Hope springs eternal in the human breast.Alexander Pope
We are now in the third week of lockdown in Spain as the country continues its fight against the Covid-19 virus. What a wonderful (if tentative) moment of hope when last week it became clear that Asturias had moved beyond the peak as the number of new cases began to fall; the government here instigated measures several days before the declaration of a national state of alarm and so the principality is running a little ahead of the national situation. Of course, there is a long, long way to go yet and as keyworkers continue in their tireless and heroic efforts to save lives, to keep us safe and to maintain essential supply chains, for most people daily reality remains being confined en casa. The media focus tends to fall on the experience of people living in urban areas, which is quite understandable: that is where the vast majority of the population lives, many of them confined to small apartments with a tiny balcony their only window on the world. I give thanks every day that we have a beautiful garden and a stunning view, open space and limitless fresh air where we can breathe deeply, stretch our limbs and feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. We are very blessed.
However, it was interesting and refreshing one day last week to see the local online press reporting on the experience of rural dwellers in what is known as Asturias vaciada – emptied Asturias. Like many parts of Spain, Asturias has experienced mass rural depopulation over the last few decades, leaving a countryside littered with empty houses, meagre settlements and an elderly population. Our village is no exception; of the 26 dwellings here, half are unoccupied and as a couple in our fifties we are very much at the younger end of the age range. Local councils are working hard to provide round-the-clock help and care for vulnerable people living in these isolated areas whose situation at first glance might seem deeply concerning . . . and yet, the newspaper report shared a fascinating insight by one interviewee who made three wise and salient observations about the experience and resilience of rural people in these difficult and uncertain times.
The first point they made was that living in such relatively empty rural areas, it can be many days before you cross a neighbour’s path. ‘Isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are part and parcel of everyday life and as such, come as no surprise or hardship. For us, this is absolutely true. Even if I go out on a run (not currently, obviously!) that takes me down to the village, I only pass one house closely and more often than not, I don’t see our neighbours who live there. In another direction, I can walk or run for over two miles before I come to the first occupied house. I have lost count of the number of times we have gone out from home or further afield and walked for many hours without seeing another soul. If we stay at home, we can go for several days without seeing anyone unless our postman Ricardo comes down the lane or Jairo comes up to check his cows. I’ve read a lot lately about how human beings are social creatures who crave company but I think that’s a bit of a sweeping generalisation; I love Roger’s company, I enjoy communicating and spending time with others but I also delight in a bit of solitude and have always been completely comfortable on my own. If you are used to being alone, then loneliness is rarely an issue. If your daily routine isn’t built around contact and constant chatter, then silence is a pleasure, not a threat.
The second point made was that when people are used to producing their own food whether it be vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, meat, milk, eggs or whatever, when ‘normal’ life involves baking your own bread and making preserves, when meal planning starts with what you have at home, then there is no need to go to the shops regularly. The constraint of only being allowed to travel short distances to buy essential supplies doesn’t bring too many changes. Every occupied house in our village has a productive vegetable garden and fruit trees, and many have chickens, beehives and a pig. There are no doorstep supermarket deliveries but each week sees vans selling bread, frozen foods, cakes, fruit and vegetables and fresh fish arrive in the village – the drivers with hand on horn to announce their arrival – and this has continued through lockdown. We might live a long way from the nearest food shops and supermarket, we might be eating a lot of kale and squash and salad . . . but we are most definitely not going hungry.
Third, it was pointed out that if we spend our time caring for a few animals or tending a patch of land then our days are naturally filled with activities that are nurturing, absorbing and uplifting. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to the events or horrors of the wider world, just that our mental focus centres on a way of living that teaches us how to cope with the ups and downs of life, how to be pragmatic and optimistic and above all, keeps us grounded in the cycles and seasons of the natural world.
That final point resonated very strongly with me, which I’m sure will come as no surprise to regular readers; I make no secret of the fact that a close connection to nature is fundamental to my lifestyle and, most definitely, my wellbeing. Despite the worrying headlines and footage from around the world, and anxious thoughts about the safety of loved ones, if I can put my hands into the earth, sprinkle seeds, see the bright green fizz of new leaves unfurling, plunge my nose into flowers and hear the call of the cuckoo on the mountain, then I have hope and healing.
I love the idea of ‘listening to the land,’ an idea shared by Patrick Whitefield in The Earthcare Manual and Mary Reynolds in The Garden Awakening, two absorbing and inspiring books I have read and re-read in recent months. I particularly liked Patrick’s astute observation that if you ask someone to observe a garden or piece of ground they tend to reach for paper and pen and start to write notes or make sketches; on the other hand, asking them to close ther eyes and listen to the land leads to a stillness and focus and -ultimately – a much greater awareness of the feel of the place. This reminds me of the way in which the ancient druids used sensory deprivation as a powerful learning tool which heightened their awareness and creativity. With her love of Irish magic, Mary refers to the spirit of the land and both authors recognise the importance of acknowledging, recognising and honouring this quality in designing and caring for gardens. It’s a case of not asking, ‘What can we do with this land?’ but instead, ‘ How can we work with it?’ The two are often very different things! So, with this in mind, and given that we are at least allowed into the garden if not beyond, we have been spending our days working on some of the new projects I mentioned in an earlier post. (As these are ongoing activities, please bear in mind, some of the photos are several weeks old.)
First, our attempts to reduce the amount of ugly concrete. Having talked about a few possible ideas, we decided to start by removing a wide strip of concrete that runs from the yard to the field gate along the top of the vegetable patch; the path doesn’t need to be that wide and we hoped that by swapping the concrete for a planting area, we could capture a sense of the garden extending and flowing more naturally.
As with so many projects, making a start was the trickiest part as there’s no way of knowing whether it will be a success or not. Nothing for it, then, but to grab the sledgehammer and get stuck in . . .
Once Roger had made that start, things went pretty swimmingly although it never fails to astound me just how much rubble jobs like this create.
With the concrete lifted, the next job was to tackle the wall at the far end; as it holds the path up, it was important not to remove it. However, there was certainly scope for a radical overhaul as the wall had been cobbled together with bits of breeze block, bricks, metal mesh and a whole host of other rubbish in the unique style of ‘building’ we have become used to finding here. What was truly puzzling is that the area behind this dubious construction had been filled with flat stones just perfect for building a . . . wall!
I believe one of the best ways to listen to the land is to work with naturally occurring materials wherever possible and the local stone is no exception. Our house, barn and horreo were all originally built from the honey-coloured stone that is typical of the area and we have used it to build many terraces in the garden. The obvious thing to do here, then, was to remove the ‘rubble wall’ and replace it with a more attractive and far more appropriate dry stone one. With that done, and the ground dug over (and another huge pile of rubble dug out in the process) and a generous quantity of muck forked in, the new planting area was created. There’s no rush to plant it, though; I love the way that things spread and self-set so liberally here, so we’ll give nature free reign in the coming months and see what transpires.
Staying in the same area of the garden, and in the last couple of summers I have planted hanging baskets on the horreo, loving the idea of bright splashes of floral colour against that lovely stone. The results, I have to confess, have been a bit mixed; I’ve struggled to find plants that have been truly happy – even geraniums (pelargoniums) which grow like a weed here failed to really give it their best shot. Hanging baskets are not a common sight here and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a good reason for that, so it’s time for a radical rethink. I’ve ditched any thought of flowers (and let’s face it, we’re not exactly short of colour here) and I’m trying strawberries instead, using some of the spare plants we had in our bare-rooted bundle a few weeks ago. In place of my usual eucalyptus bark liner, I’ve gone for something completely different but definitely up my street: sheep’s wool. I have been meaning for months (um . . . years?) to sort out a huge bag of Manx Loaghton fleece, much of which is daggy and unspinnable, but which I’ve kept for just such an occasion. It was lovely time spent in the sunshine, putting aside a happy quantity of good stuff – there’s at least another teddy bear’s worth to be spun – and using the rest to make gorgeously deep, warm, soft basket linings. I then put a plant saucer in the base of each and filled the baskets to the top with our home-produced compost, before adding the plants. I’m looking forward to seeing how they go this year- just as long as the birds don’t help themselves to the wool for nests in the meantime!
The orchard makeover a few weeks ago was quite a project but already we are reaping the benefits of all the hard work. With paths dug out and stone steps built in, we can now weave our way around the whole area and climb up and down the steep slope without slipping and sliding like we did before. It is wonderful to be able to wander around and see how quickly things have grown and changed in such a short time. Our newly-planted fruit trees have settled in and are bursting into leaf, whilst the more established ones are scenting the air with their delicate blossoms.
There are wildflowers everywhere and it is incredible how such a rough, stony, inaccesible and ugly corner has been transformed into a delightful carpet of colour, buzzing with life. We certainly listened to the land with this project and nature hasn’t disappointed.
Staying with fruit and it has been quite a steep learning curve for us finding out what will and won’t grow well here. There were peaches, apricots, figs and pears here when we arrived, all of which thrive (as long as the blossom isn’t blasted in spring storms). To those trees we have added apples, cherries, plums, more pears, an orange, a lemon and a plum, all of which grow well locally. Soft fruit hasn’t been such a success. There were summer raspberries here but they were the most tasteless things on earth and even the birds wouldn’t touch them; I replaced them with autumn varieties which I prefer anyway (I think they have a better flavour and they don’t need all that faffing about with wires and cages). Blimey, how they grew, I had raspberry canes everywhere . . . but not a single flower and therefore no fruit, because our winter simply isn’t cold enough to give them the kick they need. Thankfully, the wild strawberries are hugely reliable and grow literally everywhere on our patch so I’m hoping our bigger, cultivated varieties will do as well.
Since we moved here, two local farmers have planted fields of blueberry bushes so that suggested they might grow happily here; well, yes and no. One of our three bushes has died but we did get a sprinkling of berries last year so I think the jury is still out on that one. As a bit of a bonus, though, last summer a mystery physalis plant appeared from nowhere growing out of a wall near the polytunnel. It’s not something we’ve ever grown here but nature obviously decided to plant it on our behalf.
To be honest, I’d pretty much forgotten about it; it set a few fruits but they didn’t mature (and I still didn’t know whether it was a cape gooseberry or a tomatillo) and over winter, the whole plant had disappeared under a swathe of red deadnettle. What a lovely surprise, then, to be foraging last week – it’s amazing how much more attention I pay to things in this lockdown situation, every moment outside is so precious – and find a lovely little picking of sweet and tasty fruits! Roger felt a rich dark chocolate mousse would be just the thing to set them off, and so it was. Here’s another fruit to put on the planting list, then.
Something new we are trying is redcurrants; we’ve always grown them in the past and miss them in summer puddings and redcurrant jelly which is such a useful ingredient in cooking, but we’ve never had them here. We decided to plant the bush below a couple of cardoons at the field end of the vegetable patch but were a bit concerned about the site being too exposed to the prevailing wind. Listening to the land once again, it seemed the obvious thing to do was to plant a small hedge to give a little protection, and what better way of doing that than lifting tree seedlings from around our patch? Well, any excuse for a wander through the woods.
Woodland is an environment that never fails to lift my spirits but there is something particularly special about this time of year when the leaves burst their buds to reveal fresh, glossy, new growth and the birds herald the season in a joyful cacophony of song. I was supposed to be looking for potential seedlings but found my eyes distracted ever upwards.
Luckily, there was no shortage of tiny trees pushing up through the leaf litter and we had soon lifted a collection of mixed varieties, including birch, oak, willow and bay. What a lovely thing, to gather a little part of the woodland to enjoy in the garden; four weeks on, our new hedge is growing vigorously and the redcurrant bush is looking very happy, too.
Back to the confines of the garden and we have been busy this week looking ahead to this year’s new harvests, planting out summer brassicas and lettuce, potting on tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers and squash, sowing beans and courgettes (and sweet peas! 🙂 ) and preparing a patch for the onion seedlings that are almost ready to transplant. There has been so much of the season to enjoy: the first resident swallow swooping through in the evening sunshine, the scurry of lizards everywhere, the busyness of flocks of goldfinches and serins flitting through the orchard, the warble of blackbirds ever earlier in the morning, the incessant bustle of bees and butterflies, the wriggle of fat tadpoles in our tiny pond, the sweep of a soft green haze through the woodlands, the pretty pink ruffles of the first roses and the heady scent of jasmine and freesias by the kitchen door.
My complete absorption in so much beauty and wonder in no way diminishes or trivialises the seriousness of the ongoing global situation; believe me, I am as anxious and concerned as the next person. It’s just that once more, I find great comfort in the continued cycle of the seasons, in the fact that nature goes on, spring happens, new life appears, the garden smiles with flowers and I smile with it. In fact, in these dark days I smile for the whole of humanity. A smile of kindness, a smile of love and a smile of hope. Whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever your situation, I hope that you can smile with me, if only for a moment. 🙂