Ping. Spring bursts, headlong, certain. Lucid blossom pops on the fringes of the meadow, at the feet of budding vines, on the fingertips of the black-barked almonds. The reaches of the bare walnut canopy chime with chaffinch song.
It is disconcerting, bewilderingly precipitous.
I’m trailing behind the dogs, beyond the olive grove into the spooky shadows of the pine copse on the gentle sloping terrace above the corral. It is a place of whispers, corridors and half light, not so dense, nor too open, the fitting place to bury the sparrowhawk. This is where these birds prey, breathe, strike, belong. On my looping route in and out of the wood I pass two scatterings of feathers, one from a pigeon, the other a blackbird.
The sparrowhawk cupped in my hand – a juvenile, yellow-iris male I think – still had the steel in its half-closed eyebeam; a warrior, as Ted Hughes poem keenly summed, blue shoulder-cloak wrapped about him, weighing just seven ounces. Its Jurassic feet of shocking turmeric yellow, of clinical finesse and power tipped with curling razor black talons, were as perfect as the counter shaded bars on his chest. What a terrible waste.
The last time I had been so close to murderous creation was when its cousin and another farm and valley predator, a goshawk, had broken through the net canopy of our chicken run exactly two years ago. Dim-witted, I had stepped in, over the corpses of two chickens it had dispatched, and tried to usher it out. It looked into my soul. The raptor gaze was as shocking as the bulk. It was a force of nature.
The hawks were dark, untameable, graceless creatures of history, unloved by the falconers with noble peregrines on their gauntlets. Goshawks were deemed vile and fractious, hard to master. For sure their darting, shadowy world is far harder to glimpse, let alone fathom, so different it is from the soaring falcon. But what wonder when you see a hawk, sense the menacing, brutal power from that different world, the one we rarely see and decreasingly sense: the parallel universe inhabited by other Earth creatures who have evolved to perfection, who somehow have the power to shake us humans awake from our ludicrous dream that we know and understand, are wise and supreme.
The sparrowhawk had met his end on the bumpy main road that slices through the rolling vineyards and groves a couple of miles from the farm. In its tunnel-vision, terrain-skimming pursuit of prey it had crossed the path of a truck and lay flinching on the verge the opposite side of the road beyond the crash barrier. There was nowhere for us to pull over and, as ever, crazed Catalan drivers were furiously bunched up behind our bumper like railway carriages. We were heading for the olive mill and decided to check on our return journey to see if the bird was stunned or dead.
It was still there. The life within it had frozen, the beak locked down against the barred softness of its chest. We took it home and then I found a suitable spot to bury it beneath pine needles and two hefty stones, on the lip of the copse with an uplifting open visa of the valley, near the bee orchids.
I drifted deeper into the shadowland. Through the dreamy rhythm of the dark bark I was heading for the bowl of brightness at the far end, the latest crucible of labour where we are trying to make sense of our relationship with this land. On the western fringe of the farm beside a sunken holloway of cane, oak, blackthorn and bramble, we are, as sensitively as possible, steadily freeing a line of old olives from a worryingly combustible tangle. Imagining harvests to come we steadily stack firewood for future winters. We attempt, as we have done all over the place, to thin the dominant forces and to foster diversity, with mixed results. This corner of Mother’s Garden has been abandoned long enough for some of the undergrowth to tower 20 feet above the ancient olives. At intervals the mesh of the hollow has been breached by wild boar whose well-worn paths pattern the valley like the ancient ways of hobbits. And at the deepest point, where in 15 years I have never ventured before (and where we will leave nature alone) I found the half-crater of old badger set beneath a crooked hawthorn.
All this is but 100 metres from our pony’s dusty corral that sits in an elbow of the woodland. What nights frolics the old girl must witness, which explains her propensity to doze in the winter sunshine when out to graze. The creatures – boar, owls, badgers, rabbit, rats and cats that prey on them, weasels, deer – that inhabit that other world we rarely experience, must keep her awake most of the night.
Of all the cats that live off this land, arguably the wildest has wheedled her way into our warm kitchen. Gen Cat is classically feral. Her fat ringtail, her black side stripes on camouflage grey and her fearless countenance suggest her genes are predominantly from the forest. She will take a rodent half her size, refuses to acknowledge the terriers’ hatred, and yet at the same time has the guile to circumnavigate any doubts we might have about letting such a beast on to our laps.
Back in the hollow, as I tickle along with the clearing for an hour a day in the company of all manner of living things, I breathe in the benefit. I can begin to see the progress while weighing lessons learned from living so close to that other world,, fortified by a space I foolishly used to think of as solitude.
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 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.
You can now read the sequel to best-selling NO GOING BACK on Kindle in a new updated edition, available worldwide.
See here for the Amazon UK page,
but it is also available on all Amazon sites from America to Australia.
Thank you so much to everyone who has pre-ordered. We sincerely hope the word will spread fast and that a great many more people will enjoy reading about life on the wild side down on our farm in Catalonia, as seen on the two No Going Back television documentaries.
And today, to give you another flavour of this life, we are uploading some photographs from our Mother’s Garden archive.
Please get in touch if you want to learn more about the book, about wonderful olive oil, or if you want to visit the farm.
Help this book to be a best-seller! Please share and spread the word.
With love and thanks from us all at The Garden. x
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.
We were eating in the shade of the house, between the crumbling lime render of the north wall and the tubs of three runner bean plants that have not thrived. It was a very late lunch, in the still, heavy air just before the 4pm sweet breeze from the sea.
We were stepping away from the computers and telephones, into the infinite, calming greatness.
I had my back to the pitted wall. There was a low hum. I turned and a fat and yellow creature cruised past my nose and back again – what looked like a hornet, but on reflection may not have been given what transpired.
It was twice the size of your average yellow and black incubus. Mesmerising. During the next five minutes it completely ignored me as it painstakingly explored holes in the render between the red stones, before suddenly rising rapidly through the tangle of wisteria and making a waspline for the woods.
We ate. The breeze arrived. Then back came the purring juggernaut, only now it was clutching a lime-green cricket that was twice its size. What power. Within a few seconds the paralysed prey had been hauled into the chosen hole, presumably food for the wasp’s offspring. But what was it? It had hornet markings but they are not solitary, and it did not look like a bee-wolf wasp. How I wish I had a photograph to show you.
But I did present you with photo-puzzle the other day, didn’t I? Clay pots in a tidy row, most of them sealed. Here is the grisly and frightening story behind them.
The creator was another winged resident of Mother’s Garden, the female pottery or mud dauber wasp, a viscous looking beast with a narrow, thread-like waist and long sting needle that, in fact, is mostly passive where humans are concerned. We regularly have to guide one out of the house.
All these pots, each two centimetres long, were the work of one female, and inside each pot is one lava and several paralysed spiders for it to feed on until it is ready to take wing.
How deep the pool of unknowns and how much to wonder at: How under our noses there is extraordinary life, if we but stop and see, and drop our guard, preconceptions and fears.
A wasp isn’t just a wasp, though it is a fine example of the narrow view.
Wasps come in all manner of colours and the number of species tops 30,000. Or rather, that is the number identified so far, but with nearly 10,000 new species of insects being discovered annually it could well be higher by now. (Have I found another one?)
And although we think they swirl around in gangs looking for humans to puncture, most wasps are actually solitary, non-stinging, or non-aggressive varieties. They are another critical, wondrous detail in the tapestry.
Wasps are members of the Hymenoptera order, along with bees and ants, considered to be the most beneficial to life through their pollination of fruit and vegetable crops.
There are a staggering 115,000 species of Hymenoptera, making it the second largest group to Coleoptera (beetles) of which there are 300,000 known species.
The current book pile in our bathroom is as eclectic as ever: Eric Newby travel logs, Catalan grammar course book, English poetry and, yes, a detailed guide to entomology. All of them inform me, not least how little I know.
The leaning tower of literature by my bed is too tall to list, but on top is JM Roberts’ History Of The World which I am reading to Maggie. I first read it to her two decades ago.
We are in the thick of the Roman republic, sliding towards the age of emperors, further flourishes of efficient domination and expansion, and on finally to the corruption, crumbling and collapse of something that had once seemed eternal.
What was it like for that final generation as the sand ran out?
It is unnerving reading, especially when I can bear to turn 360 degrees and attempt to hold all that is manifestly soul-breaking about the human situation now: the weight of relentless, unthinkable aggressions; the wrong, selfish, denial among the economic and political power brokers who are locked into the ages-old patterns of greed and control; the portents of palpable climate change.
I need nature more than ever – to step outside regularly, distancing myself from the numbing babble of the unbridled information age and to find clear air in which to counter the exhaustion, doubts: To try, in my own barefoot way, to find context.
A few elderberries hang from the high branches. We gathered what we could to make cordial and jelly, and now the shoal of sparrows is working to clear the rest, chirping with glee and purple paint-balling the car.
Last week we timed our evening dog walk to coincide with the honey-light and iridescent congregation of bee-eaters on the power line at the top of the farm. More and more. Maggie counted sixty. Yet our honey bees thrive too.
Life in happy balance. Reasons to hope.
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.
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.
Ah, the ethereal contentment of loose leaf tea and fine literature.
Since November 10 we have spent an hour every Sunday morning wandering the fields and lanes of 1930s north Suffolk, England, in the irresistible company of Adrian Bell; living with him, lost in the colours and truths reflected in his eyes, walking in his measured stride so as not to miss a detail.
My selfish gift to Maggie on her birthday was the trilogy of Corduroy, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree penned by the columnist – nuggets of English pastoral writing and as treasured on this farm as much as the volumes of Lilias Rider Haggard, Ted Ellis and William Dutt. (Google them).
A dawn dressing-gown-and-wellies excursion to the chickens and horses while the tea brews, a minute nursing the wood-burner before back into bed to read to one another on the one morning when we try to cease worrying about the common, endless demands on time.
How good to read again Bell’s thoughts on what fulfils; how a pony and trap can hasten the real world into our conscience far swifter than a car ever will; how the morning rhythms of lamp and fire lighting ignite the spirit to face the day.
And coincidences fly up from the pages. Bell writes of Lapwings, now endangered but of which great clouds fill my childhood memories, wavering like blow leaves above the rolling fields of the north Norfolk coast within the salt scent of the North Sea. We read, we remember, and within days we spy four Lapwings on a hay field just a mile from Mother’s Garden, our first sighting during our eleven years here.
For there is, happily, some harmony between that life and this, where at arm’s-length from nauseating commercialism we are gifted immeasurable, timeless wonders to ponder and learn from, in tandem with the pains and rewards of bending the back to touch life and work the land.
We are one chapter from the end of The Cherry Tree, an aching thought, but I have asked a friend at BBC Radio Four to help us track down a recording of Martin Bell’s programme about his father, broadcast about five years ago. Did you hear it? And to steady our pace throughout the year we will next read Apple Acre (1942), Sunrise to Sunset (1944) and The Budding Morrow (1946), with the store of Bell’s later books to draw on after that.
The Swallows will race by from Africa any day now, for the birding has begun, fanned by the unseasonably warm, dreamy air. Wildfires are flaring across this parched peninsular (in March, for goodness sake) and we must balance this fear with the beauty and the awakening. The return of feathered melodies that faded away in October; the shocking exultation of a murmuration of Spotless Starlings spooked from the meadow; a Mistle Thrush on a pruned vine; a Sparrowhawk dining at the foot of an olive tree while a Short-Toed Eagle circles; the star bursts of almond blossom; the contentment of our horse and pony who have an acre of woodland and vineyard to graze.
Better still, our Kingfisher obligingly hangs around my office window; two Great Spotted Cuckoos condescend to be admired, drawn, it seemed, by the sound of paint being scraped from old shutters; and a pair of Sardinian Warblers flit between their nest in the choicia shrub beside the barbecue and a our vast fig tree where they hop about, hunting for bugs.
Then, when you think all is done that day comes the glory of the crystal night where Venus dances with Jupiter in the west, and easterly Mars makes us curious.
For half way there is “Curiosity”, the largest and most advanced rover we Earthlings have ever sent to explore another world, whistling along at six miles a second and due to land on our neighbouring red planet in August. Is this really a precursor to a one-way manned mission to the red planet within the next 20 years? Any volunteers?
While living the day we look back as well as forward.
Needing to recharge, and with nephew Yan agreeing to take up the reins, we wandered off to the coast for two nights, just an hour away, to savour the loneliness of sands that in summer pulse with near naked humanity, and to take an ages-old step into the past.
At the northern end of the smile that is Altafulla’s bay, just down an anonymous, short, walled path guarded by a squat palm tree, are the remains of a great Roman villa, Els Munts, one of the most important in all of Spain because of its size and the opulence of its decorations, including vast mosaics, gardens and two thermal baths.
It was a dwelling for six centuries, summed up in one lump of stone. At the end of a well-preserved mosaic walkway you can see where stairs once rose to the long-gone second floor. The first step, a foot high when laid, sags in the middle, half worn away by the footfall of residents, guests, servants and slaves.
How to get a handle on history, to measure it, sense it? Is it in a pupil’s conscience merely the length of a lesson, or as long as it takes to memorise a date? We sprint out of the school gate and that uniformed world into the heady immediacy of life, fuelled in a twentysomething chapter of immortality by the sense of it being our time. Now, as I wander happily downhill at Adrian Bell’s pace, I ponder what I have missed and I lament my weakening eyes. I am hungry to stare.
The low terrace of old white cottages built on the shoreline by long-gone fishing families is a charming front to some typically bland Spanish urban architecture. The crush of summer veils the truth, that on so much of this coast the magic has been swamped by so much mediocrity, laid bare by the cold honesty of winter. And this planning disharmony seems to drown some people’s sense of respect for the environment, with our rocky headland walk and imaginings of ancient beginnings strewn with the debris of idiots who couldn’t give a damn.
Whether it is here, Hinkley, Helsinki, Hownslow or Hull, can we collectively agree to stand tall and challenge anyone who couldn’t give a damn?
We walked on, jaws locked, to a tiny bay where Romans had carved rectangular blocks out of the rock and where, now, beards of grass-green seaweed ebb and flow. Again we left the present and ran our fingers across the past.
Let’s change the subject.
Anyone who lived through it should remember that ferocious UK gale in 1987 that flattened forests, stirred up a rainstorm of roof tiles and put the fear of God into everyone, and yet for all the mayhem is best remembered because of a BBC weather forecaster’s reassurances.
Just before the mayhem he had assured the nation, in response to a woman who’d phoned asking if a hurricane was on the way, that it wasn’t, and that Spain would get it instead. The storm veered north, 3 million homes were damaged, 15 million trees were uprooted and 19 people died.
Among the shocking images was one of a block of five garages – those little lines of adjoining, flat-topped buildings where the British keep their beloved cars….or not. A gust had torn the roof off in one lump and from the helicopter circling the devastation a photographer had gifted the world a spy satellite view of the contents.
Yes, you are right – there wasn’t a car in any of them. One was spotlessly clean and as empty as a politician’s promises. The other four, however, were stacked to the absent ceiling with things that “might come in handy one day”.
The relevance of all this is our 200-year-old farm Catalan barn; large as a house, and (you guess correctly once again) full of “stuff”. Or rather it was, because we have finally taken to the recycling centre a ludicrous number of glass jars, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, vinegar, children’s broken toys, perforated irrigation piping and an ancient sack of bread flower (lost and forgotten beneath the pile) that had turned to stone.
The vinegar had been lined up in a collection of dusty containers between the snow tyres and the yellow anti-freeze for the solar hot water system ever since our first winemaking attempt had gone horribly wrong. Delusional, we had wondered if it might improve with age.
Three hours, two rats’ nests and a dust storm into the task, Yan waved a carrier bag of something in the air.”Ay, Ay!” he said, looking inside again, his eyebrows completing the circle of his grin. “Beaten Rasquera to it have you?”
For those of you who haven’t had a whiff of this story that made the UK newspapers, the village where we buy our Christmas turkey is making plans to plant out 12 acres of cannabis to beat the economic crisis.
In our case the bag in question contained dried oregano if you must know, wedged underneath a couple of broken – but repairable – beach chairs. We do not grow pot.
The mayor of Rasquera’s plan is to free the 900-strong community of a whopping €1.3million debt by cultivating marijuana for a personal use cannabis association who will pay €54,170 a month: Heady stuff, in my case for two reasons.
Are small Spanish towns and villages really sliding into that degree of debt? Blimey. And what exactly is the legal situation for such a radical project because it’s seems to be without precedent? I sense a storm brewing….
Mind you, just be grateful they haven’t shortlisted your neck of the woods for the $22.3 billion EuroVegas resort – a Vegas-like strip of 12 hotels, dozens of restaurants, a convention centre, three golf courses, a stadium and six casinos, modelled, unnaturally on the neon outcrop in the Nevada desert.
Spain has been chosen because of the climate and (maybe, no probably) the recession, in that the American creators are said to be looking for hefty concessions from a national government that is sufficiently desperate for jobs and investment.
It seems both Barcelona and Madrid are the finalists. For once I want Madrid to win.