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….
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,
Though the rains have returned, it’s still kinda nice enough to get out of the city these days.
And it’s so nice to do so.
The orchids are up in the Valdorba, and the thyme blooming.
Unfortunately, the rains have increased the erosion in many places where there’s not enough vegetation to hold the soil. This bunch of thyme is clinging on, but you can see the rocks breaking away from the side of the gully behind it.
And yes, that is recently burnt vegetation behind the orchid… some farmers just don’t get that scrub serves to hold their soil from washing away down to the Ebro and silt it up, which they complain about later when the farms on the floodplain… flood.
Hopefully the other plants can grow and help slow down further breaks.
Here’s a poem I wrote recently about getting into the countryside.
Birdsong Outside the City
Something calls, unseen, to me
Hidden in a willow tree of a copse
Alongside a swift river tugging
Tangled dangling fronds and
Flooding islands, a place
Providing people only invitation,
Unheard above the cars of
The city where blackbirds scream,
A small, soft, birdsong twittering
Like a signal, reverberating in
This stillness, resonating
As far as childhood; deeper,
Into bones, birth, bringing
Relief like a lost boy seeing
Family, safety, a memory.
A song saying stay, for whenever
Could one return?
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.
Okay, modify that: why do so many hunters have to be arseholes? After all, I’m one myself; a hunter, not an arsehole.
Seriously, I see so many gobshites who should never be allowed to take up a weapon, it’s embarrassing.
The good news this week that Danish wolves exist again was tempered by the sad fact that the authorities are not going to tell anyone where the wolves are – and what a boon for eco tourism it would be, if we could all go and see the wolves! – because they are afraid of hunters going there to try kill them.
Why would hunters want to kill wolves?
(If that seems like a stupid question, I have another – are you sure you’re not an arsehole?)
Do they really feel that the wolves (five of them, for Christ’s sake) are going to reduce the numbers of animals they can hunt?
The government has that all regulated, and mostly it’s because of the other hunters that you can’t kill more. In Ireland, where there are relatively few hunters, we can hunt lots of deer each (depending on the area, of course) but here in Spain, where I am currently applying for a hunting licence – after several years of living here – it’s hard to get a spot in a red deer hunting area, and it’s a lot more expensive.
What’s the solution to too many hunters?
Perhaps act like an arsehole so that people don’t want to be associated with you.
In fact, that’s one of the reason I never bothered applying for a hunting licence here before. It’s a much more dangerous activity here than in Ireland.
The type of hunting can, perhaps, be more hazardous – larger groups of people in an area, hunting animals that are on the run.
But that’s no excuse for the number of hunters killed by their companions every year.
That’s just recklessness.
If you have to wear an orange jacket, there’s something wrong with the people around you (photo from Washington Dept. of Fish and wildlife).
In the course I had to do for the hunting exam, I encountered a few of the kind of shitehawks I’d never want to share a cup of tea with up on the hill, never mind hunt with. Dangerously dismissive of the rules, they argued that since they had the guns, they should win the arguments with the walkers and the mushroom pickers that can fuck up a hunt. And they seemed inclined to think that anyone who moved off his post during a beaten hunt deserved to get shot, rather than consider it their duty to identify the target before shooting at something moving past them.
I won’t be hunting with those guys – if indeed they’ll be hunting with anyone, for I’ve serious doubts they’ll study for the exam. Nor will I be running to join a boar hunt, to be honest. I’d rather hunt alone here. I can go home to Ireland for companionable hunting. At least I’ll know I’m not going to get killed by my companions, and the only animals getting shot will be ones permitted.
Yet, separate and apart from my personal problems, the more important point is the issue of our good name. Hunting is getting a bad name, despite its importance in our and other societies. I consider it a necessary activity as well as an interesting one, and believe it will continue, but it will do some in a much more regulated and restricted fashion in most places.
Hunters should not have this bad name. As a collective, disregarding my own intense love of nature, we should be the most vocal, the most powerful guardians of the environment out there. Our integrity and conviction should be unquestionable. It’s a matter not of our personal preferences, but of the survival of our sport.
Hunters should have better long term planning than some are currently displaying.
But, then again, given our human history thus far, perhaps that’s just beyond us.
Last week in Asturias, a northern province of Spain where wolves are protected, a group of twenty were prosecuted for fraud. They’d shared a booty of up to two hundred thousand Euros between them.
They had been faking wolf attacks on their livestock and claiming the compensation which the government gives to replace the sheep and cows that any wolf might have killed.
The group was made up of nine farmers and eleven forest guards they were in cahoots with They couldn’t have gotten away with it for so long if not for the forest guards who claimed these were indeed real attacks. Any forest guard who was not getting part of the money would have seen straight away they were fake.
This accounts for a full fifth of the one million euros that Asturias pays annually in compensation.
In 2014, several farmers were caught getting paid double for their losses – claiming insurance for the loss of livestock as well as the compensation for wolf attacks.
But apart from the monetary damage they’ve done, stealing from the public purse, they’ve contributed to the vilification of the endangered predator, making it seem more dangerous to farming than it really is, and pushing public opinion against it’s continued protection and spread into former territories from which it was eradicated in the last century.
In the last few months several wolves have been killed illegally and their heads hung in various places.
Wolf head hung at a crossroads in Asturias – image from El Pais newspaper article linked below.
Hatred driven by lies?
The Spanish Civil Guard police think so – they say the animal has been criminalised and this fraud has led to an atmosphere of rejection of the animal.
The statistics of wolf attacks were skewed for years. The numbers of wolf-kills farmers claimed was considered “inexplicable from a biological, physical and mechanical point of view.” Once the numbers of claims were presented in a report (65 paid out in one year on one farm alone, for example) the year later there were drastically fewer claims.
Farmers in areas of wolf recolonisation (for example those south of the River Duero) have resisted the recolonisation of the predator on the basis of false data. In fact, the wolf kills very few livestock and there is less to fear in terms of possible losses than the numbers indicate.
Not only that, it leads us to ask the question, how many more farmers might be trying to fleece the system? How many other attacks have been real? How many fake?
The compensation payments are a useful step towards trying to bridge the gap between farmers and ecologists, two groups who don’t usually see eye to eye in Spain (the farmers often claim that the activists – there’s a difference between ecologos, the scientists, and ecologistas, the activists, in Spanish – have no idea how the countryside actually works when they come up with their plans and laws).
Forest guards claim that farmers pressure them, and even threaten them to get them to sign a death by natural causes, or lightning strike, as caused by wolf attack, and many have been sued. Farmers buy cheap horses and leave them alone on the mountain so they’ll be attacked by wolves, since the compensation is more than the horse was worth.
No ecologist claims wolf reintroduction, or protection, is, or will be, completely conflict free. Yet if the farmers pretend that there are more problems than there really are, what are we to do?
One wonders how many wolf attacks would be reported if there were no compensation at all, if it were just a data-collection exercise. If such fraud is found to be more widespread, there might be some calls to find out.
After all, science cannot be carried out on the basis of economic fraud. We need to know the real figures. Otherwise how are we to guide the reintroduction efforts in other countries?
A colourful afternoon in the countryside.
Northern Spain, April 24th, and though breezy, a bright and sunny day.
Spring seems to have come early after a very mild winter.
But there’s something missing….
The oil seed rape is in full flower.
The barley heads are already up, and the wind is sending waves through it.
Thyme splashed pink along the banks and slopes between fields
The orchids are blooming.
Back in Pamplona, the lilacs are out already.
But there were no bees.
No Butterflies, on any of all these flowers.
It might have been the cold breeze… but there was an apiary not far (50 yards?) from that huge field of colza, and though I don’t like to get too close, I couldn’t see any commuting bees from that corner.
And it was disconcerting.
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.