Birdlife

Activism

Red-rumped Swallow on our telegraph wire

Red-rumped Swallow on our telegraph wire

A little further away on the wire: a Blue Rock Thrush, one of Husband's favourite birds

A little further away on the wire: a Blue Rock Thrush, one of Husband’s favourite birds

Lordy, as ever, not wanting to look at the camera. (A bit heavy-handed on the eye-liner, too.) Estrela is pleading: 'Won't you let me have a bit more of that nice bread?'

Lordy, as ever, not wanting to look at the camera. (He’s been heavy-handed on the eye-liner, too.) Estrela is pleading: ‘Won’t you let me have a little bit more of that nice bread?’

 

I heard two swallows babbling on the wire a week ago, just after I’d posted the previous blog. It wasn’t the sound of the Barn Swallows, it was something ever so slightly different, a difference contained in – for me – a greater feeling of familiarity: it was a pair of Red-rumped Swallows. I wasn’t expecting them for some weeks yet, as I had declared in the blog post. Last year, when I was so keen to see them for the first time, they showed up only in late March. Their reappearance was heart-lifting, like the return of old friends.

Of course, no sooner had they alighted on the wire than Mr Sparrow arrived and muscled up to them in a repeat of last year’s avian soap opera. He also chased off a nuthatch and a greenfinch from the alfarroba near by. He thinks he’s cock of the walk all right. One bird he cannot chase off, however, is the eagle. Yes, we have eagles. During lunch with friends in the back garden last week, two Short-toed Eagles appeared over the hill, causing spoons to clatter into soup bowls as cameras and binoculars were reached for. Then this week we saw one of them again, this time over the valley in front. It perched on a telegraph pole across the river, perfectly caught by the light, and stretched its neck. After a while it took off and glided away, turning one way and then the other, giving us a perfect display of its colours and patterning.

But it isn’t birds that have preoccupied me this week. I haven’t even been wading up and down the river these past few days.

laundry

Tourism trade fair

You see, we decided – with some other active citizens – to go to the tourism trade fair (BTL) in Lisbon and see if we could engage more of the industry’s support in making a case against oil and gas exploration here in the Algarve. The mere idea of it gave me a couple of sleepless nights. We turned up at the Feira Internacional de Lisboa on one of the days given over to professionals – not the public – and got in under slightly false pretences. Then we went around the stalls, asking people what they knew about the fossil-fuel extraction plans, offering some information and asking if they wanted to sign the petition. And this was the outcome:

People who were friendly and nice about being approached in this way:       100%

People who wanted to sign the petition:       90%

People who’d heard of the plans to turn the Algarve into an oil-producing land, vs those who hadn’t heard anything about it before:        roughly 50/50

People who were in favour of turning the Algarve into Texas: one. One solitary man. He was in favour for economic reasons, and I tried to show how it wouldn’t make the country rich, nor even the government rich, and he agreed to give that strange notion some thought. We shook hands on it, amicably.

Difference this will make in the world: almost none, but you have to try, don’t you? I don’t like having to use economic arguments against the fossil fuel industry, when the slow suicide that is climate change should be enough, but it just so happens that the tourism industry is already tipping more into the government’s coffers than the fossil fuel industry ever could, certainly at current oil prices. Granted, it is an argument based on one against the other. Arguably an oil industry wouldn’t wipe out tourism altogether and immediately, but it certainly wouldn’t do it any good.

Dwelling on this subject does not allow for much serenity. The more you look into it, the worse it gets. The government’s arguments all along have been that the initial stages are exploratory and they just want to know more about the geology of the land. (Incidentally, ‘exploration’, rather than ‘exploitation’, can legally be done without Environmental Impact Assessment reports.) Then a keen journalist uncovered the transcript from an investor meeting given by the (non-Portuguese) oil company that holds the offshore contracts closest to us here, in which it clearly showed that they already know exactly what’s there for the taking, and they are cock-a-hoop over the cheap contracts they’ve managed to get to extract it all.

I started the week with the heart-lifting sight of the Red-rumped Swallows. And now, at the end of the week, it was another bird that lifted my heart all over again: coming over the concrete bridge on the way from Flaviano’s emporium, I saw a bird I’ve longed to see here but had never yet spotted. Finally, there it was: the unmistakable, life-enhancing, turquoise flash of a kingfisher in flight. The earth wins.*

*Pace JerryG.

Zombies

'Algarve snow'

‘Algarve snow’

Spot the almond tree

Spot the almond tree

I love this tree - the alfarroba or carob - with its tent of branches

The alfarroba or carob tree: it’s like a big tent

Aloe flower; the birds love to feed from these

Garden

Garlic I planted a week ago. I have high hopes for this

Garlic I planted a week ago. I have high hopes for this

 

It’s been a week of sunshine and rain, rain that was as fine as mist and gently soaked the ground and turned our green valley into somewhere like Wales for a while, then a tropical downpour which started with black clouds piling up and then everything melted into liquidity, including the outline of the Meditation Hill. For me that day, indoors with my eyes glued to my laptop screen, the first indication of rain were the drops that started tapping on the roof, soon turning into a thunderous drumming. In between the rainy days, sunshine encouraged walks. One, towards the valley we discovered on Christmas Day, reacquainted us with Long-tailed Tits, Crested Tits and Sand Martins, and gave us better views of our very own Common Buzzard (we have claimed the buzzard for ourselves, you see). On another I saw a Red Admiral on the stony path, a butterfly I’d never seen before. Its colours were astonishingly rich and deep but nothing in the books came close to its vibrancy. It took some searching before I was able to give it a name.

I like to know what things are. I also like to know what sentences mean. I don’t like it when things don’t make sense. Things not making sense is what drives me crazy, and is probably why I’ve worked as an editor for all these years: trying to make things make sense. From making sense it’s a short step to truth and beauty, in my book. Proper words in proper places, as Jonathan Swift said.

So I hope you will come along with me while I try to make sense of something: what’s happening around here with regard to oil exploration. First, let me confess I’ve taken the Zombie idea in the blog title from a writer called Bill McKibben, who had a piece in the Los Angeles Times this week (19 January 2016). He writes so clearly and makes such perfect sense that I’m going to borrow a few sentences from him, though best of all is if you read the piece itself:

Even as global warming makes it clear that coal, natural gas and oil are yesterday’s energy, two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in zombie-like fashion. In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is underway. In statehouse hearing rooms and far off farmers’ fields, local activists are making desperate stands to stop new fossil fuel projects, while the energy companies are making equally desperate attempts to build while they still can. … Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies have the clout to keep politicians saying yes. … The money, however, is only part of it: the whole process is on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that laws and regulations favor business as usual.

Zombies in Portugal

In the national election in October 2015, with its slow and compromised outcome, the leader of one small party made it into parliament: André Silva of PAN (Pessoas, Animais e Natureza: People, Animals and Nature). He’s very much not a zombie, so perhaps I haven’t started at the best place here. He is a strict vegetarian – in English we’d call him a vegan – but he says he doesn’t look like one because he’s the chubby sort (‘Sou um tipo gordinho’). Question-time in parliament takes place every two weeks. On 15 January 2016, O Gordinho asked O Gordo (as I’m choosing to call PM António Costa) to have ‘the courage to break with the old paradigm of fossil fuels’. In reply O Gordo declared that ‘the oil contracts in place have to be met’, that ‘prospection has to go ahead’, that ‘it is absolutely essential for the country to know what its natural resources are’, and that therefore ‘the government will continue prospecting for oil’. (Note: O Gordo got left out of the Paris COP21 talks because the named Portuguese delegate was not him but his predecessor. So perhaps he hasn’t heard of climate change?)

Three days earlier, an interview with my favourite fool, Paulo Carmona of the ENMC (combustible fuel entity), was published by a paper called Sol. In this Mr Carmona declared that ‘drilling for oil is just like drilling for water’, that in the event of an accident with natural gas, no problem, ‘because by definition it just evaporates into thin air’, and that ‘with all this investment, never mind if we find oil or not, at least the state is going to know its subsoils really well’. (The declared investment of oil companies in this region so far is 58 million euros, which of course they’ll want back in commercial rewards.) Paulo Carmona also said, in the ‘clarification’ meeting I attended on 12 January, that explorations so far had shown evidence of hydrocarbons, but they were not of commercial interest. (So stop looking, then?)

All of this borders on the barmy, until you remember that we are dealing with zombies here and they cannot be expected to make sense.

The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, is reported in Postal on 25 January as having said that ‘no economic reason would compel the state to compromise its natural resources’, and that:

the state’s duty is to protect the territory and its communities from damage. However, there would be no harm in knowing what there is in terms of minerals, gas, oil . . . And no economic activity should be prejudiced just because, in the end and only in theory, it might do environmental harm. Although of course there can never be any breach in relation to the requirements of our natural environment.

You couldn’t make it up.

The president of oil company Partex, which, with Repsol, has the concession for the Algarve offshore sites, says that in October or November this year they will start drilling, adding that ‘the oil price will have to help’ – giving us normal people hope that the current floor-level price of oil might be a deterrent. On land, contracts are held by Portfuel. They say they have invested 15 million dollars, and warn that if they go ahead in prospecting for oil and natural gas then their costs will be inflated by 40 million dollars. (So don’t do it then?) Their methods of extraction will undoubtedly include fracking, but they are keeping quiet about that.

Good news is that the government has now said it will not issue new contracts for oil exploration. But it will continue to respect those currently in force. The existing contracts, issued without any public oversight, come with their own clauses that guarantee them perpetual exemption from any future laws; their own built-in non-obsolescence. That’s an almost perfect definition of a zombie.

As of Sunday we now have a new president: centre-right candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who won with a considerable majority. He helped write Portugal’s constitution in the 1970s after the dictatorship had been brought down. When campaigning to be elected mayor of Lisbon in 1989, he jumped into a dirty river to raise awareness of environmental issues; he didn’t get the mayoral gig but I like that he did a river-jump. He’s a television personality and a consensus man. As the president, he has limited powers, though he does have the power to order reviews of contentious legislation. I don’t know if it’s worth hoping for anything from him, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Oh, and in the latest World Travel Awards, the winner of Europe’s Leading Beach Destination is: the Algarve. Good luck with that, everyone, if oil exploration starts.

I went for a walk in the river to think; I misjudged the depth and filled my wellies with cold water. That’s partly because I’d spotted part of the shell of a dead turtle among the reeds at the water’s edge and wanted to get a closer look at its patterns, not realising that to reach it took me through a deeper channel of water. And of course the turtle wasn’t dead at all, and was, I hazard, none too happy to be forced to wake up sharply and slide off into the shallows

I went for a walk in the river to think; I misjudged the depth and filled my wellies with cold water. That’s partly because I’d spotted the shell of a dead turtle among the reeds at the water’s edge and wanted to get a closer look at its patterns, not realising that to reach it would take me through a deeper channel. And of course the turtle wasn’t dead at all, and was, I hazard, none too happy to be forced to wake up sharply and slide off into the shallows

O ano novo

Milreu, near Estoi: a Roman latifundia from the first century AD until the collapse of the empire, then in more or less continuous use until the middle of the twentieth century

This week we finally visited Milreu, near Estoi, a Roman latifundia from the first century AD until the collapse of the Roman Empire. The estate remained in more or less continuous use until the middle of the twentieth century: hence the relatively modern farmhouse

The mosaics at Milreu were created by highly skilled artists. With this bath filled with water, the fish would appear mobile and natural; without water they look odd

The mosaics at Milreu were created by highly skilled artists. Underwater the fish in this bath would appear mobile and natural; it’s only without water that they look odd

New Year's Eve at Fábrica, near Cacela Velha

The last day of 2015, spent at Fábrica, near Cacela Velha; here and below

Fábrica

NYE1

The sun setting on 2015

The sun setting on 2015

Our river on 5 January

Our river on 5 January

Gurgling water

Gurgling water

 

The river has risen and spread. It’s not in full spate yet. My ‘Love’ artwork is submerged; I recently had to replace the ‘L’ but otherwise it’s holding strong. I had never expected it to last more than a day and it’s been there for weeks now. The pre-teens got up early every morning and took themselves down to the river to see how the water level had changed, and to rearrange stones, create new water features and select heart-shapes to add to my collection. The ability of the river to entertain them before breakfast was a boon for slumbering adults.

I, too, spend time by the river most days. Now, after several days of heavy rain, I need to wade through it in waterproof sandals if I’m to get anywhere. It’s not particularly cold. In parts the flow is quite strong and pulls at my ankles; in other parts there’s no discernible movement. If the British government were here, no doubt they’d dredge the river to create a single deep channel that would act as a water chute and flood Tavira.

I have my binoculars on me when I go to the river so I can spy on the small birds: White and Grey Wagtails, Long-tailed Tits, Goldfinches, Stonechats and Corn Buntings are among the most easily seen and recognised right now. We also still have our lonely, piping wader. We can’t get close enough for a clear identification, but it’s sure to be something common. My rule of thumb is that if you aren’t sure what a bird is, it’s going to be the most likely option and not a rarity. In this way I have finally decided that the small, olive-brown birds, yellowish underneath and with a stripe through the eye, which fill the reeds with their energetic activity, are Chiffchaffs: common and widespread. You don’t get the opportunity to focus on them for more than a second or two because they are so busy. The best chance to see them is when they come to our garden to feed on the aloe, currently in flower in full view of our bedroom window. What confused me for a time is that they have a dark mark on the face and whiskery-looking feathers around the beak, but I’ve concluded that this is a temporary feature that comes from dipping into long, tubular flowers.

This week I spotted among the Chiffchaffs in the reeds by the river a group of birds of similar size but much stiller. I focused my binoculars on them and was astounded: a thick, orange-red beak and a bright red pennant over the eye. I’d never seen a bird like that before, neither in the flesh nor on a page. Not in Europe, anyway. They were a little like an African finch. How exciting. I went back up to the house in a hurry.

No such bird in our bird bible. I turned to the ‘extras’ at the back, and there I found it. It’s the Common Waxbill: introduced into the Iberian peninsula from Africa. (It would be interesting to know who by and what for.) And guess what? It’s common and widespread, especially in Portugal where it has got a firm claw-hold. No doubt I’ll see it everywhere now.

Estrela

Maria called. She wanted first of all to thank us for the Christmas gift. They weren’t there when we dropped by with it so we’d had to hang it from their gate. It included a loaf of Husband’s bread, which she said they very much enjoyed. (Their gift to us was a bag of lemons, a bag of oranges – and their oranges are the sweetest and best – half a dozen eggs from their hens and a plastic bottle of their own olive oil: heavenly.) Then she told me that Estrela had had her puppies – this was much sooner than I expected – and did we want any? We didn’t have to decide immediately but over the next couple of days. No problem if we didn’t want them, they just needed to know.

I was pretty proud of myself for getting through a telephone conversation in Portuguese, even if my side of it was stilted and garbled. Maria’s a smart woman and knows how to speak slowly and clearly for those with comprehension difficulties. But the puppy question . . .

We went to see them. Lordy and Estrela met us at the gate: Lordy barking dutifully but wagging his tail; Estrela, however, yapping like a wild thing. We asked Eleuterio if we could see the puppies. The home their mother had chosen, in spite of efforts to encourage her into something more suitable, was the narrow confines of the brick barbecue. She shot back inside at our approach and now she was silent, as though not to disturb her pups. One by one Eleuterio picked them out and showed them to us, while Estrela snatched at the tiny limbs to get them back. They were all returned and she settled down. ‘You’re sitting on one,’ said E to her, rescuing it. But we’d already decided: we were not going to take a puppy. We realised our roots here aren’t deep enough yet, and a puppy is too great a responsibility for now.

Natal

Santa Luzia on Christmas Eve, where we went to eat fish for lunch

Santa Luzia on Christmas Eve, where we went to eat fish for lunch

Christmas tree

Christmas tree

Last year I didn't know what this was. It's oxalis, or Bermuda buttercup, a invasive plant but a beautiful one too, which furls its yellow flowers at night and opens them to the sun in the morning; seen on the Christmas Day walk

Last year I didn’t know what this was. It’s oxalis, or Bermuda buttercup, an invasive plant but an attractive one, which furls its yellow flowers at night and opens them to the sun in the morning; photographed on our Christmas Day walk

The rising sun after a night of heavy rain caused steam to rise from this cork tree

Cork tree steaming in the rising sun after a recent night of heavy rain

 

Christmas Day was winter-sunny and bright. Spotless starlings gathered on the telegraph wire in front of the house to whistle their high, ascending calls, like in-drawn breaths. The seasonal light favoured the azure-winged magpies in the valley, lowlighting their air-force-blue feathers to great advantage. We walked eastwards into the neighbouring valley, deeply cut with a tiny stream that feeds desultorily into our river. Within twenty minutes we had left all civilisation behind: not a single person to be seen, nor a house, though a few ruins and one well, deep with water. Several black, skeletal trees told the story of fire, no doubt the terrible one of 2012. How close it had come.

The extraordinary peace of Christmas Day was exchanged for something more lively on Boxing Day as friends arrived from Germany. Our jeep journeys henceforth have included two pre-teens, who relish fording the river and skittering over the stones of the smaller dirt tracks, something the hire car cannot do. One such stone was our undoing: as easily as though it were an axe, it ripped a tyre right open. It seemed best to abandon the jeep for the time being – it was too dark to contemplate tyre changes – while we walked the rest of the way in the gathering gloom, hoping the two fathers in the hire car, now sure to reach home before us, would not be anxious. Lucky that Husband keeps a torch in the car.

That walk home in the near dark might well turn out to be the highlight of the holiday. The air was luxurious: soft, scented with Cistus ladanifer and lavender. One pre-teen managed to stop her foot landing on a moving beast just in time. We shone the torch beam on it: a lustrous black and yellow Fire Salamander, so magical to see. Its rubber-shiny black skin was reminiscent of a brand-new tyre, as though it came out to mock our man-made ills with its god-given gifts.

Presépio de Natal

The bombeiros (firefighters) of Tavira have created a spectacular nativity scene at their station. Occupying the space of two fire engines, it tells the story of the nativity within a colourful, global background. Anachronisms, geographical implausibilities and out-of-scale figures fill the holy scene with both wonder and humour, and in some places, I suspect, are evidence of indulgence towards children whose toys had been redeployed. My particular favourites were an Alpine village on the hill and a tiny robot turning a carcass-laden spit. Love, patience and attention to detail had been poured into this grand work. The day we saw it was Christmas Eve, so the crib in the manger was still empty; we need to go back and see the new-born in place.

The carpenter's

The carpenter’s

The manger on Christmas Eve

The manger on Christmas Eve

 

Horse

Christmas would not be complete without Horse. It was this time last year that the mystery horse turned up in our valley and stayed for the best part of two weeks, occupying pretty much my every waking thought as I puzzled over whose he might be, was he all right, had he been abandoned, did we have enough carrots in, and so on. Now I know his owners, know where he lives, occasionally pass by his place and have been known to take a few carefully chopped up carrots and apples his way. At the end of November, when we were in Germany, we heard from the owner that Horse had escaped again; had we seen him? He returned within a matter of hours. (I like to think Horse came to see if we were around and, finding us away, gave up and went home.) Since then, his opportunities for escape have been firmly cut off by extra-secure fencing. Not that he suffers; this horse lives the life of Riley, making people love him and refusing to do much in return apart from supplying large amounts of s**t. Dear Horse.

Horse

Took the pre-teens to see Horse. He says, ‘Bom ano novo.’

Week 75: Going to church

Medronho (Arbutus unedo; strawberry tree), with fruit and flowerbuds at the same time

Medronheiro (Arbutus unedo; strawberry tree), with fruit and flowerbuds at the same time

Loquat in flower

Loquat in flower

A Great Grey Shrike* appeared at the top of a spindly oak in our garden this week, rather puffed-up and self-important, its black eyeband suggesting a tonsure so that it looked like a medieval monk surveying the monastic lands from on high. Its acolyte, a tiny – by comparison – Blue Tit, capered from branch to branch below, hoping for favour. The shrike had an apricot tinge to its belly feathers, identifying it as the Iberian sub-species (called Lanius excubitor meridionalis) and enhancing its well-fed look. In the carob trees on the other side of the garden two Blackcaps appeared, a male with the black cap its name predicts and a female with a red-brown cap. They, too, have a rather clerical appearance, with their plain colours and their neat zucchetti skullcaps.

Could it be that I have spent too long recently thinking about churches? …

… Because I have been finding out as much as I can about our beautiful local town of Tavira, starting with its abundant religious buildings: nineteen churches/chapels in the town itself and two chapels of pilgrimage just outside. The town flourished from the late medieval period until about the middle of the eighteenth century. It was the richest and most populous town of the Algarve, serving as a jumping-off point for Portugal’s expansion into North Africa. The churches represent power as often as they do piety: established to celebrate a victory in Morocco, or to provide physical and spiritual relief to returning adventurers, or to showcase a family’s or brotherhood’s wealth. They are absorbing windows into the past, as well as still in some cases being places of worship. In Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance, Plain and Baroque styles, from the gorgeous to the hideous, each one is fascinating.

Tavira's beautiful 'Roman' (actually medieval) bridge

Tavira’s beautiful ‘Roman’ (actually medieval) bridge

The Chapel of Santa Ana, one of the oldest in Tavira – and a yellow Renault 4

The Chapel of Santa Ana, established in the thirteenth or fourteenth century (and a yellow Renault 4)

Seventeenth-century tiles inside the tiny Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation, which once gave succour to the town's prisoners

Seventeenth-century tiles inside the tiny Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation, which once provided succour to the town’s prisoners

Rua D. Paio Peres Correia, a street named after the Master of the Order of Santiago, who took the town from the North African Muslims in 1242

Rua D. Paio Peres Correia, a street named after the Master of the Order of Santiago, who took the town from the North African Muslims in 1242

The typical Algarvean chimney is white, with a lacework design, and reminiscent of Moorish style. In Tavira, the traditional chimneys are four-sided, like these, and not round - though you see many examples of both kinds

The typical Algarvean chimney is white, with a lacework design, reminiscent of Moorish style. In Tavira, the traditional chimneys are four-sided, like these, rather than round (though you do see both kinds in the town)

Another Tavira chimney, near to the castle wall

Another Tavira chimney, near the castle wall

A four-sided chimney in our valley (which is in the district of Tavira)

A four-sided chimney in our valley (which is in the district of Tavira)

Anniversary

On 25 October we celebrated our first anniversary. It was a year since we had driven over the Spanish border in an over-full black Polo and arrived in Portugal to begin our lives here. It was a month later that we completed the purchase of our house and moved into this spot in the valley (giving us another anniversary to celebrate in four weeks’ time). We haven’t regretted the move for a moment. As I write, Husband is singing while he works, preparing his biggest batch of loaves so far, while I sit amid growing piles of books and leaflets for study.

 

*I decided, after some internal struggle, to use the proper nomenclature for birds: i.e. giving their species names in capitals. This makes it clear that our little owl, while being a little owl, is also a Little Owl – and who, by the way, after some silence over the late summer is now, happily for us, back in full throat at the close of every day and during the night.

Our lunch spot by the sea on beautiful day this week (at Fábrica do Costa)

Lunch by the sea on a beautiful day this week (at Fábrica do Costa)

Our local Climate March, taking place in Tavira on Sunday 29 November

Local climate activists. A march takes place in Tavira on Sunday 29 November, in line with others all over the world

Week 74: Rolie

For some weeks now, my Renault 4 has been misbehaving. This has entailed many meet-ups with Costa, my multi-tasking, extrovert R4 man, a Portuguese with a French accent and an outsider’s view of his own country. We meet at the Cooperativa, where he has a workspace arrangement with a mechanic, the same one who sorted out the R4 when I pranged the back end on the millstone outside our house (Weeks 49 and 50). The car issue at the beginning of this week – indicators that stopped working – was resolved in a matter of moments by Costa, his head under the steering-wheel column, a spanner in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. While fixing the lights, he delivered a non-stop commentary on the job in hand, on procrastination in sunny, southern countries (‘They say “Monday”, but you should ask, “Which Monday?”!’) and on some age-related concerns with his back that were hindering his positioning half in and half out of the car, all the while taking calls on the mobile, and grinning whenever his face was angled outwards so as to be visible.

The preceding problem had been an electrical one that caused the car to cut out. It would usually start again after a few moments, but this wasn’t much fun on the road in traffic. On my way to the Cooperativa that time Rolie had given up the ghost and I had been forced to leave him on the side of the road and walk the rest of the way. Costa came with me back to the car, laughing while perorating on the fact that he eats too much, that I give directions just like someone from the Alentejo (‘Oh, it’s just around the corner, no, not this corner, the next one …’), and that my ‘baby’ – babee, with the accent on the second syllable – was ‘a bad baby’. He got the engine going again and drove off. It took a substantial rewiring to sort out that problem, and it was the fixing thereof that had knocked out the indicator function. There had also been the rattling gear stick – now cushioned by a new rubber washer – and a flat tyre, a slow release caused by a tiny stone between the rubber and the rim.

The Cooperativa, with its huge, under-used (or unused) concrete silos and its Social Realist signage featuring a man and a woman in stout boots and with raised fists marching off into the future carrying a sheaf of wheat, offers space for many activities. While Costa fixes the indicators, a forklift truck manoeuvres sacks of sweetly pungent, freshly dried figs into a store-room. Wine barrels bob in water-filled plastic boxes under the water tank. The mechanic, a bear of a man – whose lateness caused the discourse on southern procrastination, though in the end he wasn’t really that late at all – arrives cleaning his sunglasses on his T-shirt, casually exposing his considerable belly, and joins in the conversation with the man under the steering wheel. Other people, to whom my car must be pretty familiar by now, come and go. Strange agricultural smells assail the nose. Mysteries unfold there. I don’t know the half of it.

Rain

Rain

Wet dog. Estrela, who so often comes to visit

Wet dog. Estrela, who so often comes to visit

These will be our first oranges of the year. I don't know what kind they are; they are an interesting drop shape

These will be our first oranges of the year. I don’t know what kind they are; they are an interesting drop shape

We will have many mandarins this year

We will have many mandarins this year

Grapefruit: the right colour already, but they need to grow a lot bigger

Grapefruit: the right colour already, but they need to grow a lot bigger

Rain

The real story this week has been rain. For days now it has done nothing but pour. Columns of rain have marched up and down the valley, thundering on the roof and hanging in sheets from the gutters. Surely the river will be back earlier this year. We expect it almost any day now.

Each time the noise of the rain stops, birds start up. Small birds are passing through in flocks and singly: wagtails, buntings and warblers; other birds are returning for winter. I opened the garage-type door to our ‘spare’ house one day this week for a yoga session, only for a bird to startle and fly straight into a window then land, stunned, on the floor. Thirty seconds later, it recovered itself and flew out of the still-open door. It was the redstart, my winter companion of last year when we had newly arrived in the valley at the end of the world. I’m so happy to see it back.

As I write I am deafened by the latest downpour and yet, incredibly, the internet is still functioning, allowing me to make this post. Equally incredibly, one day this week was hot and sunny enough for sunbathing at the beach. Our favoured beach at the height of summer is no longer easily reachable since the boat has stopped running, so we returned to our beach of autumn and winter: Barril, where the anchor graveyard is.

Taken on a hot, sunny day at the beach this week

Taken on a hot, sunny day at the beach this week

The anchor graveyard at Barril. At first, I didn't know whether this was an art installation or a dumping ground. It turns out to be neither. The anchors were for holding net frames for tuna capture and slaughter. They were stacked up here at the end of each season, ready for the next year. But then, in the mid-1960s, the next year didn't come - the decades of abundant, cascading tuna fish were over. Since then dunes have grown up around the anchors. All this is a story for another time

The anchor graveyard at Barril. At first, I didn’t know whether this was an art installation or a dumping ground. It turns out to be neither. The anchors were for holding net frames for tuna capture and slaughter. They were stacked up here at the end of each season, ready for the next year. But then, in the mid-1960s, the next year didn’t come – the decades of abundant, cascading tuna fish were over. Since then dunes have grown up around the anchors. All this is a story for another time

Week 71: The moon and the sun

Not the best picture of the moon you will ever see, but it was my moon on this special night

Not the best picture of the moon you will ever see, but it was my view on this special night

Starting to smoulder

Starting to smoulder

Almost completely eclipsed

Almost completely eclipsed

 

After midnight on 28 September, the perigee full moon shone so brightly I thought we’d left a light on outside. With the promise of a lunar eclipse and a ‘blood moon’, I decided to stay up and watch. Husband was in bed with a cold.

I made myself comfortable on a sun-lounger. The moon drenched the night in a milky glow. I’d read two pieces of advice about moon-watching on this night. The first was that no special precautions were needed. (Husband scoffed. ‘That’s like telling people they don’t need to wear sunglasses to go out at night!’ But I was privately reassured.) The second was to give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness. The second advice turned out to be useless. There was no darkness. The sky was the colour of a blue rock thrush – of which more later – with barely any stars visible. The house cast a sharply defined shadow over the back terrace. I tentatively lifted my binoculars to the huge and luminous moon, glad to know I wasn’t about to burn my retinas out.

For an hour, between 01.11 and 02.11, nothing perceptible happened. Just me and the moon. Not another human sound could be heard. Birds and dogs made their occasional calls against the background of a steady buzz of cricket wings. Invisible insects brushed lightly against my cheeks. The only noise to startle was the crackle of a dry leaf falling to the ground.

Then it was as though someone had touched the paper disc of the moon with a lighter. A dark smoulder appeared from top left. Ever so slowly it consumed the whole moon. It was the shadow of the earth, and since it felt like I was the only person on earth, then that was my shadow on the moon. Lunacy. The fore-edge of the shadow was dark, but gradually the light from the sun, refracted around the intervening planet earth and filtered through our atmosphere, streamed orangey red on to the surface of the moon. I kept on watching, moving the sun-bed for best alignment with the moon, which was becoming smaller and clearer and ever more distinctly red in the darkening, deepening sky as the time ticked by and the stars shone more abundantly. With the visible crater on the lower part of the moon looking like the remains of a stem, the moon was nothing other than a perfect, planetary blood orange. I fetched a blanket against the chill and stayed there, entranced, until at about 4.30 full-spectrum light reappeared at the side of the disc. The eclipse was ending. Time to go to bed.

Solar power

The installation of the solar power is under way. The chosen patch of land has perfect aspect; however, it turned out to be insufficiently firm underfoot. Each of the nine panels needed to have concrete foundations. This required our builder – or, rather, his assistant, who changed each day, presumably worn out – to carry buckets of gravel and freshly mixed cement up through the garden, past the top bench, and then up a steep slope that is difficult enough simply to walk up. They managed to complete the job. I was filled with admiration.

Working boots

Working boots

Cement mixer

Cement mixer

Completed bases

Completed bases with foundations

Mission control and power storage

Mission control and power storage

Birds

I’m running out of self-allocated space this week. Also, no blog next week because I shall be in England, largely for work reasons. Just enough room to mention the blue rock thrush. One has taken up residence in our valley, on the other side from us. It is a nondescript bird from a distance, until the light catches it advantageously, when you can see that it is an exquisite shade of blue: the sort of blue you would see in a midnight sky that is awash in the milky glow of a supermoon …

Week 69: Soundscape

Autumn asphodel

Autumn asphodel

Beach prints

Beach prints

Beach detail

Sand detail

Late afternoon by the sea

Late afternoon by the sea; the days are still bright and the water is warm

We returned to our valley from the clamour of London and as our senses readjusted we noticed how much our home soundscape has changed since autumn arrived. The cicadas are gone, taking their strident abdominal amplifications with them; their young, the nymphs hatched from their eggs, have burrowed underground and we won’t see or hear from them until next summer. The many different visiting birds who sang their way to a mating partner, then filled our valley with the calls of their family life and group activities, have gone. The stout-bodied Thekla lark with its pointed head crest never went away but we couldn’t hear it for all the other birds. Now in the relative silence its song is audible again. The woodpeckers are pecking the trees around us, not drumming to advertise their presence, just feeding – a much gentler sound. All is peaceful – or might be, were it not for two building projects we are about to undertake.

The first is the installation of the solar panels. Part of the terrace floor and a garden wall will be taken up to connect up the solar panels, which are to be laid on our hillside, with the batteries, which will be housed in a hitherto unused storage space at the back of the garage that is accessed from the rear terrace. (We’re lucky that storage space is there. I don’t think the solar panel engineer could believe his, or rather our, luck when he first came to assess our site.) The panels and batteries were delivered today, from Germany via a business in Spain, and our own electrician and builder also came by to determine what needs to be done. The languages spoken during the course of this were German, Swiss German, Portuguese, Spanish and English. Our own little Babel.

Solar panels stacked up

Solar panels stacked up

Solar batteries awaiting installation (and Rolie)

Solar batteries awaiting installation (and Rolie)

Battery storage space on the back terrace (conveniently - we'd been wondering what to do with it!)

Battery storage space on the back terrace (conveniently – we’d been wondering what to do with it!)

When this is all done, we can look into getting the swimming pool built. This will also involve taking up part, indeed most, of [what’s left of] the back terrace. We have to reduce our built area before we can add something new to it because we are already at the limit of what we are allowed. In fact, we’re over the limit. This would not have mattered had we not wanted to add to it. Increasing our built area means complying with current regulations, not those that were in place when our house was originally constructed, when the allowance was a little more generous than it is now. The front terrace, which has proper Santa Catarina terracotta tiles, manufactured just a few kilometres away, will remain unchanged. For the back terrace floor, we’ll think of something.

A little reminder for us of a favourite bakery/cafe in Soho, London: a tray of almond croissants, just baked

A little reminder for us of a favourite bakery/cafe in Soho, London: early morning, and a rack of freshly baked almond croissants

Week 64: Greasy pole

Our well ran dry, so we got two lots of 5,000 litres delivered by tanker; the water comes from the Bishop’s Font (Fonte da Bispo), and the skill of the tractor driver in manoeuvring the tanker in the small space at the front of our house was a joy to see

Our well ran dry, so we got two lots of 5,000 litres delivered by tanker; the water comes from the Bishop’s Font (Fonte da Bispo), and the skill of the tractor driver in manoeuvring the tanker in the small space at the front of our house was great to see

Sourdough ferments very quickly in the August heat

Sourdough ferments very quickly in the August heat

Woodchat shrike, a newcomer to our garden

Woodchat shrike, a newcomer to our garden

Whimbrel, seen in the mudflats at Santa Luzia

Whimbrel, seen in the mudflats at Santa Luzia

 

It’s getting ever harder to ignore the fact of August. If we go into town the roads are full and it’s difficult to park. Many of the new road-users are hire cars who, naturally, don’t always know where they are going; others are expensive cars driven in from richer places, who are inclined to think that small cars – such as my dear Rolie – don’t have quite the same road rights as they do. We do not let it get to us, because we live here and we will have it all back to ourselves soon. Besides which, the valley in which we live remains absolutely peaceful.

Among the good things about high summer are the non-stop festas and events, and the restaurants and shops that have miraculously appeared from behind wooden doors and dull facades, absorbing the excess population and adding new life to the towns.

We went to the Festa dos Pescadores at Santa Luzia to see the boat race and got unexpectedly caught up in the contest that preceded it, the pau de sebo, or the greasy pole. Not caught up to the extent of taking part (maybe next year . . .) but we were enthusiastic spectators. It’s surprisingly entertaining to watch willing participants attempt to traverse a lard-smothered pole suspended from a fishing boat over the water. The object is to grab a flag from the end of the pole. You are going to land in the water whatever you do, but if you take the flag with you, you’re a winner.

Santa Luzia: the boat with the pau de sebo

Santa Luzia: the boat with the pau de sebo

A great effort, but he didn't make it

A great effort, but he didn’t make it; in the background you can see the old tuna-fishing village of Barril, now a beach resort

Another loser

Another good loser

A winner

A winner

 

Best of all was seeing Os Cavalinhos, the restored fishing boat I wrote about last week. Here is the beautiful boat, tuning up and getting ready for the race:

And here is the team with an unassailable lead, soon to cross the finishing line in first place:

O regresso do guerreiro: the return of the warrior. Almost too good to be true, huh?

‘O regresso do guerreiro: the return of the warrior.’ The renovation was completed only the day before, and in the race the boat came in first. The story is almost too good to be true. (But true it is.)

This dog was so thrilled to be at the water's edge he couldn't stay silent or still for a minute

This dog was so thrilled to be at the water’s edge he couldn’t stay silent or still for a minute

Nightjar

Another of the pleasures of the summer has been the starlit film showings in the cloisters in Tavira. We returned home this week after one such film, a two-hour one, in the early hours of the velvet night. Along the dirt track to our home, Rolie’s headlights picked out a bird in flight, which at first we thought was an owl. The bird came to the ground and we stopped the car. It sat in the dirt like a tiny, slightly rusty boat. It was a red-necked nightjar. We watched for a while, then turned off our lights so as not to alarm the bird any more than we already had. The night became very still.

After a while we faced up to the inevitable. We had to get ourselves, and our vehicle, home. We turned the engine on again, and pulled forward slowly to creep around the nightjar. Not waiting for us to go by, it took off, lifting and turning its long wings, their bright white patches like broderie anglaise, scooping and beating away the air until it had disappeared.

Week 63: Sea fishing

The beach (at Terra Estreita) in the morning

The beach (at Terra Estreita) in the morning

Another view of the beach in the morning

Another view of the beach in the morning

Plum tree ready to harvest; the hint of white in the top right-hand corner is the moon

Plum tree ready to harvest; the hint of white in the top right-hand corner is the moon

Plums that look like chocolate eggs (according to my great-niece)

The plums look like chocolate eggs (according to my great-niece)

The tourist season is at its shimmering, simmering height, but you’d never think so where we are. We still go out if ever we hear a car go by because it must be someone who’s come to visit us or got lost. The bee-eaters are the only hordes to descend on this valley. Their numbers seem to be increasing. Where we used to hear them only in the evenings, now we hear them at any time of day. Their calls sound like a toy musical instrument, their shape against the sky seems composed of the protractors and compass points of a geometry set and their colours are as bright as a box of crayons. They seem to be formed from the contents of a schoolchild’s satchel. We watched them from the back terrace this morning. We also saw, over the space of a few minutes, the red-rumped swallows, many house martins, two tumbling, twirling golden orioles, a languid hoopoe and a darting blue rock thrush. Good company to have at breakfast.

Snapped in Santa Luzia. This vessel's name, Atum (Tuna), suggest its occupation, but tuna-fishing is on a much reduced scale these days

Snapped in Santa Luzia. This vessel’s name, Atum (Tuna), suggests its occupation, but tuna-fishing is on a much reduced scale these days

Another fishing boat in Santa Luzia

Another fishing boat in Santa Luzia, taken on a rare overcast day this week

Wooden boats

Why would a wooden fishing boat be any better than a fibreglass one? I asked this question provocatively of an earnest photographer and environmentalist on Saturday, ignoring my own feelings on the subject: which are that my heart lifts at the sight of an old wooden fishing boat, and it does not do the same at the sight of a fibreglass one. Husband and I had found ourselves at a hotel on the outskirts of Tavira, an old tuna-fishing village converted into a holiday centre, attending the presentation of a new association aimed at protecting the marine environment in all its aspects. A series of chance contacts brought us here; we were interested to find out what the project was all about. The proposed association – they are still jumping through bureaucratic hoops to set it up – arose out of the voluntary work done by an archaeologist, a teacher, a photographer and a tourist guide to preserve and restore an old octopus fishing boat from Santa Luzia: Os Cavalinhos (The Little Horses). About 6 metres long and 1.3 metres at its widest, it was part of the traditional octopus fishing fleet and in its time the fastest rowing boat in Santa Luzia. At sixty years old, it had fallen into disrepair. The volunteers, two of them the daughters of Santa Luzia fishermen, attempted to raise the funds to restore the boat to take part once again in the annual fishermen’s race. They succeeded, though only just in time. The race is on Monday 10 August and we plan to go and see it.

Why all this interest in an old wooden boat? It seems the government is in the process of encouraging the fishermen to get rid of their old boats, burn them on the beach if necessary, and accept some money towards the purchase of a fibreglass replacement. I haven’t been able to find out what is the official thinking behind this policy, but, as you saw, I did get the chance to ask the volunteer at the association what he had against it. Obviously, heart-lift cannot be a factor on either side. So, is a wooden boat really any better than a fibreglass one? Well, yes, he said. First, it’s sturdier, and much safer in a heavy sea. Secondly, besides strength, it has give: wood will flex in response to the movement of the sea, which fibreglass cannot. And this means, in turn, that the fisherman is better off. In a fibreglass boat, he – or, rather, his spine – becomes the most giving point of contact, which soon leads to a ruined back. Thirdly, a fisherman has a long relationship with a wooden boat. With love and care it will last for decades and be like a second skin. Not so a fibreglass boat. I was glad I’d asked. We will be interested to see the association get up and running and to find out if there’s any way we can contribute.

My father in a wooden fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden half a century ago. He loved sea fishing in his spare time

My father in a wooden fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden half a century ago. He loved sea fishing in his spare time

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