A fish rises to kiss the mirror of first light. Night temperatures have dipped and the valley is a patchwork of Autumnal embers. The reservoir whispers steam and, overnight, the frenzy of dragonflies has evaporated.
The days, though, still have warmth enough to stir fragile life. How brief the moment for some creatures. The metallic, dung-loving, magnificent green bottle fly that I fished alive from the pool, for example, has but a couple of weeks from egg to death.
And the pollinators still have fare. Our hammock-supporting nispero tree is coming into flower while the countless stalks of St John’s wort, that medicinal herb or noxious and invasive weed (depending on your leaning), still flames at the water’s edge and along banks and verges. It is so named because someone noted it coming into flower on June 24th, the birthday of John the Baptist; “wort” being an old English word for plant.
I potter. Our ravens sound an angry alarm and we look up to see them haranguing a goshawk. Two men come up the drive in search of Spanish Civil War echoes. Mother’s Garden sits on part of the site of the International Brigades’ training camp before the fateful, final battle against Franco’s Fascists in 1938. It turns out one of the men has just retired from the UN, so I change the subject from the old wars to cravings for new peace.
I vent. The world is crying out for the UN to show unity of peaceful purpose far and beyond nationalistic interests. It desperately needs certainty of funding rather than voluntary donations/bargaining tools from individual governments and donors . It has to change from the endless panics of emergency appeals that give no certainty for victims and the aid workers as to how long crucial help can be given, and to recognise that the likes of Syria, Iraq and Yemen, worsening by the day, need a long-term humanitarian commitment and funding plan. And it has to lead.
With 15,000 nuclear warheads pointed in all directions (labelled deterrents to the owners but weapons of mass destruction when wielded by others) and an annual arms trade turnover of more than £50billion we desperately need to talk. Far more pressure has to be put on all our leaders to never act unilaterally but to work tirelessly within the UN for peaceful binding solutions, for this world council to be the catalyst for compassion, consideration and action to help those in need, which is, ultimately, the most courageous, lasting and effective way to break the cycle of hatred and revenge.
It must be seen to be doing this or, if like now, be held accountable.
Further, every human being should have access to the UN, whether to be heard, to offer support or receive relief, and its significance and purpose should be transparent and properly covered by the world media.
The former UN officer sighs and agrees, palpably grateful to be in retirement.
I wave them off and realise I still have in my hand the pomegranate I scrumped from our neighbours’ loaded tree while feeding their chickens for them when they were away. Guilty as charged.
A burst from the mass choir of charming gold finches in the pine tops leads me back toward the water where a brimstone butterfly curtsies like a swallow to drink on the wing. Nearby a hairy white ermine moth caterpillar looking like a dirty bottle brush is moving apace towards the carcase of a squidged fig. A white is not one of the prolific ermine web spinners (orchard, spindle and bird-cherry) that can turn hedgerows white, but a spinner all the same, providing protection from predators.
I am learning to live in the present, taking one day at a time, eyes forward. But now, for good reason, I must slip into the past tense, look over my shoulder.
I was barred from spinning through the vineyards during harvest this year (by doctors and the boss, on account of my ongoing recovery), so instead of secateurs I wielded my camera and recorded Maggie and friends at labour. A good year, it seems. The timeless appreciation of fruiting.
How I wish I kept a camera in the car all the time.
Last week Maggie and I sat in Joe’s classroom at the high school, trying to make sense of the usual cacophony of Catalan at an evening parents’ meeting. It was the same old cheek-blowing challenge and we tootled home into the night comparing mental notes. When working as a team we can usually piece some the sense together.
Then there they were, rooting in a lane-side ditch on the fringe of the soft yellow glow of the town lights, ten feet from the door of the sleeping police station. After 15 years here it was Maggie’s first face-to-face encounter.
The five young, tan-coated boars didn’t flee. They barely noticed us. We pulled up right beside them and wound down the window. The adults must have been in the shadows of the hazel grove beyond the plain trees, but we couldn’t see or hear them.
Four of the infants continued to plough up the dead leaves, but the smallest boar stopped hunting for worms and nuts and fixed us with an inquisitive, trusting stare, oblivious to the madness and danger of our species, the self-appointed lords of all.
The pig flew. Oh alright, it didn’t, but when whistled the hefty creature skipped daintily out of the almond grove, before hoofing it across the stable yard to bound up some railway-sleeper steps and join us on the play area terrace. It nudged its owner as much to ask “Yep?”, then turned to watch a girl on a swing.
The pig – Xanxa (Chancha) – stopped chewing and I could swear her head was faintly moving with the pendulum, further proof positive of salient thoughts. I would have given more than a centimos to know what they were.
Xanxa, of the spotted variety, bunks down in a pen the size of a tennis court with two floppy-eared goats, four noisy sheep and a pocket-rocket stallion pony. But for great lumps of time she is free as a wild hog, a good natured and heavily petted favourite at a farm school run by our old friends Carme and Joan.
The farmer who lived at Mother’s Garden from 1924 to 1964 had at least one pet pig. Do you know anyone with one? Tempting. What made me study Xanxa as she studied the swing was the flawless obedience, cognitive charm and contagious happiness, only the last of which can be found with our loopy terriers. Do pigs chase cars? I don’t think so.
Blasts of rain have greened up the pear tree terrace where La Petita is tethered just out of reach of the fruit. Blue-black fledged swallows twitch their tails on the sundial as fearless young, raised in the barn, unreasonably expect their parents to still feed them. At the back of the olive grove on rougher ground a host of gipsy roses or butterfly blues – scabious – are a wild flower feast for the pollinators, including lesser swallowtails. These subtle blooms will bring colour and lure fascinations well into autumn. They are treasures you can easily pass by: The small flowers are deserving of you kneeling to take in the intricacy.
On the meadow of a morning, crowding around our lone cherry tree we have an abundance of the tender blue of chicory, while at the top of the land there are mesmerising globe thistles, throbbing with blue violet light. Blue is not the celestial prerogative. Even as you walk there are flashes from the host of blue-winged grasshoppers leaping out of your path.
Apples, plums and elderberries bubble on the stove. Maggie’s APE jelly is legendary. And still the bushes and trees sag with fruit. August opened with the clatter of thunder and puddles, so as I said the grasses have come again, much to the contentment of our equine barrel, now almost 30 and full of heart. We must be doing something right. The verdant resurgence will make the going tougher, though, for the rare Mediterranean tortoises, another of which, a 20-year-old male, emerged on the farm last week. That makes three.
I swim sedately in circles in the reservoir, like a gentleman of leisure in a Turkish bath nervous about his toupee, my alarmingly wafer frame out of sight to all but the goldfish, frogs and water boatmen. The strict orders are still in force, but trying to be inactive when there is so much to be done is torture. The good news is I seem to have put back on about nine pounds, not that it shows. And my marbles are regrouping.
The Moon Daisy film project is about to do the rounds of casting agents, directors etc in America, so channel all positive vibes in that general direction please. Ideally, we need a great actress of circa 50+ to read the script and want to do it, it offering, after all, the phenomenal role of key protagonist Jess Healey. What? Not read the book? I forgive you. Only about .0001 per cent of the UK population have…. yet. I aim to return to work on another screenplay this month, one that is stirring interest in three countries. And sales of e-book Shaking The Tree, full of nonsense like this, continue to click upwards.
Meanwhile I read almost incessantly, although it is costly. Coleridge beckoned the other day (I had been learning about his habit of climbing mountains and getting into tight spots) so took one of his tome’s off the dangerously shallow shelves (another Kirby cock-up) that scale the wall beside my bed. When I put him back he wobbled; then, to save himself, he nudged the collective works of William Cowper who lost his footing. Coleridge clung on, but hardback Cowper plunged, smashing the face of my mobile phone idling on the bedside table.
Now I’m reading Cowper, of course. God may well move in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform, but I’m after Cowper’s nature writing and telling observations. It is good to be reminded that existence is a strange bargain. Life owes us little; we owe it everything …. and so on.
The book stack beside my bed spirals, falls, builds again. Farmhouse art includes delicious, random piles and vast mesmeric mosaics of spines on shelves, millions of words waiting to be revisited. I devour two or three novels a week, one of the joys of convalescence, a delicious sedative to counter the itch of idiotic guilt that I should be doing more.
Alone in Berlin, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Suite Francaise, Red Sky at Sunrise …..
But I am, doing more that is, little by little. Selfishly I take on the uplifting, meditative dawn and dusk task of watering the pots around the house and the two clover-clogged veg patches. We have the usual glut of courgettes and an assortment of other produce, plus potatoes to lift and pears and plums at the point of ripening. The jam cauldron must be dusted.
Relentless sun has sapped much of the green. July, with its predilection for parchment (ground as lifeless as the base line of centre court), is not without its jewels. Somehow unwatered wild sweet peas radiate from the base of olive trees, rust red shield beetles scurry, bee-eaters bask and fruits blush.
Senses numb during the afternoon bake. Cicadas drum out the heat to the accompaniment of the dry-throat whisper of a breeze in the pines. Truth be known, though, afternoon temperatures have settled in the tolerable low to mid thirties – that’s ninety-plus but still lower than normal. Thankfully humidity has never been heavy here. But there are other seasonal trials.
Almost daily we sternly scan the blue. The regular, mournful drone of the fire-crew flying boats, unnerving as a mosquito passing your ear, draws us out from the closed, cool farmhouse. We try to judge the planes’ direction, checking the angle of the wind and sniffing for the dire scent of smoke. It is a guessing game. The time it takes for the lumbering aircraft to return gives us a rough idea of the distance from us to any emergency. So far this year there has been no great alarm close by, touch tinder-dry wood.
I am woken most days by a golden oriole leading the first light chorus from the bare, dead crown of the oldest fig tree, before a cacophony of spotless starlings swoops in. They proceed to deafen one another amid the broad leaves. Pickpocket sparrows and finches dodge between them – it is as chaotic as a stock market trading floor, a feeding frenzy. Most of the figs on the high boughs, too high for us anyway, have been torn open, their hearts ripped out, and their spent skins litter the earth.
Our terriers, Tilly and Ted, lay flaked on the red dust beneath this canopy of chaos, too hot to be bothered, unless a cat or a fat toad dares enter their soporific eye-level radar. They have finally figured out the difference between the squeak of the perforated irrigation pipes and rodents. When the pump in the reservoir is plugged in fountains rise at random to water circles of lushness in iron land, and if I forget to turn it off an incongruous brook snakes down the dusty track. And still the spring runs at 1000 litres an hour.
I wrote last time of an emperor ruling the mirror of our vast reservoir. His tenure is over, and from nowhere an armada of delicate, fearless mustard dragonfly has sailed in to spice this water world. They are keeled skimmers, I think, darting hither and thither like a swarm of energised little children on the loose, then taking it in turns to settle on the tips of fennel for a short breather.
Armies of ants toil endlessly, carving highways through broken ground littered with felled forests of dead grass. For days a war between two of these dynasties has been grimly engaged at the entrance to the chicken run, the prize being the food debris scattered therein.
And so our little, bio-diverse world turns clockwise, positively, naturally, at an almost manageable rate, counter to the grim, nauseating flip-flop and mad spin of negative news, dominated by the alarmingly primitive obsessions of some within a single species.
So back to the books I go, and to the extraordinary lives of exceptional authors – Hans Fallada, Robert Tressell, Irène Némirovsky, and Laurie Lee being my current deep pools for thought.
We may never learn, but the lessons are there, everywhere, in black and white.
Every morning I dwell in possibility. It is three weeks since I came out of hospital. I may not brim with energy, but I watch it, sense and draw on it in the enchantment of outdoors. Fifteen slow strides from the back door a wicker chair bides by the spring-fed reservoir and I drink the view, the sanctuary of nature and pulse of life.
The emperor edged closer, iridescent sapphire with gold in his jewelled stare, his four wings a haze. With every circuit of the round mirror of water he hovered to study me, or rather my lily feet and ankles propped high on the curve of the wall.
Other dragonflies and insects scattered before him for fear of being food. He will rule for just two weeks, almost constantly in flight seeking a female or prey – the power, majesty and frailty of life incarnate.
While I wondered at his species I felt he was questioning mine. I hope to see him every day of what life he has; he and our barn swallows and the martins sweeping in to drink. A few days ago a golden oriole failed to notice me and charmed his way through the olive grove, pausing at every tree in one row. I sat like a rock. All that moved was my mouth as I beamed as brightly as his breast. Then, in a blink, a bee-eater came to copy the swallows, pulling out just in front of my toes and blasting its brilliance in a flap of panic inches from my face.
The hospital indoctrination of patience has its dividends. “Recovery will take many months” was the emphatic mantra and I must abide to the need for diligence, to listen to my body and sleep, sleep, sleep. And when I stir I do not go so far, yet.
I sit or stand still more now than I have ever done, and life comes to me; returning to my body in tiny measures every day. The sustenance of home and loving care, my bed and the rich diversity are working.
Fledgling swallows from nests glued to rafters in the barn chatter on the sundial during flying practice. Below them, beyond the leaf canopy and bunches of the muscat vine that shades the front door, seven feet tall hollyhocks sway in the breeze, attended by several species of bees .
Nearer still to the red earth where our chickens bathe in the dust, the hefty carpenter bees, their hum an octave lower than the other pollinators, prefer the sturdy bloom storks of the dramatic, glossy, dark green and broad-leaf (with a spike at the end) acanthus, or bear’s breeches, a remarkable plant rooted in herbal medicine and, bizarrely, classical and Renaissance architecture and art.
Native to the Mediterranean region but now found worldwide, the leaf motif of this plant was carved into the tops of Corinthian columns from the 5th century BC, something copied by later architects and sculptors, also being used in wood carving and in friezes.
The story, according to Vitruvius, writing in 30BC about architecture, is thus.
A native girl of Corthin was struck down by a disease and died. After her burial some of her prized possessions, some goblets, were put in a basket and placed on her grave. A tile covered them to protect them from the weather. But the basket had been placed on the root of an acanthus, which grew, sending shoots up and around the basket, cupping it in foliage. The architect Callimachus saw this and was inspired to use “the style and novelty of the grouping” in his marble carvings.
The name acanthus comes from the Greek Akanthos, aka meaning thorn, thos meaning flower. The tough flowers, spiny, toothed bracts, rise on rigid stalks and, as I sit enchanted I surmise that only the beefy carpenters are tough enough to breech them. (I still haven’t found an explanation for the “bear” name.)
The honeysuckle is a flourish of yellow blossom and scent. There I counted six species of bees, sharing the air and nectar with a solitary humming bird hawk-moth. I leant on the grass bank wondering whether to attempt a photograph. The still morning air is always rich with life – hover flies, a ruby-tailed wasp (or cuckoo wasp) looking in the wall crevices for other insects’ nests, wasps and flying ants to name but a few. The grass too: crickets, ants and shield bugs of various characters.
To the east and south of our weather-beaten, wide front door, shading the dog kennel and hammock are fig boughs that bow to the ground with the weight of teardrop fruit, still deceptively green. They will ripen before the eyes and be falling within days. The dead crown on the biggest tree needs to be lopped, but hasn’t been because it is also the pedestal for fluting orioles, warblers, finches and, more than most, the serins. A pair of hoopoes has materialised to further lift spirits, while the whistle of the bee-eaters billows dawn and dusk.
June has been mild. We have had occasional thunderstorms and deluges, sustaining much of the green where normally the ground is parched. Even the happy clover clogging the vegetable patch is in delicate white flower.
Soon, though, the summer heat will slide in to a harsher rhythm, day and night. Electric fans will purr in every room and we will hide and wait for the relief of late afternoon breeze to reach us from the sea 15 kilometres away. Then we emerge and our shadows grow into giants.
If we cannot sleep in the afternoon, then we will read or talk some more about the world in flux, the portents of a brewing El Niño in the warming Pacific, or maybe the recent prognosis that we could be on the verge of a mini ice age, but one that will not deflect the consequences of certain global warming. We believe it is important to take a deep interest, and we suffer unending unease about these core realities for our planet and our arrogance and persistent failure to read the signs and react as if our lives and those of our grandchildren depended on it.
I’m sure that if the compulsion to clamour is not yet there, disquiet is of pandemic proportions, surely. But who among the economic straight-jacketed world leaders, will have the strength to make an immediate, profound, defining difference, for you, me, everyone and the emperor?
The truth is, though, it will take the masses to clamour and force. The establishment is always inherently incapable or, worse, unwilling.
SHAKING THE TREE, Martin’s sequel to No Going Back – Journey to Mother’s Garden, will be published as an e-book on July 15. To pre-order click here. This is an updated edition of the paperback book published in 2010, now out of print.
Martin’s book SHAKING THE TREE will be available worldwide on Kindle in the coming days.
Just click here to pre-order. It will be published as an e-book on July 15th.
This sequel to the best-selling NO GOING BACK, brings the Mother’s Garden story up to date – another honest and funny serving of Mediterranean home truths from the family home in The Priorat mountains of southern Catalonia.
More than 50,000 copies of NO GOING BACK, available in four languages, have been sold, and millions of people around the globe followed the family’s living the dream story on two No Going Back television documentaries.
We humbly suggest that those of you with a Kindle might like to read it, and we ask everyone to pass the word and the link so this news reaches as many people as possible.
Many dream of a different way of life, and here is a truthful, emotional and comical account of one family who did it. Shaking The Tree, first published as a modest paperback in the UK in 2010, has now been updated and is set to go out into the world, telling the family’s story from 2003 to 2015.
I turn off the chainsaw to rest my arms and free my hot ears from the muffs. The air still rattles with engine noise. Two powered para-gliders, the sharp colour of grapefruit, are edging along the valley, riding the cloudless sky. If I hadn’t looked up I wouldn’t have seen the peregrine.
There is now more room among the pines for the old olive trees to breathe. And there is room on the terrace wall to perch. A chicken idles past the ankles of the pony and out of the corral. Ah-Ah. I wander over and check the hay store. I haven’t looked for days. Five eggs.
La Petita is dozing, resting one hoof. She is rarely alone, especially at night. The plough work of the wild boar is everywhere.
Through the new pools of light in the wood the initial flecks of almond pink. The last of Joe’s giant snowman has gone. No frost for three mornings.
A carpenter bee, the first, gently writes its name in the air. My gaze slides to Maggie clearing around and feeding the olives. Water from the spring is running between the broad beans.
We must press on with pruning. Maggie has begun in the vineyard, but the olives await and we are too late to finish the almond grove.
I must soon nurse Nell the 51 year-old tractor out of hibernation. It is good to harrow when the earth is amenable.
The Mother’s Garden year is ticking on. How we love the promises of these awakening days. Perhaps I love February most of all.
Now back inside, Martin. Leave the beauty of the woodpile with the robin on top, the happy sense of progress, the sun on our shoulders, and write about this feeling. Then get on with the latest screenplay, maybe checking first if, like the eggs, we have some more orders for fresh olive oil. Oh yes.
Want to get away? Fancy doing something different? Half-price working breaks at Mother’s Garden, Catalonia – and see where our wonderful, award-winning olive oil comes from. If you can’t come, but want to taste this life, we have delicious new harvest EV olive oil in the UK now for immediate delivery. Just get in touch, or log on to our shop.
Time has slipped. This chronicle is overdue, too long and in part a bit bleak, so I also offer an uplifting small choir of photography at the end that has its own voice.
The here and now at delicious Mother’s Garden is calm and bright outside, but stormy inside.
We labour in the office, not least because we are at loggerheads with the British Government, and DeFRA and the Rural Payments Agency in particular, about an impending ban on the sale of on tap extra virgin olive oil in the UK. Yes, you read that correctly.
I would be so grateful if you could share this blog with as many fair-minded, good-food-loving people as possible.
Truthfully, I can’t see how we, tiny as we are, could every claim to be standing up to the bureaucratic bull of government, but we won’t be trampled without putting up a fierce fight. We have to.
This is the unpalatable truth….
There is grim history of corporate fraud in the multi-billion Euro business of olive oil.
That is why so many people buy our and similar premium olive oil, direct from our online shop or through fine food outlets, to be sure of provenance and quality. And buying it “on tap” through responsible, independent delis, farm and health food shops has been growing in popularity, to cut cost, waste and transport impact.
Last year Tom Mueller’s book Extra Virginity blew the lid off the big business olive oil fraud and at the same time hailed long and loud the producers of “real” premium extra virgin olive oil toiling away in Mediterranean countries against a tide of inferior and cheaper brands of undefined source and age that still bore the magical term extra virgin.
I need to explain the parameters of the EVOO “standard” another day, but save to say they are far too broad and fail to address the fundamental aspects of provenance, freshness and quality.
Now the EU and, in turn, the UK government have tried to tackle any fraud with
a) some sensible labelling requirements (we already do more),
b) an utterly misguided, punitive ban the sale of on tap extra virgin olive oil – a key market for experts like us, and a vital business for fine food delis, farm shops and health food stores.
– Wholly off target (in tackling the corporate fraudsters they may well kill off the likes of us and other honest producers who can be trusted),
– Grossly unfair (the “on tap” ban only affects olive oil, not other oils, Yes, you also read that correctly, which begs the question is fostering unfair competition lawful?),
– Excessive and illogical (proper labelling on dispensers – as we already do – defines the provenance, freshness and quality of the olive oil being tapped off).
Honestly. I am incredulous, as is olive oil writer and expert Judy Ridgway. See her website blogs at www.oliveoil.org.uk.
I could go on, and will at another time because I must. Save to say for now that emails are flying about, mostly in one direction. What on Earth is the cost of all this mindless bureaucracy to everyone involved, not least the taxpayer?
Tens of thousands of customers will miss out. Thousands of quality businesses will lose. It will cost us dear too, and we are going to really struggle, so at the same time as making the case to DeFRA that they are missing the target by a country mile we are trying to up sales of our 2 litre and 5 litre containers and cases of 6x500ml bottles.
Would you like some? Fantastic for feasting this winter and Christmas, and our 500ml bottles and embroidered aprons make lovely Christmas presents. Click here for the online shop.
This storm comes with others. October is serene, but September seethed with sierra night tempests, many skirting us, some not, all electrifying. The godly clouds were defined by pulses of blinding light, more rapid than I have ever seen, then came the torrents bringing with them great showers of walnuts and the onset of grape rot.
Heat and damp on the eve of harvest bestows the kiss of mould, and the farmers have been dodging showers to gather what goodness is to be found in the vineyards. People are working together, sharing , cooperating, toiling through: what is grim for the grapes is thirst-quenching for the olives. There is always another fruiting, some balance in the spinning existence.
What black grapes we have of worth beyond the Mother’s Garden fig trees will be made into fine wine by a friend. Our stainless steel fermentation vat in the barn echoes with emptiness this year. There just isn’t time, and this has suffocated any niggling inclination. Today, though, we climbed ladders to fill buckets with the green muscat grapes shading the front door. As I type Maggie is in the farmhouse kitchen making juice.
All growth surges again in the October warmth. Sun and moon shadows stop the clock. You can hear the Earth breathing. I tog up in beekeeping apparel and gently cut back a long stem of red current in the holiday cottage garden. A wasps’ nest has flowered close to the tip. The occupants are massed on it and I talk to them as we wander up the land and along a hazel terrace where I stick the stem into the ground in the shade of bramble leaves. Not one deserts the comb.
Tractors with laden and then empty trailers to-and-fro along the lane, fuelled by a pinch of harvest urgency. Snails fast-track through the grasses along the highways of irrigation pipes. A kingfisher brightens the view from the office window. And yesterday during my afternoon dog walk six different varieties of butterfly painted their colours against the lushness as life that swells before the great sleep.
The fig feast has finally ended. We gather hundreds of walnuts and thousands of almonds. The de-husking machine outside the back door rattles teeth but saves hours, and we must find a market for them. There is a good rate of payment this year, we hear.
Most of all, though, we labour in the office longer than we want to, spreading the good news about our olive oil, campaigning against costly bureaucratic nonsense , and opening people’s minds to the warm opportunity of a few days or weeks staying here in our cottage. Want to come? November, December, January, February, March……
I must away.
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.