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.
Olive tree prunings roll like tumbleweed on windy days. Everywhere the eye lingers on blossom, be it the snow of almond or the candyfloss of cherry and peach.
We rise with the dawn frosts and drink in the champagne air as we race to prepare the groves for the growing and ripening seasons, mulching or burning the cuttings, sometimes baking potatoes in the hot ash. Two hours out on the land sets us up for breakfast and all the broad challenges of Mother’s Garden.
In recent days we have started to find the first wild asparagus; delicious sautéed in fresh olive oil (want some?) and served with our hens’ eggs.
Time presses. Maggie polished off the vineyard pruning single-handedly a month ago, but we still have 20 or so of the 200 fruit trees to do. You sense the surge in life gathering pace every day. It pays not to dwell on the detail of the challenges, particularly in our neglected vegetable garden, but we will get to that this weekend.
There has been little time to hang about, but I have been, tackling rock climbing for the first time.
We live in arguably the most significant climbing area in the world, and anyone serious about the sport will have heard of Siurana which is 20 minutes from us. Nearer to home there is a beautiful hermitage on a red rock outcrop overlooking the sea, and behind it you will find several knee-knocking ascents that a 55-year-old novice would be an arse to attempt.
“No dramas.” With Maggie watching, wincing, I and Joe were pinched into some excruciatingly tight climbing shoes, given a safety briefing, harnessed to a rope and then prodded upwards by two Australians who love nothing better than figuring out how to defy gravity.
David and Melissa, geologist and lawyer from Brisbane, have been with us for three months and we wave them off tomorrow. Fantastic folk. They have worked so hard for us and we have loved their company. Recently married, they have been on a year-long European adventure, weaving across the continent from one climbing site to another.
On a rare day off the farm, they thought I and 13 year-old Joe could handle a cliff ranked a “5”, whatever that means. We did, Lord knows how. Then they lured me to attempt a “6”, which was going reasonably well until, 30 feet up, the vertical face became an overhang. I dangled, twisted, gritted then gave up and abseiled back down. The annoying thing is, the whole business is weirdly addictive.
Have you see Jupiter, king of the planets and currently the brightest gem in the night sky? We have had mixed fortunes. One night we stood in the cold waiting in vain for gaps in the scurrying clouds but were treated instead to the calls of nightjars. The scops owls are back too. The birding is, of course, a major treat at the awakening of the year. The woodpeckers are setting the tempo and the surround-sound cacophony of song is delicious.
On Monday we were called to advise some investors who were acquiring a vast olive grove close to the Montsant, the Holy Mountain. This vast limestone ridge, rising to 3000 metres, dominates our tiny county. When the work was done we didn’t turn for home but continued to beyond the ridge, to the peaceful valley beyond it. There, high above us, six griffon vultures rode the sky.
Talking of olives and the wonderful fresh juice of the fruit, we have just shipped a supply to England, so if you would like some, please get in touch or visit our online shop.
Oh, and bear us in mind if you would like to get away for a few days, to walk these mountains, sit under an olive tree and listen to the birds. The holiday cottage is available.
The mountain comes and goes. The air is heavy with thunder, rugged with the contours of rain clouds that take, give back and then take again both distance and perspective.
We were forewarned that this rare storm would be upon us at sunrise, even if last night a vast, touchable moon smiled on a valley day that seemed to cradle life. We were woodlanders for a few contented hours, taking out more pines to bring shafts of light to old olives, oak saplings and all manner of dormant seeds blanketed by needles. It is always good to be in the thick of it, to feel it, hear the whispers of our true context.
The 10 acres that are the sum of Mother’s Garden contain such a sweet muddle of living things and contours, even soils, that it can seem far greater a space. And while there is, we feel, a fair trade between us and the other residents it needs constant reflection and occasional hard labour.
We are on a south facing rise. The farmhouse and holiday cottage are fifty metres back from the lane, shielded from tarmac by our small meadow, a few olive trees and some half managed fruit terraces. To the east is our vineyard, behind we have an olive grove and our water reservoir.
At the top of the land there are more vines and two small almond groves, but across the middle of the farm runs a seam of woodland patterned with trails both human and boar, with piles of seasoning logs, where slowly but surely a long-forgotten life is returning.
It will remain woodland, but it is changing as we seek to bring balance, light and diversity, with one eye on the fury of summer fires. In occasionally spending the pre-breakfast hour weeding out the pines we have found song too. It took just the first effort of clearing for the robins, finches, blackbirds and others to flood that space.
This harmony is happening all the quicker because we have David and Melissa from Australia here. They arrived in early December having wandered south from the Arctic Circle in their camper van and, as happens here, they have exchanged labour for shelter. They seem contented, as are we, and we know it helps that we live in the heart of the world’s best rock-climbing area. Sense, strength, intelligence and laughter, all timely. I will tell you about them in my next blog, but now I must away to the corner of my mind where another screenplay is pacing.
Meanwhile, remember to get in touch if you want to savour some amazing fresh, new harvest extra virgin olive oil. We have stock in the UK now. All you have to do is go to our shop and order or get in touch. We need to keep it moving with your help. Pleasingly, more and more people are in tune with Mother’s Garden and bookings are now coming in for the cottage which will be open through to September. We have had more than 1000 visitors now. Have you seen our Facebook page? This has more photographs and regular updates.
As for the mountain, it as emerged from the gloom and we hope the calm returns before this evening, when the annual St Anthony parade of horses, donkeys and colour carts is scheduled to rattle over the cobbles of the nearby town.
Oh, before I go I must mention Pau’s visit. His name means Peace. He rolled up a couple of weeks ago and asked me if I remembered him. I did not.
Pau is 31 and runs an art cafe in the theatre in Tarragona. His grandparents used to own our farm and he and his family lived on the neighbouring farm. Mother’s Garden – L’Hort de la Mare – had been a fundamental part of his childhood, the land of grand adventures, of grazed knees and wolf cries from the top of trees.
Grandfather Enrique, who handed us the great key to the front door nearly 14 years ago, passed away last year and the family have slowly but surely been sifting through the accumulation of a lifetime. Among the possessions was an oil painting of the farmhouse, seen from across the great circular reservoir, a record as rich with the warmth and light that are as much a part of this place as the tangible treasures.
He thought we might like it. Now, like then, it was hard to find words.
There is nothing in our gardening library about late-season gleaning being hazardous. Oooooooooooooh that hurts.
The vegetation behind the farmhouse, once an orderly patch of colourful produce, now an all but abandoned knot of wilderness, took its time to clock that winter was pending.
The woody tomato, aubergine, pepper, melon and courgette plants may have keeled over and been swamped with weeds but they refused to give up the ghost. Up until a week ago we were still finding trug-loads of edibles beneath the riot of growth.
I suppose this is hardly surprising given the ludicrous autumn warmth (still 20+ degrees – 68F – most days) and the outpourings of our reformed spring. Until last weekend – more of that mildly moist sojourn in a moment – we’d had no serious rain since May. The reservoir was full though, so we were letting the water run on to the garden in the olive grove at the rate of 1000 litres an hour. That’s cheering for the rows of olive trees (which we are harvesting as you read this), but it has landed me in not one but two pickles.
Wild boar scent wet earth and make a beeline for it. What was once a pleasant late-night, star-gazing, 75-metre stroll to the pony corral to give La Petita her hay treat turned into a canter while wearing the alarmed expression of Private Fraser out of Dad’s Army.
I normally take the dogs with me but the other night I left it very late, too late. The mutts were snoring and I ventured off on my own. Fool. It was gone midnight. Halfway back to the house there was an angry grunt right beside me and I immediately leapt into action, sprinting to the back door like Usain Bolt.
For some reason the beasts didn’t up all the vegetables, so we continued our gleaning despite having precious little space left to store/freeze it.
That, however, has been the least of my worries. The peppers, which were meant to be of the passive variety have cross fertilised and turned aggressive.
A few days ago Maggie had me sitting at the kitchen table facing a large pile of green and red peppers, an empty bowl to my left, another to my right. Now, I’m not impartial to spicy food and can devour the occasional pencil-width, little-finger-length green chilli, so this was clearly a job I should handle. On reflection, maybe “handle” wasn’t the right word.
All I had to do was cut a little bit off the end, munch and decide it if was hot (left bowl) or not (right bowl). They also needed to be de-seeded and chopped up ready for the freezer.
It all started promisingly with three sweet peppers and I upped the pace and dropped my guard. Six consecutive sticks of dynamite later I had lost the power of speech…and my eyes were itching.
Yes, I should have worn gloves. No, I shouldn’t have rubbed my eyes. And, yes, I should have remembered which bowl was which.
Staggering painful, isn’t it, to realise just how long the spice stays on your figures, and how short your memory is when your eyes need a rub? I’ve been lying awake blinking and sucking air in through my teeth, thinking there must be a way to use the chopped peppers to dissuade the boar.
I need to tell you about the rain. Last Friday we were harvesting olives in our t-shirts. Then on Saturday the world turned upside down and it started snowing….which turned to sleet….which became stair-rod rain…. for 48 hours. Here they measure rainfall in litres per square metre. We have more an 240 litres, which is twenty four centimetres or, in English money, nine and a half inches. Blimey. That said, it is wonderful. The land can breathe, and maybe wild boar in search of soft earth will not swing by so often.
As usual we have failed to get to grips with the unmanageable quantities of benign quinces lying all over the place, but we at least we have not wasted one of the Muscat grapes (juice), and have squirreled vast reserves of walnuts, almonds and hazels. November breakfasts invariably begin with a squidgy ripe persimmon, a rare treat that will come to an end any day now, while another flavour of the month has been the rovello wild mushrooms from the pine forest.
Amid all this plenty there have been shoulder-rounding failures. The English runner beans feast never happened. Well, four pods to be precise. Despite our care and the favourable conditions only two of the 20 verdant, cane-high plants managed a flower apiece. What went wrong there? Answers on a postcard…..
We continue to pointlessly pluck innumerable cabbage white caterpillars from the ravaged cauliflowers, but we simply knelt and wondered at the swallowtail caterpillar Joe found on a fennel stalk. An observant lad, our Joe. His appreciation of the true world order rather than just the manufactured one is, for us, an essential counter-balance to the lure of comatose electronics.
Question – how many of you are aware of the new and vital Wild Network in the UK? We are supporting from afar. It is the wonderful harmonising of 400 charities and organisations nationwide who are chorusing for children to swap 30 minutes of television and computer screens every day to try and re-connect with nature; to raise their fitness, their alertness and, ultimately, their well-being.
Hal-le-lu-jah. You know how strongly we feel about this, having written in my books and in this newspaper that it is one of the fundamental reasons we moved to Mother’s Garden 13 years ago, when we ditched the TV and began leaving the back and front doors of our new home wide open.
I don’t know how anybody can fail to see the worth of the Wild Network. In a mad, economy-crazed world any galvanising movement to sell the idea that the great outdoors is the ultimate adventure is long overdue.
Beyond the awful thought that, somehow, children who are far more interested in “leading” fictional, sedentary lives in some surreal on-screen game are losing the life drivers of communication, energy, curiosity and true fulfilment, is the damning fact that this torpid generation will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Our generation is responsible. We have to find a way to, literally, reverse this disconnection.
See for yourself and – watch the short video online http://projectwildthing.com/film or see if you can source the full video on this website or through a local DVD outlet. Add your voice.
Ella has been home from London for few days, her first break since starting a film foundation course at The University of The Arts. We walked the valley and meandered down to deserted, dreamily peaceful beach a stone’s throw from artist Juan Miro’s farm; a world away from the rigours of our land and, indeed, the crowded banks of the Thames. Actually, it rather reminded me of treasured autumnal, pastel days of my youth, living within the sound of the North Sea – those still moments on the shiny sand when the world seems to hold it breath.
But before I go I have to tell you what we saw on Maggie’s recent birthday. We had lunch out after visiting Santes Creus, the vast, significant and rather beautiful Cistercian 12th century monastery about an hour from us.
The restaurant was buzzing and Joe was particularly impressed by a large, opulent Cadillac parked outside. We left at the same time as the car’s elderly owner who was being waved off my all the members of staff. Curious, I asked if the gentleman was significant in some way. Yes, they replied. He’s 90 years old.
He surged away and we followed him down the lane at a safe distance, watching the weaving Cadillac as it headed for the motorway. Then I started to weave too. The road was a mess of patches and dips and he was inch perfect in navigating through them. Had I been wearing a hat…..
We now have a business Facebook page with almost daily updates and photographs from the farm. Check it out. https://www.facebook.com/mothersgardenoliveoil. The new harvest olive oil is leaving the mill next week, bound for England. 60 per cent has already been ordered, so get in touch is you would like some.
We can and must lose ourselves in our gardens, however small. We need to once in a while, don’t we? To scatter our thoughts there; grounded in the toil; safe in the sanctuary; fortified by a sense of what is real; certain in the immeasurable worth to both body and soul.
I appreciate that more than ever now, as seasons and years shorten.
For some there is deep science in it. For most it is it is simply the unfathomable comfort of bending to the task with the ever-renewing, yet never repetitive, promise of flower, fruit, root and goodness, and in doing so touching the earth and being enriched by a sense of place.
And what about those delicious moments of tired contentment when you sit or stand and contemplate the progress, however small, even if it is one little pot, one bloom? Fulfilment flows from the fingertips to the heart.
As American environmentalist and writer Jim Nollman says in the opening sentence of his sensitive book Why We Garden, “People often turn to gardening to re-create a bit of paradise within an imperfect world”.
It is right and vital that there is somewhere real where we feel able to make positive changes, to take responsibility and to care, to sense our place, our feet and hands on the soil. Such truths are a counter-balance in an information age that fills our minds and feeds our anxieties with cumulative, complex issues sometimes too heavy to bear.
Our little farm is very much an ecological meeting point of nature and need, where wild is wonderful and rightly dominates, and where we try and balance our hungers with a greater need.
We have always tried to tread softly, but is it me, or are the creatures here more accepting of us than ever? Life has been exceptionally abundant – and close – this autumn.
As with the bees and tiny young frogs lined up at the waterline of our old washpool- turned-pond, there is palpable harmony. I tried but failed to get a photograph of one bee sitting on a frog while quenching its thirst.
On my 55th birthday one treat was to sit for half an hour and dangle my feet into the circular reservoir in the company of curious carp, skaters, swallows and dragonflies. One smaller, iridescent blue dragonfly (with more than 5000 species I’m loath to suggest which one) returned repeatedly to settle on my knee.
Often a butterfly, usually one of the swallowtails that grow up on the abundant fennel, will follow me on my travels along the paths, causing me to turn circles. They always make me think of my mother, someone for whom, at raw moments, a trowel was an anchor and nature her sanity.
My birthday butterfly, though, was rarer still. To my wide-eyed astonishment it flashed in front of the car when I was just about to pull onto the lane, where just days before another event was also over in the blink of an eye, the Tour of Spain cycle race.
When I fanned hurried through my butterfly reference book to confirm it was, indeed, a Pasha, I was joyful. I have never seen one of these Mediterranean fritillaries before; maybe on account of there being no strawberry trees for them on the farm. No disrespect to cycle race fans and the racers but that fleeting Pasha moment made my week. Nothing could top that. Or so I thought.
Later, when I was wandering back from the pony’s corral, there it was again, only now it was circling me like the swallowtails – large, fast, with telltale flashes of orange at the ends of dark brown wings. It settled on an old hazel. I studied it then hobbled in haste (bruised foot, long story) back to the house to get my camera, daring to hope it would still be there.
It was, flaunting its intricate under-wings and allowing me to get within a metre.
In the late afternoon I took Maggie and Joe to that hazel. A vain hope, but we strolled on along the terrace, Tilly and Ted straining on their leads. It is a regular pre-supper circuit, down to the hollow under the high firs, through the wilderness and out on to the crest of the almond grove, then down the track homeward.
But just beyond the hazel, behind the beehives, Maggie and Joe both let out a cry. I, and Tilly for that matter, had unwittingly stepped over a snake. It lay like a dark stick across a path which, to be fair, is littered with wood. We have had the pleasure on several occasions of studying ladder-back, grass, European whip and Montpelier serpents, including the adder-like local viper, but this one was different.
It had clearly just devoured something large and long, possibly a lizard, and wasn’t planning on moving a muscle for some considerable time. So I felt a closer look was a reasonable risk, and this confirmed it was another first – a horseshoe whipsnake, a rare reptile that can grow up to five feet in length.
The pigeons glean on the cropped hay fields and strut about in ludicrous numbers while the peregrines circle.
And at night the boar descend in ever increasing numbers, coming to within 15 metres of our back door this long dry year. The lure is the well-watered vegetable patch in the olive grove, and the wet earth is patterned with hooves, small and broad. The damage is increasing nightly, but they keep skirting the prolific beds and, fortunately, we have almost concluded an enormous tomato, aubergine and pepper harvest.
It is a different story at our neighbours’ home, though, where an ingenious network of irrigation pipes, resembling the London tube map and covering an area the size of a football pitch, has been ploughed up by the worm-hungry boar.
Our friends have been away for nearly two months and I gave up some time ago trying to put patch up the damage. The destruction was spreading faster than I could repair it, but the telling moment was when I looked the challenge squarely in the eye.
Returning home from a late supper in town I had to stop right outside our friends’ garden…. to allow eight youngsters, about half-grown, and three humongous adults, to saunter across the tarmac and into the flowerbeds. I might as well have turned the engine off it was taking so long. Two of the adults led the way and the third stood in the middle of the lane to usher the brood across. Tusked and intimidating, it was immense, fearless, prehistoric.
One boar can wreak havoc, so I knew there and then I was beaten.
The almonds are harvested, about 100 kilos this year, which is not bad considering some farms have none due to hard frosts during the February flowering. We pick and de-husk them by hand, so it is not a money-making exercise, rather the reverse; just goodness from our Garden.
Now for the olives. Harvest in three weeks and it looks like a bumper year. Have you tried a new harvest from-tree-to-you olive oil? We are taking orders for a December shipment to Britain. Get in touch by all means (just click here) if you would like more information. Also, see our new Mother’s Garden business Facebook page.
And, blink, another year has almost gone. That fact could weigh heavily if I dwell on it, so I will step out into the cool air of dawn and do some weeding among our Norfolk runner beans. It is too hot to grow them here in the spring, so Maggie had the bright idea to cultivate them now in the cooler autumn, but it looks like we will only have a handful all the same.
And still, in mid October, the temperature rises to 26 degrees during the day, and no lower than 15 degrees at night. The air is, for the most part, as peaceful as an angel’s breath and the colours of autumn leaf and sky beguile.
Two important apologies – for our failure to respond to everyone who has emailed us via our website this summer (the system blocked all website mail for some reason), and for the long gap since the last blog.
The season has overflowed on all fronts, and we have been toiling to keep track of everything as family matters, farm and other work (writing, olive oil and holiday cottage) all demand more attention. Family comes first, of course.
This blog is short, but I will post another within the next couple of days to sketch some word pictures of how summer has been here at Mother’s Garden; big changes and ongoing ponderings about what is around the next corner.
Meanwhile, the olive oil flows on, with stock just shipped to England for late summer feasts. Get in touch if you would like some, or order via the online shop. And to be sure of getting hold of us, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a faint heart. That much is obvious. Behold, they urged, but I had to turn away and am profoundly glad that I did. I will never watch again.
The Catalans love their human castles, for good reasons that I will explain anon, although it would never work as an English spectacle. Can you imagine? Health and safety officials passing out left right and centre.
But before I tell you what transpired when a “castle” team mustered in the middle of the town during the local wine fair, there is something considerably more significant on my mind that I need to tell you.
Since my last chronicle there has been a chapter of great loss and reflection; of the need to seek the sanctuary of nature.
The scent of cut fennel billows around me, like the daring, darting swallows. These most agile of birds twist past within inches of my face as the tractor and mower plod back and forth, stirring all manner of insect treats from the vineyard grasses.
We have left it late and there remains much to do, but the regular rains and softer spring temperatures have prolonged the flowering. The Iberian wildlife has been drinking in the diversity. As have we. Even now, we am just cutting paths to leave swathes of growth for the eye and creatures to feast upon. It is good for the soul. Nature, by a country mile, is the safest of all anchorages in times of storm.
A friend has passed away.
Frank Prendergast was a film director, writer and inspiration, a gentle, wise and innovative flame, a family man first and foremost, a blues singer, a vital, generous friend to many: How long the list of his achievements in film and television, more so in life.
He and I have been on a great adventure for nearly six years, writing and polishing a screenplay and planning a film that will be based on my Norfolk novel Moon Daisy. He taught me so much and came to Mother’s Garden several times to write with me; wonderful, rare moments of creative harmony. His companionship was very special, as many will testify. I will finish his work on Moon Daisy, and the film will be another of his many vital legacies.
Frank came to harvest olives with his family, walking through the groves hand-in-hand with his grandchildren, feasting on paella cooked on an open fire and enjoyed at a long table under the fig tree; amongst the finest of days for all of us. As his daughter Rosie summed up so well, her Dad was at his happiest when the family was together, sharing food, sharing stories, sharing the loves.
What is it about unremitting gales? They get under the tail and knot the mind. June has been more settled and strangely less fierce, while in May winds whipped through the Priorat mountains as keenly as a North Sea blast that stirs the sand to sting your ankles. The half-clear skies were little consolation given the relentless ferocity.
They were so strong that a vast poplar tree on our neighbour’s land, roots loosened by squalls, toppled on to our power and telephone lines.
Crash, bang, fizz and wallop.
The power surge along the three-phase cable burned out the motors on our well pump, house water pump, washing machine, CD player, internet modem and telephone. Light bulbs popped and we wondered what was coming next.
A trek across the valley revealed the drama, and there was neighbour Pere looking stunned. The noise of the tree coming down just outside his back door followed by the sparks and the cable being ripped out of the side of his house was, he didn’t need to tell me, hair-raising.
A week earlier and I might have blown several fuses too, but perspective is always worth seeking and sometimes not so hard to find.
Excuse me while I step outside again, to reflect, but also to check on the pipes I have rigged up to run from the spring to the tanks in the farmhouse and the holiday cottage. In the past week I have had a stark reminder of the value of water, and how much we get through on an hourly, let alone daily, basis.
Next we must lock horns with not one but two insurance companies (home and holiday cottage business have different policies) to try and redeem the considerable funds it will take to replace everything. We are talking €1500, minimum.
And up she rises. Meaning little Sarai, complete with crash helmet, age unknown because I didn’t get the chance to ask before she left her father’s shoulders and scrambled barefoot to the top of the male and female human castle that grew skyward from the throng at the wine fair. Age guess – six or seven at the most.
Sarai made it, I was told (having turned my back), but she didn’t have time to raise her hand in the air on the seventh tier because ….yes, the tower collapsed amid gasps and cries.
I span round to see several people lying prostrate. One woman in particular seemed a stretcher case. There was no sign of Sarai. That’s it. I thought. Never again, for me or the team for that matter.
I left. The team did not. Nobody went to hospital. And for good measure they tried again….successfully…….six more times.
Tthe building of human towers, a centuries-old practice that started just down the mountain from where we live, is a fundamental statement by the Catalans. It is ingrained in their culture and signifies so much – togetherness identity, strength, balance, finesse and fearlessness. One can’t argue with any of that.
A team consists of all ages and both sexes. It brings together doctors, farm workers, housewives, the unemployed, police officers, you name them, and, hard as it may be for any parent to grasp, young children who want to climb.
Every team members wears a matching shirt, white trousers and a faixa, a wide, black sash of thick cloth wound tightly around the waist. This has two purposes – to support the lumbar region and also to provide a finger and toe hold for the climbers.
The putting on of the long faixa, impossible without the help of another team member, marks a change in the festival atmosphere. The energy and tension suddenly builds as the team ceases to socialise but comes together slowly but surely to begin the castle. This faixa time can last awhile, as everyone senses the effort, skill, teamwork and risk is about to begin. Then up it rises, frighteningly fast.
I am reliably informed that seven tiers high was the maximum, but now a few of the larger well-drilled teams have pushed this to nine. NINE. Someone even mentioned ten had been achieved and which point I walked away again.
Before I sign off, some news that would please Frank. Ella has passed all her baccalaureate exams, including five languages, and so will definitely begin her film studies at the University of the Arts, London, in September. How proud we are. Go girl.
The storms have abated. The enraged river has lowered its voice.
Tiny insects, winged flecks of gold dust, sail through evening sunbeams. The shafts of light fan between the budding pear trees while the scent of freshly cut grass swells to meet them. Wild flowers, spring’s courtiers, bustle for attention fussed over by bees, and the call of the returning oriol and the drumming of the woodpecker proclaim abundance.
So strong is the beak of the bird that the rhythm rebounds off the mountain ridge, now snow free and sweetened by new growth on the pines. I sit by the talkative water pouring from our Roman aquifer at 1000 litres an hour, faster than it ever has in our 12 years at Mother’s Garden.
All is beginning and yet, perhaps, something is about to end.
Why would anyone think of leaving this? Yes, we are. Let me tell you why.
Some of you discerned in my last blob from the Garden that, after spending nearly a quarter of our lives here (and much of those of our children), Maggie and I seemed a little unsettled.
Indeed. We have been facing facts and agree it is time to take another deep breath, another positive stride.
Ella will be at university in England from September. Joe is ready for new challenges too.
And we know that our growing fresh olive oil business in England can flow even faster if we give it more oxygen and cease gasping to fit it in between the increasingly demanding challenges of tending a multi-fruiting organic farm and running a holiday cottage.
How great the fulfilment of bending to the challenge of an ecological existence at an age when we still could bend. How much we have gleaned and stored. But the sheer physical endeavours are unsustainable, naturally, and like all we need to balance truths.
The creep of age is punctuated with stark waypoints, like the dismantling of the long-unsafe tree-house, the suddenly impossible flexibility of seeing the soles of my shoes without taking them off.
And there is another reason to recalibrate. I crave time to write daily, to unburden my cerebral filing cabinet of tales. There is the Norfolk film script Moon Daisy now looking for funding (more next month), with another script and two books in the wings. Maggie, my editor, could not be more supportive.
Plan A: To relinquish this treasure trove of 10 acres and to base ourselves in South Norfolk, buying a smaller olive grove here and returning regularly to tend olives and beehives: to remain members of the cooperative and build on all we have learned and shared.
Plan B: To sell the cottage and half the farm, and keeping the old farmhouse and olive grove as our business base while spending the majority of our time in England, closer to family, renting somewhere, and bandwaggoning the Mother’s Garden olive oil message hither and thither.
We shall see what plan comes to fruition. If anyone would like to discuss one or other we would be happy to chat.
It seems now like we are in the eye of the storm, with the troubled waters of decision behind us and the unchartered upheaval ahead. We wait as news spreads, hoping that the right person will appear, appreciative of the magic and wisdom to be found here; someone who will love it.
And now that we are decided there is great optimism and certainty.
Without sadness but with immense gratitude to my family and with brimful fulfilment I see the momentous years everywhere I turn, and feel them; the shadows of tiny children running bare-footed after puppies; splashes of freedom and glee; shouts of adventure from the woodland; harvests of the garden, grove, vineyard and the wild; Maggie planting, pruning and choosing roses for the table, out there until dusk, then standing with me by the back door to feast upon the stars; the weight of my son on my forearm, his fist full of asparagus: And louder than all, the music of innumerable treasured evenings when our kitchen became a dance theatre and forever more the heart of everything that really matters in the precious feeling of this family, this life.
There – my heart thumps at the thought of leaving our kitchen. The head needs to prevail in the ubiquitous human wrestling of standstill wishes with relentless realities.
The immeasurable worth of nature is the most important thing we have learned above all. Seeded in it is sustenance, realistic values and fulfilments, the core roots of family. I make no apology for raising my voice now and in the future about the abject failure and greedy resistance of society’s single-minded economic dictators to change course.
Common sense and conscience: we all know what feels wrong, what is unfair, unsustainable, illogical, damaging, hollow and abhorrent. Heaven knows what our children and grandchildren will make of this woeful generation of leaders for not deal with the glaringly obvious home truths.
What will the legacy be?
In rambling to photograph the raging river I paused twice, once to ponder on the significance of the long-deceased Seat 500 on our neighbour’s farm, and then again to stare at another mountain we have just climbed.
Ella and Joe have been planning a fund-raising ascent of La Mola, the Snowdonia-sized limestone monolith that watches over us. If that wasn’t a great enough endeavour theypledged to their generous £800 Comic Relief sponsors that they would spend the night up there. Mmm.
We have done it now. A rare and unforgettable experience that I will tell you about soon.
Theirs have been relatively wild childhoods, freer than most if you dare to dwell upon the unbelievable pressure applied to the young these days in ways that families cannot hope to protect them from. Bean-counting pedlars who think it is fine to rob them of their innocence and herd them into anxiety-driven consumerism make me so very angry, but not as much as does the system that encourages them.
Sorry. I do this a lot don’t I?
On a positive note, I do sense an awakening of public conscience to the destructive, materialistic, blind path along which we have all be led.
Can I leave you with others’ wise words? I have just read the allegorical tale The Man Who Planted Trees, by Frenchman Jean Giono (1895-1971). If you don’t know it, let me tell you it is of the greatest beauty, something that simply gifts the notion, the hope, that we can renew the whole earth: That in the living force of nature humanity can rediscover the depth and harmony lost in urban life. The edition I hold, one of more than a dozen issued since Vogue first published it in 1953, has the added delicacy of woodcut illustrations by Michael McCurdy.
And then to Adrian Bell. All his books rise in a Pisa pile beside our bed. So much wisdom.
“We clutter the minds and call it knowledge. Why, if a man knew intimately the story of what lies between the soil in his right hand and the flour in his left, he would be splendidly, superbly, educated. In our so-called education we substitute written notes for memory. Notes are dissected bones, memory is alive, imaginative. We cram the youth with facts and figures and take away from the man the one thing needful for his manhood, the power to be alone with himself in nature.
“Britain has many places of wild beauty, and many gentle places of seclusion. He may stand on a height surveying six counties or in a corner of an orchard watching a bird building its nest. It is all one. If that power of vision were held intact through the difficult years from his childhood, he would need but few of those facts as a foundation on which to build a complete life. Multiplicity of materials does not build beauty but babel.”
Red in the morning, shepherds’ ….TAKE COVER! Clearly something dreadful is brewing. Yet again Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn, has set the heavens alight.
Winter’s Catalan cocktail can always be relied upon to have a kick to it, with lashings of angostura, but as all seven billion of us know, the weather is going increasingly haywire.
From long before Christmas through to January 6, Dean Martin blared out of the village public address system. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let it Snow!” I stood and listened next to the ludicrously early flowering pear tree, hat on to protect me from the beating sun, watching our happy host of sparrows hop through the burgeoning grass and boldly steal the chickens’ corn from under their beaks.
You don’t necessarily want to know this, but day after day – November, December and now into January – the peace, clarity and daytime warmth (circa 12 degrees) of the Priorat mountains continued to beguile like sirens. Is the mantic truth that this is the future? That between the rains in autumn and spring all will be serene?
No. The bite will surely come, late on and deep. Or the goaded planet will store its anger for another season.
Meanwhile we try not to worry about what is brewing. We try to appreciate the moment, these glorious days, the chance to hang winter washing on the line. After all, “Let It Snow” was written in Hollywood in July 1945, when I bet my bottom dollar flakes were few and far between.
Most evenings the black, random line of distant ink-black mountains is backed by the warm glow of sunset. But on January 5 it was an exceptional panorama, as the enchantment flared with celebration. From the far-flung clusters of lights marking the villages there rose fireworks – tiny, colourful flares above a beguiling community in miniature, heralding the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts for the Son of God and all the Catalan children.
There is one particular place, on the return journey from town, where this little world is laid out before me. I stopped the car and stared, waiting for another distant burst of happiness. I’d been on a fruitless shopping trip to town where most doors were locked, people were rushing to get ready and the main square was roped off with a 50 metre red carpet befitting the Oscars.
At New Year the children decided we should trek up the land in the dark, to turn off the torches and sit on the brow of the hill and listen to the distant village clock strike midnight. As we waited our eyes adjusted to the gloom and we wondered nervously what the plentiful wild boar were making of our unnatural presence in their nocturnal kingdom. None appeared and neither were there New Year explosions, just the tolling of the bell. Given the general tightening of belts, the villagers were obviously keeping their powder dry for January 5.
On the first day of the year we celebrated with a feast among friends at the always warm and welcoming home of Conchita and Mac.
So what will the new year hold? The fresh olive oil business bounds on – another website, run writer Judy Ridgway, has just posted our nut roast recipe – and the new year challenge is get the farm up and running, including pruning vines, as well as almond, fruit and olive trees.
Ella is working so very hard, juggling her five-languages baccalaureate (Spanish, Catalan, English, Greek, Latin, philosophy, geography, history, history of art and a thesis on fashion) while pulling together a portfolio to support art college applications. Regrettably an arts baccalaureate is not a sixth-form option in her small high school here in the mountains, so all her studies have been ex-curricular, something many arts-minded children may face in the UK if the mindless axing of arts education rolls on.
While I am on the subject, let me get this off my chest.
British art, music, theatre, film, books, radio and television are national treasures of invaluable worth that shine in the world and, for those in the corridors of power, bring vast returns to the Exchequer. Both Maggie and I despair that any Government should devalue this, or, indeed, deny that path of fulfilment to children. The planet needs far more arts, not less, for people to be more creative (and we don’t mean in the accounts departments of tax-dodging major corporations).
Meanwhile Joe is getting into his stride in his first year at high school, and growing an inch taller every week.
Ella and Joe will be 18 and 13 come June, an emotional thought deepened by the arrival of a gift, a large grass-weave basket, just like the one Joe slept in aged 4 weeks when we first came to Catalonia and saw Mother’s Garden.
Ella’s final exams will begin on her birthday, but she plans on celebrating in May when she and four friends and her brother will see One Direction in concert in Barcelona.
We will be there too, parked outside the Olympic basketball stadium in one enormous parental taxi rank, me nodding my head to the Rolling Stones on the car stereo, turning up the volume to drown out the screams while counting my blessings that somehow I managed to get the tickets.
How, heaven knows. I just kept frantically clicking the BUY button on the event website like a Wild West telegraph operator in a tumbleweed railway station who has a gun pointed at him by Clint Eastwood, until – Hallelujah – it worked. Life would not have been worth living had I failed.
As countless households all over the world know, bleakly or joyfully, One Direction concerts have been selling out in a blink, with online and shop vendors besieged by frantic teenagers and panicking parents. Now I notice some seats for the Barcelona gig are being offered for re-sale for a small fortune, as much as, well, tickets to see ageless (alright, he’s 69) living legend Mick Jagger strut his stuff while the indefinably cool guitarist Keith Richards sways precariously behind him. Heroes.
One Direction can’t be that good, surely?
Once upon a time, like many parents of older teenagers, I have been an expert on four colourful, fat friends with aerials on their heads and televisions in the tummies. Their incomprehensive but somehow catchy gibberish were then wallpapered over by the likes of “doggydoo” Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers greatest hits until I now find myself unwittingly humming 1D’s “Little Things” while walking the dogs. Not that I mind. Suffolk singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, who penned it, is class.
It is, give or take a sunrise or two, a dozen years since we rolled up here with our Norfolk bandwagon, chattels, dogs and dreams. We staked out this Latin soil as an outpost of the good county, promising to keep close and tell all; to share it.
Incredulity at the rush of time is answered by the grey-gilled man in the mirror, now 54 years of age. I have spent nearly a quarter of my life here and have tentatively begun the process of growing old. I need to accept that. Just beginning, I rush to add, but I – we – also need to recognise that the time has arrived to ease off the throttle; somehow.
Running the holiday cottage and, hence, having people on the farm for nine months of the year while also farming, writing and trying to grow the olive oil business is now too much.
So we are talking to villagers and friends to see who might like to share the land. There is talk of food cooperative members growing crops here. We want to focus more on the olive oil and the writing, so this may be our last season with the cottage. We shall see.
In truth, I don’t really know how old I am. My head says go for it until my body argues back two days later. Then I read in London Sunday supplements left by visitors and penned by deluded writers of roughly my age that where forty was once the new thirty, fifty is now the new forty. ER…no. Admit it.
PS: Cancel your flights. I wrote the above a few days ago. This morning it is tipping it down, blowing a gale and there is now on top of the mountain. Never take a god’s name in vain….
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.