Drought Triggers Fall like Frost
The forest climbs either side of the valley
Up from the river gulley, glinting pools and
Protruding rocks, grey against green,
Except where steeply narrows, now
Auburn, gold and orange like autumn
Came in August as trees let their leaves
Fall on the shallow soil rather than farther
Toil for little gain under the strain
Of such a fiery glare all summer long.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter, will have seen the photos I posted of the forest fire that burnt through the hills near the village n the Valdorba/San Martin de Unx area of Navarra where I stay on weekends outside Pamplona.
The fire came close, about a km away, but the wind thankfully shifted and it did not come up the other side of the valley towards us in the end, though we did have to evacuate officially after emptying the house of anything we wished to save – which for me only amounted to the spare medicines I keep here, one book from my large collection and a couple of jumpers with sentimental value. I did think it prudent to take 800 year old statue of the Virgin Mary out of the little church, just in case.
The fires here are not generally set by farmers looking to clear land, though they are sometimes caused by accidental sparks from machinery during harvesting. The extreme heat and extended drought made any spark potentially disastrous, and the high winds made fires spread almost unstoppably – there were several over that same weekend in the province.
The cause of this fire hasn’t been clarified, but the local farmers union are adamant that the underlying problem is the reduction in sheep grazing on the hillsides and the environmentalists push to leave the mountains to themselves rather than intensively manage them…
Well, I hadn’t been able to go up to see the aftereffects of the disaster until a few days ago – now a month after the event.
I cycled down to the valley to the village of Maquiriain which was close to being burnt, but was eventually also saved, up along the main road that was the final fire break, to a village at the head of the valley called, Olleta, and from there turned up to the top of the hill and then back along the tracks joining the windmills.
It was a long cycle, and hot – the tail end of another heat wave that passed over us the week before. In the interim there had been a storm or two, but mostly dry sunny days with the chilly north wind blowing as usual.
The most obvious thing is that the experiment of planting pine trees was a huge error, just like it is in many other areas of the world. The living trees left should be felled for timber or paper and native trees let grow – or be planted or seeded from local trees if necessary – instead.
The trees that burnt most were pines and those nearby suffered from the heat.
The densest stands of oak did not suffer so much and seemed to have protected one another (probably because of increased humidity within copses) and even some fields.
The huge snowfall we had in October didn’t seem to have dropped so many boughs in the area I saw as in trees around our village, so probably didn’t have a huge effect, but I did see that under the trees with fallen limbs there was more ash when the wood burnt, and the trees probably also suffered from more open canopy effects.
The juniper bushes burnt to crisps, as did a lot of box, and some other small shrubs I’d know the name of, though that has to include roses and brambles. These will regenerate, I suppose from seed, and some brambles are already coming up. The evergreen oaks are sprouting – from trunks that lost all their leaves and are only sticks, as well as those with shrivelled brown foliage.
Those with trunks too badly burnt have some sprouts from roots, and I suspect more will come with rains and patience for them to get to the surface.
The sheep or other grazers would have probably not had changed much at all. The grass would have been eaten before it burned, yes, but not the juniper and box, as even the horses don’t od much to stop it, so fire is actually the best way to reduce it, and the forest will benefit long term – if the climate change can be reduced in time to have any forest.
The farmers union and other lobby groups are sponsoring a story-telling event for the local kids: how to avoid causing fires in the future. One hopes it does not slant towards recounting legends and myths of the old days… when the mountain was not wild, but was more like a commons-like park or ranch.
Just to be clear, I am in favour of cattle on the hill, as I am the horses, but I wonder if the farmers union would agree that an underlying condition we need to deal with is reducing the CH4 levels from intensive cow production so as to reduce climate change leading to heat waves and forest fires of the future…
I wrote this poem after a recent weekend away – just a 30 min drive to a little village. It made me think of why sometimes we’re not aware of what we’re missing with our bare, biodiversity impoverished agricultural landscape, especially in Ireland.
The Pull of Pastures
This scenery spread out from the village, splashed
With sun, fills one with joy of a morning:
An unfiltered boon as we run to the pool
Through fields of wheat under the evergreen
Oak-clad steeper slopes and hearing the hidden
Mistle thrush and goldfinch from the thistles,
Tangled juniper thorns and brambles
Enticing animals excitingly close
To our gardens along such scrubbed inclines
That goats would grub but tractors cannot grade.
The grazing sheep and cattle have gone,
Without battle, deer and boar and other
Beasts browse, but when by driving north
An hour I arrive in another world, where
Fields unfold before one: green grass rolling
Up slopes to autumnal oaks or out flat past
Hedgerows – or even if there’s nothing else
To be seen but green dotted with cowpats
And sheep shit – that simple fact gives gravity,
Pulls me towards such pastures, like a string
Tied within, knotted well when life was spring.
It’s this kind of feeling that gives Ireland its “green” image… it sometimes may as well be painted green for all the life it has other than cattle and sheep. But we love what we know, and unfortunately we’ve been educated to love a barren ecosystem, and younger people are growing up even worse than us older folk.
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….
So August wasn’t so treacherous this year. I got the final edits and cover art for my second novel, Five Days on Ballyboy Beach ready for its release on the 19th, I did some more rewriting of a novella and had it accepted for publication in the new year with Tirgearr Publishing, and I wrote a short story based on my safari in South Africa last year, called At Last Light on the Sage Flats, which will be the title story to a collection of short stories I’m putting together for the end of this year. Oh, I finished that first draft of The Ecology of Lonesomeness, too.
I also started the sequel to Leaving the Pack – not quite sure of the title yet, but the working title is Leading the Pack.
And I am three-quarters way through reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which I have had on my shelf for about twelve years! I didn’t get around to season five of Breaking Bad yet, though – but the autumn is coming (feels like it even here, too – we didn’t have what you’d call a Spanish summer this year), so I’ll get to that, when I have a second draft done of Lonesomeness….
Meanwhile, here is one of the few poems I had a chance to finish, about doing very little….
Getting Old, Slowly
Along the ridge a row of windmills go slowly round.
You can hear them when the wind turns south.
Twenty-five years they’ve ringed the valley
And show no sign they’re soon to fall.
Similarly, we inhabitants stand around,
Eating from our gardens here, seasonally
Watching flight of swallows and their fellows,
Observing numbers (often) ebb and (seldom) flow,
Grass get cut instead of grazed and oak trees grow tall,
New abodes are built and others crumble to the ground,
Sitting upon a porch of an evening, the sky yet
As wonderful as youth, and starry as can still get,
Achieving only that act of getting old slowly.