Calloused as an Old Oak Burr
Walking in the forests of a wide valley
Rimmed by cliffs above us, rolling mist
Over the slopes out across the blue vastness
The vultures glided across the blue sky from
One side to the other, while kites and kestrels
Worked the fields where the woods were
Cut when first men walked within the walls.
We stood under the canopy of branches
In the shade of old oaks, ages growing
Slowly seeking their sunlight, ever taller,
Thicker boles, holding aloft leaves and,
Even when those died, in winter, green
Epiphytes; a host of other lives, for centuries,
Saying to all in the forest: “Behold, I am here.”
Feeding feast for insects and birds that eat them;
Showering grazed ground with acorns for boar;
Robins following rootings, under those, creating
Holes where night-time animals hide yet.
One had recently fallen, after perhaps half a
Millennium spreading seeds and supporting
Epiphytic ferns: now hanging upside down
From the bough that held them high so easy
Over which we climbed on the clean bark.
And I thought of those who carried an axe
Into these woods to gather firewood,
To create charcoal from the oaks:
Brought perhaps as soon as they could walk
And pick up a twig to help their father,
And kept at it until they could walk no more:
Years of seasons spent sweating and freezing alternatively
Snacking on dark bread and forest berries,
Bring back home a snared rabbit if one was had.
How many injuries did they accumulate,
Inflicted by such occupations? A series of
Splinters, cuts, bruises and bones broken;
But shrugged off and shouldered on
Until calloused, like the knots and burrs
Of the trunks we touch: the pollarded boughs
Wounded, but budding forth once more for fifty years,
Until the axe of those weathered workers eventually fell again.
For even great oaks are eventually tumbled,
Even if only by time. And those ferns and lichens
That thought they clung to a solid structure are thrown
Over, to cling and seek the sun as best they can.
We sat upon the curved bough and ate our own victuals,
Thinking of those workers who listened to the same scene
Of songbirds and wind, and wondered of what life was
Like outside these woods, these walls of valley wide
Yet long and uneasily walked out of, and wished
For more, for escape, easiness, for freedom from their destiny,
But accepted, their lives would be lived, alongside these trees.
Then the telephone took my attention for a time:
A thread landing in my lap with a crack-like impact of
A snapping branch upon me,
And I sat upon a stump and sipped water to keep down the lump
In my throat at this long twitter list of lads and lassies
Of a too young age who’d taken their own lives, the last option:
Locked in the loss that seems so extensive in these times
Of lockdown, long as a valley apparently without exit;
The looking out at a world that looks so perfect, looking back;
The pressure like storm clouds gathered above the cliffs,
Building until smooth wood cracks and saplings snap.
If only they could have come to this forest, felt the breathing branches,
The soft sunspots, the birdsong rest upon them.
If only they could have stuck around long enough, to resist
Instead of rejecting the pain, the splintered spirit, the bruised soul.
If only they’d stayed a little longer, told another their wishes:
Shouted, screamed, even to a pillow, “I am here and I exist!
“I have a life that is well lived, and will be lived if given
The chance; a hand, a hug, a kiss.”
For even those who never had to lift a stick or chop a log, can
Build up burrs, callouses, train themselves to toughness,
Over the course of a century or half, from the finer grain
Of slow winter growth gaining perspective to appreciate this:
‘Tis only at the end we can reminisce.
Looking back, we can count up mistakes, regrets,
See the setbacks we withstood, taking bad with good,
Standing tall till Nature takes us, rather than the blade,
If only because we owe it to the saplings stretching in our shade.
Though only the beasts and bugs it gave life to
Knew of its presence, tall as it was, and only those, who
Were touched by its life will note its fall,
And all the rest of us are ignorant of what it meant to them,
For a tree, that is perhaps enough;
And if we could but be as wise, it would
Too, be sufficient for us.
For those who have fallen too soon….
While I was in my house for the duration, I posted a message every day on my personal facebook page.
Most had no photos, just text.
I am posting them all here for posterity… a little snapshot of two months using humour and faux complaints to entertain those who read my news feed…
I will try to add some of the photos for context. The links I sometimes attached are lost, as are the interactions of others – people’s replies on my news feed, which were fun.
I started at day 3 of our lockdown, which was Monday, after our schools closed on Friday and the kids didn’t go to school but stayed in their cousins’ and I took them home at 12. We were ready for a few weeks at home. It took a lot longer.
Of course, we didn’t get out back to normal after any weeks. But are slowly regaining our former freedoms. But we will be okay as long as we have the countryside.
Hope you have a few smiles.
(Day two – over that weekend…)
hope the hell someone shows this to Leo V. And Boris. we’ve only just shut down in Navarra, days later than we should have – and not even properly. still saying we can take students in school tomorrow… stupid people
from my vantage point of 3 days into lockdown, here’s some info you might find useful…
I have been to the stores twice. they are well stocked.
my family of 4 has gone through 1.5 rolls of toilet paper.
Stay home, but stay calm. Stay away from busy supermarkets.
(This was a post from my author page, with the intro..)
this will give us all a lot of time to think…
It’s day three of me staying at home because of the #coronavirus lockdown.
As I went for an now illegal run around the block this morning, I thought about book recommendations – seen a few requests on facebook.
well, I don’t know who has the copyright on The Diary of Ann Frank, but that book should be required reading for every teenager who’s home from school these coming weeks.
I’ve been to the Ann Frank house in Amsterdam. More than two years in that space gives perspective on our current crises and what we’re asked to do to help our families stay alive.
And for the single folks… About a Boy has some good tips on time management.
Day four of confinement.
When you calculate how much booze you need for your quarantine, don’t forget to include in your calculations the fact that your kids will be at home with you. Adjust accordingly.
Happy St Paddy’s Day to everyone from Locked Down Spain! We hope to use these masks for more than just messing when they let us out of our house at the end of this crisis. Meanwhile, it’s day five of our confinement – and the typical Paddy’s Day rain might seem to make it easier to stay inside, but it really doesn’t. Still, we have a tree to look at outside our window, and the distant hills… And I have a bottle of black barrel Jameson…
We’ll remember this Paddy’s day for a long time… no parades, no pints in the pub, but there is still magic and mystery in Ireland. Here’s a link to something you can read to yourself, or your kids.
You think you’ll be bored…. people will repost a million ideas of virtual museums and educational websites for your kids…
Yuu’ll be too busy to do half what you’d like to do.
Plus, if you have kids they’ll be using your computer for their virtual clases and downloaded lessons and you’d not even have time to attend to your own work from a distance, never mind watch a bit of Netflix.
Day 7. It’s my birthday.
The good thing about this is that I can easily avoid all the fuss about it, when I’m not a big one for being the centre of attention.
The bad thing is that there’s very few people to share the cake with, and what with the new rule saying we can’t even use the building stairwell for exercise, as it’s common space, never mind go outside, well, I’ll be adding extra insulin – and kilos!
Oh, and we’re about 4 toilet rolls into our supply….
if you’ve run out of paper books to ready already, why not buy an ebook or two? the best birthday present from afar is a reader’s review
Day 8 of staying at home…
Get a dog, they say, and you’ll get exercise.
They were right.
Now every time I see someone walk their dog past my window I feel my solidarity slipping away and envy creeping in.
Because walking a dog doesn’t have to have a destination, like going to the shop does, and there are no shops in the park!
Day 9 now. A full week since my kids left the house.
I always said that apartment living was great – for many reasons. But I’d love to have to mow the grass in my garden today! Or not mow, but play with the daisies.
I have a garden, 40 minutes away, which I hope to see after another week. I’m told the daisies are blooming there!
I’ve never tickled my kids so much and so often in their lives as in the last ten days.
It’s great exercise for a four year old and in times of doubt and worry and things on the telly they don’t quite understand, it’s an amazing therapy. So hug your kids – if you’re not isolating from them – but tickle them too.
Day 11. Hoping to see some shift in the curve soon.
Meanwhile, I’ve discovered why our mothers gave us so many chores to do back in the old days – it keeps the little gits busy for a few minutes, or even half an hour, during which you can actually do something useful! I’m even considering pretending there’s a run on dishwasher tablets as well as toilet rolls so they can wash and dry and put away!
They say this is going to go on till the 12th of April now… That’s a long time if you think about it.
So we don’t.
We count toilet rolls – about 7 gone, but I really don’t count toilet rolls. Why would I – there’s plenty in the shops now.
We don’t count beers. But when I went shopping on Saturday afternoon there was a serious dent in the supermarket’s supply – only a few crates of San Miguel and of course lots of the fancy expensive beers we should also be drinking right now because if anything this has taught us is that life’s too short to skimp on good beer.
It’s amazing how fast the days go by, really. But the death count keeps going up, though we’re supposed to see a drop in infections now soon (everything is soon, but not soon enough). The police are having a field day fining and arresting anyone out without what they say is a good reason. One Ould Granda was buying speed for his granddaughter – well, we can’t argue with that. But one lad was arrested for going out to buy beer – apparently not a necessity (well, only if you’ve got wine and spirits left at home) and now they say you’ve to spend at least 30 euro at the shops to justify the trip. So no popping out for eggs unless you add a bottle of vodka or two to the list…
In my humble opinion the cops would be better employed helping out in nursing homes, which are in a terrible state from sick workers and lack of funeral home workers up to the task of dealing with the dead – which the workers aren’t supposed to touch, apparently.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this experience. Our children are teaching us one important one:
Accept the situation and make the best of it.
As long as you have your loved ones, all will be well.
One day at a time, take the time to smile.
The world outside will be waiting for us.
This crisis, like every crisis, reveals to us the Haves and the Have Nots.
in this case, it’s those who have a balcony from which to applaud the health services, versus those who don’t and so don’t appear on the news singing.
Those who have a south-facing window which gets some sun versus those who are giving their kids Vitamin D supplements after two weeks indoors.
Those who have computers and internet so their kids can do all their assigned work versus those who are lucky the government is putting some revision lessons on TV.
Those who have a flat where you can swing a cat versus those who are watching tv because the only place to sit down is the sofa and the only way to avoid arguments from being in each other’s faces all day.
And.. for the first time
I don’t give a fuck about the clocks going forward.
now we know why those movie characters in jail were always doing push-ups.
The smaller the place of confinement the greater the urge to exercise.
Despite the applause etc., some bitterness is showing through. Some finger pointing goes on without trying to consider special circumstances – reporting old couples going for walks together when one has Alzheimers and needs to get out, or complaining that some nuns were playing football on the TV, when they were in their own garden and members of a closed order who haven’t been on the street in decades, never mind ten days…
There’s a message going around that kids with blue armbands are outside because their autistic – just so that the hotheads and finger pointers won’t lash them and their parents out of it for showing their faces on the street like they’re conspiring to kill us all.
Take a breath, and pause to ponder – is there possibly a good reason these people are outside? Yes, there probably is.
Unless they’re teenagers snogging. Then definitely rip them a new one.
Hamelin was a sad place.
Pamplona is almost as sad, but with some common sense, we could make the streets alive again.
Day 19. This shit sure does feel long now. Imagine how it feels to a 4 year old, or a toddler?
its day 21. yesterday I repeated 19.. shows how this thing is going!
anyway, today they brought the army into Pamplona.
Yes. The army.
I watched a patrol walk past my house. 8 men, in formation, looking around and up at the balconies.
I can’t see why they were walking down my street.
Ostensibly they’re here to help.
I don’t know how. I didn’t see them disinfect the bins downstairs. There are no old folks home on my street. Parking their trucks in the square where the children play isn’t going to help the kids get through this confinement any better, unless they’re going to volunteer to take our kids out for supervised walks to some green space.
All that I know is going to the stores now will involve being stopped by soldiers.
The residents of the city centre are not impressed by their arrival. Anyone who understands politics in Northern Spain will know why.
I fail to see how anyone in the government thought this was a good idea.
I’ve great respect for the army. They can help out a lot, when deployed properly. but as a Paddy, I have learnt about bad deployments. and a city (with no greenery to speak of inside the walls) under lockdown where people are already restricted from doing more than letting their dog shit and getting a loaf of bread once a day, is no place for army deployment.
But I’ll get back to Netflix now.
day 22. three weeks and they just announced 3 more – until April 26th.
Tired of watching how badly those supposedly working for us are doing things so shitily. There have to be more tests, yet I near from biologists that local governments won’t shell out a tenner to have people tested accurately, instead going for 17euro fast tests from China that only test for antibodies. They told us masks weren’t necessary, but we all knew that was just to stop us rioting in the streets because there were no fucking masks. We won’t get our kids back out in the sun and grass until things are organised right. And I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
Day 22. Sunday, wrote Mr Kipling…
I wonder how many other parents are thinking about faking symptoms in order to self isolate?
Day 23. Went shopping. Didn’t need bog roll because even with all four of us crapping at home we’re still only about 20 rolls in.
There are some shortages – people are taking my advice and drinking good beer, but there’s still lots of San Miguel despite everyone drinking at home rather than their local…
Cup-cake holders and other baking supplies are scant – but that’s my fault for not realising I could distract my oldest for hours by letting her have at with the kitchen.
only one minor incident with the microwave and a plastic bowl so far…
Day 24. Some unfortunate news from the UK,
and from Ireland…
People are already starting to get angry with others about them sunbathing or going to the beach. I’d advise everyone to be thankful for the permission to get out of their house in the first place and not invite the powers that be to start restricting movement more than necessary – they’ll be happy to oblige if it gets to that.
day 25.. the curve is starting, starting, to turn here. it’s still higher than I thought it would be after this long. No sudden drop after 14 days by any means. We’ll be inside another two weeks. But then, perhaps, we’ll get out. Doesn’t seem so long. Two weeks. no problem. we’ve done more than three.
And I might actually get some time to read since we’ve Easter Holidays!
Newton had a nannie.
This is something any scientist worth the name has figured out in in this quarantine.
As for Shakespeare, well that lad might have written King Lear during lockdown for the plague, but he wrote a whole lot of other shit when he was allowed out and about, so we can conclude that he had a fecking nanny too. Or he had no kids.
This is going to be a lot longer than most Good Fridays.
Traditionally, I would scoff at Ireland having their pubs closed while here in Spain we can go for a beer.
Ireland started opening their pubs last Good Friday, so I stopped…
It was nice while it lasted, lads!
We don’t even have that crazy procession tonight – seems the pillowcases on their heads don’t let them avoid the physical distancing rules.
day 28. 4 weeks in. well, I don’t feel like I got a lot done in that month… read Gulliver’s Travels. Only travelling I did.
Reading The Shock Doctrine. Not happy reading, but important for the times we’re living and going to live.
Nearly edited a dystopian novella – adding some sentences relevant to our pandemic (it’s set in the future, of course) and… well, I suppose keeping the kids fed and watered more-or-less entertained while my wife tries to concentrate and also fulfilling my teaching workload counts too, right?
Oh, and we watched Tiger King and lots of news. too much news… not new news… stupid people telling us bullshit news.
what’d ya do in the pandemic Granda?
watched a lot of news, kid!
As if any of us needs more chocolate.
But it could be worse…
Could be vodka.
It’s vodka as well.
(there is no day 30, it seems…. Unless FB deleted it, like they deleted other content, conts.)
Day 31. A month.
I just want to point out that these old memes, from the old days (last month) said living ALONE… and in the friggin’ WOODS.
They never asked who could do it in their FLAT with stressed out spouse and bored/frustrated/worried kids who have to be homeschooled while you yourself will be working from home at the same time.
So, after my month, I think I deserve the Million Bucks!
that is all.
This is the part of the movie where they skip forward weeks or months, and come back when my quarantine beard is an inch longer (or I’m mad fit from all the zumba) without all the boring shite in the middle.
we could have a fluttering of the calendar, days falling away until mid May…
Or a montage.
Even Rocky had a montage…
This is not The Martian.
There is no fast forward.
We have to suck up every boring day of same old shite for however many years this lasts…
I used to hate running.
Now I’d be happy to go for a run.
All my hate has been transferred to Zumba.
So a couple of days ago Mariano Rajoy, the former president of the country, was filmed breaking the quarantine laws – out walking in his neighbourhood every morning as blatant as you please. This is the person who would have been in charge of this state of emergency if it had happened two years ago.
He sets an example, though, of how politicians, especially the right wing, could not give a fuck about us, or the rules they make us abide by. They really believe they are above us and the law.
We are the ones fixing this problem, by our sacrifices and they merely make life harder than it needs to be by their incompetence.
In the before time, I used to watch the part of the news where they talk about the stock market, and ask…
Who needs to know this?
The trends in the IBEX, FTSE, Ibex 100… that’s all just meaningless information to most of us.
It’s only relevant to a few lucky rich people.
Now, I ask myself the same question when they show the weather forecast…
You’ve probably noticed this by now everywhere, but it’s funny how when we were kids we had various chores….
One was to help put away the shopping after the weekly supermarket trip.
Another was we’d to wash, dry, and put away the dishes after dinner.
Now these two have multiplied by one another, and we’re washing, drying, and putting away the fecking shopping.
And we can’t even make the kids do it, much, either…
we have positive news here in Spain… the govt. has decided to let us take kids outside for walks from next week. Kids who’ve not left the house (flats) for a month and a half.
They’ve yet to say exactly what time table and how far we can go, but they reckon between 10am and 12pm, less than 1km from home.
And yet, it was on the news that 60% of citizens reckon we should keep the kids inside…
Who are these people?
A sad day in Pamplona. The festivals this year have been officially cancelled. We knew it was coming, but it’s a hard blow. It’s a lesson for us all that whatever we used to take for granted, and assumed would happen every year was really a luxury we should be grateful for the little things we still have.
ps, the clock counts down to 12pm on July 6th…
Well, fifty years on we can see a clear progress
in the wrong direction.
But this time now, is hopefully a wake up that all we have, and all we need, is the earth.
I see a lot of people who are not used to thinking outside the concrete box realise that going for a walk is the best thing they could ask for.
And today, despite the problems they and other migrants are facing, I saw the first swift of the season. Something that made my quarantine lighter.
The Little Alleviations
There are things that make this almost okay:
A kite fly past; the sight of storks soaring over
Distant river plain; bats, breaking out at twilight
Across the buildings; blackbirds warbling from
Rooftops, bursting forth louder than before due to
Absence of traffic drowning out twittering; blue tits
Appearing on balcony railings while waiting claiming
Arrival of swallows and swifts gliding above turtledoves.
Day 40. a “full” quarantine, as the bible says.
went to the doctors today (eye check up) and got to actually walk through town. So I took the route through the park and it was a beautiful sight!
The lawns haven’t been mowed in weeks!
The only things missing were kids, running and jumping and falling and hiding in the long grass, plucking and blocking dandelions.
I hope to hell they leave it like that for next week when the kids can get out.
Day 41 (delayed)
sometimes the internet just doesn’t work.
And I wonder how people would deal with this if it happened back in the 80s.
Probably fine. We were used to being bored back then.
Day 42 (late, also)
It’s amazing how many stupid questions students still send after six weeks of this.
Sunday morning answering emails from Saturday midnight
And my doctor said, “on holidays,” when I told her I was a teacher the other day.
Finally got time to write this idea about lessons to be learned these days.
(a link to Lessons Learnt)
The birds are singing more and louder in the cities now that the traffic has died down.
But by Jaysus, it’s still not the same as the chorus in the countryside.
A feast for the ears.
Day 45 (late again! I am as bad as my students!)
Since Sunday we’re allowed out for exercise. A freedom we truly appreciate.
Yesterday we went for a walk outside the village, through the country.
But to our surprise and disappointment, we found that in our absence, while we locked inside hoping spring was flourishing in blessed isolation, the local council had decided that the brambles and bushes along the field access paths should be cut back. In April.
Clearly in Spain there are no rules about not cutting hedges during nesting season.
The really stupid thing is that this area has a lot of erosion. Those walls of soil under the fields are only held up by the roots of the bushes and will crumble during the spring and summer storms if we get a good downpour.
We’re getting lots of storms this week, and I can only hope that new growth can cover the bare earth before it’s washed into the river.
Missed yesterday, but hey, you didn’t notice. and when you look back on this, it’ll all blur into one long weekend in your memory.
Anyway, I’m reading this book. It’s taking a long time because I’m so super busy (as I’ve already complained about.) I’m on the bit where both American and British Governments had inquiries to find out what the hell went wrong, who was responsible and how to make sure it didn’t happen again (which it didn’t until roll on roll off put profit over safety again)…
It’s an appropriate comparison to our current situation – dipshit businessmen in charge, (on both sides of The Atlantic) no thought for safety over profit, wilfully ignoring warnings, and even going gung ho, full speed ahead into the danger zone like they were fucking indestructible.
Except there’s a titanic – or two – going down every day now.
And at least in the Titanic, old folks were taken care of.
It’s May Day, international worker’s day.
Many of us are at home, not working anyway. Some without pay.
But lots are out there, working away the same as every day these last two months.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could swap jobs for today.
If the delivery workers and amazon warehouse staff and nursing home care givers could stay home and the oil company executives and airline CEOs and cruise ship owners could take their place – not that they need anyone in charge right now.
It’d give the former group some time to practice lobbying the government for bailouts and subsidies and grants and interest free loans; which seems to be all the latter group are good for.
And then, perhaps, the front line workers, with the ear of the politicians, might get the decent wages, the worker’s rights, the PPEs that are actually needed to keep our society stitched together.
Spain has allowed adults to go out for exercise for the first time in two months.
If you live in a town with more than 5k people, your windows are 6-10am and 8-11pm.
Smaller than that, you can go when you want.
In the before time, we had been hearing of the problem of depopulation.
However, that might slow down now.
Telecommuting is now much more viable, houses with gardens rather than poky flats without a balcony are a godsend to mental health in lockdown, open spaces mean you can avoid your neighbours – which is why we have an open timetable (and few visits by police to make sure you’re not walking in the field behind your house a few days earlier than the restrictions were lifted).
I think this pandemic will make many reconsider rural living.
these are what I woke up to today…. first from my window, second the wall of our garden, when I went for my jog. viva the countryside!
I have still not had to buy more toilet paper.
I have had no problem buying more beer and wine.
Whiskey levels are still looking good.
But I was running low on one vital item… TEA Bags.
Irish tea bags.
In the before time, my parents would have been visiting me here this weekend and resupply me, but of course, that trip didn’t happen.
However, fear not!
My brother and sister-in-law have sent me a care package!
I got tea bags and Tayto crisps (yeah, I was hoping for King, but don’t tell them that) soda bread mix, Keanes crisps, AAAAND a packet of Cadbury TWIRLS!!!
Hurray for them, and for the post office.
It really feels like being in prison now!
After having classes with all my school groups, and chatting, I have discovered something I kinda guessed at, but was hoping would not be true…..
Nobody took the opportunity of the last 7 weeks to read a book they might not have read otherwise.
Those who read, read some more.
Those who don’t read played a shit load more video games.
They say we will have school opening in September with half the kids in class. That means kids have to rotate, one day on one day off, or something like that.
However it turns out, teachers are going to have to reinvent their classes again.
And the government better shell out for free internet access and laptops for all students,
Because if I am spending my life correcting work from off days, like I am spending it now, as kids send in work days and weeks late.and I have to keep sending messages and mails to ask them where their work is, and report to tutors for kids MIA, I will come down hard on the kids who’re not keeping up their end of the bargain.
There will be no excuses of “I had to share my computer with my little sister.”
If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.
Today I have nothing to say.
(Here I posted photos I’d taken in the village.)
I have nothing to say today, either.
Some more photos…
How often to we look down and notice the struggles that go on below us?
How often do we consider just how small are our troubles in the context of the world?
Day 55 (late again, but god I’m busy!)
Interesting article about the impact of having a garden or not in the Financial Times.
We need to get ourselves, and especially our kids, out into the greenery, however we can.
Here are a few photos of some poppies popping up in some barley, a paddock so full of orchids I had to pick my steps to avoid stepping on them, and the victims of the drying ponds (it rained last night, but too late for many) some of which I rescued and put into a little pond I made out of a plastic tray.
This is the last day of our confinement.
Tomorrow we can go to small shops, bars and visit friends and family – all within our province of Navarra.
I’m going nowhere… it’s Monday, so I’ll be chained to the computer as usual.
But things will be different… A birthday party in the village can be celebrated by all the kids, since there are fewer than ten of them here!
Parents will watch from a safe distance, and wash everyone before and after!
It’s a new kind of life, but it’s life.
(The final post, more or less….)
A study of the Spanish population shows that only around 5% have gained immunity from Covid 19.
It’s going to be a loooong road, folks.
We continue on still, with restrictions being lifted slowly, but we won’t be going back to normal. Ever.
But we will go onwards to something new.
Immersed in Silence
It’s the silence that impresses
More than the open sky above
This corner of Spain, the
Distant mountains rising over
The Meseta, through the haze.
The windmills sometimes drone
In the Botxorno, from above, but
Unheard in Cierzo the
Traffic hidden behind hills,
Drowned by deep rocks,
Birds seem to keep their distance:
Hardly heard as flocks flutter
Through the hedges. No snores
From boars in hollows or barks
From roe in thickets. Alone the
Breeze in ears, and stopping
Let ears rest almost to knowing
Shoots growing, sensing,
I was in the Basque speaking area of Navarra last weekend, up in the hills.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now, doesn’t love storks?
They bring us babies, they don’t attack sheep…
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.
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.
Turning on a mountain track
We stumble upon a lepidopterist’s dream:
Butterflies abounding, bouncing from
Bramble to buttercup, clover to cornflower;
A dancing profusion of colour in heat
Haze of August morning amplified
By the addition of dragonflies, damsel
Flies, hoverflies and bumblebees, with
A host of other insects humming and
It occurred to me, that there were once
Such sights in my own suburbs, along
The hedgerows down below and beyond.
That once everywhere outside the city
Centre was an entomologist’s dream, and
The countryside the same for ornithologists
Now they lament the stark scenes
Silent callows empty of corncrakes, and
The bees barely seen in park trees,
Moths no longer litter windscreens
Of a night drive, and these hills, though
Still roamed by pigs and roe, seems so
Similar to those of South Africa, they should
Also hold antelope, lions and leopards
And once they did, until all were lost,
Along with the bison, auroch, and rhinos.
As for the sea, it also should be teeming
They say in the seventeenth century,
Thrashing tails were seen from shore.
Now trawlers roam for days, and only
Coral reefs this century remain, as
The bramble banks of the sea. Yet
How long can its rainbow dance continue?
We watch their wonderful choreography
Holding on to those tiny joys to keep going
But the world is crumbling, we are bumbling
While the coral is bleached clean. Unless we care
More than before, these brambles will be as bare.
if you zoom in, you should be able to see some of the hundreds of butterflies up along this track. I took a video, but it wasn’t very steady…
It’s been a while. It’s been busy.
But I’ve been doing a bit of writing.
I have a few poems to share, over the next few weeks, as the summer proper hits us.
Meanwhile, if you want me, I’ll be on the porch….
The House Stands Built, the Garden Lies Laid
If we needed lumber, I’d gladly go into the wood,
Cut logs and split them all afternoon.
Were there a shelf to put up, a cupboard fixed,
A picture to hang, I’ve no problem lending a hand.
Should the lawn need mowing, or the hedge trimming,
The garden path cemented, a fence erected,
Bicycle mended, stone wall constructed, a pond dug
Or a border weeded, you can count on me;
I’m always happy to go to work.
But the house is built, the garden laid,
There’s left little to do but watch the grass growing
So if you want me, I’ll be on the porch.
(This is a short video of what’s in front of said porch….)
So I have this garden in the country. It’s not quite mine, in that I don’t own the house, but it has befallen to me, more and more, to look after it.
It’s big. There are a dozen young trees, a long hedge, grape vines, shrubs, and there’s a lot of grassy area to mow.
I say grassy area because it’s far from being able to be called a lawn. More like a playground for moles.
But I don’t mind the moles. I prefer daisies and other wild flowers to grass in any case. It’s great to have moles, and it would be even better to see them once in a while.
Even better than moles, are rabbits. And we have them, too.
Unfortunately, in the case of the rabbits, I do have a problem at the moment.
I’ve planted a new hedge. It’s to hopefully block the wind that sweeps down from the pyrennes – the call it the Cierzo. When a wind has it’s own name, you know you’re up against it. Anyway, the new hedge, once established, will help, I hope. And it will cover the chain link fence that goes along the low back wall (put up to stop the cows coming in to graze the garden – picturesque till one of them breaks your windscreen while trying to swipe a horn at the herding dogs, and the farmer never owns up.)
But to get established, the hedge has to not get eaten by rabbits.
And for some reason, the rabbits have decided it’s tastier than all the grass and dandelions and everything else growing right beside it.
the bottom half of the plant is nibbled to nothing…
So I had to take action.
Now, I didn’t stand watch with a shotgun at twilight. Even if I had time for that lark, I’d rather a rabbit in the garden than ten up the hill where I can’t see them from my bedroom window.
I haven’t seen the rabbit yet, but given the circumstances (plants nibbled at the bottom, a stone wall with a hole under one of the stones where a rabbit could get through the fence, and grass grazed on the other side) there’s no other culprit.
This photo is sideways, but you can see the easily accessed holes and the nibbled tuft of grass.
So I covered the damaged plants to let them recuperate, blocked the hole and hoped the little gits can’t get in any other way.
Eat your way through that, rabbit!
I feel bad, in a way, but there’s lots of other stuff to eat, and once the hedge is big enough, after this first summer, I’ll unblock the hole and let them nibble to their hearts content. After all, rewilding should always apply to our own gardens, and a few rabbits will mean I don’t get asked to strim the bank so often, making it win-win for everyone.
There are sheep in them there hills. But finding them isn’t easy.
Last weekend I went for a walk from our village in Navarra to try to see the mouflon which had been illegally introduced to the area last year. The numbers had increased to the point where the local police were brought in to try to remove them by baiting them with salt licks to a field where they could shoot them. I’d heard that several of them had been shot already, and I went to see if I could spot some of them. I’d never seen this species outside of a zoo enclosure and I was lucky to catch a quick glimpse of two.
Yesterday in the local newspaper an article said that the local hunters have been authorised to shoot as many mouflon as they can while they are engaged in their normal boar hunting activities. I had seen this coming. This was probably what the local hunters were waiting for, and whoever released the animals had had just this idea in mind. Whether all of the animals in the area will be shot is up for a debate, and in my opinion it is hard to see how all of them will be killed, given the manpower needed to eliminate them. Yesterday three groups of boar hunters came, and shots were fired, but we’ve heard nothing about any mouflon having been hunted. More likely they dispersed the animals more. There are many who think that only males will be shot, anyway, because what hunter wants to shoot a pregnant female of a novel species right at the end of the season when you could shoot two next autumn?
The field where I saw the mouflon – beside the bank of pale grass at the end.
My question is, however, whether shooting them out is, or is not, a good idea. I’m not sure where I should come down on either side of the argument. As an ecologist, I am aware that introduced species can wreak havoc upon ecosystem, and she sheep can be particularly destructive. On the other hand, there is the fact that rewilding landscapes doesn’t necessarily mean that only animals which were there before in historical times have to be reintroduced and no other species can be.
If these were muntjack, then I’d say get in and get them out. ASAP, using all the manpower you can muster. Muntjack can wreak havoc on the plants. Introducing them to Ireland, which some it seems have tried and been somewhat successful at in recent years, is a stupid idea.
But these aren’t muntjack.
The article does not mention that of these animals might be detrimental to the local flora of the region. Instead, it says they might compete with native animals, such as the wild boar and the roe deer.
The article says that these sheep are very adaptable to various ecosystems in Spain where they have been released. I haven’t heard any horror stories from these other places yet.
Though officially from the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus, Corsica and Sardinia it seems that the mouflon, or a very similar species, must have been native to the mainland of Europe at some stage. They didn’t just pop up and three islands from nowhere. Given their adaptability it seems like to me that they were probably fairly widespread until humans decided they were competition for their own descendants the sheep, in the same way the aurochs were competition for their descendants, cattle.
If wild sheep were here before and they are returned in a small population I’m not sure what difficulties if any, ecologically speaking, may arise. After all, these mountains I’m looking on right now used to be grazed by thousands of sheep and goats., and the landscape suffered much from it from what I’m told by the old timers, with the understory of the forests bare from intense grazing of the sheep and goats of the local farmers.
Shepherding is not so widespread here anymore, but still hundreds are brought around some of the area. The forests have thickened up, though, and I have heard that the local government want to pay shepherds to bring their goats into their forests to help “clean them up” and tidy them because there forests are quite dense with shrubs and thorn bushes. Seems to me that these mouflon might do such a job for free.
On the other hand, I’m not sure if the population of roe deer and boar will be badly affected by these other ruminants sharing the mountains. After all, the population of both the roe deer and wild boar have been increasing in recent years to the extent that they are causing problems with road traffic accidents and farmers are complaining of destruction of their crops. I see tracks and animals all the time. In fact, blind eye is being turned to the poaching of these animals so their numbers can be reduced. Therefore, if the plan were to compete against the roe and boar, it would be a plus in that respect. I can’t see what objection the farmers could have, unless the mouflon are doing more damage to their crops than the roe deer, and boar. That I don’t know, and from my point of view as an ecologist, I don’t have very strong opinion either way.
I heard that the local government is mostly worried that they’ll have to foot the bill for any diseases the farmed sheep might contract from their wild cousins.
However, in terms of the wildlife, the flora and the other large animals, even the rabbits, I don’t see how a small population would have so great an effect.
It’s not as if mouflon don’t coexist with other ungulates in their “natural” environment. There are wild boar and red deer on both Corsica, and Sardinia, and Fallow deer and wild horses on Sardinia too. Cyrpus is a bit smaller, but wild goats share the island with the mouflon. How can the mouflon be so detrimental if they’d not ousted these other from their islands? Roe are slightly different, but both roe and red deer share the Scottish Highlands with plenty of sheep.
From my walk in the area, there are boar and mouflon sharing the same field.
Boar tracks, on the left, with some soil pushed about with the nose, and mouflon tracks on the right, in the same field of young wheat.
Perhaps they can even help diversify the fauna of Navarra and other parts of mainland Spain, the way the bovines and equines do (a big part of the rewildling movement) Here in Navarra, and in this valley, cattle are led into the woods daily and some are left there for months on end, as are horses, without any concern for the other fauna. That’s because they’d not detrimental; quite the opposite. There are even moves to reintroduce bison into Navarra to help improve ecosystems.
I know the animals were not introduced with the intention of making the land better, but if they can be kept at small numbers, in low population densities it might be for the better.
But I’m open to a more knowledgeable opinion.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
I’d like to say mismanagement right off, but we’ll get to that.
The place I’m talking about is Pamplona’s city park, called the Taconera, made out of the old city walls/moats.
Now that the festival is over, the city has gone back to being famous for it’s fortifications, and it’s small herd of red deer that live in one section of these.
There have been deer there for decades. There were other mammals, like goats, and wild boar for a long time, but they were removed over the years. The deer are accompanied by a lot of fowl and a few wild species, like pigeons, magpies and pestering Jackdaws.
The deer did go at one point (for unknown reasons, though the public was told it was due to inbreeding; a patent lie) but a new herd of two stags and eight hinds were purchased four years ago, not long after I moved here.
At first, there were no problems. The calves all settled down in their fairly open enclosure, and learned that the people looking down on them were no threat, and in fact dropped bread for them to eat (there is a lot of left-over bread in Spain; too much for mere ducks to consume).
Those in charge, I assumed, had been in charge of the previous herd, and had years of experience of deer.
I was wrong.
Through a friend, I found out that the vets who are responsible for the deer are better at their other job of health inspection than large mammal husbandry. Those who feed the animals are merely gardeners, and are ill-equipped to deal with anything out of the ordinary, or indeed aware that their activities and actions can actually create future problems for their wards.
The first problem happened when the hinds became pregnant as yearlings and gave birth as two-year-olds. This was a big surprise to the vets. I’ve no idea why, other than extreme ignorance of deer biology.
They assumed the small calves “hiding” in the short-cropped grass (no areas had been left grow into a meadow for such, or has been since) had been abandoned by the dam, and my explanation to the contrary came too late for the first calf out of the six born that year not to have been given bottles – of what kind of milk, I don’t know.
Next year, more calves were born. The herd rose to around twenty, but some were removed – why, or which ones, was never explained. One of the features of this park is that there is no scrutiny, no explanations, no public information. I’ve tried to get answers from the local council, writing emails, but gotten no reply. I’ve written letters to the same newspaper that published my video, pointing out problems in management and husbandry, but received no acknowledgement, much less had them published.
The real problems came when the two stags grew each year and fought during the rut. Conflicts were minimised when two-year-olds, because one stag broke an antler, though he was dominant. His antler was not great the following year, but during their fourth year, they were both spectacular.
The staff’s lack of experience from bad husbandry bore ill fruit.
They had treated the deer as domestic pets.
Worse, they still do.
However, during the rut, these are dangerous animals.
The solution for the park was to put the deer up on a revelin, a triangular mound surrounded by lower ground, and close the gate at the bottom of the ramp they use to access this high ground (their favourite place and the only continuous shade under some big cedars to shade them).
Unfortunately, one of the stags was kicked off the ten-foot wall. No biggie for a deer, but he could not get back up. And down below he was left alone without even a shrub to thrash his antlers against.
And then a gardener came in.
I wasn’t there, and there was only a witness after the gardener had been fending off the testosterone-crazed animal for a few minutes, raising the alarm.
But it’s not hard to figure out what happened.
The deer had no fear. He’d been raised to consider humans harmless. Suddenly one was approaching – it had to be a rival, another deer which he could spar with, could expend his energy on. So it attacked.
People don’t get attacked in the wild because even the testosterone-fuelled anger can’t over-ride fear of humans, them being hunters and all.
On deer farms, most stags get their antlers removed, just like bulls are dehorned.
In this case, going in alone was a mistake.
The man survived, but he won’t go back to work there.
The deer did not survive. It was removed next day. I asked if it might be donated to a soup kitchen, but got no reply.
That’s all fine and dandy. Mistakes happen. We learn from them.
Or we don’t.
There was still a pricket (a one-year-old stag with simple straight points) up with the other mature stag. It was kicked out a few days later, down on the lower level. Of course, the lessons had been learned. The gardeners would not expose themselves to danger again.
No. I witnessed several scenes of stupidity.
While the guys entered in pairs, they didn’t stick together the whole time. One guy stood five yards from the young stag and fed it corn, then took photos of it with his phone, while his superior walked away – a good fifty yards away.
I saw them stand in front of the big stag behind the fence while the stag made the gestures I’d observed while I’d studied the choreography of fighting in deer as an undergrad. The stag won each stand-off. They did not open the gate to feed the hungry deer, now running out of fresh grass up on their small enclosure.
A few days after that, the young stag was gone.
I asked where it was, and was curtly told it was gone and further enquiries could be made to the city council. These enquiries, as I said, went unanswered.
Doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they’d had another scare with it. It seemed so peaceful, but I’m sure the first big stag also looked peaceful till it attacked.
What followed was a debacle of the highest order.
The deer remained in their enclosure of less than half a hectare for the rest of the winter. All eleven of them.
Every attempt to enter the enclosure simply further enforced the idea in the stag’s mind that this was a battle against rivals, and he was keeping his harem safe from them with his threats. The men backed down every time. They were afraid, and treated the deer as a danger rather than showing it who was boss – who was the fucking human, for god’s sake.
The grass was grazed away. Animal welfare groups threatened the council with court cases unless the situation was improved. Eventually the gardeners resorted to throwing up hay onto the wall.
The stag remained in rut in part because the hinds were not all pregnant – because they didn’t have enough forage to achieve sufficient body condition.
Then the newspaper reported that the stag would be sold to a farm, and no stag would be present for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they’d artificially inseminate the hinds after a number of years.
That was when I wrote a letter to the paper pointing out that if just one of the hinds were pregnant with a male calf, their plans would not work out quite like that.
I saw a group being led through the park one morning, marking places on the walls, and on their exit, the stag was taunted – to demonstrate its antagonism, I suppose. A few days later, the stag was still there, but had lost its antlers.
The farm did not want the stag with its weapons intact. Of course – it’s a deer in need of re-education.
Why antler removal had not been used right after the attacks was another mystery, for a while. I found out, from that friend, that someone in the office considered it unsightly for a stag to be in the park with no antlers. But starving the hinds was ok…
That raised its own set of questions. Who are these deer for? For us, the public? Then why not let us know what is going on? Why not just get rid of the deer otherwise? If the public will disprove of a de-antlered stag, surely we object to the stags (and hinds and calves) being removed without explanation.
A week or two after that, some safety barriers were installed. These are like the fences you see in a bullring, if you’ve ever seen them, where the humans can hind behind a narrow gap between the wall behind them and the barrier in front.
Useful. Especially five months beforehand.
Not such a great necessity if you’re planning to have only hinds in the herd for the next five to eight years…
Perhaps they’d read my letter.
So the stag was shipped off, and the hinds were allowed down to graze on new grass and put on some weight before birthing. Five of them had given birth over the course of a week or more. Another was born a few weeks later.
I assume at least one more will give birth this year. I haven’t been by since before the festivals started, in early July. The deer were enclosed up on the revelin despite the heat wave and the only water available down low. I hoped the plan was not to leave them there for the festival, but next day the gate was open.
Hinds and young calves in late July.
What concerned me most was seeing, a few weeks before that, the gardeners feeding the deer the leaves and twigs of the trees they’d pruned in preparation for the festivals. I don’t object to the deer getting some variation in their diet, some roughage, some browse, of course. The problem was that as the gardeners went by with more branches, they held them out to the hinds, encouraging them to approach, and in one case, eat out of his hand.
A calf born to that hind will grow up believing humans are nothing to be feared. When he grows a nice rack at maturity, and testosterone tells him these beings, who are no threat, are rivals for his hinds, he’ll do what nature tells him, and through human stupidity yet again, he’ll be shipped out to a farm. If he’s lucky.
A gleam of hope has appeared recently in the change of city mayor, and the council. The head of the department responsible for the deer has been changed. The new leader is a biologist, who studied with some folk I know, and hopefully will be a bit more enlightened about the management of this tiny herd. That way, I, and the few citizens like me who are aware of and interested in the minutia of the herd, can enjoy them without the frustration as we’ve felt watching such a mess being made, and, more importantly, the deer are allowed to be as wild as possible, as free as possible, and not suffer as they have, simply because of their keepers’ ignorance.
I must add an addendum here, even as I post this.
I had a stroll past the park yesterday after being away on holidays, and saw that the herd now consisted of 8 adult females. All of this year’s offspring have been removed. Since it’s only the middle of August, all of these were of course still suckling from their dams. I’m not sure, however, of the animal welfare issues in separating them if the young are sold to a farm – whether they will be given supplemental milk – but given that the hunting season for female deer is always delayed until at least October in consideration that dams will be yet lactating (and I found during my studies that a third of hinds were lactating still in January and February), I find it a bit callous to say the least.
With just hinds in the herd, it seems that we may as well empty the park completely of deer. There will be no rut to watch, no births to witness, no calves to observe take their first steps or suckle; just frisky hinds mounting one another and going through oestrus every month all winter.
Who wouldn’t rather see some sheep or goats down there instead?