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,
It’s the little things.
You know when you’re watching a movie and you say to yourself, “that’s bullshit?” Because you know too much about the particular topic, and the director didn’t do his homework, so you’ve a guy shooting way more bullets than are in the gun etc.
Well, I’ve had a couple of those recently that all came together and makes me want to point them out.
The first is from the book I’m reading – Dan Brown’s Origin
Yea, I know, Dan Brown isn’t writing for accuracy.
But he could at least try.
Let’s leave aside straight away the fact that he’s put lots of detail into all his descriptions of the architecture (before you start reading the novel he states that all the locations and art etc. are real) but invents a parallel universe Spanish royal family. It’s actually quite funny to read how the king of Spain is so devout, when the former king is a notorious philanderer.
It’s the little things that catch a reader. Like when at the start of the novel two Irish football fans harass a Spanish Admiral in a bar. The fans have been watching a soccer match between Ireland and Spain or Portugal (it’s unclear where this takes place) and are drunk (that’s fine) when they enter the bar, empty but for the barmaid and the admiral. Now, not only would two Irish fans not harass a local to drink with them, being happy enough to be with themselves, they’d not be just two of them alone after a match. There’d be hordes of them. And when we read that the name of the bar is fucking Molly Malone, it’ just taking the fucking piss! What a crock of shit.
Just laziness. Perhaps what Brown considers Irish is what he sees in Boston, but he’s never watched footage of Irish fans after an international game on foreign soil, that’s for fucking sure.
I’m obviously not the first person to point this out...
Research. It’s what writers do. Getting people right is more important than how long the LCD screens in the Guggenheim are.
The second examples come from a movie I’m half way through.
Hold the Dark.
As a biologist and woof enthusiast, I stuck it right on when I signed up to Netflix!
I knew there’d be bullshit about wolves. They’re always cast in a bullshit light.
But that wasn’t the problem on the believability end.
I was at first impressed to see the local woman put masking tape on the tip of the gun barrel, to keep out snow and dirt. We do that in the bog, in case you fall and get peat and dirt stuck up there. You can’t shoot a rifle that’s obstructed like that. Well, you can, but do it far away from me.
But then, they go and make a point of the naturalist, played by Jeffry Wright, struggling to get the masking tape off the barrel so he can defend himself against the approaching wolf pack!
No! No and fucking NO!
You don’t take the tape off! You just fucking shoot! The pressure blows a hole in the tape before the bullet could even touch it! Any hunter knows that, or should.
But what most pisses me off about some movies, and it’s perhaps not a problem of doing research, but just society, is how much the actions of some characters differ from what I consider sensible and, given the state of our world right now, basically unacceptably stupid.
Wasting stuff, especially energy.
They’re in Alaska.
Not Anchorage, but way up north.
The biologist inexplicably turns up without decent footwear, like he’s never tracked a wolf in his life. The local gives him some boots more appropriate to the weather. And a good caribou skin.
But yet, she lives in a house that looks way under insulated for the clime. I’ve more cladding on my house in Spain, and that has foot-thick brick walls to boot.
And she goes around in cardigan open to the wind, and stands with the fucking door open looking out at the snow.
I know she’s a bit crazy, but such habits are ingrained. She’s not rich – her husband is off in the war and she says she can’t pay the naturalist.
So why is she wasting the heat?
I dunno if it’s just because I was always told to turn off the immersion heater and turn off the lights to save money, but I’m sure poor people the world over are pretty frugal when it comes to this kind of thing.
Also, the naturalist sleeps on the couch with just his long johns and a flimsy blanket. The fire is roaring, of course. But he’s a naturalist! Where’s the sleeping bag and less of the wasting firewood?
Climate change, Jeffry! Your character would be very aware of that, even if your host is not big on energy efficiency.
As I said, perhaps it’s just the state of society.
But, as I also said it’s not acceptable.
And we should stop showing such irresponsibility.
As Hollywood knows, art imitates life and life imitates art.
It’s time to start modelling good behaviour.
Just like few characters smoke in movies now compared to the chain-smoking of the fifties and sixties, movie makers can stop having characters do stupid shit that worsens climate breakdown and pollutes our planet. Hopefully it will happen a bit quicker than the change from smoking to not – this is more urgent.
Then maybe readers and viewers won’t get be so let down by the stories we’re told.
On the other hand, if real people keep acting like these characters, then our children won’t have much time, money, or inclination, to “Netflix and chill.”
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…
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?
I’m teaching Climate Change in my first-year classes at the moment.
No matter what the topic, I always like to use examples to make things clearer to the kids – references to things in their own lives. I often refer to TV programs, movies, songs.
However, some of my references are dated – movies made before they were born, which, while classics, haven’t always been seen. In my English SL class last week, when describing the meaning of “a the height of one’s career,” I used a TV presenter, who first shot to prominence on the Spanish equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The show was called 50 for 15, referring to 50Million Pesetas – a currency that disappeared when the kids were toddlers.
But teaching Climate Change, I was struck by the fact that I don’t have to reach back very far to come up with an example of what I mean when I talk about the changes that are happening/ could happen in the future.
For example, California – it was burning a few weeks ago; latest news out of there is a terrible mudslide. Opposite types of natural disasters in a short timeframe.
Even here in this very city, though, the oscillations are becoming ever more obvious. And rapid.
I described how Spain was experiencing a drought late last year. Reservoirs were down to 10 or 20%. On the 3rd of January, I was in a jeans and a sweater, enjoying the sunshine. I was sent a video of a snake the same week.
This poor frog was squashed by a car just outside the village that night – what the hell was a frog doing out on Jan 3?
On the 5th, it started raining, then snowing.
I posted this photo on my facebook page, joking how I’d always wanted a garden with a little river flowing through it.
It was gushing out of the gully under the rocks you can see behind the fence in this photo.
And some of it was filling the groundwater so much that I’d springs popping up in the grass.
This looks like a cowpat, but it’s actually mud pushed out of the ground by the water flow.
Pamplona was covered in snow.
The aqueduct of Noain outside Pamplona.
The reservoirs refilled past 50% in a few days.
And now it’s mild again.
So the kids get it. They understand Climate Breakdown. They can hardly not when it is staring us in the face like the barrel of a shotgun.
Question is, what can they do about it?
Because the previous generation who knew about it haven’t been able to do very much, yet.
I just signed this pledge, to reduce the amount of meat I eat.
The organisers seem to be mostly concerned about the slaughter of so many animals to feed us gluttons.
It’s true, that 56 billion animals are treated fairly shittily every year. But that’s not quite my main motivation…
I want to reduce global climate change impacts.
I watched this video from the satirical character, Jonathon Pie, the other day, about how people are upset that the British Govt don’t think animals are sentient, when of course everyone loves their dogs so much they dress them up in shiny winter jackets nowadays. He was taking the piss because most of the same people don’t give a toss about the environment or wildlife.
And he’s right.
But hey, if people stop eating meat because they can’t stomach the idea of a cute little piggy getting stuck with a knife and hearing that death squeal, well, that’s all to the good.
At this stage of the game, motivation does not matter. Only the end result.
Just like making petrol very expensive in Europe makes the emissions here not quite so fucking outlandish as in America.
So in order to save the planet’s bacon, as it were, we need to reduce meat consumption, and we can either make it expensive – like cigarettes- and/or make it unpalatable – also like cigarettes.
So how do we do the latter?
We put labels on meat that explicitly say, “Did you know that this pig (photo of cute pig) went through this (photo of bloody gutted corpse) to make this tasty ham?”
Perhaps followed by the sentence – “If you are okway with this, then go right ahead and enjoy the tasty meat…”
This will put off quite a few people.
Myself excluded, of course. I always have the actual animal in mind when I’m eating them. I’ve seen dead animals, seen animals die, had a hand in that death myself. That doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes me a realist. It’s the folk who haven’t seen, and worse, don’t want to see, or even think about, the death that went before the packaging and purchase, who are the problem here.
It is not often their fault, though – the supermarkets and food companies have purposefully separated the nastiness from the tastiness. Who sees the butcher at work in their supermarket?
In Spain, you can still see dead rabbits, fur on, in the butcher’s counter, along with pig heads, baby pigs, chickens hanging with heads and legs on. That’s the way it should be.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t fed a pile of shite at the same time.
This advert is running on Spanish TV at the moment. Watch it. It’s 20 seconds.
I have eaten this ham. It’s nice enough. But eff me, what the hell is that ad all about?
There’s not even a shot of the farm, never mind the pig.
Associating a cooked ham with strawberries, or mother’s milk is far from fucking natural, folks, let’s just make that clear.
Natural is seeing the animal on the farm. Natural is seeing it being butchered.
If you don’t want to see the latter, then no problem – just stay away from meat.
And we’ll all be happy – except the food companies.
The Rains Return
The sky weeps;
Hills soak to refill rills.
Upon the porch, we sit still.
The rain – snow in the high ground – has finally returned to much of Spain, bringing some relief to the drought we’ve been experiencing this year.
The spring that supplies our village in the Valdorba is still flowing at a trickle, though. It will take much more rain to raise the water table and refill the reservoirs.
the spring last week above, the same spring in September below…
But everyone has been happy to see the rain, despite the need for umbrellas instead of sunglasses.
This is a photo of one of the beaches in San Sebastian, aka Donostia, taken when I was there last week.
I sat on the beach and wrote this poem.
Donostia, December 2017
On the breakwater, as tide rises,
Shielding eyes to see gleaming mountain
Snowmelt trickle by.
We shouldn’t be able to see the mountain from the beach at this time of year, for the blanket of cloud that normally shrouds the city.
But what is normal anymore?
Anyway, I wrote a few poems that afternoon. It reminded me of another poem I wrote a few weeks ago, which describes a little of why I’ve written so little recently, and posted less.
But maybe we’ll get back to normal sometime soon…
Words Come Forth
They say our words won’t be kept down;
They bubble up, under pressure, like lava
Pushing through a fissure,
Bursting forth if they can’t flow.
But instead, they are drawn
Under empty sky,
Sucked out by silence,
Pulled forth by the vacuum
Of open space,
Giving them a place to emerge
Timidly into tranquilly
Like deer from the thicket at twilight.
This is what drought looks like.
Spain is currently going through a water crisis, with reservoirs drying up all over the country. It’s been on the news a lot this autumn.
Sometimes you see stuff on the news and you just go back to your business and you try not to think too much about it. Like you do with wars and the other stuff that our politicians mess up – the Dakota oil spill being a prime example.
But if you look around you can see local examples of things going very wrong.
Last weekend we went to Ezcaray, a small town in La Rioja that lives off tourism – especially skiing in winter. The skiing hasn’t opened yet. It might not open for very much this year, nor for very long in the future.
There is a little snow on the hills, but with the warm weather that we are still having in November, it is probably melting. Not that you can notice it downhill.
This is the river. It’s more like a dry canyon from somewhere down in the south, like Almeria, than a mountain river in the north.
When you search Ezcaray in google maps, this is the photo that pops up.
It’s kind of different to the one up the top of this page. Or the following one.
We were told that this is usually a waterfall. It has a fish ladder, which you can see under the cage on the left, for all the use that can be made of it this year. There are no fish in evidence in that pool, the only drop of water visible in a hundred metres. Directly upstream it’s completely dry. Just a few drops seep through the rocks. A few hundred metres upstream we saw a few small rivulets coming through the stones. But there can be little life there – not even mayfly or caddis fly – to sustain a river ecosystem.
The local council wants to put a dam upstream, we heard. The locals are fighting to save their river. A sign hung in a village said, “Water is life, save the river Oca.” I wonder if keeping the construction at bay will be enough to save it.
The cranes started passing over Pamplona yesterday evening.
They were chased by the rain that came in overnight. The first in weeks.
Autumn has thus officially started.
And hopefully also this means the end of the fire season for this year.
While Ireland braced for an almost unheard of hurricane in the North Atlantic, in northern Spain and Portugal, forest fires were killing even more people than Ophelia killed.
There were dozens burning over the weekend and until Tuesday, when the rains helped to finally extinguish them.
Unlike hurricanes, though, which are terrible, and indirectly related to man’s activities, these forest fires were only wild in the sense of the untamed destruction they could wreak. They were not natural. They were man made, purposefully started, and repeatedly so.
After so many deaths, there are now questions being asked of politicians as to how these arsonists can be stopped. Spanish news has little else, other that the Catalan situation – politics and fraud, even football has been put in the background by the terrible scenes of people trying to escape burning villages only having to turn back as the roads are flanked with flames, and others park inside a motorway tunnel to wait rescue, or let the fires pass overhead.
Because these fires have been a part of summer in places like Galicia for years. As soon as the weather dries, huge tracts of forests go up there. All directly caused by humans and usually set intentionally, with a few the result of stupidity and neglect.
The people of Portugal are naturally outraged, after a summer of huge fires has been followed by an autumn death toll almost as terrible, with dozens of people claimed by the flames.
The perpetrators must be caught and jailed for their murders, but also, the politicians and police, if it is the case, must be held responsible for letting this situation get to this state. Why have these people not been caught for their previous fires? – because there’s no way these conflagrations were started by first-time arsonists.
Why do people go out of their way to set fires, driving along highways in the middle of the night with fireworks tied to helium balloons?
It’s clear they have nothing better to do, and they’re assholes of the highest calibre, but there must be some other, external, motivation for most of the fires. What is it? Why has it not been identified years ago and why has it not been removed?
There are forests that could burn just as badly and even more easily in other parts of Spain, so why are there not so many fires elsewhere? Galicia has 40% of all fires in the country, and half the area burnt every year for the last decade.
Surely the arsonists are spread out in a broader swath across the country. Or is there something about the mind-set of Galicians that makes them excessively prone to arson?
The gorse fires and heather fires we have seen in Ireland in recent years were all set intentionally for financial gain – the current agricultural subsidy system means that farmers make more money if there land is considered in use, even if it’s not.
Ultimately, stopping them will require a change in the EU farming subsidy system to allow land go fallow without farmers losing money.
Is there a financial motivation in Galicia and Portugal for setting huge fires?
According to Ecologists in Action, this is only the cause of a small proportion of the fires set.
What other factors are in play?
The use of fire for farming practices is permitted much more freely than elsewhere.
In most of Spain it is not permitted to light fires in camping and picnic areas and other recreational areas during times of fire risk. Not so in Galicia.
Vehicles are also allowed onto forest paths in Galicia during the summer, which is prohibited elsewhere.
AND they allow fireworks in village festivals during the summer, which is just asking for trouble.
But as I said, the summer is over.
The cranes, luckily, don’t stay long in Spain during their migration.
When they passed before on their way north I wrote this poem. Hopefully it will ease the depression of these fires. Watching the birds certainly lifts the spirit.
The Great Migration
I’ve not yet seen the Serengeti,
Nor the caribou upon the artic plains
But up above my house in the hills,
I’ve been privileged to witness
The cranes migrating, calling
Eyes aloft to observe their long
Strings streaked across the sky
Huge wing beats by the thousands,
And can’t but wonder where
Those numbers bide in other times,
(Amazed such spaces yet exist)
And where they will find abode
In other climes.
I haven’t commented on the current situation in Cataluña yet.
I suppose that some might think that strange, given my previous comments on other referenda, such as the Scottish one, and my advocating for a yes vote on proclaiming independence.
This is a little bit more complicated.
And not just because I live in Spain, where some of my friends and family would be of the opposite opinion, and I can do without the aggravation
It’s complicated because the Spanish are, to throw a stereotype out there, bloody stubborn and ill-disposed to listen to the opposite point of view with much in the way of tolerance. Just a few minutes watching any chat or panel show will show you that. They can’t stop shouting over one another even when they’re paid to give their considered opinion.
This means the Catalan question has the potential to get worse, in a way nobody wants, but well, shit happens, and has happened.
People get entrenched.
Of course, my reticence on the subject doesn’t mean I haven’t been asked my opinion, usually with the anticipation that I’ll agree with the inquirer’s point of view.
I have tried to be diplomatic in giving that opinion. But give it I have, for I never learnt one of my father’s lessons – only say something if it’s to your advantage. I can’t hold back the truth. There are too many wankers walking around our world, walking on our world, because people have been reluctant to cause offence or call them out on their bullshit.
I went to Cantabria last weekend. Wonderful. But a small blemish on the experience was seeing the Spanish flag draped from many balconies. Some of these balconies were on the houses of Guardia Civiles stationed in the towns, others were on working class blocks of flats.
The thing is, that Cantabria is in the opposite direction from my house to Cataluña. Santander is three hours west, Barcelona five hours east. What the fuck the Cantabrians think they’re doing with the flags that the Catalans will feel any emotion whatsoever is beyond me. Nobody in Barcelona gives a toss if some lad in Santander sticks a flag out his window. At least, they shouldn’t.
But this is how entrenchment starts. First it’s the fucking flags and the waving them and the burning of others’ flags. Next thing you know, you’ve got the Guardia Civil staring across a barricade at a hastily formed citizen’s militia.
I’ve never been one for flags. Nor football jerseys. I can’t see the point of them outside the Olympics, to be honest.
There were several mass demonstrations in various cities across Spain (and I include Cataluña for brevity) over the last couple of weeks. Most of them had flags waving. There were thousands of people in Madrid waving their flags under the biggest Spanish flag ever in the Plaza de Colon, singing Yo soy Español. Amazing. We know you are. You’re in fucking Madrid – the capital of Spain. What the hell has that got to do with Cataluña seeing independence? They aren’t trying to make you a fucking Catalan. How could that demonstration help in the slightest? Or how, pray tell, is bussing thousands to Barcelona from all over Spain to do the same thing going help in the slightest?
It only serves to entrench.
There was one cross-country demonstration where everyone dressed in white and waved white placards. I liked that demonstration. The idea was that the politicians should fucking talk (‘cause you’d be surprised that a group of people employed to talk to each other could hide so efficiently from one another, or from the media for that matter. But Rajoy is a master at staying at home watching football while the country he’s supposed to be helping falls apart at the seams.). Needless to say, it had little impact. Because the politicians get elected by the people in the trenches.
They don’t care if that leads down the road to shitville. They don’t go to war, their kids don’t go to war, they are of the elite to whom this shit just doesn’t stick. And while we’re all in a fluster, they’re quietly getting away with the frauds they’ve been perpetrating this whole time. Both sides are as corrupt as the other.
So here’s my own opinion. which has changed little since last time the Catalans were looking for a referendum…
I would like to see Cataluña remain as part of Spain.
But only on their terms.
If they want to go, the rest of Spain has to let them go. It’s that simple. Anything else is just bullshit. And bloody bullshit if things go awry.
I would like to see true European integration. I bought that idea way back. My kids are trilingual, have two passports and I think we should move to whatever country we like for as long as we like, because we like, and not because some places have better jobs and better wages and their politicians grind other places down to keep things that way.
But the small-minded, short-term thinking of politicians has shown that to be a dream – hitherto fore, anyway.
Until then, though, each community should have as much say about its own destiny as it can get for itself. George Monbiot has been talking about the benefits of the commons in recent weeks. The smaller the group holding the purse strings, the better.
Now, the Catalans have been getting a bad deal compared to other parts of Spain, at least in their view – and let’s face it, it’s their view that counts. So an ever-greater proportion of the population has decided that it’s time to take not just the purse strings into their hands, but the reins and to hell with the rest of Spain.
Once that proportion of the population becomes big enough, then you have to listen to them. You can’t just ignore them as crackpots or begrudgers or whatever else you want to label them.
Sending in the cops against some hippies might work, but sending the cops in against a million people taking to the streets is just not on. As we have seen. I’ve witnessed National Police do similar shit to people in the past, but when they did it to thousands on October first, they got a media backlash that had just the opposite effect to that desired. To quote Peter Gabriel in Biko, “you can’t blow out a fire.”
Had the Spanish government given some certain concessions, perhaps the numbers looking for a referendum. But they didn’t do that. And look where it got them.
If a part of the population looking for independence reaches a critical mass, you have to give them a referendum.
Had the Spanish government done that a while back, well, everybody who knows anything says that the No vote would have easily won.
Look what happened in Scotland, even though we were all sure it would go the other way.
But they didn’t do that.
And look where it got them. Exactly where anyone who knows anything knew it would.
Once you deny a large group something, and especially if you go about it aggressively, without talking, with the heavy hand, the hard boot, well, all of a sudden other people outside that group will ask why the fuck you are denying their fellow citizens, and who the fuck you think you are denying them, and well, hell, they might just ask for the same thing themselves, just to piss you off, you prick.
It’s called History, Mr Rajoy.
So now you have a growing independence movement and a government still saying there’s no way in hell they’re going to get independence. And in fact, some of them are going to jail for sedition.
Easily solved, I think not.
The only option is talking.
There are other options, of course. Like what happened in other countries which became independent. History has lots of those examples.
And at the same time, history means fuck all to the future.
The fact that there was no Catalan kingdom before is irrelevant. The fact that Ireland was never joined as one country before the English invaded was irrelevant. The fact that half of a currently designated area is in favour of separation and the other half isn’t doesn’t mean that they either stay or go – they can split. Look at Ireland – though I know that was a bit of a fudge/fuckup. Belgium can become two countries, if they want, just like Czechoslovakia did. Cataluña might not all become independent. It’ll depend on what the local people say, and how many of them say it.
And everyone else, who doesn’t live in Cataluna can keep their noses out.
Except the goons in government. They need to get fucking talking.
So let’s see more flowers and fewer flags on people’s balconies, please.