Energy

One hundred

Backlit poppies

Backlit poppies

Backlit lavender

Backlit lavender

vetch

Common Vetch, uncommonly pretty

hairy lupin

The Hairy Lupin, at seed stage, in the rain

Quaking grass

Tiny lanterns of Quaking Grass which, true to their name, shudder in finely tuned response to the merest movement of air

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

We will have a bumper crop of apricots this year

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended. A second after this picture was taken, it had disappeared into the water below

A turtle on the riverbank. Its front left leg is extended; disappearance is imminent. A second after this picture was taken, it had dropped into the water below. I was surprised it let me get this close

 

Had I continued to keep count of the weeks, this would be number one hundred. I’m quietly celebrating that milestone. I’m celebrating the rain, too. The sky today has been dark grey, with blooms of white cloud and shafts of yellow light. Our dirt track is running with brown streams and the river is the highest I’ve seen it for well over a year. I dropped into Flaviano’s emporium to collect the post – Nada!, always more of a disappointment for Flaviano than for me, it seems – and the round lady greeted me. ‘How’s about this for rain then?’ she said. ‘Yes!’ I replied (my Portuguese still so limited), and we each raised a thumb, simultaneously. Shared pleasure over rain. Since the relationship between rain falling out of the sky, our well filling up and having water to wash in, cook with and drink is so intimate and direct, it’s impossible not to love the rain.

A few days ago at breakfast Little Owl arrived on his perch (a telegraph pole) and gave us a hard stare. I went to grab a camera but was too late, it flew off. Every day its calls rebound around the valley. At night, the Scops Owl adds its unique sound. We lie in bed at night and hear its solemn and restrained sonar beeps, so unlike the shrieks of the Little Owl. I looked the birds up in a book and discovered that the Scops Owl is smaller still than the Little Owl. Two tiny owls filling our days and nights with sound. We wonder if the Scops Owl, so present in our garden at night, is interested in the nest box we placed in a carob tree up the hill, not far from the bank of solar panels. The box is designed for hoopoes and small owls. I crept up for a look this week: no sign of any habitation.

Our little bend-in-the-valley world is filled with melodious nightingales, cisticolas (whose flight pattern and matching call seem to have tightened up: the loops are sharper and the calls more frequent), babbling swallows, whistling orioles and, impossible to ignore, the frantic call of the serin, that tiny, bursting bundle of yellow feathers. I feel for the serin. I hope its energetic song is born of triumph and not desperation.

The effort not to waste lemons continues. The pickled lemons I made a good few weeks back using a Diana Henry recipe, which involved briefly salting the sliced lemons then packing them up in paprika-dusted layers with oil, has been to my satisfaction, but not Husband’s. To appeal to his tastes, I’ve taken a recipe from the Prashad book, which comes from a small, northern English-based Indian restaurant. The first stage is under way: 1 kilo of chopped, pipped lemons – from Maria’s tree – are macerating in a terracotta sludge consisting of turmeric + salt + the juice that came off the chopped lemons. I give the plastic box a good shake every day, and after three weeks they will be ready for the next stage of flavouring.

I have turned my back on the nespera (loquat) tree, whose boughs are weighed to the ground with pink-flushed yellow fruit. There are just too many. The birds can have them. Our fig tree now has full-size, still-green fruit; not for nothing does the oriole (the papafigos, or fig-eater) turn up at this time. I’d like to get the figs before they do, though. They are so exquisite, and last year we had only the first harvest; the weather was too dry for the tree to manage a second fruiting.

We went this week to a day-long discussion session at the University of the Algarve about the ‘economic, social and environmental impact of hydrocarbon exploration in the Algarve in the 21st century’ – a long title for a well-presented but very ill-attended day. More disappointing than the lack of attendance was the presentation from the Portuguese Association for Renewable Energy, who are – it seems to me – failing to promote solar energy, while still spreading the now-discredited theory that natural gas is a halfway house between fossil fuels and renewable energies. We learnt the extraordinary fact that the solar contribution to energy in the UK is twenty-two times greater than it is in Portugal. I don’t need to tell you how much more the sun shines here than it does in the UK – even if this week might have been an exception.

One day this week I noticed something sticking out of one of the back doors. I bent down and took a closer look: it was a little skull. I opened the door to find the rest of the skeleton inside the door jamb. It was a small gecko that had been unintentionally garrotted. I detached its tiny skeleton from the door and let it be taken by the breeze, feeling out-of-all-proportion sad about this tiny, accidental death.

grotto

I like a bit of religion. Here’s Mary in her grotto in the church of Santiago, the pilgrim, in Tavira

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

Weeks 72-3: Water

Solar panels in place; not yet fully connected up, however

Solar panels in place; not yet fully connected up, however

Autumn breakfast table

Autumn breakfast table

Early morning mist along the valley

Early morning mist along the valley

Sunrise

Sunrise

Midday cloud

Midday cloud

When I’m in England, I can hardly believe this place in the Algarve exists. And then I return, and here it is. I loved my week in England, but relished all the more the peace and silence of this place.

I came home a few days ago to be greeted by rain – such a blessing. Lots of it, too: the very fine and long-lasting kind that gives everything a gentle but thorough soaking. From a meteorological map it appeared to be the tail-end of a hurricane, Joaquin, that had caused my sister to hunker down on the coast in North Carolina, straight across the water from us. Joaquin just missed them, thankfully, then came spinning over to Portugal, losing its damaging power along the way, and eventually drenching the Algarve with long-awaited rain. The riverbed turned several shades darker, the hills became instantly greener, the air filled with the scents of spice and pine, and water rose up in our well. Today, for the first time in four months, we got the pump running and had our own, fresh, clear water gushing from the well into the cisterna under the front veranda: sometimes water seems like a miracle.

Our pond, holding on

Our pond, holding on

The riverbed, moist enough for little mushrooms

The riverbed, moist enough for little mushrooms

Pondlife

Our pond has survived the drought. (I call it our pond but it is no more ours than the sky above it. But we get all the pleasure from it.) Its water is fresh enough that it must be being replenished by an underground source. Its frogs, turtles and fish are thriving, albeit in reduced quarters. Usually when I walk along the riverbed I head towards the sea, some inexplicable force pulling me the way the water goes, perhaps. Today I took a midday walk in the other direction. With autumn, walks in the middle of the day are possible again. The sun shone, breezes blew, and almost no water was to be seen along the course of the river until I rounded a bend and came across a deep pond rather like our own. On my clattering approach – impossible to walk silently over a rocky riverbed – about two dozen sunbathing turtles slid noiselessly into the water, like the habitués of an illegal drug den. As I waited by the water’s edge, peering into the depths, an occasional head would surface, check the scene, then disappear rapidly on discovering that I, the raider, was still there. It’s an even deeper pond than ours, clearly fed by its own underground source, and feeding someone else in turn: a pipe in the pond, and a pump on the hillside, meant it was somebody’s water supply. Satisfied that I’d found something new, that even a short distance from our house there is much to surprise, I turned round at Turtle Dive and went back.

Turtle Dive: habitués in hiding

Turtle Dive: habitués in hiding

Olives and figs

We will have no olives of our own this year. Our tree, acting according to its own nature, is taking this year off. It should bear fruit again next year. Only cultivated trees, pruned, fertilised and culled, produce fruit every year. Our long-expected second fig harvest never materialised either. The fruit reappeared (see Weeks 56-7), but gradually over the hot, dry summer it shrivelled and died, no more than a snack for a few hungry birds, if that. The same happened to other wild fig trees in the valley, I noticed: their leaves yellowed, their fruit was stunted. We had enough water to keep the tree going, but not enough to bring its fruit to maturity. Maybe next year will be different.

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 62: Sunshine and water

The riverbed

The riverbed

The ever-reducing spot in the river where we have bathed, paddled and gone turtle- and frog-watching

The ever-reducing spot in the river where we have bathed, paddled and gone turtle- and frog-watching

You looking at me?

You looking at me?

 

First Friends’ neighbour keeps a temperature diary, and confirms that this July has been fully 10°C hotter than July 2014. Last July was unusually cool, we were told; this has been unusually hot, and dry. Eleuterio and Maria don’t like it, and no wonder. Their workload doesn’t let up. They are also running out of water, as are we. Our well, the one that serves the house, is running dry. The next time we fill the cistern under the front terrace will probably have to be by tanker.

We have the use of a second well, which fills the cistern in the garden, and which is purely for the benefit of the garden. This is the well on a patch of Eleuterio’s land by the riverbed, and it is still going strong. So although the river itself has disappeared but for a few vanishingly small pools, rich in frogs and tiny turtles, the underground water seems to be reasonably plentiful – so far.

I love the heat and the light, even though above about 36°C it can be debilitating. Not only do I love it, but now we are also about to make use of it: we are investing some money in having our own solar power. So far we have solar panels that heat the water for the house. (In the height of the winter, however, we had to use the back-up of a boiler running on bottled gas.) Now, we will use solar power to generate electricity. It won’t supply all our needs, but it will supply some and – perhaps more importantly – should the mains electricity ever give out for any reason then we will have our own source. We need electricity to pump water around the house, so being without electricity would also mean being without water – we’d have to haul it up out of the cistern using a bucket.

We can’t be fully self-sufficient because we are limited in the size of the batteries required to store the power. The limitations are mostly financial. Otherwise, it’s looking good. Second half of September is when this happens.

As for the pool, we currently have an engineer supplying a report to the council, after which we will get – i.e. pay for – a building licence. In addition to generating our own solar power, we are going to have a solar-run pump for the pool, and solar-powered heating so the pool is usable for more of the year.

Obrigada

Funny how things work out. Last week I described the calls of the bee-eater as like the plink-plonk of a toy piano, and then we went at the weekend to Sines on the Atlantic coast for a world music festival, where we fell in love with a Japanese band who played, among other instruments, a toy piano – and rubber ducks with bells on, and a fat man’s belly (he was one of the band), and other brilliantly bonkers stuff. They are called the Pascals (homage to Pascal Comelade, I believe), and here they are:

The Pascals: the leader of the orchestra

The Pascals: the leader of the orchestra

Toy piano visible behind the leader

Toy piano visible behind the leader

Here's the fat man, who played a tune on his belly

Here’s the fat man, who played a tune on his belly

The leader, who spent most of his time with his back to the audience, wore oversized culottes in a sprig pattern and home-knit socks. From time to time he turned to the audience to share a few words, and quite often they were words of thanks in Japanese and Portuguese: ‘Arigato! Obrigado!’ He was clearly getting fun out of the fact that the two words sound oddly alike. In fact, ‘arigato’ sounds exactly like ‘obrigado’ given a bit of Japanese treatment, which has given rise to the idea that the word was adopted from early Portuguese explorers (being possibly the first Europeans ever to reach Japan).

This idea struck me as both delightful, and plausible. For a culture with such elaborate, formal social rules, a one-size-fits-all* ‘thank you’ might have seemed rather useful, especially for dealing with this odd bunch of characters who’ve landed on your shores. And why not adopt it for home use, perhaps for situations outside the normal social structures?

But no. It seems the similarity is coincidence. Arigato has its own Japanese etymology, and existed in written records long before the time of the Portuguese arrivals. Oh well. A puzzle . . . but one I shall not give up on.

* Not strictly one-size-fits-all since ‘obrigado’ is a past particle (from ‘I am obliged to you’) and agrees with its subject, which is why women say obrigada, and men obrigado.

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