Holding Gold Dust
The kids are in the river, scooping up fry in the shallows,
Squashing half as they let them go again as we leave.
We try to release them alive, all the time remembering
When once, we could, well, afford to kill them
In their hundreds: seeing thousands more teem between
The rocks of even city rivers and streams.
Like we did with insects: snatching ladybirds and bees,
Finding moths and crane flies in bathrooms, woodlice
By the dozen, catching starlings, titmice and sparrows,
In traps and jars and crabs in buckets on the beach.
Such abundance we scattered shells like sand;
But soon, when the water is sterile if not dry
We will shake our heads and cry, understand,
When we were young we held gold dust in our hands.
I have no photos at all to illustrate this – I could post a photo of the gravel beach where the kids were scooping the minnows, but the city council have cleared away that beach now, to free up the stepping stone bridge before the winter floods, which had deposited the huge load of stones. The fish seem happy in the shallows now.
Anyway, you’ll either be familiar with the former abundance, and thus perfectly able to picture what I’m talking about, or you won’t…. in which case, I’m really sorry, but no photo I can post would do justice to what’s gone. Well, at least at the beach, most of us are able to spot a few crabs, and perhaps catch one or two, for a while to show the kids before letting them go again…
The title comes from a song by Tori Amos, who I’ve listened to since I was of an age where there was yet abundance! I heard of her from a friend just after Little Earthquakes came out. This is one of my favourite songs of hers, and one I wish we could all be mindful of – the things we had, the things we yet have in our hands, and we should care for like fallen nestlings.
The beaver is a creature few people dislike. Many think they’re cute. They’re clever – making their dams and their lodges with such craftbeavership, that anyone who’s played with sand on the beach is impressed.
I’ve been trying to spot beavers for almost thirty years, since I spent a summer in Colorado and had a pond up the road. I visited it, and later others in Massachusetts and New Hampshire while I lived there for 7 years.
Always, I was disappointed to find the builders hidden from view in their lodges.
The ponds, though, like this one, were always full of other life: birds and dragonflies, fish and pond skaters. And I saw a whole lot of muskrats, which are pretty cool in their own right, I have to say.
In Pamplona I’ve seen their signs in the River Arga. But despite photos in the paper of brazen beavers crossing bridges, I’d never seen a ripple I could deem a rodent from the banks and bridges I lingered on.
But this summer I found that a pair of beavers have set up home on a very small (usually…) river very close to our village, and right beside the road, to boot, making it possible to spot them without hardly a trek, and since they’re used to the road noise, they don’t spook too easily.
I’d spotted the pond, but just assumed it was a deep gouge created by the huge floods a few years ago (we’d been swimming ourselves in these during the summer of Covid restrictions..) and this year of drought and very little flow, had been kept from drying by someone with time on their hands making a dam…
When I’d realised what the pond actually was, I was back next morning, but saw no beavers – though I did see their lodge entrance – built into the bank rather than in the middle of the pond, like I’d seen in North America.
I’d been told that European beavers don’t make dams, but that’s clearly not true. Perhaps those seen so far in Spain had not because they’ve been on large rivers – there’s no need for a dam on the Arga, I can tell you, though the beavers have been actively felling fairly large trees there (several older trees along the river park are now protected by chickenwire to dissuade them from taking away the perambulator’s shade!).
Which brings me to the title of this post – Beaver Spread.
Beavers are spreading.
These two are descendants of eighteen animals that were illegally released in the Ebro near the Aragon tributary, back in 2003. They’ve been moving up the rivers since then. With mostly no reaction, as most folk don’t notice them – until they started eating large trees in the middle of Pamplona (though that didn’t make anyone call for their removal, as far as I know.) There were some complaints, and, in fact, some animals were removed by the local governments, though, strictly speaking that was illegal, as once reestablished, they should be considered a protected species under EU law.
Anyway, they’ve spread now to smaller rivers, where their positive effects should be a lot clearer. At least to me in this particular brook, it’s plain as day.
This river drains a long valley which is usually very dry in summer, but gets a fair few heavy storms (our house was flooded just from rainfall in the field above us), one of which gouged out that bank in the first photo. Above this pond a bridge was washed out because it got clogged with trees and stones during the flood, and below it, the local town was devastated with huge economic losses when the river flooded houses and businesses within minutes of the storm.
At the time of the flood there were calls for better drainage – in the way of cutting the poplars and other trees along the bank – to let the water flow without slowing down at all. This came from farmers, and I have to say it’s either in ignorance or apathy of the effects it would have had on the town if that bridge and the trees and culverts had not led the water to spread out across their fields and slow its pace…. it would have washed away houses rather than just fill them with mud, and cars would have gone down like corks in the flow – and a lot more people would have died than did, without time to get out of harm’s way.
We all know that it’s cheaper to compensate a farmer for loss of a crop than a whole town for all their broken windows and destroyed merchandise etc…
But here, despite what I see as large erosion problem, they still dig drains into the fields so they can get the heavy machinery in after the rains they often (more often nowadays of course) wait (and possibly pray) for.
Which brings us to the drought.
We had a forest fire upstream of this pond this spring, and there are worries that the next storm (still waiting on rain) might wash down huge amounts of ashes and soil that’s no longer held in place by vegetation.
But meanwhile the river is down to a trickle. And it’s ponds like this one that are keeping the river alive. While I sat there waiting on the beavers to emerge I was entertained by a plethora of dragonflies, pond skaters, ducks, a heron, and even a nightjar that came down to drink before setting off to hunt. I can’t see, but I assume there are some fish in the murky water, too. And crayfish – European ones – are in that river, as well as European mink.
There is nothing but benefit to beavers – they keep the river alive in drought and they stop the river washing away everything in flood.
What’s not to like?
In Britain they have been reintroduced in a few places, with positive reaction in general. They’ve sorted out flooding in the places they’ve made home, and you’ve probably already heard of these cases.
In Ireland, there are some calls to introduce the beaver to have these same positive effects there. I support this, even if the beaver was never actually officially a native species. Most of Ireland’s fauna was not native. At least this one does some good. We have feral goats allowed to graze the vegetation to nothing in many places simply because it was there for a few hundred years, for goodness sake.
The only problem I see is the same a for so many other species we’d like to see (back) on our island – there’s not enough trees. We need to let scrub grow instead of burn, and get forest cover back in the simplest way possible, and then we have habitat for trees, and then the ugly as feck drainage and flood schemes that beset our lovely towns and villages would not be half as necessary.
Meanwhile, this pair of beavers, and I hope their offspring, are one of those little glories we can enjoy while they last.
Well, another year’s over, and a new one, just about to be begun…
And what have we done?
Well, we hung on in there, I hope. It’s been pretty crappy. There has been a flood of shit news, and it’s not getting any better, nor will it anytime soon, if it ever does.
I know it’s not nice to think of depressing things this time of year, but after the floods in Pamplona (and then downstream in the days afterwards) a few weeks back, I wrote this poem….
I don’t hope you enjoy it, but do read it.
And watch Don’t Look Up while you are at it, this new year’s break.
It’s Only Getting Worse
The recent flood recedes from fields;
Ducks return to the river, magpies
Scan the sodden banks for stranded
Shells of drowned snails and worms
About the larger flotsam: scarves of
Polytunnel plastic wrapped round trees,
Piles of pallets and branches, miscellany.
The older bridges have weathered well,
While barrier walls and fences will
Have to be mended. The stench of
Fetid faecal matter mulched in mud
Hovers over the flood plain as men
Spray down streets, machines sweep
Up debris, sewers are pumped clean.
The greatest flow of water recorded,
The worst flood in living memory; but
Just another on a list occurring during
One news cycle – Bolivia got battered
And a mile-wide stream of tornadoes
Thrashed six US states, leaving deaths
In its wake as well as destruction of wealth.
And it’s never getting better, as a
Song says: the slippery slope we sang
About is beneath our soles now, and
We’ll slide ever faster, repeating wreckage,
Building back broken bridges, other
Constructions lasting less time until
The next deluge or other artificially-
Exacerbated natural disaster.
The things we counted on for
Christmas will be dependant on
Whatever’s already arrived: the
Shipping and chips yet pending
Slows supplies perhaps until a
Year passes, but the shortages
May last till we die; living again
With scarcity, like our ancestors
In times past we thought we’d
Superseded, but let ourselves slip
Up, back, due to too much greed.
So these scenes we’ve seen recently
Are those to keep upon our screens:
Fond memories of former times
When our world was right, and we
Never accepted the sun was setting
Till we saw nothing but dark night.
I know we have just too many things on our minds, and that it’s easier to stick to the day to day, but this is going to be our day to day soon enough if we don’t drag our so called leaders into the daylight.
The Arga along the edge of Pamplona’s older parts just outside the old walls. A flock of cormorants roost just around the bend here.
What Would We Do Without Wooded Banks?
Walking a dammed riverbank, autumn evening,
Scanning still water for a hint of beavers,
Seeking signs of these elusive animals,
Watching for ripples in the reflection of the gloaming.
See a shimmer sent out to midstream but
Just a wind eddy as aspens shiver overhead,
Their yellow leaves tied tenuously to baring branches.
Below, a pale place in the gloom of the bank shows
The scene of beaver eating on a poplar bole,
But no body approaches, so I pause and pad across
A footbridge to pause and snap a photo of autumn:
The trees arch out over deep water, and I wonder
What life could live in a river without the banks
Well wooded? Where would these cormorants aloft
Alight for the night? The herons roost? Dropping
Guano to recycle. Kingfishers eye the minnows below
Before dropping down to snatch the flashing fish,
Well fed on fallen leaves and dung. What would become
Of them? What would hold the water when it rises,
Hold holts for otters to hide within? How would
We hope to halt in our walks, to take in these
Scenes of such reflections, all glittering and glinting,
Hinting at the invisible, holding hope?
When darkness descends over thoughts do I
Give up on the hunt and head home.
Sometimes I see a tweet from home of the destruction done unto rivers and the shredding of any foliage along their banks. Here, there are beavers back from past extinctions, and it can be a nuisance if they bole an old poplar on a part of the riverbank well-frequented by walkers and with few other trees to shade us, but a bit of chicken wire protects the most important and moves the beavers off towards this end, where there’s plenty to eat and a few trees felled will only add to the diversity of the river.
November sunlight shines at right angle
To catch leaves like stained window panes
On cathedral trees, lining riverbank, flanking
Dancing stream gleaming like black marble.
Drakes draw diamond wakes through dark
Water, songbirds call sonorous cries flying
Through timber, sweet as a child’s choir.
Marvelling at this flowing manifestation of
Nature’s majesty, I stand in reverence:
An experience as solemn as sacraments,
Holy as the spirit infusing these trunks
And tender tendrils dangling delicate
Leaves twisting daintily in the breeze.
And I wonder why those who kneel for
An invisible being in the sky, don’t even stop
To breath in, appreciate this display of
Beauty splayed out before them, inhale
Divinity in every breath of autumn
Dampness, soaked up sounds like dewfall,
Absorbed through skin as golden photons;
On shoulders felt the gentle hand of eternity.
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.
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.
Denmark, in addition to having wolves for the first time in centuries, now has European elk (Alces alces; the moose to Americans) for the first time in five thousand years. Talk about going back to the way things were. Well, it’s not all about going back to the way things were, as I will discuss in my next post. It’s about putting the animals to work, making this megafauna do what they’re best at – manipulating the habitat. The elk are going to help maintain a marsh by munching on the birch saplings, much like the cattle in the Burren in Ireland keep things cool for orchids and other important flora.
The Danes don’t seem to be asking themselves if they can rewild their land. They’re just doing it.
The Brits, are, though, asking if they can make Britain wild again. And the answer from most seems to be yes of course. I just read an interesting article on a blog about the matter of returning wolves to Scotland, and there are obstacles, but they can be overcome with a bit of political will.
Even in the US, which we might believe is wild enough, thank you very much, and where they are delisting the wolf from Endangered Species Protection as some scientists claim they have recovered enough to be controlled by individual states, they want to return wildlife to former ranges via the network of wildlife corridors that rivers provide.
If everyone else can do it, why can’t we? I think it was The Cranberries who asked that question back in the Nineties. We still have no good answer, but one has to come sometime.
If there’s one thing we have in Ireland it’s rivers and waterways.
Imagine fishing on the Grand Canal and watching a wolf walk by on the other side?
Now that would make me get up in the morning.