Monthly Archive: July 2016

Human chain (again)

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings, during the day the sun is too powerful. These coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

The pool. We use it only mornings and evenings; during the day the sun is too powerful. These times happily coincide with the passage of the bee-eaters over our heads

This is Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

Quercus coccifera, the kermes oak, which I see at the top of the hill when I go for an early morning walk

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I'm hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio

The alfarrobeiras are heavy with sweet-smelling, chocolaty pods, which clatter to the ground freely and often. This is a harvest I’m hoping to leave to our neighbouring farmer, Eleuterio, to collect

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, which filled the kitchen one evening with the smell of vinegar

Turning some of the glut of peaches into chutney, and filling the kitchen with the smell of vinegar

 

Occasionally a tiny piece of heavy machinery will hum past your ear and land on a nearby tree with great firmness as though suctioned into place by a force within the bark. It is a cicada on the move. It is a stout insect with a wide, squared-off head that has a large eye on each corner, and lacy, overlong wings. The males’ collective noise – it is only the males – seems to make the air pulsate. They do it, I have read, by vibrating a membrane on the abdomen. I haven’t been able to get close enough to see this in action, if it is visible at all.

For most of the year we experience silence and birdsong. The months of high heat and slow movement are filled with this plangent, plaintive sound. It is the inescapable sound of summer.

The Red-rumped Swallows do not yet have hatchlings, but they must have eggs, for they are being furtive and shifty. The confident industry of nest-building was a different mode for them. Now, if I look up at their nest as I leave the front door, I might just see a shiny blue crown at the neck of the tunnel, which will quickly withdraw. I wait, then it re-emerges, big round eyes checking me out, then disappears once more into the safety of the nest. If I stay put for a few more seconds, it realises it has to disregard me and fly off anyway. Sometimes in the evenings we hear them in their mudhouse, madly tuning their tiny analogue radio. They still can’t find that elusive channel.

I feel rather like I’m emerging from a tunnel of my own making, out of a mound of manuscripts. Clear blue space awaits me, several weeks without the ping of the email, a staycation here in this beautiful spot, starting at the end of this week.

But the oil and gas threat never goes away. There are reprieves: promises of judicial action to undo the unethical contracts, drilling start dates delayed, government debates that suggest a degree of awareness at least. While I was buried in manuscripts, Husband, when not similarly buried under a mound of bread dough, was out on the anti-oil beat. The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, visited a nearby town of Loulé and was met by protestors. He shrugged off their concerns with a rather puzzling comparison between finding oil in the Algarve and flying to the moon. It isn’t possible to analyse this gnomic comment with any degree of success, so I’ve given up trying. The facts remain that deep-sea oil drilling – of an ‘exploratory nature’ – is due to start off the western coast of the Algarve on 3 August, while oil company Repsol have been rubbing their hands with glee for several years in the knowledge of a vast gas field containing half a trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas off the coast nearer to us, related to a similar field in the bay of Cádiz.

Last week Portugal’s environment minister came to Tavira to enjoy a sunny afternoon in the company of the town mayor. Together they were to open the new boat departure area for Ilha de Tavira (namely, a concreted-over stretch on the mouth of the river). Neither of them was expecting to be met by an anti-oil protest. It is amazing how effective six people can be when they show up at the right time and position themselves and their banners behind politicians on a photo shoot.

What else is to be done? How about all getting together and holding hands on the beach to form a human chain? Yes! Anything is better than nothing, and this turned out to be very good with hundreds of participants, perhaps a thousand if you include the many beachgoers on the hugely popular Ilha de Tavira who were persuaded to hold hands for a while in between running to the sea and back. A couple of press reports can be seen here and here. Typically of such events, estimates of numbers involved vary widely . . .

I was back from London in time for the beach protest. As I arrived at the beach site where protestors were gathering, someone from Tavira em Transição spotted me – this is a citizens’ movement I am part of – and asked me to take hold of the bamboo pole supporting one side of a large protest banner so she could run off and do other stuff. Husband and our two Lisbon friends had gone elsewhere in the line. The other side of this banner was held by someone I didn’t know, but who was fabulously vocal in the anti-oil chants and gave good interviews to the press. I held on to my bamboo pole from then on, and didn’t let go until it was time to roll the banner up and put it away at the end. I politely declined to be interviewed when a TV reporter came to me with his red microphone; I put this down to my lack of Portuguese, but it’s also got a lot to do with the fact that I don’t much like talking. Holding on to a banner: it’s a great role for an introvert at a manif. Just shove me in that direction and I’ll be there, hanging on, for as long as it takes.

Lovebirds

On Sunday, when Eder scored a goal in extra time, I got up and put my head out of the door to listen to the sound of the world outside. I wanted to know if the cheers reached down to our valley. They didn’t. Nothing but the warm wind gusting about. Ten minutes later, when Portugal became European champions, I did the same: still nothing. Only the sounds of our own cheers. We are remote here. This proves it.

The main story here at the end of the world remains that of two swallows building a nest. Gobbets of heart-shaped mud have been arriving at our veranda roof at intervals as regular as a London bus: every ten or fifteen minutes and in pairs. They are brought in tirelessly by the two Red-rumped Swallows. Each gobbet is pushed out with the tongue and drilled into place with horizontal movements of the head and sprays of tiny droplets of saliva. (Do birds have saliva? They must do. Or else it’s the moisture in the mud that gets forced out.) They choose their material from various spots in the land around where we live. It can be red, brown or grey. The nicest-looking stuff, the red mud, comes from a place by Eleuterio’s water tank; he told me so. He looked quite chuffed about the swallows too. They have built their upside-down dome gobbet by gobbet, layer by layer, like potters who eschew a wheel. Plant fibres make up part of the building material.

As the days went by it became clear that the tunnel entrance wasn’t to be at the back after all, as I had assumed. The buttress sticking out at the rear is an architectural or engineering feature impenetrable to the human mind. Perhaps it’s a veranda. At the other side of the nest, ‘our’ side, they gradually narrowed their dome to a tiny bottle-neck, facing our front door.

Wednesday 6 July: landing

Wednesday 6 July: landing

Wednesday: building

Wednesday: building

Thursday 7 July: one in, one out

Thursday 7 July: one in, one out

Thursday: 'Ick'

Thursday: ‘Ick’

Friday: off to find the next muddy morsel

Friday 8 July: off to find the next muddy morsel

Friday: not much more to go

Friday: not much more to go

Saturday 9 July: landing

Saturday 9 July: landing at the increasingly narrow entrance

Completion

Sunday 10 July: completion

Sunday: time for a rest

Sunday: time for a rest

... and some preening

… and some preening

 

By Sunday, it was done. The last of the mud had been spat out and driven into place. Stalks of dry grass were taken inside for padding. Now, in the morning, I look up at the nest to see one or sometimes two pairs of round eyes, under blue-shiny crowns, at the entrance to their home. And they look down at me.

I read somewhere that the birds don’t mate on the wing or on the wire, they wait until their home is built and mate inside. The first egg might already be laid. Incubation takes a couple of weeks. You can hear the birds chattering to one another inside. It sounds like they are zooming through the stations on a tiny analogue radio, the sound muffled by the chamber. They never seem to find the station they want.

No blog next week because of another work-related visit to London. Back by the time of the first hatchlings.

Industry in another corner of the: focaccia dough

Industry in another corner of the house: making focaccia for a party

Mudhouse

Mud-covered hook, Wednesday 29 June

Mud-covered hook, Wednesday 29 June

Thursday 30 June, arrival with beakful

Thursday 30 June, arrival with beakful

Thursday 30 June, careful placement of the mud

Thursday 30 June, careful placement of the mud

Friday 1 July

Friday 1 July

Saturday 2 July

Saturday 2 July

Both swallows at work, Monday 4 July

Both swallows at work, Monday 4 July

Tuesday 5 July

Tuesday 5 July

Tuesday 5 July; drilling the mud down into place

Tuesday 5 July; drilling the mud down into place

 

Now that it is high summer we live with the plangent sound of cicadas. The Golden Orioles add their whistle, and the Bee-eaters test their collection of recorders as they pass by overhead, like a junior school orchestra getting ready for a concert. Two Short-toed Eagles can be seen gliding silently along the valley. A female Blue Rock Thrush dips and bobs on the corner of the front veranda, within view of my desk. She says chuck-chuck, and looks like a miniature cormorant. I was missing the heartbreak jangle of the serin. I wondered what had happened to him. Then we spotted a nest in the smallest and thinnest of our cypresses, one that we pass within inches of several times a day. All his frantic singing paid off. Tiny grey beaks surrounded by feather-stalk antennae poke waveringly and unsteadily out, glimpsable only with patience and good binoculars.

Very close to home, right outside the front door, the Red-rumped Swallows are hard at work. I stand at the door and poke my long-lensed camera in their direction for two or three minutes a day. They put up with it. Besides, they know that in a few more days the upside-down dome will be complete and we will no longer be able to see them. As their nest grew, they had more to balance on, and less mud landed on the veranda floor. On the other side of the nest, not visible from inside the house, is what will be the tunnel entrance. Access will require them dipping through here and under the original hook, which they infilled with mud like a reinforced internal wall. It’s all well planned and highly skilled. Work only slowed down on Sunday. I imagine this was more because of the ricochet of hunters’ shots than the imposition from on high of a day of rest. We were happy to see them back on Monday.

 

Presentation of petitions outside the Parliament building

Presentation of petitions outside the Parliament building

Oil

Two weeks ago we were in Lisbon, part of a group to present the government and the DGRN (directorate for natural resources) with thick files of petitions and arguments against oil exploration in the Algarve. We were in the support section. Husband waved the box lid from a set of scales that has become his protest ID. If you look at it from the right angle, it says Rasga O Contrato (‘tear up the contract’). From any other angle, it is simply the box lid from a set of weighing scales. The mayor of Aljezur came up to say hello; he recognised Husband by the box lid. The Mad Hatter letters spelling Frack Off in my trilby, never that effective, came to a damp end on a café floor.

On Friday 1 July the topic came up in Parliament. The drilling off Aljezur had already been postponed from 1 July to 3 August. The session voted for the immediate suspension of the development of oil and gas exploration by means conventional and unconventional. (A suspension only, but still good.) Environmental Impact Assessments are now to be made obligatory from the exploration phases (required by an EU directive but hitherto ignored by the ENMC, the fuel entity). The likely impact of oil development on tourism is to undergo a proper socio-economic study. And the process of the original issuance of the contracts is to be searched for irregularities, which could allow the contracts to be declared null and void.

These achievements have been forced particularly by people on the ground in the Algarve, most but not all Portuguese. As for us two, we’re cheerleaders. We wear our silly hats and wave our box lids, and as such have been caught by press photographers rather more often than I would have thought likely.

I have turned my attention away from the farcical developments in the current madhouse that is my country of origin, where the people most shocked by the Brexit outcome seem to be those who instigated it, who have been passing on responsibility and resigning at shameful rates. At this point, I’d rather look at the birds.

Serin nest, but you probably can't make it out

Serin nest, but you probably can’t make it out

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