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Black Kites over Gates of the Underworld

~ the track leading to Puerto del Infierno

Last Saturday was a perfect one in which to be alive and ‘free’ in wonderful Al-Andalus.

In the new moon of February, at the birth of the Ox Year, the first flock of migrant raptors crossed over ‘our farm’. Their line was stitched for a few moments into a sky of immaculate blue. Moments that might define the open countryside of Andalucia.

Two hours after solar noon air movement was slight. A gently rising ocean breeze ensured the mood was not quite still. A chain of dots appeared out of the south. A line of Black Kites. Eighty four in number? They flapped steadily northwards. Progressing without the slightest sideways deviation. They trooped on past my favourite springtime vantage point.

I had been attempting to sit quietly, as if engaged with nothing. Secreted among gnarled and twisted wild olive trees on a hillock well-grazed by chestnut cows. This knoll marks the narrowest point in a hidden pastoral valley. It overlooks an ancient track leading to a “Gate into the Underworld”.

A deep and once more secret place. A narrow cleft in the tumbling cliffs. A gap only five oxen wide. The track leads into the forbidden low sierras that lie to the east of our house, beyond my “Checkpoint Covie”, beyond the boundary fence of this cortijo. Into the land of the oligarchs. A cortijo by the way is an Andalusian farmstead.

Respect – Paneolus – sentry near the gate

I heard last week on the grapevine that small groups of Black Kites had been observed passing north across the nearby Strait of Gibraltar. However the eighty odd currently in my field of view were my first of the spring.

Big migrating birds these. They are serious biodiversity. Life on the move, truly wild and truly free. Big inspirational birds and very welcome. Dart-shaped at a distance, little chevrons in the sky. These scavenger predators are bound for sun-filled summers, scouring the backwaters of broad river valleys, throughout the core of the old EU. Their flight line here was well-spaced and in the absence of a following wind these plodding kites took a full ten minutes to pass my position.

Last Saturday was, to human senses, the highpoint of the past eight days. Whole days previous were marked down by wind and rain, great grey cloudscapes rolling out of the west. Admittedly there were some days that were punctuated by a recuperative period of a few sunny hours. Precious few though. A little time during which one might venture out and in relative comfort look for fine wild companions for this humdrum human life.

Butterflies, are a good example. And they have already taken a battering this year. Saturday could barely produce five species, and very few individuals of each. Only the robustly faithful Green-striped Whites could muster a show of over half a dozen individuals.

Nevertheless the bees and wasps, the Aculeate hymenoptera, despite being in low number, were very noticeable; largely by virtue of their loud and utterly vital buzzyness. These delightful and dedicated labourers of early spring include a species of Asphodel-affiliated hairy solitary bee. These hard working mothers were a feature on the sunny knoll last Saturday.

Also spotted was a single ‘white tailed bumblebee’, a humble working sister. Most likely she was from a colony in the mouse hole, under the ‘hedgerow’ of dead prickly pear cacti, secreted near to our own abode.

But my friends, that was all on Saturday. A truly delightful day that ended perfectly. Even after sunset it remained calm and warm. The air was still. Filled with the sound of churring mole crickets and the deep and mournful lowing of a Retinta bull, what big boy he is, branded “501”. He was noisily staking his claim around the biggest and best pasture, the one that all but surrounds our farmstead.

But Saturday was the lull, the lull before the storm – the latest one of many. Overnight into Sunday the great east wind got up, here it’s called ‘Levante’. It blew and blew for all of Sunday. So we were more or less confined to the cottages.

Now, at the start of the working week we’re into full climate change lockdown. Staying in the boxes, hidden away in the hills near Tarifa. Because the great Levante is giving us a proper battering. Blowing a consistent seven, often gusting over eight. A nine temporarily knocked out the electric power; and with that comma down, silence, no pontificating fact-checkers, or thought police of the MSM of WiFi; all that inane cancel chatter of the web was temporarily cleansed.

Now it’s Monday and Elsie is forced to struggle with the power. Teaching in the Land of Zoom. So I sit here, in the living room, swaddled by six layers of wool and cotton. I needed the electric heater earlier, it’s one that pulses with an artificial orange glow like lucozade or irn-bru. Essential kit to keep these draught and chills from cutting right through my back.

Sheltering in a similar fashion are geckos, in their case from the stark spring light in this great dry storm. Moorish Geckos, the first of the year, are pattering back into their crannied hiding places in the walls. There they are relatively safe there from depredation by one recently arrived feral, yet undeniably handsome, Siamese tom. Safe are they within the tumble of big-stoned walls. The walls that also delineate our corner of the ruins.

Ten a.m. and the Levante is really roaring now. It’s churning slim grey dragons of cloud through the ragged crest-line of the low sierra. As the moisture in the lower sky evaporates, and the air rushes on, out over the great vale of agribusiness to our west, all the clouds disperse. Between times they are herded into ragged little flocks of magic livestock. The disappear, completely. They vanish above the drains and ditches, the neatly carved grid, already a livid green, chock-full of improbable algae. It’s a network that drains this valley of the Death Kings. For now let’s just call them Merck and Monsanto.

Draining the products of our abusive behaviours, of “farming” for finance, into the glaucous brooding vastness out there where the sun sets, in an eastern North Atlantic, where winter yet prevails.

As the sun of the day advances, thin white lines, as if chopped by a razor, criss-cross the middle sky. Thankfully they too are soon erased by the battering turbulence of the Levante. It’s a seemingly indefatigable adversary this wind. A death knell for the heedless.

Merciless the air in motion is now hurling oranges and even those tight-of-twig lemons onto the ground. They fall from somewhat decrepit looking, stag-headed, little trees. The citrus fruits of China bounce across the smooth brown cobbles of the courtyard, whose crevices shelter delicate, fertiliser-intolerant, ‘weeds’. Wild flowers that nervously peek out into a new year from this tiny corner of our old courtyard.

Oases within oases these ruins, naturally fertile, remnants of what is now an almost deserted human ghost land. Land that I pray will soon become organic again. Like the fine old lands of earlier times, all about here in this Cortijo of the Vale.

our corner of the courtyard

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