersgardenoliveoil. The new harvest olive oil is leaving the mill next week, bound for England. 60 per cent has already been ordered, so get in touch is you would like some.
We can and must lose ourselves in our gardens, however small. We need to once in a while, don’t we? To scatter our thoughts there; grounded in the toil; safe in the sanctuary; fortified by a sense of what is real; certain in the immeasurable worth to both body and soul.
I appreciate that more than ever now, as seasons and years shorten.
For some there is deep science in it. For most it is it is simply the unfathomable comfort of bending to the task with the ever-renewing, yet never repetitive, promise of flower, fruit, root and goodness, and in doing so touching the earth and being enriched by a sense of place.
And what about those delicious moments of tired contentment when you sit or stand and contemplate the progress, however small, even if it is one little pot, one bloom? Fulfilment flows from the fingertips to the heart.
As American environmentalist and writer Jim Nollman says in the opening sentence of his sensitive book Why We Garden, “People often turn to gardening to re-create a bit of paradise within an imperfect world”.
It is right and vital that there is somewhere real where we feel able to make positive changes, to take responsibility and to care, to sense our place, our feet and hands on the soil. Such truths are a counter-balance in an information age that fills our minds and feeds our anxieties with cumulative, complex issues sometimes too heavy to bear.
Our little farm is very much an ecological meeting point of nature and need, where wild is wonderful and rightly dominates, and where we try and balance our hungers with a greater need.
We have always tried to tread softly, but is it me, or are the creatures here more accepting of us than ever? Life has been exceptionally abundant – and close – this autumn.
As with the bees and tiny young frogs lined up at the waterline of our old washpool- turned-pond, there is palpable harmony. I tried but failed to get a photograph of one bee sitting on a frog while quenching its thirst.
On my 55th birthday one treat was to sit for half an hour and dangle my feet into the circular reservoir in the company of curious carp, skaters, swallows and dragonflies. One smaller, iridescent blue dragonfly (with more than 5000 species I’m loath to suggest which one) returned repeatedly to settle on my knee.
Often a butterfly, usually one of the swallowtails that grow up on the abundant fennel, will follow me on my travels along the paths, causing me to turn circles. They always make me think of my mother, someone for whom, at raw moments, a trowel was an anchor and nature her sanity.
My birthday butterfly, though, was rarer still. To my wide-eyed astonishment it flashed in front of the car when I was just about to pull onto the lane, where just days before another event was also over in the blink of an eye, the Tour of Spain cycle race.
When I fanned hurried through my butterfly reference book to confirm it was, indeed, a Pasha, I was joyful. I have never seen one of these Mediterranean fritillaries before; maybe on account of there being no strawberry trees for them on the farm. No disrespect to cycle race fans and the racers but that fleeting Pasha moment made my week. Nothing could top that. Or so I thought.
Later, when I was wandering back from the pony’s corral, there it was again, only now it was circling me like the swallowtails – large, fast, with telltale flashes of orange at the ends of dark brown wings. It settled on an old hazel. I studied it then hobbled in haste (bruised foot, long story) back to the house to get my camera, daring to hope it would still be there.
It was, flaunting its intricate under-wings and allowing me to get within a metre.
In the late afternoon I took Maggie and Joe to that hazel. A vain hope, but we strolled on along the terrace, Tilly and Ted straining on their leads. It is a regular pre-supper circuit, down to the hollow under the high firs, through the wilderness and out on to the crest of the almond grove, then down the track homeward.
But just beyond the hazel, behind the beehives, Maggie and Joe both let out a cry. I, and Tilly for that matter, had unwittingly stepped over a snake. It lay like a dark stick across a path which, to be fair, is littered with wood. We have had the pleasure on several occasions of studying ladder-back, grass, European whip and Montpelier serpents, including the adder-like local viper, but this one was different.
It had clearly just devoured something large and long, possibly a lizard, and wasn’t planning on moving a muscle for some considerable time. So I felt a closer look was a reasonable risk, and this confirmed it was another first – a horseshoe whipsnake, a rare reptile that can grow up to five feet in length.
The pigeons glean on the cropped hay fields and strut about in ludicrous numbers while the peregrines circle.
And at night the boar descend in ever increasing numbers, coming to within 15 metres of our back door this long dry year. The lure is the well-watered vegetable patch in the olive grove, and the wet earth is patterned with hooves, small and broad. The damage is increasing nightly, but they keep skirting the prolific beds and, fortunately, we have almost concluded an enormous tomato, aubergine and pepper harvest.
It is a different story at our neighbours’ home, though, where an ingenious network of irrigation pipes, resembling the London tube map and covering an area the size of a football pitch, has been ploughed up by the worm-hungry boar.
Our friends have been away for nearly two months and I gave up some time ago trying to put patch up the damage. The destruction was spreading faster than I could repair it, but the telling moment was when I looked the challenge squarely in the eye.
Returning home from a late supper in town I had to stop right outside our friends’ garden…. to allow eight youngsters, about half-grown, and three humongous adults, to saunter across the tarmac and into the flowerbeds. I might as well have turned the engine off it was taking so long. Two of the adults led the way and the third stood in the middle of the lane to usher the brood across. Tusked and intimidating, it was immense, fearless, prehistoric.
One boar can wreak havoc, so I knew there and then I was beaten.
The almonds are harvested, about 100 kilos this year, which is not bad considering some farms have none due to hard frosts during the February flowering. We pick and de-husk them by hand, so it is not a money-making exercise, rather the reverse; just goodness from our Garden.
Now for the olives. Harvest in three weeks and it looks like a bumper year. Have you tried a new harvest from-tree-to-you olive oil? We are taking orders for a December shipment to Britain. Get in touch by all means (just click here) if you would like more information. Also, see our new Mother’s Garden business Facebook page.
And, blink, another year has almost gone. That fact could weigh heavily if I dwell on it, so I will step out into the cool air of dawn and do some weeding among our Norfolk runner beans. It is too hot to grow them here in the spring, so Maggie had the bright idea to cultivate them now in the cooler autumn, but it looks like we will only have a handful all the same.
And still, in mid October, the temperature rises to 26 degrees during the day, and no lower than 15 degrees at night. The air is, for the most part, as peaceful as an angel’s breath and the colours of autumn leaf and sky beguile.
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)
I have a faint heart. That much is obvious. Behold, they urged, but I had to turn away and am profoundly glad that I did. I will never watch again.
The Catalans love their human castles, for good reasons that I will explain anon, although it would never work as an English spectacle. Can you imagine? Health and safety officials passing out left right and centre.
But before I tell you what transpired when a “castle” team mustered in the middle of the town during the local wine fair, there is something considerably more significant on my mind that I need to tell you.
Since my last chronicle there has been a chapter of great loss and reflection; of the need to seek the sanctuary of nature.
The scent of cut fennel billows around me, like the daring, darting swallows. These most agile of birds twist past within inches of my face as the tractor and mower plod back and forth, stirring all manner of insect treats from the vineyard grasses.
We have left it late and there remains much to do, but the regular rains and softer spring temperatures have prolonged the flowering. The Iberian wildlife has been drinking in the diversity. As have we. Even now, we am just cutting paths to leave swathes of growth for the eye and creatures to feast upon. It is good for the soul. Nature, by a country mile, is the safest of all anchorages in times of storm.
A friend has passed away.
Frank Prendergast was a film director, writer and inspiration, a gentle, wise and innovative flame, a family man first and foremost, a blues singer, a vital, generous friend to many: How long the list of his achievements in film and television, more so in life.
He and I have been on a great adventure for nearly six years, writing and polishing a screenplay and planning a film that will be based on my Norfolk novel Moon Daisy. He taught me so much and came to Mother’s Garden several times to write with me; wonderful, rare moments of creative harmony. His companionship was very special, as many will testify. I will finish his work on Moon Daisy, and the film will be another of his many vital legacies.
Frank came to harvest olives with his family, walking through the groves hand-in-hand with his grandchildren, feasting on paella cooked on an open fire and enjoyed at a long table under the fig tree; amongst the finest of days for all of us. As his daughter Rosie summed up so well, her Dad was at his happiest when the family was together, sharing food, sharing stories, sharing the loves.
What is it about unremitting gales? They get under the tail and knot the mind. June has been more settled and strangely less fierce, while in May winds whipped through the Priorat mountains as keenly as a North Sea blast that stirs the sand to sting your ankles. The half-clear skies were little consolation given the relentless ferocity.
They were so strong that a vast poplar tree on our neighbour’s land, roots loosened by squalls, toppled on to our power and telephone lines.
Crash, bang, fizz and wallop.
The power surge along the three-phase cable burned out the motors on our well pump, house water pump, washing machine, CD player, internet modem and telephone. Light bulbs popped and we wondered what was coming next.
A trek across the valley revealed the drama, and there was neighbour Pere looking stunned. The noise of the tree coming down just outside his back door followed by the sparks and the cable being ripped out of the side of his house was, he didn’t need to tell me, hair-raising.
A week earlier and I might have blown several fuses too, but perspective is always worth seeking and sometimes not so hard to find.
Excuse me while I step outside again, to reflect, but also to check on the pipes I have rigged up to run from the spring to the tanks in the farmhouse and the holiday cottage. In the past week I have had a stark reminder of the value of water, and how much we get through on an hourly, let alone daily, basis.
Next we must lock horns with not one but two insurance companies (home and holiday cottage business have different policies) to try and redeem the considerable funds it will take to replace everything. We are talking €1500, minimum.
And up she rises. Meaning little Sarai, complete with crash helmet, age unknown because I didn’t get the chance to ask before she left her father’s shoulders and scrambled barefoot to the top of the male and female human castle that grew skyward from the throng at the wine fair. Age guess – six or seven at the most.
Sarai made it, I was told (having turned my back), but she didn’t have time to raise her hand in the air on the seventh tier because ….yes, the tower collapsed amid gasps and cries.
I span round to see several people lying prostrate. One woman in particular seemed a stretcher case. There was no sign of Sarai. That’s it. I thought. Never again, for me or the team for that matter.
I left. The team did not. Nobody went to hospital. And for good measure they tried again….successfully…….six more times.
Tthe building of human towers, a centuries-old practice that started just down the mountain from where we live, is a fundamental statement by the Catalans. It is ingrained in their culture and signifies so much – togetherness identity, strength, balance, finesse and fearlessness. One can’t argue with any of that.
A team consists of all ages and both sexes. It brings together doctors, farm workers, housewives, the unemployed, police officers, you name them, and, hard as it may be for any parent to grasp, young children who want to climb.
Every team members wears a matching shirt, white trousers and a faixa, a wide, black sash of thick cloth wound tightly around the waist. This has two purposes – to support the lumbar region and also to provide a finger and toe hold for the climbers.
The putting on of the long faixa, impossible without the help of another team member, marks a change in the festival atmosphere. The energy and tension suddenly builds as the team ceases to socialise but comes together slowly but surely to begin the castle. This faixa time can last awhile, as everyone senses the effort, skill, teamwork and risk is about to begin. Then up it rises, frighteningly fast.
I am reliably informed that seven tiers high was the maximum, but now a few of the larger well-drilled teams have pushed this to nine. NINE. Someone even mentioned ten had been achieved and which point I walked away again.
Before I sign off, some news that would please Frank. Ella has passed all her baccalaureate exams, including five languages, and so will definitely begin her film studies at the University of the Arts, London, in September. How proud we are. Go girl.