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.
It had been a fitful, bitter and gusty night on the summit, but I was in the land of nod when Joe rose at dawn, wrapped his NCFC scarf around his neck and went for a long walk. It was an act that was to bring home to me a significant truth about my son.
How good to be so sure-footed and content with nature when you are rising 13 and beginning to look out at the world.
The night before I had bellowed like a fool, calling for him to come back when he had wandered off along a path and been engulfed by swirling cloud. I chastised myself (again) for showing the fear that is founded on how my heart sees him, as my little boy.
We were at 3000ft, camping on a vast limestone and rough grass plateau of sheer cliffs with just infinity for company. We had promised we would, and so we did, with Ella and Joe raising nearly £800 for Comic Relief.
Not just for the money, but for the inspiration to appreciate forever what naturalist John Muir meant. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you… while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
The significance of Joe’s dawn adventuring in that extreme place was, on my awakening, like a care falling as if a leaf. Of all the lessons of life the greatest have to include the enchantment of nature, to want to explore and sense it. Not to be afraid. To be secure enough to walk alone. To love what is real.
There are two worlds, of course – the one that presses in on us, human-made and so obsessive as to almost deny the relevance of the other, namely the fundamental, life-supporting biosphere. Almost. Everywhere I see hope. Society is awakening, rising on a wave of real values and fulfilment to question, challenge and change a system that will surely fail if it continues to put the pollutions of profit before the legacy of a sustainable existence.
Let me tell you the story of Manolo. It is a truth not a parable, although I think it should be seen as both.
From our mountain camp we could look down on Manolo’s distant house and farm. The good beekeeper is a vital member of his little village, someone the community knows it can rely upon for good deeds. But the village council underestimated him.
A new mobile phone mast had been constructed further up the valley, above Manolo’s land. The council took it for granted that he would not object to power lines running across his farm. He did. Manolo has more than 100 hives. The bees will be affected, he told them. They offered incentives but he stood his ground.
He knows what truly matters. No amount of risk is acceptable.
The world’s honeybee population has halved in 50 years. The European Food Safety Authority has released a study linking three neonicotinoid insecticides (imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin) to bee decline, concluding that the chemicals posed a “high acute risk” when used on crops attractive to bees.
Yet, shamefully and dangerously the UK government refused to back an EC two-year restriction, and was rightly savaged for its “extraordinary complacency” by the cross party House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.
The bees symbolise the whole. The risk taking has to stop and Manolo is absolutely right.
Passive spring days are like an English summer dream here at Mother’s Garden, fostering with warmth and colour the emotional memories of my chosen youth, the days I want to remember, lush with life and light in peaceful Norfolk places when I was first numbed by the immeasurable beauty that is the great outdoors.
A serin, cousin of the canary, serenades from the treetop every morning. Then another joins in, and another. There have never been so many, or maybe I have never stood still so long to tune in to these tiny finches.
For weeks the effort has been to get a fix on the wryneck that only sings for a short while after its arrival. Kee-kee-kee-kee-kee. Easier said than done. But finally I got lucky and managed to track the call to a walnut tree then keep my eye on the blur of brown and buff mottled feathers as they whizzed on to a fig tree and then to another walnut. There it sat for five precious seconds, swivelling its head 180 degrees and allowing me to meet its eye.
It is said that when disturbed at the nest, the wryneck (genus jynx) uses this snake-like head twisting and hissing as a threat display. For this bizarre behaviour they were loved by witches, from whence has come the term to put a “jinx” on someone.
While serins have been thick in the trees, so wild asparagus has been plentiful on the ground (not to mention the breakfast menu, lightly sautéed and served on toast with a drizzle of the finest olive oil).
And here’s an embarrassing fact. Ella and Joe have recently taken me on an asparagus hunt just one mile from the farm, to a place I have never been to before. We now call it The Shire.
Due west there is a gorge into which the sun neatly sets. I’d assumed that it was impassable, and even if we did attempt to clamber over the boulders of the river bed there would be little to appreciate save a wall of rock on either side. For whatever reason I had never wanted to descend into the narrowest, lowest part of our valley.
The river was purring. The swathes of dry cane on both sides were being clattered by the wind making a sound like halyards trying to wake sleeping yacht masts.
There was an abandoned house with the words en venda – for sale – painted on one of the large stones in the wall. Its overgrown meadow was speckled with the tiny leafed mesh that is wild asparagus. Rich pickings. If nobody has beaten you to it there will be new shoots at the base, or if they have, it is best to double check because it is so easy to miss the succulent growths among all the twisted stems.
I had gone far enough, but the children lured me on with the promise of a “special place with loads of asparagus”. It wasn’t plausible, but just in case I followed.
I couldn’t believe it. Round the bend and there was still no ravine, but lush, well-tended gardens with little Hobbit houses built into the sloping land, radiating care and pride. They were the finest examples of the fertile plots where villagers spent countless fruitful hours. Through one open door I could see four, or maybe five people seated, sharing a meal.
I looked at the rows of vegetables and wondered how they had not been ploughed and plundered by the copious boar.
Another hundred metres on and the walls of rock finally closed in. The vegetation had all been combed down by the raging waters of March. Then we were at a base of a narrow abandoned terrace. Joe plunged into the undergrowth and we followed. There was just enough space to weave between bramble-engulfed hazels, and everywhere were fistfuls of asparagus happiness.
“Watch out for snakes!” I called out, as we pushed open the thorn door to the maze, but we were alone, nearly. There were no snakes, no Hobbits, but a solitary Southern Festoon butterfly. (I doubled checked – it wasn’t a Spanish Festoon.)
Keep well – and many thanks to those of you who are interested in renting or buying our farm. The conversations continue. I will tell you more next month.
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.
Nature whirls around us, vortices of leaves reminding of the turning of the year, and we are transfixed by the kaleidoscope of existence, and death, of colours that matter.
This November the vivid hues have been yellow – not all autumn mellow but fierce too – and blood red.
Feathers have been flying at Mother’s Garden and horror has been muddled with awe. It has been carnage, not of a cat among pigeons but a goshawk among chickens.
Our brood was decimated just over a week ago, between 9 and 10 in the bright morning, and we couldn’t fathom what or how. Three dead, one wounded and another missing. Two days passed and another was taken during daylight.
After the first shock we discussed the usual suspects; fox (plentiful in the valley, but the manner of the deaths was not typical); badger (we have seen one black and white nose this year), stoat and weasel (both distinct possibilities). We looked for openings and reinforced the stout wire where perhaps, maybe, the killer could have squeezed.
We never looked to the sky. Why? Because the run was netted with the green plastic fishnet designed for fruit cages. There were a couple of gaps but we thought it was comprehensive enough to deter an aerial assault.
Maggie spotted it. We had just returned from picking up our mail in the village and there, round-shouldered like a Dickensian villain, a female goshawk was in the run, feasting on yet another chicken. I ran to the house to get my camera. Maggie edged nearer, opening the gate and trying to urge it out. The mustard-eyed, audacious raptor merely dragged the half-eaten corpse under the henhouse.
“What is it for goodness sake?”
I went into the run. Fool. The bird circled, hanging from the wire for a few seconds to allow me to hazard a guess from the plumage that it was a goshawk. Then it stood and stared straight at me with those unmistakable goshawk eyes; a large, brown-backed, seriously disgruntled bird, possibly a female.
I backed out, leaving the gate as wide as possible so it could take its leave. We watched as it rose and burst through the weak green netting, flapping slowly away past the cherries towards the forest. Privilege wrestled with despair. What a rare and wonderful sight; what a mess.
Birders will be wondering, as have I, how one bird could be responsible for multiple kills. This is not normal and there is the possibility that another carnivore was responsible in part. All I can say is that three of our birds were taken on different days. After the first slaughtering of three, the dead birds had puncture marks like stabbings, not bites.
What do you birders out there think? Is it possible one bird could do so much?
Meanwhile, despite the loss and the new labour of erecting more defences, it was a rare moment of closeness to life as well as death. Thankfully the hawk appeared completely unharmed. Now a neighbour has called to say two of his hens have been taken.
This month the birds most in evidence have been the buzzards on the phone posts, the jays and ravens, the grey heron preying on our goldfish, murmurations of spotless starlings, charms of goldfinches, two great musterings of migrating storks high in the clear sky, and great quarrels of sparrows splashing in the stone bath that has been constantly topped up by squalls.
How good the rain: More than a foot in five weeks. It came early enough to help the olives swell, and the harvest has been better than hoped, though we shivered and dripped as we carefully combed the fruit into the nets then poured them into crates. Our cooperative mill chatters urgently as the olives are brought in from the surrounding groves, in contrast to the gentle click of the dominoes of the retired farmers in the bar.
They seem oblivious to the television flickering on the wall, telling of latest developments on the talked-of independence showdown (critical elections tomorrow) and the endless economic woes. And it seems that not even the roar of engines will distract them from their game.
The world rally cars have rushed by as they do for a day every autumn, preceded and succeeded by the bizarre entourage of lads who love speed and loud exhausts. The night before the “stage” the narrow lane clogs in one direction with the laughable mix of boy racers, desperate to burn rubber, stuck behind impassable, wallowing blancmange camper vans driven by more mature devotees. The next day back they came, leaving behind piles of rubbish … and worse.
There was one close call. Our neighbour, a shepherd from Andalusia, has a knackered horse. Just as the first tarmac adrenalin rush was starting it snapped its tether and decided to stand in the lane, on a blind bend. As I ran towards it three vehicles missed it by a whisker. It didn’t dawn on any of the drivers to stop, but to be fair, as I was nearing the animal, the last one wound his window down and shouted without slowing that there was a horse. I cannot repeat my reply.
The dear old nag, part cream part dirt, now wild-eyed but still rooted to the spot, finally let me lead it back to the shepherd’s farm and the debris of dead mopeds, rubble, an upturned barrow on broken pipes and a ram’s skull on a post. Goats and sheep were penned with geese behind a blockade of old pallets. Two passive sheepdogs barely stirred and there was no sign of the large black female hound that earlier in the year had snatched one of our free-ranging hens to feed her latest litter.
The shepherd, who lives in the village not the semi-derelict farm dwelling, was in the bar when he answered my call. His response was a colourful as the mosaic of his farmyard and I could hear his wreck of an old Opel rumbling down from the village, and imagined it trying to overtake the hotrods.
As for the rally, it is but one weekend a year, a toxic reminder of how much I have changed.
Today the dawn was priceless, as jewels of dew were illuminated by a cold sun filtering through the mists. For the first time we have wild asparagus in November as well as April, and one pear tree is convinced it is blossom time. The crocus blooms give us dreamy delicacy and saffron for paellas. Mulberry, poplar, oak, fig, plane and hawthorn scatter embers of autumn across the valley, crowding the ribbon of the river banks with their chorus of colour. How good for the heart.
STOP PRESS: The new harvest olive oil is tremendous, and we are taking UK orders now for unfiltered oil, available in 2 litre containers or cases of 6x500ml bottles.
Powerful stuff, packed with fruit and goodness, a gloriously fresh, rare treat for Christmas.
We are bottling to order, and so we need to hear from you by Sunday evening, December 2.
The target is to get this fresh arbequina Mother’s Garden olive oil to mainland UK customers by the festive holiday. Email us. The choice is for a 2 litre (£27.50 delivered), or case of 6x500ml bottles (£50.50 delivered), unless you are part of a hub or share a delivery with friends which cuts the transport cost.
We hope to have this fresh olive oil with North America customers, through our friends at Dos Cielos Privado in Toronto, early in the new year. Get in touch with them for more information.
What a Mother’s Garden month – scorpions, Royal yachts, hoopoes at the door, underwater wonder-world, and Alaska stories of a boyhood adventure that would grace a great novel.
The domes of the fig trees framed by our bedroom window and cast with the first blush of morning, stir in the stillness. Long-tailed tits, collared doves, sparrows and a raucous magpie feed on the fruit, while on the ground a bold pair of hoopoes strut about pecking at the debris.
These weeks of ripening teem with life and colour and more subtle hints of the seasonal cycle. The wheelbarrow handles are still too hot to touch if left out in the sun yet pony Petita’s winter coat is already half-grown. The soft nights persist and we continue to sleep with windows wide, but on daybreak-dog-walks Kirby diligently forages for logs, kindling and cones.
Stuart Dallas and James Proctor, now at Aberystwyth and Canterbury universities respectively, have been for their fourth summer sojourn on the farm, flailing axes at stubborn logs, chugging about on the tractor, stacking old bricks and catching up with all the news.
We gave them a day off and set off for the sea, to a secret cove, and the youngsters immediately went in search of sea cucumbers and other aquatic wonders. Stuart, with his mop of black hair like a young adventurer in an Enid Blyton novel, took underwater photographs of Ella and Joe in the deep blue, then we picnicked and talked of the Famous Five and W E Johns’ Biggles until ants invaded the food basket. I told them how in May we welcomed to the farm the grandson of the pilot on whom the Biggles’ character was based.
When we took our Norfolk helpers to the airport there was time for a detour, so I headed for the old docks of Tarragona on the off-chance of seeing a classic yacht or two. Goodness me. Nestling against the quay was Nahlin, the Clyde-built, 1930 blend of luxury (six guest staterooms with en-suite bathrooms, a special ladies’ sitting room, a gym and a library) and notoriety, now restored to the beauty of the days she sailed the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean with King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson aboard.
Just a month into his reign in 1936 the new monarch announced he was going to set sail for the summer on the Nahlin with Mrs Simpson – a voyage that abandoned protocol and on which Edward most certainly weighed the abandonment of the crown to marry his American mistress. That December he abdicated.
James and Stuart missed the scorpions, though. After 11 years without a sighting on the farm, two have appeared in a matter of days.
The first was seen crossing the lane on to our parched meadow. The second, dead as a Monty Python parrot, was floating in the spring water when I descended the shaft to check on the level. As far as I can tell it is a Buthus occitanus or common yellow scorpion. What next I wonder.
Now for tales stranger than fiction.
I told last month of Maria Soler Benages and Joan Barceló Castellvi who lived and farmed here for 40 years, and of the joy of gleaning seeds of the past. It is hard to believe what we have since learned of the man who built the end tower of this house, who blasted with dynamite to create the great water reservoir and who had a devoted pet pig called Chucha he’d fattened but couldn’t bear to slaughter.
He was, I fairly assumed, a village-born lad (correct) who had followed the typical rural path into agriculture, happy with the horizons of the sierras and with little knowledge of what lay beyond. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Before I tell you, can I say that the revelations, told to us by his grandson, have rekindled an aspiration. Both back home in Norfolk and equally here in this Latin backwater I harbour a hope. Maybe one or more of you share it and, somehow, a lasting and inspiring solution can be found.
Throughout life we encounter people but we rarely have the time to understand them or to appreciate their lives. Is it not so? The light in their eyes shines all the brighter in their frailty, in the Indian summer of reflections, yet frequently we don’t delve and all too soon they leave us. How I wish I had asked.
New generations surge, riding vast waves of technology that seem, with all the focus on communication, to curtail conversation, social contact, recognition and respect between young and old. The immediate and transient is drowning out enduring wisdoms and fascinations. Life journeys and the hearing of them have little value until it is too late.
Gentle, rosy-cheeked broad-Norfolk Reggie would wander into our former village garden and we would pass the time of day across the teapot. As we sat Geoffrey might shuffle determinedly past en route to the community centre, a man dedicated to public service and deemed a tad too officious because of it. They were anchored in that community and the simple assumptions of their character and accomplishments stemmed from what was obvious. They had lived rooted, rural lives and were notes in the vital rhythm of quiet Norfolk.
How humbling to hear, subsequently, of Reg’s time as the master builder entrusted with the care and endless upkeep of Norwich Cathedral, and of Geoffrey’s bravery and endurance as a Chindit, fighting behind Japanese lines in the unforgiving jungles of Burma.
My idea is simple. I call it The Life Chronicles, and it is something we can entrust to the young people across the United Kingdom and these valleys. For a small sum we can give young people in the last years of schooling, in those days and weeks after exams and before summer holidays, the guidance and the fulfilment of asking, listening to and recording life stories.
For example; one school, one camera, ten lives recorded annually, 15 minutes each; a digital almanac to be held by the library service; hundreds of lives each year, thousands in a decade; a simple, fascinating communication between generations; an invaluable record.
Back to Joan Barceló Castellvi. He was a fiery boy, by all accounts, and his conflict with the village teacher came to a head when he was nine, circa 1895. He ambushed the schoolmaster and pelted him with eggs.
His parents sent him to Barcelona to work in a bakery. He stuck to the task for a year and then vanished. Nothing was heard of him for 15 years. Joan had headed north on foot and, working here and there to earn scraps, he walked for two years until he reached Marseilles. He joined a ship and sailed the world, and within a few years was a seaman on the US Coast Guard Cutter The Rush, patrolling the Bering Sea off Alaska.
He visited his family here, told of his adventurers, brought them gifts, then returned to Barcelona, set on continuing his life in America. As we waited for the ship, he met and fell in love with Maria. The ship sailed without him.
So, how can we begin the English and Catalan – global even – life chronicles? Think on, where ever in the world you may be.
Oh – a thought. Do you know anyone who might be interested in my blog? Send them the link – http://mothersgarden.org/blog-2.
I’m not easily stunned these days, by fiesta firecrackers at my feet, by a snake curled in the flower tub beside the front door, by the blunderbuss volleys of mountain thunderstorms.
But Josep Sancho Barceló and his cousin Dolors have brought an enduring bewilderment to our home in the echoing valleys of The Priorat.
We, like you perhaps, grow increasingly sensitive to history: maybe because we will be history too, one day. Whatever the workings of the mind, living somewhere with mysteries (which means everywhere, naturally, but especially in antiquated abodes), makes me wonder at length about context, legacy and if life ever really ends if we try to remember.
Who laid those dry-stone walls? Who lived here? Who washed their clothes in the pool and scrubbed them on the angled stones outside my office window? The pieces of the impossible puzzle that is Mother’s Garden, a vast jigsaw of timelines and souls, lies scattered in the conscience.
Like all ancient houses that have no wealth of records, all you possess are local histories handed down, worn stairs, old keys and your imaginings. It is not much to go on. Now, as I write and stare, I know that the swathe of limestone skyline that fills the window beyond my computer had once held the eye of Maria Soler Benages as she washed dishes in the old stone sink. And I can see her face.
First, though, let me take you back to our first fleeting understandings of how life must have been for the last people for whom this gorgeous space was home before it was abandoned in the Sixties. We acquired the farmhouse and overgrown acres in 2000 from a family who had made the building weatherproof but had never lived in it. They had bought the derelict farm in the late 1980s as a place to spend a day or a weekend away from their bustling lives in Tarragona, capital of the Costa Daurada.
They did enough, thank goodness, to arrest the decay, re-roofing the house and barn, restoring a basic water supply and septic, and re-establising a kitchen of sorts. And along with the vast front door key they passed on to us photographs of how it had been when they had first encountered it – long forsaken with ceilings open to the skies and yawning, rotten doors that led to evidence of spirits, entombed in cobwebs.
Everywhere across these valleys there are the sorrowful faces of vast stone farmhouses where, through broken windows, you can see how time and weather have torn the heart out of them. Some have not been inhabited since the bloodletting during the 1936-39 civil war. Like the great wherries sailed by the Broads water folk, they are the vestiges of a lost existence, the guardians and vessels of life stories and experiences that we race away from with ever increasing velocity. If only dwellings could speak to us.
That would have been Mother’s Garden fate, but for Enric and Nuria from Tarragona. They gave the farmhouse new life and then gifted us the chance to live somewhere exceptional and habitable, with the golden opportunity to leave our mark with further restorations. As for the echoes, we have gleaned stories but nothing so certain and so moving as what we have learned in recent days. Josep from Barcelona and Dolors from Andorra, now in the seventies, arrived arm-in-arm in 95 degrees of Saturday morning haze, their smiling eyes blinking with emotion and, perhaps, apprehension as to how the foreign owners of a key landmark in their lives would welcome them.
We were racing to get the cottage ready for new guests and it took a moment for the significance of their visit to dawn. Within the hour an astonishing chapter in the story of our home was unfolding, and after a flurry of Facebook and email exchanges we now have precious photographs of Josep and Dolors’ grandparents who farmed here for 40 years from the 1920s – Maria Soler Benages and Joan Barceló Castellvi, pictured with their dog in front of the barn. The quiet emotion we feel as a consequence of this very personal insight can be measured by the degree to which this place has drawn the smiles, tears, blood and sweat from us, how it enraptures still.
The gleaning goes on, but we know now that Joan, born in the village, married Maria from Badalona, near Barcelona, and they settled on the farm and raised two daughters, Maria and Juanita. One of their first endeavours was to build the bassa, the vast circular reservoir behind the house, where so many of the villager’s pensioners recall swimming when they were young. During the collapse of the republic and Franco’s Fascist retributions the family took refuge in the village convent and stayed there for six years, Joan labouring on farms to earn just enough to keep that other wolf, hunger, from the door.
Eventually they were able to return to their own land and in the subsequent decades an assortment of snaps of family gatherings were taken here, featuring Josep and Dolors as toddlers gathering armfuls of wonderful memories that they have clearly treasured all their lives.
Maria and Joan are pictured above, sitting outside the barn, next to a painting of the farmhouse from all those years ago, painted by their son- in- law we understand, with the vast pergola that was destroyed during a violent storm. How good to have this image of them.
As I write, I keep flitting to my email to see if either of the cousins can tell us what happened at the end of their grandparents’ time here, how the house fell into ruin, and to ask where they are buried so we may go and pay our respects. For sure I will have more to impart in September.
Meanwhile we pant. The final weeks of August, among the busiest of the year for us, have been the hottest and toughest we have know in 11 summers, with daily temperatures in the high 90 degrees Fahrenheit, night discomfort at circa 75 degrees and wildfire fears off the scale. A week ago it was still 93 degrees at 9.30pm.
Thank goodness it is never knee-bucklingly humid here. The regular stillness, locked with heat, drowns out the world as loudly as the whisper of an occasional airing-cupboard breeze through fig and iris leaves. Like the hour hand of a clock, this unremitting Mediterranean summer advances imperceptibly towards September and the easing of the baking bonds, as the sunflowers symbolically hang their heads, glory finally gone.
Do you recall the many close scrapes of our Norfolk springers Charlie and Megan? Well, their equally mad pocket-rocket replacements Tilly and Ted also keep hauling me out into the midday sun to search for them through hazel groves, vineyards and woodland. You would think, given the temperatures, they would have more sense. You would think I would too, but like the hapless owner of Fenton, the Richmond Park deer chasing Labrador whose disgrace has been witnessed by millions on YouTube, I can never stand idly by. He has my deepest sympathy.
Time to go. One last, important footnote. We are members of a 95-year-old farming cooperative, and have been working with the little village mill for seven years. As the world marks the Year of Cooperatives I will tell you next month why we think this movement of cooperation is so important – here, in Norfolk, across the globe. And we are very happy and proud to say that our olive oil has just won another gold star in the UK Great Taste Awards. Keep well.
Life flows and ebbs. It is a summer when life at Mother’s Garden has spun from the fast flowing stream of existence into a pool of deep reflection, with vital and sad reasons to weigh the days.
There is a sense that it is a time of change, upon us and still to come.
First, let me tell you about our dog Blanca; ours for no more than six weeks. It is a sad story tinged with guilt.
Blanca panted up our drive early in June having managed to free herself from a neighbouring farm. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the last.
For nearly two years we heard her bark, sometimes for great lumps of time through the still night air, and on several occasions she escaped and made her way to Mother’s Garden, sending our dogs into a frenzy. We challenged the farm owner over her care – she was contained within a derelict 50 metre building – and he affably explained that although he was looking after her for the friend of one of his children he loved her and assured us she was well fed and watered. He pledged to change her location, but we later discovered this was merely to chain her to a wall with only a crude shelter of old feed sacks as a refuge from sun and rain.
Somehow she freed herself again. This affectionate brindle boxer, called “White” because of her four white feet, arrived painfully thin, her encrusted eyes besieged with flies. The smiling farmer followed her up our track several days later with a leash in his hand. We sent him packing.
Our vet came and immediately judged Blanca was suffering from acute anaemia and canine leishmaniasis, a blood parasite disease transmitted from sand fly or mosquito bites, with the consequence of a host of health problems, not least renal failure. This can be treatable but is incurable. But, given the evidence of her skin ulcers and severe weight loss, it was possible Blanca’s kidneys were already too damaged to save her.
While we waiting for the results of the blood test we treated Blanca’s anaemia and she rallied, craving attention, playing ball with the children and making her peace with our three dogs. For several weeks we dared to believe she would pull through. But no.
Her kidneys failed, the reignited light in her eyes dimmed, she stopped eating and drinking and the vet returned to end the suffering. Wiping away tears, we buried her in the middle of a terrace near the top of the farm where we hope to plant more olive trees one day. It will be known as Blanca’s Grove. If only we had allowed Blanca to stay the first time she came to us.
While the rains fall and fall on northern Europe we look to the clear skies, our feet on parched earth. The dryness is not extraordinary this time of year, but it is never easy, and we are starting to hear stories of rural houses in other areas where wells are running dry. Not so here, thank goodness, for our little valley is more verdant, with subterranean water courses bring life from as far as the melting snows of the Pyrenees. All the time, effort and great cost in excavating our ancient spring has proved this.
Just five metres down water bubbles from the rock at the rate of 2000 litres an hour. Not that everything has gone quite according to plan. The overall rate of flow must have diminished a little during this arid season, because the level is a centimetre lower than the buried pipe running down to our reservoir, so while an interim mains-fed pump purrs away and water gushes I am exploring the options for a little solar pump to keep things flowing independently during dry spells. It will be a small but significant step along our road to self-sufficiency. Should a current writing project bear the fruit we hope it will in 2013 and 2014, then solar panels for house energy will be firmly on the agenda to add to our existing hot water panels.
We will prevail: How far we have come since I crawled along the tunnel into the spring cave and first contemplated life without the constant gift of the spring. As well as Zeppelin courgettes at the heart of our lush garden we also have skyscraper sunflowers as a consequence of this return of moisture.
Maggie continues with her art forms – ceaseless, caring labours of provision that cast such wondrous natural patterns and colours. The beauty of her flower essences, in this case pomegranate,pictured above, is no accident. She lays the blooms and leaves on the spring water with such consideration as to create a magical circle that deserves to be, and will be, a picture on a wall.
Meanwhile, the bottles of dreamy elderflower cordial wait in line on the kitchen table, while the pan is cleaned in readiness for the bubbling scent of plum jam to fill the room. Goodness abounds all around right now, with golden oriels forgetting their timidity to feast with the rest of us on the ripe figs that weigh branches to ground beside the house.
Such things help take the mind off the economic storm clouds that crowd the horizon. Here in Spain prospects continue to spiral downward, and it is hardly surprising. Recently there was one particularly bleak day when the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, still bearing his expression of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a German juggernaut, reneged on a pledge and shoved VAT rates up to 21 per cent.
You will no doubt be aware that he is aiming to save 65bn Euros (£51bn) as part of a deal with Eurozone leaders (bossed by Merkel) to help rescue Spain’s banks. Eurozone finance ministers have agreed to provide 30bn Euros (£24bn) for Spain’s troubled banks by the end of the month and to give Madrid an extra year – until 2014 – to hit its budget targets.
In another round of austerity measures Rajoy announced higher taxes and cuts to unemployment benefits, union pay, and civil service perks. It was clearly not his hymn sheet, because tax rises were a measure his government had previously argued against amid concerns that it would deepen Spain’s recession by stifling consumer spending. Er, Yes. As the BBC’s Europe editor Gavin Hewitt succinctly put it “The measures will test further the patience of the Spanish people – pledges only recently made have been broken”.
Thank goodness, then, it is the season to sit out on the street in the cool of an evening, away from the incessant TV news of financial meltdown, and to talk of life within reason – the impending fiestas, the gathering of families in the villages for the holiday season. The public swimming pools in every village sparkle with laughter. Elders, mostly women, sit under the trees watching over the little ones. They have known of far far worse times and their heartbeats are steady, their doors and arms always open to family and friends. Older children wander home in twos or threes for lunch with wet hair, towels over their shoulders, to return for more frolics after sustenance and siesta.
As I write, Joe Joe is there at the pool, having stayed overnight at the home of his friend Joan, pronounced Jo-an.
It is a summer of special significance for our son.
His primary school’s farewell concert featured many special moments, not least a moving sequence of photographs featuring each of his peer group, who are all moving on to high school in September, sitting on the school stairs or floor reading to a much younger child, passing on the joy of literature.
And the school witnessed something else, equally uplifting. Joe Joe and two school friends, Josep and Arnau, all members of La Corranda dance troupe, performed a mesmerising, gravity defying, tambourine rhythm dance in the school plaça that brought the crowd to its feet.
The boys repeated it a day later, down on the quayside in Tarragona harbour, where region-wide dance companies had gathered and where the priceless moment was crowned with applause that rolled across the water to a vast 315ft super yacht. Apparently it cost £100m to build and is owned by someone with a fortune of about £6billion. But that only makes him the 81st richest person in the world.
Almost time to sign off. One last thing.
With Maggie away for a few days and Joe on another sleepover, Ella and I decided to dodge the catering dilemma and (once all the animals were tucked up) to spin down to the sea at dusk to seek out a Chinese restaurant. Halfway down the mountain I remembered where there was one, near to our favourite, Cuban beach bar, just across the road from the sand and wide promenade. People were out in number, as usual, drifting along in gentle conversation, or cycling, or just sitting and savouring the magical twilight as the darkening sea flickered with the reflections of distant lights across the bay.
When we parked we noticed about 30 senior citizens had gathered along a curve in the low wall that mirrored the great canopy of a pine tree mushrooming from the prom.
We sat on the restaurant terrace, enjoying our meal, amused by the effect of a parked 1950s split screen Volkswagen camper van on most of the men, me included. Then Ella pointed out the group of pensioners under the tree.
They were line dancing, which seemed from where I was sitting to be, entertainingly, to the accompaniment of the Chinese music wafting through the restaurant.
After our meal we crossed the road and I sat on the wall close to them while Ella went to paddle in the ink of the night sea. Promenaders of all ages slowed to watch the dancers, and more than a few, young and young at heart, began to swing their hips, some slipping off their shoes to share in the happiness. I didn’t need to move to do that.
Oh – our August shipment of newly bottled, fresh olive oil is now in the UK, in readiness for summer salads, as I promised to let some of you know. May the sun shine on you all and the Olympics. Keep well.
June, like the continent of Europe, huffs and puffs, blowing buckets and bags like tumble weed across red earth patterned with the dancing shadows of fig leaves. Temperatures nudge towards 34 degrees Centigrade (93 in real money, if you deal in Fahrenheit like me, like the older Spaniards who still value things in Pesetas) and the dogs and frogs wake us up every night.
It is as if nature is shaking Spain and other economies, the UK included, from the daydream of blind excess, of living far beyond means.
The question often comes – how bad is it, living in (as the UK media paints it) such a desperate nation? Spain is, after all, the test tube of the moment in an explosive Europe.
I will tell you, from the perspective of our privileged remoteness.
You know, of course, that Mother’s Garden is in tiny, relatively closed, mountain county of one small town and 22 villages. So you will appreciate, too, that roots here are deep, like those of the vines, and there is a simple rhythm to all things, centred on family and the great outdoors, that resists the prods to race with the winds of innovation and accumulation. That is true of great swathes of this spacious nation, more than twice the size of the UK with only three quarters of the population.
With that caveat I say this: Despite the depression and the camps and protests in major cities, I truly sense the Catalans and the Spanish in general are living with a level of pain and dire long term economic prognosis that might tip the scales in other nations. There is deep anger. There is a movement for change – the youth-powered “los indignados” (the indignant) – that has yet to galvanise a critical mass but still might. But there isn’t a sense of widespread desperation that shortens fuses to a perilous degree. There isn’t within the scope of my radar that anxiety, even fear, about social fracture, that brittleness I feel sometimes in Britain.
That may come. In the bank there is a booklet of properties for sale – all repossessions. Fuel and electricity prices are climbing, education and health budgets have been slashed, and the unemployment rate among young people is now 50 per cent. As in every community across the continent, there is bafflement over the financial detail of the fiasco, but a shrewd idea of the root cause, and disillusionment with the career politicians and their Wallace and Gromit grins while they try to wallpaper over the word written large – GREED.
In the bread shop the baker smiles, as always, and lists to the assembled the vital things in life that do not have a price. It is the general philosophy here in the Latin mountains, where far greater hardships are within living memory and where the rock-bed of family is the foundation of all. The older generation has to a great extent resisted the pandemic of consumerism and they continue to bumble about in the old Renault 4s, between the wealth of their vegetable gardens, chicken nesting boxes and their simple homes.
For their children, with families of their own now, smarter cars, flat screen televisions and mortgages, the worries are there for sure, but they still live close to home and they have the security of community, finding invaluable comfort in it. The talk in the bar is not so much whether the Euro will survive – it has to – or how deep the austerity will be, but humour and the common conversations of friendship and family (and football).
Push the economic topic and they will shrug with resignation rather than revolution. The facts are as obvious here as anywhere. The obscene feasting at the top table of the world economy had blinded the gross bürgermeisters as to how far they could push consumerism and load many people in the “wealthier” nations with debt and, inevitably, gross stress and anxiety.
The comment has been made that while a few have lived like kings the majority have been made to feel like idiots.
Another friend, who is helping us replace the kilometre long phone line to the farmhouse, shouts with a wicked laugh from the top of a ladder that the Spanish are bandits who will never conform.
“We are different,” he says. “They have to remember that. We live our lives how we choose not how they tell us.”
His childhood puts the current so called crisis in perspective. In 1970, when he was 14, Fascist dictator Franco was still in power and the Catalan language had been banned and culture stamped on for more than three decades. The economy was feebly trying to find its feet. That year there was a knock on the door and his father, a critic of the regime, was taken away and never seen again. For years his mother went on a fruitless nationwide search for his body.
So while Rajoy, Merkel and others stumble about in the rising heat trying to save the Euro and their skins before going home to their well-watered gardens, the proletariat are hung out to dry. If it wasn’t so painful it could all the makings of a cheesy television drama. Maybe it will one day.
Someone we know in England has lost her job. She went home, locked the door and ploughed through several bars of chocolate while watching countless episodes of The Waltons.
Where is there comfort in witnessing an American family living through the Great Depression in the 1930s? You would be surprised.
We have just bought the first 50 episodes on two DVDs. The benefits are threefold. First, both Maggie and I happily remember being addicted as children to The Waltons when it first ran in the early 1970s. It was a Sunday evening treat in our separate households and millions of others no doubt. Second, it has triggered the same rhythm with our family now, with us all curling up together on the sofa to be transported to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Third, it may be syrup-ly sentimental, but there is something uplifting about the gentle glow of a strong family living simply and happily through meagre times rather than the incessant radiation from the modern furnace of materialism.
You probably know this already, but for the record the Waltons, about a couple with their seven barefoot children and the two glorious grandparents, ran for nine seasons – totally 221 episodes.
John Boy, the eldest child, tells of the challenges and traumas of that time, all overcome through the fortitude of unity, and there is much truth in it. The creator of The Waltons, writer Earl Hammer, drew from his upbringing in Virginia during those dark days, and it is his voice you hear in reflection at the end of each episode.
The worth is in the sentiment. Drawing water from the deep well of our elders who have known of worst times and know in equal measure how to live through them is what counts now. Here at least.
Let’s move on, up the track to the top of the farm to near the power line where the whistling bee eaters gather en masse as sunset; yes, bee eaters like the one that created a stir last month when it was spotted in Norfolk close to where I grew up.
The stone plopped with baritone depth. An echo of water-wealth barrelled up to our faces peering down into new opening to our spring. A life force has returned to Mother’s Garden.
We are not brimming with glee quite yet, but after weeks of hard labour and wonder at old wisdom we are flowing again, at the rate of about 500 litres an hour. When we have replaced the ages-old clay pipe that runs across the farm, part clogged with silt and roots, we expect this will rise to 1000 litres and the bill to nudge far beyond €5000. Ouch. But what choice? Water is life, and we have done enough, we hope, for the benefit to run through many generations.
In May I told of our hair-pulling anxiety after the spring ran dry, of a narrow shaft, tiny tunnel and blocked cave, of what looked like an insurmountable problem beneath this land. I went down there about ten times in total, on the last occasion curtailing a meeting in the cave when a very brave local expert was trying to explain to me how he would clear by hand the great mound of debris stemming the flow.
No way, I said, reversing out. The roof had collapsed once and could do so again. There was no option but to get a digger and excavate the whole area.
So we did, in dramatic style, with a JCB digger clawing away earth and rock, to a depth of 5 metres. First the cave appeared, then the tunnel. It dried my throat to see what little force it took to break the earth’s resistance.
My Dad, who died in March, knew well enough the value of water and would be content to know his legacy paid for the work. For two years he drove a water truck across the parched landscape of North Africa, being shelled and strafed as he searched alone for clean wells on his relentless mission to help quench an Army’s thirst. His part in Hitler’s downfall concerned the thing that some say future wars will be fought over.
There has been one disappointment, however. I said last month that at the back of the cave there appeared to be a man-made arch of rocks. No so. It was the edge of a great seam of sandstone patterned with surprisingly regular faults. There was no hoped for revelation. But what remains amazing is how, an age ago, someone had burrowed their way to the exact source of our spring.
Once the digger had done the heavy work we laboured with spades until water bubbled up from the ground beneath us. We were spot on. Our friend Antonio said we were most fortunate. How wise and kind our guide, the spirit of the tunneller.
The happiness is not ours alone. The well-watered vegetable garden shines with growth. In the old wash pool outside my office window the resident male Iberian green frog proclaims his contentment day and night. What a racket. There is at least one female in there too, but any tadpoles are going to find it tough given the appetite of any fish that survive the visits of the kingfisher. Oh the circle of life.
The frog, meanwhile, takes rides on the floating polystyrene seed tray, nudged along by one or two goldfish. Hand on heart, I have seen this several times now.
Must go – but two important oil footnotes. Sales of our fresh olive oil are climbing and we have just shipped another 500 litres to the UK, so if anyone would like some get in touch via our contact page. Second, our online shop has had a wobble which we are trying to fix. Sincere apologies to anyone frustrated by this.
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.