Nature whirls around us, vortices of leaves reminding of the turning of the year, and we are transfixed by the kaleidoscope of existence, and death, of colours that matter.
This November the vivid hues have been yellow – not all autumn mellow but fierce too – and blood red.
Feathers have been flying at Mother’s Garden and horror has been muddled with awe. It has been carnage, not of a cat among pigeons but a goshawk among chickens.
Our brood was decimated just over a week ago, between 9 and 10 in the bright morning, and we couldn’t fathom what or how. Three dead, one wounded and another missing. Two days passed and another was taken during daylight.
After the first shock we discussed the usual suspects; fox (plentiful in the valley, but the manner of the deaths was not typical); badger (we have seen one black and white nose this year), stoat and weasel (both distinct possibilities). We looked for openings and reinforced the stout wire where perhaps, maybe, the killer could have squeezed.
We never looked to the sky. Why? Because the run was netted with the green plastic fishnet designed for fruit cages. There were a couple of gaps but we thought it was comprehensive enough to deter an aerial assault.
Maggie spotted it. We had just returned from picking up our mail in the village and there, round-shouldered like a Dickensian villain, a female goshawk was in the run, feasting on yet another chicken. I ran to the house to get my camera. Maggie edged nearer, opening the gate and trying to urge it out. The mustard-eyed, audacious raptor merely dragged the half-eaten corpse under the henhouse.
“What is it for goodness sake?”
I went into the run. Fool. The bird circled, hanging from the wire for a few seconds to allow me to hazard a guess from the plumage that it was a goshawk. Then it stood and stared straight at me with those unmistakable goshawk eyes; a large, brown-backed, seriously disgruntled bird, possibly a female.
I backed out, leaving the gate as wide as possible so it could take its leave. We watched as it rose and burst through the weak green netting, flapping slowly away past the cherries towards the forest. Privilege wrestled with despair. What a rare and wonderful sight; what a mess.
Birders will be wondering, as have I, how one bird could be responsible for multiple kills. This is not normal and there is the possibility that another carnivore was responsible in part. All I can say is that three of our birds were taken on different days. After the first slaughtering of three, the dead birds had puncture marks like stabbings, not bites.
What do you birders out there think? Is it possible one bird could do so much?
Meanwhile, despite the loss and the new labour of erecting more defences, it was a rare moment of closeness to life as well as death. Thankfully the hawk appeared completely unharmed. Now a neighbour has called to say two of his hens have been taken.
This month the birds most in evidence have been the buzzards on the phone posts, the jays and ravens, the grey heron preying on our goldfish, murmurations of spotless starlings, charms of goldfinches, two great musterings of migrating storks high in the clear sky, and great quarrels of sparrows splashing in the stone bath that has been constantly topped up by squalls.
How good the rain: More than a foot in five weeks. It came early enough to help the olives swell, and the harvest has been better than hoped, though we shivered and dripped as we carefully combed the fruit into the nets then poured them into crates. Our cooperative mill chatters urgently as the olives are brought in from the surrounding groves, in contrast to the gentle click of the dominoes of the retired farmers in the bar.
They seem oblivious to the television flickering on the wall, telling of latest developments on the talked-of independence showdown (critical elections tomorrow) and the endless economic woes. And it seems that not even the roar of engines will distract them from their game.
The world rally cars have rushed by as they do for a day every autumn, preceded and succeeded by the bizarre entourage of lads who love speed and loud exhausts. The night before the “stage” the narrow lane clogs in one direction with the laughable mix of boy racers, desperate to burn rubber, stuck behind impassable, wallowing blancmange camper vans driven by more mature devotees. The next day back they came, leaving behind piles of rubbish … and worse.
There was one close call. Our neighbour, a shepherd from Andalusia, has a knackered horse. Just as the first tarmac adrenalin rush was starting it snapped its tether and decided to stand in the lane, on a blind bend. As I ran towards it three vehicles missed it by a whisker. It didn’t dawn on any of the drivers to stop, but to be fair, as I was nearing the animal, the last one wound his window down and shouted without slowing that there was a horse. I cannot repeat my reply.
The dear old nag, part cream part dirt, now wild-eyed but still rooted to the spot, finally let me lead it back to the shepherd’s farm and the debris of dead mopeds, rubble, an upturned barrow on broken pipes and a ram’s skull on a post. Goats and sheep were penned with geese behind a blockade of old pallets. Two passive sheepdogs barely stirred and there was no sign of the large black female hound that earlier in the year had snatched one of our free-ranging hens to feed her latest litter.
The shepherd, who lives in the village not the semi-derelict farm dwelling, was in the bar when he answered my call. His response was a colourful as the mosaic of his farmyard and I could hear his wreck of an old Opel rumbling down from the village, and imagined it trying to overtake the hotrods.
As for the rally, it is but one weekend a year, a toxic reminder of how much I have changed.
Today the dawn was priceless, as jewels of dew were illuminated by a cold sun filtering through the mists. For the first time we have wild asparagus in November as well as April, and one pear tree is convinced it is blossom time. The crocus blooms give us dreamy delicacy and saffron for paellas. Mulberry, poplar, oak, fig, plane and hawthorn scatter embers of autumn across the valley, crowding the ribbon of the river banks with their chorus of colour. How good for the heart.
STOP PRESS: The new harvest olive oil is tremendous, and we are taking UK orders now for unfiltered oil, available in 2 litre containers or cases of 6x500ml bottles.
Powerful stuff, packed with fruit and goodness, a gloriously fresh, rare treat for Christmas.
We are bottling to order, and so we need to hear from you by Sunday evening, December 2.
The target is to get this fresh arbequina Mother’s Garden olive oil to mainland UK customers by the festive holiday. Email us. The choice is for a 2 litre (£27.50 delivered), or case of 6x500ml bottles (£50.50 delivered), unless you are part of a hub or share a delivery with friends which cuts the transport cost.
We hope to have this fresh olive oil with North America customers, through our friends at Dos Cielos Privado in Toronto, early in the new year. Get in touch with them for more information.
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.
The joy of swimming in the farm reservoir while the Sand Martins and Swallows swoop to drink around our heads has to be balanced with the droppings hitting the sheets on the washing line. Maybe we need to move the line! Another question is how long we can tolerate the Swallows nesting in the barn. We love them and will never stop them, but there are seven nests on the high beams now and the mess means we need to cover everything.
Strangely the Bee-Eaters have not come near our four hives so far this summer, but they are here in plenty, increasing in number. We have found new colonies, and see one pair boldly return to an old site in a bank right beside the lane.
The Golden Orioles sing at sunrise and the Buzzard patrols, and the best sightings have been of a Pied Flycatcher, Peregrine, Bonelli’s eagle that glided very low over the farm, and an Alpine Chough. The Chough was a first for us, and clearly identifiable. The sighting was, naturally, higher in the mountains, but still only about 5 miles from Mother’s Garden.
A butterfly footnote. All of the honeysuckle we have planted is bringing not only glorious scent but a surge in the number of Southern White Admirals. The larger White Admirals are again much in evidence, but I have not seen a Swallowtail caterpillar on the fennel or a Swallowtail butterfly on the farm so far this year. It can’t be long…….
The Mother’s Garden bird family is together again – and more. Life abounds in lush, loud May.
The chestnut-capped Woodchat Shrike has returned, and flew back and forth in front of the tractor to boldy announce “I’m here”. I was cutting part of the meadow revealing all manner of foods, and within one hour I heard the call of Golden Oriole, saw the flash of yellow through the pines, and then was joined by three Hoopoes eager to explore the shortened grass for bugs.
Sparrows and Goldfinches sway on the surging fennel stalks, while above the pony corral a Warbler, possibly a Melodious Warbler but yet to be identified for certain, heralds the day.
In the village and above the farmhouse the Common Swifts are the last to arrive and turn the high narrow streets into race circuits. Their shrill screams and flashes of speed fill the air around the church, while on the farm the Swallows that nest in the barn sit barrel-chested on the phone wire and we listen to the Blackbirds, Chiffchaffs, Corn Buntings, Meadow Pippits. Flocks of Spotless Starlings tear back and forth, with the occasional colour of a Jay. The Green Woodpecker has been hard a work for weeks now and the Mistle Thrush that nested in one of the olive trees has successfully reared three.
Other highlights have been the increasing number of Bee-eaters, with a new colony established half a mile from the farm (and our four hives), and also good sightings of Peregrines returning at dusk to the valley’s limestone cliffs. A Bonelli’s Eagle with snake in its talons gifted us a glorious view as it drifted by late in the afternoon and we have logged both Kestrel and Hobby, but still no sign of Golden Eagle or Goshawk.
And with all this life and song come the colours of the butterflies and moths too – too many to list, but including the fennel-loving Swallowtails.
The biodiversity of Mother’s Garden gives us more and more.
….. Just as I was re-reading this blog a Great Tit flew into the kitchen where I am working, its beak full of dog hair. It came through from what we call the chaotic office and boot room, where Biba the dog has her armchair and where at this time of year the back door is rarely closed. That said, the Great Tit must have braved the bead curtain to enter.
It sat on a window shutter and watched me for a while, then as I gently closed the shutters so it would be draw back to the light beaming in the back door (where I had taken down the bead curtain) it merely switched its perch to my computer screen and then the drying rack beside the sink. Finally it decided to leave. What a treat.
Señor Juan, the gentle grower of so much goodness, has gone. Who will tell the bees?
It is five Easters since Juan gifted us two humming hives and a pair of persimmon saplings. Or is it six? There are too many years to remember.
He’d walked me up the steep track to the sandy crown of his land beside the railway line. I kept my distance as he moved bare headed, bare armed and completely unharmed along the line of his honey family, opening and checking each of the 12 houses to find the heartiest for us.
While the sun floated away he took me to his barn to seek amid the dust of ages some spare frames and wax sheets, and to guide me as to how one marries the two by warming the wire. From one particularly large pile of redundant bits and bobs he procured his old keeper’s hat with veil, handing it to me with a knowing smile.
There was no hurry. When the twilight had silenced the breeze and softened the distance, drawing the bees home, we returned to his apiary and he gently closed the entrance slits of the chosen hives which were carried with care to our car. In all his actions and utterances there was the comfort of calmness, the measured pace of one who had covered so many miles, mostly, I suspect, on the rich earth of orchards.
What springs forth on his land now are tears. The life-pattern of impacted paths still defies the weeds, but the blush of care and love is now weighed with the first stirrings of wilderness. A different beauty will come, eventually, but the collision of great care – rows of fruit trees and the mosaics of flower beds and vegetables plots – with sudden abandonment, holds all the more poignancy when you know the person, the story.
Juan tended his hives even though he was a diabetic, and it was obvious to all who knew him that the scents and colours of that little farm were weaved into his being. For whatever reason much of what was produced there fell to the ground, a perplexing aspect of a very private life. To be asked to share any of it was a huge privilege, and I sit here remembering with awakening senses one breath when, turning full circle, I was happily lost among the heady harmony of peach fragrance and endless rhythm of trees.
Who, indeed, will tell the bees? I will. Now. As Celtic wisdom decrees
Marriage, birth or burying,News across the seas,All your sad or marrying,
You must tell the bees.
Here at Mother’s Garden all is awakening after nearly six inches of rain in a week. Green is adorned with yellow (rough hawkbit wild blooms and male brimstone butterflies), white (shepherd’s purse) and soft blue (Persian speedwell).
The air is full of birds and song, and the screech of a mother jay as she leads her three offspring on circuits through the pines. We await the first green beginnings of the vines now tidy after pruning, but have given up waiting for the ponies.
Remember talk of pregnancy? Everyone seemed convinced, and the law of averages dictated, that there had to be foal consequences after the stallion invited himself to our corral 17 times. But no. The vet has popped along, given our lawn mowers and fertilizer manufacturers the once over and gladdening my heart. What we have, it transpires, are two grossly overweight ponies. Short rations are the order of the day, month and possibly year for La Petita and Remoli,which is not helping their disposition one iota.
There are benefits. After being dragged by Remoli this morning as I was putting her out to graze my working clothes had the faint scent of wild thyme. That made a difference from the aura of chickens after a deep clean of the hen house and setting up some low perches for the geriatrics among the brood.
Woodwork has also included Joe’s increasingly intricate stable for his toy horses, made from an old wine box, assorted bits of waste timber and about 200 toothpicks. He and I have been tickling along with it for about a month and we are almost there. The debate is what comes next. I vote bird boxes, he votes tree house, which I suppose means that, roughly speaking, we are in accord.
On the western fringe of the farm there is a grand holm oak with boughs that fan out conveniently at the same height, although I am of the opinion it is too high as it leans over a broad, deep gulley.
Aiding and abetting Ella and Joe with the planning were Grace and Thomas, 18-year-old American farm volunteers who weeded, lopped, gathered vine prunings, burned, strimmed, mulched and, basically, worked their socks off for three weeks, which wasn’t a problem.
When they left for Germany we worked out it had been a seven socks visit. Every evening Grace would sit by the woodburner knitting toe warmers, a homely sight that also had both of our children searching for needles and wool again.
Thomas, meanwhile, wandered the farm with his two cameras, taking some of the photographs newly featured on our gallery. He and Grace became part of the family and, once more, we have been grateful for the worldly contact that has come through the HelpX website. www.helpx.net
PS A very important footnote – please also see www.imaginemozambique.org. Many of you will know that, with all love and admiration, we do what we can to support Lorraine and her charity in Mozambique. I was there, once upon a time, and saw first hand what Lorraine and her late husband Joe, began more than twenty years ago, bringing light, hope and help to the lives of children and adults coping with challenges beyond common comprehension. This is the new website. Now you too can see. Support Lorraine and her team if you feel able. Thank you.
Here’s a quick list of recent visitors.
A Cormorant has passed through the valley – a strange sight in the mountains – stopping off to feed on the goldfish in our reservoir. It did us the favour of dislodging the Grey Heron before moving on.
We had an excellent sighting of a Hobby, biding its time at the top of a young fir tree in front of the house, and a Goshawk circled above us for a while during a recent walk in the mountains.
The Hoopoes are back, and such has been the mildness of the winter we expect to see more migrants soon.