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Notes from a Catalan village: Caterpillar processions and the blind men of Bram

13 Mar

A couple of months ago, walking the dog on a hill track beyond the cemetery at Rabós, I nearly walked into a quite hideous nest-like construction, hanging from a pine tree at head level, looking like something from a science fiction film, where a very dark secret is about to be unleashed. Or, less dramatically, like dirty white candy floss. I had no idea what it was.

Pine_processionary_moth_

Last week, on exactly the same stretch of path I nearly trod on a procession of caterpillars, which seemed to follow one another along, the head of one – as far as it is able to discriminate with caterpillars – touching the rear of the the other, in a long chain. Since the caterpillar line was directly beneath where the nest had been, I googled ‘caterpillar chain’ and discovered that I had been witness to an appearance by the pine processionary moth, or Thaumetopoea pityocampa.

Pine Caterpillar chain

Apparently the moth lays its eggs in summer, high in a pine tree; the young caterpillars make their nest for the winter – which I witnessed when it had grown to a considerable size in January. As the weather gets warmer they descend to ground level and form processional chains in order to find a place in the soil to pupate.

I looked out for the caterpillars on my way back along the path half an hour later, but they had gone to ground.

Pine chain longer

The image of these creatures following one another, as if being led blindly by a single caterpillar who seemed to know the way put me in mind of the story of the blind men of Bram.

Bram is a small commune in the Rousillon, not far from Carcassonne.  At the time of the Catholic French crusades against the Cathar heretics, Bram was a Cathar stronghold. It fell to the crusade of Simon de Montfort in 1210. The crusaders saved 100 men from the general slaughter, cropped their noses, cut off their lips, and gouged out their eyes. They left one man with one eye intact, to guide the others. The procession of the blind men of Bram roamed the countryside as far as the fortress at Lastours, apparently as a demonstration of the Crusading army’s Christian clemency.

bram_blind

 

 

 

 

A murmuration of starlings

30 Jan

Why do starling swarm in the sky? What are they communicating, if anything? Is it play? There doesn’t seem to be a clear response on any website I have searched.

But I have discovered that it is called a ‘murmuration of starlings’, which I like. It evokes the astonishing burr of all those wings in unison, which can be heard whenever you pass close to a group. The RSPB website says:

We think that starlings do it for many reasons. Grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands.

They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas. 

They gather over their roosting site, and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night. 

The starlings I photographed through my car windscreen (I stopped the car first) were swarming over the flatlands of Ampurdan, near the fresh and saltwater marshes of the Aiguamolls reserve. But I find it hard to be convinced that they gather in this way to keep warm at night (especially as it was mild, and mid-afternoon), and nor am I convinced by the peregrine falcon theory (there are eagles here in the Ampurdan also) and the hypnosis effect on such birds of prey.

An article in The Guardian informs readers that The Society of Biology is calling on the British public to “help them solve the mystery of why murmurations form, how long they last and why they end.”

Starlings 1

 

Starlings 2

Starlings 4

 

 

Caca de Duende

13 Jan

day2 estuary Chiuhain

On Sunday we visit Los Colmillos de Chaihuín, which contain, among other trees, canelo, alerce (larch) and eucalyptus. The first two are indigenous, the last a moisture-hogging outsider, the villain of the piece in the local ecology, imported from Australia and now being slowly replaced by the older indigenous varieties. The eucalyptus grows very quickly and apparently self-regenerates once it has been chopped down. It can do this five times, and, given the chance, will grow to full height between each growth. South America’s only marsupial, the monito del monte (little mountain monkey) may be found here but we are unlikely to see one as they are very shy, as is the pudú, a squat deer-like creature with a cute face.

Monito del monte

Monito del monte

day2 pudu

A pudú, looking a little surprised.

day2 alerce

The big larch in the photo is 3,500 years old. They calculate this by the girth and of the tree, which is three and half metres in diameter (and 45 metres tall). The oldest recorded alerce was four and a half thousand years old, according to our guide, although Wikipedia establishes the age as 3,622 years. This is some achievement when we consider that the Minoan civilization was still intact when the tree was young. The forests hereabout were once filled with these trees, but the wood is good for making boats and houses, and when the Spanish came they cut a whole lot down to furnish their navy. Now the trees are protected by law, but they grow so slowly that it will be a long time before they ever repopulate the forests of Valdivia.

caca de duende

caca de duende

Walking through the forest I notice a bright yellow fungus, the size of a tennis ball, growing at the base of a tree, almost luminous in the dark of the woods. It is known, I am told, as caca de duende. Of course there is some difficulty in rendering ‘duende’ into English, as translators of Lorca have discovered over the years: it can mean ‘spirit’, or ‘creative force’ as well as referring to a sprite, fairy or elf. Elf shit sounds the most evocative, so I’ll go along with that.

day2 candelo w guide better

day2 candelo

day2 web

day2 copihue

day2 lizard

day2 dog

Jaguars, snakes, rabbits

3 May
Jaguar duality

Jaguar duality

If you travel, Blanco thinks, if you just travel, go from place to place, walk around, you should never get bored and you should never lack for things to do or write about, if this happens to be your thing. At least that is the theory. Blanco has a minor epiphany: he must go to Coatepec (the accent is on the at): it fulfils the single major criterion he has always employed when deciding whether or not to visit a place: he likes the sound of it; it carries the resonance of something remote – in time and culture – and yet somehow reassuring. He is walking down the hill from the Xalapa museum of anthropology, and after an entire morning within its confines he has become saturated with Olmec images of human figures and jaguars and serpents, and he flags down a taxi driven by a man with stupendously fleshy earlobes; earlobes that remind him of small whoopee cushions or rolled dough or moulded plasticine. The taxi driver chats about corruption in Mexican politics. It is raining. It has been raining all morning and all last night, and throughout the previous evening, and as far as we know it has never not been raining. Outside of Xalapa there is a roadblock. The young policeman carries an automatic rifle and wears black body armour, leg armour, the works. He inspects the taxi-driver’s I.D. and stares at Blanco for several seconds. It continues to rain.

More duality

More duality

We arrive in Coataepec and get stuck in a traffic jam. Nothing moves. The taxi driver asks directions, but that doesn’t help the traffic move. Blanco spots an interesting-looking restaurant, pays the taxista, and gets out. The restaurant has a nice inner patio with a garden area, and tables around it, out of the rain. In the garden there are roses and other flowers. A large family group are finishing their meal and then spend at least twenty minutes taking photos of each other in every possible combination of individuals, so that no one has not been photographed with everybody else. They have commandeered the only waiter in order to help them in this task. Every time Blanco thinks they are about to leave and release the waiter they reconvene for a new set of photos. One of the men (a Mexican) has very little hair but a long grey ponytail, which cannot be right. One of the women – I suspect Ponytail’s sister – is married to a gringo, it would seem. He has long hair also, but not arranged in a ponytail. He speaks Spanish well, with a gringo accent. Blanco orders tortilla soup and starts leafing through a magazine he bought at the anthropology museum. His phone makes a noise that tells him he has received a message. It informs him, in Spanish: Health: Adults who sleep too little or too much in middle age are at risk of suffering memory loss, according to a recent study. He looks at the message in consternation. Too little or too much? So, hey– you’re bolloxed either way. Who sends this stuff? The screen says 2225. Then another one: Japanese fans of Godzilla were very upset with the news trailer of this film to find that Godzilla is very big and fat: read more! 3788. Then a link. Blanco shakes his head sadly.

Coatepec is full of interesting buildings with courtyards. Blanco heads down to the Posada de Coatepec, a nice hotel in the colonial style, and goes in for a coffee. A slim man with fine features, a neat little moustache, dressed in polo gear, greets him in a friendly fashion, and Blanco greets him back, once again under the impression that he has been mistaken for someone he is not. A blonde woman, also in white jodhpurs, follows the man. There must have been a polo match. How strange. The hotel offers a nice shady patio, but we don’t need shade, we just need to be out of the rain. Blanco sits on the terrace outside the hotel cafe and writes in his notebook. Before long, the man who was in riding gear comes and sits on the terrace also. Immediately three waiters attend him, bowing and scraping, one of them is even rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee at the opportunity to serve this evidently Very Important Person. Mr Important takes off his sleeveless jacket, his gilet, and immediately one of the waiters – like a magician with a bunny – produces what appears to be a hat-stand for midgets, but is, presumably a coat-stand. Clearly the Important Person cannot do anything as vulgar as sling his coat over the back of a chair. Another waiter opens a can of diet coke at a very safe distance, and only then brings it to the table, along with a glass filled with ice. He is bending almost double, as if to ensure that his body doesn’t come into too close and offensive a proximity to the Important Person. It is one of the most extraordinary displays of deference I have witnessed in my life. Then all three waiters – the one who brought the coat-stand, the one with the coke, and the one who was rubbing his hands, a kind of maître d’ – vanish inside like happily whipped dogs. Left alone, the Important Person makes a phone call in a loud voice. He is barking instructions to some underling. He is clearly someone who is used to being obeyed, like an old school Caudillo. Must be a politician. When he has finished his call, he looks around and gets up to go inside the restaurant, where his company – family and friends, I guess – are seated. He walks inside with his drink, and within seconds one of the waiters appears out of nowhere, grabs the coat-stand, and follows him in with it.

A White Rabbit

A white rabbit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A white rabbit taking his leave

A white rabbit taking his leave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have to go. I have arranged to meet a poet back in Xalapa and discuss literary matters. He is called José Luis Rivas and has translated T.S. Eliot and Derek Walcott into Spanish.

 

Carriage in foyer of the Posada de Coatepec, used by formerly Important People.

Carriage in foyer of the Posada de Coatepec, used by formerly Important People.

 

 

Coatepec Church

Coatepec Church.

 

 

El Caporal, Coatepec.

El Caporal, Coatepec.

 

 

Forgetting Chatwin

30 Aug

Day five of the Wales Writers Chain tour of Argentina and Chile. We began in Buenos Aires on Monday, at the Spanish Cultural Centre, where Mererid Hopwood and I gave lectures on, respectively, the Welsh and English literary traditions of Wales. On the Tuesday, Tiffany Atkinson and myself launched new collections in Spanish, published by the innovative and excellent imprint Gog y Magog – at what might well be my favourite bookshop in the world, Eterna Cadencia. We flew south on Wednesday, to Puerto Madryn, where the first Welsh settlers arrived on the Mimosa in July 1865, and were ourselves received by a small delegation of the Argentine Welsh community, where we were served soft white bread sandwiches, Malbec wine, teisen and tarts in a little hall used for Welsh and cookery classes. Incredibly hospitable and welcoming people.

Puerto Madryn reception

Puerto Madryn reception

            The tour was organised by the Argentine poet, critic and translator, Jorge Fondebrider along with Sioned Puw Rowlands, and sponsored by various city councils in Patagonia, the ministry of culture of the city of Buenos Aires, Wales Arts International and Wales Literature Exchange. Jorge has christened the tour ‘Forgetting Chatwin’ in refutation of the English author’s semi-fictitious account of Patagonia.

            In spite of a heavy schedule of readings, lectures, translation workshops, informal talks, school visits etc, we were able yesterday to have an excursion. Puerto Madryn happens to be very close to the natural reserve of the Valdes Peninsula, so yesterday we travelled along the isthmus to Puerto Pirámide – a charming and dilapidated frontier settlement on the beach – and took a boat trip to see the whales (all of them are the Southern Right Whale, called ‘right’ because of the ease of hunting them in the days of harpoon whaling). The trip to the peninsula allowed us to take a look at the blasted landscape of the interior, the endless bare scrub falling away into the distance under an enormous sky. We passed llama and guanaco – a smaller version of the llama – one of whose characteristic features is the particularly touching way in which the males decide who is to become the paterfamilias. According to our guide, Cesar, the males run at each other and bite their competitor’s testicles, thereby rendering him incapable of reproduction (as well, one imagines, of immediately converting him from tenor to soprano). How terrifying is nature in its simplicity.

Guanaco family

Guanaco family

            And then the whales, which leave me speechless. I heard one sing, truly.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

Mimosa crew

The crew of the Mimosa, from left: Nia Davies, Karen ‘Chuckie’ Owen, Tiffany Atkinson, Jorge Fondebrider and Mererid Hopwood.

Today, more lectures and poetry readings in Trelew, where Mererid Hopwood and Karen Owen will visit a Welsh school, followed by a reading at the University of Patagonia with myself, Tiffany, Karen, Mererid, alongside Jorge Fondebrider, Marina Kohon, Jorge Aulicino (Argentina) and Veronica Zondek (Chile).

A Patagonian dog, chilling out.

A Patagonian dog, chilling out in Puerto Pirámide.

Swan in an Ikea bag

8 Oct

On my way back from The Promised Land yesterday evening – that’s right, there is a way back – we passed under the railway bridge between Tudor Street and Taff’s Mead Embankment and there was this swan just sitting on the pavement. Who knows what induced it to leave the river and go walkabout under Scary Bridge, but there it sat. A council worker was in attendance, who phoned for help from the Swan Rescue Service, so I went home for my camera, and when I had returned Swan had started to waddle a little further along the pavement, in no particular hurry, and with a slight limp.

The Swan Rescue Service man arrived next, skilfully grabbed Swan with a gaff, and wrapped him in a swan-wrapping bandage (seriously, see picture). Thus packaged, he popped Swan in a handy Ikea bag, and set off for his car, parked on the corner of Pendyris and Taff’s Mead, where he explained to me that they would take Swan in for a couple of days and see if he needed attention to his leg, then drop him back to the river. Meanwhile, a straitjacketed Swan was attempting to sip up some gruel left out in a bowl in the back of Swan Rescue Service man’s estate car. Good thing too. I asked him if it was true that swans were really the queen’s property and he said that was a bit of a myth and only applied to an area of the Thames around Henley. So it’s all right to eat them then? I asked. No it is not, he said, quite emphatically. Good thing too, I said, if you think about it.

The other high spot of the last twenty-four hours was of course Wales’ sweet victory over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, predicted by Blanco, who placed a bet on Wales winning by 6-10 points at rather good odds, and was, shamefully, rather hoping for an (unconverted) Irish consolation try in the last minute, which would have left him well over two hundred quid better off. But his patriotic fervour easily overcame his disappointment. There were moments in the match, when Ireland were pitched within the Welsh 22 for hours, days, weeks on end, when Blanco’s exclamations and profanities sent Bruno the dog scuttling for his basket.

Six o’clock in the morning is well within the bounds of reasonableness for TV viewing, and Blanco is relieved not to be watching all the matches at stupid o’clock, as was the case in Argentina. As for tomorrow, Go Pumas!

 

 

 

Miscellaneous sightings

29 Aug

This car was parked on the road near a pool in the river Muga where I like to swim. Who said the Germans have no sense of humour? It certainly wasn’t me. I might however begin an occasional series on this blog titled ‘Exploring National Stereotypes’ or ‘Exploding National Stereotypes’. This would be #147.

 

Beware of reading? This book contains a bloody funny joke? Other possible interpretations to Blanco please.

This parakeet now lives in The Sad Giraffe Café, in Sant Llorenç de la Muga. I am uncertain why the sad giraffe had to go, but when I asked the new owner of the café she looked at me as though I were an imbecile. Sometimes I don’t know whether to keep my mouth shut or just come out with stuff. And the sad giraffe has left. The parakeet is quite nice, but I preferred the giraffe, who sang.

As ever on Blanco’s Blog, one thing leads irrevocably to another. I photographed this spider’s web on Friday, and over the weekend, reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I come across a passage in which the observation of spider webs is said to have influenced early engineers in bridge design:

‘At old days’ says Miss Aibagawa, ‘long ago, before great bridges built over wide rivers, travellers often drowned. People said,”Die because river god angry.” People not said, “Die because big bridges not yet invented.” People not say, “People die because we have ignoration too much.” But one day, clever ancestors observe spider’ webs, weave bridge of vines. Or see trees, fallen over fast rivers, and make stone islands in wider rivers, and lay from islands to islands. They build such bridges. People no longer drown in same dangerous river, or many less people . . .’

However, spider silk is interesting of itself. An article in Interface, the Journal of the Royal Society, entitled  High-performance spider webs: integrating biomechanics, ecology and behaviour offers the following enticement:

“An integrative, mechanistic approach to understanding silk and web function, as well as the selective pressures driving their evolution, will help uncover the potential impacts of environmental change and species invasions (of both spiders and prey) on spider success.” If this interests you as much as it does me, read on here.

 

 

 

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