We were told some months ago about the boulder in the tree, by Lluís Serrano of Cantallops. So we made an excursion of it, trekked up past the castle of Requessens (of which more in a future blog) and up early autumnal paths to view the wonder. Lluís is a great source of information about local history – both cultural and natural – but even he does not know for sure how a rock estimated to weigh up to 100 tonnes landed in a tree. It can only be assumed that it came rolling down the hill behind the tree and was caught in the branches. The impact must have damaged the tree, as there is a fissure running down the trunk, but it survived.
Another strange feature of the tree is the dinosaur head formed by one of the lower branches:
A year ago I posted about the grape harvest in the village, and this account would not be complete without a reminder that the vendimia has been again, and gone. A very wet early summer made wine producers fear the worst for the 2016 vintage in the Empordà, but the proof will be in the . . . bottle. Before we started picking, we had to make some space, so a couple of thousand of the last batch but one were corked and stored, prior to labelling.
And then, on a warm September morning, we ambled down to the fields to fill our buckets. It is a timeless ritual, and one which is so much more enjoyable now than it was 35 years ago, when you did it for pay.
Even Bruno the Dog joined in, robbing grapes from everyone’s buckets and chewing up kilos of the fruit, only to disgorge much of it in dramatic fashion once we had returned home.
A couple of months ago, walking the dog on a hill track beyond the cemetery, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And then the whales, which leave me speechless. I heard one sing, truly.
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).
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!
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.
The land is unholy. It starts to the south east of the village, a kilometre or so along the road where the earth smells of burning metal, an acrid carbon overlay not carried on any breeze but dense within the pigment of the air, the soil a black and ash-smeared crust. No birds. Then, intermittently, bewildered trees, their snowy leaves incongruous under the August sun, shades of grey and copper, magenta, and colours that do not have names except in an alchemist’s almanac, colours that exist only in the immediate aftermath of fire and which still cast out a dead heat. To walk out into this, to step on this unholy ground would be wrong: this wasteland needs to be uninhabited by creature forms. This is the burned-out anteroom to some terrible memory. A couple of years ago, not far from here, a bush fire like this claimed the lives of eight firefighters, cut off and encircled by flames that move faster than a charging bull, swifter than a running deer. When fire comes this close the balance of mortality tilts.
In the top picture the village is visible in a gap between the trees; the bell tower, a few red roofs.
Met up with this tortoise on a walk in the Albera range yesterday morning. The Alberas are home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a protected species.
One of my walking companions, a friend and local farmer with family affiliations to the land around here that go back many generations says that its size indicates it is at least a hundred years old. Its markings suggest it is a male. This means Tortoise was wandering along these paths when our chaps went over the top on the first day of the Somme, when Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed Petersburg. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, when these hills were teeming with refugees and war-wounded, Tortoise would have marked out his territory and become familiar with every ditch and rock and bush on his patch.
He was sunning himself when we approached, and retreated into his shell to avoid the attentions of our dog. But once the dog was kept away he re-emerged to take a look at us. Then, having determined that we didn’t pose a threat, he set off down a bank, at considerable speed – well, relatively speaking – negotiating stones and clumps of bush with clumsy determination. He moved, I would say, with deliberation and with definite purpose, although he was not going to be hurried.
Which brings me neatly to the point. I am reading Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness. The book is about the life of John Franklin, the nineteenth century polar explorer. John had issues as a child, and as a young man, concerning his slowness. The novel catalogues his subtle protest at the institutionalised imposition of quickness or speed. He struggles single-handedly to legitimize his own slowness, and in his own fashion, he succeeds. It is a wonderful novel, beautifully translated by Ralph Freedman. To press my recent argument in this blog about literature in translation, I should point out that the novel was published in German in 1983 and had to wait twenty years before appearing in English in 2003. In the meantime two hundred thousand crap novels were published in English, which no one will ever remember.
“A good story doesn’t need a purpose.”
“John was in search of a place where nobody would find him too slow. Such a place could still be far away, however.”
“He wandered through the town and pondered man’s speeds. If it was true that some people were slow by nature, this should remain so. It was probably not given to them to be like others.”
“There are two kinds [of seeing]: an eye for details, which discovers new things, and a fixed look that follows only a ready-made plan and speeds it up for the moment. If you don’t understand me, I can’t say it any other way. Even these sentences gave me a lot of trouble.”
And, of course, Achilles and the tortoise: John’s old schoolmaster, Dr Orme, attempts to explain one of the Paradoxes of Zeno:
“‘Achilles, the fastest runner in the world, was so slow that he couldn’t overtake a tortoise.’ He waited until John had fully grasped the madness of this assertion. ‘Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. They started at the same time. Then he ran to where the tortoise had been, but it had already reached a new point. When he ran to the next point the tortoise had crawled on again. And so it went, innumerable times. The distance between them lessened, but he never caught up with the tortoise.’ John squeezed his eyes shut and considered this. Tortoise? he thought, and looked at the ground. He observed Dr Orme’s shoes. Achilles? That was something made up.”
That was something made up. The whole ‘Achilles and the tortoise’ thing is made up. It’s a nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing as a boy myself. It is the kind of idiot sophism upon which Western Philosophy seems to be founded. Who believes this stuff anyway? I had the same feeling as John Franklin when I came across Zeno’s Paradox – no doubt via Aesop’s fables – which provides the prototype of the tortoise story.
As Aristotle summarized: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.”
But who says the pursuer must reach the point whence the pursued started? Why? Why does everyone accept these assertions as though they were a given when they read these ancient texts, whether Greek or Chinese, the kind ‘steeped in ancient wisdom’? Why can’t the pursuer avoid the point at which the pursued started? Why does no one ask these obvious fucking questions? Is it some kind of convention, by which we all suspend our critical faculties and pretend to be idiots so as to have someone’s pet theory proved right, be it Zeno, Aristotle or Christopher Columbus? But I digress.
It’s no longer useful, as a universal principle, to assume that fast is necessarily better than slow. Fast food, fast sex, fast money, faster death. I rest my case. We all know we can do speed, and what is costs.
I believe that in an era where speed is probably a more highly-valued commodity than love, The Discovery of Slowness delivers a salutary message.
We leave the village for a day and the place nearly burns down. Within hours of our departure I receive a text from a friend saying there is a bush fire encircling the village and everyone has been instructed to stay indoors, behind closed doors and windows. Many fire engines, seven helicopters and two planes converge here in an attempt to control the flames, and for a few hours it is a highly dangerous place to be. As the afternoon wears on the reports improve. The fire has been contained, with minimum damage to the vines, but considerable destruction of forest – largely cork, but also some olive – and all the hillsides to the south and east of the village are covered by a thick pall of smoke. When the smoke has lifted and we return, the next day, the bare outlines of the hills creates an entirely new landscape.
There is something about the spread of fire in a hot dry climate that cannot easily be conveyed to our wet green consciousness.
The fire brigade reckon the blaze was started by someone tossing a lighted cigarette from a car on the road at Delfiá, a couple of kilometres away. I wonder whether the cretin responsible has any notion of the destruction they caused. Hundreds of hectares of damage to trees, plant life and all the animals that live there. Unbelievable what idiots people can be.
Traditionally, local councils employ ‘firewatchers’ in the summer months, a handy summer job for local students. Because of the cuts in public spending this luxury has been sacrificed. Delays in the reporting of a fire allow it to break out of control long before the fire services arrive, and are consequently far more expensive in the use of resources. Another false economy.
The impressive photographs were taken by our neighbour, Maia Castelló. Ricardo Blanco thanks her for allowing their display on his blog.