Ping. Spring bursts, headlong, certain. Lucid blossom pops on the fringes of the meadow, at the feet of budding vines, on the fingertips of the black-barked almonds. The reaches of the bare walnut canopy chime with chaffinch song.
It is disconcerting, bewilderingly precipitous.
I’m trailing behind the dogs, beyond the olive grove into the spooky shadows of the pine copse on the gentle sloping terrace above the corral. It is a place of whispers, corridors and half light, not so dense, nor too open, the fitting place to bury the sparrowhawk. This is where these birds prey, breathe, strike, belong. On my looping route in and out of the wood I pass two scatterings of feathers, one from a pigeon, the other a blackbird.
The sparrowhawk cupped in my hand – a juvenile, yellow-iris male I think – still had the steel in its half-closed eyebeam; a warrior, as Ted Hughes poem keenly summed, blue shoulder-cloak wrapped about him, weighing just seven ounces. Its Jurassic feet of shocking turmeric yellow, of clinical finesse and power tipped with curling razor black talons, were as perfect as the counter shaded bars on his chest. What a terrible waste.
The last time I had been so close to murderous creation was when its cousin and another farm and valley predator, a goshawk, had broken through the net canopy of our chicken run exactly two years ago. Dim-witted, I had stepped in, over the corpses of two chickens it had dispatched, and tried to usher it out. It looked into my soul. The raptor gaze was as shocking as the bulk. It was a force of nature.
The hawks were dark, untameable, graceless creatures of history, unloved by the falconers with noble peregrines on their gauntlets. Goshawks were deemed vile and fractious, hard to master. For sure their darting, shadowy world is far harder to glimpse, let alone fathom, so different it is from the soaring falcon. But what wonder when you see a hawk, sense the menacing, brutal power from that different world, the one we rarely see and decreasingly sense: the parallel universe inhabited by other Earth creatures who have evolved to perfection, who somehow have the power to shake us humans awake from our ludicrous dream that we know and understand, are wise and supreme.
The sparrowhawk had met his end on the bumpy main road that slices through the rolling vineyards and groves a couple of miles from the farm. In its tunnel-vision, terrain-skimming pursuit of prey it had crossed the path of a truck and lay flinching on the verge the opposite side of the road beyond the crash barrier. There was nowhere for us to pull over and, as ever, crazed Catalan drivers were furiously bunched up behind our bumper like railway carriages. We were heading for the olive mill and decided to check on our return journey to see if the bird was stunned or dead.
It was still there. The life within it had frozen, the beak locked down against the barred softness of its chest. We took it home and then I found a suitable spot to bury it beneath pine needles and two hefty stones, on the lip of the copse with an uplifting open visa of the valley, near the bee orchids.
I drifted deeper into the shadowland. Through the dreamy rhythm of the dark bark I was heading for the bowl of brightness at the far end, the latest crucible of labour where we are trying to make sense of our relationship with this land. On the western fringe of the farm beside a sunken holloway of cane, oak, blackthorn and bramble, we are, as sensitively as possible, steadily freeing a line of old olives from a worryingly combustible tangle. Imagining harvests to come we steadily stack firewood for future winters. We attempt, as we have done all over the place, to thin the dominant forces and to foster diversity, with mixed results. This corner of Mother’s Garden has been abandoned long enough for some of the undergrowth to tower 20 feet above the ancient olives. At intervals the mesh of the hollow has been breached by wild boar whose well-worn paths pattern the valley like the ancient ways of hobbits. And at the deepest point, where in 15 years I have never ventured before (and where we will leave nature alone) I found the half-crater of old badger set beneath a crooked hawthorn.
All this is but 100 metres from our pony’s dusty corral that sits in an elbow of the woodland. What nights frolics the old girl must witness, which explains her propensity to doze in the winter sunshine when out to graze. The creatures – boar, owls, badgers, rabbit, rats and cats that prey on them, weasels, deer – that inhabit that other world we rarely experience, must keep her awake most of the night.
Of all the cats that live off this land, arguably the wildest has wheedled her way into our warm kitchen. Gen Cat is classically feral. Her fat ringtail, her black side stripes on camouflage grey and her fearless countenance suggest her genes are predominantly from the forest. She will take a rodent half her size, refuses to acknowledge the terriers’ hatred, and yet at the same time has the guile to circumnavigate any doubts we might have about letting such a beast on to our laps.
Back in the hollow, as I tickle along with the clearing for an hour a day in the company of all manner of living things, I breathe in the benefit. I can begin to see the progress while weighing lessons learned from living so close to that other world,, fortified by a space I foolishly used to think of as solitude.
The pig flew. Oh alright, it didn’t, but when whistled the hefty creature skipped daintily out of the almond grove, before hoofing it across the stable yard to bound up some railway-sleeper steps and join us on the play area terrace. It nudged its owner as much to ask “Yep?”, then turned to watch a girl on a swing.
The pig – Xanxa (Chancha) – stopped chewing and I could swear her head was faintly moving with the pendulum, further proof positive of salient thoughts. I would have given more than a centimos to know what they were.
Xanxa, of the spotted variety, bunks down in a pen the size of a tennis court with two floppy-eared goats, four noisy sheep and a pocket-rocket stallion pony. But for great lumps of time she is free as a wild hog, a good natured and heavily petted favourite at a farm school run by our old friends Carme and Joan.
The farmer who lived at Mother’s Garden from 1924 to 1964 had at least one pet pig. Do you know anyone with one? Tempting. What made me study Xanxa as she studied the swing was the flawless obedience, cognitive charm and contagious happiness, only the last of which can be found with our loopy terriers. Do pigs chase cars? I don’t think so.
Blasts of rain have greened up the pear tree terrace where La Petita is tethered just out of reach of the fruit. Blue-black fledged swallows twitch their tails on the sundial as fearless young, raised in the barn, unreasonably expect their parents to still feed them. At the back of the olive grove on rougher ground a host of gipsy roses or butterfly blues – scabious – are a wild flower feast for the pollinators, including lesser swallowtails. These subtle blooms will bring colour and lure fascinations well into autumn. They are treasures you can easily pass by: The small flowers are deserving of you kneeling to take in the intricacy.
On the meadow of a morning, crowding around our lone cherry tree we have an abundance of the tender blue of chicory, while at the top of the land there are mesmerising globe thistles, throbbing with blue violet light. Blue is not the celestial prerogative. Even as you walk there are flashes from the host of blue-winged grasshoppers leaping out of your path.
Apples, plums and elderberries bubble on the stove. Maggie’s APE jelly is legendary. And still the bushes and trees sag with fruit. August opened with the clatter of thunder and puddles, so as I said the grasses have come again, much to the contentment of our equine barrel, now almost 30 and full of heart. We must be doing something right. The verdant resurgence will make the going tougher, though, for the rare Mediterranean tortoises, another of which, a 20-year-old male, emerged on the farm last week. That makes three.
I swim sedately in circles in the reservoir, like a gentleman of leisure in a Turkish bath nervous about his toupee, my alarmingly wafer frame out of sight to all but the goldfish, frogs and water boatmen. The strict orders are still in force, but trying to be inactive when there is so much to be done is torture. The good news is I seem to have put back on about nine pounds, not that it shows. And my marbles are regrouping.
The Moon Daisy film project is about to do the rounds of casting agents, directors etc in America, so channel all positive vibes in that general direction please. Ideally, we need a great actress of circa 50+ to read the script and want to do it, it offering, after all, the phenomenal role of key protagonist Jess Healey. What? Not read the book? I forgive you. Only about .0001 per cent of the UK population have…. yet. I aim to return to work on another screenplay this month, one that is stirring interest in three countries. And sales of e-book Shaking The Tree, full of nonsense like this, continue to click upwards.
Meanwhile I read almost incessantly, although it is costly. Coleridge beckoned the other day (I had been learning about his habit of climbing mountains and getting into tight spots) so took one of his tome’s off the dangerously shallow shelves (another Kirby cock-up) that scale the wall beside my bed. When I put him back he wobbled; then, to save himself, he nudged the collective works of William Cowper who lost his footing. Coleridge clung on, but hardback Cowper plunged, smashing the face of my mobile phone idling on the bedside table.
Now I’m reading Cowper, of course. God may well move in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform, but I’m after Cowper’s nature writing and telling observations. It is good to be reminded that existence is a strange bargain. Life owes us little; we owe it everything …. and so on.
The book stack beside my bed spirals, falls, builds again. Farmhouse art includes delicious, random piles and vast mesmeric mosaics of spines on shelves, millions of words waiting to be revisited. I devour two or three novels a week, one of the joys of convalescence, a delicious sedative to counter the itch of idiotic guilt that I should be doing more.
Alone in Berlin, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Suite Francaise, Red Sky at Sunrise …..
But I am, doing more that is, little by little. Selfishly I take on the uplifting, meditative dawn and dusk task of watering the pots around the house and the two clover-clogged veg patches. We have the usual glut of courgettes and an assortment of other produce, plus potatoes to lift and pears and plums at the point of ripening. The jam cauldron must be dusted.
Relentless sun has sapped much of the green. July, with its predilection for parchment (ground as lifeless as the base line of centre court), is not without its jewels. Somehow unwatered wild sweet peas radiate from the base of olive trees, rust red shield beetles scurry, bee-eaters bask and fruits blush.
Senses numb during the afternoon bake. Cicadas drum out the heat to the accompaniment of the dry-throat whisper of a breeze in the pines. Truth be known, though, afternoon temperatures have settled in the tolerable low to mid thirties – that’s ninety-plus but still lower than normal. Thankfully humidity has never been heavy here. But there are other seasonal trials.
Almost daily we sternly scan the blue. The regular, mournful drone of the fire-crew flying boats, unnerving as a mosquito passing your ear, draws us out from the closed, cool farmhouse. We try to judge the planes’ direction, checking the angle of the wind and sniffing for the dire scent of smoke. It is a guessing game. The time it takes for the lumbering aircraft to return gives us a rough idea of the distance from us to any emergency. So far this year there has been no great alarm close by, touch tinder-dry wood.
I am woken most days by a golden oriole leading the first light chorus from the bare, dead crown of the oldest fig tree, before a cacophony of spotless starlings swoops in. They proceed to deafen one another amid the broad leaves. Pickpocket sparrows and finches dodge between them – it is as chaotic as a stock market trading floor, a feeding frenzy. Most of the figs on the high boughs, too high for us anyway, have been torn open, their hearts ripped out, and their spent skins litter the earth.
Our terriers, Tilly and Ted, lay flaked on the red dust beneath this canopy of chaos, too hot to be bothered, unless a cat or a fat toad dares enter their soporific eye-level radar. They have finally figured out the difference between the squeak of the perforated irrigation pipes and rodents. When the pump in the reservoir is plugged in fountains rise at random to water circles of lushness in iron land, and if I forget to turn it off an incongruous brook snakes down the dusty track. And still the spring runs at 1000 litres an hour.
I wrote last time of an emperor ruling the mirror of our vast reservoir. His tenure is over, and from nowhere an armada of delicate, fearless mustard dragonfly has sailed in to spice this water world. They are keeled skimmers, I think, darting hither and thither like a swarm of energised little children on the loose, then taking it in turns to settle on the tips of fennel for a short breather.
Armies of ants toil endlessly, carving highways through broken ground littered with felled forests of dead grass. For days a war between two of these dynasties has been grimly engaged at the entrance to the chicken run, the prize being the food debris scattered therein.
And so our little, bio-diverse world turns clockwise, positively, naturally, at an almost manageable rate, counter to the grim, nauseating flip-flop and mad spin of negative news, dominated by the alarmingly primitive obsessions of some within a single species.
So back to the books I go, and to the extraordinary lives of exceptional authors – Hans Fallada, Robert Tressell, Irène Némirovsky, and Laurie Lee being my current deep pools for thought.
We may never learn, but the lessons are there, everywhere, in black and white.
Want to get away? Fancy doing something different? Half-price working breaks at Mother’s Garden, Catalonia – and see where our wonderful, award-winning olive oil comes from. If you can’t come, but want to taste this life, we have delicious new harvest EV olive oil in the UK now for immediate delivery. Just get in touch, or log on to our shop.
October clouds have been as sporadic as political apologies. The snakes are still in the long grass and the eagles have been picking them off. Nispera scent gilds air rusty with pig odours and rotten bureaucratic nonsense.
Juan, the tireless giant of a farmer who doesn’t let darkness stop him, has been pressing on transforming the scrubby folds and ribbons of abandoned land near the ruined convent. The brief pong is a price worth paying.
The biggest man in the village has the biggest tractor, and the broad beam from the rank of lights on his green machine searches the valley as he weaves between the sporadic olive trees, muck spreading and then harrowing in before he sows his winter barley. We shall have the pleasing lushness soon enough, then the swaying sea of ears in May, the bales and wavy lines of stubble between the timeless olive trees.
Winter. Hardly. It seems an age away, yet Joe returns from high school with talk of a brutal season in store. We have had no snow to speak of for two years so we are due, yet October has surpassed September for warmth and our swallows have only just preened, flexed and flown.
We sleep with the window open. The duvet has not been unpacked.
Back in pulsing July, from a French cheese-making family who wanted to come down from their Brittany farm for some October sunshine. We looked at each other and crossed our fingers. On a blustery, damp September morning they emailed us again to ask if they needed to bring sheets and towels. No we replied. Great, they said, adding that the children couldn’t wait to enjoy the swimming pool.
Nobody has ever dipped a toe this late in the year, so it is indicative of the Indian summer that the lovely Bretons have been taking the plunge day and night, incessantly. My much-rehearsed apology (in floppy French) about the weather and water temperature went by the board.
In a couple of weeks I will be in a Barcelona television studio trying not to make an arse of myself as we (the freelance writers on the magazine Catalonia Today) grin inanely into the camera and try and string a sentence together without sounding like we are breaking some teeth in for a friend. The Catalan newspaper I write for has launched a television company and seems to think we might pull in the crowds, so to speak. Mmm. I promise to send you the online link when we have managed to record something.
THE OLIVE OIL BAN LATEST
Meanwhile, the impending UK ban on the sale of “on tap” olive oil continues to foster outrage and incredulity. I think we should challenge the legality of it as it discriminates and is unfounded, so if there are any trade lawyers out there willing to join the fray please get in touch.
Here is some more startling information.
In our Mother’s Garden campaign to shed some light on Government thinking I asked the Rural Payments Agency (which has made the pronouncement) why didn’t civil servants talk to people before they weighed in?
Oh but we did, they told me. There was a “public consultation” with stakeholders. That’s news to me and obviously 99.9 per cent of the UK population. Here is a link to the report on the four week “consultation”, on an issue affecting hundreds of businesses and thousands of customers. Have a read of the summary of responses.
Bottom line – the 10-questions online survey and report is based on responses from a total of…. seven people. That’s three bottlers, one local authority representative, one retailer, one customer and one person who did not say who they were.
I then asked why didn’t the RPA tell anyone about the impending December ban? Oh but we did, came the reply again. The RPA’s answer….
” Details of olive oil requirements are at the following link on gov.uk as last updated on 20 August 2014. This was also publicised through social media via the RPA twitter account”. The RPA Twitter account!
I am sorry, but as a published author of fiction and a screenwriter even I could not have made that up. Juan’s muck spreading smells sweeter.
Please do me and other small producers and fine food outlets a huge favour and share this blog – we have to spread the word, counter and hopefully stop such awful governance.
We are 3 gold star winners in the Great Taste Awards (2011). We know our stuff and a great many people trust us and rely on us. We are olive oil experts and we deal with small fine food expert outlets, never supermarkets. Our fully-labelled bag-in-box approach, killed off in one bureaucratic brush stroke, most certainly is the answer for quality, provenance, freshness and waste reduction for people who want the best for less.
Yet the civil service simply does not have any understanding. Olive oil is not a luxury but an essential food that can and should be affordable.
We will seek to challenge this somehow, small though we are. Help us if you can, even with a word. We have also spoken out on our Mother’s Garden Facebook page too, so please share that if you can.
And keep well.
PS We have to sell 60×5 litres, 20x 2litres and seven cases of 6x500ml bottles during November. The perfect solution, may I humbly suggest, for gifts this Christmas or for dinner parties with friends and family feasting. Just get in touch.
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.
Summer sighs, olives begin to swell on the trees and we beaver with Mother’s Garden farm work in the early or late hours, or in the shade of the house or barn. In the early afternoon we are in the office, talking olive oil to people from all over the world.
Every day more and more new customers are contacting us to order fresh olive oil, so thank you. We have stock in the UK right now, so please get in touch if you would taste the difference. You can also visit our the online shop.
Here’s the puzzle.
We have started the annual clearing of the barn in readiness for the September grape harvest (we made about 100 litres of farm wine from the little vineyard beside the house) and the all-important November olive harvest.
Hidden in a dark corner behind the olive nets we found some pottery – mud vases all sealed but for one. We find these everywhere and it is a fascinating story. Do you know what they are?
We will tell you later in the week.
Keep well. Eat well.
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.