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,
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…
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.
This most important piece of news out today, I found on the second last page of the newspaper – an anecdote, a curiosity, an aside amid the Spanish corruption scandals, the French elections, the continuing shite that blights the lives of billions (there was one nice bit about a certain wall not getting funded by a certain congress, but besides that it was all boring same old depressing mess till reading the above) – right back beside the information that some local actress is going to star in some new film being made sometime soon.
Two points to make:
One, if watching animals and trees on TV can reduce stress (and there are reams of positive benefits the study, done by UC Berkely, no less, details) imagine what actually going out into the parks, the countryside, the seaside does for us!
Throwing stones in the sea: what better stress disperser exists?
And why don’t we do it more? We all return from our beach holidays relaxed: yes, we have no work, but just sitting on the beach relaxes, and we should do it every day if we can, or at least get to the park and watch the ducks.
Can you feel the tension lift just looking at these bluebells?
Two, why is this way back at the bottom of the news?
We are in the middle of a stress crises. We have a tsunami of suicides, self-harming and addiction. People are going to medical health professionals of all sorts and taking many medications to help them get through life. And yet, this simple source of relief, if not potentially a complete solution, a cheap if not actually free aid, which can help us with this crisis, is practically ignored by the media.
If it were a study claiming eating butter could cut stress (or chocolate, or even lettuce) or help some other serious health problem, it would be much further up the order of importance.
Your doctor would tell you to avoid alcohol, eat fibre, cut out saturated fats, eat less sugar, lower salt intake, stop smoking etc. if he/she thought it would help keep you alive and well and happy for a few more years. There are campaigns for all these going on all the time. Laws are changed to help us quit smoking, have healthier diets, drink less.
And yet, will we see any move to get people out into parks, to have wildlife documentaries subsidised by the department of health? Will we have laws to protect ecosystems so they can be used to make further films, or see famous people encouraging us to climb mountains? Probably not.
But I hope so. Because we should. I personally won’t be happy until I see David Attenborough get a Nobel Prize for Medicine. He’s certainly saved my sanity…
A child in the countryside is a happy child!
Sometimes it feels like a nuisance, as a writer, to be a poet too.
So many hours can go by just making some short poems as perfect as I can make them…
But you can’t escape the way the writing comes.
Here are a selection of this summer’s work…
The Weight of Centuries
From the hilltop, the plain extends into haze,
A mosaic of mixed farming and forests
Even against the noise of the swish of
Windmills, the insects persist, cicadas trill, drill
Butterflies flutter across this pre-alpine meadow
Which has persisted despite pine plantations
Roads cut into the red earth
I sit on a fallen stone wall on which so many days have stretched,
Spying small valleys into which vineyards have been etched
And I feel the weight of centuries.
I have returned from my homeland to my adopted home
And wonder now where to take my holidays.
I watch tourists of my same shade trail past
This terrace exploring the old town of Pamplona,
Its small cobbled streets, of which I live in the thick.
It’s a privilege to drink this beer here, in holiday clothes
With nothing to do but write and raise my child, and
While aware this is my own particular “first world problem,”
I wish still to somehow, for some days, “get away from it all.”
The ultimate experience of
A walk into the wilderness
For most – that stroll in swimsuit
Along the surf alone
While the family builds sandcastles,
Untethered to anyone – is now tainted
By the telephone taken along.
Last Bastions for All to Admire
The last bastions of utter luxury
And we can look upon them
What it must have been like
Who were able to enjoy them
Before the rest of us arrived
Upon the sand.
In an Old Farmyard
Sun warms a wall, formerly whitewashed,
Now sand blasted to expose the beauty of
Raw stone and soft mortar in irregular mosaic.
Similar pillars stand centuries, supporting
Painted red gates that seldom open upon
A lane left to the birds and other wildlife,
Now a road to nowhere in time, like byres
And empty stables into which swallows
Still swoop to suspended nests of soil through
Slit windows, simply monuments to former toil.
At the Waterfall
Waterfall echoes white noise,
Breeze whispers through oaks.
Observing butterfly lawn,
Lounging on picnic blanket
Under piebald white and blue sky,
But unable to block out banal
Banter and utter bollox of
The barbequing family
Who parked their car beside us.
I’ll Take the Moon
Over festivals all very stimulating,
With curves as wonderful as any in creation
During a night as long as stars can sustain,
A concert of the songs of our
Latest pandemic’s potentially greatest loss,
A spectacle of lights and dazzling objects,
I’ll take the moon,
Rising orange in third quadrant
Past the Pyrenees.