Week 54: River valley
Our house is in a wide, shallow valley. It faces south-east, looking down over the river. Just past the house the river bends sharply southwards. This bend in the valley and the fact that the ‘road’ stops just outside our house are probably what gives it its fim do mundo – end of the world – feel. The front veranda, with its floor of red Santa Catarina tiles, looks out down the path to the river, over the riverbed and across to a hillside beyond, a pleasingly undulating, red-earth hill spotted with trees. The play of light across the hill over the course of the day can bring about a meditative stillness in the onlooker. (We have witnessed this effect on a number of our visiting friends.) Golden orioles occupy this hillside, and occasionally we see the flash of their yellow-lacquered wings on our side of the river too.
The river itself is almost non-existent now. It has dwindled to a few algae-filled pools, rammed with fishes and frogs, easy pickings for passing wildlife. Sweet-smelling wild pink oleander is blooming all over the dry and drying bed.
At the back of the house is another paved area, part of which we have just had covered with a sail shade; behind this is steeply rising land. The lower part is terraced into beds and forms our garden. After that the land becomes rougher and stonier. All the way to the top of the hill this land is – ludicrously! – ours. We bought a bench the other day from an antiques/junk shop: new wooden slats on an old curving iron frame. It’s comfortable, and we’ve placed it on one of the higher terraces in the garden, from which you can see over the house to the meditation hill beyond.
This attempt at a description of our setting is because we have had a number of visitors recently, and almost all of them have said, ‘But I didn’t imagine it was like this.’
We sat out front on the veranda on Sunday evening, enjoying the cooling air after a hot day. True to form, just before dusk the little owl arrived. Its behaviour, however, was untypical. It perched on the wooden telegraph post, then the concrete one, then fluttered ineffectually down to earth and back up again. It didn’t let out its usual lament. In short, it didn’t seem to know what to do, and we realised that this must be little little owl, scion of our noisy friend, working out how to manage its gift of life.
Each visitor brings something special to this place: a new perspective, a particular expertise, a unique curiosity. Among recent visitors has been one with an extraordinary knowledge of birds, who observed, by sight or sound, forty different species around our house. I have learnt many things. For example, that the long, pure whistle I sometimes hear is part of the nightingale’s song. Just beyond the bend in the river is a thicket of reed which is a nightingale’s territory, where his complicated song can be heard in all its variety. Another is that our house is on the bee-eaters’ commute. They pass high overhead in the early evening, their bubbling call revealing their presence. At night the red-necked nightjar moves around, its sound like that of a puttering two-stroke engine reluctant to start. And all about us during the day is a bird I had never heard of before: the zitting cisticola. It’s nothing to look at – assuming you could even get a good look at the tiny brown thing – but in breeding season the male’s song and flight are distinctive: he flies in small loops, emitting his single-note song on each rise, the sound more of a ‘dzip’ than a ‘zit’. He’s been zitting away so close, and I never even knew the bird existed.