Author Archives: SORREL DOWNER

STILL HERE, JUST BUSY

Thank you for visiting. Journalism work, running a farm and writing a book has been keeping me busy and so while I will be uploading photos and videos from the past two years over the weeks to come, somewheresville is temporarily the resting archive for three – now not so recent – adventures: an extensive USA road trip, eight months on a boat-access-only jungle beach in Costa Rica, and, inexplicably, the move to a remote mountain farm to restore it and grow things while attempting to keep the day job. 

THE BIRDS

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After some years as finca sin nombre, farm with no name, on an unmarked track off an unmarked road, the farm now has a name: finquita los pajaros. Or finca los pajaritos. As the farm is small, and so are the majority of the birds, I don’t mind which one it ends up being. I use both on official forms and sometimes nothing so the whole thinking and naming business has merely focused in on the confusion not entirely quashed it.

In English it sounds twee – little bird farm. It conjures up an image of a place where there might be bird feeders and someone weeding with a fork and trowel. But no-one speaks English. And the neighbours don’t disapprove. The three closest to me are naturalists, founts of all knowledge though not all of it correct. There’s a farm nearby where they still trap and eat songbirds which is maybe why so many birds prefer to congregate here.

I had Hitchcock’s The Birds in mind. Swallows, house martins and sparrows had the run of the house for some decades before I pushed open the door wearing hazard gear and carrying a mop, and during the first spring and summer, birds persisted in nesting in the long room. I’d wake up to swallows – spy drones hovering outside the window, and fledglings were constantly falling down the chimneys and being taken off by the cat, or making their fluttery way to hide in shoes or drawers. Sparrows nest under the roof tiles, claws scrabbling for purchase like fingernails on a blackboard, and spend the days – in their hundreds – in the fruit trees beside the house, hopping tetchily, giving the evil eye, waiting for the chance to peck holes in the apricots. Or anything.

All doors and windows are open and will be until October, so the swallows swoop low over my head while I work each morning. Yesterday a jilguero flew in and hit a wall, but after a brief stunned pause, was well enough to evade my helping hands. And at night, especially when the moon is bright, the air is loud with the mewing of little owls, and the low huhs of the eagle owls, out there killing stuff.

So those were the birds I had in mind. Proprietorial birds that tolerate my presence with bad grace. I’ve left great swathes of the farm wild for them, and never use pesticides, and in return they live here and sing, but I know they want the house back.

 

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WHAT A BOAR

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It’s all farms around here: farms that incorporate forests and gorges, and, once inside the natural park proper, the Sierra de Grazalema, a series of rocky mountain peaks. So the jabali, the wild boar, can go pretty much where they want. For some reason they want to come here. Fences are a rarity, but because my neighbour has donkeys and I have a vineyard, this farm has one, and this means that in order to come in and dig, or pass through and dig somewhere else, the boars must first chew through the wire fencing. Every night since the beginning of December there has been a Mexican wave of dog howling and fence chewing as the boar families lumber their way west to east and back again.

Liberated from their lives of pampered luxury, the donkeys have been able to break out of their field and gallop through the moonlight in wild-eyed panic; my dog has disappeared for hours and come back stinking of shit, guilt and satisfaction writ large on its face. And instead of the coffee and croissant of my dreams, my days have started with dragging sheets of fencing across fields, along with coils of wire and bolt cutters, and mending various stretches of the perimeter.

I’m hoping that the wandering season ends soon. I’ve read that wolf urine is the best deterrent. It’s used with regularity in the Basque Country to keep wild boar away from country roads and reduce the number of wildlife-car collisions.

I’ve thought about it, but it doesn’t grab me as being the easiest solution.

 

I’m attempting to post a photo every day this year @somewheresville365 on instagram. Picture credit: estudiantes.info (mine arrive after dark)

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THE WHITE STUFF

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Well, well: snow. For the first time in fifty years or something. Two days ago, when I was wearing a lot of fleeces and standing out of the wind, it was quite warm. Yesterday was Day of The Snow and schools were closed across the land. And today the two men who have come from a faraway town to fix something are full of stories about road closures, snow on balconies, snow on the bull statue, snow in the bullring, snow on cacti, snow on prickly pears and snow on palm trees, snow on donkeys. Not only the stories, they show me the pictures, along with videos, of snow. Some I really liked, including one video of a man with a stiff brush tied to the front of his bike clearing a path, set to bad music. And another one that’s a compilation of slithering cars, also set to bad music entitled jajaja, or as I’d say hahaha.

It’s a big event though, this snow fall, irregular and signifying something. Bring on spring.

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Extra Virgin Virgin

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When they crank the jolting Heath Robinson conveyor belts at the cooperative olive mill into action, the skies darken. Fact. Not sure why, but black clouds provide a dramatic tension, as does a bigger than normal jam of broken-backed trucks and trailers, lorries, dented Citroens and Seats (and Peugeots) stuffed with white olive sacks, all reversing anarchically in the direction of the grills to drop their loads. Nuestra Señora del Rosario Cooperativa is now a-buzz, the social hub, lit up at night like something industrial in America, and will be until January. You can hear it, and smell it – green, waxy, cloying, oily – a mile off.
Last year I stripped the olives from 400 trees myself using a stick which took a month (if you include time spent lying in the nets too tired to move, with a dog licking my face). This year I recruited a team and a shaker machine, and it took a week.
I was in Puglia some months ago covering an extra virgin olive oil fraud story and had the luck to spend some days in the company of the deCarlo family. They compete to find a space for their exceptional, award-winning, artisan-produced Italian Extra Virgin olive oil in a global market awash with fake slop.
They pointed out that olive oil is a fruit juice, and should be pure, fresh, bitter, with, depending on type of olive, varying notes of grass, tomato leaves, artichoke. And they showcased the best by pouring two types of their own liberally over the best of southern Italian home-cooking during lunch at their family home.
I looked at my own fields with more interest on my return. To ensure plenty of bitterness, which isn’t rated too highly locally, I was the first farmer off the block with the harvesting, picking the fruit while green and fairly hard – and far too early according to my tutting neighbours. I sold the bulk to the cooperative (to join the rest of the area’s haul, to be crushed, filtered and bottled by them under their own label), but kept back 500kg, which thanks to a miscalculation was actually 830kgs, sent it down a different shoot and had it pressed separately, and bottled the stuff that came out at the other end of the system one hour later. Having 167 litres of oil for home consumption is excessive, but it’s genuinely, accidentally, very good. Getting it there is probably what did for the car suspension.

 

A Right Thrashing

olives5Picking olives gives you a lot of time to think. It also gives you a backlog of life to get on with afterwards hence a late post, but I’m still pondering so thought I’d get olives done with before harvest time comes round again.

If you haven’t picked olives, it involves spreading large nets under a tree, and knocking the fruit down with a stick. At the point where you can not go on, you must get the olives (now marbles with a life of their own) out of the net into a sack. After doing that – in my case – just six times, for reasons to do with a broken truck and the limited capacity in the Peugeot GTI, (‘ESTE NO ES UN COCHE DEL CAMPO’ the mechanic correctly tells me every month when I turn up in the recovery truck driver’s cab, the Peugeot on the back like a carnival queen, but I don’t have the €6500 for the Landrover he’s found as an alternative) . . . so, after filling six sacks and dragging them, now each one weighing 35kg, across a large, uneven field, they are loaded into the boot. Obviously with a Peugeot with broken suspension, the boot is pretty much on the ground after the first sack so that makes it easier. After a 10km drive up and down mountains, you reverse onto a grill between the lorries and vans at Nuestra Señora del Rosario Cooperativa, and, under the approving eye of Paco the conveyor belt operator, drag each sack out and empty the load. You collect a piece of paper to say well done, you’ve earned a euro, and you drive home and start again until you have accrued 1937kgs of olives and decide to give it a rest.

Anyway, among the thoughts:

The goddess Athena gave the Ancient Greeks their first olive tree. Fact. You’d think in the thousands of years since someone might have come up with a way of harvesting the fruit that was easier and calmer than hitting each olive with a long stick. But they haven’t.

The whole work and pay system is wrong. I believe I should be paid as much for picking olives as leading a Which Font Says Trust? strategy session because it’s harder. Obviously I’m not being paid at all. And regardless of what job of work I’m doing, the value of my free time is the same. I think I’m onto something remembering it’s already been done – Marxism.

Tortoise or Hare? I go for hare . . . and I get a lot more done by doing things faster. People are always saying  ‘tortoise and hare’ knowingly. But who says Aesop’s polemic hypothesis is right?  He just made it up.

The pleasures of working the land in time-honoured style. There are people in offices all over dreaming of the day when they can dress up in something from a Toast catalogue and get down and dirty with a hoe or a stick or a chicken. It’s the new thing after Mindfulness. Maybe they could come and help me.

I used to get mentally exhausted and think how nice it would be to be physically exhausted. Instead, I meant, rather than as well, so be careful what you wish for. Physical exhaustion plays with your mind, pumping it with joy, resentment, fury and Zen-like resignation . . . all at the same time. It’s riding a bucking bronco; I understand there is a medical explanation.

Repeated actions inspire urgent, fleeting ideas. Among them move to a city, go back to films, open a cake shop, become a forensic linguist, sell cheese online, paint large paintings, revisit my inventions ledger (but abandon Jab and Go, in which you are anaethesised before flights, stacked in a container with your luggage, and delivered to your destination – something rather like the repatriation some governments already offer).

The olives were there to be harvested but would earn me very little money, so was this effort rewarding or a waste of time? Turns out the years of doing non-productive things for quite a lot of money have given me a warped idea of success.

How far I’ve come from Bubbles Rothemere’s Christmas parties at Claridge’s. Is there any way back? Not all the way . . . but a little way back sometimes? Have I gone up in the world or down? Or just along? Will I ever run in heels again?

Olive-pickers’ elbow? Is that a thing? And if so, is it permanent?

 

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