I stand, shrink. The web of grasses and bare earth awaken the soles of my shoeless feet. There is the sweet, toe-flexing coolness of dew. Figs are falling like tears, and dawn is delicately cast with the first inklings of autumn.
Hundreds of Swallows and Martins call and swirl, lifting my chin and heart and taking my mind far from the heavy weight that is the myopia of humanity. Where on Earth are we headed? The birds are bound for Africa. It is another survival master-class before the great departing, and the young, new to the wing, follow the adults as they swoop at pace to gracefully scoop water into beaks from our reservoir; a fine, perilous art that takes time to master, and the fledglings smash the mirror surface repeatedly, somehow hauling themselves back into the air. I stand by in case of disaster, net at the ready, but there is none. Not today.
I cannot stand constantly at the edge of the water, with the fathomless mountains and forest to my back, much as I would choose to, and so yesterday I found a drowned novice that will not be journeying to Africa. It will feed a rose instead.
The cacophony, movement and colours flood all the quicker the more I slow. I diminish some more as context grows. The heat builds, the birds retire to the phone wire and I wander back to the shadow cast by the farmhouse, through the olive grove and via a far smaller open-top irrigation container where the bees love to drink but occasionally flounder. A finger is dipped for them to climb onto.
My increasing need is to journey, to cut the distance between me and nature.
Is that a Sardinian Warbler on the woodpile? I sit on a frail chair, unable to go back into the house. Ants have found the unwashed dogs’ bowls, hazels are falling in slow motion like the figs, time has almost stopped. In a flash the monarch of headlong life, the kingfisher, takes a goldfish and shakes the world out of its dream.
The garden table made from rubbish tip salvage still holds the loud echo of a recent lunch when Jen the cat curled in the guitar case and was serenaded to sleep. How sustaining to carry plates outside, far from plugs, with eternity for a ceiling, to be fed on sometimes gentle, sometimes profound conversation marinated in good food and harmony.
I have never been more certain – reinforced constantly by the Mediterranean insistence of giving time for food and, hence, family – that by sitting down together daily to eat will be the saving of us, the disconnected species; so loud, so fat in the self-conscience, so short-sighted and increasingly distant from our roots and the real world; as we all must surely sense, a social species in desperate need to find a way back to family and community, to communication across the generations, to respect, tolerance and goodwill.
Yes, the invaluable security and worth of tables, where we can all be comfortable, belong, fit, share, listen, learn. That old garden table keeps giving.
Joe told us as we ate of a recent meeting at the old fish market in town. On the Low Road, as it has been known since Gothic days, close to the crowd of smiles at the ice-cream parlour (home-make, to expire for) stands a void between the tall terraced houses. All that is left is the gateway bearing the faded words of past scents and bustle – Pescaderia.
Joe was translating this for a visitor. An elderly gentleman, a stranger to us, stepped out of a nearby house and slowly made his way to Joe’s shoulder. He was neither invisible nor uneasy about talking to young people he did not know.
I remember when it was bombed, he said. It was in 1938 at the end of the civil war. I was a young boy. I was in my bedroom and I heard the whistling of the first bomb. There was a flash and the glass of the window blew in. My mother ran into my room and we raced down into the cellar. We did not know where my brother was. More bombs fell on our house and the fish market and we were trapped for days. I never saw my brother again.
We were eating in the shade of the house, between the crumbling lime render of the north wall and the tubs of three runner bean plants that have not thrived. It was a very late lunch, in the still, heavy air just before the 4pm sweet breeze from the sea.
We were stepping away from the computers and telephones, into the infinite, calming greatness.
I had my back to the pitted wall. There was a low hum. I turned and a fat and yellow creature cruised past my nose and back again – what looked like a hornet, but on reflection may not have been given what transpired.
It was twice the size of your average yellow and black incubus. Mesmerising. During the next five minutes it completely ignored me as it painstakingly explored holes in the render between the red stones, before suddenly rising rapidly through the tangle of wisteria and making a waspline for the woods.
We ate. The breeze arrived. Then back came the purring juggernaut, only now it was clutching a lime-green cricket that was twice its size. What power. Within a few seconds the paralysed prey had been hauled into the chosen hole, presumably food for the wasp’s offspring. But what was it? It had hornet markings but they are not solitary, and it did not look like a bee-wolf wasp. How I wish I had a photograph to show you.
But I did present you with photo-puzzle the other day, didn’t I? Clay pots in a tidy row, most of them sealed. Here is the grisly and frightening story behind them.
The creator was another winged resident of Mother’s Garden, the female pottery or mud dauber wasp, a viscous looking beast with a narrow, thread-like waist and long sting needle that, in fact, is mostly passive where humans are concerned. We regularly have to guide one out of the house.
All these pots, each two centimetres long, were the work of one female, and inside each pot is one lava and several paralysed spiders for it to feed on until it is ready to take wing.
How deep the pool of unknowns and how much to wonder at: How under our noses there is extraordinary life, if we but stop and see, and drop our guard, preconceptions and fears.
A wasp isn’t just a wasp, though it is a fine example of the narrow view.
Wasps come in all manner of colours and the number of species tops 30,000. Or rather, that is the number identified so far, but with nearly 10,000 new species of insects being discovered annually it could well be higher by now. (Have I found another one?)
And although we think they swirl around in gangs looking for humans to puncture, most wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging, or non-aggressive varieties. They are another critical, wondrous detail in the tapestry.
Wasps are members of the Hymenoptera order, along with bees and ants, considered to be the most beneficial to life through their pollination of fruit and vegetable crops.
There are a staggering 115,000 species of Hymenoptera, making it the second largest group to Coleoptera (beetles) of which there are 300,000 known species.
The current book pile in our bathroom is as eclectic as ever: Eric Newby travel logs, Catalan grammar course book, English poetry and, yes, a detailed guide to entomology. All of them inform me, not least how little I know.
The leaning tower of literature by my bed is too tall to list, but on top is JM Roberts’ History Of The World which I am reading to Maggie. I first read it to her two decades ago.
We are in the thick of the Roman republic, sliding towards the age of emperors, further flourishes of efficient domination and expansion, and on finally to the corruption, crumbling and collapse of something that had once seemed eternal.
What was it like for that final generation as the sand ran out?
It is unnerving reading, especially when I can bear to turn 360 degrees and attempt to hold all that is manifestly soul-breaking about the human situation now: the weight of relentless, unthinkable aggressions; the wrong, selfish, denial among the economic and political power brokers who are locked into the ages-old patterns of greed and control; the portents of palpable climate change.
I need nature more than ever – to step outside regularly, distancing myself from the numbing babble of the unbridled information age and to find clear air in which to counter the exhaustion, doubts: To try, in my own barefoot way, to find context.
A few elderberries hang from the high branches. We gathered what we could to make cordial and jelly, and now the shoal of sparrows is working to clear the rest, chirping with glee and purple paint-balling the car.
Last week we timed our evening dog walk to coincide with the honey-light and iridescent congregation of bee-eaters on the power line at the top of the farm. More and more. Maggie counted sixty. Yet our honey bees thrive too.
Life in happy balance. Reasons to hope.
Yesterday I told of treasures of time, colour and song. Here they are – that swallow on the sundial and, fleetingly, the golden oriole on the crown of the Friar Tuck fig tree.
Care to share my blogs with others? The more that sense Mother’s Garden the happier my world.
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.
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.
And don’t let me forget to tell you the story of the blue bird and the blue whale….. another true story from The Garden.
Fairies dwell in our garden. It’s always good to be away with them. We join for sustenance almost every dappled evening now, weeding and watering our vegetable patch and minds.
May. It sedates the cats and lifts the heart with beguiling shades of new life that surges before the eyes. When I listen hard I see more, and even deadening ear protectors for occasional tractor duty only seem to evoke dreamier enchantments.
There is so much to fill every minute, what with the need for paths through the waist-high grasses while avoiding the wild flowers, and especially now that the holiday cottage has awoken with the deepening of the warming seasons and the lengthening of the outside hours, when people want to change their rhythm for a while, to touch the earth, bare their knees, stare at stars and hear the cacophony of nature that we all call peace. The bookings calendar is, finally, beginning to fill through to September – air for the financial rubber ring. Still gaps though, in case you were wondering.
And in the office my book and screenplay ponderings blur with managing olive oil shipments and sales in the UK as customers wanting at least the summery taste of Mother’s Garden send their orders. Sales build as the word “freshness” spreads and I must re-visit my passionate thoughts on the delicious and healthy subject of the juice of the olive before flying back to the UK to give a presentation at Hunstanton Golf Club at the end of the month. I’ll then move on to London to see our Ella who has just finished her Film Foundation course at the University of the Arts.
We crack on early with the many tasks after a round of animals feeding and plant watering. Yet, when we flop for early evening English tea the meditative tasks of the vegetable garden inspire us to stand again. When approached in the right frame of mind it is not toil, but comfort, don’t you agree? The art, of course, is to tickle along, to make small but visible advances every day, and when we don’t there is a pang. There are the usually misses as well as the hits, and the occasional rewards of indescribable goodness for the table. But equally importantly, we need this gentle time, individually and as a couple.
Last night two new raised beds, prepared with a mix of mature pony poo and ash, were planted with aubergines and peppers. While Maggie carefully spread olive leaf mulch around them I puzzled over how best to increase on last year’s runner bean crop of four pods. The plants reached the top of the canes and we watered the leaves, flowers and roots, but it was most probably the heat that stopped the fruiting. We planted too late. This year the plants are deciding. They have shot again from last year’s roots. Can I create some sort of shade for them?
If the rampant lettuces are anything to go by we have got the soil balance about right for once. Next to go in are the tomato and melon seedlings, plus some more runner beans.
At the back of the house our peas, French beans, courgettes, onions and broad beans aren’t exactly flourishing , and I think I may lose two of the ten young olives I in the autumn. A third is looking unhappy too, so at first light I cleaned around them all, laid down some mulch, watered and talked.
Today I must strim down the grass touching the electric fence, grit my teeth and test the system, for another hog season is upon us, that time of year when midnight wild boar shed their shyness and come within feet of the farmhouse door in search of salad sustenance.
It was still 21 degrees at 9pm last night, but by sunrise there was dew and a zing in the air. Wrynecks, golden orioles and serins have joined the chorus, and the barn swallows and fig tree bee eaters chose the same day to wing in from Africa. Today I have been trying in vain to photograph the pair of short-toed eagles riding the blue river of light between the banks of the Catalonian mountains.
The wild asparagus season has waned, sadly, but we have had our fill, which reminds me of our very recent, extraordinary stay in Rutland, land of my ancestors, the Healey clan of Edith Weston. Two incidents made it extraordinary. First, we spied wild asparagus in England for the first time (but I am not at liberty to tell you where….) and, second, we were there when the earthquake struck. It felt like a truck had reversed into the building. Been to countless countries where the earth moves and never felt a twitch.
Ah yes. The blue bird and the blue whale.
Ever since I can remember we have had a large gourd shell that needed to be put to a good purpose. The hollow, hard, bulbous former vegetable had been lying about; beautiful to the eye, but unless we used it as a water carrier like ancient civilisations it was destined to be merely decorative and homeless. Like a great many useless things we can’t bear to throw away, it ended up moving around in the barn.
My nephew Yan, a musician, digging for bits to repair the dog kennel for us, saw it and asked if he could use it to make a kora harp. He’d learned to play and make them in Senegal. Great. One side was cut away, leaving two-thirds of the shell and the funnel neck intact. But he ran out of time and so the gourd shell returned to an old crate.
Then artist Paul, a regular visitor, spied it. I think it had moved to near the gardening bits and bobs by then. He thought it was perfect for an up-light. He painted it as a striking blue whale, with two small holes for eyes. We put it in the outside toilet near the holiday cottage swimming pool and, boy, did it shine. Once or twice.
But the convenience, which has western saloon bar swing doors for, er, ventilation, is rarely used at night, and not at all through the winter and spring.
Yesterday Maggie was in there, clearing and cleaning in preparation for our first guests of the season who arrive today. Only they will have to use the loos in the cottage, not the one with the whale light.
A blue tit has built a nest in it and there are about eight eggs about to hatch.
We’ve turned the outside sign round from vacant to occupied.
Keep well, and happy gardening.
And if you like the tales for The Garden, please spread the word. The more the merrier.
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.
Today is a very big day for us as we share with you our new label design for the first time.
After much thought and work in recent months (thank you to everyone who has helped us) we have created a new label to give customers the essential information about what matters; freshness, provenance and quality.
This includes putting the key dates – when the olives were picked and pressed and the oil bottled – first and foremost. This information is essential, yet rarely given on most olive oil bottles.
We all want fresh food, so why not olive oil too, a wonderful food full of goodness that is, simply, the juice of a fruit?
And at the heart of the new labels our lovely tree trademark, designed by niece Rosa and daughter Ella when they were just nine and six, stands all the taller, full of life and goodness.
Please consider sharing this with your friends. With thanks.
We are back at the mill again today preparing a second December New Harvest shipment for England. Please get in touch if you would like to reserve 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)