Chasing rainbows

¿Dónde termina el arco iris, en tu alma o en el horizonte? (Where does the rainbow end, in your soul or on the horizon?)

Pablo Neruda, The Book of Questions

I know at times my attitude has been considered a bit un-PC but I believe children need to be exposed to fresh air and sunlight, to be allowed to get wet and muddy, to climb trees, build dens and poke about in ponds and streams. Our bunch spent many happy days making foul-smelling potions in beach buckets, gathering windfall apples in a toy wheelbarrow and bringing me posies of stemless flowers. They chased butterflies, ‘rescued’ worms and collected snails. They wandered and wondered.

They were helping out in the garden before they could walk and have all grown up with a deep understanding and appreciation of where fresh, wholesome food comes from and how flowers are great for wildlife and good for the soul. Most importantly, they were allowed – encouraged, even – to take risks (under supervision, of course). They climbed trees, scrambled up rocks, waded into water, looked over the edge of cliffs, used knives, handled fire, poked their noses into beehives. I know many people would disagree with me but I believe children need to be allowed to take risks: how else do they learn to understand how to deal with danger, how to become confident, courageous, resilient beings?

This is something I’ve been mulling over many times during the last few weeks. For us in total lockdown, a regular stream of photos and video clips of our grandchildren spending days of gorgeous weather playing outside – not to mention celebrating a birthday – have been a delight; it has brought many smiles to our faces to see their busyness and mischief in full sail. In complete contrast, I have felt extremely sad and frustrated for the millions of Spanish children who have not been quite so lucky, shut in the confines of urban apartments for six long weeks. What a blessed relief for them to have been granted at least a small freedom in recent days, allowed out with one adult for one hour and no more than one kilometre from home. Parks and playgrounds remain firmly closed but it’s a welcome start. For us oldies, too, there is a glimmer of hope with the tantalising possibility of a relaxing of the rules around walking and sport to come at the weekend. It will be over 50 days since I last ran outdoors properly, training in torrential rain for a 10k race that never happened. I have been grateful that, unlike so many of our Spanish running friends, I have at least had a barn to run in but the idea of finally being released from what I’ve come to think of as ‘goldfish bowl syndrome’ fills me with great joy. The open road will never have seemed so sweet!

Most children in the UK haven’t been locked down as tightly as their Spanish counterparts but for many, the rainbow has become a central symbol of this strange and unprecedented time in their lives. I love rainbows and have always been fascinated by their fleeting beauty. One of the most incredible moments of my life was standing in the centre of a circular rainbow at the Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland; I was so entranced at being completely encircled by such an ephemeral natural wonder that I didn’t realised just how drenched I was getting! It’s not magic but pure science, of course; nonetheless, I find myself as captivated by the refraction, reflection and dispersion of light through water droplets – be it arcing across the sky, dancing around waterfalls and breaking waves or caught in a soap bubble or a glass of water – as much now as when I was a child.

Given the choice, I would take sunshine over rain most days but I always feel a sense of gratitude for the gift of rainfall, so desperately missed and longed for in other places. There is a reason why Asturias is so green and lush! We seldom let wet weather spoil our activities so on a day this week that brought us everything from the finest drizzle to torrential downpours, I headed out into the garden with the camera to seek a rainbow. Not a real one – no chance of that when the cloud rolls moodily across the mountains – but a spectrum of flowers to lift the gloom.

Mmm, where to start? Actually, I had no problem with that one.

Orange offered me several possibilities, in particular the nasturtiums flaunting their jaunty faces in every corner or the orange calendula that have mysteriously appeared amongst their yellow companions for the first time this year. In the end, though, I plumped for the Californian poppies which have been releasing satin petals from their tight cones of buds in bright starbursts all week.

For yellow, my old friends the aforementioned calendula or pot marigold, here having set themselves rather artistically against a purple haze of sage flowers.

Green? Choices, choices. In the end, it just had to be the fresh leaves on the kiwi.

When it came to blue, I didn’t even hesitate: enter borage, one of my very favourite flowers.

Indigo posed a bit of a problem when I found I just couldn’t choose between two strong candidates, cerinthe and passion flower. Time to toss a coin? No, indulge me with this one, please: they’re both here. Well, how could they not be?

As for violet, I was spoilt for choice. Should it be clematis, honesty, allium, salsify? No, I’ll settle for granny’s bonnets.

Well, it was a rainbow of sorts!

In the same way as I feel the prevailing quiet, clear air is amplifying the sounds of nature around us at the moment, so I am completely convinced that rainfall heightens the senses in other ways. It smells so wonderful outside: the deep, spicy bass notes of pine and eucalyptus wafting down from the woods mingling with that evocative sharp, herbal tang of cut grass and woven through with the heady perfume of hundreds and hundreds of flowers. It might be wet, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m in a captivating paradise.

Wet days seem to enhance the colour in the garden, too, giving a marked depth and intensity that is so often washed out by bright sunlight.

The Spanish for ‘rainbow’ – arco iris – is named after Iris, the rainbow goddess and messenger of Greek mythology. In my Spanish studies this week, I have been translating an article from a tourist board blog about places of interest in Asturias which are steeped in myth and legend, some of which we have already visited, others which I hope we will be able to explore in the so-called ‘new normal’ of the future. Now I am happy to admit that a working knowledge of las xanas (water nymphs) or el cuélebre (a giant winged serpent) is unlikely to be of much use when we need to have the car serviced or visit the dentist, but for me there is as much magic in the descriptive language as in the stories themselves. We can’t hope to recreate a crystal waterfall hidden deep within a bosky glade or the explosive snorts of coastal bufones sending salty spray skywards, but there is still enchantment to be found in our rain-spattered patch. We only have to look.

What contrast there is between the sweet simplicity of raindrops caught on leaves . . .

. . . and the bold, architectural sweep of cardoons and globe artichokes.

How is it possible that these tiny nubs of silvery velvet will swell into the luscious bounty of summer peaches?

How can I describe the striking colours and textures unfolding from walnut and chestnut and oak, the startling newness of it all?

Come into the Enchanted Garden. If I were a small child once again with an unshakeable belief in the Little People, then this surely is where I would seek them!

There are discoveries to be made here and treasures to uncover, some almost too strange to be true.

Ah, perhaps those Asturian fairy tales have gone to my head. After all, despite how it might seem, I’m not really an airy-fairy, unicorn-riding, New Age granny. Honest! Life goes on here for us as normally as possible under lockdown; there is still a home to run, a garden to tend, clothes to launder, meals to prepare, tax forms to fill out and bills to pay. We are practical, pragmatic people with plenty to be doing . . . but even so, I think everyone needs to chase rainbows now and again. Don’t you? 🙂

The flight of the bumblebee

Our valley is a tranquil spot at the best of times but in these unusual circumstances of minimal traffic on the roads and no planes overhead, it is exceptionally and blissfully peaceful. In The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how in modern society, over 90% of the noise that surrounds us in our daily lives is man-made, yet for prehistoric peoples the opposite was true. Now I am not expecting to see a woolly mammoth come strolling down the lane anytine soon but – putting the current grave circumstances aside – how extraordinary it is to experience an environment overwhelmingly dominated by natural sounds.

Of course, there is the usual cacophony of cockerels and cowbells punctuated by short bursts of village activity; after all, despite most of Spanish society remaining in total lockdown, the farming and smallholding year must continue if starvation isn’t to be the next problem. Still, it is the wilder sounds that prevail with a crystal clarity, as though nature’s crackly radio has at last been fine-tuned to perfection. I am a willing audience.

The river snakes its way across the valley floor below us in a constant ripple of energy, bubbling and chattering over boulders as if it were still a youthful mountain stream, but now it is somehow amplified to a level that suggests the rush and drop of a weir or hidden waterfall where there is neither. Breezes susurrate and sigh across the mountainsides, stippling the light and ruffling the trees like a huge invisible hand pulled through soft, silvery grasses.

It is no surprise that the birds hold centre stage from dawn to dusk, their rousing symphony of harmony and counterpoint played out against the rhythmic ostinato of cuckoos and crickets. In this clear air there is a fresh magic to their music, startling surprises in the familiar like a bright new tapestry woven from old threads.

It’s not just their songs, either. How incredible to notice the rigid wingbeats of a crow flapping languorously overhead, the slick torpedo whoosh of a sparrowhawk perforating the air like a dart, the fragile sigh of a wren alighting on a tremulous twig. There’s nothing new about any of these sounds . . . but have I ever truly heard them before? By day, the stags’ guttural coughs echo across the meadows and at night, the tawny owls practise their haunting call-and-response under vaulted skies. There’s no missing those raucous renditions but who’d believe the soft patter of a lizard’s footsteps or the whispered rustle of a grass snake’s sinuous trajectory can truly be heard? Hush. Be still. We only have to listen.

The garden is alive with insects who play their part magnificently, too. I’ve recently read a report about the effects of climate change on bumblebee demographics and in particular, how a run of very warm summers here in Spain has seen populations pushed ever northwards to these green and mountainous regions. I am no biologist but I can certainly vouch for that: they are here in their thousands and the garden and meadows thrum constantly with their exuberant notes. I love them; they are so busy and yet so unfussy, zipping from place to place and feeding at whichever flower take their fancy. Nothing is too grand or too humble for their attention – weeds, garden blooms, vegetable flowers, whatever. Crimson clover is proving to be a huge success, its vibrant bottlebrush flowers are an irresistible bee magnet. The same is true of phacelia, another green manure plant which has self-set around the patch in pops and drifts of hazy mauve, bristling with the frenetic activity of bumbles, honey bees and solitary bees alike.

Something we have noted with delight and optimism is the increasing amount of wildlife drawn to our patch year on year, not only in terms of absolute numbers but in the range and variety of species, too. How exciting this week to see a carpenter bee joining the phacelia feeding frenzy; we had them in our garden in France but have never seen one here until now. I think the females are stunning creatures clad in their shiny black armour with wings of metallic bluey-purple, iridescent in the sunlight. They are bold and brash and very loud which, along with their habit of building nests by hollowing out wooden structures, apparently gets them a bad name; I was completely shocked at how many internet sites give information on how to destroy these so-called troublesome pests. How sad. At least here in our little haven (or as Mary Reynolds would call it, our ‘ark’), they are safe and welcome.

As I sit in the garden writing this on the laptop, I realise that it has been exactly six weeks since I last left our property. For 42 days I have been here without exception, watching spring unfold around me in a way never quite as before. It has been fascinating to observe the developments and events, not in steps or leaps but in the tiniest, barely perceptible shifts of change; it has almost seemed possible to watch leafbuds burst, blossoms unfurl, seeds germinate. What incredible changes have occurred in a relatively short time! Like a time-lapse film, the countryside around us has greened and filled to bursting, whilst the garden canvas has moved through an entire palette – from primroses, violets and tulips to alliums, poppies and roses – to arrive at the crazy, carefree carnival of rainbows I love so much.

Where flower gardening is concerned, I’ve given up – not for any negative reason, you understand, but because I am simply no longer needed. Having saved many things that were already here, planted perennials, sowed biennials, scattered annuals and buried bulbs in previous years, nature now does the work for me and the garden takes care of itself. We haven’t planted the new border where concrete used to be because it will plant itself in the coming months. How could I improve on the swathes of colour, here soft and billowy, there loud and shocking, that have organised their own unique compositions? Would I have thought to take crimson clover and yellow calendula then stitch them through with the dazzling magenta of vetch?

Could it have occurred to me that candy pink granny’s bonnets mingling tastefully with the glaucous blue of cerinthe and then shot through with the screaming fiery orange of nasturtiums might be something that would work? Would I sow candytuft under the grapevine, pansies among the onions, wallflowers between the peas? It’s completely outrageous and I love the whole wild, reckless, hedonistic jumble of nature’s creativity. Let’s just smile and revel in it. Why interfere?

Of course, we’ve already handed the reins over to nature in many, many areas of our patch, those margins and larger spaces left to go deliberately wild after a nudge in the right direction. We’ve recently been developing the orchard area, improving access so that we can wander up and down the steep slopes and spend more time enjoying it; how daft to have a seat there which we barely sat on! Having cleared the rougher areas, knocking back the brambles and applying a selective grass cutting regimen, it is wonderful to watch the whole space regenerating and taking on a new and tantalisingly beautiful aura.

The wildflowers that were already present have proliferated and new ones have appeared, so that beneath the fruit and nut trees – currently resplendent with fragrant blossoms or fat catkins – there are pretty carpets of scattered colour. The verges, too, are a tangle of wild beauty and a-buzz with the rapt attention of a myriad insects.

Have these past six weeks, so worrying and disruptive for much of humanity, brought positive things to the abundance of life we are so lucky to share our environment with? Could the hugely increased numbers and acrobatic energy of the swallows here be a result of a better journey northwards through cleaner air? Is the natural world in general feeling the benefit of fewer machines, less air pollution and less noise?

Has our almost constant presence outside diminished the inhibitions of the resident birds who no longer seem to notice us being here? There is currently a great tit sitting on a hanging basket close by, delicately plucking fibres from the sheep’s fleece I used as liners, without a care in the world; a few moments ago, a dunnock landed on the back of the chair opposite, its beak stuffed with moss, so close I could have reached out and stroked it. It made no rush to leave.

We have at least two more weeks of lockdown here and then, by all accounts, only a very slow lifting of restrictions to movement in small steps towards the ‘new normal.’ By then, I sincerely hope that the human situation will be improving rapidly but in the meantime, with a deep sense of gratitude I shall continue to delight in the beauties of the season and the enchantment of the bumblebees’ song.