Author Archive: Edith

Seeds

Our land – the straw-covered area – seen from a distance. It seems to have its own microclimate already . . . Photo taken in March

Green huntsman spider in the cabbage patch

 

A thoughtful conversation with a nature guide in the western Algarve – in Sagres, to be exact – went something like this:

Me – For me, this area is unbelievably beautiful, but I can understand why young people have the need or the desire to leave it to make money or satisfy their curiosity.

She – Yes, and often they are encouraged to do so. You know, I work in schools and sometimes I try to get different generations together. So I got a local woman of ninety years old to show the schoolchildren her garden. She was fit and well and she tended this beautiful garden that provided food and flowers. It was small but it was simple and perfect. And I thought, why isn’t that a worthy aim in itself? Why should that kind of life be denied to young people? Why can’t we dignify the process of making a garden, of growing food?

I’ve been writing this blog for three years now, and I’m about to stop – I’ll come to that in a minute – and while I want to stop, I’m also glad I started it, because it has helped give shape to the past three years and has given me, at least, a record of how I, and we, felt about this move, and why we did it and what it meant. Looking back, a pattern has emerged that I didn’t see at the outset. I wasn’t following a plan. It was an impulse. It was an impulse that grew out of being with my father when he died and gaining a visceral understanding that life’s strongest quality was that it was finite, that it would come to an end. This understanding, deep, sad, but also oddly freeing, was my father’s gift to me. It was a seed sown that grew quickly into a desire to sell up, to leave the big city, to leave stressful jobs and, on the basis of a short holiday in the Algarve, to move here. It didn’t make obvious sense, but I was impelled, and Husband was compelled, and it quickly became clear that it was as desirable an option for him as it was for me. A lot of people said this move was brave but it never felt like that.

The Algarve is a very beautiful and, in some areas, unspoilt place to live, especially if you manage to find somewhere quiet, like we did, but still not far – 45 minutes’ walk or about 15 minutes in Rollie, the Renault 4 – from a thriving small village. We went there on Friday night. Someone we know was playing music, keyboards and bongos, along with a drummer with the full kit, and it was a brilliant night. What is a café by day becomes a pub by night with all ages in it, and people anarchically smoking, and the woman from whom we pick up post in the junta de freguesia turning her hand to serving beer and making gin and tonics. At least, she made me a gin and tonic, while saying that she didn’t know how to make it, and that meant she made a very fine one and wasn’t mean with the gin at all. The very best part of the evening, though, was before we got there. Just a short distance outside the village, less than a kilometre, we were startled by movement beside us on the dark road. Seven wild boar, five of them humbug-striped piglets, were scrambling up the embankment to get out of our way. Nature is alive and well here, even if the hunters will be out to try to shoot them one day.

In all those years of living in the city and mostly enjoying the endless stimulation, I hadn’t realised how much I missed the natural environment. I had an undiagnosed craving for it: both physical and mental. Physically it was my lungs making the loudest complaint. Mentally: that’s a bit more complex to analyse and I don’t have the space here. A friend once said to me that all culture – the arts – was nothing but a substitute for nature, for man who has separated himself from it. She was quoting a writer I can no longer recall. It seemed a slightly outlandish idea then, but not now.

The city may be endlessly stimulating but it is also endlessly demanding: it insists that you consume, that you keep up; it forces you struggle to move through crowds, it forces you to struggle to breathe. It forces you to forget what really makes the world go round, which isn’t endless economic growth, despite what the newspapers and radio tell us. I tune into Radio 4 from time to time, and I am still dismayed at the need to report whether the UK economy has grown and by how much. According to the most recent report I heard just a couple of days ago, most of this limited growth was down to consumer spending, but that was all to the good, just so long as the confidence was kept up and the people kept spending, be it money or credit. The further away you get from this notion, the more powerfully insane it seems to be.

We have got rather far away from that. I find I want things much less than I used to; I need artificial/cultural stimulation much less, too. Having plants and animals growing all around me is stimulating. I have planted seeds and green shoots have appeared. Miraculous. I made lots of mistakes – and have many more mistakes to make, too – and one of those was planting too many seeds all at once. The profusion of shoots for which I feel responsible is rather overwhelming. Gardening advice is to thin them out. Thin them! That’s a euphemism for killing them, these tiny scraps of miraculous growth-potential.

Oh, I do have a tendency to take things too seriously.

I can see three stages, now, in our life here. The first was marked by curiosity. An abundant yellow flower with clover-like leaves coated the hills around us the first winter we lived here. I couldn’t identify it to begin with. It took me a while to pin it down as the Bermuda buttercup, Oxalis pes-caprae. Naming it was an important first stage in my life here. The fresh green cover it gave to winter land seemed such a good thing.

By the second year, I hated the plant. It was ‘a highly invasive weed’ that took over ‘disturbed land’. It was taking a hold in our garden. I spent a lot of time pulling it out by the roots. This second stage was characterised by activism. We were protesting against the plans to explore and drill for oil and gas in the seas around the Algarve and on the land. Learning that these contracts were in place was a terrible shock and we were determined to do all we could to stop them.

By the third year, I started to see the Bermuda buttercup in a different light. It was a pioneer. It came to disturbed land to clothe it fast; Nature hates bare soil. The oxalis came to sink roots and stabilise and nourish the exposed earth. The bare track made across our land by the builders of our swimming pool became covered with the yellow flower, and I looked upon it favourably. When it started to die down, many other plants – weeds, too, to some of you – started to fill up the area that had been rescued and made more habitable by the Bermuda buttercup.

Our third stage here is characterised by acceptance – not a giving in but an acceptance of limitations. I’m even more conscious that the ever-increasing speed of human ‘growth’ is destroying the very soil we live on. I’m signing petitions and marching against the destruction of the environment and the hastening of man-made climate change when I can. I’m still utterly opposed to the Algarve being turned into a region of hydrocarbon production, and I know the government cannot be trusted because they respond to the same ‘economic-necessity’ argument as everyone else in power around the globe. But I’ve also come to understand that what we do here in our backyard is what matters most. We – Husband and I – are only a short way into our lives here. We have so much to learn; perhaps we will never stop learning. What matters to us is to leave this patch of land a little better than we found it, with richer soil, all the better to hold and release water (and sequester carbon), more microbes, more growth of every botanical kind, more insects, more birds, more life . . .

I’m still not above a bit of natural engineering when I can and I was very happy when I managed to dissuade the barn swallows from taking over the red-rumped swallows’ nest. Now we have both birds. We can sit on the veranda at the front of the house and have barn and red-rumped swallows swimming through the air around us and filling it with their distinctive voices. Soon they will be raising young. The red-rumped swallows have learnt from their mistake of last year when the tunnel entrance to their mud nest faced our front door. Now they have canted the entrance around by more than 90 degrees so that it faces along the length of the veranda. In fact, it faces where the barn swallows are. This might be passive-aggressive.

Golden orioles have arrived in the valley with their eye-catching lacquered yellow bodies and black wings. Bee-eaters float overhead, their sound like children practising playing the recorder. Nightingales sing from stands of cane by the river. Birds everywhere are in full voice. I’ve only just noticed that a bird can sing without opening its beak. A blackbird, its beak full of nesting material, sang a beautiful song this morning, the movement of its throat the only clear evidence that it was the source of the music.

Writing this blog helped me understand what we were doing, it helped me to keep in touch with old friends and even to make new ones, but now is the right time to stop. After all, I have so many things to do.

‘I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.’

Henry David Thoreau

Red-rumped swallow finishing off the nest. You can see the footprint of the old entrance about 90 degrees to the right

Off to fetch more mud. When completed, the nest was lined with straw. Feathers will be the final touch

Barn swallow on the washing line

May Day figure. ‘Old as I am, I’m cooking snails, and you who’ve stopped for a look, would you give me a hand because I can’t quite remember the recipe’

Her great-grandson with a modern media message

Who keeps putting these stickers on Stop signs?

A barney and a rumpus

Lavender and gum rock rose and red earth

Guarding her eggs and spying on us at breakfast

 

My attempts at avian social engineering have worked. I kept what was left of the red-rumps’ nest masked by its rough net of tape until the barn swallows had given up on it and established themselves elsewhere.

‘They don’t seem to have a good concept of space,’ said a friend, seeing the shallowness of the beam the barns started building on in the middle of the veranda. It was newly painted; that must have been what they liked.

‘Or perhaps it’s time they lack a concept of,’ said Husband, as the birds arrived almost simultaneously at the nest, beaks jammed full, and one would have to wait it out, muddy feet on our washing line, until the first had finished positioning its mud-gobbet.

The nest was completed after a week or so. It has a flattish, raised prow, and without doubt eggs have already been laid since the female spends a lot of time in there, sideways on, her rufous face in view, watching us when we’re busy on the veranda.

Once the barn swallows had built enough of the nest to convince me they’d committed to the site, I took down the masking tape from the red-rumps’ old nest, especially since I’d been hearing snatches of their radio-tuning song as they flew overhead. In a short space of time, they arrived at the hook – their nest was built around a hook in the ceiling, as you may recall – and started staking it out. They also started making flying passes at the barns. Wings would sometimes collide. A fat carpenter bee got feather-swatted out of the air, an innocent bystander caught up in the rumpus.

‘This place, this place, this place is ours, NOT YOURS!’ the barns declare constantly, the ‘NOT YOURS’ delivered as two raspberries, the second of which is ratcheted up to the fullest. They have the louder, more demanding-sounding song. It isn’t aimed solely at the red-rumps. They are more than capable of a barney with their own kind when a new male comes a-calling to see if he can get in on the action.

The red-rumps seem unaffected by the song. They are now steadily rebuilding their nest, some of which got damaged by sparrows, and some of which came down at the accidental brush of a human hand, so delicate was its construction. It took the birds a good ten days to build and us only seconds to dislodge. Still, they are well on the way to completing it anew.

I don’t know if it’s common for red-rumps and barns to nest together in the same space – I suspect not – but it’s working out well enough here, small competitive displays of flying ability aside. It’s working out so well that the sparrows, those clumsy birds with their heavy flight, are now nosing in. The female sparrow, who liked to look at herself in the glass of a smartphone, moved her attention a few weeks ago to the metal outlet pipe of – actually I don’t know what exactly; the gas water boiler that’s the back-up when there isn’t enough sun to heat the water? – whatever, it emerges by the bathroom roof, and for some weeks now the sparrow has been tapping it regularly, forcefully, and audibly to whoever is on the loo. The male was obliged to turn his attention, too, to this hot, bright, wholly unsuitable nesting site; mostly he just looked on while she rang her beak against the metal. But they are now attracted by all the fruitful activity on the veranda, perhaps trying to see where they can fit in there.

My other main activity in the four weeks since I last wrote a blog has been, aside from work, the raising of seedlings, a first for me and something in which I felt I had little or no competence but wanted to do anyway. All manner of greenery has emerged from the soil compartments in the storeroom, and I cursed my overuse of seeds and my complicated labelling key, which slightly fell apart when I turned the trays around to even out the light falling on them. Well, I don’t want to tempt fate by claiming any successes there. Early days.

Things have moved on the oil/gas exploration front here – and moved in a good direction – but I see I’m going to have to save that for another post, which I think will be sooner coming than this one was. Just to leave you with a note about scent: in the morning the air smells of earth spice, and as the day moves on and the breezes change, air-drifts of lavender, gum rock rose and orange blossom waft by. April in the Algarve.

The early stage of barn swallow nest-building involved straw, a piece of which you can just make out in the bird’s bill

We were very happy when the red-rumped swallows returned to the wire

Not YOURS!

 

Cu do mundo (dictionary: vulgar slang)

The Algarve is bursting into flower. It’s wonderful to see the gum rock rose again

 

We put on our protest T-shirts and gathered at the spot in Faro where the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, was due to arrive. The police fenced us in, which was handy because it meant the banners could be strapped to the temporary railings and I, for once, didn’t have to be Sister Anna. On a recent visit to the Algarve, met with a similar protest, the president gnomically remarked that there was as much chance of the area being exploited for oil as of him going to the moon. This led to today’s protest being moon-themed, with one poster showing a giant-sized one-way extra-terrestrial ticket and others displaying various exhortations to the president to take himself into orbit. When he turned up, after we’d been hanging around and banging drums for four hours, he showed himself to be the celebrity he is, who can work a room, or indeed a series of railings lined with protestors, with skill. He drove up himself, with no obvious security detail, then left the car with the keys in the ignition – an aide parked it – and came straight over to us, looking for hands to shake and asking who’d like to talk.

One particularly fervent protestor – and friend – bore a stuffed, yellow fabric new-moon toy which she’d splattered with black ink to suggest an oil spill. She waved it at the president until he took it off her hands. It looked rather like a large, overripe banana.

The ease with which it is possible in Portugal to come face to face with politicians at the highest level is one of the great things about this country. It might be a product of its small size or the general openness of its people, or both. But we were disappointed when the president revisited his moon analogy – though you could argue that it was game of him given how much he was being mocked for it. And when he continued to assert that the contracts – or contract, singular, in his estimation – were only for research and not for exploitation, we were more than disappointed. The old ground we’ve been over so many times. There’s no way an oil company would invest millions just to see what’s there, then generously share that information widely and non-commercially. And we know the contracts allow for extraction to follow exploration because we’ve seen them. The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, was filmed last year trying to sell the Portuguese seabed to oil companies in the United States. Then she said in Parliament that there were no contracts for oil production in Portugal, a remark of the ‘alternative fact’ variety.

I peeled off in the middle of the wait for the president. A friend and I went for a sit-down and some coffee and cake in an elegant café in the centre of the old town, where we were served by waiters dressed smartly in black. No one looked twice at me even though I had large black teardrops painted on my face, which I’d forgotten about.

That night Husband made it on to the national news – again.

Back at home

We think of this dirt road leading to the floor of the valley as a romantic setting, the fim do mundo, the paradise at the ‘end of the world’. The locals are more likely to call it the cu do mundo, the ‘arse end of the world’. There are people in the nearby village who’ve never been here and would never bother to come. Maria used the term herself the other day. ‘We always thought of this place as the cu do mundo, but the foreigners seem to find it pretty.’ We were talking to her about our permaculture project, for which she and her husband have slowly developed a muted, guarded interest. As all salt-of-the-earth types worldwide, their response is purely practical. ‘We see what you are trying to do, and if it works, we might be impressed. But it takes time. We’ll see.’

I’m taking a blog holiday again. So many things to do. Many seeds to plant, for example, in our little paradise.

‘Gon out. Bisy. Backson.’

Another fantastic array of bread

Seeds for sharing

Back to the watermill

Blossom by the watermill

I needed the medium-sized stepladder to reach the swallow nest. A roll of masking tape was left over from painting and I used this in strips to make a kind of basket suspended from the ceiling – sticky side inwards – that covered the entire nest without touching it. All this because the barn swallows, which until last week we’d never before seen around here, chased the red-rumped swallows away and took over the nest. I wasn’t having that. It was sad so see the red-rumped swallows flee, a day after arriving. (Why are they so fey and always give in so easily?) So the barn swallows must learn, just as the sparrows have done, that they can nest wherever they like, just not outside our front door. That space, along with what is left of the nest, belongs to the red-rumped swallows. Should they reappear, I will remove the masking tape. Here’s hoping, however faintly, that they do.

I am, I know, a little obsessed with the nest and its rightful occupants. I am also obsessed with the ruined watermill at the foot of the path to the river, which equally deserves rightful occupants. My fascination comes and goes. It depends how much spare time I’ve got, and whether I can interest anyone else in it. Luckily this week we had two friends visiting us whose interest was piqued. They arrived in blissful weather which lasted their whole stay, and once we’d finished exploring the permaculture project and opened the swimming pool for the first time this year, we visited the mill.

Previous nosing about had established that the impeller wheel would have been underground, positioned horizontally, while a sluice gate in a rear room released the water from the reservoir at the back to flow through, under the building, and drive the wheel and its various gears and shafts. Broken millstones lie about in the main room amid shattered tiles and cane from the fallen ceiling. A cut-out circle can be seen in the centre of the floor, where the millstones would have been, and in the middle of this space is a small square opening that leads down into the underground chamber. This is as far as the explorations had got, but then Neil, combining slender hips with an adventurous spirit, dropped himself down through the square, a tight fit, to land on his feet in the silt below. His head soon disappeared as well, but his voice echoed back.

No equipment remained underground except for a rusty pickaxe head, but the shape of the underground chamber revealed itself: a dome. The inlet for the water is set at an angle to encourage centrifugal force. The whole device is a turbine. The outlet would presumably have led back to the river, perhaps running underground until it got there. Mill water could, I imagine, be diverted for irrigation, but this is an isolated mill on a bend of the river and the water must surely have ended up back in the stream. The wheel was likely to have been wood, long since rotted away, which would explain its absence. It might be possible to dig some remains out of the silt. That’s for another day.

Neil made his way out of chamber again, having taken photographs on my camera for later inspection.

It’s an overlooked thing, this mill. It’s still up for sale as a tourist project with no requirement whatsoever to protect the Portuguese heritage it represents.

Rollie, my Renault 4, my own little bit of heritage, is doing rather well. He’s been running smoothly for many months now. In April he needs his annual service and inspection, and I began to think of getting in touch with Costa, even though it had been a while since I’d spoken to or seen him, to ask if he would take care of this as he has done the previous two years. On Monday I drove to Tavira. I planned to call Costa on my mobile while I was out and could get a signal but I was rather busy and didn’t. Almost back at home, at the top of our dirt track, I remembered. I pulled into one of the passing places and took out my phone.

I’d missed a call from Costa by minutes.

I swear, when it comes to the Renault 4, we have a perfect, telepathic understanding. We’re going to meet up later in the week.

Underneath the mill. The water inlet

The water outlet. Here you can clearly see the dome shape

A millstone in the grounds

Perfect joy (or was it?)

This wild pear tree predates our arrival, but has never done much. Certainly its few and hard small fruit have never been of interest to us. But as if the permaculture project on the hillside above has given it a boost, it produced more blossom this spring than we’ve ever seen. The blossom is sweetly fragrant and thrumming with bees and wasps. If you get too close for a sniff you are in danger of inhaling the stinging insects

 

Tuesday 7 March: a day to remember. The red-rumped swallows returned – much earlier than we’d expected them. It was warm enough for breakfast on the veranda. It’s rather exposed there now since we cut the bougainvillea back to a coarse heart-shape bristling with cut arteries that isn’t even visible over the front wall. We had to do it for the painting work. I miss its colour and exuberance and trust it to come back in full vigour. In the meantime, we now enjoy sweeping views from the full width of the veranda across the valley to the Meditation Hill. The same change of perspective has occurred inside the house, where you can glance up from the kitchen table or sofa, through the window that gives on to the veranda, right through to the other side of the valley. Our horizons have broadened.

Into these broadened horizons on Tuesday morning floated the shiny elegance of two red-rumped swallows. They surveyed the veranda in two broad sweeps through the airspace, then one returned and settled upon what remains of the nest on the hook. He – I think it was the male – delivered a peroration. It sounded like: ‘We’re back. This is ours. Sparrows, get lost. And you humans could have done a better job of caretaking. You realise we now have to rebuild, don’t you? Don’t you think we’ve had enough work to do, flying here from Africa?’ Then off again. We sat there in perfect joy, despite the telling-off.

Later the same day, we saw barn swallows on the wire outside the house. Barn swallows, not red-rumped. Had we been mistaken in the morning? Still half asleep over breakfast, not fully with it? Over-keen to see one of our most beloved birds? We’re going to have to wait and see. If they were barn swallows on the veranda in the morning then it raises the uncomfortable possibility that we might have to protect the red-rumpeds’ home from the barn swallows, too.

We want the red-rumped swallows. They belong here. They’ve been a big part of our lives and we want them back.

And if it turns out that 7 March is memorable for nothing else then at least as the first night we didn’t light a fire in many a month. It seems to have been a long winter. Even if days were warm and bright, nights were always chilly – until now.

Pimplenose

A Mediterranean Garden Fair took place near Silves, about an hour’s drive west, on Saturday. We went in Rollie with two friends. Four people in Rollie for a longish drive: this was a first. We’d have used the jeep but its engine packed up a couple of weeks ago and it’s undergoing a complex repair at a local garage. Rollie was well up to the task, including the transport on the return journey of a number of new plants for our land. We’re putting smaller trees and shrubs between the larger trees now, and after that we’ll probably start putting in vegetables in the reducing spaces that are left between. The small lavenders, sages and succulents went into Rollie’s boot. Into the rear footwell went the two grapefruit trees we selected on the advice of our permaculture expert to fill a couple of gaps in the irrigated swales. At roughly shoulder height they just fitted in, their young leaves brushing the roof. They were held securely between the two rear passengers, of whom I was one, for the return journey. Already showing blossom they ensured the journey home was bathed in heavenly citrus scent. Another kind of joy.

Then it turned out that the grapefruit trees were an error in translation. Our permaculture advisor does us the kindness of speaking in English, her third language. But ‘grapefruit’ tripped her up. She had meant to say ‘pomegranate’. And when you come to think of it, ‘grapefruit’ is a silly name. How did that stick? It came about because of the fruit’s tendency to grow in clusters, like grapes. This tendency has never been very evident in our one pre-existing grapefruit tree, even in its most abundant fruiting year, which was the year we moved in when we hardly knew what to do with all the fruit it gave. The name was a stretch of someone’s imagination.

According to Jane Grigson, in her Fruit book, the citrus’s earlier name was shaddock, after an English sea captain who brought its seeds from their native Java and Malaysia to Barbados in the eighteenth century, beyond which they spread to Europe. Alan Davidson, in his Fruit book, describes another old English name: pimplenose, a mishearing perhaps of the French name pamplemousse. Pimplenose! Such a brilliant name. I wonder if I can make that stick?

PS Three years ago when I began this blog journey I met another would-be blogger, Penny Johnstone, a lovely, warm person who was a huge encouragement to me. This week I learnt from her daughter that she has died of cancer. Pen: this one is in memory of you.

Damp crevices. One day after heavy rainfall the water-retaining capability of the swales is clear

Fava beans are sprouting all over the land after our broadcasting of the seeds: this is green manure

Our guest dogs, Estrela and Lordy, found something interestingly smelly on the veranda floor

With the bougainvillea cut back, Estrela and Lordy have found a new vantage point. In view top right is the inevitable plastic bag, used in the bakery for proofing doughs then washed and hung out to dry

 

Dust

I never even noticed this beautiful carob tree before; it was inaccessible and hidden. Now it invites you to visit it. It is a perfect example of how the permaculture work on the land has opened it up in whole new ways

About to become deluxe accommodation for a sapling

Swales awaiting their protective covering of straw

A mango tree in the ‘tropical swale’, which is lined up to get more water than the other swales

 

A dust cloud from the Sahara landed on us this week, turning everything light brown. It must have met with humidity somewhere because it adhered to everything it touched. Vehicles queued up at car washes for the next couple of days. It took me several hours to clean the garden furniture. The swimming pool’s hitherto white cover is now dark sand but I haven’t tackled that yet. As for all the leaves in the garden, it would be a task for the Queen of Hearts and many obedient decks of cards to restore the colour of those. We need some rain to fall – and it is forecast for the weekend.

The battle of the corks continued all week, with the sparrows, now experts in the task, ousting the twin-cork contraption every night and us replacing it the next day, until a slip of Husband’s hand brought most of the rest of the fragile nest down. What this revealed, before the breeze took them away, was a luxurious lining of soft feathers. Now the swallows will have to rebuild, and the sparrows have nothing left to fight for possession of. The sparrows are not so hard done by. Flocks of them have taken advantage of the seeding of the hill for a feeding frenzy.

Also luxuriously feather-bedded have been the new trees brought home in the black van last week. They have been housed like racehorses. A few months ago, before we had any idea we were about to embark on a permaculture project, a landscape expert told me, ‘Make a hundred-dollar hole for a ten-dollar tree.’ How true. The excavating of the holes was, of course, done by costly machine. Heaven provided the first watering. Compost and manure made the first layers of bedding in the spacious hole, then each tree – healthy-looking but none the less insubstantial saplings every one of them – was introduced to its new home. After that, infilling with more precious stuff, a good watering, a layer of cardboard, another watering, and finishing off with a counterpane of straw. Each tree lives in an advantageous part of a swale, and we have high hopes of them.

I have not been without my protest armour this week. While Husband and visiting friend took on the job of repainting some exterior wood, I went to Lisbon by chartered coach. It meant leaving home at 7 a.m. and getting back after 1 a.m., and it meant standing outside the Assembleia da Républica for some five hours. As usual, I was Sister Anna with the banner. I need only to stand in one place for a few moments for someone to ask me to hold their side of the banner and then to disappear for good – though another kind-hearted protester can always be relied upon to relieve me when it gets too much. At one point someone asked me which group the banner I was supporting represented. I wasn’t sure. ‘I’m just a general banner holder,’ I explained.

The date – 23 February – and the timing were to coincide with the hearing inside the assembleia for ASMAA, a campaigning group seeking to protect the Algarve. The hearing was occasioned by the anti-oil petition with its 42,000 signers – included among them some dear readers of this blog. It had taken a while to get the date for a hearing, and in the meantime the DGRM (the department responsible for natural resources) had authorised a licence for drilling offshore anyway. But ASMAA decided it was worth going ahead with the hearing, not least out of respect for all the signers. Additionally, and rather hopefully, a lawyer has been digging up all the shaky ground around the 1994 law that allows oil-drilling to take place, and has found that the law itself is arguably illegitimate, and therefore so too all the contracts it has given rise to. The whole caravan is a mirage, swathed in desert sand …

The outcome of the hearing was good. Not so much a step in the right direction as a leap, I was told. And what’s more the politicians heard us chanting outside and it disturbed their usual smooth surfaces.

With all this going on, Carnival completely passed us by.

Black van

A black van arrives most mornings and disgorges a bunch of good-looking young people, distinguished by beards and/or dreadlocks, who then work the land over the course of an often long day. Their current tasks are to fill the tree holes and layer the swales with compost and mulch (straw) and to continue to distribute the stones in the land to best advantage for the swales and for the plants to come. Hillocks of compost sacks and miniature hay ricks appeared at the bottom of the track up the hill, dropped off by van, and were then delivered by tractor to the top and sides of the land where they could be more easily dragged or rolled to where they were needed.

I was in England for a while this past week and in that time an enormous amount of rain fell here. From the pictures Husband sent me and the descriptions he gave, it sounded more torrential than any I’d ever experienced. Certainly the river is lovely now: enough current to smooth over the worst of the council digging – which went on for ages but seems at last to have stopped – and with a crystal clarity. The rain proved a little too much for the swales, however. There were a few breaches, one in particular that carved a clear path through, leaving a U-shaped gap in the earth mound. This is good, however. It revealed exactly where the water on its desired route down the land met a weak point in the swale, and enabled us to fix it before the planting started. It was a fierce downpour and so a worthwhile test. Additionally, the swales, newly made, are at their most fragile. When plants have established themselves on them with root systems burrowing down, they’ll be stronger. Even in their newly made state, they channelled and furrowed the rainwater to much better effect than has ever happened before. So, it was all done just in time.

It was several days after I returned home before I could even go and see what had happened on the hill, having been laid low by an English cold. When I finally emerged, it was to a whole new space, one which invites wandering and exploration and offers many opportunities for planting. Today, I got to be an occupant of the big black van, as we drove the long journey across the Algarve to Monchique to our chosen viveiro to purchase the trees and shrubs, which include these: Portuguese oak, olive, almond, red pepper tree (not sure if that is its name in English), loquat, fig, medronho, quince, persimmon, plum, apricot, mango, banana, avocado, grapefruit, lemon, lime, blackberry, mulberry, goji, strawberry, walnut, vine . . .

Our plant haul, arranged in the back of the black van. Being away and then sick this week meant that this is the only photograph I took, but it is one to lift the heart

Never give up

Moody weather over the Meditation Hill

Linaria amethystea, Amethyst Toadflax, a tiny jewel amid the abundant greenery

 

The landform engineering is complete. The steepest part of the hill is wreathed in swales. They are large and deep, and within each land-hugging curve is a flatter terrace designed to make the land easier to walk on and – eventually – harvest from. The completion of the digging was met with downpours. Pleasingly, the swales, although they lack the mulching and the plant roots that will make them truly like sponges, channelled and held on to plenty of water.

Before the rain came we sowed the swales with seed – what musical words! – of broad bean and oat to generate green manure for spring-time and roots to train the water down into the earth. I joined in, informing the others as I scattered the seed with a sweep of the arm that this was the origin of the English word ‘broadcast’. This fascinating announcement fell on stony ground. Of much more interest to them – I discovered only when I’d finished – was my technique of scattering. It took me four times as long as anyone else and on completion I was met with indulgent looks. I demand patience from my co-workers, it seems. My desired transition from desk-worker to smallholder is going slowly. I’m still more Margot than Barbara.

It was morning and the sun rising over the opposite hill – the Meditation Hill – had lit up most of the dew drops like diamonds, but some drops, hanging heavily from grass stalks by a broken rock, looked more like copper, gold, amethyst. The broken rock had to be shale, I realised; this shiny film is what the fossil-fuel dinosaurs are interested in. It’s a great relief that the contracts giving one deluded businessman the rights to frack almost half of the landmass of the Algarve were cancelled. All the offshore rights remain in place, however, and one activist with her nose close to the paperwork – Laurinda Seabra – discovered that in January the government had secretly signed the licence for Galp-ENI to start drilling 3,000 metres below the seabed off the Aljezur coast. Not only that, in the small print the oil consortium is exempt both from paying licence fees and a security deposit and from providing proof that they have civil responsibility insurance in place – which can surely only mean that they have no such insurance in place. The government has taken no notice whatsoever of our repeated protests and petitions. Gestures towards public consultation were a weird Trumpian handshake while behind the scenes it was business as usual. So we’ll have to keep protesting. The next demonstration takes place in Lisbon outside the Assembleia da República on 23 February, when a long overdue parliamentary hearing is intended finally to take place to discuss the issues raised during the public consultation process: just to complete the window-dressing on their part, I guess.

Soon we will plant trees on the land. Mind you, with all the log fires we’ve been making to drive out the damp and the chill of recent wet days, we must be burning more trees than we could ever replace. Hypocrisy – never far away.

The sparrows refuse to lose interest in our veranda and its mud nest. They managed somehow to dislodge the two corks nailed together with metal U-pins. This contraption must match the body weight of the sparrows, so they really do deserve applause. But they are not getting in on my watch. I’ve replaced the corks. Build your own nest, feathered friends. You have so much space to choose from.

The sparrows don’t give up. The oilmen don’t give up. And we don’t give up. Well, apart from last week when I was scheduled to write a blog as ever, but ran out of juice and didn’t do it. It is a purely self-imposed deadline, an exercise in self-discipline and commitment as much as in communication, but it’s important to me and I didn’t like failing to meet it. I’m glad to be back this week.

This sparrow youngster was fascinated by the phones near the Signal Tree, aka the central post of the veranda with its backdrop of bougainvillea, often strung about with devices as it is one of the best places to have a chance of picking up an incoming call. First it looked at itself in the screen . . .

. . . then, having discovered how cute it was, it played all coy in front of Husband, hiding its face in its wing

Permaculture start

An almond tree in the morning fog, the sun trying to break through. The view is from our veranda and is of the land going down to the river, which isn’t ours. The land we are working on is behind us but I’m not able to show it, for reasons explained below . . .

 

Our battle with the sparrows has escalated. The natural world is boss, but we’re not above a bit of engineering where we can. The sparrows are not going to squat the swallow nest, whatever they think. Their latest attempt was to push our cork barricade down into the nest since they couldn’t remove it – rather like we might do with a wine bottle we don’t have a corkscrew for but are desperate to get into. I positioned a stepladder under the nest, then reached in to retrieve the corks. The half of the tunnel entrance that had not been pecked away by the sparrows came away in my hands, so after filling the nest interior with a scrunched-up plastic bag I blocked the widened entrance with the broken-off bit of nest.

They breached the mud barricade in no time. It was in pieces on the veranda floor the next time I looked. The plastic bag was working, however. They couldn’t get round that. This time I returned the two nailed-together corks to the entrance and added a third for good measure. So far so good. I believe I get malevolent looks from the sparrows every time I go out but I’m up to that.

Land engineering is our other preoccupation. Our permaculture project has got under way: we are beginning to create swales on the hillside. ‘Swale’ is a little-used word, possibly east Anglian dialect but don’t quote me on that, meaning a damp or shady hollow in the landscape. Little used, that is, until taken up by the world of permaculture, where the swale is a favoured piece of landform technology. I think of a swale as like a swag, the soft, drooping curve of a piece of gathered fabric. We are taking the wrinkled, uneven material of the hillside and bunching it into smooth ridges and furrows that curve along its contours. The ridges and furrows will slow down and capture water run-off. The furrows will also be where organic material can gather and topsoil can build up, with a bit of help from compost and mulch. You can build swales painstakingly using a pick and a shovel if you have masses of time and good muscles but we are getting a machine in to dig them out.

The first step was to work out the contours using a large A frame from which a rock hung on a string like a plumb line. I got to spend a precious morning away from my desk marking out the swales as assistant to our permaculture advisor, which was heavenly, especially on the warm day we were blessed with. I moved across the face of the hill, swinging the A frame from point to point like a large pair of compasses, waiting for the rock plumb line to determine the exact position of the frame’s forward foot so that my companion could hammer in an iron stake there, fluttering with a red and white strip for visibility. We marked out four swales on our neglected hillside in this way.

The next day the digger arrived to start the work of carving out the furrows and building up the ridges following the marked-out routes. Rain stopped play, however. The red earth turned claggy and unworkable. We must wait until the sun shines again before continuing.

I took pictures to show you but the internet is not cooperating with me today. It might be the rain that’s slowed it down to an impossible degree. I hope to have progress to report on next week – but we are in the hands of the weather gods.

 

Snow in the Algarve, part II

In the funny way this blog sometimes has of predicting the future – aka, catching me out – this week it did snow in the Algarve. As well as almond blossom, actual snow appeared for the first time in half a century. It was no more than a few flakes but it caused a flurry of excitement. The birds I see from the study – the robin and the redstart – turned from sleek outlines into powder puffs in their attempts to stay warm. Then, after a few bone-cold days, the weather turned better, which was lucky for one cyclist, newly into a nine-year World Environmental Tour that had brought him to the Algarve. As my activist group were thinner on the ground in January than the snow, and since the cyclist was from Manchester, I was the one who arranged to meet him to talk about local issues. We were to cross paths in Olhão, the fishing town. As part of a firefighter solidarity network, he was staying at the fire station.

I don’t know my way around Olhão, only the sea front, but a fire station should be easy to find. I employed the navigation function on my phone. It took me to the Avenida dos Bombeiros – the Avenue of the Firefighters. I parked in a tucked away car park, made a mental note of a tall tree that would serve as a landmark, and looked for a building with huge gates and red fire engines. None. I asked the receptionist of the driving school there.

‘Oh, it’s a long way from here. You go left here and right there and . . . There is a roundabout with a cube on it.’

I’m still at the stage of being able to formulate a good question in Portuguese but not being able to understand all the answer. I thanked her and set off on foot. Confusion set in after a while. The Cyclist and I were messaging each other. I let him know I’d arrived but was trying to find the fire station. He kept sending me maps I could barely read on the tiny phone screen.

I found a new helper, an elderly lady in winter coat and sunglasses. She began to explain the route.

‘You know the X, and the Y?’

‘No . . .’

‘Ah, you don’t know nada of Olhão?’

‘I don’t know nada.’

‘I will show you the way.’

We walked together for a while. I lost track of the small twists and turns we were taking. Occasionally the narrowness of the cobblestone pavement, or a passing or parked car, forced us on to separate sides of the road. She would call me back to her side with a sound you might use to call a dog and I would return to heel. Eventually we arrived at the point where we would part. She described the rest of the route I was to take alone and kissed me warmly on both cheeks. I set off across a small park and found the other side of it ended in a drop back to the road, which had fallen away below. I contemplated jumping but heard the dog call. My saviour was not far away, indicating I retrace my steps then follow the road around the park wall. I did so, and we waved to each other for the last time.

I was looking for a school now, but didn’t see it. The Cyclist asked me to send a photograph of where I was. With the message function of the phone, I took a picture of the nearest road sign. Typically Portuguese, it was pretty against a white wall, made of decorative tiles with a name longer than the tiny street merited. I pressed send and turned round to discover a man watching me, his legs splayed, his flies open, showing me his erection.

I scarpered. Maybe you are supposed to do something deterrent – jeer? scream? point and laugh? aim a swift kick? – but I was off, not running but walking fast, down several small streets before my instinct towards flight cooled off. I no longer knew where I was, nor where my car was, nor where the Cyclist was. His response to my earlier photo-message pinged through.

‘You’re not far now.’

Too late. I wasn’t going back there, even if I could find it again.

It took me about 20 minutes to locate my car. The landmark tree helped. I messaged the Cyclist, who’d been asking if I was OK.

‘Unnerved by flasher. Going home.’

He encouraged me not to give up. If I could just drive back to the N125, turn right, stop by a roundabout with a big cube on it, he’d meet me there.

It worked. I made it. We finally met to discuss his one-man world-saving trip. Good luck to him. I couldn’t do it. I’d get lost for one thing. And I felt like I’d already encountered an entire world in Olhão in one afternoon. Here he is, Martin Hutchinson Caminante, and now recumbent tricyclist, in his own words:

‘I walked 34,000 kilometres across twenty-one Latin American countries over nine years; I went to 600 schools to give talks and lectures on what we are doing to the environment. Then I left England again last year, on 31 May, my fifty-fifth birthday, to travel on my recumbent tricycle around every European country, and then go to India and Australia. I hope to spend another nine years doing this, or more. The idea again is to film and go to schools to show what is being done to the environment and how we need to change. We need to make some small sacrifices now, because if we don’t there’ll be huge sacrifices to make in the near future, about which we won’t have any choice. We live on the most incredible planet. People just don’t see it any more.’

I disagreed with this point. It seems my view of people is too optimistic.

‘The world cannot supply 7.5 billion people with the lifestyle that everyone expects. Individuals have got to take action, which starts with cutting back. One person can do a lot just by themselves; maybe encourage others to follow their example. We have power. We are only governed by a few. We have to say we want governments to change, corporations to change. We don’t want fossil fuels, they are old-fashioned. We have to say to the corporations: there are solutions, it’s just that you’re not implementing them because you are making loads of money out of the old ways and you don’t care what you are doing to the environment in the meantime.

‘We haven’t got a few years. We need to change things now. Everybody needs to cut back. We don’t need as much stuff. We have become prisoners of our possessions. Cut back, let things go. Get your freedom back.

‘When I was nineteen, I had a nice girlfriend and one day she said, “You’re not going to be anything, are you?” I realised halfway home that that was the end of the relationship, and it was because I wasn’t going to be somebody. Then a few weeks afterwards, I thought, yes, she’s right. Doesn’t mean I can’t have an interesting life though. Never had a buzz like it in my life. I had such a rush of energy. I packed in my job and went off round the world. It’s possible. Everything is there. If you never make a sacrifice, you never gain any experience. I have had such a wonderful life. I say to kids, just get out there, be free and have a life. We live on the most incredible planet. It’s taken 4.5 billion years for the planet to get to this point, and it’s probably the best time that humans have ever lived on it. And what are we doing? Messing it all up.’

 

Something to look out for on the roads of the Algarve over the coming week

Martin Hutchinson with his bike at the fire station. (For the record, the building looks nothing like a fire station from the outside)

 

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