Join me, Martin Kirby, as I walk the farm, telling of the nature, the tasks the goodness that is Mother’s Garden
Here is the link to Episode 10. https://mothersgarden.podbean.com/e/episode-10-april-3-2019/
Song of the swallows, burnt feasts and exceptional friends.
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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.
Every morning I dwell in possibility. It is three weeks since I came out of hospital. I may not brim with energy, but I watch it, sense and draw on it in the enchantment of outdoors. Fifteen slow strides from the back door a wicker chair bides by the spring-fed reservoir and I drink the view, the sanctuary of nature and pulse of life.
The emperor edged closer, iridescent sapphire with gold in his jewelled stare, his four wings a haze. With every circuit of the round mirror of water he hovered to study me, or rather my lily feet and ankles propped high on the curve of the wall.
Other dragonflies and insects scattered before him for fear of being food. He will rule for just two weeks, almost constantly in flight seeking a female or prey – the power, majesty and frailty of life incarnate.
While I wondered at his species I felt he was questioning mine. I hope to see him every day of what life he has; he and our barn swallows and the martins sweeping in to drink. A few days ago a golden oriole failed to notice me and charmed his way through the olive grove, pausing at every tree in one row. I sat like a rock. All that moved was my mouth as I beamed as brightly as his breast. Then, in a blink, a bee-eater came to copy the swallows, pulling out just in front of my toes and blasting its brilliance in a flap of panic inches from my face.
The hospital indoctrination of patience has its dividends. “Recovery will take many months” was the emphatic mantra and I must abide to the need for diligence, to listen to my body and sleep, sleep, sleep. And when I stir I do not go so far, yet.
I sit or stand still more now than I have ever done, and life comes to me; returning to my body in tiny measures every day. The sustenance of home and loving care, my bed and the rich diversity are working.
Fledgling swallows from nests glued to rafters in the barn chatter on the sundial during flying practice. Below them, beyond the leaf canopy and bunches of the muscat vine that shades the front door, seven feet tall hollyhocks sway in the breeze, attended by several species of bees .
Nearer still to the red earth where our chickens bathe in the dust, the hefty carpenter bees, their hum an octave lower than the other pollinators, prefer the sturdy bloom storks of the dramatic, glossy, dark green and broad-leaf (with a spike at the end) acanthus, or bear’s breeches, a remarkable plant rooted in herbal medicine and, bizarrely, classical and Renaissance architecture and art.
Native to the Mediterranean region but now found worldwide, the leaf motif of this plant was carved into the tops of Corinthian columns from the 5th century BC, something copied by later architects and sculptors, also being used in wood carving and in friezes.
The story, according to Vitruvius, writing in 30BC about architecture, is thus.
A native girl of Corthin was struck down by a disease and died. After her burial some of her prized possessions, some goblets, were put in a basket and placed on her grave. A tile covered them to protect them from the weather. But the basket had been placed on the root of an acanthus, which grew, sending shoots up and around the basket, cupping it in foliage. The architect Callimachus saw this and was inspired to use “the style and novelty of the grouping” in his marble carvings.
The name acanthus comes from the Greek Akanthos, aka meaning thorn, thos meaning flower. The tough flowers, spiny, toothed bracts, rise on rigid stalks and, as I sit enchanted I surmise that only the beefy carpenters are tough enough to breech them. (I still haven’t found an explanation for the “bear” name.)
The honeysuckle is a flourish of yellow blossom and scent. There I counted six species of bees, sharing the air and nectar with a solitary humming bird hawk-moth. I leant on the grass bank wondering whether to attempt a photograph. The still morning air is always rich with life – hover flies, a ruby-tailed wasp (or cuckoo wasp) looking in the wall crevices for other insects’ nests, wasps and flying ants to name but a few. The grass too: crickets, ants and shield bugs of various characters.
To the east and south of our weather-beaten, wide front door, shading the dog kennel and hammock are fig boughs that bow to the ground with the weight of teardrop fruit, still deceptively green. They will ripen before the eyes and be falling within days. The dead crown on the biggest tree needs to be lopped, but hasn’t been because it is also the pedestal for fluting orioles, warblers, finches and, more than most, the serins. A pair of hoopoes has materialised to further lift spirits, while the whistle of the bee-eaters billows dawn and dusk.
June has been mild. We have had occasional thunderstorms and deluges, sustaining much of the green where normally the ground is parched. Even the happy clover clogging the vegetable patch is in delicate white flower.
Soon, though, the summer heat will slide in to a harsher rhythm, day and night. Electric fans will purr in every room and we will hide and wait for the relief of late afternoon breeze to reach us from the sea 15 kilometres away. Then we emerge and our shadows grow into giants.
If we cannot sleep in the afternoon, then we will read or talk some more about the world in flux, the portents of a brewing El Niño in the warming Pacific, or maybe the recent prognosis that we could be on the verge of a mini ice age, but one that will not deflect the consequences of certain global warming. We believe it is important to take a deep interest, and we suffer unending unease about these core realities for our planet and our arrogance and persistent failure to read the signs and react as if our lives and those of our grandchildren depended on it.
I’m sure that if the compulsion to clamour is not yet there, disquiet is of pandemic proportions, surely. But who among the economic straight-jacketed world leaders, will have the strength to make an immediate, profound, defining difference, for you, me, everyone and the emperor?
The truth is, though, it will take the masses to clamour and force. The establishment is always inherently incapable or, worse, unwilling.
SHAKING THE TREE, Martin’s sequel to No Going Back – Journey to Mother’s Garden, will be published as an e-book on July 15. To pre-order click here. This is an updated edition of the paperback book published in 2010, now out of print.
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.
Yesterday I told of treasures of time, colour and song. Here they are – that swallow on the sundial and, fleetingly, the golden oriole on the crown of the Friar Tuck fig tree.
Care to share my blogs with others? The more that sense Mother’s Garden the happier my world.