31 Dec 2020

64. Back to nature




Like all young people, my generation insisted on believing we could defy the inevitable. We imagined, for instance, we could opt out of the rat-race and go back to nature to plant potatoes in idyllic villages somewhere. A few managed to make it, perhaps even to the Cotswolds or Brittany. But most went back to a ‘proper job’ in London or Lyon, even Brussels. We had not counted on crude reality, nor foreseen how the world was to change.

Not surprisingly, the dream lives on and even goes from strength to strength. For many, life has become unbearable: our cities are inhuman, our work unrewarding, our food tasteless, our relationships bitter, our future uncertain … Today’s ‘back-to-nature’ people, though, are different, savvier. They know there are no derelict farmhouses to be picked up for coppers. They know the earth is way below their knees and that they must have an income. But they also know that today they have a brilliant chance to make it work.

Hideaways ‘far from the madding crowd’ are no longer the exclusive prerogative of successful writers and painters. The pandemic has shown that many of us really can work from home. Air transport since the 80’s has made the world a lot smaller. Computers and modern travel open up all sorts of opportunities, not only to work where you are but also to make where you are work for you.

El Hierro has outstanding potential for initiatives, modest and ambitious, partly because of what it intrinsically is and partly because most of the footwork has already been done. To begin with, its accessibility. Being one of the Canaries, it is easy to get to from anywhere in Europe. IT communications are far better than in most comparable areas on the mainland. The island itself is beautiful. It is quiet and the air is clean. The roads are good and so are our services, especially medical. As long as you don’t pine for the snow, anyone can find within the confines of the island the climate that best suits them. And, of course, El Hierro has none of those things `back-to-nature’ people don’t like. The island is practically virgin territory, just waiting for ideas.

13 Dec 2020

63. Rain


Rain, rain, go away,
Come again another day!

Children's ditty


To most people the idea of pleasure is incompatible with rain. It dampens everything, including our spirit, it floods the pavement with grimy traps for our soggy shoes, our hair clings to our crown and cheeks like seaweed at low tide, passing traffic soaks our trousers up to the knee with a decoction of cigarette ends and dog poo … That’s how I remember it when long ago I lived in a city. Perhaps they have cleaned things up since then …

But here on rural El Hierro, I taught my grandchildren a very different version of the jingle:

"Rain, rain, stay today
And come again every day.”

It won’t, though. So, we can afford to appeal to the gods for it. If it did rain every day, the island would be lush like Honolulu, inevitably full of American tourists in flowered shirts and young Herreñas in grass skirts. And we don’t want that, do we?

We could do with more rain than we get now, perhaps twice our average of 450 mm (about 18 inches) a year on the southern slopes. No, we wouldn’t mind that at all. We know that here the rain can never last more than a few days at a time and that the sun will soon be out in a blue sky like no other. It all depends on old man NAO sending us low pressure and westerlies. No, you’re not alone, a lot of other people haven’t heard of him either. NAO is an Atlantic version of the Pacific’s Niño. Then, we have no rivers to break their banks flooding roads, basements and garages as they apparently do everywhere else. The island’s “barrancos” (gullies and ravines), dry most of the time, are quite sufficient to carry off excess. And third, our soil, volcanic and porous, simply soaks up any rain falling on it faster than a Russian can drink vodka.

Here’s something else you might never have heard of – horizontal rain. No, it’s not rain in a gale, but something far more gentle. The western Canary Islands rise high out of the Atlantic Ocean right in the path of the Trade Winds coming thousands of miles from the north. The winds are laden with moisture which, as they are forced over the mountains, forms clouds.  These clouds, in turn, condense on every leaf and pine needle of the forests high up on the northern slopes of the islands, millions of jewels of the purest distilled water falling drip, drip, drip, onto the leaf-mould below. The volume of horizontal rain that soaks into the forest floor each year must be immense, but the weathermen don’t even attempt to include it in their statistics. And, as far as I know, no-one has ever seriously tried to cash in on the phenomenon, except, that is, for the aboriginal “Bimbapes” at the famous Garoé tree.

Yes, we look forward to rain. Vertical or horizontal, we know we need it. After all, we ourselves are ninety-five percent rain ... indirectly, of course! 

9 Dec 2020

62. Regrets


I have no idea where I am. On a deckchair somewhere, I'm uncomfortable. The light is blinding me to my surroundings. After an age of anguish I begin to recognize my garden. Outside my house. I relax in relief. I close my eyes again. I hear, far off, the grumbling of the sea as the waves crash against the rocks a kilometre away to the east and a thousand metres below me. I don't understand why my relief is laced with regret.

      A blackcap forces out his crystalline riff and is answered by a flock of wild canaries landing in the almond tree, giggling and chattering like a thousand futile fashionable young things. The regret turns to melancholy at the song of a distant blackbird. Blackcap, blackbird … black and white stripes of a hoopoe not ten feet away, jabbing the earth with his long, curved beak. Somewhere between sleep and awakeness, I see him beside the curry plant. I smell the curry plant, immortelle. I don’t know if I really smell it or if I remember the smell. In my mind I sense the wood in the house, warm, dry and resinous, and the stone walls, slightly acrid with age, like me. The native artemisia by the kitchen patio, they call it Moll – as in Flanders – and say it purifies the air. I recall the refined perfume of the stephanotis that climbs the kitchen wall, and the more brazen jasmine, too, and the sherbet of the wisteria. I smell the woodstove in winter and the earth wet with rain in the garden, and the olive tree and the orange and lemon blossoms and hear their beautiful Arabic name “Azahar”. I can’t hear or smell the grapevines but I can hear and smell the winery, and the wine, and I can taste the grapes. And the plums, too, and figs and apricots.  Melancholy …

      I remember my wife and I forty years ago. We looked at each other when we came here, to this our friend’s house. We smiled: this was our place. Neither knew why. We just knew. But things happen, things change in ways we could never have imagined. And we know it’s time to move on. Like our friend did. The house is up for sale.