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.
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.
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)
It had been a fitful, bitter and gusty night on the summit, but I was in the land of nod when Joe rose at dawn, wrapped his NCFC scarf around his neck and went for a long walk. It was an act that was to bring home to me a significant truth about my son.
How good to be so sure-footed and content with nature when you are rising 13 and beginning to look out at the world.
The night before I had bellowed like a fool, calling for him to come back when he had wandered off along a path and been engulfed by swirling cloud. I chastised myself (again) for showing the fear that is founded on how my heart sees him, as my little boy.
We were at 3000ft, camping on a vast limestone and rough grass plateau of sheer cliffs with just infinity for company. We had promised we would, and so we did, with Ella and Joe raising nearly £800 for Comic Relief.
Not just for the money, but for the inspiration to appreciate forever what naturalist John Muir meant. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you… while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
The significance of Joe’s dawn adventuring in that extreme place was, on my awakening, like a care falling as if a leaf. Of all the lessons of life the greatest have to include the enchantment of nature, to want to explore and sense it. Not to be afraid. To be secure enough to walk alone. To love what is real.
There are two worlds, of course – the one that presses in on us, human-made and so obsessive as to almost deny the relevance of the other, namely the fundamental, life-supporting biosphere. Almost. Everywhere I see hope. Society is awakening, rising on a wave of real values and fulfilment to question, challenge and change a system that will surely fail if it continues to put the pollutions of profit before the legacy of a sustainable existence.
Let me tell you the story of Manolo. It is a truth not a parable, although I think it should be seen as both.
From our mountain camp we could look down on Manolo’s distant house and farm. The good beekeeper is a vital member of his little village, someone the community knows it can rely upon for good deeds. But the village council underestimated him.
A new mobile phone mast had been constructed further up the valley, above Manolo’s land. The council took it for granted that he would not object to power lines running across his farm. He did. Manolo has more than 100 hives. The bees will be affected, he told them. They offered incentives but he stood his ground.
He knows what truly matters. No amount of risk is acceptable.
The world’s honeybee population has halved in 50 years. The European Food Safety Authority has released a study linking three neonicotinoid insecticides (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin) to bee decline, concluding that the chemicals posed a “high acute risk” when used on crops attractive to bees.
Yet, shamefully and dangerously the UK government refused to back an EC two-year restriction, and was rightly savaged for its “extraordinary complacency” by the cross party House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.
The bees symbolise the whole. The risk taking has to stop and Manolo is absolutely right.
Passive spring days are like an English summer dream here at Mother’s Garden, fostering with warmth and colour the emotional memories of my chosen youth, the days I want to remember, lush with life and light in peaceful Norfolk places when I was first numbed by the immeasurable beauty that is the great outdoors.
A serin, cousin of the canary, serenades from the treetop every morning. Then another joins in, and another. There have never been so many, or maybe I have never stood still so long to tune in to these tiny finches.
For weeks the effort has been to get a fix on the wryneck that only sings for a short while after its arrival. Kee-kee-kee-kee-kee. Easier said than done. But finally I got lucky and managed to track the call to a walnut tree then keep my eye on the blur of brown and buff mottled feathers as they whizzed on to a fig tree and then to another walnut. There it sat for five precious seconds, swivelling its head 180 degrees and allowing me to meet its eye.
It is said that when disturbed at the nest, the wryneck (genus jynx) uses this snake-like head twisting and hissing as a threat display. For this bizarre behaviour they were loved by witches, from whence has come the term to put a “jinx” on someone.
While serins have been thick in the trees, so wild asparagus has been plentiful on the ground (not to mention the breakfast menu, lightly sautéed and served on toast with a drizzle of the finest olive oil).
And here’s an embarrassing fact. Ella and Joe have recently taken me on an asparagus hunt just one mile from the farm, to a place I have never been to before. We now call it The Shire.
Due west there is a gorge into which the sun neatly sets. I’d assumed that it was impassable, and even if we did attempt to clamber over the boulders of the river bed there would be little to appreciate save a wall of rock on either side. For whatever reason I had never wanted to descend into the narrowest, lowest part of our valley.
The river was purring. The swathes of dry cane on both sides were being clattered by the wind making a sound like halyards trying to wake sleeping yacht masts.
There was an abandoned house with the words en venda – for sale – painted on one of the large stones in the wall. Its overgrown meadow was speckled with the tiny leafed mesh that is wild asparagus. Rich pickings. If nobody has beaten you to it there will be new shoots at the base, or if they have, it is best to double check because it is so easy to miss the succulent growths among all the twisted stems.
I had gone far enough, but the children lured me on with the promise of a “special place with loads of asparagus”. It wasn’t plausible, but just in case I followed.
I couldn’t believe it. Round the bend and there was still no ravine, but lush, well-tended gardens with little Hobbit houses built into the sloping land, radiating care and pride. They were the finest examples of the fertile plots where villagers spent countless fruitful hours. Through one open door I could see four, or maybe five people seated, sharing a meal.
I looked at the rows of vegetables and wondered how they had not been ploughed and plundered by the copious boar.
Another hundred metres on and the walls of rock finally closed in. The vegetation had all been combed down by the raging waters of March. Then we were at a base of a narrow abandoned terrace. Joe plunged into the undergrowth and we followed. There was just enough space to weave between bramble-engulfed hazels, and everywhere were fistfuls of asparagus happiness.
“Watch out for snakes!” I called out, as we pushed open the thorn door to the maze, but we were alone, nearly. There were no snakes, no Hobbits, but a solitary Southern Festoon butterfly. (I doubled checked – it wasn’t a Spanish Festoon.)
Keep well – and many thanks to those of you who are interested in renting or buying our farm. The conversations continue. I will tell you more next month.
It is the month of green and red, of course, although our shades may be a little different: the bounty of delicious new harvest olive oil and the miracle that is the red winter fruit of the strawberry tree.
We have been rushing hither and thither, completing our annual Christmas shipment of fresh olive juice to our key customers, preparing the farm for winter, planning the year ahead as sales of our award-winning cooperative olive oil in the UK, Canada and America climb at an ever increasing rate.
The word is spreading.
Just get in touch.
It is so necessary too, though, to find moments to stand and stare.
I see things differently come December.
Mistletoe appears from nowhwere, like the robin, holly berry and rosehip, and a friend’s garden in the lee of a great mountain is decorated with that indefinable delicacy of arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. It fruits a year after flowering.
And just yesterday – hallelujah – there was the flash of the kingfisher.
As the Iberian winter bites the tetchy cat has hijacked the little chair I salvaged from the rubbish tip. My plan was to perch on it while feeding the wood-burner, hence saving my creaking knees; but no.
So, just three days and counting….The Mayans ran out of chisels or stone when they got to December 21, 2012, and (as you are undoubtedly aware) the conclusion has been drawn that this signifies all of us have run out of time. KABOOOM.
I prefer to prescribe the ancient Greek definition of apocalypse – not a cataclysm but an unveiling, or revealing, in reference to a meaning of some kind previously hidden in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception.
Let’s hope so.
The sense of change is heightened, though, isn’t it? Maybe humanity is unsettled by the compacted burdens of so-called advancements that weigh so much and have forsaken so much, from braking the core of being, the atom, to robbing family and community and the individuals of priceless time.
Or do I sense a longing for change more here, in Catalonia, an angry “state” within sick Spain now far larger in the world conscience after linking arms with Scotland and striding towards independence?
Catalan president Artur Mas risks having a ragged Christmas, because a month after the election his Moses-like posters are still hanging from ever lamppost and the wind is getting up.
He called an early vote in the region to pump independence air into the tyres of his middle-to-right of the road bandwagon, but it backfired. He lost some ground if not his crown, while left-wing separatists found a new gear.
The majority of Catalans voted for one of the pro-independence parties, though, and it is such a single-minded place to be right now that there is a real chance of left and right forgetting their differences, forming a coalition and defying Madrid by calling a referendum.
The right-wing Spanish government of starch-rigid President Rajoy has declared any such vote unconstitutional, which has had people openly pondering on the likelihood of tanks rumbling through these villages.
I can’t see Europe letting it come to that, but why the clamour in the first place? The Catalans cite their ancient and unyielding claim of sovereignty, for reasons of language, culture and brutal history, and now even moderates have added their voices and votes, spurred by the economic mess.
Our village has already voted and declared it is not part of Spain.
Many Catalans think they would be better off going it alone because they pay far more in tax than they get back from Madrid, with this north east corner, the cornerstone of the “national” economy, constantly getting what they see as a raw and offensively dismissive deal from central government.
Certainly the mandate is clear enough for Artur and those seated at his round table, with nigh on a quarter of all Catalans flocking to a September rally to wave independence flags.
Fundamental issues of massive bureaucratic costs, EU membership, currency and the subsequent stability not only of a Catalan nation but what would be left of Spain form the meat course in this debate and we are just coming to it.
Spanish austerity was one of the topics discussed in my Norfolk home town of a couple of weeks ago.
A Spanish friend, a teacher, went to define to a gathering of anti-austerity UK residents the gravity of the situation here. She added her voice to a multi-party counter argument to the UK Government’s stringent economic policies.
How strange to see a photograph of a face from the heart of here standing in the high street of my youth.
For weeks now the day and night skies have been clear and calm, down to minus 5 beneath starlight. Every morning sunlight bounces from dew drops and jet specks in the sky.
On a 40-minute afternoon drive into the mountains to fetch Ella from a friend’s home the three griffon vultures circling overhead outnumbered the cars we passed along the winding lane of timeless charms.
The rains of late autumn have filled the reservoirs and brought our spring to life again. There is ample grazing for the horses. The chicken run has been reinforced and although a grey male goshawk has been sighted we have stopped the slaughter I recounted last month..
And as I walk the land and think of what the future may hold I reflect on how Adrian Bell felt on his Suffolk farm. How we appreciate him. I quote -
“I thought, today, how the family and one small farm fill our thoughts from waking to sleeping. Yet the farm occupies merely a moment of a traveller’s time. What a concentration of concern there is all over the lands and cities of this island, and what an anomalously impersonal thing ‘government’ is by contrast. It will be superseded, surely, by something more personal, an intensification of the personal concern, not a denaturing of ourselves from it, which is present politics. It should be as personal an affair as the old heraldic rule of kings was; but adult in conception, a fusion and a sharing, not egotism splendidly strutting.”
That was his hope in 1946.
What do I hope for everyone in 2013? An open-hearted, hopeful discussion on how to counter the sense of overload. Now is the time.
Have a wonderful Christmas. Peace in abundance. Ready smiles and steady hearts. Keep warm. Keep well.
Oh – and remember, whether you are in the United Kingdom or North America, you can get a taste of this life. We would love to hear from you.
Do you sense that walls are a store of echoes? Moments arrive and never really leave. Places seem to absorb the good and the grim and then hold them, emitting the essence of happenings.
I am acutely aware of this on entering an old building. Maybe you are too. Perhaps it is simply imaginings, but that first feeling rarely passes. The Mother’s Garden farmhouse enveloped us with welcome the first time we brushed aside cobwebs and opened the shutters to let in the light, and the happiness and goodness are still as warming and rich today as that first illumination.
Down the track, next to the wild flower meadow, people have carried laughter and contentment into our holiday cottage, and now there is song too. The abandoned water reservoir beside the pool, reconstituted with stout roof and glass doors as a dry space for good things, is flooded with tuneful voices forever more.
Fourteen people had come to Sing Away with teacher Teresa Verney, in a week jewelled with fulfilment and fellowship, swallowtail butterflies and glorious surprises.
Towards the end of last year I told of our and Teresa’s plans – inspired by our mutual friend the Jane Stevenson of Creature Comforters for whom Maggie makes some Bach flower remedies – to somehow combine Teresa’s great accomplishments with her Sing For Joy groups in Norfolk, England, with the happiness of here, and so it came to pass. Within days of the activity holiday idea being aired it was fully booked and our handwringing began. Would it work?
At the end of the seven days the assembled had gifted their echo and also sung spontaneously upon mountain tops, in a wine cellar, a church, a Syrian restaurant and in the former home and garden of a famous sculptor that’s now a sanctuary for the rare Mediterranean tortoise. Proof positive of the joy that can come of finding your voice, sharing, learning, eating, talking, drinking and laughing long and loud: Add to that taking long works, bird watching, standing and staring and scenting your hands by running them through herbs.
As for those glorious surprises, well, what can I say? Jim and Sarah Woodhouse, who live within the scent of the North Sea close to where I free-ranged as a child, are close friends of my godfather John Bell, the link being Lancing College, West Sussex, where Jim was headmaster and John was a master for 32 years. John had lodged with my parents at the start of his teaching career at 53 years ago. Then we discovered that Sarah is the founder of a charity we wholeheartedly endorse – it is called Right From The Start – which is committed to underlining the need for a loving and secure environment for children at the earliest stages of their lives and so create a similar core benefit within families and communities. How fundamental is that? Please have a look at the Right From The Start website.
I was just absorbing all of that when it emerged in coffee-break conversation that violinist Sarah Chadwick, who both sang and played at Mother’s Garden, is connected to two people I have the highest regard for.
Sarah is the niece of the late Roy Clark, author of the definitive Black Sailed Traders (1961) and one of the small group of leading local figures including Lady Mayhew and Humphrey Boardman who worked tirelessly to the save Albion and hence keep the story of the Broadland wherries alive. I wrote a small book about Albion in 1998 for the Norfolk Wherry Trust and the first words within it are, fittingly, not my own but Roy’s.
I talked to Sarah of my appreciation of him, and how his work was among the inspirations for my novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy. I explained that the book is about a violinist and that another touchstone for it had been the pastoral music of English composer Herbert Howells. Oh, she said. She had studied at the Royal College of Music and knew him. This is when I had to sit down. How I wish I had met him. He died in 1983 leaving a legacy of glorious works. When we make the film of Moon Daisy – yes, we are getting closer – the entire score will be drawn from his compositions.
So you see, I found the voices all the more enchanting, in song and word.
The singers went home and I wandered in the company of a nightingale. Diversity and pace; perhaps these are the keys to logging experiences, so long as we stand and just be once in a while to properly gauge circumstance and detail, to register our place in time and to remind ourselves to use that time better; to acknowledge the obvious that, somehow, some days, we do not see; to break our gaze from the mollifying collectives of some surreal diversions headed by the dire and (I pessimistically believe) encouraged anxieties of image, possession, economics and, ironically, time.
I am sometimes blown over by the rush of the human race, with people all but busting blood vessels to keep up with whatever they will dream up next to keep everyone paying. Is life truly satisfying when it amounts to a line of expensive and “awesome” funfair rides where you sweat to buy the ticket then just sit like a plum pudding?
Sorry. I just think everyone craves less of more, with time to live and give.
Now for news of a tight squeeze. What is adventure without a little terror?
I’m in a hole….well I was a few hours ago; more than four metres down an ancient chest-wide shaft cut into the red rock, to be precise, trying to fathom out why our spring has stopped.
I already knew from a “never again!” descent a couple of years back – remember? – that at the bottom of the shaft a tunnel barely big enough for a toddler had been painstakingly chiselled into the hillside. So I crouched, took an enormous breath, muttered a few foul oaths and paddled along it.
Five metres from the shaft there had been a great collapse. A pile of rocks and mud was blocking not only my way forward but also the flow of spring water. Roots dangled from the dark void above, and my feeble torch could just pick out a great space beyond the fall.
I backed out at a rate of knots and climbed into the sunshine to tell a visiting friend how scary it was. He immediately volunteered to go down with a camera. Mad as a box of frogs. Sure enough, the photographs showed what looked like a man-made stone arch beyond the rock fall. Who? How? When?
The dilemma is what we can do without disturbing what could be an important site. We figure there can only be about three metres of rock and earth above the cavern, making it highly dangerous to drive a tractor or even walk above there. And, as I said, the water to our bassa (water store) has ceased. Doing nothing is definitely not an option.
So I have just taken expert advice and within the next few days we expect to be carefully clearing above the rock fall, opening and unblocking the spring and taking a clearer, safer look at the arch and what lays beyond it.
Close to that point we have a most unusual terrace wall just before the summit of the farm, comprising of right angle lumps of rock bearing the remnants of lime render, as if they had been taken from a ruin. You know what I am thinking…….
This fertile valley has been peopled since Palaeolithic times, and the evidence is scattered everywhere. To site a dwelling on this gentle rise, close to water, would have been an obvious choice. Oh for the gift of time travel.
Just a few days before I descended into the blackness I and the family climbed the valley wall into the light to look over the timeless pattern of life.
We passed a pink man in a white vest and weathered jeans carved the loamy red earth with a mattock. His narrow terrace and the rhythm of his labour snaked towards us between the babble of the river and the silence of the forest. We were rising into the peace.
After downpours, double rainbows and thunderbolts the clear air overflowed with colour and life. We slowly zigzagged up the face of the limestone ridge, absorbed by the dappled-shade-delicacy of the moss and the fern amid the host of nature and its perfume, contentedly lost for words, lost in time. With late shoots of wild asparagus sprouting from our fists we walked along the top of the ridge as man and woman have always done, until we found a suitable ledge on which to contemplate and picnic. Bliss.
I will relay news of the spring works next month with tales of Nartists in residence too, but meanwhile leave you with another treat, for entomologists and all lovers of wonder.
As you stand in the horse corral, dusty as the High Chaparral, four to five staggeringly large hymenopterans fly figure eights around your ankles. They are 4cm long scolia flavifrons, black with two yellow bands, known to some as mammoth wasps. Nectar gathers who are as large as the carpenter bees that are working the wisteria outside the back door right now, and seemingly just as unaggressive, they are parasites of the rhinoceros beetle which perhaps explains their unceasing dance close to the horses.
Since Spook the Anglo-Arab steed arrived we have the best roses in the valley and have been able to gift sacks of hhuu, as my mum would call it, to neighbours. The juggernaut beetles have been lured by the dung fragrance too, so the circle of life spins on.
PS: I now write a small weekly blog for the small business blog http://sme-blog.com/ should our fiscal trials, tribulations and the merry dance of earning a living at Mother’s Garden be of interest. Anyone who is doing their own thing or is thinking about it might find the site helpful.
Ah, the ethereal contentment of loose leaf tea and fine literature.
Since November 10 we have spent an hour every Sunday morning wandering the fields and lanes of 1930s north Suffolk, England, in the irresistible company of Adrian Bell; living with him, lost in the colours and truths reflected in his eyes, walking in his measured stride so as not to miss a detail.
My selfish gift to Maggie on her birthday was the trilogy of Corduroy, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree penned by the columnist – nuggets of English pastoral writing and as treasured on this farm as much as the volumes of Lilias Rider Haggard, Ted Ellis and William Dutt. (Google them).
A dawn dressing-gown-and-wellies excursion to the chickens and horses while the tea brews, a minute nursing the wood-burner before back into bed to read to one another on the one morning when we try to cease worrying about the common, endless demands on time.
How good to read again Bell’s thoughts on what fulfils; how a pony and trap can hasten the real world into our conscience far swifter than a car ever will; how the morning rhythms of lamp and fire lighting ignite the spirit to face the day.
And coincidences fly up from the pages. Bell writes of Lapwings, now endangered but of which great clouds fill my childhood memories, wavering like blow leaves above the rolling fields of the north Norfolk coast within the salt scent of the North Sea. We read, we remember, and within days we spy four Lapwings on a hay field just a mile from Mother’s Garden, our first sighting during our eleven years here.
For there is, happily, some harmony between that life and this, where at arm’s-length from nauseating commercialism we are gifted immeasurable, timeless wonders to ponder and learn from, in tandem with the pains and rewards of bending the back to touch life and work the land.
We are one chapter from the end of The Cherry Tree, an aching thought, but I have asked a friend at BBC Radio Four to help us track down a recording of Martin Bell’s programme about his father, broadcast about five years ago. Did you hear it? And to steady our pace throughout the year we will next read Apple Acre (1942), Sunrise to Sunset (1944) and The Budding Morrow (1946), with the store of Bell’s later books to draw on after that.
The Swallows will race by from Africa any day now, for the birding has begun, fanned by the unseasonably warm, dreamy air. Wildfires are flaring across this parched peninsular (in March, for goodness sake) and we must balance this fear with the beauty and the awakening. The return of feathered melodies that faded away in October; the shocking exultation of a murmuration of Spotless Starlings spooked from the meadow; a Mistle Thrush on a pruned vine; a Sparrowhawk dining at the foot of an olive tree while a Short-Toed Eagle circles; the star bursts of almond blossom; the contentment of our horse and pony who have an acre of woodland and vineyard to graze.
Better still, our Kingfisher obligingly hangs around my office window; two Great Spotted Cuckoos condescend to be admired, drawn, it seemed, by the sound of paint being scraped from old shutters; and a pair of Sardinian Warblers flit between their nest in the choicia shrub beside the barbecue and a our vast fig tree where they hop about, hunting for bugs.
Then, when you think all is done that day comes the glory of the crystal night where Venus dances with Jupiter in the west, and easterly Mars makes us curious.
For half way there is “Curiosity”, the largest and most advanced rover we Earthlings have ever sent to explore another world, whistling along at six miles a second and due to land on our neighbouring red planet in August. Is this really a precursor to a one-way manned mission to the red planet within the next 20 years? Any volunteers?
While living the day we look back as well as forward.
Needing to recharge, and with nephew Yan agreeing to take up the reins, we wandered off to the coast for two nights, just an hour away, to savour the loneliness of sands that in summer pulse with near naked humanity, and to take an ages-old step into the past.
At the northern end of the smile that is Altafulla’s bay, just down an anonymous, short, walled path guarded by a squat palm tree, are the remains of a great Roman villa, Els Munts, one of the most important in all of Spain because of its size and the opulence of its decorations, including vast mosaics, gardens and two thermal baths.
It was a dwelling for six centuries, summed up in one lump of stone. At the end of a well-preserved mosaic walkway you can see where stairs once rose to the long-gone second floor. The first step, a foot high when laid, sags in the middle, half worn away by the footfall of residents, guests, servants and slaves.
How to get a handle on history, to measure it, sense it? Is it in a pupil’s conscience merely the length of a lesson, or as long as it takes to memorise a date? We sprint out of the school gate and that uniformed world into the heady immediacy of life, fuelled in a twentysomething chapter of immortality by the sense of it being our time. Now, as I wander happily downhill at Adrian Bell’s pace, I ponder what I have missed and I lament my weakening eyes. I am hungry to stare.
The low terrace of old white cottages built on the shoreline by long-gone fishing families is a charming front to some typically bland Spanish urban architecture. The crush of summer veils the truth, that on so much of this coast the magic has been swamped by so much mediocrity, laid bare by the cold honesty of winter. And this planning disharmony seems to drown some people’s sense of respect for the environment, with our rocky headland walk and imaginings of ancient beginnings strewn with the debris of idiots who couldn’t give a damn.
Whether it is here, Hinkley, Helsinki, Hownslow or Hull, can we collectively agree to stand tall and challenge anyone who couldn’t give a damn?
We walked on, jaws locked, to a tiny bay where Romans had carved rectangular blocks out of the rock and where, now, beards of grass-green seaweed ebb and flow. Again we left the present and ran our fingers across the past.
Let’s change the subject.
Anyone who lived through it should remember that ferocious UK gale in 1987 that flattened forests, stirred up a rainstorm of roof tiles and put the fear of God into everyone, and yet for all the mayhem is best remembered because of a BBC weather forecaster’s reassurances.
Just before the mayhem he had assured the nation, in response to a woman who’d phoned asking if a hurricane was on the way, that it wasn’t, and that Spain would get it instead. The storm veered north, 3 million homes were damaged, 15 million trees were uprooted and 19 people died.
Among the shocking images was one of a block of five garages – those little lines of adjoining, flat-topped buildings where the British keep their beloved cars….or not. A gust had torn the roof off in one lump and from the helicopter circling the devastation a photographer had gifted the world a spy satellite view of the contents.
Yes, you are right – there wasn’t a car in any of them. One was spotlessly clean and as empty as a politician’s promises. The other four, however, were stacked to the absent ceiling with things that “might come in handy one day”.
The relevance of all this is our 200-year-old farm Catalan barn; large as a house, and (you guess correctly once again) full of “stuff”. Or rather it was, because we have finally taken to the recycling centre a ludicrous number of glass jars, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, vinegar, children’s broken toys, perforated irrigation piping and an ancient sack of bread flower (lost and forgotten beneath the pile) that had turned to stone.
The vinegar had been lined up in a collection of dusty containers between the snow tyres and the yellow anti-freeze for the solar hot water system ever since our first winemaking attempt had gone horribly wrong. Delusional, we had wondered if it might improve with age.
Three hours, two rats’ nests and a dust storm into the task, Yan waved a carrier bag of something in the air.”Ay, Ay!” he said, looking inside again, his eyebrows completing the circle of his grin. “Beaten Rasquera to it have you?”
For those of you who haven’t had a whiff of this story that made the UK newspapers, the village where we buy our Christmas turkey is making plans to plant out 12 acres of cannabis to beat the economic crisis.
In our case the bag in question contained dried oregano if you must know, wedged underneath a couple of broken – but repairable – beach chairs. We do not grow pot.
The mayor of Rasquera’s plan is to free the 900-strong community of a whopping €1.3million debt by cultivating marijuana for a personal use cannabis association who will pay €54,170 a month: Heady stuff, in my case for two reasons.
Are small Spanish towns and villages really sliding into that degree of debt? Blimey. And what exactly is the legal situation for such a radical project because it’s seems to be without precedent? I sense a storm brewing….
Mind you, just be grateful they haven’t shortlisted your neck of the woods for the $22.3 billion EuroVegas resort – a Vegas-like strip of 12 hotels, dozens of restaurants, a convention centre, three golf courses, a stadium and six casinos, modelled, unnaturally on the neon outcrop in the Nevada desert.
Spain has been chosen because of the climate and (maybe, no probably) the recession, in that the American creators are said to be looking for hefty concessions from a national government that is sufficiently desperate for jobs and investment.
It seems both Barcelona and Madrid are the finalists. For once I want Madrid to win.
There are places where time concertinas, when history thumps you in the chest. Marçà-Giné’s ledge, a 60-seconds eagle glide from Mother’s Garden, is one such cradle of whispers.
A vast lump of limestone, as big as a bus, rests, tilting slightly, at the rear of this human eyrie, beneath the summit of the little Miloquera mountain. Scars on the face of the cliff tell of where it once protruded, giving shelter to a Neolithic community. Scattered artefacts have been found, and suddenly you witness with your mind’s eye the trauma of that second it lost its grip. What – who – may be have been crushed beneath?
Fifty feet in front of it, half way to the lip of the great ledge and the mosaic vista of farms and forests in the river valley, a crumbling earth bank cannot hide its Roman secrets among the stones: A finger bone, the shattered end of a forearm relic. Who was it? What did that life amount to? What was their world, their experience, their voice?
The ledge, as ample as a football pitch and now only inhabited by the wind and tortoises, once offered the vital elements to an early existence – relative security, water from an inexplicably high spring, a closeness to the heavens. Beyond the Roman graveyard the neat footings of a temple run east to west. The twisting track from below is a way of sorrows, with Stations of the Cross leading skyward to a site of Christian devotion for the faithful.
And at the peak, 100 feet above the ages-old refuge, one defiant jagged corner remains to tell of the castle that looked down on the long lost timber homes that crowded this perch through the Dark and Middle Ages.
Over recent centuries the village has trickled to the base of the mountain and turned to brick, where, in one house among the many leaning into the narrow streets, Marçà-Giné was born in 1918. This renowned sculptor and later-life recluse was the final master of the ledge, the last of the ghosts. Revered by his community they gave him the space and peace he needed to work, reforming the scattered Roman temple stones to build him a great house high above them.
Marçà-Giné died five years ago and the village council decided to transform the space around the cobwebbed house from abandoned vineyard into a startlingly beautiful herb garden and sanctuary for the rare local tortoises. But the money ran out before work could begin within the walls.
Every time I have taken visitors to the “Garden of Scents”, to count newborn tortoises, breathe deeply and look out over the timeless sierra as all chapters of humanity have done, the house and its secrets have been sealed. Until this month.
We had ascended with two Norfolk friends, with good reason but little hope of getting beyond the gates because the garden is closed to the public in winter.
Teresa Verney, who runs Sing For Joy gatherings in orfolk (Norwich, Cromer, Sheringham and Binham), had come to plan with Maggie a Sing Away holiday tour at Mother’s Garden next April – sold out in a week, but we are making plans for more. The ledge seemed a perfect place for the guests to spend an hour in full voice, if Teresa agreed. The idea is to base the singing and socialising at the farm, with outings to beautiful places, with walks and feasts, laughter and beauty.
Jane Stevenson of Cromer-based Creature Comforters, the flower essence maker, was there too. She sings for joy with Teresa and also works with Maggie on essences, so came for two enriching reasons.
As we approached the gate our friend Pere the retired blacksmith and village historian with a timeless face and steady heart was just locking up after an hour of pottering. He pulled his pipe from his mouth, smiled like the sun and put the key back in the padlock.
We entered the great house from the side, climbing and crossing the flat roof of the pottery and kiln to emerge into the vast second floor, where all interior walls had been removed. Bunches of bone dry herbs were strung from beams. Cobwebs curtained windows and sewed a black wooded chair into a door frame.
A grand fireplace dominated the far end, and round the corner on the kitchen wall the sculptor had painted in great letters “I WILL NOT LET FAME ROB ME OF MY LIBERTY”.
Pere guided us down narrow stairs patterned with Marçà-Giné’s clay hand prints. We slowed, fanned fingers and pressed our palms into his. Below was the dusty ground floor leading to the cold kiln and redundant workshop with its line of empty shelves. To the back of the building a hole had been punched through into the now dry chapel chasm of the old water store. Teresa ducked and entered and it resonated with song as, from another corner, Pere turned holding an unopened wine bottle caked in time.
The house was not without the living. Four tortoises who had yet to hibernate were stocking up on lettuce leaves on the bare earth of an ante-room.
Back at the farm, Maggie, Teresa and Jane sat at the kitchen table and worked excitedly on the detail of the April singing holiday, agreeing that they would begin with a group of 15. I, meanwhile, lost in time, wandered outside and gazed up at Marçà-Giné’s ledge.
I will post again in a few days, with news of the olive harvest…………