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.
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.
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.
Do you sense that walls are a store of echoes? Moments arrive and never really leave. Places seem to absorb the good and the grim and then hold them, emitting the essence of happenings.
I am acutely aware of this on entering an old building. Maybe you are too. Perhaps it is simply imaginings, but that first feeling rarely passes. The Mother’s Garden farmhouse enveloped us with welcome the first time we brushed aside cobwebs and opened the shutters to let in the light, and the happiness and goodness are still as warming and rich today as that first illumination.
Down the track, next to the wild flower meadow, people have carried laughter and contentment into our holiday cottage, and now there is song too. The abandoned water reservoir beside the pool, reconstituted with stout roof and glass doors as a dry space for good things, is flooded with tuneful voices forever more.
Fourteen people had come to Sing Away with teacher Teresa Verney, in a week jewelled with fulfilment and fellowship, swallowtail butterflies and glorious surprises.
Towards the end of last year I told of our and Teresa’s plans – inspired by our mutual friend the Jane Stevenson of Creature Comforters for whom Maggie makes some Bach flower remedies – to somehow combine Teresa’s great accomplishments with her Sing For Joy groups in Norfolk, England, with the happiness of here, and so it came to pass. Within days of the activity holiday idea being aired it was fully booked and our handwringing began. Would it work?
At the end of the seven days the assembled had gifted their echo and also sung spontaneously upon mountain tops, in a wine cellar, a church, a Syrian restaurant and in the former home and garden of a famous sculptor that’s now a sanctuary for the rare Mediterranean tortoise. Proof positive of the joy that can come of finding your voice, sharing, learning, eating, talking, drinking and laughing long and loud: Add to that taking long works, bird watching, standing and staring and scenting your hands by running them through herbs.
As for those glorious surprises, well, what can I say? Jim and Sarah Woodhouse, who live within the scent of the North Sea close to where I free-ranged as a child, are close friends of my godfather John Bell, the link being Lancing College, West Sussex, where Jim was headmaster and John was a master for 32 years. John had lodged with my parents at the start of his teaching career at 53 years ago. Then we discovered that Sarah is the founder of a charity we wholeheartedly endorse – it is called Right From The Start – which is committed to underlining the need for a loving and secure environment for children at the earliest stages of their lives and so create a similar core benefit within families and communities. How fundamental is that? Please have a look at the Right From The Start website.
I was just absorbing all of that when it emerged in coffee-break conversation that violinist Sarah Chadwick, who both sang and played at Mother’s Garden, is connected to two people I have the highest regard for.
Sarah is the niece of the late Roy Clark, author of the definitive Black Sailed Traders (1961) and one of the small group of leading local figures including Lady Mayhew and Humphrey Boardman who worked tirelessly to the save Albion and hence keep the story of the Broadland wherries alive. I wrote a small book about Albion in 1998 for the Norfolk Wherry Trust and the first words within it are, fittingly, not my own but Roy’s.
I talked to Sarah of my appreciation of him, and how his work was among the inspirations for my novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy. I explained that the book is about a violinist and that another touchstone for it had been the pastoral music of English composer Herbert Howells. Oh, she said. She had studied at the Royal College of Music and knew him. This is when I had to sit down. How I wish I had met him. He died in 1983 leaving a legacy of glorious works. When we make the film of Moon Daisy – yes, we are getting closer – the entire score will be drawn from his compositions.
So you see, I found the voices all the more enchanting, in song and word.
The singers went home and I wandered in the company of a nightingale. Diversity and pace; perhaps these are the keys to logging experiences, so long as we stand and just be once in a while to properly gauge circumstance and detail, to register our place in time and to remind ourselves to use that time better; to acknowledge the obvious that, somehow, some days, we do not see; to break our gaze from the mollifying collectives of some surreal diversions headed by the dire and (I pessimistically believe) encouraged anxieties of image, possession, economics and, ironically, time.
I am sometimes blown over by the rush of the human race, with people all but busting blood vessels to keep up with whatever they will dream up next to keep everyone paying. Is life truly satisfying when it amounts to a line of expensive and “awesome” funfair rides where you sweat to buy the ticket then just sit like a plum pudding?
Sorry. I just think everyone craves less of more, with time to live and give.
Now for news of a tight squeeze. What is adventure without a little terror?
I’m in a hole….well I was a few hours ago; more than four metres down an ancient chest-wide shaft cut into the red rock, to be precise, trying to fathom out why our spring has stopped.
I already knew from a “never again!” descent a couple of years back – remember? – that at the bottom of the shaft a tunnel barely big enough for a toddler had been painstakingly chiselled into the hillside. So I crouched, took an enormous breath, muttered a few foul oaths and paddled along it.
Five metres from the shaft there had been a great collapse. A pile of rocks and mud was blocking not only my way forward but also the flow of spring water. Roots dangled from the dark void above, and my feeble torch could just pick out a great space beyond the fall.
I backed out at a rate of knots and climbed into the sunshine to tell a visiting friend how scary it was. He immediately volunteered to go down with a camera. Mad as a box of frogs. Sure enough, the photographs showed what looked like a man-made stone arch beyond the rock fall. Who? How? When?
The dilemma is what we can do without disturbing what could be an important site. We figure there can only be about three metres of rock and earth above the cavern, making it highly dangerous to drive a tractor or even walk above there. And, as I said, the water to our bassa (water store) has ceased. Doing nothing is definitely not an option.
So I have just taken expert advice and within the next few days we expect to be carefully clearing above the rock fall, opening and unblocking the spring and taking a clearer, safer look at the arch and what lays beyond it.
Close to that point we have a most unusual terrace wall just before the summit of the farm, comprising of right angle lumps of rock bearing the remnants of lime render, as if they had been taken from a ruin. You know what I am thinking…….
This fertile valley has been peopled since Palaeolithic times, and the evidence is scattered everywhere. To site a dwelling on this gentle rise, close to water, would have been an obvious choice. Oh for the gift of time travel.
Just a few days before I descended into the blackness I and the family climbed the valley wall into the light to look over the timeless pattern of life.
We passed a pink man in a white vest and weathered jeans carved the loamy red earth with a mattock. His narrow terrace and the rhythm of his labour snaked towards us between the babble of the river and the silence of the forest. We were rising into the peace.
After downpours, double rainbows and thunderbolts the clear air overflowed with colour and life. We slowly zigzagged up the face of the limestone ridge, absorbed by the dappled-shade-delicacy of the moss and the fern amid the host of nature and its perfume, contentedly lost for words, lost in time. With late shoots of wild asparagus sprouting from our fists we walked along the top of the ridge as man and woman have always done, until we found a suitable ledge on which to contemplate and picnic. Bliss.
I will relay news of the spring works next month with tales of Nartists in residence too, but meanwhile leave you with another treat, for entomologists and all lovers of wonder.
As you stand in the horse corral, dusty as the High Chaparral, four to five staggeringly large hymenopterans fly figure eights around your ankles. They are 4cm long scolia flavifrons, black with two yellow bands, known to some as mammoth wasps. Nectar gathers who are as large as the carpenter bees that are working the wisteria outside the back door right now, and seemingly just as unaggressive, they are parasites of the rhinoceros beetle which perhaps explains their unceasing dance close to the horses.
Since Spook the Anglo-Arab steed arrived we have the best roses in the valley and have been able to gift sacks of hhuu, as my mum would call it, to neighbours. The juggernaut beetles have been lured by the dung fragrance too, so the circle of life spins on.
PS: I now write a small weekly blog for the small business blog http://sme-blog.com/ should our fiscal trials, tribulations and the merry dance of earning a living at Mother’s Garden be of interest. Anyone who is doing their own thing or is thinking about it might find the site helpful.
What does it really mean to live in clover – a care-free life of ease, comfort and financial prosperity? These elude us – ha! – although we are happily knee-deep in the emblem of the distant Emerald Isle.
Life is bursting forth in all directions and I burst into song (see other recent out of tune blog). Well, it is always the greatest lift to walk away from the deafening, numbing, cold waterfall of world events and into the shamrock.
As I write the strimmer interrupts the wild birds, frogs and cockerels. Helper Andy, from Cornwall, is steaming through the lower vineyard and I sit here at my chaotic desk and gaze out at it in all its new leaf Easter glory.
Slowly but discernibly the round-shouldered mint plant in the pot outside my office window is responding to the water I have just given it. The fish are rising in the old washing pool and Joe is kicking his Barcelona football about beneath the buzzing wisteria.
Behind the house Maggie and Andy’s partner Tamsin have planted a great swathe with spuds, and another patch has been cleaned and fed with compost and pony muck in readiness for an assortment of other vegetables, while every dawn smoke rises as the never-ending battle with the brambles rolls on.
Andy and Tamsin, who were mentioned in dispatches in February, have returned for another dollop of life on the farm and it is good to have them around.
I must away up the land on the tractor this afternoon to cut the verdant strips between the top vines, before we begin the great task of pruning the 80 olive trees. No doubt we will be outside watering the garden until night closes in.
Behind me, just inside the back door, our coats hang beneath the crowded shelf of teetering hats that so well define this life. We have an endless list of farming, literary, olive oil, holiday cottage, domestic and accountancy tasks that regularly outpace us, not to mention the constant distractions: Like the apparent demise of our washing machine (bang goes another 600 Euros) planning to export olive oil to the land of Maggie’s birth, Canada (gulp), the demise of the currency exchange company that was holding a large lump of our money (double gulp), and the arrival of Lucky the chicken.
I say “apparent demise” of Daphne our Daewoo washing mashing because – ahem – I took her apart, put her back together again and she worked. Total fluke, of course, but we were desperate not to lose her. After 10 years of coping not only with our needs but the holiday cottage washing too, Daphne has every right to throw out the towel. But she is a great rarity – a dual feed washing machine, and a large capacity one at that.
Anyone with me on this? While solar water heating has become popular it seems washing machines with a hot water feed have all but disappeared. I just don’t get it.
On the financial front we are sending, free of charge, a bottle of olive oil to a chemist in London. When the London currency trading company that has for the past four years converted Sterling into Euros for us suddenly stopped answering the telephone or my increasingly frantic emails I went pale. We needed the hard-earned funds in our Spanish bank account to pay our mortgage. What to do?
After days of getting nowhere down official channels I put on my frayed journalist’s hat, Google-Earthed and street-viewed the company’s offices, saw there was a chemist’s shop next door, rang him and begging him to go round and bang on the door for me, which he did, bless him.
“It is a somewhat unusual request,” I said.
“No it isn’t,” he replied. “You’re the third person to ask me.”
That told me there must have been thousands of desperate Brits abroad in the same boat, or at least a handful of dog-with-a-bone ex-journalists scattered around the globe.
I am much relieved to report that the money was recovered, but the salient point remains for all would-be ex-pats – you are going to have to become international money traders with one eye forever on the currently woeful exchange rate while the other eye scans for the best/safest deal. I hadn’t counted on looking at the BBC business pages every day of my Mediterranean existence, but I do.