April 2009

By Martin Kirby

(Maggie and Joe Joe with willing worker, uncle Pip)

Can you believe so much could dawn in just one month?
Knowledge can come in torrents; that trees and bees can rise from the dead; that a foot of rain can beat down in three days; that (trust me on this) Mother’s Garden lies some 600 metres below the seabed.
Winter wandered away in March and we waved it off in t-shirts, jeans, work boots and gloves. The walls radiated heat. Suddenly there seemed precious little time for the pruning of the olives, for reclaiming a little more of the land from strangling ivy and thorn.
We save all the timber we can for house heat in winters to come, even twigs. But the leaves and unforgiving brambles we burn on dawn bonfires, before the breeze rises with the sun to dry the dew and fan fears that flying cinders may set all alight.
Spring warmth rose with perfect timing and on every day of their week with us the high-mileage members of the Norfolk Hill Walking Club climbed mountain paths into a cloudless heaven.
Yes, the Norfolk hill walkers. Unlike the Gobi Desert Canoe Club they do exist. They are a happy and hale band of 30-plus people from the homeland who have stepped the great trails of Britain and beyond, who breathe the best air and know the health truths and fulfilment of being out there in the heart-pumping real world.
High-mileage is no euphemism for age. It is a pedestrian reference to experience and rosy cheeks. Andrew, Lynda, Richard, Ian and Phil strode out on the ancient trails, meeting no-one, returning replete with smiles, bird sightings and the warning of one cliff-face route that would make an ibex hesitate. It was so precipitous you had to hang on to a cable bolted to the rock.
They reminded us to get out there, they taught us where to go and they inspired us to make far more of the “walking holiday” appeal of Mother’s Garden.
It all went as smoothly as Morston mud between the toes. And at the end of the week, at their behest, I took them on a birding outing to the Ebre Delta where, as on the north Norfolk marshes of my youth (but for the seam of flamingo pink) the scent of salt and serenity stopped the clock.
So when friends from London arrived the following sunny week we followed their lead and headed off to the Montsant, the holy mountain, drifting through rosemary and broom in search of wild asparagus, lingering by a spring beneath the bulbous cliffs.
Back on the farm pine pollen billowed down the valley, bees swarmed and the heralds of heat duelled for attention. The bee-eaters whistled above the hives, the amorous frogs revved like distant motor-cross, and the cicades purred in the mellow dusk.
Then someone upset Zeus, big time.
Flash, crash, bang, wallop. Windows rattled, trip switches clicked, buckets brimmed and our track became a river.
We scurried to the car to get Joe Joe to the church on Good Friday evening where the village drummers were to follow Jesus on the cross around the village. That was out of the question, of course, so Jesus did several circuits inside the church. While thunder roared outside, the drummers thundered within.
More than 12 inches of rain fell in a 64 hours and our spring turned into a fire hose, spouting 1000 litres an hour.
All of which coincided nicely with the arrival from North Walsham of Mike and Annabel Crook and children Joe and Sophie. Which sort of made sense, because something usually happens when they are here.
Last year it was drought. This year it is flood. “See you next year!”, they wrote in the visitors’ book. We fear a plague of locusts.
What fun they are, what good company. Mike and I went to school together, and long forgotten pranks were hauled from the dark corners of memory, like the round-shouldered failure of the classmate we’d sent into the Adam and Eve pub and who was thrown out for asking for “a bottle of drink please”.
The sulphur yellow pollen of the pines framed puddles and smudged windscreens. We thought it was some awful toxic disaster until a neighbour explained and I foolishly stood under a branch and shook it.
Undeterred by the moisture, Mike and I walked across the valley to see distant neighbours Mac and Conchita, a stroll which should take about 20 minutes but which lasted considerably longer on account of his geological training and subsequent curiosity at the mix of granite, sandstone and lime. Progress wasn’t helped either by my ignorance that tied weights to my feet.
He pointed to the fat seam of limestone atop the valley wall.
“That would have been the seabed a few hundred million years ago, of course.”
Bless him for not looking at me like I was an idiot. But he did tell me something I should have known: basically, that limestone is an organic, sedimentary rock formed from the remains of tiny shells and micro-skeletons deposited on the sea bed. You knew that already, of course.
“But look at it. It’s colossal. And it’s 2500 feet above sea level.”
“That would have taken forever.”
“Hundreds of millions of years. Then, with the changing surface of the planet, it was pushed up into the sky. When people talk of human history, it is but a second in time.”
I stumbled behind Mike as he tapped at granite boulders and mused on how the hillside where we now scratch a living must have once been the bed of a vast river.
All of which rather put current anxieties (the exchange rate, the plight of Norwich City etc) into perspective.
As for the trees and bees rising from the dead, that’s not entirely true.
The huge oak that was blown down in the winter gale has almost certainly had it on account of the fact that I have sawn up all but 10 feet of the trunk. But I’m not entirely sure how to finish the job because, well, it’s now vertical again, after the deluge weighted the root clump sufficiently to tip the balance.
Spooky. Maybe we will try and grow something over it.
As for the bees, now that was a drama. I mentioned last month that a few had appeared in our bedroom. Well the few rapidly multiplied and we realized they were coming out of vents in the chimney.
As far as possible the buzz word around here is tolerance. When it comes to beetles, bugs and sometimes even flies (but I draw the line at blood suckers) we try and keep our farmhouse a squidge-free zone. Live and let live if at all possible is the motto.
Oh, I have killed. A viper heading for our back door was not spared when perhaps it could have been, and my tally of mosquito hits must be into the millions by now. But I have bent over backwards to somehow escort a variety of rodents, stingers, creepy crawlies, a snake and a somewhat distressed bat off the premises. It eats at my conscience if I fail.
It is human nature to resort to annihilation when we fear, loathe, don’t understand, can’t be bothered or just don’t have the time in our hectic schedule to find another way. Don’t you think? WHACK. We, the precious creatures, the gods of disinfectant and convenience, have taken swotting to ballistic levels.
All the same, with so many bees in your bedroom do you a) run out like your hair is on fire and return with a toxic death spray, b) calmly ask them to leave, coax them out of the window and then figure out how to get the queen bee out of the chimney, or c) quietly shut the door, keep a safe distance and call a bee expert to take them away?
We went for answer b to begin with, given that I’m an L plate keeper, calm on the whole and not allergic to stings. It was not the swarm’s fault that I had left an inviting crack in our chimney. And anyway, mass bee murder would be nuts given that civilisation would go hungry if it wasn’t for this incredible insect.
That is not a reference to honey consumption.
One mouthful in three of the foods you eat directly or indirectly depends on pollination by bees. Remember that the next time you start flailing around with a rolled up EDP.
Put it another way, if the bees die off then the planet will become a starving, flowerless hell. They are at the heart of life itself. Man and woman have known that since before the Egyptians collected honey 4000 years ago, but today I think we are more ignorant and desensitized to the natural order than ever before.
Worse case scenario? Einstein said that if bees go then so do we.
And for a variety of reasons, some not yet understood, bees are really struggling right now. They need all the help they can get to keep our world together.
As to the buzz in the bedroom conundrum, answer c is what I’d hope most of you would give. If you have a swarm problem seek expert help. See www.norfolkbeekeepers.co.uk/swarms/index.php.
We rang our friend Jaume in the end because while I was pumping smoke into the chimney cavity he needed to be up a ladder trying to coax the queen and her entourage into a box. We failed.
Jaume has 30 hives and a lifetime of experience in apiculture, yet the experience left him baffled too.
Oh, the bees left the chimney alright, and gathered at the entrance to the box, so we blocked the hole and left them overnight to settle.
At daybreak they lay on the ground, wiped out, it seemed, by the cold. We scratched our heads and mourned. They were a smaller, black honey bee, maybe African. Then the first rays of sunlight reached them and they began to stir and fly away. Has anyone seen this before?

Before I sign off, here’s a tip for hot days in the garden.
At the end of the rains the lushness visibly swelled in the warmth and I reached for the strimmer, only to remember I’d left the battered old ear protectors out on the saw horse by the wood pile. Another key invention was born.
Strimming is very sticky work, so what better than old foam-filled ear muffs full of cool rain water that drips down the neck?

Martin Kirby’s English novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy is published by Pegasus (ISBN 9781903490297)


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