The striped lizard zipped up to the plateau of the waist-high olive tree stump and looked down at our dogs. Delirious, their noses fizzing with the scents of awakening life, the nutty hounds clawed at the earth and roots.
Content in the knowledge that they weren’t after a viper (and that their pencil thin prey clearly had a bigger brain than either of them) I walked on up the land to check on the ponies.
Remoli, now five, was distressed and whinnying. I’d tethered her to another olive tree half way along the track to the top vineyard, just 20 metres away from her mum, La Petita, on the longer rope with a grazing circle that encompassed alfalfa, assorted grasses, dandelions a wild vine and an abandoned hazel. Pony paradise, or so I’d thought.
Such alarm calls normally mean La Petita has slipped her halter again and drifted out of Remoli’s sight, but the old pony was still there, munching merrily. Then I saw that Remoli’s mouth and nose were swelling.
Snake. It must be. But where? Remoli was panting and straining to get as far away as possible from a small pile of oak logs half lost beneath burgeoning bramble. I prodded it pathetically with a stick and searched the area, but it was a useless. Needle and haystack.
When both ponies were back in the corral I raced past the lizard and burrowing dogs to check on the internet what drastic action to take, only to be horrified by a series of American sites that told of horses suffocating following a venomous bite on the nose. “Stick pipe up their nostrils” said one.
I rang the vet. To cut a morning to less than a minute, all turned out well. The vet was with us within the hour and administered something that settled both pony and the inflammation.
Yes, she confirmed, it most probably was a snake, but there was nothing as poisonous here as in America and she had never known of a horse dying after a snake bite.
Even so, we do have small vipers, similar to Adders in potency, and also the Montpellier, a distinctly not small serpent (up to two metres in length) with venom in fangs at the back of its mouth that will give you a nasty turn but won’t kill you unless you stick your finger down its throat which someone did, apparently, with dire consequence. The question was which had moved in.
A stupid question, of course, because given the wide variety of inhabitants on these ecological, overgrown acres it is a magnet for all manner of predators.
Montpellier it was, we feel sure now. A few days later two of these large-eyed, somewhat menacing snakes were found sunning themselves beside an olive tree, just five metres from where Remoli was bitten. It is the breeding season, so disturbing them didn’t help their disposition either. Montpelliers are known for their short fuses, and I backed away as one coiled, raised its head and inflamed its neck as if to strike.
No need to be reckless, Martin. Besides, I had barely recovered from the honey repercussions.
The storeroom now contains copious amounts of liquid nectar after my first harvest visit to the hives this year, and my ankles and calves still itch.
Like a fool, and hungry as a bear with very little between the ears, I had gone to the hives on the first calm, warm, clear day after a May storm. I usually take a little honey in mid May and some more at the end of June, then leave the bees to stock up for the winter, a rhythm that has suited everyone for five years. One hive has grown to two, then three, now four.
But golden honey rules include (as all keepers know), patience, a steady heart, timing and tucking your trousers into your boots or socks.
Ten-year-old Joe Joe was with me but I, dazzled by the amount of honey to be had, failed to note that a) there really wasn’t enough warmth in the days to draw out the bees, so the hives were packed, and b) my trouser bottoms were not secured.
As I was gently brushing the bees from the frames they were congregating on my shoes and walking north.
Joe Joe was better organised in the ankle department, but once a bee stings others immediately join in and he suffered too as his tracksuit bottoms proved too thin and he retreated, tearfully. I pressed on to tidy up and secure the hives, but all grace was gone and I Riverdanced across the meadow.
Joe Joe was being nursed by his mum in the kitchen when I staggered in,and I thought, that’s it - he will never want to go near the hives again. I, on the other hand, had to get my act together and get back out there, once the pain of the 16+ swellings had eased.
What transpired was, well, wonderful (on the whole). I returned to our little apiary later that afternoon, to apologise and to finish my work. My legs were stiff but not too bad, and by my side was my son, who flatly refused to be put off. We were calmer, better prepared and neither of us was stung again. Joe said no more about his pains as, in the shade of the wisteria behind the farmhouse, we span the frames and weighed 30lbs of honey.
I, on the other hand, could barely walk by this time. My ankles decided they had had enough punishment and I crawled off to bed.
May wasn’t finished yet by a long way. As always after an April drenching May stages its fiesta of existence. A Great Tit wafted into the kitchen and watched me writing, settling on top of the computer screen at one point. The Melodious Warbler in the pine above the corral has been beside himself for weeks, the Golden Orioles are tootling greetings in some distant chorus, while the cheeky Woodchat Shrike has returned to follow me around on the tractor as I cut the grass.
I am not the only one. In the puzzle of this life 1000 miles away we have missed our childhoods and adulthoods of Norfolk stubble fields and bales, of that great English sense of harvest done. Olive and almond groves and wavy lines of vines on ancient terraces have their own charm, yet different.
Well, how utterly enchanting, then, to find that a neighbour at the top of the valley but a mile from Mother’s Garden has grown, cut and baled straw – or is it hay? It is the first time we have seen such a local scene on such a scale and it closes distance in the blink of an eye every time we trundle past it. It could be Northrepps or Docking, but for the rugged skyline.
Now, before you all start writing to the editor saying “that’s definitely not hay, bor, that’s straw”, it was a fairly pure grass crop and they didn’t harvest any grain, so does that make it hay? Can any farmers in Norfolk tell me? I hear haymaking has started very early in East Anglia.