Category Archives: Ecology
While Spring officially started at the beginning of the month back home in Ireland, in Spain we are still in the middle of winter, with the next season only set to start in another month on the 21st of March.
It is, I admit, the height of skiing season, but even here, the daffodils are shooting up and will soon burst buds, the crocuses in the parks are spotting the grass, and I even saw a few daisy and dandelions the other day. The trees are mostly still bare, but showers of catkins have popped out on a few.
Mostly, though, you can just smell it. The air is different. Despite the snow that we had last week, there’s a feeling of spring that even humans living in a city still experience.
Spring is here, as far as I am concerned.
And summer isn’t far behind. For I saw the bats take their first flight of the year and it reminded me of a poem I wrote last year on the subject of signs of summer, more than spring. It’s perhaps a little premature to be thinking about butterflies and bees, but since I haven’t posted a poem in a while, here it is.
Signs of Summer
There are many signs of summer coming, here,
Starting perhaps with cuckoo calls and swallow sighting
And the return of the swifts, or
The first flight of the bats at twilight,
The scent of honeysuckle through open balconies and
The abundance of butterflies on the garden lavender,
Some are specific to Spain, like closing the blinds
Against sunlight to keep the house cool, and
Sleeping with the windows open all night
Pouring water to fill the swimming pool and others
Seen only in this city: setting up the tombola,
Putting the fences around the flowers in the park
In preparation for the festivals and digging up
The road to get it ready for the running of the bulls,
And lastly, putting up with the stench of piss
Upon opening up the street door every morning.
George Monbiot has an interesting, if depressing, article out this week about the British Govt. doing more or less nothing to solve the environmental crises we are facing.
We all know the shit is approaching the fan, and it will surely hit it at speed and force should we so blithely as we currently are, continue to do our business as usual on the planet.
I have used in Easter Island as an example in my biology classes for more than a decade now. I had my students read use the essay Twilight at Easter by Jared Diamond in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005 before he I read his book Collapse.
It’s an instructive, if depressing, lesson on how people can undermine their own future by going with the business as usual way of doing things, even when that means short-term gains lead to long-term destruction.
People often wonder what the person who cut the last tree on Easter Island thought as he did so.
And the answer of course, is that he didn’t cut down a big tree, he only cut a small tree that he needed to cut to cook his meal, and it looked just like all the other bushes around, so he didn’t think very much of it at all – the big trees had been gone for a while.
We always assumed those poor sods were ignorant, that they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight like we do. If we, with their example, do the same stupid thing, then we would be so many times dumber than they were.
However, perhaps the Eastern Islanders weren’t all that stupid. I mean, perhaps all of them were not that stupid. The ones who weren’t so blind were nearly stymied by the majority of stupid.
I’m sure some saw it coming.
It’s clear that they didn’t do very much to stop it.
More importantly than asking what the guy who cut the last tree, we should ask what went through the mind of the guy on Easter Island who was shouting out to stop the cutting of all the trees. The guy(s and gals) who were predicting the future, pointing out the disappearance of the birds they used to eat, lamenting the old state of the canoes that could not be replaced and meant dolphin and deep-sea fish were off the menu, etc.
You can almost imagine a Monty Python-esque scene where the proto-ecologist says to the crowd that the big statures aren’t going to help get more food or help make canoes to catch tuna, and one of the stone masons shouts back say to him, “Shut up, you, or I’ll bloody throttle you – I’ve a good job here making them statues.”
If it were indeed case that some knew the collapse of their society and lives was imminent, well, it would make Easter Island an even more instructive, and depressing, lesson for us today as we face the guardians of the status quo.
Even more so than the statues of Easter Island, the status quo is a hard stone to roll off us.
“But if we cut down all the trees, Bob, we’ll be fucked!”
“Shut your face, BigNose! I’ll look much more enigmatic surrounded by grass.”
I’m teaching Climate Change in my first-year classes at the moment.
No matter what the topic, I always like to use examples to make things clearer to the kids – references to things in their own lives. I often refer to TV programs, movies, songs.
However, some of my references are dated – movies made before they were born, which, while classics, haven’t always been seen. In my English SL class last week, when describing the meaning of “a the height of one’s career,” I used a TV presenter, who first shot to prominence on the Spanish equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The show was called 50 for 15, referring to 50Million Pesetas – a currency that disappeared when the kids were toddlers.
But teaching Climate Change, I was struck by the fact that I don’t have to reach back very far to come up with an example of what I mean when I talk about the changes that are happening/ could happen in the future.
For example, California – it was burning a few weeks ago; latest news out of there is a terrible mudslide. Opposite types of natural disasters in a short timeframe.
Even here in this very city, though, the oscillations are becoming ever more obvious. And rapid.
I described how Spain was experiencing a drought late last year. Reservoirs were down to 10 or 20%. On the 3rd of January, I was in a jeans and a sweater, enjoying the sunshine. I was sent a video of a snake the same week.
This poor frog was squashed by a car just outside the village that night – what the hell was a frog doing out on Jan 3?
On the 5th, it started raining, then snowing.
I posted this photo on my facebook page, joking how I’d always wanted a garden with a little river flowing through it.
It was gushing out of the gully under the rocks you can see behind the fence in this photo.
And some of it was filling the groundwater so much that I’d springs popping up in the grass.
This looks like a cowpat, but it’s actually mud pushed out of the ground by the water flow.
Pamplona was covered in snow.
The aqueduct of Noain outside Pamplona.
The reservoirs refilled past 50% in a few days.
And now it’s mild again.
So the kids get it. They understand Climate Breakdown. They can hardly not when it is staring us in the face like the barrel of a shotgun.
Question is, what can they do about it?
Because the previous generation who knew about it haven’t been able to do very much, yet.
I just signed this pledge, to reduce the amount of meat I eat.
The organisers seem to be mostly concerned about the slaughter of so many animals to feed us gluttons.
It’s true, that 56 billion animals are treated fairly shittily every year. But that’s not quite my main motivation…
I want to reduce global climate change impacts.
I watched this video from the satirical character, Jonathon Pie, the other day, about how people are upset that the British Govt don’t think animals are sentient, when of course everyone loves their dogs so much they dress them up in shiny winter jackets nowadays. He was taking the piss because most of the same people don’t give a toss about the environment or wildlife.
And he’s right.
But hey, if people stop eating meat because they can’t stomach the idea of a cute little piggy getting stuck with a knife and hearing that death squeal, well, that’s all to the good.
At this stage of the game, motivation does not matter. Only the end result.
Just like making petrol very expensive in Europe makes the emissions here not quite so fucking outlandish as in America.
So in order to save the planet’s bacon, as it were, we need to reduce meat consumption, and we can either make it expensive – like cigarettes- and/or make it unpalatable – also like cigarettes.
So how do we do the latter?
We put labels on meat that explicitly say, “Did you know that this pig (photo of cute pig) went through this (photo of bloody gutted corpse) to make this tasty ham?”
Perhaps followed by the sentence – “If you are okway with this, then go right ahead and enjoy the tasty meat…”
This will put off quite a few people.
Myself excluded, of course. I always have the actual animal in mind when I’m eating them. I’ve seen dead animals, seen animals die, had a hand in that death myself. That doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes me a realist. It’s the folk who haven’t seen, and worse, don’t want to see, or even think about, the death that went before the packaging and purchase, who are the problem here.
It is not often their fault, though – the supermarkets and food companies have purposefully separated the nastiness from the tastiness. Who sees the butcher at work in their supermarket?
In Spain, you can still see dead rabbits, fur on, in the butcher’s counter, along with pig heads, baby pigs, chickens hanging with heads and legs on. That’s the way it should be.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t fed a pile of shite at the same time.
This advert is running on Spanish TV at the moment. Watch it. It’s 20 seconds.
I have eaten this ham. It’s nice enough. But eff me, what the hell is that ad all about?
There’s not even a shot of the farm, never mind the pig.
Associating a cooked ham with strawberries, or mother’s milk is far from fucking natural, folks, let’s just make that clear.
Natural is seeing the animal on the farm. Natural is seeing it being butchered.
If you don’t want to see the latter, then no problem – just stay away from meat.
And we’ll all be happy – except the food companies.
Belated happy new year, everyone.
Another year rolls around, another calendar goes up on the wall. If you don’t have yours up yet, why not get this one?
I got it for my office wall, where I am writing now. And I also got this nice card with a note from Monika Kull, thanking me for renewing my WWF membership.
You should donate whatever you can, too. If you think your pet is important, imagine how much more important it is to save entire species which will otherwise vanish from our lands – from our television screens, even.
And how much less beautiful would our calendars be then, too?
The Rains Return
The sky weeps;
Hills soak to refill rills.
Upon the porch, we sit still.
The rain – snow in the high ground – has finally returned to much of Spain, bringing some relief to the drought we’ve been experiencing this year.
The spring that supplies our village in the Valdorba is still flowing at a trickle, though. It will take much more rain to raise the water table and refill the reservoirs.
the spring last week above, the same spring in September below…
But everyone has been happy to see the rain, despite the need for umbrellas instead of sunglasses.
This is a photo of one of the beaches in San Sebastian, aka Donostia, taken when I was there last week.
I sat on the beach and wrote this poem.
Donostia, December 2017
On the breakwater, as tide rises,
Shielding eyes to see gleaming mountain
Snowmelt trickle by.
We shouldn’t be able to see the mountain from the beach at this time of year, for the blanket of cloud that normally shrouds the city.
But what is normal anymore?
Anyway, I wrote a few poems that afternoon. It reminded me of another poem I wrote a few weeks ago, which describes a little of why I’ve written so little recently, and posted less.
But maybe we’ll get back to normal sometime soon…
Words Come Forth
They say our words won’t be kept down;
They bubble up, under pressure, like lava
Pushing through a fissure,
Bursting forth if they can’t flow.
But instead, they are drawn
Under empty sky,
Sucked out by silence,
Pulled forth by the vacuum
Of open space,
Giving them a place to emerge
Timidly into tranquilly
Like deer from the thicket at twilight.
This is what drought looks like.
Spain is currently going through a water crisis, with reservoirs drying up all over the country. It’s been on the news a lot this autumn.
Sometimes you see stuff on the news and you just go back to your business and you try not to think too much about it. Like you do with wars and the other stuff that our politicians mess up – the Dakota oil spill being a prime example.
But if you look around you can see local examples of things going very wrong.
Last weekend we went to Ezcaray, a small town in La Rioja that lives off tourism – especially skiing in winter. The skiing hasn’t opened yet. It might not open for very much this year, nor for very long in the future.
There is a little snow on the hills, but with the warm weather that we are still having in November, it is probably melting. Not that you can notice it downhill.
This is the river. It’s more like a dry canyon from somewhere down in the south, like Almeria, than a mountain river in the north.
When you search Ezcaray in google maps, this is the photo that pops up.
It’s kind of different to the one up the top of this page. Or the following one.
We were told that this is usually a waterfall. It has a fish ladder, which you can see under the cage on the left, for all the use that can be made of it this year. There are no fish in evidence in that pool, the only drop of water visible in a hundred metres. Directly upstream it’s completely dry. Just a few drops seep through the rocks. A few hundred metres upstream we saw a few small rivulets coming through the stones. But there can be little life there – not even mayfly or caddis fly – to sustain a river ecosystem.
The local council wants to put a dam upstream, we heard. The locals are fighting to save their river. A sign hung in a village said, “Water is life, save the river Oca.” I wonder if keeping the construction at bay will be enough to save it.
The cranes started passing over Pamplona yesterday evening.
They were chased by the rain that came in overnight. The first in weeks.
Autumn has thus officially started.
And hopefully also this means the end of the fire season for this year.
While Ireland braced for an almost unheard of hurricane in the North Atlantic, in northern Spain and Portugal, forest fires were killing even more people than Ophelia killed.
There were dozens burning over the weekend and until Tuesday, when the rains helped to finally extinguish them.
Unlike hurricanes, though, which are terrible, and indirectly related to man’s activities, these forest fires were only wild in the sense of the untamed destruction they could wreak. They were not natural. They were man made, purposefully started, and repeatedly so.
After so many deaths, there are now questions being asked of politicians as to how these arsonists can be stopped. Spanish news has little else, other that the Catalan situation – politics and fraud, even football has been put in the background by the terrible scenes of people trying to escape burning villages only having to turn back as the roads are flanked with flames, and others park inside a motorway tunnel to wait rescue, or let the fires pass overhead.
Because these fires have been a part of summer in places like Galicia for years. As soon as the weather dries, huge tracts of forests go up there. All directly caused by humans and usually set intentionally, with a few the result of stupidity and neglect.
The people of Portugal are naturally outraged, after a summer of huge fires has been followed by an autumn death toll almost as terrible, with dozens of people claimed by the flames.
The perpetrators must be caught and jailed for their murders, but also, the politicians and police, if it is the case, must be held responsible for letting this situation get to this state. Why have these people not been caught for their previous fires? – because there’s no way these conflagrations were started by first-time arsonists.
Why do people go out of their way to set fires, driving along highways in the middle of the night with fireworks tied to helium balloons?
It’s clear they have nothing better to do, and they’re assholes of the highest calibre, but there must be some other, external, motivation for most of the fires. What is it? Why has it not been identified years ago and why has it not been removed?
There are forests that could burn just as badly and even more easily in other parts of Spain, so why are there not so many fires elsewhere? Galicia has 40% of all fires in the country, and half the area burnt every year for the last decade.
Surely the arsonists are spread out in a broader swath across the country. Or is there something about the mind-set of Galicians that makes them excessively prone to arson?
The gorse fires and heather fires we have seen in Ireland in recent years were all set intentionally for financial gain – the current agricultural subsidy system means that farmers make more money if there land is considered in use, even if it’s not.
Ultimately, stopping them will require a change in the EU farming subsidy system to allow land go fallow without farmers losing money.
Is there a financial motivation in Galicia and Portugal for setting huge fires?
According to Ecologists in Action, this is only the cause of a small proportion of the fires set.
What other factors are in play?
The use of fire for farming practices is permitted much more freely than elsewhere.
In most of Spain it is not permitted to light fires in camping and picnic areas and other recreational areas during times of fire risk. Not so in Galicia.
Vehicles are also allowed onto forest paths in Galicia during the summer, which is prohibited elsewhere.
AND they allow fireworks in village festivals during the summer, which is just asking for trouble.
But as I said, the summer is over.
The cranes, luckily, don’t stay long in Spain during their migration.
When they passed before on their way north I wrote this poem. Hopefully it will ease the depression of these fires. Watching the birds certainly lifts the spirit.
The Great Migration
I’ve not yet seen the Serengeti,
Nor the caribou upon the artic plains
But up above my house in the hills,
I’ve been privileged to witness
The cranes migrating, calling
Eyes aloft to observe their long
Strings streaked across the sky
Huge wing beats by the thousands,
And can’t but wonder where
Those numbers bide in other times,
(Amazed such spaces yet exist)
And where they will find abode
In other climes.