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.
Señor Juan, the gentle grower of so much goodness, has gone. Who will tell the bees?
It is five Easters since Juan gifted us two humming hives and a pair of persimmon saplings. Or is it six? There are too many years to remember.
He’d walked me up the steep track to the sandy crown of his land beside the railway line. I kept my distance as he moved bare headed, bare armed and completely unharmed along the line of his honey family, opening and checking each of the 12 houses to find the heartiest for us.
While the sun floated away he took me to his barn to seek amid the dust of ages some spare frames and wax sheets, and to guide me as to how one marries the two by warming the wire. From one particularly large pile of redundant bits and bobs he procured his old keeper’s hat with veil, handing it to me with a knowing smile.
There was no hurry. When the twilight had silenced the breeze and softened the distance, drawing the bees home, we returned to his apiary and he gently closed the entrance slits of the chosen hives which were carried with care to our car. In all his actions and utterances there was the comfort of calmness, the measured pace of one who had covered so many miles, mostly, I suspect, on the rich earth of orchards.
What springs forth on his land now are tears. The life-pattern of impacted paths still defies the weeds, but the blush of care and love is now weighed with the first stirrings of wilderness. A different beauty will come, eventually, but the collision of great care – rows of fruit trees and the mosaics of flower beds and vegetables plots – with sudden abandonment, holds all the more poignancy when you know the person, the story.
Juan tended his hives even though he was a diabetic, and it was obvious to all who knew him that the scents and colours of that little farm were weaved into his being. For whatever reason much of what was produced there fell to the ground, a perplexing aspect of a very private life. To be asked to share any of it was a huge privilege, and I sit here remembering with awakening senses one breath when, turning full circle, I was happily lost among the heady harmony of peach fragrance and endless rhythm of trees.
Who, indeed, will tell the bees? I will. Now. As Celtic wisdom decrees
Marriage, birth or burying,News across the seas,All your sad or marrying,
You must tell the bees.
Here at Mother’s Garden all is awakening after nearly six inches of rain in a week. Green is adorned with yellow (rough hawkbit wild blooms and male brimstone butterflies), white (shepherd’s purse) and soft blue (Persian speedwell).
The air is full of birds and song, and the screech of a mother jay as she leads her three offspring on circuits through the pines. We await the first green beginnings of the vines now tidy after pruning, but have given up waiting for the ponies.
Remember talk of pregnancy? Everyone seemed convinced, and the law of averages dictated, that there had to be foal consequences after the stallion invited himself to our corral 17 times. But no. The vet has popped along, given our lawn mowers and fertilizer manufacturers the once over and gladdening my heart. What we have, it transpires, are two grossly overweight ponies. Short rations are the order of the day, month and possibly year for La Petita and Remoli,which is not helping their disposition one iota.
There are benefits. After being dragged by Remoli this morning as I was putting her out to graze my working clothes had the faint scent of wild thyme. That made a difference from the aura of chickens after a deep clean of the hen house and setting up some low perches for the geriatrics among the brood.
Woodwork has also included Joe’s increasingly intricate stable for his toy horses, made from an old wine box, assorted bits of waste timber and about 200 toothpicks. He and I have been tickling along with it for about a month and we are almost there. The debate is what comes next. I vote bird boxes, he votes tree house, which I suppose means that, roughly speaking, we are in accord.
On the western fringe of the farm there is a grand holm oak with boughs that fan out conveniently at the same height, although I am of the opinion it is too high as it leans over a broad, deep gulley.
Aiding and abetting Ella and Joe with the planning were Grace and Thomas, 18-year-old American farm volunteers who weeded, lopped, gathered vine prunings, burned, strimmed, mulched and, basically, worked their socks off for three weeks, which wasn’t a problem.
When they left for Germany we worked out it had been a seven socks visit. Every evening Grace would sit by the woodburner knitting toe warmers, a homely sight that also had both of our children searching for needles and wool again.
Thomas, meanwhile, wandered the farm with his two cameras, taking some of the photographs newly featured on our gallery. He and Grace became part of the family and, once more, we have been grateful for the worldly contact that has come through the HelpX website. www.helpx.net
PS A very important footnote – please also see www.imaginemozambique.org. Many of you will know that, with all love and admiration, we do what we can to support Lorraine and her charity in Mozambique. I was there, once upon a time, and saw first hand what Lorraine and her late husband Joe, began more than twenty years ago, bringing light, hope and help to the lives of children and adults coping with challenges beyond common comprehension. This is the new website. Now you too can see. Support Lorraine and her team if you feel able. Thank you.
The butterflies dance as we dig, and in the middle distance the bee-eaters whistle their arrival from Africa.
Not that our bees seem deterred. Fifty metres west of this year’s almost weedless potato patch we have two hives on the go. A third lies broken, a fourth is outside the barn awaiting my attention after an infestation of moths. I must get to it this week because the bees are feasting. The meadow of wild flowers grows deeper and we are going to have to cut some paths soon, once the tractor’s fuel feed problems are solved.
Below the front of the house, on the terrace nearest to the road, our three apple trees are proclaiming the spring, and around the blossom bees swirl contendedly. Two years ago we had a bumper apple crop. This year could match it.
Meanwhile, on the higher vegetable patch we have just planted some purple beans, testing rock dust as a means to remineralise and add nutrients to the soil. Who has caught on to rock dust?
I will tell you more anon….