Category Archives: Andalucia

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 in conversation and on official forms so the whole thinking and naming business has merely reduced the confusion not quashed it.

In English it sounds twee – little bird farm, conjuring up an image of the kind of place where there might be bird feeders and someone weeding with a fork and trowel, but no-one here speaks English and my neighbours approve. The three closest to me are naturalists, founts of all knowledge though not all of it correct. Although another family nearby still traps and eats songbirds.

Maybe that’s why so many hang out here. I actually 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 like spy drones outside the window, and large numbers of fledglings fell down the chimneys and were taken off by the cat, or fluttered off and hid in shoes or drawers. Now sparrows nest under the roof tiles making noises like fingernails down chalkboards, but spend the days – in their hundreds – in the fruit trees beside the house, tetchy, hopping mad, giving the evil eye, waiting for the chance to peck holes in the apricots.

All doors and windows are open, and will be til October, and so the swallows swoop low over my head as I work. Yesterday a jilguero flew in and hit a wall, but was okay. And at night, especially when the moon is bright, the air is loud with the mewing of little owls, and the low whoops 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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SEASONS CHANGING

photo(8)Altitude sickness and laziness forced me to give up a night time climb of a live volcano in Guatemala once. Because, even in this desolate wild spot, there were, apparently, bandits hiding behind bushes ready to pluck watches and whatnot off passers-by, I wasn’t allowed to lie face down on the pumice and die which was my main desire, but was escorted down the scree and left with a farmer. The farmer lived in a house made of loose planks which had seven or 11 things things in it – I forget exactly but one was a girly calendar and the other was a hen. I remember the hen well, because when our conversation faltered to a stop (my fault, because I really wanted to be sick) he looked around his house for things to entertain me and settled on the hen, which he put, gently, lovingly in my arms.

Anyway, after a few more hours, I felt better and we ended up talking about farming. The farmer distinctly remembered the rainy season starting on October 1st every year. Without fail, for fifty years. You planned your year around it, he said: your planting, your harvests, your budgeting, celebrations and loan repayments. But of late things had gone haywire; the rainy season started in September one year and November another and no-one knew where they were with things. It was a complete effing mess.

It’s easy to think that change is a constant, and for nature to be so regular in its habits was a coincidence, myth or fluke. However you hear the same story around the world, and nothing but, around these parts – particularly and most recently about the unusual heat of last November and an unusual and worrying absence of rain that’s making the evergreen oaks (encinas) thirsty. The naturalist Andrés Rodriguéz says that thirty years ago, the almonds used to start flowering in the Serranía de Ronda at the end of February, but that a couple of years ago, he noticed it beginning in December, and someone recently sent him a photo of almonds flowering in early November. 

Every year I’ve catalogued the wildflowers on the farm in dilettante fashion, keeping notes of when they’ve appeared (which I will have to attempt to decipher). I do know that the time and amount of flowering has been radically different. In 2014 I had enough figs to start an international fig export industry; in 2015 hardly any – so that’s a venture that would have been a write-off. In 2015 I sold crates of pomegranates at the village shop; last year I barely had enough for myself.
And now this year it’s hard to know what to expect. The cicadas were deafening for several nights in mid-February, the orange trees are in bloom again before the fruit has fallen, but at least the almonds flowered at the right time.
Hope that old farmer in Guatemala who was harping on about change lived long enough to feel vindicated. Not sure what it all means, but I reckon it’s probably trouble.

I’m attempting to post a photo from the farm each day on instagram: 365 reasons to celebrate the challenges of a simple life @somewheresville365

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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. Whadya know. Snow. For the first time in fifty years or something. Two days ago, if you wore a lot of fleeces and stood out of the wind, it was quite warm. Yesterday we had The Snow and schools closed across the land. Today two men have made it out of Ronda to come here and fix something and they are full of stories about road closures, snow on balconies, snow on the bull statue, snow in the bullring (which admittedly must have been peculiar and spectacular), snow on cacti, snow on prickly pears and snow on palm trees, snow on donkeys. In fact they show me all the pictures, as well as videos they’ve been sent from friends in Malaga and Almeria and Jaén, of snow, some of which I really liked, including one showing a man with a stiff brush tied to the front of his bike clearing a path, set to crap music. And there’s another one that’s a compilation of slithering cars, also set to crap music and entitled jajaja, or as we like to say hahaha.

Well, safe driving going home I say. They look worried. It’s a big event though, this snow fall, irregular and portentious. 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.
Obviously I looked at my own fields with 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 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 this year 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.

Incidentally, Extra Virginity, The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by the helpful and affable Tom Mueller is a superb, shocking and entertaining read.

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 and mention it to Dave who explains it’s already been done – Marxism.

Tortoise or Hare? Dave goes for tortoise; I go for hare . . . and I get a lot more done. People are always saying  ‘tortoise and hare’ knowingly. But who says Aesop’s right?  He just made it up.

The pleasures of working the land in time-honoured style. Apparently there are people in offices all over just 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. I say, come here. Also, that it’s great for the first ten minutes, and then it gets tedious.

I used to get mentally exhausted and think how nice it would be to be physically exhausted. I meant instead, rather than as well, so be careful what you wish for etc. Anyway, I have to say that physical exhaustion plays with your mind: joy, resentment, fury and Zen-like resignation . . . all at the same time. It’s like 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, friends remind me, is surprisingly close to what some governments already offer).

The olives were there to be harvested but would earn us very little, 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 Claridges. Is there any way back? Obviously, 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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