Monthly Archives: May 2019

The Many Versions of the Werewolf Tale

I was in the Basque speaking area of Navarra last weekend, up in the hills.

Very green.

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We went to visit a museum made by a very interesting guy called Iñaki Perurena, whose famous in the region for having Guinness World Records for lifting stones, among other things.

He has some amazing sculptures and lots of interesting paintings of characters from Basque Mythology on huge rocks dotted through the woods.

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The Basques have a lot of strange characters that live in the woods. A much richer diversity than the simple fairy and leprechauns of Ireland, to be honest.

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They have a type of Faun, mermaids, goblins, their own Santa Claus character, a cyclops, giants…

And…. another creature who you might bump into while walking the woods in such remote areas where houses are separated by large tracts of land, and visiting your neighbour involves a trek up a mountain.

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Gizotso, is werewolf  in Basque, and is said to be an extremely strong savage beast that lives in the woods and is made by sexual intercourse between humans and wild animals.

I’ve a long-held interest in werewolves, of course, and my kids speak Basque in school, but I’d not heard of this particular thread of the great tapestry of werewolf tales.

It’s fascinating how many different versions there are of this story. One of the things that unite all human societies are the similarities in our fireside tales of others who live just outside the light spread by our hearths. And the werewolf is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all, more than even the dragon.

At the same time, it’s disturbing how easily every society can alienate others and reduce them to the status of “savage animals.”

Perhaps it not so difficult to see how such stories of werewolves can spring forth in our imagination from simple ingredients such as deep woods, woodland dwellers, people we don’t like, and people we desire.

Of course, nowadays, nobody believes in werewolves.

 

 

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The Hedgehog and the Tiger

My son is three and a big fan of animals. We read a lot of animal books… He’s seen lots of animals on the farm and in the zoo. But others, well, let’s say we haven’t bumped into them yet.

 

The Hedgehog and the Tiger

 

Flipping through children’s books, each

Bucolic page fairy-tale picturesque:

Rare as hen’s teeth to see a hen in

The same frame as a cow or pig;

More common to see the cage. A

Cow in a sunlit meadow would

Count its blessings if it could ken

Cattle mass confined in feeding pens.

 

Yet, becoming just as false are

Pictures of our wildlife: brilliant

Butterflies and ladybirds, snails

Spiralling, to lions and giraffes,

Explaining to our children, the

Tiger and elephant, zebra and gnu,

Knowing at least they’ll watch the

Lion King, and visit the zoo, where

These species might cling to existence

In spite of our infantile delight in

Destroying our environment. But

 

What of furry foxes, squirrels,

Badgers and newts, other cute

Denizens of our hedgerows and

Fields? How do we describe these?

Who’s seen a hedgehog in a decade,

Or ever encountered an otter

Of an evening? May as well have an

Irish mole on the page, a polecat, or

Mink, for all the meeting and greeting

Our kids will have with these as

They disappear from all around us,

Unseen and unobserved, unremarked

And impossible to explain when asked.

 

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Not an Irish mole, but even in Spain, it’s hard to actually see one of these children’s book favourites. This my second ever, a victim of the road like so many hedgehogs. The first one I saw was alive – I rescued it from a dog!

 

I wrote this poem a few weeks ago. I was reminded of it the other day when my wife read an headline about Barcelona Zoo, which is going to change after the city council decided it would have to end reproduction of animals not endangered nor capable of being released into the wild. The number of species will dwindle as individuals die or are moved out. Considering the above, perhaps some wild animals that we citizens never bump into any more would be useful for the folks of Barcelona to become familiar with. Perhaps soon enough those once familiar small mammals will be endangered themselves…

Wildlife… it’s just too much work.

In light of the UN report on species extinction just unveiled, many people are talking about how worrying it is that we have so many species close to the brink of annihilation due to our activities.

And at the same time, it’s hard to move people towards doing very much in the way of helping reverse the trend.

Nature is seen as something outside our own environments, nowadays. It’s an abstract idea, or at best something we visit. We’ve become used to not having it especially present in our daily lives. Even a fly entering a classroom is viewed as an event.

And because we’ve gotten used to living without nature, we don’t value it very much, and often see it as an inconvenience.

Where we do allow it to exist in our city, it must be controlled and tidy.

Pamplona is a very green city, with plenty of parks and farmland around us, and mountains visible from almost every street, yet even here, wildlife must conform. The ducks in the park have few places to nest because any undergrowth is cleared, the scrub needed to house any other birds than pigeons, sparrows, magpies and a few blackbirds is practically non-existent outside building lots left abandoned until the apartments pop up in new neighbourhoods.

Take a simple city lawn. As soon as the dandelions bloom it’s time to mow. Citizens complain if the city is slow to mow, since the seed heads look untidy.

I passed a lawn full of dandelions, daisies and clover yesterday.

There wasn’t a bee to be seen. The horse chestnut trees are blooming right now, their scent amazing. But there are very few bees to be seen or heard pollenating them.

 

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a large copse of horse chestnuts full of blooms, but I saw more trees than bees in the five minutes I stood watching. Note the absence of any undergrowth.

Coincidentally, upon arriving home, my neighbours warned me of a swarm which had just settled on the Persian blinds of a nearby (empty) flat, and were going to call the city council to come and remove them. It’s all right having some bees up high in a tree, but down here amongst the houses, they induce fear.

I don’t know where bees used to live in cities, but there were more of them, and they must have lived somewhere. Now, though most people appreciate the work of bees, a hive is only acceptable outside our daily surroundings.

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the dark patch on the very top of the blind is a swarm of bees slowly moving into the space for the Persian blinds to roll up into.

The local newspaper has been busy talking about a bear recently released in France which has the temerity to enter Navarra and attack some sheep flocks. The bears have declined in the western part of the Pyrenees to such an extent that only two males, father and son survive. Two females from Slovenia are hoped to start saving the population, but bears are only tolerated if they stay well away from humans and their buildings.

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There might be some basic understanding that bears should not go extinct in the Pyrenees, though they are close to that right now. Bears are still tolerated in the Picos de Europa, further west of Navarra, but here the local farmers’ union is opposed to this attempt and recovering/rewildling/conservation/call-it-what-you-like-putting-bears-ahead-of-sheep.

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The first photo is today’s back page of the local paper. I will translate the last few lines… the farmers union call on the Navarra Government to ….. “demand the French authorities cease their actions of reintroducing a wild species in a humanized terrain. “We are not in Yellowstone,” they conclude.

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What else can one say about that?

Nothing comes to mind that I could print in that paper.

Bears, you might say, are a pretty big nuisance when they want to be.

They kill sheep, which, whatever one’s personal opinions of them, are the basis of a type of farming that some still cling to. And I will grant that, despite my immediate question as to how they’re alive and thriving in Asturias and Slovenia – surely they’re an inconvenience there, but a tolerated one, by farmers who are used to doing a bit more work to look after their stock.

And yet, another iconic species is also slowly disappearing in Navarra, according to the same local paper.

Storks.

Now, doesn’t love storks?

They bring us babies, they don’t attack sheep…

And yet, their population is declining in Navarra, too.

Why?

Because they are annoying, inconvenient.

Or at least, their nests are.

So nests are destroyed in the towns and cities where they’ve traditionally nested. Some have made nests in large trees, where these are still available – it’s common for mature trees to be heavily pruned in cities, and really old ones are felled as soon as they show signs of rot for fear of falling and causing damage or injury.

And a pair that can’t build a nest is a pair that has to go elsewhere, or doesn’t breed.

There are seven fewer pairs than last year, for a total of 939.

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This photo is from the linked article, taken in an abandoned factory. When this is demolished, where will the storks nest?

There are many reasons for our ecosystems collapsing. Wilful destruction, wilful ignorance, and wilful rejection of any inconvenience it might mean to our lives. The last is what most of us will be guilty of.

A Poems about Farms and Wildlife

 

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They don’t have to be mutually exclusive…. an orchard with flowers underfoot.

 

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But sometimes farmers feel that they have to plough every patch their tractors fit into, for fear those flowers take energy away from the apples and nuts.

 

Thoughts on seeing a recently-cleaned water pond on Saint Patrick’s Day

 

On a Sunday, the seventeenth, I went for a walk in the countryside about the village.

I walked along the hedges, trimmed now in March before the birds came come along and put a fly in a farmer’s plans.

I paused over an old walled water pond, for the vegetable plot, to perhaps look upon a frog, or salamander.

It was scrubbed clean. The concrete pale below the clear water reflecting the crystal blue.

Not a boatman stroked across the surface, ne’er a leaf lay upon the bottom to hide a frog or newt.

For what would a farmer do with silt? A streamlined machine these fields, these springs,

And cleanliness is next to godliness, of course. The wild world was sterilised of sprits in favour of clean sheets.

The dragons were already gone before Saint Patrick stepped upon a snake.

A day will come when none of us will see one, no matter where we seek.

 

Of course, the day seems to be coming faster than we feared, with the new  UN report about to come out today, Monday, declaring that a million species are about to go extinct if we don’t turn this shit, sorry ship, around toot sweet, as they say.

Which is terribly hard to tell your kids when they ask at the age of eight.

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I didn’t take a photo of the empty pond, but I did help this lad across the road a few days later after some long-awaited rain.