February 2009

By Martin Kirby

Great wind of change.

I sincerely hope this finds you well and warm. What a bitter season to test the mettle.
Here in the Catalonian mountains, a thousand feet nearer the stars, the year has at long last steadied its breathing, and the merciless gales that have whipped the ponies tails and shaken all but the rocks have, for now, abated.
Once more we can hear distant goat bells embroidering the freshness of cloudless first light, instead of peering out at crushing, racing grey, at the agonies of tormented trees and the debris of another angry night.
Spain has not been spared this winter’s woes, though here at Mother’s Garden there has been no ice age as in Madrid and much of England. Family and friends in Norfolk have kept us well posted on the exceptional whiteness and weight of the season.
Our worries have been that the old house would keep its crown of tiles; that the fig and walnut sentinels that that shade it would not topple on to it; that chimneys and the chicken house could ride it out.
Part of the wood store roof took wing, pine trees snapped with a crack like gunfire, fences buckled, a diseased walnut succumbed, and Joe Joe witnessed wide-eyed as one particularly venomous gust lifted a prodigious, healthy oak out of the ground, roots and all.
The pony corral began to fall apart too, due to our incorporation of living pine trees. Such was the force of the wind that roots pulsed in the ground and the whole structure swayed and creaked like a galleon in high seas until, inevitably, joints began to fail. To save it I had to fell at waist-height the most exposed pine that was on the point of crashing down and taking everything with it. Scary.
But we were spared to say the least.
People died. Roofs were ripped off, cars crushed. It rained tiles in the village and, no doubt, in every street across this land. Friends’ homes were badly damaged, and I do not know of a lane or road that was not blocked by timber.
Every day the growl of chainsaws rises in the valley, and tractor trailers carry logs, some with the girth of a century.
I am out there too, battling with that fat oak and stockpiling enough timber to sweeten some future bitter pill of winter. Even with the oven of summer to come it will take at least two years to season I think.
Dotted across the farm are log stacks of pine and oak because I have fallen into the rhythm of devoting about an hour a day to clearing both woodland and my head after staring at a computer screen.
The balancing act of mind and body on life’s tightrope is one thing this place allows us. We are thinking hard how best to continue while we edge ever forward, keeping our eyes on the fixed points of happiness and blessings. Not easy when there is a global financial storm uprooting even the mightiest oaks of the banking world.
There is, indeed, a wind of change blowing across our farm.
At the end of this holiday season, our fifth, we may sell the whole or parts of our farm cottage, to one family or to several who want to experience something of this place, this Garden, this life.
Perhaps it will be to people planning for change and looking for the imperatives of support and local knowledge; perhaps it will be a person keen to invest in a wine region they call the new Tuscany, holidaying when they choose and drawing a little income from holiday lets; or, maybe, it will be three or four families buying a share of it, while we retain a part through something called fractional selling.
This is not time share, but the owning of a part of the bricks and sundial, whereby the owners are, literally, partners and can have somewhere without the responsibility or cost of the whole.
Whoever they be, English, Dutch, Catalan, we hope for the gifts of accord and friendship, neighbourly consideration and mutual support. Don’t we all?
This is the labour of the hour for us, and I hope to tell you more next month as we put feelers out to see what interest there may be.
Then, with that page turned, we can focus more of our energies on ourselves and the children, the writing, the olive oil business, our farmhouse and the farm, perhaps sharing with those who come to Mother’s Garden the labour and joy of fulfilling our long-held dream of planting a new olive grove.
As for the writing, next week I will be devoting a lump of time and every ounce of my being to something that has gone from dream to possibility and that (cryptically) may flower on a silver screen. I can say no more for now, but you will be among the first to know.
Whatever the year holds, people will continue to come to Mother’s Garden from around the world, and we are glad of it. Sticking with the weather theme a moment longer, Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

Calm, bright and relatively warm February days are not as rare as rocking horse droppings, but this year the ration has been dire. The almond blossom is tentatively awakening, but with precious few encouraging rays most things seem to be on hold. The soil is soft and accommodating and it is usually a time for action, but the year is rolling coldly on and we need to galvanise and get out there. The pruning of the vines, for example, is one task which we are at risk of leaving dangerously late.
Maggie has planned a larger vegetable garden this year and I have tried to plough it. The problem is Nell the tractor has a fuel feed problem and conks if pushed too hard, so it is a stop-start process punctuated with diesel bleeding and cursing.
We are, it seems, going to grow potatoes once more. I flatly refused last year, arguing that the time, aches and pains were not worth the indifferent, sometimes woefully sparse or diseased reward. My defiance dovetailed perfectly with particularly fine conditions for the cultivation of potatoes, and our neighbours’ tales of bumper harvests brought forth steely stares from Maggie that told of the obvious penance to come.
So, as you read this, I most certainly will be out there, being dragged about by the rotovator and digging furrows.
There have, in contrast, been two February respites which I relay with a song in my heart.
I took Maggie to a recital by the Hagen Quartet at Barcelona’s exquisite Palau de la Musica, that jewel of a concert hall, and it caressed the senses beyond measure. Such treats fortify us for weeks.
Then, to our surprise and joy, we found ourselves back there six days later, for a very different but no less uplifting concert; and all on account of an argument.
I write a column in a Barcelona magazine, and having passed a copy to a friend, he subsequently locked horns in print with another contributor on the tender subject of Catalonia’s potent promotion of its language and an intolerance of any other, especially Spanish.
This is a particularly prickly subject, and the difference of opinion was just the zest the young magazine needed.
A grateful editor thanked my friend and gave him four tickets to a Joan Manuel Serrat concert.
Who? We were flattered to be invited, but after the Hagen heights we felt a trip to see a Catalan folk singer we’d never heard of would be flat as a pancake by comparison.
We went, however, for the pleasure of the company.
Well, the way the audience sang the chorus to Paraules D’Amor (words of love) was one of those moments to make you swallow hard, bite your lip and tense with shiver.
Born in Barcelona of Catalan father and Spanish mother, Joan Manuel Serrat’s story is every bit as fascinating as his music. To précis, fairly I trust, he gave his first concert in the Palau 42 years ago, and has become one of the most important Catalan and, significantly, Spanish singers of his generation.
While Franco was still alive Serrat composed and sang in Catalan as well as Spanish, defying the dictatorial suppression of all Catalan identity; when Spain chose him for the Eurovision song contest in 1968 he said he wanted to sing in Catalan. He was substituted, his songs banned and his records burned in the streets.
Serrat went into exile and found enormous fame in South and Central America. On his return after Franco’s death, he continued to sing in both Catalan and Spanish, for which he was shunned by Catalan nationalists.
“I sing better in the language they forbid me,” he once remarked.
People of such principle hold the key to unlocking a world that still struggles with inclusion and respect for differences. Music is the common language, and people like Serrat, now honoured and loved so much in both Catalonia and the Spanish speaking world, is a vital voice.
To hear Paraules D’Amor search in YouTube for Joan Manuel Serrat and Josep Carreras. It may also give you a sense of what an anthem it has become.

Finally, some comfort food. Coca is a voluptuous dough upon (or in) which is cooked savoury or sweet variations, and there is a bakery in a tiny village a few but very twisty miles from us that is renowned for these flat “cakes”.
We have indulged occasionally, but the journey only justifies special occasions. On their birthdays, children at the village school invariably bring a chocolate one to share.
Imagine, then, our delight when Imma, Ella’s school friend, came to stay, bearing gifts. She comes from that village and her uncle works in the bakery …
Best wishes and springtime thoughts to you all.

No Going Back - Journey to Mother's Garden,by Martin Kirby, is published by Little Brown (ISBN 0751535486).
Martin Kirby’s Norfolk novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy is published by Pegasus (ISBN 9781903490297).
See www.mothersgarden.org


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